The town is partially surrounded by countryside to the south and east, with the smaller towns of Padiham and Nelson to the west and north respectively. It has a reputation as a regional centre of excellence for the manufacturing and aerospace industries.
The town began to develop in the early medieval period as a number of farming hamlets surrounded by manor houses and royal forests, and has held a market for more than 700 years. During the Industrial Revolution it became one of Lancashire's most prominent mill towns; at its peak it was one of the world's largest producers of cotton cloth, and a major centre of engineering.
Burnley has retained a strong manufacturing sector, and has strong economic links with the cities of Manchester and Leeds, as well as neighbouring towns along the M65 corridor. In 2013, in recognition of its success, Burnley received an Enterprising Britain award from the UK Government, for being the "Most Enterprising Area in the UK". For the first time in more than fifty years, a direct train service now operates between the town's Manchester Road railway station and Manchester's Victoria station, via the newly restored Todmorden Curve, which opened in May 2015.
The name Burnley is believed to have been derived from Brun Lea, meaning "meadow by the River Brun". Various other spellings have been used: Bronley (1241), Brunley (1251) and commonly Brumleye (1294)
Stone Age flint tools and weapons have been found on the moors around the town, as have numerous tumuli, stone circles, and some hill forts (see: Castercliff, which dates from around 600 BC). Modern-day Back Lane, Sump Hall Lane and Noggarth Road broadly follow the route of a classic ridgeway running east-west to the north of the town, suggesting that the area was populated during pre-history and probably controlled by the Brigantes.
Limited coin finds indicate a Roman presence, but no evidence of a settlement has been found in the town. Gorple Road (running east from Worsthorne) appears to follow the route of a Roman road that may have crossed the present-day centre of town, on the way to the fort at Ribchester. It has been claimed that the nearby earthworks of Ring Stones Camp ( ), Twist Castle ( ) and Beadle Hill ( ) are of Roman origin, but little supporting archaeological information has been published.
Following the Roman period, the area became part of the kingdom of Rheged, and then the kingdom of Northumbria. Local place names Padiham and Habergham show the influence of the Angles, suggesting that some had settled in the area by the early 7th century; some time later the land became part of the hundred of Blackburnshire.