Back on track: the so-called ‘Battle of Cynuit’ was a shadowy event that took place in 878, shadowy because the Chronicle has little to say about it, though Asser has a bit more.
According to Asser, the Great Heathen Army split into separate forces in 874; one section, under Halfdan went north, the other had three leaders – Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend. This is the branch that went to Cambridge, to Wareham, to Exeter, probably/possibly to Gloucester and finally descended on the royal estate at Chippenham in 878, causing Alfred to take flight to Somerset.
So, who were the Vikings who wintered in Demetica regione in 878 and sailed ad Domnaniam – on Defenascire and were slaughtered in front of the arx Cynuit? One would suppose them connected with those who had been invading Ireland. One of their leaders was Ímar, or Ivar, who had died in 873. His fame apparently lived after him since whoever led the attack on arx Cynuit in 878 is identified only as the brother of Inwær/Ingvar (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) or Inwari (Asser), though is not himself named (Ubba is suggested).
There must have been several hundred thegns (ministri regis) cornered in arx Cynuit since they eventually slaughtered at least 800 invaders (perhaps 1,200). Why were they all in the fortress? Asser says, ‘in eadem arce multi ministri regis cum suis se concluserant confugii causa‘ – they were seeking refuge. In what circumstances? The ministri regis served the king in various capacities, some but not all in a military capacity. Had they witnessed the approach of the Viking fleet? That would mean they were already gathered together somewhere, for some purpose. Why would they have been near present-day Countisbury?
Anyway, after the Saxons had taken refuge within this natural stronghold, the Vikings had presumably taken up their siege position on its vulnerable east side. It’s intriguing to think that they might have arrived there by sailing up the East Lyn River, since the shallow drafts of their warships enabled them to sail quite far up navigable rivers and appear in places where they were not expected. Or would it have been too shallow and rocky? At any rate, the fleet had to land somewhere and the cliffs below Wind Hill were too steep to climb very easily.
Would 23 ships, each with, say, 35 oarsmen (total 805) aboard have been able to make their way up the river (in Gaul at this time Viking fleets made up of hundreds of ships sailed up the River Seine in raids)? An engraving shows the position of the fortress quite well, with Wind Hill and the earthwork rampart on the far side. If Countisbury was the correct site, it does seem as if the only way to besiege the refugees in their stronghold was to sail up the river to where access was easier. It may be that there was access from the beach further to the east, perhaps as far as Porlock.
The mouth of the River Lyn and the valley of the East Lyn river
I don’t have a lot more to say about this, but may sum up in a further post.