Brunanburh, 937 AD (pt 2)

2 – The River Brun

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  Michael Livingston


The Brun
The Brun

Last night I caught a train to Preston from Edinburgh, & spent the entire journey immersed in the letters of Rabbie Burns, food for a poetic project I have in mind for this month. My other project, of course, is a complete & thorough ltiological dig thro the mud & guts of Brunanburh, & where better to proceed than in my hometown of Burnley. I mean, when Albert Schliemann started digging for Troy, he chose a site that the Roman’s called ‘New Troy,’ i.e. Hissalrik hill in NW Turkey. Similarily, when John of Fordun called the battle ‘Brunford,’ & William Malmesbury ‘Bruneford’ then we are looking for a site at the ford of a river called Brun.

There is only one waterway by that name in the whole of Britain, rising on a hill known as Black Hameldon, on moorland a few miles to the west of the modern town of Burnley. It is the shortest river in the country, passing though the pretty villages of Worsthorne & Hurstwood, before entering Burnley itself, where it joins with the River Calder. A few miles later, the Calder enters the Ribble, which then reaches the Irish Sea at Preston, 30 miles from the Brun’s moorland headwaters. Another historian to place the battle by a river-ford was Ranulf Higden (c. 1280 – March 12, 1364), an English chronicler and a Benedictine monk of the monastery of St. Werburgh at Chester. He gave the variant spelling of Brumford, & coincidence or not, at the very period in history, in a 1294 market charter, Burnley was known as Brumleye. In a similar fashion, a 1258 version of Burnley – Bronley – is reflected in the work of the English historian Peter Langtoft, who in that very same period named Brunanburh as Bronneburgh.


Burnley on my first full day of the dig
Burnley on my first full day of the dig



It is apparent that the ‘Brunan’ element of Brunanburh devolved into ‘Brune,’ as in Malmesbury’s Bruneford & the ‘Bellum Brune’ of the Annals Cambraie. Of this particluar spelling, the noted Brunanburh specialist, Paul Cavill, writes, ‘the charter forms & Scottish traditions with spellings like Bruningafeld reinforce that the first element of Brunanburh is most likely to be a personal name Bruna or a river name Brune.’ From here we take the simple step of dropping an end vowel, leaving us with the snappier Brun. A similar process occurred when the Ottanlege of 972 became Otelai in the Doomsday Book of 1086. Likewise, Ottanmere,as found in unprinted Beckley charter of 1005-11, would later become Otmoor, though I haven’t yet established the earliest record of its modernized name. Now let us look at those dates again

937 – Brunanburh
972 – Ottanlege
1010 – Ottanmere
1066 – Battle of Hastings
1086 – Otelai
1130 – Bruneford
1154 – Brunley
1200 – Otley
1250 – Otmoor

It is clear that between 1010 & 1086, the Old English ‘-n’ element was dropped completely, & of course the Norman invasion of England kicked off between these dates , a moment which propelled off the evolution of Anglo-Saxon speech into a French inspired Middle English. By the later 12th century, the superflous vowel remaining from ‘-an’ was then removed, leaving us with the snappier Brun & Ot. Looking at the evidence, then, the leading contender for the Battle of Brunanburh based purely on verifiable historical & etymological grounds just has to be Burnley & the only  River Brun in the country.


So thats far so good…


Arkell, WJ – Place-Names and Topography in the Upper Thames Country (1942)

Bennett, W, – History of Burnley (1946)

Cavill, P – The Place-Name Debate – found in ‘The Battle of Brunanburh, a Casebook (ed. M Livingstone, 2011)


The Big Story in Burnley as I commenced my dig
The Big Story in Burnley as I commenced my dig




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