Orsnaford – Burnley’s Viking Burh

In Dark Age Britain money talked. A sophisticated trading sytem stretched from England via Europe to China along the old Silk Road, while to the north the Vikings traded from the Caspian Sea to Ireland. This vast panapoly of goods, along with everyday products, were bound together by silver coins, stamped with the names of kings & the moneyers who issued them. Towards the end of the 9th century, the dominant economic force in Britain was Alfred’s Wessex, whose coins influenced the designs of the Vikings, forming a universal coinage from the Firth of Forth to the Channel. Some of these Viking imitation coins were issued at a place called Orsnaford, by a moneyer named Bernvald. Baring the name of King Alfred the Great, they give us a rough date of 880-900 for their issue.

The River Brun

In an earlier post (Brunanburh) I speculated that Orsnaford was once a Viking settlement at a place called Heasanford in Burnley, renamed as ‘Brunanburh’ by King Athelstan. Following certain investigations through Scandinavian sagas I have come to the conclusion that Heasanford was named after the Asen, another name for the family of Nordic gods known as the Aesir. To confirm the association, we must turn to Osnabrück, a city in Lower Saxony, whose ‘brück’ element means bridge. Through the city runs the Hase river, named after the Aesir, & as Orsna became Heasan, so the river Osna became the River Hase. The name probably originated during the reign of the Viking king, Rorik of Dorestad (d.882), who ruled over Lower Saxony. The slight difference between Orsna & Osna is probably down to some ancient Teutonic dialect dispersion.

In Norse mythology there was another family of gods known as the Vanir, or VAN. Suddenly we have the elements for VINheath & WENdune, alternate names for the site of the battle of Brunanburh. It must be noted that name Wendune remains in sWINDEN Water, to the south of the suggested battlefield (where Walton Spire stands today) & the Vin element in the village of WINEwall, to the north. This reinforces the Vanir supposition, for the name Vanir was anglicized to Wane. The battlefield was probably named after the action, for the Vanir were involved in a great war with the Aesir, & would have been a very poetic naming made by a local Viking who had just witnessed Britain’s greatest battle on his home turf! It is also possible that Hell Clough was given that name after the battle, for the goddess Hel ruled over the realms of the dead & funerary urns containing human burns were found by the river.

It was during the 9th century that the Vikings began to settle in ever increasing numbers throughout England, predominantly in the eastern parts. Their principle city was York, capital of the kingdom of Jorvik, which formed a central role in a line of communications that ran between Scandinavia, via the Humber, to Viking Ireland, via the Ribble. Slap-bang on this very line lies the town of Burnley, at a three-way junction of ancient trade-ways. A days march from the Ribble estuary where the Viking ships would have moored, after a night’s accomodation & refreshment, Heasanford offers the Viking merchant two land routes to York; one due east along the Longcauseway & the other north-east to the old Roman Road via Skipton.

The area was also the meeting place between the two different blocks of Scandinavian settlement in northern England. William Bennet tells us; ‘At some point during the invasion, Norsemen who had landed on the coasts of Lancashire & Cumberland, & the Danes who had invaded Yorkshire, eventually joined hands across the north of England… Norse penetration into this district came from the Lune valley & via the Wenning into the Ribble Valley, from which the invaders passed into the Whalley area. At the same time Danes pressed from the Craven district towards Colne; the names Skipton, Earby, Barnoldswick, Icornshaw (nr Cowling) represent settlements to the north-east of Burnley.

Very few physical remains have been found for the Scandinavian occupation of Britain, & we must rely on Sacndinavian words to identify their places of settlement.TT Wilkinson wrote that in Burnley, ‘almost every local name that is not saxon is either Danish or Norwegian in origin.’ Examples given by SW Partington include;

Thursden Water – named after the God Thor
Hell Clough – named after the Goddess Hel
Finsley – finn’s Hill
Raven-Holme - land liable to be flooded
Ayneslack – enclosure in the valley
Carr – wet ground overgrown with bushes
Booth – farmhouse
Gawthorpe – hamlet of Gaukr

Harle Syke from the battlefield

In addition, the area seems to have been of high-status – important enough to mint coins – for above Heasanford, the area known as Harle’s Syke means the ‘Defensive ditch of the Jarl (earl).’ There is also a ‘Daneshouse,’ which could have been the site of the Earls chief residence. In the area around Burnley we also find many other Viking place names, proving the Vikings settled therein some numbers, such as Buckflatt (Whalley), Hycornehurst (Accrington), Kyrkebank (Haslingden) & Woluetscoles (Clitheroe). Even today, the Old Norse ‘skrika,’ meaning scream, remains in the local dialect as ‘skriking,’ or loud & heavy weeping.

Thus far we have can confirm both the presence of a Viking mint in the area & that the Battle of Brunanburh took place on the moors above the burh. This brings us neatly back to the Orsnaford coins, which we must look at in more detail. Modern scholars presume Orsnaford is Oxford, a mis-guided supposition based on the text of a couple of the coins being blundered to Ohnsaford, & then the oh- element perhaps once sounding as ‘ox’ (see ‘The Inscription on the Oxford pennies of the Ohsnaforda type by Alfred Anscombe – 1908). However, not one of the Anglo-Saxon coins known to have been minted at Oxford coins mention the ‘-ford’ suffix, as in Cnut’s Oxsen or Athelstan’s, ‘Ox Urbis.’

Adding to my supposition that Orsnaford led to Heasanford, James Parker suggests; ‘Horsaford, however, would have been a good name of a place. There is one spelt in Domesday Horseford, now Horseforth, five miles north-west of Leeds in Yorkshire ; and, in the same county, Hoseford, the name of which does not seem to have survived. In Norfolk also there is a Hosforda, now Horsford, four miles north of Norwich. The omission of the H on the inscription would surely be more reasonable than the insertion of an R where it did not exist ; and so those who argue on the theory that the word represents the name of a place ought to choose one of those here named rather than Oxford.’

The coins have been found at only three deposit sites, with almost all of them at Cuerdale, between Preston & Blackburn on the River Ribble. The first was found among the Harkirke hoard, discovered in 1611 near Crosby to the north of Liverpool, while another was discovered in the river Ouse near York in the 18th century. These three sites are all found in a narrow band that stretches across northern England & strongly suggests they were minted in the north. With York being on the eastern side of the band, near the Humber & subsequently Scandinavia, it makes sense there was another mint in the west, & the site of Burnley fits the bill accordingly, being only a few miles from the Ribble estuary, & thus Dublin.

We must now look at the name of the man who minted these famous silver pennies, Bernvald. In my ‘Brunanburh‘ blog I suggested that Orsnaford had been renamed in his honour during the reign of Athelstan. The king spoke West Saxon, a different Teutonic dialect to that of the Northumbrians in East Anglia & the Jutes of Kent. On coming to power he standardised the English tongue, & it is during this period that the northern, Danish-influenced ‘Bern’ element became Brun, confirmed by Layamon‘s, ‘
& the names of the towns in saxish speech…
& in saxish he gan speak the names of the men.‘ The antique metathesis between these two names occured several times in the early middle-ages. In the early 12th century, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar gave the names Bruneswerce & Burneweste for the battle of Brunanburh itself. Other examples include Saint Brynstan/Burnstan & Roger de Burne/Brun.

According to the History of the Counter of Lancaster (1911), in antiquity the town was ‘more commonly’ known as Brum-ley. This connects with Ranulf Higden’s naming of the battle site as Brumford (Bruneford – William of Malmesbury), which seems to have derived from Orsnaford/Heasanford, reaffirming my conviction that a major Viking settlement stood on the banks of the Brun near Heasanford.


Bennet – History of Burnley – Volume 1 (1941)

Gaimar – L’Estorie des Engles – edited and translated by TD Hardy & CT Martin, C.T. (1888-89)

Layamon – Brut – Edited by Frederic Madden - Society of Antiquaries of London (1847)

Parker – The Early History of Oxford (1885)

Partington – The Danes in Lancashire & Yorkshire (1909)

Wilkinson – Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire & Cheshire - vol 9 (1856-57)

3 thoughts on “Orsnaford – Burnley’s Viking Burh

  1. Interesting write-up from my home patch. The photo of “Harle Syke from the battlefield” is taken from my website and belongs to me. I would prefer to be asked for permission for the use of any of my photos.

  2. Interesting and convincing blogpost. I’m currently working on a similar piece in which I make the case for “Horseford” (modern day Horsforth) which is my local patch. I will insert a link to your post (which I think makes a more persuasive case in all fairness).

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