Catching Site of Brunanburgh
Keith Parry
Lancashire Life, March 1985.

In the year 937 the King of Saxon England, Athelstan, asserted his sovereignty over northern England by his victory at the battle of Brunanburgh.  An epic poem records the event.

The trouble with Brunanburgh starts with the story itself.  The poem describes a gargantuan battle in great detail;  it names the kings and great warriors killed, the condition of the battlefield - grass so sodden with blood that it was difficult to stand - even the picture after the battle, with carrion crow and eagle hovering over the corpses and the marauding wolves circling round.  But it lacks one important detail - the location of Brunanburgh.

In his search for a site, the local historian is hindered by the fact that local legend tends to get woven into fact, wishful-thinking to cloud the objective eye.  On the other hand, he does have the advantage of local experience - the kind of knowledge that gives the guerilla fighter the edge over an invading army.  He can, in effect, use the lie of the land.  The invading force is the more expert historian, 'superior fire power' in the shape of a wider knowledge and deeper research.  But too often his campaigns are planned on small-scale maps lacking contours and he suddenly finds himself being sniped at from behind an unexpected ridge!

Several sites have been suggested for the mysterious battle and the locations have been discussed, dismembered and fervently argued over.  Each site has something in its favour.

The southernmost 'Brunanburgh' is somewhere between Bedford and Nottingham, and is supported by the existence of a Brunenwald - 'brown wood' - in that area.  The East Midlands did mark the boundary between the 'Saxon' and 'Danish' Englands, and the Fosse Way points northeast - the way an invading army from Saxon England would travel.

Supporters of the most northerly site for Brunanburgh, on the peninsula between the Lune estuary and Morecambe Bay, produce the evidence of Red Nab.  According to a local historian there, the deeds relating to Red Nab show that it was once called 'Brunenbergh' and Thorold, one of the chieftains killed at Brunanburgh, was buried there.  The description 'red' is subjective - the collection of rocks at Red Nab is brownish and 'Brun-' could equally well be applied.

A location on the northern bank of the Ribble estuary - Bryning - which its supporters claim is a corruption of Brunanburgh, would seem to be a long-shot, even with the evidence of a local legend of a burial mound.  Yet here, too, is an ancient trackway, the ridge route between the marshes starting at the Mersey, crossing the Ribble by way of an old tidal ford between Hesketh Bank and Freckleton Naze and running on to the northern edge of the Fylde.  Bryning is near - or near enough - to the Fylde side of the ford.

In attempting to be objective, it is often useful to approach the problem with, as it were, half-closed eyes, looking at the background first before focussing on the object in question.

That a separate north country existed is fact.  The native Celts were driven west and north by the incoming Saxons;  the northern group found themselves held in the Pennines, the Kingdom of Elmet.  The evidence here is in the place names, definitive Celtic sounds within a precise boundary.  'Walsden' is a Saxon description of a valley ('den') inhabited by Waels (non-Saxons, in other words, Celts).  Walsden is in the Summit Pass between the Calder and Roch valleys;  further west are Walshaw and Walmersley.  The three mark the southern boundary of Elmet.

The Danes came in from the east, the Vikings from Ireland and the Isle of Man to the west coast, then inland to meet and mingle with Danes and Celts to form the north country with its capital at Jorvik.  Its important communication routes ran eastwest and its southern boundary coincided with the Celtic one in the Pennines.

The north's lines of communication across country were vital and the Long Causeway, the nearest to its southern boundary was of primary importance.  It has all the qualities of a classic ridge route and, for that matter, defensive position.

A supporter of a Brunanburgh well south of the Pennines recently commented that Burnley would have a stronger case if Burnley were Brunley, and the guerilla-fighter-local-historian must have whooped with joy as he cut down the cheeky invader who dared to raise his head over the edge of the trench! Burnley is Brunley in the dialect, it is on the river Brun, and an old poem describes the journey along the whole length of the Long Causeway:

        Brunley for ready money,
        Mereclough nooa trust,
        Yo' tekken a peep at Stiperden,
        But ca' at Kegs yo must.
        Blackshaw Yed for travellers,
        An' Heptonstall for trust,
        Hepton Brig for landladies,
        And Midgley in the moor.
        Luddenden's a waarm shop,
        Roylehead's varry cold.
        An' if yo' get to Halifax.
        Yo mun bi varry bold.

There is a complex of old routes in the south Pennines, high moor routes running between 500 and 1,000 feet above sea level.  They began as prehistoric tracks, became packhorse routes, often paved, occasionally improved to become modern motor roads.  The most important were graced with the title 'gate'.  Limersgate runs from Rochdale along the ridge between the Roch and Spodden valleys, Reddyshore Gate runs parallel but along the western rim of the Summit Pass.  Both were important routes northwards through the Pennines and both meet or cross the Long Causeway in the vicinity of the Cliviger Gorge.  Further routes run north from the Long Causeway towards Colne, towards the Aire Gap, on either side of the Worth valley towards Rombalds Moor and Ilkley and York.

To hold the North an army would need to hold the Long Causeway.  The oncoming Saxon army would be just outside its own territory, coming face to face with the native fighters on their home ground and in selected defensive positions.

The weight of evidence tips the scales in favour of a south Pennine Brunanburgh, but the resounding stanzas of the saga can be dangerous, leading to legends of burial mounds and commemorative cairns.  They are used as substantive evidence where none is needed, decoration to bring the story of the battle into line with the popular (and later) view of the heroic battle.

Would anyone, in the chaotic aftermath of battle, have taken the time to extract the bodies of kings and warriors from the mess of carnage and carefully inter them, build a mound above them and top the whole thing off with a carefully constructed cairn? Would it have been possible to do so, in view of the fact that the victorious Saxons would surely have wanted to get their hands on the corpses of Thorold or Constantine, King of Scots?

The Norse sagas are essentially poetry, but they show battle as a bloody business, tracking down (and up!) the adversary rather than despatching him with a clean cut - and never a hint of Plantagenate chivalry! All the same, it is exciting, if an indulgence, to dream in Arthurian terms of the Old Lords emerging from their long sleep under Boulsworth Hill to rescue their homeland from the depradations of the Westminster government!

The Brunanburgh poem quickens the blood and sets the imagination racing - but it clouds the objective mind.

Now, suppose that was the intention.  The poem is clearly not an eye-wittness report (or it would have included some geographical detail), so it could easily be an assessment.  One further step, and it becomes a carefully constructed 'media product', designed as a compliment to Athelstan and the victorious Saxons.

In fact, Brunanburgh may not have been one decisive battle at all.  It may have been a campaign, a series.  of battles.  If the Brunanburgh poem is hindsight propaganda, all possible locations may be relevant, the legends contributory, if not factual contributions.  The Saxon army came north, skirmishes and running battles as they came.  One column swung north east along the Fosse Way, another pushed along the ridge route north from the Mersey.  In the centre was the Pennine redoubt, a psychological victory if the Saxons could capture it.

The northern army turned and fought at Bryning, facing the Saxons as they crossed the sands of the Ribble at low tide, then headed away across the Fylde, making for the defensive positions at Heysham and a possible escape route across the sea.

The forces in the Pennines dug in on the moor edge above the Cliviger Gorge, aware that they faced an incoming army unused to this kind of terrain, conscious that they were defending not just their territory but the symbolic heart of their homeland.

That the Saxons took hold of the north is fact, but the north was never totally 'Saxonised'.  It retained its own identity, its own church, its own sound.  Is it possible, just possible that the Brunanburgh poem was written for home consumption in Saxon England - to cover up the fact that despite the series of battles and the terrible carnage the Saxons had - psychologically at least - lost the war?