The Battle of Cynuit (3) – The story so far

Was it at Countisbury?

The clues we have to go on are:

  • the name Countisbury (Domesday, Contesberie) could be derived from Cynuit (Welsh cyn > con) – Cynuitesburh (???)
  • it stands above sheer cliffs, and was on the N. Devon/Somerset coast which was subject to frequent Viking raids. Asser records that arx Cynuit was in ‘Domnania’; the Chronicle doesn’t mention the name of the stronghold but ‘þæs ilcan wintra [878] wæs Inwæres broþur 7 Healfdenes on Westseaxum on Defenascire’ – it was in Devonshire that the Viking band was routed.
  • the fortified camp, alongside on Wind Hill, fits the description of the site of arx Cynuit, vulnerable only on the eastern side, since the cliffs and steep river valley protect it on the other sides.
Countisbury cliffs and the estuary of the River Lyn

Countisbury cliffs and the estuary of the River Lyn

However, a 50-ft earthwork rampart on the eastern side would seem to lessen that ‘vulnerability’; the very invulnerability of the place would rather argue against it being a likely place for the Viking raid – it was naturally ‘invulnerable’ and there were easier pickings for plunder

  • many of the names mentioned in contemporary sources have not survived in recognisable form, so the place might now bear a totally different name anyway
  • the presence there of such a large body of armed thegns has to be explained: Countisbury was not one of Alfred’s fortified burhs, which might have had a semi-permanent presence of men and weapons; nor close to a royal villa or estate. From Asser’s description, the Saxons seem to have been there in some numbers outside the stronghold and were taken by surprise, since they retreated to the ‘refuge’ of arx Cynuit.

Historians are not 100% certain that Countisbury was the site of the battle and other names are suggested. Where exactly was the eastern border of Devon in the 9th century? In my next, I will suggest another possibility which, as far as I know, has not been seriously looked at. Or maybe it has but I haven’t noticed it.

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