Vidal was a lawyer and antiquary, the son of an Exeter solicitor. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine says that he died in Cornborough (‘Hornburgh’ in the 14th century), where he ‘kept a pack of harriers’. His home was at Cornborough House, some two miles west of Bideford, and less than a mile further on beyond Kenwith Castle.
On 25 January 1804, Vidal wrote a letter to his friend and fellow antiquary, Henry Wansey, containing ‘what particulars I have been able to collect respecting the site of Kenwith or Kenwic Castle’. This was published in 1806 in Archæologia (vol. XIX), the journal of the Society of Antiquaries, as: ‘An Inquiry respecting the Site of Kenwith . or Kenwic Castle in Devonshire. By Robert Studley Vidal, Esq, In a Letter to Henry Wansey,. Esq. F.A.S.’.
The interest of the site, Vidal explained, was that ‘by the fortunate sally of an intrepid band of Anglo-Saxons from Kenwith Castle, to which the Danes had lain siege towards the close of the ninth century, the main western army of these ferocious invaders was routed, 1200 of them, including their principal leader, killed, their consecrated standard taken, and the gloomy aspect of affairs so entirely changed, that our immortal Alfred was enabled to leave his hiding place, and again to assume the command of his armies and the government of his people‘.
Vidal was a man who read Latin, knew his Asser (with reservations!) and provided an accurate account of what Asser had written about the castle of Cynuit; he marvelled that such antiquaries as the Williams – Camden (1551-1623) and Baxter (1650-1723) – should have decided that no trace of the fortress now remained (and of Camden and Baxter, more later). For Vidal, their conclusions were ‘by far too peremptory’.
Judging by the name Cynwit or Kenwic, ‘I was led to conceive, that this fortress might have been situated towards the higher end of some branch or marshy reach of a river‘ (although he admitted that that was probably not the meaning of the name: ‘but whether the name was given in allusion to its situation (and which I must confess there is very great reason to doubt)…’. Vidal was struck by the similarity between Asser’s description of arx Cynuit and a certain local hill, which he had inspected in some detail. From the local old people he established that in living memory it had never been called anything but Henni-borough or Henny Castle. And without wanting to insist on the point, or give it too much weight, Vidal surmised that Kenwith or Kenwic might well have been shortened to Kenni or Henni …
But, enquire as he would, he could find no local tradition that supported his theory: “… though I made generally known my wish to learn any popular history that might be attached to this old place, and listened with every possible degree of patience to many foolish and inconsistent tales, yet I never could in this way obtain a single particular worth attending to, or that I could find had the least bearing towards what I considered as the genuine history. I say this in regard to the stories of the common people ; but few of the better informed inhabitants of the neighbourhood appeared to have given the subject the least attention.”
The results of Vidal’s physical inspection of the site, and his reasons for finding that they supported his theory, are not really relevant here. The relevant points are:
1. that Vidal’s knowledge was based on such primary sources as we already know (though there is reason to think he knew Asser through Matthew Parker’s ‘editorialised’ edition), none of which identify any location as the site of arx Cynuit.
2. that in spite of making enquiries, he could find no evidence of a local tradition surviving at that time, 1804 (yet something had seemingly been known to Camden and Baxter).
3. For local people in 1804 it was ‘Henny Castle’, as it was for the Late Mr Gray (Author of The ELEGY Written in a Country Church-Yard, &c.) in his Traveller’s Companion (1773), listing Antiquities, Houses, Parks in Devonshire) .
4. As he concedes, none of the early sources which he cited named Ubba as the leader of the Danes, though he surmised it from what he thought Asser had said. In fact, it looks as if this could have been an ‘editorial interpolation’ by Matthew Parker in his edition of Asser (first printed in 1574), rather than the original text. This might be where ‘Ubba’ made his first appearance in this connection, but without checking Parker’s edition I’m not sure. The paragraph wasn’t in Asser’s original.
5. his own researches were published (and reviewed in the Gentleman’s Magazine) so would have circulated in such circles as might have influenced Thomas Wright and Charles Kingsley. In other words, the story had circulated widely and could have been a key source for later re-tellings of the tradition.
There appears, from this much, to have been something of a leap from reading Asser to, metaphorically, looking from his window in Devon at Kenwith Castle and thinking, ‘Could that be it …?’ Yet, that seems to be what happened, according to his description. But he was acquainted with the writings of Camden and Baxter. What were their sources and what did they say at an earlier date?