Æthelweard et Cie

Oh, well, head down and get on with things … tuh.

Æthelweard was writing approximately 100 years after the incident at arx Cynuit (878). He wrote the Chronicon Æthelweardi in about 980. This, in full, is his description of the event:

In eodē anno advectus est Healfdene Iguuares tyranni frater cum triginta moneribus in occidētales Anglorum partes, obseditq; Oddan ducem provinciæ Defenu in quodam castro, incenderuntq; Martem intus & foras Barbarum, rex ruit, octoginta quippe cum eo decades. Postremo victorię obtinent locum etiam Dani.

In the year 878, Healfdene, brother of the tyrant Hynguar reached the western territory of the Angles with 30 ships. So now we see a departure from the common narrative. No longer an unnamed brother of Healfdene and Hynguar, but Healfdene himself; not 23 ships but 30; we are in the region of the Angles, not the Saxons.

What we do have is confirmation of Asser’s narrative: that the Saxons – or Angles – were besieged in a certain castle. And  Odda, ‘dux provinciæ Defenu’, or ealdorman of Devon is introduced as the leader of the Saxons – or Angles – against whom Healfdene unleashed savage war on all sides.

Next follows a particularly garbled version: the king (presumably the pagan ‘king’ Healfdene) was overthrown and with him 800 of his men – yet the Danes were victorious. Not only does this contradict the lucid narrative of Asser and of the ASC, it doesn’t make much sense.

There is no clue as to where this fleet landed – not even specifically that it was in ‘Devon’, though the inference is that it was somewhere under the jurisdiction of the ‘dux provinciæ Defenu’, perhaps those ‘Western Provinces’ at that time under the full control of the West Saxons, in Dumnonia. Certainly no suggestion that the landfall was in west Devon, rather than the north. Odda here makes an appearance, but not Ubba.

A 15th-c. representation of Ragnar Lothbrok with sons Hinguar and Ubba worshipping devils

A 15th-c. representation of Ragnar Lothbrok with sons Hinguar and Ubba worshipping devils

Where did Ubba come from? If he wasn’t named in either of the two contemporary sources – the ASC and Asser’s Life of King Alfred – originally set down a mere 15 years after the event – why did he appear later on? and with what authority was this brother of Healfdene and Hynguar identified as Ubba?

In fact, to say he wasn’t named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle needs some clarification. One manuscript, Ms F, stands somewhat apart from the others in that each paragraph written in Anglo-Saxon is followed by the translation into Latin. The British Library dates its Cotton MS Domitian A viii to the late 11th or early 12th century (post-Conquest, hence the need for the Latin translation to accompany the Anglo-Saxon). The original text has been heavily annotated at a later date. One particularly messy folio is 54r:


The entry for 869/870, according to Ms E (in Garmonsway) reads:

In this year the [Danish] host went across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford. And the same winter St Edmund the king fought against them, and the Danes won the victory, and they slew the king and overrran the entire kingdom …

And at this point a later annotation in the margin reads: ‘the names of the leaders who slew the king were Inguar and Ubba‘:

BL Cotton Domitian A viii, folio 54r

The note has some abbreviations, but I would read it as: ‘Nom[ina] princip[i]um qui [prae…????] regem occiderunt fuerunt (??) Inguare et Ubba.’

From the date of the original manuscript, it seems unlikely that this addition could have been earlier than about 1100.

The insertion seems to have followed the Latin Passio Sancti Eadmundi of Abbo of Fleury, written 985-987 using information given him by Dunstan,  then retired archbishop of Canterbury. No mention of arx Cynuit, of course, in Abbo’s account of the martyrdom of Edmund but it includes (from the edition of Michael Winterbottom):

Fuit autem idem aduersarius Hinguar uocabulo dictus, qui cum altero, / Ubba nomine, eiusdem peruersitatis homine, nisi diuina inpediretur miseratione conatus est in exterminium adducere totius fines Brittanniae. 

Abbo is explaining how ‘the enemy of the human race’ has despatched two men against King Edmund, to reduce the whole kingdom of Britain to ruin. Hinguar, already mentioned, was one; the other a man of equal depravity named Ubba.

Ælfric of Eynsham, basing his own Anglo-Saxon version on Abbo’s, has a similar though not identical version:

On þam flotan wæron þa fyrmestan heafod-men
hinguar and hubba · geanlæhte þurh deofol ·
and hí on norð-hymbra-lande gelendonn

In the Danish fleet were their chief leaders, Hinguar and Hubba,  united as servants of the devil, who landed in Northumbria. Hinguar turned to the east while Hubba stayed in the north, Ælfric then went on to say..

What we have from the 10th-11th centuries is the introduction of Hinguar and Hubba, but so far none of these sources identify the two as brothers. So  did Ubba’s name become attached to Hinguar’s because the two were often named together at the head of the Danish army? Or did Asser’s frater, ASC’s broþur, not literally mean they were brothers? Whatever the case, the early sources don’t name Ubba as leader of the raid on arx Cynuit.

The 12th-c. Latin compilation, the Annals of St Neots, follows Abbo’s account of the death of  St Edmund, just as it quotes, almost word for word, Asser’s account of the ‘Battle of arx Cynuit‘. It’s therefore late and adds nothing new.

Next: Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis


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