Home » Lancashire » Brunanburh and Blackburn by the Rev. T.C. Porteus
One of the most widespread tales among the legends of the Northmen is the story of the Everlasting Fight. The prose Edda relates that by the witchcraft of Hild, who went by night to the battlestead, those who had fallen during the day revived, and joined anew in the clash of arms on the morrow, so that the struggle was continuous. There is a sense in which Brunanburh, the great victory of Alfred's grandson over his foes, is the Everlasting Fight.
So many races of men were in it that a wide and enduring fame was won. Not only in the English chronicles is Athelstan's heroic fight mentioned; but in the Welsh and Irish and Pictish records. Because vikings fought there, the Saga of Egil takes up the story. Everywhere there is the same impression, the number and rank of the slain, the wonder of the Saxon triumph. Henry of Huntingdon calls it the greatest of battles. William of Malmesbury has found an old book of ballads, concerning the contest and its hero, and gloats over his discovery. Gaimar sings:
At Brunanburh (Bruneswerce) he had the better
Of the Scots, the men of Cumberland,
The Welsh and the Picts.
There so many were killed
I think it will ever be spoken of.
Gaimar is right; it will ever be spoken of. And not only because of the magnitude of the struggle, but because of the Song that it inspired. In 937 the Saxon Chronicle becomes lyrical and tells us the news in verse, throwing a Homeric gleam, as Dr. Hodgkin puts it, over the scanty annals of this period. The Song of Brunanburh comes hot from the anvil of some song-smith who perhaps recited it on the field, or amid the rejoicings after the battle. Not only is it a curiosity of our language and literature, but a masterly song, worthy of a permanent place among patriotic poems. It is masterly in the amount of knowledge that it imparts, with a light touch, in vivid word-pictures; and masterly in its restraint, in its praise, but not extravagant praise, for the King, his brother, and his West Saxon and Mercian soldiers. The same artistic restraint is discernible in the song's exultation over the defeated, tempered by a passing note of sorrow for the fallen. Tennyson's translation has made its strains familiar:
Five young Kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.
Another reason for the everlastingness of the fight at Brunanburh; why Anlaf rises from the dead, and Constantine leads his men over the gory heath, and Aethelstan bears on his standard, in the memory and imagination of men, is that the secret of the site is lost. Like the grave of Moses, the battlefield is unknown. Brunanburh, whatever it was, wherever it is, lies buried more deeply than Troy in the sands of oblivion. One might think this would lessen interest in the battle; on the contrary, interest is enhanced. Men love a mystery, and the unknown fascinates. Many have sought for the site; more than one has cried "Eureka !" Hence a dozen alleged Brunanburhs have arisen, dotted here and there over the land. One curious illustration of the fascination of Brunanburh is that on a new historical map by Professor Ramsay Muir the name of the battle appears in no fewer than three different places, accompanied in each case by a question mark. One site is in Dumfries; one in Cumberland; one in Lincolnshire!
In spite of a statement by Florence of Worcester that Anlaf's ships entered the Humber, there is general agreement that the battle was west of the Pennines. The site in Dumfries, namely, Burnswork or Burnswark, may be said to hold the field, in that it commands the assent of the majority of scholars specially interested in the question. The present writer, however, feels that the Burnswork theory of the site is very insecurely based, and he will advance reasons for thinking that it is no longer tenable. The view he will put forward is that Brunanburh is Blackburn, but that the actual fight began at Darwen. Bolton also comes into the story, as the headquarters of King Athelstan. These suggestions are not guesswork. They are based upon a fresh study of the place-names in the chronicles and records. A valuable part of the new case consists of the discovery of a place-name, Winshead or Wenshead, at Darwen. This corresponds with the Wendune given by Symeon of Durham as the place of the fight, and agrees with the names Winshaed and Winheath found in Egil's Saga. Moreover, for the first time, the suggestive topographical references to the battle in this saga will be related to a Lancashire site. It will be found that these local data harmonise well with the positions of Darwen, Blackburn and Bolton.
If these contentions are accepted, then some useful light will be thrown on the country between Ribble and Mersey during the tenth century. Historical references are scanty at this period; little is known about this district, and every little bit of evidence, if well-based, is valuable. Moreover, if Blackburn is Brunanburh, one discovery will lead to another. The founding of Brunanburh, of Brunesburh, as Henry of Huntingdon calls it, appears to be mentioned in various chronicles. It will transpire that the Lady Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, was the founder of Blackburn town and church.
The discovery of a great hoard of coins at Cuerdale in 1843 first directed men's minds to the country south of the Ribble, as a district suiting well the ethnology and military strategy of the battle of Brunanburh. The hoard included coins minted about 905 A.D., and none later than 930 A.D. Mr. C. Hardwick suggested that the silver treasure was the war-chest of Athelstan's enemies. Following his lead, Mr. T. Wilkinson and Mr. J. T. Marquis, in turn, advocated the likelihood of Burnley as the site. These antiquarians were "warm," as children say in playing hide-and-seek, but they failed to recognise the features of Saxon Brunanburh under the mask of familiar Blackburn. The hoard of coins is most probably connected with the campaign, and will be discussed in a later contribution.
To understand the case now put forward it will be necessary, first, to rehearse briefly the story of the battle as it appears in an Icelandic saga. Egil son of Skallagrim was a viking, who, together with his brother Thorolf and their men, fought at the great conflict in the service of the English king. The saga of Egil is the story of an Icelandic family and family feud in the 9th and 10th century. Egil son of Skallagrim is the hero, and the tale is told of him in the third person. Its author is unknown; but he had Egil's poems, oral tradition, and other sources partly written to work upon. There is a collection of various manuscripts of the story in the library of the University of Copenhagen. The earliest of these, a fragment, dates back to 1200; but the codex considered to be the best text belongs to the 14th century. Nevertheless, the tale is based, as stated, on contemporary sources. Can it be trusted? Thordarson says "The saga agrees well with other Icelandic sagas, and may be reckoned as one of the most truthful; but when it is considered that it was kept in men's memory for a very long time - the events happening before the year 1000, and the story not being put into writing till near the end of the 12th century - naturally every syllable of it will not be true. Neither in this, however, nor in any of the best Icelandic sagas do the writers thereof deliberately assert untruth or mean to exaggerate."
With this judgment most readers will concur, and it should be added that the writer (or his sources) displays a real knowledge of England; London, York, the Humber, are mentioned. In the matters about which we propose to accept his evidence, he had no temptation to falsify. Even if his account of Egil's bravery is somewhat exaggerated, we cannot think that the place-names which he mentions in the vicinity of the battle are invested or distorted. There is no motive for invention, neither in these names, nor in his references to wood, stream, hill, and fortified towns. His general agreement with Symeon of Durham's "Wendune," and the Saxon Chronicle's "near Brunanburh" are undesigned coincidences which help to establish his veracity.
Egil son of Skallagrim was, according to the saga, a viking of great stature, strength and skill: a gallant soldier and a ready bard, able to turn out "staves" on the spur of the moment. After the style of such "kennings" these verses were more ingenious than profound. Different parts of speech were mixed up in a muddle like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; and it takes more skill, surely, to read them and understand them than went to their composition. To keep the rules of alliterative sound, those of grammatical sense were discarded. Rev. W. C. Green has illustrated this point by inverting the order of words in Scott's opening couplet of the "Lady of the Lake" to make it resemble the stave of an Icelandic skald:
At eve had drunk where danced his fill,
The stag the moon on Monan's rill.
In such verses, therefore, the order of words must be discovered, before the thought can be interpreted. However, the staves interspersed in the saga of Egil have not much to do with our argument, which depends mainly on the prose story. The saga tells us the faults of Egil, as well as the tale of his feats; this again is evidence of its general veracity. There was an unpleasing side to Egil's character. He was often merciless, quick to strike and to slay. He was greedy, too, and cunning. Yet there is a nobler side to the man; he is truthful and hates meanness, is chivalrous to women, and loyal to his friends. The saga gives us his portrait at the height of his fame, describes his great jaw and thick neck and big shoulders; he was tall, with wolf-grey hair, black-eyed, brown-skinned, hard-featured, grim when angry. Such a man, we feel, would make an uneasy friend and a deadly foe; though "prime-signed" he remained a Pagan at heart. Into the tale of his wanderings, or the course of his feud with King Eric we need not enter. It will suffice to abstract from the saga his adventures in the service of King Athelstan.
The identity of Brunanburh and the battle of Winhead described in the saga has been conclusively argued by the advocates of the Burnswork theory, Dr. Neilson and Mr. R. B. Bremner; and will therefore be accepted as established.
The story must be prefaced by a note on the Olaf, King of Scots, who, according to the saga, was Athelstan's chief adversary in the battle. The Olaf intended is no doubt the son of Sitric; this Olaf was claimant to the throne of Northumbria. His father-in-law, Constantine, was King of Scotland, and was also in the confederacy opposed to Athelstan. There was also another Olaf in the battle, perhaps more than one other, but the Olaf whom the English chroniclers call Anlaf, was Norse King of Ireland, and Ireland was the original home of the Scots. By the Olaf of the saga we must understand the acting leader of the confederacy, whoever it was. The saga says that Olaf was killed in the fight, but this cannot be true of either of the Olafs just mentioned. Many English chroniclers say that Constantine was killed; this also is an error.
Thorkelin's edition of Egil's Saga in Icelandic and Latin (1809) was chiefly used in this abstract; Jonsson's two editions have also been consulted, and the English version by Rev. W. C. Green. The events of the Saga are probably not told in strict chronological order, but we supply, from English chronicles, A.D. 937 as the date of the fight.
Athelstan the Victorious ruled England, following Edward his father, and Alfred the Mighty, his grandsire. His realm embraced Britons, Scots and Irish (perhaps the Irish Danes who had settled in England), and he had several brothers. Chiefs who had lost their power to his forefathers rose against him and he hired soldiers to form a great army. Thorold and Egil, cruising along by Saxony and Flanders, heard that the pay was good and joined Athelstan, being first marked with the sign of the cross at the King's desire; 300 men with them took the King's pay. Olaf the Red, half Scot, half Dane, ruled Scotland, reckoned a third of England. Northumbria, reckoned a fifth of England, was formerly held by Danish Kings. York was its capital; now Athelstan ruled there and set over it two earls, Alfgeir and Gudrek, to guard it against Scots, Danes and Norse. Bretland (Cumbria) was ruled by two brothers, Hring and Adils (probably Edwal or Idwal, prince of North Wales), tributaries to King Athelstan. Some who had been kings or princes, and reduced to the rank of earls by Alfred, now rebelled against Athelstan.
Olaf gathered a vast host and marched on England. The earls of Northumbria met him in a great battle but were defeated. Gudrek fell and Alfgeir fled. Olaf thereupon subdued all Northumbria; Alfgeir reported the disaster to King Athelstan. Meanwhile, seeing Olaf victorious, many nobles joined him, and Hring and Adils with their army went over to his side. Athelstan marched against Olaf; but when they saw themselves outnumbered, his captains, summoned in council, advised him to move southward and collect a larger force. He did so, having Alfgeir in command of the Northumbrian troops, and Thorolf and Egil at the head of another division (including their vikings), and appointing other captains of companies.
In Athelstan's absence his officers took steps to gain time. They sent messengers to King Olaf stating that Athelstan challenged him to a pitched battle in a week's time at Winheath (or Winhead) by Win-wood. Meanwhile, the King would have the invaders forbear to harry his land. For the custom was that when a king had enhazelled a field (fenced it by mutual agreement with hazel rods) it was a shameful act to harry before that fight was over. King Olaf consented and ceased to harry. He waited for the day, and led his army towards Win-heath (this we interpret to mean Winshead, Darwen Hill).
North of the heath stood a borg (this we take to mean a fortified town and identify with Blackburn). Olaf quartered there with the greater part of his force, for there was a wide district around whence provisions might be procured for his army. Some of his men he sent up to the heath where the battle was to be, to make ready the tent-ground before the army arrived. They found the site already marked out by hazel rods. A battle place should be chosen level and one whereon a large host might be set in array. Such was this. The heath was level where the battle was to be, a stream ran by on one side of it, on the other there was a wood. Now where the distance was least between the wood and the stream (though this was a good long stretch) King Athelstan's men had pitched, and their tents quite filled the space between wood and stream. Of every three tents which they had pitched one was empty; another had but few men. Yet when Olaf's men came (to fraternise?) they had numbers crowding in front of the tents and the others could not get in. Athelstan's men sad the tents were full and here was not enough room. The front tents stood on high ground and one could not see over them whether there were many or few in depth. Olaf's men thought that a great army was there, and they pitched north of the hazel poles, on which side there was a slight slope.
From day to day the English said that their King was about to come, or had come, to the borg which lay south of the heath (this fortified place we identify with Bolton-le-Moors). There forces flocked by day and night.
At last, when the agreed waiting-time had expired, Athelstan's counsellors sent envoys to King Olaf saying, "King Athelstan is ready for battle and has here a great host, but to avoid bloodshed he bids Olaf go home to Scotland. Athelstan will yield him a friendly gift of a silver shilling for every plough in his realm."
When the envoys came Olaf was just getting ready his army for the attack, but he called a council to consider the offer. Some captains said they would take the terms, for if they got so much money from Athelstan, their invasion had gained them great fame. The prevailing advice, however, was that if this were refused Athelstan would offer more. The envoys asked three day truce to try for a larger payment, one day to return to Athelstan, another for deliberation, a third to journey back to Olaf. He granted this request. On the third day they came and repeated the former offer, with the addition of a shilling for each freeborn man among the soldiers of Olaf, a silver mark to every leader of 12 or more, a gold mark to every captain of the king's guard, and five gold marks to every earl. Olaf took counsel and said that he would accept if Athelstan would cede to him all Northumbria with the scot and dues. Another three days' delay was asked for, and it was agreed that Olaf should send his own envoys to hear Athelstan's answer.
The envoys rode together; but meanwhile Athelstan had really arrived in the borg (we suggest Bolton) near to the heath on the south. He heard Olaf's envoys; he also learnt the methods adopted to delay the conflict. He decided quickly and bade the envoys go back at once with the message, "I will give Olaf leave to go home to Scotland, but only on condition that he restores what he has wrongfully taken in this land. Peace shall be made with no harrying on either side; Olaf shall hold Scotland for me and be my under-king." The envoys went back the same evening and reached Olaf at midnight. They awakened him and the council was called again. The envoys recounted Athelstan's firm words, and said that he had only just arrived in the borg and now had there a great force. All declared for battle.
Earl Adils called the English "tricksters"; they themselves had been duped, as he had warned them. However, let him and his brother make a night attack. Those on the heath might perhaps relax precautions seeing that their King had now arrived in the borg on the south with a large host. They might be taken unawares, and a preliminary disaster would make them less bold for the coming encounter.
In the first day's fighting on the heath the rival kings are not mentioned. Possibly because the three days' additional truce had not expired. The brother earls, Hring and Adils, advanced in the night southwards towards the heath. In the dawn of day Thorold's sentries stood to arms. There were two divisions on the English side. Earl Alfgeir commanded one, which was much the larger of the two; it included his own followers and the force gathered from the countryside. Thorolf and Egil led the smaller force. Thorold had shield and helm, his sword called Long, and a remarkable halberd or mail-piercer, with blade, spike, hook and stout shaft. Egil had his sword called Adder. Neither wore coat-of-mail. Thorfid the strong bore the standard of the Norse, who were drawn up near the wood, while Alfgeir's band was next the stream. Adils opposed Alfgeir, who gave ground and ere long fled. He rode away south over the heath, until he and his men came near the borg where Althelstan was quartered. The earl did not relish the notion of bearing bad news a second time. He had got a sharp reproof before when he told of Olaf's first victory. "No need to expect honour where he is," he said of Athelstan.
So he rode southwards, and of his travel it is to be told that he rode day and night till he and his came westwards to Earls Ness. (We suggest for this port, Ness in Wirral, where the Earls of Mercia had much territory). Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea and came to Valland (Normandy), where half his kin were. He never returned to England.
The other leader, Thorolf, brother of Egil, had more success. He slew Earl Hring and impaled him on his mighty halberd, the shaft of which he stuck in the ground. Many Britons (Welshmen) and Scots fell or fled. Darkness descended. The Vikings returned to their tents on the heath. Just then Athelstan arrived with the main army; soon Olaf arrived also with his army. Both learnt what had happened. The English King had heard a rumour of the fighting. He thanked the Vikings for their help. Both armies encamped for the night.
The next day was the battle proper the truce by this time having fully expired. Egil was, against his wish, and with much foreboding, separated from his brother, for while Thorolf had charge of one division on the higher (or inland) ground beside the wood, Egil was chosen by King Athelstan to command the smartest companies in the royal division, which division stood on the level ground adjacent to the stream.
Thorolf was the victim of an ambush in the wood on his right, for when he pressed forward in advance of his troops, Earl Adils and his company leapt from the wood and thrust at him with many halberds so that he fell. Egil avenged him and slew Adils, attacking with great fury his followers. They fled, and left exposed the flank of Olaf's force. Egil's men then broke up Olaf's division and raised a shout of triumph. Athelstan pressed on the attack and gained a signal victory. Athelstan went "back to the borg," but Egil pursued the flying foe, following them far and slaying without mercy. Sated with pursuit, the Vikings returned at least to the heath, and Egil found the body of Thorolf. They made a "mickle howe" and laid the dead hero there in his weapons and war-clothes. Egil clasped a gold bracelet on either wrist of his brother; then they heaped stones and cast in mould. Then Egil sang a stave telling of Thorold's prowess and how "near to the Win" the grass would still grow green o'er his noble brother, while they a sorrow worse than death must bear. He sang, too, of his own feats, how the western field (vestan vang) was heaped with slain around his standard. Adils had fallen before his blue Adder amid the snow of war; young Olaf encountered England in the battle-storm and Hring was made food for ravens. The most vivid and poignant picture is that of Egil in the king's hall that same night, when at Athelstan's "drinking" he was silent and solitary, brooding over his sorrow, until his reason was almost clouded, overwrought by the mingled events of the crowded day.
Egil and his men went before the King where he sat at the drinking. There was much noise of mirth. When Athelstan saw that Egil had entered he bade the lower bench be cleared for them, that Egil should sit in the high-seat opposite the king. Egil sat there, and cast his shield before his feet, his helm still on his head, his sword across his knees. Now and then he half drew it, and then clashed it back into the sheath, as he sat upright with his head bent forward.
The Saga describes the grim, gigantic figure, with great jaws and broad shoulders, his wolf-grey hair, tanned skin, black eyes and large brows. Now as he sat he grasped those same brows, drawing one down and the other up in his grief. He would not drink, though they offered him the horn.
King Athelstan sat in the upper high-seat. He also laid his sword across his knees. They sat there for a time in mute sympathy. Then the King drew his sword and placed upon its point a gold ring, large and fine, from his own arm. He went across the floor, and reached it over the fire to Egil. Egil stood, drew sword, and crossed the floor; struck the sword-point so as to catch the ring on his own sword, drew it to him, and returned to his seat. Athelstan sat down again on his high-seat. Presently Egil drew the ring on his arm, smoothed his eyebrows, and laid down weapon and helm. He drank from the horn they bare him, and in an impromptu stave praised the Saxon King and his gift. Presently the King called for two chests full of silver. It took two men to carry each of them. Athelstan bade Egil take them to his father in Iceland, as "payment for a son," except what Egil cared to give to other kinsfolk. To Egil himself the King offered land or chattels for services past, and further honour if he would remain in the royal service. Later Egil made a song concerning King Athelstan, and received as poet's meed two other gold rings, each weighing a mark, and a costly cloak which the King himself had worn. He stayed in England that year, but in the summer following sailed to Norway with a hundred followers. He and the King parted with great friendship, and Egil promised to return as soon as he could.
This (except for the bracketed notes) is a condensed account of chapters 50 to 55 of Egil's Saga. In a further contribution we hope to examine the theory of the site which is very generally accepted, and which places the battle at Burnswork in County Dumfries. It will be shown that Burnswork does not suit the references in the chronicles or in the Saga, and that Darwen and Blackburn agree with them much better.
Leslie Stephen wrote from Lyme Regis, in 1901, to his friend Norton: --
"If J. R. Green were here he would find historical associations with Monmouth, Cromwell and Athelstan; the Battle of Brunanburgh, I am told, was not far off. But as I don't care . . . . . . for the Battle of Brunanburgh, and don't historically associate, this is rather thrown away upon me."
Fortunately, or unfortunately, some do care, as the map with the three sites, already mentioned, testifies. Perhaps some have heard so much about the matter that they do not want to hear more; others are hopeless about finding any new light. This is not a scientific attitude. It is only to be expected that the close attention devoted to topography and local history in recent years should throw some light on such questions. Let no gentle reader expect that the pros and cons of every suggested site will be discussed here. We have only one lifetime, and will not expend too much, even of that, on this fascinating question. The Scots site at Burnswork in Dumfries may be said to hold the field. Its champions have laid low many rivals, and they claim the approval of two weighty authorities, Professor Collingwood and Dr. Hodgkin.
However, their theory appears to us, when calmly considered, to have feet of clay. It is based upon the place-name, Burnswork, and secondly on a miracle story. The name, Burnswork, is similar to Bruneswerce, the name of the battle in one of the MSS. of Gaimar's metrical chronicle; of the other three MSS. known, two have Burneweste and one has Brunewerthe. Burnswork also resembles one of the names given by Symeon of Durham, i.e., Brunnanwerc. But Symeon also gives other names which are very different, Wendune and Weondune, as well as Brunanbyrig. When we examine all the records available and collate them, we find that there are two sets of place-names associated with the battle. One set has the root "brun"; the other has the root "wen" or "win." To this second class the advocates of Burnswork hardly do justice, although they make much of Egil's Saga, and this has the "win" forms only. "Winheath," says Dr. Neilson, "may have perished in the waste of time." We hope to shew, later, that it is still alive.
The other leg of the Burnswork theory is the miracle story. One account (there are several) of Athelstan's visit to the shrine of St. John of Beverley speaks of a battle which he fought "on the borders" near a river called the Ford of the Scots. They infer that this battle, not named in the story, was Brunanburh. They also infer that this river was the Solway.
This particular account is given by the anonymous writer of "Other Miracles of St. John of Beverley," who expresses surprise that only William Ketell has recorded the wonders wrought by St. John, and desires to mention some miracles so far not recorded. He is much later than Ketell, whom Canon James Raine would date about 1150, while Mr. A. F. Leach thinks that Ketell's tale can be thrown back to about 1100, though the record itself is of course not so early. Both editors agree in assigning the "Other Miracles" story to about 1180. Dr. Neilson calls it a deliberate correction of Ketell's narrative. Because it mentions the Ford of the Scots, it is, so he says, a "revised and corrected version of Ketell." Surely these are question-begging epithets. It is a later, and, so it seems to us, an exaggerated account. One hardly thinks that those who so extol it can have read the criticism of Mr. A. F. Leach, the editor of the Chapter Act Book of the Collegiate Church of St. John of Beverley. "The later and anonymous miracle-monger of 1180 tells the same story as Ketell, but with the inevitable heightening." Mr. Leach points out that this later version makes King Athelstan encounter not one band only of pilgrims returning from Beverley, but two. The King offers bigger bribes to get St. John's help.
The next weakness of the Burnswork case, as based upon the Beverley miracle-story, is the failure of the Scots scholars to observe that the river referred to in that story is not necessarily the Solway. In their anxiety to place the Battle of Brunanburh at Burnswork in the region of the Solway, Dr. Neilson and Mr. R. L. Bremner have overlooked that the Forth as well as the Solway may be called the Ford of the Scots. Indeed, they seem explicitly to deny this. The writer of the "Other Miracles" of St. John of Beverley says that the Scots, previous to a battle, retired before Athelstan across the river dividing England from Scotland, and that Athelstan, guided by the advice of St. John the Bishop, crossed that river which is called the Scot's ford (flumen quod dicitur Scotorum vadum). Dr. Neilson explains, "that is, the Solway or Sulwath, historically known as the 'Scottiswath' or Scottish ford, and distinguished from the 'Scottiswater' or 'Forth'." Mr. Bremner repeats this argument. Now we expect Scots writers to be better informed about the ancient nomenclature of their own country than those who are mere Southerners. Hence these statements have passed so far without challenge. They should, however, be challenged. It seems to us that these Scots scholars have been mistaken and have misled others. We do not deny that the Solway was a Scottiswath, i.e., a ford of the Scots; but so was the river Forth, which was also styled the "Scottewattre." The Forth is called the Waed in the Saxon Chronicle, year 1073, MS., D.; so Dr. Plummer interprets the word; MS., year 1072, has the form Ge waed; both forms mean a ford.
In the Life of St. Oswald, by Reginald, a monk of Durham (who wrote about 1150), printed by T. Arnold in the appendix to his edition of Symeon of Durham, the Kingdom of Bernicia is described as extending from the Tyne to the Scotwad, i.e., the Forth (usque in Scotwad, quod in Scottorum lingua Forth nominatur). Now Beverley and Dunbar go better with the Forth than with the Solway, and we hope to show that the battle described by the writer of the miracle story, on which story the Burnswork case is largely based, took place on the east of Scotland near the Forth and far away from Burnswork.
For the third and most fatal weakness of the case for Burnswork is that it confuses two separate campaigns. This reviser of Ketell is not a strong witness, but if he were our contention is that Dr. Neilson misunderstands his story. He may be telling us about a battle, but he is not telling us about Brunanburh. There is no mention of such a place, nor of Bruneswerce, in the story, nor of Wendune. The battle is nameless; and it is evident that it belongs to an earlier campaign, namely, that of 934. There are few similarities to the Brunanburh struggle in 937. The Beverley story has no allusion to Anlaf and no reference to a great slaughter. Previous to the clash of arms, the Scots retreated before the English King; this was not the case in 937. This unnamed battle of the Beverley story was fought on Scots soil. By general consent Brunanburh was fought in Northumbria. Let us look at two accounts of the 934 campaign: the first is from the Saxon Chronicle, 934: This year King Athelstan went into Scotland as well with a land army and a fleet, and ravaged a great part of it. (MSS., E. F.D.)
Symeon of Durham, in his History of the Kings, also reports under the same year that Athelstan set out for Scotland and visited the sepulchre of St. Cuthbert on the way and endowed it with lands and other gifts. "Then he subdued his foes, and laid Scotland waste with his land army as far as Dunfoeder and Wertermor, and with his naval force ravaged as far as Catenes (Caithness)." Skene conjectured that Dunfoeder was Dunnotar, near Stonehaven, and that Wertermor is Kirriemuir in Forfar.
The mention of these places in the east of Scotland in the raid of 934 strongly suggests that the visit to Dunbar, also on the east, which is included in the miracle story, took place in 934. The gifts to St. Cuthbert in 934 and Athelstan's prayer for his patronage, are similar to the account in the Beverley record of his visit to St. John's shrine. Note also the employment of a fleet in 934 by Athelstan; the Saxon Chronicle and Symeon both allude to this. It is singular that no mention is made of an English fleet in the Brunanburh campaign. Perhaps some disaster befel the English ships, or they were outnumbered by Anlaf's fleet, or they were held in reserve to protect important harbours. The words "by land and sea," or their equivalents, are characteristic of Athelstan's campaign of 934. They occur in Ketell's story, which the later writer retells.
The topographical references in Egil's Saga have been used to strengthen the case for this site, let us note that some of them at least, when carefully considered, are against this site near the Solway. True, the marks of locality and time in the Saga may not be pressed unduly, but if they are trustworthy for the Burnswork case, they are equally reliable for Blackburn and Darwen.
First of all, we contend that the great battle of 937 A.D. was not at Burnswork, because, according to the Saga, it must have been fought on the southern borders of Northumbria. And as for Burnswork, Mr. R. L. Bremner was an advocate for the Burnswork site, yet his own map (1034) places Dumfries in Cumbria and not in Northumbria. Turn to the Saga, and you see at once that Winsheath is in Northumbria.
Another serious objection to the Burnswork site is that it is too small a stage for the great drama of Brunanburh. Especially is this so if we are to identify the two "borgs" lying north and south of the heath in which, according to the Saga, Anlaf and Athelstan respectively took up their quarters, with the earthworks on Burnswork believed to be two Roman camps. Dr. Neilson asks, "Is there room for one moment's doubt that they are the 'borgs' of Saga?" We reply, Yes; for two reasons: They are probably too small, and they are too close together. As to their size, one estimate says that the camp on the north side of the hill would hold 3,166 men and that on the south side 2,838. (Scot. Hist. Review, vii, i, 51). Now the Saga says in chapter LII that some days previous to the battle Olaf made the northern "borg" his headquarters, and there he had the greatest part of his force. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, quoted in Annals of the Four Masters, estimate the number slain in the host opposed to Athelstan to have been 34,800. No doubt this is an exaggeration, but remembering what Ethelwerd and the Song of Brunanburh say about the magnitude of the battle, it is doubtful whether the capacity of the northern camp on Burnswork can compare with the great host in the following of Anlaf.
The Saga says that Athelstan's army was at first smaller than Olaf's; but forces flocked by day and night to the "borg" on the south of the heath, so that he had a numerous force (her mikinn) and defied Olaf. On the day of battle it is said each had a large army, equal in numbers. We may be quite confident that the levy of troops personally collected by Athelstan, as he came northwards through the whole land, would exceed the 2,738 capacity of the south "borg."
Of course there were tents as well, but we wish to point out, what has surely not been sufficiently appreciated by Dr. Neilson and Mr. Bremner that the tents were pitched some distance away from the "borgs," and were erected for use on the immediate battlefield, i.e., on the top of the heath. Olaf sent men "up to the heath" from the borg to take the camping ground. In the case of the English army, the tents were on that part of the heath where the space between a stream and a wood was most narrow (Saga, chapter LII.). They stood so high that the front rank of tents hid the others; therefore the front rank must have occupied some pretty high ground. Now from the north camp to the south camp, in a north to south section through Burnswork, is about 2,419 feet, less than half a mile. The top of the hill, the fairly level part is only 450 feet on an average, north to south, to quite Dr. Neilson's own estimate. It seems to us that the space is too cramped to admit two sets of tents for two armies, and a battlefield between. See maps in the "Scottish Historical Review," illustrating Dr. Neilson's theory. When we come to speak presently of the identity of Winshead and Darwen Moor, it will be seen that the site now suggested is immensely more spacious than Burnswork.
There are several indications of distance in the Saga which have not been sufficiently considered, arising from the mention of time. When Athelstan's counsellors wished to postpone battle, they sent an offer to Olaf. It was refused, and the envoys asked for a truce of three days, one to go back home, another for deliberation, and a third to return to Olaf. On the occasion of a further offer, they asked for another three days. True, they wanted to gain time; but they also wished to hide this from Anlaf. If the request had been preposterous, Anlaf would have been undeceived. Moreover, Anlaf's men believed that Athelstan had already arrived at the "borg" south of the heath and had there a mighty host. Now from "borg" to "borg" was only ten minutes' walk according to the Burnswork theory. Suppose the messengers had to avoid the steepest climb and were to ride round by the paved road shown on the plan used by Dr. Neilson, it was still less than a mile. Anlaf deserved to be beaten if he were deceived by such a specious request! But the fact is that the Burnswork platform is too cribbed and confined for the spacious scene of the battle in Egil's Saga.
Take another illustration. The messengers sent by Olaf, when the first offer of Athelstan had been refused, appear to have compressed into one day, by hard riding, the journey for which, with time for bargaining, Olaf allowed three days more. They returned with Athelstan's envoys and found the English King in the south "borg." Much time is saved, because Athelstan has now arrived with a strong army. He can afford to be curt; he made a quick decision on this matter. He offers peace if Olaf will restore what he has wrongfully taken here in the land (another proof that the scene is not laid in Scotland), and will become his under-king. This offer accords well with what we know of Athelstan's policy. But the tenour of this response was different from the tone of the English in former negotiations, when they had been playing for time and offering gold and silver to Olaf to buy peace.
Olaf's envoys were alarmed or indignant. At once that same evening they turned back, and came to the king about midnight. They awaked him and gave him the message. He called his captains, and they declared for war. We do not wish to tie down the teller of the tale to a strict timetable; but he is showing us how the crisis was hastened. The messengers made a great effort to save two days' delay, and bear the momentous tidings to Anlaf. "At once that same evening they turned back"; these words, and the contrast between evening and midnight; and the dramatic touch, the king aroused and council summoned at midnight, all lose their force to a great extent if the two Kings were only half a mile away, almost within earshot.
We fear that Dr. Neilson's anxiety to prove the earthworks identical with the borgs of the Saga has misled him. "Egil," says he, "is the first author on British history to mention the continued service of earthworks, believed to be marching camps of Roman legions." But, we object, Egil's Saga only mentions "borgs." Dr. Neilson says that this word really signifies a fortification, an earthwork. He adds that the misrendering of the word long obscured the significance of it, and criticises Thorkelin for rendering it in Latin "urbs," and Rev. W. C. Green for translating it "town." He quotes with approval a definition of "borg" as a fortress made of turf and timber with a moat round it. Does he not forget that words change their original significance as time goes on, and that there is somewhat of a parallel between our own "burh" and the Norse "borg"? Kemble surmised that "burh," a city, was connected with beorgan, to hide or shelter. The modern German sense of burg, viz., fortress, he believed to be the original Saxon one, and judged that the village grew up around the castle (Codex Dip. iii., p. xix.). But it is evident that the word departed from its original meaning, and came to be applied to villages and towns generally. In Egil's Saga the homestead of Skallagrim was called Borg (chapter xxviii.). A later chapter tells that a church was built at Borg; this Borg was more than an earthworks or a turf and timber fort. York is called a borg in chapter LIX. (Jonsson's edition, 1894). It is evident, then, that the meaning of "borg" had passed the elementary stage when the Saga was compiled. We can hardly doubt that if a Viking found an English town called a "burh" or "byrig" he would call it a "borg." Towns would afford the shelter and accommodation for a great host such as earthworks could hardly supply. King Athelstan's main army was in the south "borg," whither reinforcements flocked day and night. Anlaf had the greater part of his men in the north "borg," where there was a wide country for getting provisions. After the victory, Athelstan returned to the south "borg," where there was much drinking and merriment. In all three cases towns suit the circumstances much better than earthworks. We conclude then that the borgs of the Saga were towns, probably fortified towns; and will return later to the suggestion that Blackburn and Bolton are denoted by the north borg and south borg of Egil's Saga.
The wood mentioned in the battle of Winheath we will discuss when we speak of the Winshead site, and also the burial place of Thorolf. We recapitulate here that the Burnswork case does not find adequate support from place-names in the records, nor from the topographical data of the battlestead in the Egla.
Of Athelstan the King
And lord of earls, I sing
Who many a bracelet gave,
And Edmund Atheling brave.
These royal brothers twain
A life long glory gain
Full well, I will aver,
They fought near Brunanburh:
Breaks in the shield-wall made,
Clefts in the linden-wood,
They hewed with hammered blade.
These scions of grandsires good.
So Edward's children still
Their heritage fulfil:
To keep, in frequent fight,
The alien band at bay:
In home and hoard alway
To guard the country's right.
So now the Scot lay low,
Crushed was the stricken foe;
Many a ship-load stout
Fell in the fatal rout.
Drenched was the battle plain
With blood of warriors slain,
From when the sun on high
First lit the morning sky,
Till his great radiance
Glided o'er earth's expanse -
Candle of God and bright
Beam of Eternal Might! -
Yea, till the glorious sun
Sank, and the day was done.
There lay full many folk
Felled by the halberd stroke;
Many a Northman shot
Over his shield of strength:
Many and many a Scot
Weary of war at length.
Forth the West Saxons sped
Where living foemen fled:
Long as the day-beams last,
Following, hard and fast,
Companies clad in mail,
Hot on the foeman's trail,
With swords on mill-stone whet
Hacked they the flyers yet.
Nor Mercians, on that day,
Shrank from the fierce hand-play;
'Gainst Anlaf's braves who roam
O'er ocean's lap and foam,
And sought our English strand -
A fated warrior-band.
There on the battle-stead,
Five youthful Kings lie dead;
Lulled by the falchion-blade,
In mortal slumber laid.
Seven earls of Anlaf there
Sleep, and their slumber share
Folk without count, I wot,
Shipmen galore and Scot.
Then, fled on hasty wing
Anlaf, the Northmen's King;
With but a piteous few,
Back to his prow he drew:
Pushed with an urgent hand
His ready barque from land,
Over the fallow waves;
Scarcely his life he saves.
Then aged Constantin
Flees to his northern kin.
Small need hath he to boast
How he hath met our host.
This hoary warrior, reft
Of kin and comrades, left
Slain in the conflict dire
He mourns - this sorry sire,
One dear among the stark,
For many spears a mark,
Mangled by weapons, one
Young in the war, a son
Slender the warrant had
He to be proud and glad:
Though he be grey and hoar,
Old in deceit and war.
Neither can Anlaf taunt
Full small and feeble vaunt
Can broken armies make
That they the garland take
In battle's perilous race,
Camp-stead or slaughter-place;
Where banners meet and crash
Halberds, and warriors dash,
Encountering, blade on blade,
When sword on sword is whet;
Such as the game they played
When Edward's sons they met.
Soon in each nailéd boat
The Northmen were afloat -
All that the arrows left!
The fallow deep they cleft;
To Dublin bent once more,
Seeking the very shore
That erst they left behind:
But sail and shamed in mind.
Likewise the brothers twain,
The King and Atheling wend
To Wessex once again.
Glad of the conflict's end.
Laving when they depart
War-carrion, sallow, pale,
Food for the raven sward,
And erne with white-tipped tail -
The raven keen to rend;
Horny of nib is he! -
Food for the hawk to end,
Gorging in hungry glee;
Food for the wolf, that bold
Grey tenant of the wold.
Never was known so great
Slaughter of the folk with sword,
Since, as old books relate,
Came to our British sward
Angle and Saxon bands
Out of the Eastern lands;
Since o'er the billow, proud
War-smiths began to crowd,
Men from beyond the foam:
Since they the Welsh o'ercame,
And ardent, keen for fame,
Found here a land and a home.