If not Countisbury – where? (1)

The map of the north Devon/Somerset coast (click to enlarge) marks the supposed sites of the eight raids made by the Danes during the ninth and tenth centuries (the circle on the right is only larger because the area is more vaguely located; the one on the left is the supposed site of arx Cynuit at Countisbury).

The Danish raids in the ninth and tenth centuries

The Danish raids in the ninth and tenth centuries

Points to note:

1. Only Countisbury is located above towering cliffs which offer no place for ships to land. Porlock is set on a wide bay and had a harbour; Carhampton and Watchet are located in the low-lying land between Exmoor and the Quantocks, and Watchet had a harbour; the mouth of the Parrett extends over flat land towards the Somerset levels; there was a harbour at Combwich and a few miles further up-river the port of Crandon Bridge.

There seems no realistic way the Danes could have rowed up the East Lyn river to Countisbury either: it was probably too narrow, was rocky and ‘uphill’ with waterfalls taking the river from higher up on Exmoor down to the coast.

2. Arx Cynuit is the only one not precisely located with an identifiable name. All the raids were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; only the raid on arx Cynuit took place during King Alfred’s reign, and is therefore the only one of the eight mentioned in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. He gives added details not included in the chronicle, but the name is a British one, not a Saxon one (Asser, of course, was a Welshman). The chronicle says only that it was in Devonshire.

3. Geographical features must change over a millennium, but although the Iron Age promontory fortress at Countisbury corresponds with Asser’s description (he said he had seen it), he also said that there was no water on the site but ordnance survey maps certainly show a convenient spring. Perhaps it sprang up more recently.

Wind Hill fort, showing the spring

Wind Hill fort, showing the spring

4. The chronicle and Asser agree that the raid in 878 was on some part of Devon, but where was the border between Devon and Somerset? Could it have been as far east as Watchet, for example? As far as the earliest raid at the mouth of the Parrett is concerned the chronicle says:

‘845/848 In this year ealdorman Eanwulf with the men of Somerset and Bishop Ealchstan and ealdorman Osric with the men of Dorset fought at the mouth of the Parrett with the Danish host; there was much slaughter and they were victorious.’

It’s fairly safe to assume that the area was in Somerset at that point, since there is no mention of the men of Devon participating. But then, also in the chronicle:

‘997 Ms E: In this year the [Danish] host sailed round Devonshire to the mouth of the Severn and there they laid waste both in Cornwall and Wales, and in Devon and they  landed at Watchet and there wrought much destruction, by burning and killing …

They landed at Watchet, yet there is no mention of Somerset; and:

‘988 Ms E: In this year Watchet was laid waste, and Goda, thegn of Devon was slain…’

This is the slightly dubious entry, but at Watchet it is, apparently, the thegn of Devon who was killed and still no mention of Somerset. We know the river Parrett marked the border at one time, though earlier than this; however,  perhaps this area south of the Parrett was still considered to be Devon – so arx Cynuit could be around here.

More follows, if the Person from Porlock doesn’t arrive on business.

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