In Alice’s Looking Glass world, she set off walking straight up the path towards the top of the hill until the twists and turns (‘more like a corkscrew than a path’) led her back to the house each time. So, every time I’m about to expound a theory of where arx Cynuit could have been, if not at Countisbury, something else crops up. This time it’s an alternative which seemed to gather a modicum of credence, not least as being the idea of a writer of highly popular children’s books (NB some of the facts in this linked report are definitely
wrong not wholly accurate).
The site is on Castle Hill, Beaford, near(ish) to the confluence of the rivers Taw and Torridge, and much closer to the Devon-Cornwall border. On the face of it, there seems no evidence to point to that location, rather than to many another near the coast of Devon and and Somerset.
In this case, the Vikings must have chosen the longest crossing of the Bristol Channel from Dyfed in west Wales, though they could have based themselves on Lundy and launched an attack from there.
They might have rowed up the Torridge if it was navigable but, contrary to what was claimed, there is nothing particularly well protected about this site, as Asser described it (‘ille locus situ terrarum tutissimus est ab omni parte, nisi ab orientali, sicut nos ipsi vidimus’).
The site is just north of a meander in the river and appears (at least nowadays) to be relatively accessible from all directions. The banks of the river are quite steep (and probably thickly wooded at that time): did the Vikings row all the way round the meander, looking for a place to disembark? It’s the only way they would have arrived at the eastern side. If they didn’t row up the river, but disembarked close to the estuary, the locus would have been even less ‘tutus’.
The nearby village of Kingscott does not, as apparently claimed, furnish a similarity with the name Cynuit. All that has been ‘discovered’ is that an ancient hillfort might well have been used as a fortified camp by the Saxons at some point (just as Alfred set up his fortress on Athelney using an Iron or Bronze Age camp).
Is there any evidence that Asser himself might have visited a site so close to the Cornish border, where the Britons had only relatively recently been subdued? It might account for the presence of a border contingent of thegns, but other than that the contemporary sources suggest other places for arx Cynuit that seem more likely – including Countisbury.
The thing about theories is that if they seem possible, they tend to become probable; and if probable, they become fact:
“Lundy Island may have come under attack during the Viking raids on Devon, Bristol and Wales that took place in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Viking chieftain, Hubba, led a raid on North Devon from Wales in 878 and was killed near Appledore on the coast of the mainland. An area known as the Giants’ Graves on Lundy is rumoured to be his resting place.”
The ‘fact’ is that it isn’t even certain that (H)Ubba was the chieftain who led the raid, and certainly not that he ‘was killed near Appledore’. And a rumour is just a rumour.
And so also, while we’re in the area, another suggested location: ‘Kenwith Castle, a quondam ancient fortalice in Abbotsham [Northam?] parish, Devon; on the coast, 2 miles W of Bideford. It was the place where Odun, Earl of Devon, in 878, Vanquished and slew the Danish invader Hubba but is now represented by only a traditionary spot on a hill called Henny Castle.’
The name Kenwith is a good fit but little sign of a substantial settlement or hillfort. Both Kenwith and Beaford are in the same hundred – Merton – so vie with each other for the honour. The association with the Viking Ubba and the Devon ealdorman Odda shows contamination with later historical reconstructions, since there is no contemporary source which names either combatant. To my knowledge.
A verdict on Kenwith: “There is probably a great deal of fanciful[ly] writing connecting a C9 historical record with some slight earthworks on a hill.”
And, apart from any of that, as any fule kno, Countisbury is the place where ealdorman Odda slew Ubba the Viking and his 800, or was it 1,200, men.
Heigh ho. No reason why I shouldn’t add my two penn’orth. But before that – another turn in the path …