But I had a few more thoughts, some a bit recapitulatory. There may be a confluence which is much more significant than the one between the Lyn river and the East Lyn river at the western end of the promontory fort:
Cóndatis apparently meant ‘a watersmeet’ (see footnote *). I had not come across the word before, but the OED defines it as: ‘A place where two rivers or streams meet. Now rare. Attested earliest as a place name‘.
The ‘earliest’ attestation given was from 1828: T. H. Williams Devonshire II. 17 ‘Below is a part of the river, the general boundary of excursions from Lynmouth, called Waters Meet, a small stream joining the East Lyn, on its left bank… Waters-Meet is accessible by ponies, from Contisbury.’
Watersmeet House is now a National Trust property, standing in a river valley at the confluence of the East Lyn river and Hoar Oak Water. Photos show that it would be unlikely that 23 Viking longships could ever have rowed up the East Lyn (an idea I toyed with at first).
The year 1828 was quite a long time after 878, and longer still after c.400, but there is a possibility (why not?) that an area known to the British as Cóndatis (= Watersmeet, where the god of the confluence was worshipped) retained the meaning of the name under its modern form, while also being preserved through the Saxon period as Contesbury.
This is incidentally the point where the waters from The Chains, high on Hoar Oak Hill on Exmoor, hurtled down on Lynmouth in a destructive torrent in 1952 – Cóndatis as destructive as his Roman counterpart – the god Mars. The name Watersmeet is the place name, the name of the house, the name of the entire road leading from Lynmouth up the East Lyn gorge to the place itself. This suggests that this particular ‘watersmeet’ held a certain importance for some time.
Those ‘British’ who worshipped Cóndatis are surely the people who built the Iron Age rampart on Wind Hill. Shrines to Cóndatis dating to the post-Roman age are found particularly in the north of England (Durham/Tyne/Tees) but also in northern France; so a place somewhere in between wouldn’t seem an outrageous aberration.
The argument would be that Countisbury is unlikely to be the site of arx Cynuit because:
- There is no part of the coast nearby where the Viking longships could have landed and from where the Vikings could have then climbed the cliffs to the vicinity of Wind Hill (see footnote **). Supposing they could have landed at Lynmouth and scaled the steep river gorge, they would have been on the same side of the ramparts as the Saxons. Any landing would have to have been to the east of Countisbury. Where?
- Asser said there was no (fresh) water nearby (‘nulla aqua illi arci contigua est‘) which posed a threat of thirst to the besieged Saxons. However, there is a spring on the very top of the hill; and even if it hadn’t been there in earlier times, the Saxons could have collected fresh water by scrambling down anywhere along the length of the East Lyn river which formed the southern boundary of the promontory: they would have been protected by the ramparts since the besiegers would have been on the far side.
- The name Countisbury does not seem to derive, phonologically, from Cynuit. This then poses the question as to what Contesberie does derive from: I tentatively suggest Cóndatis-burh.
In favour of Countisbury is Asser’s description of a stronghold very secure on three sides, but vulnerable on the eastern side; the Vikings saw that it was unprepared and unfortified except for ramparts built up ‘in our manner’. Also, though the area is very remote, a band of Saxon thegns numbering several hundreds would probably have been on some sort of military exercise, perhaps patrolling the coast to watch for imminent raids, rather than on domestic duties. The scholarly authorities presume that the thegns were led by Odda, the ealdorman of Devon, since he would have been the highest-ranking royal official of the shire. This would have surely made the group the main militia for the area. I’m not aware of any early source which confirmed the presence of the ealdorman.
The lower red circle shows Watersmeet, with the confluence just visible. The higher red circle shows the rampart which extended right out to the cliff edge. The blue circle is round the current position of the spring. Vikings besieging Wind Hill would have to have stationed themselves to the right of the rampart, so a landing at Lynmouth (top left) is ruled out.
And there’s more (to be continued) …
* “It is to be expected that war gods and goddesses should feature prominently in Celtic religion, and such gods would generally have been equated with Mars. We should bear in mind that the classical Mars was not solely a war god but was much concerned with agriculture and the protection of territory. In some cases where a local god was identified with Mars it may have been these aspects rather than his warlike characteristics which served as a basis for the comparison.
“Inscriptions to Mars and representations of him are very common in Roman Britain. Some of these are are clearly connected with the presence of the army. [ … ] numerous inscriptions where the name of Mars incorporates a Celtic name or epithet: Alator, Belatucadrus, Cocidius, Condatis [ … ] are examples [ … ]
“It did not appear contradictory to the Celts, or indeed the Romans, that a god of war should also be a god of healing; aggression towards an enemy equals the protection of one’s own, so the protective roles was fundamental to the god’s character. The Celtic Mars was also sometimes associated with water (‘Condatis’ denotes a watersmeet), and hence with healing shrines.” Roman Britain, Timothy W Potter and Catherine Johns, British Museum Press, 1992, pp. 169-171.
** On the difficulty of scaling the cliffs just here:
“The fort made use of the steep natural defences on three sides of the promontory formed by the precipitous sea cliffs overlooking Lynmouth Bay to the north and the deep valleys of the East Lyn River to the south. The defensive circuit was completed by a high rampart and ditch placed across the only gentle approach from the east”, Historic England, Earthwork defences of Countisbury Castle promontory fort. But it is a description that fits Asser’s arx Cynuit, it has to be admitted.
“The northern ridge takes in the coastal zone, overlooking the Bristol Channel, including some of the most remote coastline in England; the height of the cliffs from Combe Martin to Heddon’s Mouth and Countisbury to Glenthorne ensure there is very limited access to the shoreline”, Exmoor National Park National Mapping Programme, Topography of Exmoor.
The cliffs regularly provide a challenge for fully equipped climbers; an army of several hundred Vikings could hardly have succeeded without climbing gear (ropes, harnesses &c).