Se non è vero …

Most of the tortuous plot and counterplot of Fitchett’s King Alfred, A Poem is pure fiction; but small details are thrown in which show that the author did know some early sources (that Hubba’s slaughtered army numbered 1,200 comes directly or indirectly from Asser’s Life of Alfred, for instance, a variant version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s 840 dead).

But Fitchett, who  began his poem c.1798, also knew something of the local Devon legend of the arrival of the Viking fleet in Appledore, the siege at nearby Kenwith Castle, and the battle at Bloody Corner, just outside Northam; this even though he had no obvious connection with Devon. He also had some familiarity with the ‘factual’ base around which he was to weave his extraordinary imaginings.

Robert Studley Vidal wrote his own, rather more scholarly, essay in 1804. His version names Kenwith or Kenwic Castle, whereas Fitchett has Kinwith (cf. Cynuit); Vidal quotes Camden, Baxter and the ‘annotator on Rapin (de Thoyras)’ as siting the ‘castle’ (i.e. arx Cynuit) near the junction of the Taw and the Torridge.

Richard Cumberland (1732-1812), dramatist, by George Romney

Richard Cumberland (1732-1812), dramatist, by George Romney

A few thoughts arising from Fitchett’s King Alfred: it looks as if some story relating the deeds of ealdorman Odda – known as earl Oddune – were ‘in the air’ at the turn of the 18th/19th cc. The prolific playwright Richard Cumberland (1732-1811) wrote a play called The Days of Yore (Cumberland appears in Sheridan’s The Critic as ‘Sir Fretful Plagiary’, a name reflecting two aspects of his character and writing). The Days of Yore. A Drama in Three acts. Performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden, was published in 1796.

The Dramatis Personae included Alfred, King of England; Oddune, Earl of Devonshire; Gothrun, a Danish chief; and among sundry others an attendant lord named Roger de Malvern, who seems to have slipped back in time from post-Conquest Britain. The scene is set at ‘Kenwith Castle, and the Country adjoining’. The play opens in ‘A wild and rugged Scene on the Western Coast of England, with a distant View of the Sea’.

[I resume, several hours later]

This really is a very silly play: sort of cod-medieval Mills and Boone effort – and nothing to the point. As a (digitised) contemporary (1796) review in the London Evening Mail reported:

The.plot, Or rather(ketch, isflirnfey, and betrays mire the arrjefs un connections ofari .adventurer, than the, vigorous” effortsof the Veteran judgment. “It wars liaceiyed v/ith a degree of rapturer^but what could ‘ jrefiii the feri’urjrtehts ofloyalty and ; the fine acling of JMr.,Pop.E, who;’.never before difplayed … “. Which about sums it up.


Apart from Oddune’s Kenwith Castle being near the rugged West Devon coast, within sight of the sea, the only other piece of relevant information is that the historical action – such as it is – must have taken place some time after the Danish defeat at ‘arx Cynuit’ in 878, because Oswene, the widow of a valiant Dane called Hastings, reminds her son Voltimar that the two of them are prifoners of Earl Oddune, and that the loft ftandard of their country, the magic Reafen, the proudeft trophy England has to boaft, floats in Earl Oddune’s hall.

Gothrun (not Ubba) is on this occasion the Danish chief gathering his army round the castle after a disastrous Danish defeat at Exeter (historically, Alfred had defeated Guthrum at Edington in 878, the same year as the ‘Battle of Cynuit’). Voltimar, son of the valiant Dane Hastings, is pretending to have lost his wits. He somewhat resembles Edgar in K. Lear; he is also a bit like a Shakespearean clown, or fool, and acts the part of a harp-playing minftrel in the service of Earl Oddune (his own favourite minftrel is called Llewelyn, but he doesn’t appear in the play). Voltimar loves Earl Oddune’s daughter and saves the life of King Alfred the Great who, disguised by his cape, is captured as he walks alone outside the caftle, by the treacherous Gothrun. This means Voltimar is a Noble Dane and will be able to marry Earl Oddune’s daughter.

Apart from the fact that it’s vaguely interesting that Earl Oddune, West Devon, Kenwith Castle and sundry Danes and Englishmen are present in a garbled version of the historical record, there isn’t – oh, but hang on! there is either an enormous clue here or a very striking (and, in the circumstances, very irritating) coincidence, and the possible key to the enigma! But can one rely on anything in Sir Fretful’s chronological charade, where bits may have been wittingly collected from various sources and sewn together? In which case they will explain nothing.


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