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This essay on Brunanburh, which endorses a variation on T.T. Wilkinson's Burnley hypothesis, appears in the fist book of Thomas Newbigging's History of the Forest of Rossendale. It is the second chapter, from pages 9 to 21.

Ho! forth my sword! Ho! up my men!
My standard's folds uprear;
Look out! my ancient enemies,
The ocean thieves, are here.

Here, Athelstan, King - of earls the lord, of barons the bracelet-giver - and eke his brother Edmund the Etheling, won life-long glory in battle, with edges of swords, near Brunanburh. . . . . .
Carnage greater has not been in this island, of people slain." -
Saxon Ode on the Battle of Brunanburh.

There is a well-known earthwork called the Dyke or Dykes, situated in the neighbourhood of Broadclough, Bacup. This singular monument of a bygone age is well worthy of a visit. By a slight exercise of the imagination the spectator may cause to pass before his mental vision the scenes long since enacted in its vicinity, and associate in spirit with the sturdy Danish warriors who in all probability manned and defended the intrenchment.

Rossendale is not rich in relics; but for extent and importance the Dykes at Broadclough eclipse a multitude of lesser archæological remains to be found in other localities. This work is described by Dr. Whitaker, the historian, as an "intrenchment to which no tradition is annexed that may serve to ascertain either its antiquity, or the end it was designed to answer. It is cut from the gentle slope of a rising ground, in one direction, nearly parallel to the horizon, for more than six hundred yards in length, not exactly in a right line, but following the little curvatures of the surface. In one part of the line, for about a hundred yards, it appears to have been levelled, and in another, where it crosses a clough, is not very distinct; but more than four hundred yards of the line exhibit a trench eighteen yards broad in the bottom, and of proportionate depth - a most gigantic, and at the same time almost inexplicable work, as it could only have been intended for some military purpose; and yet, in its present state, must have been almost useless as a fortification - for, though it would have defended a great army in front, yet their flanks might have been turned with the greatest ease, and the whole might have been destroyed in their trenches from the high grounds which immediately command it. On the whole I am inclined to think it one side of a vast British camp, which was intended to have been carried round the crown of the hill, but for some reason, never to be recovered by us, was left in its present unfinished and useless state. Abating for the herbage with which it is covered, the present appearance of it is precisely that of an unfinished modern canal, though much deeper and wider in its dimensions."

The same monument of antiquity is thus alluded to by the late Mr. T.T. Wilkinson, in a paper read before the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, entitled "The Battle of Brunanburh, and the probable Locality of the Conflict": - "Broadclough Dyke is a formidable and gigantic intrenchment near Bacup. It measures more than one thousand eight hundred feet in length, is situated on the edge of a gentle slope, and has a trench at least fifty-four feet broad at the bottom. What can have been the object of such an extensive earthwork can, of course, only be a matter of conjecture. From its position it is capable of protecting a large army in front, but it is easily accessible from the east, and must have been abandoned by its defenders whenever the enemy had turned their flank. Its construction can only have been suggested by temporary necessities, since it has evidently been abandoned in an unfinished state."

There are several features of interest connected with the Dyke at Broadclough worthy of remark, which have either escaped the observation of those who have aheady described it, or for some other reason are left unnoticed by them.

In several parts of the Dyke, in patches throughout its entire length, and within twenty-four or thirty inches from the surface, where the herbage is worn off, the shale and soil are clearly visible in their natural, undisturbed layers, proving beyond question that the earth-wall or rampart has not been formed from the loose material dug from the trench, but that, as at present seen, the height of the Dyke (which is eleven or twelve feet in the deepest part) corresponds to the depth of the original excavation. It therefore becomes interesting to inquire how the super-abundant soil was disposed of. Either this was originally thrown up by those employed in its construction, so as to form a wall throughout the entire extent, or it was removed to some adjacent hollow in the hill-side. If the former, then the original Dyke must have been nearly double its present height, because the hill which rises to the rear of the earthwork is a continuation of the gradual and regular slope of the land lying below, and extending to the turnpike road; or else a second dyke in advance of the first was formed, and which, being composed of loose material, has been levelled by time. With respect to, and in support of, the second conjecture, that the soil was removed to some contiguous hollow, the intelligent tenant occupying the farm on which the Dyke is located informs me that he has repeatedly had occasion to dig trenches in its vicinity, a little distance below, nearer to the turnpike road; and although he has gone to a depth of six, eight, and even ten feet, he has invariably found the soil to be of a loose and apparently filled-up character, largely intermixed with fragments of sticks and bark, and other substances foreign to the soil in its natural bed. He also states that the earth is of such a friable nature that, though only at a depth of three feet from the surface, he has had occasion to shore up the sides of the trench with timber to prevent them falling in - in short, altogether differing from the material of an excavation through a natural deposit. The work extends from the farm called "Dykes-house" to the edge of "Whitaker's Clough," but is not now continuous throughout its entire length, being obliterated or levelled in the centre for a considerable space; - the entrance to the end farthest from Bacup being through a cleft or cutting in the earthwork.

I am far from coinciding in the view taken both by Dr. Whitaker and Mr. Wilkinson, that "it has evidently been abandoned in an unfinished state, because it was not carried round the crown of the hill." There is nothing, in my opinion, about the work which in the least indicates any such intention on the part of those with whom it originated. To have carried it over the hill would have been a stupendous undertaking indeed, as any one viewing the ground will readily admit. But even supposing it had been so carried, the work, according to this theory, would still have been incomplete unless the rampart had been continued either along the summit or on the other side, and over the hill a second time to unite its extremities, thus forming a continuous wall. Neither am I prepared to agree that it was easily accessible by an attacking force from the east, thus rendering a flanking operation easy of accomplishment.

It should be borne in mind that the nature of the approaches to the work has undergone a material alteration since the time of its construction. It is in the highest degree probable - amounting almost to a certainity - that the rising ground to the rear and at its extremities was protected by natural defences in the shape of trees and a thick undergrowth of shrubs, forming an abatis which would readily be strengthened by the ingenuity of the defenders, and than which, even at the present day, with all the appliances of modern warfare, few better means of protection or defence could be wished for or devised.

The careful investigations of Mr. Wilkinson have invested this singular work with more of interest than had before been associated with it, by his having, with marked ability and perseverance, collected together a mass of exhaustive evidence, enforced by a chain of argument the most conclusive, with regard to the much-debated locality of the great struggle between the Saxons and the Danes, which he endeavours, and most successfully, to show is to be found in the immediate neighbourhood of Burnley; and in connection with which the earthwork in question constituted, probably, a not unimportant adjumct.

This decisive conflict, won by the Saxon king, Athelstan, against the confederated forces of the Danes, the Welsh, and the Scots, under the Danish prince, Anlaf, completely established the supremacy of the former, and raised the Saxon character in the estimation of surrounding nations. In order fully to appreciate the vast importance of this victory to the Saxons and their ruler, and to invest the old Dyke with that interest to which it seems entitled, it is necessary briefly to recount the history of the period for some time prior to the occurrence of the battle.

About the end of the eighth century, the Danes and Norwegians (Scandinavians) began to make their, predatory incursions on the southern and eastern coasts of Britain, ravaging wherever they penetrated, and leaving destruction and desolation in their track. This warlike and perfidious race inhabited the shores and islands of the northern seas; but it was their boast that the sea itself was their natural home and empire, over which they reigned supreme. They were known by the name of "Vikings," or "Children of the Creeks." These bands of Vikings had leaders, whom they styled "king," who were chosen for their pre-eminence in skill, daring, and ferocity. According to their bards, he only was accounted worthy to be a "sea-king" who "never slept beneath a roof, nor quaffed the horn at the covered hearth." They were, moreover, Pagan idolaters in their worship, and took especial delight in plundering and persecuting all who bore the name of Christian.

During the reign of Ethelred, (A.D. S66-871,) the Saxon king of Wessex and Kent, the Danes with a strong force invaded and nearly overran the island. A series of sanguinary conflicts between the Saxons and their invaders, extending over a period of five years, with varying success, but on the whole favourable to the Northmen, finally resulted in King Ethelred's death, caused by a wound received in battle. His brother Alfred (afterwards surnamed "the Great") succeeded to the vacant throne, A.D. 871. This wise ruler, of whom England has just reason to be proud, was for more than six years unable to cope successfully with his powerful and treacherous foes - until at the battle of Ethandune, after a long and bloody conflict, the Saxons were completely victorious. During the remaining years of the reign of Alfred, the country of the Saxons enjoyed - with the exception of the invasion by the sea-king Hasteng - comparative tranquility.

Under Edward, the eldest son of Alfred, who succeeded his father, and reigned for a period of twenty-four years, the Saxons increased in power and military ascendancy throughout the country. This warlike and sagacious king devoted his energies to subjugating the Northmen, and consolidating the Saxon rule, by drawing into closer union the different states into which the country was divided. But we now approach that period in Saxon history, the events of which more immediately concern and interest us in the present inquiry.

Upon the death of Edward, A.D. 925, his eldest survivmg son, Athelstan, ascended the throne of Wessex, at the age of thirty. He had been a favourite of his grandfather Alfred, who directed his studies in the military profession, and early instilled into his mind an absorbing love of his country, and those principles of patriotism which adorned his life.

Throughout his vigorous and brilliant reign, by his warlike prowess, no less than his wise administration of the civil affairs of his kingdom, he reflected credit on the teaching of his noble ancestor.

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish king of Northumbria, who had espoused a sister of the Anglo-Saxon monarch, Athelstan promptly extended his sway, by annexing that important kingdom to his own dominions.

In those days of semi-barbarism, when might took the place of right, and when

The good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can,

was in full force and vigour, it almost amounted to a crime to be unfortunate. Accordingly, Sihtric's two sons, Guthfred and Anlaf, fled from the country to escape the death by assassination, or at least the persecution, that usually awaited princes in their forlorn condition. Guthfred took refuge among the Scots, and Anlaf sought the shores of Ireland.

It is probable, however, that Athelstan would have exercised clemency towards the brothers; for the elder, on surrendering himself some time afterwards, was received with kindness by the king, and might have lived in peace had not his roving Danish propensities led him to renounce his quiet life, and assume that of marauder and sea-king.

Anlaf, who was ambitious to recover the kingdom of his royal parent, had vigorously employed the years of his exile in organising a force to depose the Anglo-Saxon ruler; and having perfected his plans, and secured the alliance of the Scots, the Welsh, and his Danish kindred, he set sail from Ireland on his expedition, with a fleet of six hundred and thirteen vessels. Most writers on the subject state that Anlaf landed the whole of his forces in the mouth of the Humber; but no substantial proof is offered in support of this very improbable theory. It is scarcely to be supposed that Anlaf would risk a long and dangerous voyage with the whole of his numerous and uncertain craft, when he was already almost within sight of shores where he might with greater ease, and with less risk of being confronted by an opposing army, disembark his hosts.

Accepting, then, the conclusions at which Mr. Wilkinson has arrived in the paper previously alluded to, that a portion - probably the largest portion - of Anlaf's ships sought the estuaries of the Mersey, the Ribble, the Wyre, and the Lune, on the banks of which their human freight was landed, we may in imagination try to picture to ourselves the march of the grand confederate army that came to wrest the kingdom of Northumbria from the sway of the great Saxon ruler. The bowmen, the spearmen, the gaily-caparisoned horses; the hosts with their battle-axes and burnished shields; the flaunting banners, bearing the Norwegian and Danish insignia, and all the miscellaneous paraphernalia of ancient warfare, would compose a picture worthy of the canvas of a Falcone or a Salvator Rosa; and having safely trod the plain of Lancashire, and drawn near to the mountain fastnesses where the conflict was to be waged which should decide the fate of Northumbria: - as night closed with its dark mantle upon the embattled hosts, how the beacon fires would flare forth their red signals from hill to hill! - Cribden, Hameldon, Pendle, Thieveley Pike, Blackstonedge, and the rest. The grandeur of the scene would stir the indifferent, and inflame the patriotic to those deeds of valour which the Saxon bard has endeavoured to depict in that ode, which time has spared from the oblivion that has fallen upon the writings of more prosaic chroniclers.

If Saxonfield (Saxifield), near Burnley, was the scene of the engagement between the troops of Athelstan and Anlaf, then it is in the highest degree probable that one or other of the rival armies, most likely that of the Saxon king, forced, or attempted to force, a passage through the valley of the Irwell; and that here they were encountered by the confederated hosts intrenched behind the vast earthwork at Broadclough that commanded the line of their march. Whether this was taken in flank or rear by the Saxon warriors, or whether it was successful in arresting their progress, or delaying the advance of a portion of their army, it is impossible to determine; but that it was constructed for weighty strategical purposes, under the belief that its position was of the last importance, so much of the remains of this extraordinary work which still exists, affords sufficient evidence.

The battle of Brunanburh settled for the time being the position of the Danes in the land; the Saxon arms were completely victorious. The battle raged from early morn till sunset, amid fearful carnage, the best blood of the country being shed. Five sea-kings, seven jarls, and many thousands of brave warriors were sacrificed in the strife.


Anlaf, with the scattered remnant of his forces, escaped from the field, and fled again to Ireland, as the ode relates; while Athelstan, the Saxon, was raised to the proud position of king of England, and peace was secured to the country during the remaining years of his life and reign.

I am not aware that any considerable relics have been found within the Forest, which would connect the district more immediately with the military presence of the Saxons or Danes; but this may have arisen for want of the frequent use of the plough in our fields. So strong, however, are the probabilities in favour of the conjecture that the Dyke constituted a portion of the line of defensive works in connection with the great battle strife, that it is not at all unlikely that some other memorials of the time may yet be discovered in the locality.

But we are not entirely without evidence of even this direct confirmatory nature; for Dr. Whitaker states that, "In the Red Moss, a part of the two hundred and forty acres once within the Forest, iron arrow-heads have often been found. These, it is probable, had been aimed against the deer, rather than used in battle. In a field belonging to the author was found a Torques of the purest gold. It was lying upon the surface, having been turned up by the plough or harrow, and picked up by a reaper. The weight is above one ounce and a half It was originally a complete circle, then bent back upon itself, and twisted round, excepting at the ends, which are looped, as if intended to be fastened about the neck by a cord. It is now in my possession."

It is not unlikely that the learned historian, had he lived under the light of recent investigations, might have formed a different opinion with respect to the original use of the arrow-heads, and would rather have attributed their presence to purposes of a warlike character.

The beacon-remains on the neighbouring hills which Mr. Wilkinson conjectures may have been successively used by Britons, Romans, Saxons, and Danes, are highly interesting monuments of antiquity. The one on Thieveley Pike is quite distinct, and is a complete circle in the form of a basin, the circumference round the centre of the embankment being about eighty feet; many of the stones within the ring, and in the immediate vicinity, bear evident marks of having been charred or scorched by fire.

In earlier times, when the means of intercommunication were slow and uncertain, these beacons played a most important part in the defences of the country, being kept in readiness, and used by the authorities on occasions of civil broil and commotion, or threatened invasion by foreign powers. Accordingly, we find that during the times of disquiet in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the year 1588, when the great "Spanish Armada" was hourly expected to land its invading hosts on the Lancashire coast, a mandate was issued by the queen's "right trustie and well-beloved the Lord Strange," to Henry, Earl of Derby, as Lord-Lieutenant of the county of Lancaster, to the effect that the beacons in every part of the county were to be specially taken in charge, and kept in continual readiness for kindling, that they might flash forth their telegraphic signals, and call the country to arms on the approach of danger. Severe punishments were threatened to be inflicted on any person raising a false alarm.

The circular basin form, of which Thieveley furnishes a good example, was that usually adopted in the construction of the beacon bed, the centre being hollowed or scooped out, and surrounded by an embankment, doubtless as a protection to the fire, to prevent its being extinguished when strong winds prevailed.

On a clear day a magnificent view is obtained from the Pike, embracing to the west Hameldon Hill and the country stretching far beyond to the Irish Sea; to the north-west, Pendle Hill, Ingleborough, and Pennyghent; while due north are Worsthorn and Beadle Hill; to the east Black Humbledon, and inchning a little farther south, Stoodley Pike; more southerly still, Tooter Hill, below Sharneyford, and the bleak profile of Blackstonedge; while nearly due south are Coupe Law, Cribden, Musbury Tor, Holcombe Hill, and, beyond, the great plain of Lancashire.

Occupying, as it does, a central position, the beacon lights of Thieveley would blazon forth their ominous signals, and answering fires would soon flare on every surrounding hill. This is no vague, unsubstantial picture uf the imagination: the existing vestiges of occupation by one or other, or all of the primitive tribes in succession, speak a language that can scarcely be misunderstood.

Background image: mario.lancashire.gov.uk.

Sir Graham