Brunanburh, 937 AD (pt 9)

9 – Vinheath

One thing in Burnley’s favour, for me at least, is its position in relation to the southern border of Strathclyde (assuming this lay at Penrith in 937). If the Scots and Britons entered English territory from a point along this border, a couple of days’ march would easily bring them to the Ribble and the vicinity of the River Brun. The Scots pretty much trod this same route 200 years later, in 1138, when they came down from Carlisle to attack Clitheroe, in a campaign that preceded the Battle of the Standard.

Tim Clarkson


pendle from bpouslworth



On leaving York, I believe that the Confederation marched west, possibly burying the famous Viking ‘Harrogate Horde’ en route, for the latest coin in the horde was minted during the reign of Athelstan, one of the common ‘Rex Totius Britanniae.’ Either way, the Vikings, Scots & Welsh would soon arrive at Eamoton, the Emmot Estate near Colne, (known as Emot in 1295), in order to spiritually upturn the oaths of fealty they had given to Athelstan a decade previously.  To the south of Eamoton lies a great stretch of beautiful, barren moorland which leads to the forked valley-system of Burnley. There is a lovely account of the area made by the great 18th century historian, TD Whitaker, who writing in the imaginative times before photographs tells us;


Pendle Hill & Bouslworth form two of the highest points of the Pennine chain on the borders of Lancashire & Yorkshire. The former lies a few miles from the boundary line between the two counties; whilst the latter, resting its base in both, throws off its ‘becks’ & ‘brooks’ respectively west & east into the Irish Sea & the German Ocean. The border district of East Lancashire is remarkably wild & dreary. Its many hills, varying in height from about 1300 to at least 1800 feet above the level of the sea, are far beyond the limit of profitable cultivation, & hence have been little modified by the hand of man. Most of the moors are nominally parce’led out amongst the neighbouring landed proprietors; but in general they are little more than waste lands, plentifully stocked with game, & traversed only by a few sheep during the Summer season. In the Autumn, however, they mostly lose their dreary character, & may even be said to present a beautiful aspect. From the crest of the highest hills, the densely wooded ravines stretch far away between the lower ridges towards the more expanded valleys below. the gently undulating surfaces which seperates these are then clothed with a luxuriant crop of blooming heather, whose very-varying hues, as it is bent by the passing breeze, add an almost inexpressible charm to the surrounding landscape

Up to this point the great impending battle could have been fought anywhere in Britain – but it is upon the upland moors to the west & north of Boulsworth Hill that I believe the the battlefield of Brunanburh was truly born.


The Brunanburh campaign was evidently poitical. This meant a different type of warfare, where negotiations were paramount. Why lose sons & fathers on the bloody plains of battle, when treaty will save their lives. Thus the fight at Brunanburh was at first ruled by Dark Age codes of behaviour, resulting in a civilized stand-off known as ‘Hazelling the Field.’ Egil’s Saga tells us;

After this they sent messengers to king Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground  should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly king Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.

North of the heath stood a town. There in the town king Olaf quartered him, and there he had the greatest part of his force, because there was a wide district around which seemed to him convenient for the bringing in of such provisions as the army needed. But he sent men of his own up to the heath where the battlefield was appointed; these were to take camping-ground, and make all ready before the army came. But when the men came to the place where the field was enhazelled, there were all the hazel-poles set up to mark the ground where the battle should be.

The place ought to be chosen level, and whereon a large host might be set in array. And such was this; for in the place where the battle was to be the heath was level, with a river flowing on one side, on the other a large wood. But where the distance between the wood and the river was least (though this was a good long stretch), there king Athelstan’s men had pitched, and their tents quite filled the space between wood and river. They had so pitched that in every third tent there were no men at all, and in one of every three but few. Yet when king Olaf’s men came to them, they had then numbers swarming before all the tents, and the others could not get to go inside. Athelstan’s men said that their tents were all full, so full that their people had not nearly enough room. But the front line of tents stood so high that it could not be seen over them whether they stood many or few in depth. Olaf’s men imagined a vast host must be there. King Olaf’s men pitched north of the hazel-poles, toward which side the ground sloped a little.

From day to day Athelstan’s men said that the king would come, or was come, to the town that lay south of the heath. Meanwhile forces flocked to them both day and night.


Looking on Vinheath from the east - note how it drops down to Colne on the right of the picture
Looking on Vinheath from the east – note how it drops down to Colne on the right of the picture




The two towns mentioned by the saga are would be early prototypes of the two urban centres Burnley & Colne, both of which were granted in an 1122 charter to the monks of Pontefract Abbey. Colne’s military importance goes back right to the Iron Age.  There is the Roman camp at Castercliffe, which is directly on the road that crosses the heath. The site consists of three ramparts enclosing an oval interior. Perhaps it was still being used in 937, as something of a forward base. To the north of it would have stood Roman Colunio – at the heart of modern day Colne, towering over the local valley like a Tuscan hilltown. The name Colne is derived from the Roman Colonia, in the same way the -coln of Lincoln is made. The simiarities between the two settlements are striking. Both are placed on a hill with commanding views. It is a fine defensive position & Constantine would have deemed it a suitable position to defend as he entered the negotiations with Aethalstan. Colne is also right by the Roman road that linked Ribchester (Rigodunum) to Ilkley (Alicana) & beyond, along which large armies & their supplies would have passed with ease.


The beauty of the situation is that the Vin/Win element of Vinheath & Vinwood can be positively found to the north of our proposed ‘Vinheath,’ at the village of Winewall… I think its time to take a little walk….





TD Whittaker – History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honour of Clitheroe, in the Counties of Lancaster and York, 1801



One thought on “Brunanburh, 937 AD (pt 9)

  1. I am aged 68 and lived in Trawden as a young boy.
    I remember an older youth who told us he had found a jewelled sword on Boulsworth Hill.
    He advised he had called at a local historian and left it with him for investigation.
    This was never featured on local news and I have no idea what happened to the item

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