A very good place to start

There are two near contemporary accounts of the so-called Battle of Cynuit, both written in or around 893 – about 15 years after the event. There was the brief outline in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) amounting to a few lines, and the fuller description in Asser’s Latin Life of King Alfred.

The ASC has slightly varying accounts, but they agree that a brother (unnamed) of Hinguar and Healfdene arrived with a fleet of 23 ships in Defenascire and there the unnamed leader was killed along with 840 of his men. Most manuscripts add that in that battle, the Danes’ Raven banner was captured.

From this, we don’t know the name of the slain leader, nor who the men of Wessex were who defeated him, nor any more than that it was in Defenascire, a region whose boundaries, at that time, are by no means certain.

Facsimile of the opening page of Asser's Life of King Alfred, Cotton MS. OTHO A. XII, burnt in

Facsimile of the opening page of Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Cotton MS. OTHO A. XII

Asser gives a much more detailed account of the battle itself and says that the fleet of 23 ships had sailed to Domnania from Dyfed, but still doesn’t name the brother of Inwar and Healfdene who led them.

He says no more of the Wessex men than that they were ministri regis and took refuge from the Danes in the unidentified arx Cynuit.

Again, there is nothing about any Saxon leader: the decision to burst out unexpectedly upon the besieging army was apparently collectively agreed, not an act of canny generalship by a commander. They slew 1,200 Danes, including their leader, and a few escaped to their ships.

In terms of who, what and where, this is all we know from those two contemporary sources: a brother of Hinguar/Inwar and Healfdene, 23 ships, Domnania or Defenascire, the rout of the Danish force and death of their leader.

A now lost version of the ASC is supposed to have been the source of the 10th-c. Latin Chronicon Æthelweardi. Æthelweard died c.998 and was probably writing his chronicle 100 years after the event. So what does he say about it?

As in the ASC, it is dispatched in a few lines. The writer indicates that it was Healfdene, the brother of Inguuar, who led the fleet of 30 ships in ‘the western parts of the Angles’ (in occidentales Anglorum partes). We learn that Odda, dux provinciae Defenu was leader of the Saxons and they were besieged in quodam castro (unnamed). Rex ruit must refer to the Danish leader, so he was slain with 800 of his men. This could tally with the 840 mentioned in ASC as this referred to 800 fighting men and 40 of the Danish leader’s retinue.

Why Æthelweard speaks of Anglorum rather than Saxonum, I don’t know, though this may be his later perspective on the situation. The Angles would have been in the eastern half of England. Both Saxons and Angles held territory in the east, so what Æthelweard meant by occidentales partes is also fairly imprecise. It seems to be merely a rough equivalent of Domnania or Defenascire.

The suggested boundaries of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th century. The 'occidentales partes' of the West Saxons might have been anywhere within the black square

The suggested boundaries of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th century. The ‘occidentales partes’ of the West Saxons might have been anywhere within the black rectangle

Those who have made a close study of Æthelweard’s entire text will have their reasons for positing a lost version of ASC as its source. But from the four lines here relevant I see three possible mistakes, either in Æthelweard’s source manuscript, misreadings by him or mistakes by his own copyist (that Healfdenes was a nominative not a genitive, that xxiii was read as xxx, and that he misinterpreted the outcome of the battle).

The one point which seems genuinely different is the reference to the siege of the camp, mentioned by Asser but not in any of the extant ASC versions. So could he not have been writing a précis of Asser, rather than using a manuscript of ASC? The rest of his text must indicate otherwise, I suppose.

One possible addition of his own is the name of Odda as dux provinciae Defenu (with ‘dux’ occurring in other sources as the equivalent of ealdorman). Here the point of interest is that Æthelweard was himself ealdorman of the Western Provinces (presumably ‘Dumnonia’). Possibly this position (a royal appointment, not inherited) enabled him to discover the name of his predecessor in 878, though discovering the incumbent’s name does not prove his presence in the battle; but personal names bring vividness to a narrative.

So far, no clear geographical indications, and no sign of Hubba or Ubba. But Odda now plays a role in the story, 100 years on: and once he has been mentioned in writing, to be read by others, he is likely to return for another 1,000 years – regardless of whether he took part in the battle or not.

À propos: much of the current Wikipedia article on Odda is based on some kind of historical fiction. I plan to clean that up when I can find time.

“Alfred was faced with an issue of loyalty, with the real possibility that many of his people would not remain faithful to him, and instead lend their allegiance to Guthrum, King of the Danish Vikings and conqueror of much of Wessex. […] Odda was forced to choose between Alfred and Guthrum in early 878 when an army of Vikings, led by Ubba, supposed son of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, landed on the north Devon or Somerset coast, possibly near modern-day Lynmouth. Choosing not to side with the invaders, Odda gathered an army, mostly composed of inexperienced farmers and peasants, and retreated to a defensive position overlooking the beach. […] Realising the problem, Odda decided he could not remain atop the hill indefinitely, and at the break of dawn he led his troops down the hill, taking the Vikings by surprise. In the ensuing battle around a thousand Vikings were killed, as was Ubba himself, possibly at Odda’s own hand.” And so on.

Not bad for a man who may not even have been there. And who, if he was there, was indifferently both victorious and defeated.

[To be continued]


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