Thorolf’s Grave (Brunanburh clue)


Historical research is a bit like brewing your own wine. You get all the studies down, let it ferment for & bit, its ready to get you drunk on the buzziness of your discoveries. Yet, if you leave it a few years & have a drink, it’ll always taste better after the tantric fashion. Thus, a couple of nights ago I was reading through my Brunanburh studies & was struck by an almighty thunderbolt – something I’d overlooked, but made sooooooooooo much sense.

But first off a reminder about the battle of Brunanburh. Over the past decade or so a few contenders have been put forward as to its location, none of which are able to tick the  boxes Burnley can.

Castle Hill lies to the rear of Townley Hall
Castle Hill lies to the rear of Townley Hall

1: There is a pre-medieval fortification attached to the name Brun.

Near Townley Hall in Burnley there is a very Anglo-Saxonesque fortifaction of otherwise unknown origin, sited on a certain Castle Hill. Was this Brunanburh? Well, an Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’ formed the central administrative point of the administrative ‘Tun,’ from which we get the name Tunlay, & thus, Towneley. In the 12th century, Towneley formed part of an ancient township called ‘Tunlay-with Brunshaw,’ the latter meaning ‘Brun’s Wood.’ The progression of the name Brunan to Brun would have occured as it did with Ottanlege (972) to Otley (c.1200).

The Western Trench @ Castle Hill…
The Western Trench @ Castle Hill…

2: The Ford of the Brun

When William of Malmesbury gave the battle site as ‘Bruneford,’ & John of Fordun ‘Brunford,’ we are led to the only waterway by that name in the whole of Britain, rising on moorland a few miles to the west of Burnley. Another historian to place the battle by a river-ford was Ranulf Higden (c.1280-1364), who gave the variant spelling of Brumford. Coincidence or not, he was writing at the very period in history when Burnley’s name was given as Brumleye in a 1294 market charter. The ford it describes is probably at the heart of old Burnley, where the River Brun flows under the bridge in Church Street. In times past, in a more infant Burnley, this river crossing was passed by fords and stepping stones.


3: Etheldreda’s Ash

Where the Annals of Clonmacnoise state the battle being fought on the ‘Plains of Othlyn.’ The core phonetic of this name is to be found in the person of Saint Etheldreda, whose vita tells us that after leaving Altham she headed for Bradford in Yorkshire,  ‘as she continued on her way at a slow pace, it was arranged by God’s grace that she happened upon a place nearby, suitable as a stopping place for travelers, a remarkably flat meadow… When, after a little while, she woke up from her sleep & rose to her feet, she found that her travelling-staff, the end of which she had driven into the ground, dry & long-seasoned, was now clothed with green bark, and had sprouted and put forth leaves.’ This tree was an ash, & the miracle provides us with the philological root to Othlyn, meaning the ash tree (Celtic=ynn) of Othl/Etheldreda. That the battle was fought on the ‘plains’ of Othlyn also connects to the legend of Etheldreda’s miracle taking place on ‘a remarkably flat meadow.’ From an original of Æthelthryth or Æþelðryþe, by medieval times the name had become ‘Audrey.’ As Saint Audrey, the latter degenerated even further into the ‘Shorey’ of Shorey’s Well which can still be found at the oldest part of Burnley off Church Street.

Shorey’s Well in its original form
Shorey’s Well in its original form


4: Earls’ Ness

More evidence for the Burnley Brunanburh can be found in Egil’s Saga, where a cowardly flight from the field of Athelstan’s ally, Earl Alfgeir, gives us a vital geographical clue; ‘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.’ In 937, the Burnley area was part of Northumbria, but lay only thirty or so miles north of the Mercian border, which stretched between the Mersey & the Humber estuaries. Just beyond that demarcation line lay an Anglo-Saxon people known as the Southumbrians, a record of whom is found in the Chronicle, when in 702 King Kenred ‘assumed the government of the Southumbrians.’ Thus, when Alfgeir crossed the Mersey he would have entered Southumbria, the ‘South Country’ through which he would travel westwards to a certain ‘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 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 these parts of Britain is a ‘Jarlsness’ mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga, which is the Viking sea-port called Ness/Neston on the south Wirral coast.

Alfgeir’s possible route (if he’d have had a car)
Alfgeir’s possible route (if he’d have had a car)

5: Less than a day from the Irish Sea

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;

The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind ASC

There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On fealene flot, he saved his life

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.


Where the ASC says ‘all the day the West Saxons pressed on the loathed bands,’ we can assume that the battle was fought within a day’s retreat of a seacoast or river estuary. Egil’s Saga provides a little extra gloss, saying the ships were ‘far’ from the field. Paul Cavill confirms that the ‘mere’ element in Dingesmere means ‘sea’ when he writes, ‘in verse, both as a simplex and as the first element of many compounds, it means ‘the sea, the ocean.’ As for the ‘Dinges’ part, it is named after the Viking ‘Ting’ on the Isle of Man, which still meets today as the Tynvald. Founded in the early 10th century – i.e. the Brunanburh period – its position at the centre of the Irish Sea indicates that the name ‘Dingesmere’ is  attached to the circular portion of the Irish Sea epicentred by the Isle of Man.

6: Vinheath

According to Egil’s Saga, 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.’ While running through the extract, the reader should be aware that the two towns mentioned are the early prototypes of Burnley & Colne, both of which were granted to the monks of Pontefract Abbey in an 1122 charter.

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.. North of the heath stood a town… 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… 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.

The Vin element can be positively found near Colne in the phonetics of the wee hamlet of Winewall.

The Vinheath


OK – so thats the six cardinal pro-Burnley points – there are other clues, but these six are the most striking. So to my recent eureka moment, which began with reading Christine Fell’s accurate translation of Egil’s Saga;

Flame-hearted Thorolf, fear’s
Foe, Earl-killer, who so
Dared danger in Odin’s
Dark wars is dead at last.
Here, by Vina’s bank,
My brother lies under earth


So Thorolf was buried by the river Vina, was he? Crucially, Winewall’s earliest record (1324) calls it Wynwell – ‘spring of the river Wyn.’ After leaving Winewall, Colne Water soon merges with the ‘Pendle Water.’ This confluence occurs at the lovely village of Barrowford, and forms what we can assume was the River Wyn/Wine/Vina, whose headwaters creep into the hills around for a few miles above Barrowford.

Local tradition holds that Barrowford is named after some ancient burial site – i.e. a barrow – as in John Widdup’s; ‘The name “Barrowford” suggests that such a barrow formerly existed near the stream crossing, but the site of the barrow remains in dispute, as all evidence of it has been lost by land cultivation. It has been suggested that the mound on the side of the road at Park Hill marks the spot.’

The barrow at Barrowford…
The barrow at Barrowford…

This is definitely a pre-dig Sutton Hoo, Hisalrik moment. Under that mound lie the mortal bones of Thorolf, proof of which will be in the discovery of two gold bracelets as recorded  in C. Green’s 1893 translation of Egil’s Saga.

Chapter 55 – Egil buries Thorolf. While his men still pursued the fugitives, king Athelstan left the battle-field, and rode back to the town, nor stayed he for the night before he came thither. But Egil pursued the flying foe, and followed them far, slaying every man whom he overtook. At length, sated with pursuit, he with his followers turned back, and came where the battle had been, and found there the dead body of his brother Thorolf. He took it up, washed it, and performed such other offices as were the wont of the time. They dug a grave there, and laid Thorolf therein with all his weapons and raiment. Then Egil clasped a gold bracelet on either wrist before he parted from him; this done they heaped on stones and cast in mould.

2 thoughts on “Thorolf’s Grave (Brunanburh clue)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>