12 – Earl’s Ness
Before we leave Vinheath in order to explore the rest of the Brunanburh battlefields (there are at least three), let us examine one last piece of Egil’s Saga related topographical evidence that reinforces the Burnley site. It concerns Athelstan’s ally, Earl Alfgeir, who slipped away from an early skirmish on the heath, a couple of days before the main event.
Then he rode to the south country, and of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode a night and a day till he came westwards to Earls-ness. Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea
Let us now analyze the few clues found in the passage, to see if they fit in with the Burnley location;
(i) Then he rode to the south country
In 937, the Burnley area was a part of Northumbria, but only thirty or so miles to the north of the Mercian border which stretched between the Mersey & the Humber rivers. Just beyond lay the Anglo-Saxon people known as the Southumbrians or ‘Suðanhymbre.’ A record of them is found in the ASC, when in 702 King Kenred ‘assumed the government of the Southumbrians,’ two years before becoming the King of all Mercians.
(ii) Of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode a night and a day till he came westwards to Earls-ness
A full night & days riding (24 hours), through the thick Lancashire forests of a thousand years ago, would have equated to somewhere between 50 & a 100 miles. This means that we are looking for a sea-port called ‘Earls-ness to the south of the Mersey & somewhere to the west of Burnley. The only other record of an Earl’s Ness in this part of Britain is the ‘Jarlsness’ mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. It describes how a 12th century Viking called Sveinn sailed from the Isle of Man, harried Wales, then attacked Earl’s Ness, as in;
Then Swein and Holdbodi went out on an expedition with five ships. They plundered in Bretland (Wales), landing at a place called Jarlsness and committing great ravages. One morning they went into a certain village, and met with a little resistance. The inhabitants fled from the village, and Swein and his men plundered everything, and burnt six homesteads before dinner. An Icelander, named Eirfk was with Swein, and sang the following :
Half-a-dozen homesteads burning.
Half-a-dozen households plundered :
This was Swein’s work of a mommg —
This his vengeance ; coals he lent them.
Between the Isle of Man & northern Wales, the only part of the Mercian ‘Suðanhymbre,’ is the Wirral peninsular, between the Dee & Mersey rivers. It should be no surprise, then, to discover that there once was a sea-port called Ness that sat on the south Wirral coast. Francis WT Tudsbery writes;
In course of an expedition thence to Bretland, he anchors at Jarlsnes… I think it more likely that the Orkney Saga alludes to Wirral’s Nesses, where an Earl’s Ness is proved to have been
Taking the M6 & M56, the journey between Burnley & Ness is about 80 miles -a healthy fit for the night & days ride of Aelfgir. Ness, & its sister settlement Neston, served a small pocket of Viking townships that had been permitted to settle on the Wirral by Queen Aethelflead in the early 900s. The coastline has changed over the past thousand years & the sea-ports have been silted into still silence. However, they were once important places of traffic & transit, echoed in the discovery at Ness of a silver Viking ingot, while at Neston were discovered fragments of a Viking cross.
The Burnley Brunanburh fits in with Ness with a composite sweetness, & also helps us understand a little more about that wyrd Viking demense that sprung up on the Wirral. After being driven out of Ireland, the Norse fled to the Wirral, where they were ‘put up’ so to speak, by the Anglo-Saxon administration. Their leaderv was a certain Ingimund, who seemed to have charmed Queen Aethelflaed into letting him stay on the British mainland. But, just like in York, they would have needed an ‘Earl’ to look after them, & thus we can see how Ness – Earl’s Ness – would have been the principle port of the Wirral Vikings.
Before I whizz back to Burnley, I’d just like to show the route between Nesston & other Brunanburh candidates.
Nesston to Bromborough is basically seven miles, & although Nesston is indeed to the west of Bromborough, no border is crossed & one would imagine it would take a lot less time than 24 hours on horseback to get there.
Lanchester to Nesston does cross the border into Southumbria, & does travel west to the sea – but Alfgeir would have had to cover 175 miles in just 24 hours – thats more or less seven miles an hour , up & down the Pennines, over the most rugged roadless terrain, without ever stopping.
Francis WT Tudsbery – Brunanburh AD937 (1907)