John Fitchett, of Liverpool (1776-1838), a lawyer and writer with antiquarian interests, had no reason, as far as I can tell, to be very familiar with the West Country. His great work – King Alfred, a Poem – was published for private circulation between 1808 and 1834 – in five volumes.
A projected revised edition was published three years after his death, with some 2,500 lines added by the editor, Robert Roscoe, bringing the entire, completed work to six volumes and about 131,000 lines of Proustian diffuseness. If the Athenæum, reviewing the poem at the time, is correct, it is about five times as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, and twelve times as long as Milton’s Paradise Lost. It has, rather harshly, been described as a ‘prodigious monument of misapplied learning and mental energy’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
This is Late Gothic-Early Romantic fiction, written in Shakespearean, pseudo-archaic blank verse. Historically, it makes little distinction between the high middle ages and the Saxon era. Noble Oddune, ‘Devon’s valiant earl’, holds court in many-tower’d
Camelot Kenwith, just as the legendary chieftain Arthur of Britain (who may or may not have existed in about 500 AD) was transformed into King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table with their code of chivalry.
Nevertheless, the poem has some interest because Fitchett uses material which he hasn’t invented himself but which must have been quite widely known in the early years of the nineteenth century when he started on his magnissimum opus. I can’t see that this monumental work could ever have been popular, though it might have influenced later popularisers. To be honest, I begin to feel very tired after reading about 10 lines …
In Book XX, Odda – here earl Oddune – is in Kenwith Castle relating to King Alfred (Asser is also present) everything that happened during the siege of Kinwith and the heroic victory over the Danes (much of which has already been recounted in Book XIX). Most of the essentials of the modern Devon legend are there.
- The broad geography: the Danes arrive at the mouth of the Taw; ‘Toward the sequester’d port of Apuldore’, ‘by sandy Torridge mouth’, Northam, Abbotsham, Cornborough;
- the two opponents are named – Hubba and Oddune (rather than Odda);
- Hubba and his host besiege Oddune’s stronghold, Kinwith Castle; they are routed and slaughtered, as Oddune tells King Alfred:
“Beside a spot where the main way that leads
From this our castle [i.e. Kinwith] on toward Apuldore
Turns suddenly into a narrow nook,
Beneath the field that borders Northam’s fort … ”
And Alfred, being told of all this:
Bids fix a massive stone upon the ground ;
And in the presence of the assembled throng
Adds : ” Be this spot, in memory of the fight,
To latest ages Bloody Corner named.”
So now we even have Bloody Corner, and a massive memorial stone, though this is not the ‘Hubbastone’ that marks the Danish leader’s burial place. I have not yet located in the poem the place where this is mentioned.
The people, the places and the general action corresponding with the living legend are nearly all present here. According to Joanne Parker (England’s Darling: The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great, Manchester UP, 2007), Fitchett began work on his poen in 1798. There is evidence which suggests details of the Kenwith story already had a wider literary currency.
So far we can say that Devon’s legend was known at the turn of the 19th century.
One point to add, simply as a footnote to all this, is that almost all of the suspiciously numerous local place names, many of which seem to be there to add local colour, appear on Benjamin Donn’s 1765 map of Devon, so it is reasonable to suppose that Fitchett’s researches involved studying a map of the area.
A wonderful discovery, having consulted the résumé of each of the 48 books is that this epic poem (epic in size and subject matter) covers about two years of Alfred’s life; from about 876, when the Danes were rampaging through the country and Alfred withdrew to Athelney, until 878 when having rallied his forces he defeated Guthrum at Edington. On which triumphant note it ends, having introduced plots, sub-plots, betrayals, devils and angels (Satan also has a key role to play), Guy of Warwick … 6 volumes and 48 books to cover what Asser dealt with in three pages.
The final book, Book 48, relates the final glorious outcome of the bloody battle of Edington whose slaughter began in Book 47. It was left to Fitchett’s editor, Robert Roscoe, to finish the story. Fitchett left it as the mortally wounded Osmund, earl of Cornwall, takes his leave of his son Athelard and of his King. As Roscoe’s footnote says: ‘This passage of his Poem, describing a happy death-bed, “seen in the good man’s calm and holy peace,” formed a close, at once appropriate and affecting, to the long labours of the author, who, at this point was destined to resign, in a state still incomplete, the work on which he had concentrated his thoughts, and exercised his industry, for so long a course of years.’
Roscoe modestly says that he felt it was his responsibility to bring the great work to an end as briefly as was consistent with the author’s original plan, the difficulties of this being the ‘best excuse for its defects.’ It gives some pleasure to report that Roscoe’s pallid verse is no match for the majesty of Fitchett’s sublimely oratorical, rolling sentences. Overblown certainly, ridiculous in its invention frequently, yet at moments genuinely touching. Most of it (thankfully) quite irrelevant to our Devon legend – to which I shall return.