The Plains of Othlynn

In my last post I showed how one particular site in Burnley has all the hallmarks of being that of the famous Brunaburh, after which fortification one of the greatest battles to have ever been fought in Britain was named. The discovery formed a vital link in a chain which connects several pieces of historical information, the assemblance of which ultimately hones in on a certain ‘Castle Hill,’ by Towneley Hall in Burnley. In the past, several sites have been offerred for Brunanburh, none of which have satisied all the geographical notifications found in the two priniciple sources for the Brunanburh site – the Anglo-Saxon poem Brunanburh, & the Icelandic text known as ‘Egil’s Saga.’ Aside from Burnley, the chief candidates are;

Burnswark – Dumfries & Galloway
Brinsworth – South Yorkshire
Bromborough – Wirral
Lanchester – Northumbria

Let us now follow a simple process of elimination which will whittle the candidates down.

Clue 1 – ‘They at camp gainst any robber their land should defend.’ (asc)

Here we are told the the Anglo-Saxons were defending their own territory. In 937, the limits of England stretched from north Lancashire to Berwick on Tweed. This would then preclude BURNSWARK from the picture, which is sited very much in Scotland.

Clue 2 – ‘He rode (from Brunanburh) to the South country and of his travel tis to be told he rode night & day til he came westward to Earl’s Ness.’ (egil)

From this we can discern that the battlefield lay in a north easterly direction from a sea-port named Earl’s Ness. During the journey, a border was crossed, which divided the territory in which Brunanburh was situated from the ‘South Country.’ The obvious choice would be the old Viking port at Ness on the Wirral, for travelling north would see the journeyman leave ‘Southumbria’& enter ‘Northumbria,’ the border of which stretched between the Mersey & the Humber estuaries. Support comes from the Orkeneyinga Saga, which places a ‘Jarl’s Ness’ near Wales. This would then preclude both Bromborough & Brinsworth from the equasion.

Clue 3 – ‘All the day the West Saxons pressed on the loathed bands… the northmen sailed in their ships, a dreary remnant, on Dingesmere, Over deep water, they sought Dublin.’ (asc)

These passages indicate that the battle was fought within a days retreat of the Irish Sea, the Dingesmere of the Brunanburh poem, probably named after the Viking Ting on the Isle of Man. Egil’s Saga gives extra information, saying the ships were ‘far’ from the field. It would be safe to say, then, that the field would be somewhere between 15 & perhaps as much as 40 miles away from a navigable site in which the Viking longships could wait. This would then preclude our penultimate candidate, Lanchester.

So, we are left with Burnley, whose situation fits every piece of geographical information provided by the the Brunanburh poem & Egil’s Saga. In my last post I showed the historic reference of a possible Saxon stronghold, which has always been connected to an area of Burnley called Brunshaw.


This wonderful pictorial description of Towneley in the 18th century shows Castle Hill just behind it, that raised site upon which a typical Saxon burh was built. Once the military threat to the region had been removed, after the English conquest of Cumbria, it made sense for the local lord to resituate his abode in the level & pleasant clearings of Townley. Castle Hill is a fascinating candidate for Brunanburh, indeed the only one of any true merit, & I began to search for the actual battlefield, which was fought ‘ymbe,’ or around, Brunanburh. This led me to begin looking at the obscure entry in the Irish chronicle known as the ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’ which places the battle at the Plains of Othlynn.

The heart of Burnley rests very much in a valley, parts of which are indeed very plain-like; stretching from Towneley to the River Brun. Beside the same river, the oldest parts of Burnley are to be found about St Peter’s Church, & are home to two very ancient monuments. One is Saint Paulinus’ cross, named after a 7th century preacher in the region, & the other is Saint Audrey’s well. Audrey was also a seventh century saint, whose name in Old English was Etheldreda.

Most scholars when looking at the etymology of Othlynn, plump for something like the pool (lynn) of Otha. Nobody, I believe, has looked at another possibility; that of the ash tree (ynn) of Othl. In the saints lives of Etheldreda, we are told how she fled the king of Northumbria, & on her journey south founded a monastery at a certain Alftham. Not long after leaving that place, she paused on a plain & struck her staff into the ground – which magically turned into an ash tree.

Etymylogically & historically, the ‘Plains of Othlynn’ are a perfect match for this obscure legend of Etheldreda. That she is remembered in the Burnley area for her sacred well is not the only way to tie Othlynn to Burnley, for Alftham would be the village of Altham four miles to the east of Burnley. A couple of miles later we come to Whalley, whose church was founded in the 7th century, fitting perfectly in with Etheldreda’s founding of a monastery at Alftham.

There is a certain natural beauty to the Othlynn solution, & one which reminds us just how much history can be packed into a single word. In this instance, there has been the killing of the proverbial two birds; that is the location of Etheldreda’s sacred ash, & the clinching evidence for Brunanburh having been in Burnley.

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