The Search for Brunanburh: Burnley

Battle of Brunanburh logo

B-R-N ain’t good enough.

It’s interesting that quite suddenly, a year after I posted my summary explanation of the necessities for locating Brunanburh — and longer than that since the publication of The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook — I’m receiving a number of emails a day on the subject of the battle site, in addition to replies to my posts here on the website.

Some of these notes are very supportive. Others, however, attack the Bromborough theory for the battle’s location that is argued by several contributors of the Casebook — though by no means all the contributors, and by all means a minor point in terms of the worth of the book, which is a goldmine of material for any Brunanburh researcher. This dissenting voice sounds most loudly when connected with a belief that the one guy who gave us the truth about the location of the battle is John of Worcester, a monk who lived a couple centuries after the event, a long way away, and is by no means known for his reliability as a historian. I responded to one of these recent objections with a post yesterday.

Today it’s time for another response: Not the Humber entry this time (at least not directly), but the theory that Brunanburh happened at Burnley in Lancashire.

I have said this often, but it bears repeating once more as a starting point:

I really don’t have anything at stake in this debate. These places aren’t my backyard. Sure, I’m in print agreeing with the Bromborough theory, but I’m by no means afraid to be wrong (it would mean more publications, which would be good for my career!).

I’m quite open to new information, in other words, and I really did try to find an alternative theory that works as well as Bromborough to include in the Casebook. So please do not accuse me of walking around with my eyes closed and ears covered just because I have objective reasons to disagree with one theory or another.

And so to Burnley.

Walton Spire

Walton Spire near Burnley. Does this mark the site of the Battle of Brunanburh?

Here’s what I said in a quick reply to a comment today:

That said, a Lancashire location is to my mind the most likely candidate for Brunanburh outside of the Wirral. Burnley in particular has a lot going for it, as you know (though see Cavill’s essay in the Casebook, p. 331, on the question of its etymology; also, that of Brunanburh itself). When I initially got into these matters, in fact, Burnley-as-Brunanburh was the leading theory in my mind. Like all theories, though, it was tested against the evidence and found not to fit the facts quite as neatly as Bromborough.

While I am now of the opinion that Bromborough was Brunanburh, therefore, I do think it is possible that the Great Battle was preceded by a campaign with several smaller engagements. If that is so, then it is rather likely that a battle associated with Brunanburh (possibly even the Godric and Alfgar confrontation from Egilssaga) was fought near Burnley. (See my own introductory essay, where I note this on page 18.)

In other words, I’m not so much anti-Burnley as I am not-as-pro-Burnley when it comes to Brunanburh specifically, and I am happily pro-Burnley when it comes to a wider Brunanburh Campaign.

At any rate, let’s get to the key argument for Burnley. It runs like this:

A. Not only is Burnley in the “battle zone” between north and south, it sits on the Dublin-to-York land route known to be used by the Vikings.

B. There is good reason to think a medieval, perhaps even a late Anglo-Saxon battle was fought near Burnley.

So far so good.

Indeed, I’d say thumbs up all around. Like I said, I really wanted Burnley to work. I have stacks of notes where I tried desperately to make it work. It makes for an awesome campaign theory.

C. Burnley sits on the River Brun, and the letters brun are in Brunanburh. Therefore Burnley is Brunanburh.

Here is where things go wrong.

I hate to sound pedantic, but it’s hard to explain how important the little things are when it comes to language. I mean, at first glance, this looks truly outstanding. Brun nets Brunanburh. Done and done, right?

Alas, no. And to help explain how I’ll use the example of today’s big Burnley curveball. This comes courtesy of reader Damo, who has a pretty clever addition to the standard Burnley theory first put forward over a century ago. Here’s his comment:

Ive just found Brunanburh by the way

This Viking coin was found at Curedale

link

The moneyer is Bernvald, also called Burnvald on similar coins.

Orsnaford is Heasanford in Burnley.

The Danish name for Brunanburh would have been Bernanburh, with the Angl-Saxons changing it to Brunanburh. Both languages remained in Burnley’s naming by the was – Brunlea & Burnlea

What Damo’s talking about here, if you don’t know, is the Cuerdale Hoard, a quite sizable collection of coins and other goodies found in 1840 on the River Ribble, which essentially lies between Burnley and the Irish Sea. As it happens, this hoard was in the ground some thirty years before the Battle of Brunanburh, which had me rather confused about how it was connected with the battle. However, I’ve since exchanged further emails with Damo — who like all Brunanburh researchers is pleasantly enthusiastic for the theory at hand — and I think I got it now:

Bernvald gave his name to Brunanburh which became Burnley.

This is, I freely admit, a pretty cool line of reasoning. I like out-of-the-box thinking, and this qualifies.

So why doesn’t it work? For that matter, why doesn’t Burnley connect to Brunanburh even though it looks so similar?

The word brunanburh appears to require an origin in bruna or brune — not burn or brun. The Casebook makes this clear, and I’ve said it before here on the site.

Bruna, not brun.

It’s only a little thing — wafer-thin, we might say — but it is hardly insignificant.

Thus the idea that the town was named for “Bernvald,” while an interesting and intriguing speculation, would not actually help the case for Burnley. To the contrary, it would more likely harm that case by showing that the place-name burnley has no solid connection to the word brunanburh. That’s the exact opposite of what the pro-Burnley crowd should be after.

Let’s step through it. This curveball hypothesis would necessitate that there was a man, Bernvald, who was held in such regard that a town was named for him. No problem so far. His name would be shortened, however, then metathesized (the pronunciation switching from bern– to bren-), then changed in its pronunciation in order to yield brun … and all within the term of around thirty years after he was active. That’s a linguistic problem to say the least. And even if somehow that problem was solvable, we’d only be able to argue for a connection to brunburh instead of brunanburh, which isn’t much to hang one’s hat upon.

It gets worse. Because even if somehow, someway one managed to argue that there is an unrecorded and unprecedented line of linguistic development that gets you from bernvald to brun to brunanburh by 937, you’d then have to explain how the name reverted back to the still-unrecorded brun before changing again to arrive, at last, with a recorded place-name: brunlaia by 1124.

The probability, shall we say, is not high.

At this point things go off the rails for Burnley. If there is no convincing reason to connect the place with the one name that you almost assuredly must have … what reason is there to connect any of the rest of the dots? All they point to (at best) is that a battle happened there in the unrecorded past. That gives us a time range of centuries or more, in an area in which these are not uncommon. With no name connection, there’s no historical connection. With no historical connection, there’s no Brunanburh connection. It all pretty much falls apart in terms of reliability.

I hasten to add that it does not fall apart in terms of romanticism, though, as the Burnley hypothesis probably remains the best one for a film, at least to my mind.

So is it 100% definitive that Burnley is not Brunanburh?

No. In history next to nothing is 100% definitive. And as I said above, I think Burnley has a better shot than most candidates. The name of the river Brun fits with a number of our sources — just not the earliest and most essential ones — and the geo-political forces at work in the campaign make it a likely location, especially to an army landing on the Lancashire plain and moving up the Ribble toward York. It even has a folkloric history consistent with what we might expect of the battle site.

Its positives, though, are essentially matched by Bromborough and the Wirral, which goes on to trounce it on linguistic grounds: Old English Brunanburh has a direct line of etymological development leading to Modern English Bromborough.

So please do get out there and fix that wee problem, pro-Burnley folks. Then maybe I can do something with all my Burnley-as-Brunanburh campaign notes.

I’m sure I still have them around here somewhere …

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