Using the secret histories locked within words, Damian Beeson Bullen identifies the boyhood home of Saint Patrick
I have been often startled by the latent powers of words, when even the smallest & most innocuous of place-names can be an eternal storehouses of so much history. I urge anyone this day to take a walk in the countryside, note the names of the cloughs & the hills, & let us weave a secret history, drawn from the phonetical landscape. SW Partington, in his ‘Danes in Lancashire,’ writes of this most pleasurable of literary past-times;
An eloquent modern writer has declared, with a good reason, that even if all other records had perished, “anyone with skill to analyse the language, might re-create for himself the history of the people speaking that language, and might come to appreciate the divers elements out of which that people was composed, in what proportion they were mingled, and in what succession they followed one upon the other.” From a careful analysis of the names of the more prominent features of the land; of its divisions, its towns and villages, and even its streets, as well as the nomenclature of its legal, civil, and political institutions, its implements of agriculture, its weapons of war, and its articles of food and clothing, — all these will yield a vast fund of history.
In recent days, while looking at the places & names of places around my home town of Burnley in Lancashire, to which I added a rather copious amount of reading, I believe I have made a discovery of some significance – the location of Saint Patrick’s boyhood home. Before he spread the name of Jesus throughout pagan Ireland, the young Saint Patrick was just doing the things that young lads do in a place called by him Bannavem Taburniae. He tells us as much in a precious, self–penn’d ‘Confessio’ in which we may read;
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, … had for my father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villula nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen year of age… I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people.
Here we learn how Patrick was taken to Ireland by some kind of slave raid – so his home must have been within striking distance of the coast. We also discover that his father, Calpurnius, was a Christian official called a ‘deacon,’ & he was connected to the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae. Finally, we learn that near Bannavem lay was the family villula, which translates as the country house of a farmstead.
On first examination, the name Bannavem Taburniae seems corrupt, & indeed c.700 AD, the situation was clarified by Patrick’s hagiographer, Milúch, who tells us, ‘this place, as I am informed beyond hesitation or doubt, is Ventre.’ This lets us create a new name-combination for the boyhood home of Patrick, being; Banna Venta Burniae. There is another Bannaventa in Britain, near the village of Norton in Northamptonshire, & is named thus in the mid-second century ‘Itinerary’ of Antonius Pius. What we may logically conclude is that the second Bannaventa came later, with an addition of ‘Burniae’ applied for the purpose of differentation.
I would now like to point our investigation in the direction of 10th century in England, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle spells the same person’s name differently in succeeding entries;
A.D. 931. This year died Frithstan… and Brynstan was blessed in his place.
A.D. 932. This year Burnstan was invested Bishop of Winchester
What we can infer here is that during the 930s Burn & Bryn (Brun) were interchangeable, & the alteration may have been brought about by Athelstan himself for he was recorded by Layamon’s Brut (c.1200) as instigating etymological changes during his reign;
How Athelstan here arrived out of Saxland
& how he set all England in his own hand…
& the names of the towns in saxish speech…
& in Saxish he gan speak the names of the men.
Numismatic support for an earlier ‘burn’ comes upon coins minted by Athelstan’s father & grandfather – Alfred the Great – which give the moneyer’s name as Bernvald.
Such knowledge allows us now to create with confidence a slightly different name for Patrick’s boyhood home; Banna Venta Bruniae. Later in the 930s, in 937, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Battle of Brunanburh. This epic conflagration saw King Athelstan of England defeat a confederacy of Vikings, Scots & Northern Britons. Variant names for the battle are given by Symeon of Durham – Wendune/Weondune – & the anonymous Scandinavian text, Egil’s Saga – Vinheath. These alternative names have proven problematic to academic inquiry, but may now be reconciled with the Brunanburh name through Patrick’s Banna Venta Burniae, locking these two historical jigsaw pieces fast together. Furthermore, both the ‘dune’ & ‘heath’ elements of Wendune & Vinheath mean the same as banna: pinnacle, peak, mountain, bare hill, etc. A little extra glue comes from the fact that just as Milúch describes Banna Venta as being ‘a place not far from our sea’ – i.e. The Irish Sea – so after the battle of Brunanburh, the defeated Vikings fled to their ships & entered the Irish Sea on the same day as the battle.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
On Dingesmere, sought Dublin over the deep water,
to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
I don’t have the space to offer a complete survey of the Brunanburh case, but there can be no doubt that wherever the battle was fought, on account of covering both Dark Age bases, the boyhood home of Patrick must be now be the leading location. As to where this was situated, there is a great deal of evidence both subtle & blatant that points to Burnley as being the area in which the Saxon fortified ‘burh’ of Brunanburh once stood. Quite tangibly, its trenches can still be made out to this day at a place called Castle Hill near Townley Hall.
An Anglo-Saxon burh formed the central administrative point of the administrative ‘Tun,’ from which we get the name Tunlay, & thus, Townley. In the 12th century, Towneley formed part of an ancient township called ‘Tunlay-with Brunshaw,’ with the latter name meaning ‘Brun’s Wood.’ The clearing, or ‘lea,’ in this wood would eventually become Brunlea, & if my calculations are correct, the name-flip from Burn to Brun instigated by Athelstan in the 10th century would last last more than three centuries 0 before reverting to its original form in the late 13th century as Burnley.
Further back in the first millennium AD, evidence for Roman settlement in the Burnley area leading up to the birth of Patrick comes in the name of the town of Colne, which appears as Calna in a charter of Henry I. This leads to the the Ravenna Cosmography Calunio, placed in the right area of Lancashire between Ribchester & Ilkley. When analyzing its history, we should notice that in the lists of Northern Roman camps, Calunio was not in existence in the time of Ptolemy (2nd century AD), but exists in the 6th century, when it appears in the Ravenna Cosmography.
To the north, at Barnoldswick, ran a major arterial Roman road, from which minor roads branched into the Burnley area, such as the one that goes past Portfield on Pendle – the ‘Ad Alpes Peninos’ given in Richard of Cirencester Itineray – passing the villages of Sabden & Newchurch on the slopes of the same hill, down into Barrowford, along Wheatley Lane, up again to Castercliffe hill fort – which may have been Calunio itself – & then on into Yorkshire where it concludes at Ilkley, given as Alicana in the Roman geographies. There are also traces of another road that goes through Burnley itself, up to Cliviger, then over the moors to Slack, near Huddersfield, where the ‘Cambodnum’ Roman fort is sited.
Numerous Roman coins have been found in the Pendle-Burnley area; in the sunken lane at the foot of Castercliffe, at Wheatley lane, in Burnley & finally at Emmot, near Colne, where according to TT Whitaker, writing in the year 1800, ‘a large silver cup filled with them was turned up by the plough in the latter end of the 17th century.’ Speculating further, Roman forts were generally attended on by the local population, who lived next to or near the fort in a settlement described as a vici – the semantics of which can be observed in the name, Wycoller, a time-capsule village just to the east of Colne.
Returning to the investigation of Patrick’s boyhood home, there is more information given in his ‘Confessio’ which proves relevant. To carry the investigation further, let us analyze the names Venta, Ventry, & by association, Wen. All these names suggest that by Patrick’s time a group of Roman foedarati from a tribe known as the Wends had settled in the Burnley area. According to Wulfstan, they heralded from a place called Weonodland,’ as in; ‘Weonodland was on his starboard side and to portside, he had Langeland, Lolland, Falster and Scania. These countries all belong to Denmark.’ Clearly, when Symoen of Durham named ‘Weondune,’ he was referring to the ‘dune’ of the ‘Weonds.’ Other names for the tribe include;
Old English: Winedas
Old Norse: Vindr
German: Wenden, Winden
These variants connect neatly with the Vinheath of Egil’s Saga, which in Burnley terms links to the hamlet of Winewall near Colne, & I am quite sure the Battle of Winwead was fought at Barrowford.
The arrival of the Wends seems connected to their defeat in Europe by the Romans in 277 AD, after which they were given lands in Britain. Zosimus writing of a Roman general called Probus, states, ‘his second battle was with the Franks, whom he completely conquered with the help of his generals. Then he fought the Burgundians & Vends… When the armies engaged each other, some of the barbarians were slain, others were taken prisoner by the Romans, & the rest sued for peace, accepting the condition that they surrender their booty & prisoners, but since, although their request was granted, they did not hand over everything, the emperor angrily punished them by attacking them on their retreat. Many were killed & their leader, Igillus, taken prisoner, & all the captives were sent across to Britain where they proved very useful to the emperor in subsequent revolts.’
The last sentence is key, for it places the Wends in Britain at a place well-sited for handling a rebellion, suggesting a northern location. If this was in Lancashire, we can understand the proper origins of a number of Probus coins found in the county; such as at Worden, on the outskirts of Leyland, whose name also seems a variation of ‘weodune’ Similar coins were also discovered at Burnley itself, where WT Watkin describes 126 copper coins known as ‘radiates’ of the late third century AD, while the coins found at Castercliffe were minted at the same period.
Wendish tribal sub-groups included the Sorbs & the Ruggi, both of whose names are present at Pendle Hill, the great whale-back peak which dominates the Burnley skyline. The village of Sabden (Sapedene 1296) means ‘long, narrow valley of the Sabs,’ the ‘Sab’ phonetic of this name being quite rare in Britain, & of unknown origin. Yet it is easy to introduce the idea that Sabden was once ‘Sorbden.’ ‘The present-day Sorbs,’ writes Gerald Stone, ‘may be regarded as descendants of the Slavs who moved into Lusatia in the 6th & 7th centuries… it seems likely that the ethnic name srbi was then in use among them & was later retained both by the Sorbs & by those other Slavs (the Serbs) who moved southwards to the Danube.’
Another Wendish subgroup were known as the Rugii, whose name seems to have inspired the Pendleside village of Roughlea, known formely as Rugelea. In the 8th century, the venerable Bede stated that the Rugii formed part of the composite Anglo-Saxon layer to the English gene-pool;
The Angles or Saxons, who now inhabit Britain… are still corruptly called ‘Garmans’ by the neighbouring nation of the Britons. Such are the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons, and the Boructuari
We may also detect the Rugi element in an alternate slave-name given to saint Patrick; Fiacc’s hymn tells us; ‘He was six years in slavery; Human food he ate it not. Cothraige he was called.’ At the other side of the valley in which Burnley lies, we come to the hamlet of Roggerham. This is where things get interesting, because hard by the modern village there are the remains of a building, dated to the mid 4th century, given the name Ring Stones Camp. The Wends are known for building circular camps such as the this one, a visit to which was recorded over centuries ago, by TT Wilksonson;
Passing through Thursden Valley, to a corresponding crest on the opposite ridge called Bonfire Hill, at the distance of about a mile, we find another circular intrenchment, 130 feet in diameter… This encampment is surrounded by an earthwork rampart, which is still comparatively perfect on three of its sides, and easily traceable on the fourth. The rampart measures 700 feet in length by 450 in average breadth
At once we gain a semi-hit to the final variant name given for Patrick’s boyhood home by the ancient sources. The Hymn of Fiacc, traditionally ascribed it to a fifth century bard, tells us Patrick was born at ‘Nemthur.’ Now this does not necessarily mean it was the same place as Banna Venta, but the ‘thur’ element does appear in the ‘Thursden,’ which may have once been called ‘Nemthur’s den.’ The name seems to derive from nemeton, which means ‘sacred space’ in Brythonic, & which easily becomes Eamoton, a place where Athelstan received fealty from the petty kings of Britain – & then Emmot. This place lies near Colne, where a sacred well called ‘Hallown’ has been sited since deep antiquity supporting the Nemeton link. There is also the intriguingly tantalizing possibility that ‘Bonfire Hill’ derives from Bannaventa, as in;
Another early antiquarian visit to Ring Stones was made by James Stonehouse’s in the mid-19th century;
As we pursue our ramble along the road towards Roggerham, we arrive at a farm house on the right hand called “Rotten”; and a short way beyond it find a gate on the same side. Opening this gate we discover a narrow road, having in the centre a pavement of large boulder stones, the footway on one side being skirted by a stone wall which enclose portions of the moor; on the other a thick hedge. An unobservant person even would notice something unusual in the appearance of this bye-road. The mystery of it-if there be such a thing as a mystery-is soon made manifest. The road is found to lead upon the open moor land, and where the enclosure walls end it gradually becomes lost in the moorland and herbage, although its track can be really discovered rising over the hill before us. But before it becomes so hidden in the heather and the thick grass it passes an enclosure of some 200 feet by 160 feet, that the antiquary and the archaeologist would not fail to gaze upon with deep and absorbing interest. The road is Roman. As the Romans left it, there it is. The enclosure is Roman. As the Romans constructed it, there it is; at least what remains of their handywork. The enclosure is the remains of a fort erected by this great nation, when occupying this part of Britain. The fort is known by the people of the vicinity as “Ring Stones Camp.” The walls, at least as much as is left of them, are about a foot high from the interior surface. Outside the Vallum is a foss or ditch. It is deep in some portions, and filled up in others. It seems to be of the true V shape by the inclinator of the sides. The walls appear as strong as when the soldier mason laid stone upon stone and spread the strong concrete that has hardened till it rivals the stone in durability. At one of the sides, there is an opening where stood the Decuman gate. On the side facing it is another opening. This is the Proetorian gate, so called as being near where the Praetor fixed his quarters. In the centre of the enclosure are great inequalities of ground which, if carefully examined, will perhaps exhibit some of the arrangements of the encampment or fort.’
Ring Stones camp is located near a certain Swinden Resevoir, whose name clearly contains the ‘wendune’ semantics. It has been dated to the Fourth century on account of its great physical similarity – especially an identical gateway – with ‘Bomber Camp,’ sited by a Roman road near Gisburn, where a collection of early to mid Fourth Century pottery was unearthed. Just to the north of Swinden reservoir, at Twist Hill, there also stands another Roman-British farmstead, 44m by 40m. A bronze coin of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) was reportedly found here in 1888, which is much earlier than Patrick, but shows an even earlier settlement of the area.
It is at this point that I will add a wee drop of speculation into my theory, I always enjoy finishing thusly, for the close connection between the camps at Gisburn & Roggerham may be in fact down to an actual human familial relationship. Where the Hymn of Fiacc tell us Patrick was; ‘Grandson of Deochain Odissus,’ a few miles to the west of Gisburn, in the delightful Forest of Bowland, we may see a River Dunsop – possibly connected to the ‘Sorbs’ – flowing into the River Hodder, which might just have been named after Odissus.
To summarise, a large Romano-British farmstead building was erected at Roggerham in the 4th century which fits the country estate image given by Patrick’s ‘villula.’ Roggerham lies near Burnley, which matches the Burniae element of Patrick’s boyhood home. Burnley seems to have been the site of the Battle of Brunanburh, also named Wendune, which translates perfectly as Patrick’s ‘Banna Venta.’ The only speculative thought is Burnley’s identification as Brunanburh – but if the battle was fought near that bonnie Lancashire town, then its clearly a case of killing two birds of mystery with one scholarly stone – & a few archaic words.