Earl’s Ness & the Sinking of the Wirral Set

Michael D Livingston
Michael D Livingston

After being taken off Arthurnet a couple of months ago for finding the Holy Grail (understandable), I returned to my studies on Brunanburh. That brought me to a certain Michael Livingston, who edited a book on Brunanburh containing all the source material & a few essays. He also plunged headlong onto the side of the ‘Wirral Set,’ who have declared that Bromborough on the Wirral was where the battle was fought. I thought I’d point something out to Michael which basically sends a torpedo right below the water-line of the Wirral Set’s rather flimsy ship. Unfortunately they’ve now got a heritage trail for the battlefield in Wirral, which now turns out to be a bit of a 21st century palmerston’s folly!

The key evidence is found in a text called the Orkenyinga Saga, which describes a Viking warrior called Sveinn as sailing from the Isle of Man to a port called Earl’s Ness, from where he attacked Bretland (Wales). This brings us neatly to Ness & Neston, two old Viking ports on the Wirral, whose seafront has silted up over the past millennium. Now, take a look at this following passage from Egil’s Saga, which describes the battle of Brunanburh;

Then he rode to the south country, and of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode night and day till he and his came westwards to Earls-ness. Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea; and he came to France, where half of his kin were. He never after returned to England.

If the battlefield was at Bromborough, it would hardly take Aedgils a night & a day of hard fleeing to get to Ness only six miles away. So I pointed this out to Michael, & suggested that Burnley was a better candidate being a day & nights ride to the NE of Ness. In reply, his ONLY argument against Burnley is;

The word brunanburh appears to require an origin in bruna or brune — not burn or brun. The Casebook makes this clear, and I’ve said it before here on the site. Bruna, not brun. It’s only a little thing — wafer-thin, we might say — but it is hardly insignificant

So I sent him some other info on why Burnley was the probable site— his reponses are hilarious;

Me - The battle took place on a plateuax betwen Burnley & Colne. Above Heasanford there is an area called Saxifields. Dr. Whittaker, in his History of Whalley, explains how human bones were constantly turned up all along the slopes, especially when digging the foundations for Lower Saxifield House, when they were met with in large quantities. Above Saxifields is an area called Harle Syke, which indicated a defensive ditch dug by the Danes, probably while waiting for Athelstan to turn up.

Response – Alas that none of this can be documented or authenticated: there are rumors of reports of rumors that so-and-so dug up bones back when… which is tantalizing but ultimately of little use to a modernsearch. Harle Syke is an interesting item, though. But even if it is a fortification, there’s no reason to connect it to THIS battle.

Me - That a battle took place here lingers in the name of Beadle hill – where Beado is Anglo-saxon for battle. About the area are to be found a considerable number of tumuli, which Maquis in the ‘Transactions of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 1910’ connects with the battle

Response – There are places named for battles and tumuli all across England. So it can’t help us. As an example, I could not convict someone of murder on the basis that the murderer breathed Oxygen and I know the suspect breathes Oxygen. Because it is essentially universal it is essentially useless. Sorry.

Me – There is a Hell Clough named after Hela, the Norse goddess of death

Response – Rather debatable on many of the etymologies in here. But even if so, there’s no connection to THIS battle.

Me – There is a Red Lees meadow which means ‘field of blood.’ Dr. Whitaker tells us that in the 19th century; In the fields about Red Lees are many strange inequalities in the ground, something like obscure appearances of foundations, or perhaps entrenchments, which the leveling operations of agriculture have not been able to efface.

Response – Even if so, there’s no connection to THIS battle.

Me – On the plateaux there is still a farm called Burwains, which is Anglo-Saxon for burial mound/site

Response – Even if so, there’s no connection to THIS battle.

Me – There is a stream by the plateaux called Catlow burn, deriving from Cath – the Gaelic/welsh word for battle

Repsonse – Even if so, there’s no connection to THIS battle.

Me – The name given by Egil’s Saga to the battle – Vinheath – remains in Winewall, a village found next to the battlefield. Indeed, the -wall element seems to derive from vollr – Old Norse for field/heath, which means it is a direct translation of Vinheath.

Response – This is irrelevant

Me – Walton spire on the battlefield was built on top of a dark age monolith which must have celebrated the battle

Response – Local traditions count for little, I’m afraid, because everyone has them.

Walton Spire
Walton Spire

Me - Across the Tursden Brook we have another hill full of dark age tumuli & a certain Bonfire hill which invoked an image of a mass cremation

Response – Even if so, there’s no connection to THIS battle. And the emotional “reminds us” and “invoked” aren’t very critical legs to stand on, I’m afraid.

Me – The Angl-saxon chronicle tells us that the retreat from the field to the ships lasted all day – fitting in neatly with Burnley’s 20 mile distance to the Ribble estuary

Response(Michael did not respond to this one, which when allied to the ear’s Ness reference more or less pinpoints the field at burnley)

Me – The death of Bishop Werstan is remembered in the name of a village near to the battlefield – Worsthorne.Very close by, at Mereclough is a ‘Battle Field,’ where for many years there was a stone there called the Battle Stone. There was also a ‘battle place’ attached to its pasture in the Cliviger valuation of 1822. With Athelstan being at Brunanburh, this connects with the Croyland Chronicle.

Response - See my note on local traditions above.

In reply to this I asked why he never mentioned Earl’s Ness, & in reply I got the following – note how he STILL doesn’t mention Earl’s Ness, the torpedo that has sunk the ‘Wirral Set’ once & for all.

This is why I cannot carry on rational discourse with you – you rant about academic blindness while categorically refusing to give any consideration to an opposition view. This is precisely what led you so astray on Arthurnet (and probably any other attempt to deal with academics who work to approach questions with ALL data in mind rather than a self-serving selection).

You’re not listening to this, of course. In your mindset you surely are chalking this up to some refusal to acknowledge your brilliance and/or my stubbornness. Or you think your ideas aren’t respected because you’re not a professor.

Well that’s all untrue. I’ll take the truth wherever I can get it. And I will be thrilled to be wrong.

But you’ll listen to none of this. Do not be surprised if in the meantime I do not reply to your missives. It is not out of disrespect but out of a lack of time to keep repeating myself to no avail.

Another case of academia hiding its head in the sand when the apple-cart has been upturned. All the lad had to do was find another Earls Ness somewhere in the region of Aberystwyth (a night & days ride SW from the Wirral) & then he’d be back in the game. Michael then closed with;

I hate to be a broken record, but you are continuing to ignore the
absolutely central etymological problem of associating anything “brun”
to “brunanburh.” Until you can comprehend and solve that problem all
of this is just idle speculation without a shred of the linguistic
grounding that it needs to merit serious consideration and a reopening
of the case.

The answer comes in Anglo-Saxon Oxfordshire, where one can find today the Otmoor. The first record of Otmoor was preserved in the Red Book of Thornley. The bounds of the lands are described as: ” … up of there ealden ea in to ottanmere. Of ottanmere thuyrsover bugenroda. of bugeroda into maer mer. of mearmere on merthorn .. ”

This is clear evidence of a later dropping of the Anglo-Saxon ‘an’ element; Ottanmere — Otmoor

In the same fashion, Brunanburh becomes Brunburh, which becomes the Brunfort of William of Malmesbury c.1130. This, then, gives us the Brun, & not Bruna, present in the name Burnley. So I send this to Michael, which essentially solves the ‘etymological problem of associating anything “brun” to “brunanburh,‘ like he asked for, at which point he abruptly stopped replying to my e-mails!

To finish, I’d also like to refute another of his attacks on my Burnley theory after I approached him about a Viking coin which had the name Bernvald on it, & I thought it was probably from Burnley (see…);

Let’s step through it. This curveball hypothesis would necessitate that there was a man, Bernvald, who was held in such regard that a town was named for him. No problem so far. His name would be shortened, however, then metathesized (the pronunciation switching from bern- to bren-), then changed in its pronunciation in order to yield brun … and all within the term of around thirty years after he was active. That’s a linguistic problem to say the least. And even if somehow that problem was solvable, we’d only be able to argue for a connection to brunburh instead of brunanburh, which isn’t much to hang one’s hat upon.

It gets worse. Because even if somehow, someway one managed to argue that there is an unrecorded and unprecedented line of linguistic development that gets you from bernvald to brun to brunanburh by 937, you’d then have to explain how the name reverted back to the still-unrecorded brun before changing again to arrive, at last, with a recorded place-name: brunlaia by 1124.

The probability, shall we say, is not high.

This, then, is how it all fits together

900 – Bernvald is the name of a moneyer who mints Viking coins at Ohsnaford (Heasanford in Burnley) Bernvald is a Danish spelling by the way – it apears as Brunvald in Old English
932 – Saint Byrnstanus (st brinstan) mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

King Athelstan is reigning at this point, & Layamon tells us he renamed ‘
the names of the towns in saxish speech…
& in saxish he gan speak the names of the men..’

935 – St Byrnstan becomes St Brinstan, we must assume that Bernvald became Brunvald – indeed there there are several coins by him which read Brun

1080 – Bourne in Lincolnshire is known as Brune
1120 – Gaimar calls Brunanburh both Bruneswerce & Burneweste
1122 – Burnley is known as Brunleaia
1310 – Robert de Brunn

This is now the time of Middle English. Here, we have the middle english word burnishen deriving from the Old French Brunir. In the same process of metathesis we have;

1350 – Brun-ley becomes Burnley
1400 – The Lincolnshire Brunn becomes Bourne

That should answer the question. Also, when Michael says; ‘bern- to bren, then changed in its pronunciation in order to yield brun,‘ we have a perfect match for the cantebury variations of the Bervald coins, which read;




I also exchanged a couple of emails with another member of the Wirral Set – Prof. Stephen Harding;

STE - I’m afraid to say based on the evidence the Wirral is still by far the most likely location for the Battle of Brunanburh

ME - Egil’s Saga tells us the battle took place a day & a night’s ride to the NW of Ness on the Wirral – the only way to counter that fact is pretend the text doesn’t exit, or somehow destroy its credibility

STENot at all. It’s a question of weighting of the evidence. Egil’s Saga was written 2-300 years after the battle. The contemporary account in the Anglo Saxon Poem says the following: The West Saxons / Throughout the whole long passing of the day / Pressed on in troops behind the hostile people.

- It is clear you have not read Egil’s Saga! The day/night ride was taken by a Aelfgir who fled the battle for safety at the viking sea-port of Ness. You quoted instead the ASC which refers to the pursuit of the broken armies of the Vikings & Scots after the battle, which lasted the rest of the day – this would be about 6 hours of travel, so their boats were waiting at a coastal location 20-30 miles away from the battlefield – the same distance that Burnley lies from the ‘fealan flot’ of the Ribble Estuaray. What is a fact is that the Burnley district is described in the Saga, as in;

1 – The battle took place a day & nights ride to the NW of Earl’s Ness

2 – Vinheath is placed between two towns – in Burnley terms that would be Brunanburh to the south & Colne (roman colnio) to the north – it is also described as being raised up, which fits in perfectly with Shelfield, whose dark age monument must have memorialized something

3 – The name Vinheath is retained in Winewall, next to Shelfield – Winewall (english) Vinvollr (Old Norse) Vinheath (Icelandic)

The geographical blueprint given by Egil’s Saga fits so excuisitely the Burnley district, & it is either a fabulous coincidence or else the sources of Egil’s Saga were accurate. The only defence that Bromborough has against Egil’s Saga is to pretend it doesnt exist

STEWirral’s Ness is not in the south of England so it can’t be Earlsness if Egil’s Saga is correct. You may say well whoever wrote that got it wrong or Wirral is “sort of south of England” – which it isn’t of course – but then you are selecting the bits of Egil that you like & rejecting the bits you don’t. There are a number of surviving –nes or –ness places in the south of England (even a Neston in Somerset) (note from me – none are within a days ride of the Wirral).

ME - The Southumbrians or ‘Suðanhymbre’ were the Anglo-Saxon people occupying northern Mercia. The north mercian border was roughly Southport-Humber. Thus the Wirral was in Suðanhymbre.’

STE (ignoring the Earl’s Ness comment)I also doubt very much if a defeated, exhausted army on foot could make that distance (20-30 miles) in that time, particularly if they had to avoid non-major routes to avoid being cut down from behind. They could just about make the Dee or Meols in that time though from Bebington Heath – ymbe Brunanburh, as we proved in our re-enactment of the escape.

ME - 1066… An army marches 300 miles at 60 miles a day to stamford bridge in yorkshire – fights a major battle – that night they set off back to Hastings at 60 miles a day & then put up an amazing fight against the normans – they didnt break sweat – i think you underestimate the capacity for gruelling marches & constant warfare in the warrior cultures of a 1000 years ago –

STE - That 1066 army was neither defeated nor trying to avoid being caught by a pursuer and therefore could move along standard direct routes. If someone is shooting arrows at you from behind would you run along a clear straight track? Or head through the woods?

At this point I broke off contact; his approach to handling one of the main weaknesses of the Bromborough-was-Brunanburh notions – that of the day-long retreat of the Vikings to their boats from the battlefield – is hilarious(see link above). He & his pals travel from Bromborough to Thingwall – a journey of 6 miles – in 5 and a half hours, proving that a “day long pursuit” was possible.

1-0 Damo!!!

3 thoughts on “Earl’s Ness & the Sinking of the Wirral Set

  1. Greetings Damo. I have heard about your efforts and I am pleased to see a fellow local attempting to locate Brunanburh in the neighbourhood of Burnley. There are a few issues with some of your arguments such as Worsthorne being named after Werstan (who died about 10 years before the battle) and your extensive reference to Egil’s Saga, which unfortunately is rather useless as a piece of historical evidence. I researched Brunanburh for my M.A from the University of Lancaster and I have given several lectures to the Burnley District Historical Society, for whom I am currently writing an article and a book on the matter. Well done on your research and I love your enthusiasm. But your understanding of Medieval texts and there provenance is understandably limited, and I would be happy to help you with this in any way I can. Please keep in touch.

    Kind Regards

    1. Hi Matt

      We can place Werstan at Brunanburh by cross referencing information fiound in the “Lives and memoirs of the Bishops of Sherborne and Salisbury’ & the ‘Croyland Chronicle.’ The beauty of it is that Werstan dies about a couple of miles before Brunanburh on the English side, which explains the battle stone at Worsthorne.

      As for Egil’s Saga – I would prefer the word of an obviously intelligent & beautiful wordsmith writing relatively close to the time of the battle, whose detail’d account must reflect first-hand sources, rather than modernity’s proliferation & penchant for ‘source criticism,’ which tries to cheapen the worth of medieval texts. Egil’s Saga is absolutely valid – Vineheath is Winevollr in Old Norse, & there is a Winewall by Shelfield.

      Good luck with your work down Burnley,lad! Good start to the football season by the way!

      Come on you Clarets


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>