Danish raids (4, 5& 6) – Watchet and Porlock

Now into the post-Alfredian era: in the reign of his son, Edward the Elder, in the year 918 [917] the Danes attacked the north Somerset coastal region to the east of Watchet and again at Porlock. They had some connection with the Danes based in Ireland. At this time they made quick raids – the king had set up a chain of defences along the Severn estuary to the west as far as Cornwall and to the mouth of the Avon in the east which deterred attacks:

Ms C: Þa bestælon hi hi þeah nihtes upp æt sumum twam cirrum, æt oþrum cyrre be eastan Weced, æt oðrum cyrre æt Portlocan. Þa sloh hi mon æt ægþrum cyrre, þæt hyra feawa on weg comon buton þa ane þe ðær ut ætswymman mihton to þam scypum. 7 þa sæton hi ute on ðam iglande æt Steapan Reolice oþ þone ferst þe hi wurdon swiðe metelease, 7 monige menn hungre acwolen, forðon hine mihton nanne mete geræcan, foron ða þanon to Deomedum 7 þanon to Yrlande, 7 þis wæs on hærfest.

‘But they stole up by night on two occasions, once to the east of Watchet and once at Porlock. Each time they were attacked so that just a few escaped by swimming to their ships. And they lingered on the island of Steep Holm [some versions say it was Flat Holm – Bradan Reolice, less likely because further away] until they they were very short of provisions and many men died of hunger as they could obtain no food. They left for Dyfed and from there went to Ireland. And this was in the autumn.’

Watchet was not only a port but it was also a burh – mentioned in the Burghal Hidage.

Towns mentioned in the 10th-c. Burghal Hidage                                           Map of the burhs included in the 10-th c. Burghal Hidage

The actual fortification is thought to have been on the Iron Age encampment now known as Daw’s Castle, overlooking the coast. Watchet is right at the mouth of the Washford river – no cliffs at this point. Being little more than 2 miles from Williton, it was virtually the port for the royal estate there. Carhampton, also a royal estate, was less than 10 miles away. The raid took place to the ‘east of Watchet’ which could mean anywhere along this stretch of coast.

Porlock is about half way between Watchet and Countisbury, with Minehead, Dunster and Carhampton between Watchet and Porlock. Porlock Bay also stretches along a flat area of land, with the harbour at Porlock Weir just a mile or so to the west. It’s about 15 miles to the west of Watchet.

Porlock BayPorlock Bay

Both locations were very accessible to the Danish fleet having natural harbours. In fact in 988 also, the Chronicle records:

Her wæs Wecedport geheregod, 7 Goda se Defenisca þegen ofslagen 7 mycel wæl mid him. .

‘In this year Watchet was sacked, and Goda, thane of Devonshire, was killed and many with him.’

The mention of Goda is Interesting: was Watchet at that time in Devonshire, rather than Somerset? For the year 997:

Her on ðissum geare ferde se here abutan Defenanscire into Sæfern muðan 7 þær heregodon ægðer ge on Cornwealum 7 on Norðwealum 7 on Defenum, 7 eodon him þa up æt Wecedport 7 þær micel yfel worhton on bærnette 7 on mannslihtum

‘In this year year the enemy host went round Devonshire into the mouth of the Severn and there harried in Cornwall, Wales and Devon, and they went to Watchet and there they wrought great burning and slaying…’

Again, no mention of Somerset, even though they landed at Watchet.


Danish raids (3) – arx Cynuit

For the sake of completeness, I include the arx Cynuit event here, chronologically, though I’ve already said quite a lot about it. So I shall say little here other than to recap: it happened in 878, the Danes were said on that occasion to have sailed from Dyfed in west Wales and to have landed in Devon. They were led by an unnamed brother of Ivar  and Halfdan (perhaps Ubba or Hubba), and surrounded a company of ministri regis,  besieging them in the unidentified stronghold of arx Cynuit (plausibly located at Countisbury Hill, near Lynton).

A Viking longship: judging by the number said to have been slaughtered, the 23 ships would have had a crew of perhaps 15 or 16 oarsmen per side

A Viking longship: judging by the number said to have been slaughtered, the 23 ships would have had a crew of perhaps 15 or 16 oarsmen per side

The Saxons realising they would not be able hold out for long without provisions, burst out suddenly and attacked their besiegers, slaughtering, it was said, 800 of them (1,200 by some accounts), including their leader.

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the Saxons also captured the raven standard of the Danes, of whom few escaped.

Apart from that version, the Chronicle underplays the importance of the event, which took place earlier in the same year as King Alfred set out from Athelney to inflict a decisive defeat on Guthrum at Edington. And now I shall move on to later invasions.

Danish raids (2) – the River Parrett

Just a few years after the raid(s) æt Carre in c.833-843, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded for 845 (probably 848) a raid æt Pedridan muþan – the mouth of the River Parrett (no doubt about that location!). A place that attracts attention here is the village of Combwich – or ‘Cummidge’ – on the west bank of the river. It had a small harbour and was a port from Roman times. It’s on a  ‘pill’, or tidal inlet; there was  another Roman port slightly up-river at Crandon Bridge, and a Roman settlement near Pawlett.

Map showing the inlet where the harbour at Combwich would have been, the locations of the ford and Cannington Park. The red squares show the possible route of the herapath

Map showing the inlet where the harbour at Combwich would have been, the locations of the ford and Cannington Park. The red squares show the possible route of the herepath

A ford across the river at Combwich marked the start of a Saxon herepath – or military road – which led west across the Quantocks. Herepaths were wide routes which allowed the marching armies to move swiftly.

For what it’s worth (possibly not much), this herepath left Combwich and passed south of Cannington camp (“In the Saxon period, however, the herepath, the military road, ran from Combwich over the Quantocks between the estate centres at Cannington and Williton” Somerset Urban Archaeological surveys: Nether Stowey, Clare Gathercole), Cannington being a suggested site of – arx Cynuit. The mouth of the Parrett provided easy access for the Danish ships. The Parker manuscript records better news for the Saxons this time:

Her Eanulf aldorman gefeaht mid Sumursætum 7 Ealchstan biscep 7 Osric aldorman mid Dornsætum gefuhton æt Pedridan muþan wiþ Deniscne here 7 þær micel węl geslogon 7 sige namon.

‘In this year ealdorman Eanwulf with the men of Somerset and Bishop Ealchstan and ealdorman Osric with the men of Dorset fought at the mouth of the Parrett with the Danish host; there was much slaughter and they were victorious.’

Ealhstan (d.867) was bishop of Sherborne, a diocese which stretched over Dorset, Somerset, Devon and, eventually, Cornwall according to Richard Abels (p. 30-31). Eanwulf, ealdorman of Somerset, was granted land to the SE of Glastonbury by King Æthelwulf in 842; he was named as the king’s ‘princeps’.  Couldn’t find anything about Osric. But those were the leaders of the Saxon force that triumphed over the Danes.

King Æethelwulf, who was reigning when this raid took place

King Æethelwulf, who was reigning when this raid took place

However, although this event is not mentioned by Asser, he does have something to say about the bishop and ealdorman:

§12. Interia tamen, Aethelwulfo rege ultra mare tantillo tempore immorante, quaedam infamia contra morem omnium Christianorum in occidentali parte Selwuda orta est. Nam Aethelbaldus rex, et Ealhstan, Scireburnensis ecclesiae episcopus, Eanwulf quoque Summurtunensis pagae comes coniurasse referuntur, ne unquam Aethelwulf rex, a Roma revertens, iterum in regno reciperetur. 

Roughly: while King Æthelwulf was in Rome, his second son Æthelbald, with Ealhstan and Eanwulf, plotted against him to prevent his return. Or some, or all, of the three. But the conspiracy fizzled out when Æthelwulf returned (because he was wise and loved by his people).

And this is the area where the Danes arrived in 845 (or 848). It must be presumed that this was in Somerset (as now), not Devon, since Eanwulf was ealdorman of Somerset.

And this is all I have to say about the raid æt Pedridan muþan for the moment.

The Danish raids (1): Carhampton

Looking at all the various N. Somerset raids reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may take a bit longer than I’d thought, but first of all: Carhampton, not because it’s a probable site of our battle in 878 but because there are interesting things to look at.

The town/village of Carhampton is set slightly back from the coast, roughly equidistant between Minehead and Watchet. Coastal access would be at the village of Blue Anchor (the name of a public house, m’lud). There was a Hundred of Carhampton, so this was the presumed hundredal meeting place, and mustering point for the Hundred’s fyrd. It is thought that it was also the site of a royal estate (though who thought it and why I’m not very sure: note, investigate).

A different scene altogether from the cliffs at Countisbury: Carhampton was much more vulnerable to raids

A different scene altogether from the cliffs at Countisbury: Carhampton was much more vulnerable to the Danish raids

All in all, it was a place where there would have been likely to be thegns and royal officers around looking after the king’s affairs in his absence. Unlike by Countisbury, where the cliffs are steep and high, the coast at this point is more accessible from the sea.

In the Domesday Book Carhampton is listed as Carentone, and scholarly orthodoxy is that the name derives from OE carr, rock; with the dative plural carren + tun meaning the farm by the rocks (and not from the name of St Carantoc). My impression is that people have had to look quite hard to find these rocks; however, this is important because our first raid was reported as 833 (probably 836):  This precedes Asser’s Life of Alfred, so the Chronicle is the main source: Mss A, B, C, D, E have approximately the identical entry:

Ms A (Parker): Her gefeaht Ecgbryht cyning wiþ .xxxv. sciphlæsta æt Carrum 7 þær wearþ micel węl geslægen, 7 þa Denescan ahton węlstowe gewald

‘In this year King Egbert fought with 35 ‘shiploads’ æt Carrum and there was great slaughter, and the Danes had the place of slaughter‘ (meaning of phrase somewhat disputed as to whether it indicates defeat or victory, but I think here it means the Danes won).

There are still some sources identifying æt Carrum with Charminster on the Dorset coast (philologically unlikely, since the Domesday name for Charminster is Cernemude, where the first two syllables certainly refer to a river name). There was also an earlier guess that it was somewhere in Kent.

KIng Alfred's son Edward the Elder who inherited the estate of Carhampton

KIng Alfred’s son Edward the Elder who inherited the estate of Carhampton

It’s mentioned in King Alfred’s Will as Carumtune, one of the first places named and one of those bequeathed to his son Edward the Elder (which does look as if it was a royal estate then), who reigned from 899-924.

Second raid, 840 (probably 843): Oh, dear. The five manuscripts have an entry almost identical with the previous one. The only change is that, Egbert having died in 839, the king’s name this time is Æthelwulf (his son, and Alfred’s father). And he was defeated too (if he was):

Ms A (Parker): Her Ęþelwulf cyning gefeaht æt Carrum wiþ .xxxv. schiplæsta, 7 þa Deniscan ahton węstowe gewald.

‘In this year King Æthelwulf fought against 35 shiploads æt Carrum, and the Danes had the place of slaughter.’

Summing up then: we seem to have at least one (maybe two) Saxon defeats (or victories) at the hands of the Danes æt Carrum in roughly 833-843, which may, in fact probably was, at Carhampton. And the king was Egbert and/or Æthelwulf.

Further accounts may strengthen the claim of Carhampton as the location of the raid(s), so onward we shall go next time,

The Battle of Cynuit (2)

Back on track: the so-called ‘Battle of Cynuit’ was a shadowy event that took place in 878, shadowy because the Chronicle has little to say about it, though Asser has a bit more.

According to Asser, the Great Heathen Army  split into separate forces in 874; one section, under Halfdan went north, the other had three leaders – Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend. This is the branch that went to Cambridge, to Wareham, to Exeter, probably/possibly to Gloucester and finally descended on the royal estate at Chippenham in 878, causing Alfred to take flight to Somerset.

So, who were the Vikings who wintered in Demetica regione in 878 and sailed ad Domnaniam – on Defenascire and were slaughtered in front of the arx Cynuit? One would suppose them connected with those who had been invading Ireland. One of their leaders was Ímar, or Ivar, who had died in 873. His fame apparently lived after him since whoever led the attack on arx Cynuit in 878 is identified only as the brother of Inwær/Ingvar (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) or Inwari (Asser), though is not  himself named (Ubba is suggested).

There must have been several hundred thegns (ministri regis) cornered in arx Cynuit since they eventually slaughtered at least 800 invaders (perhaps 1,200). Why were they all in the fortress? Asser says, ‘in eadem arce multi ministri regis cum suis se concluserant confugii causa– they were seeking refuge. In what circumstances? The ministri regis served the king in various capacities, some but not all in a military capacity. Had they witnessed the approach of the Viking fleet? That would mean they were already gathered together somewhere, for some purpose. Why would they have been near present-day Countisbury?

A large Viking longship: the shape allows for landing on beaches and sailing up quite shallow navigable rivers

A large Viking longship: the shape allows for landing on beaches and sailing up quite shallow navigable rivers

Anyway, after the Saxons had taken refuge within this natural stronghold, the Vikings had presumably taken up their siege position on its vulnerable east side. It’s intriguing to think that they might have arrived there by sailing up the East Lyn River, since the shallow drafts of their warships enabled them to sail quite far up navigable rivers and appear in places where they were not expected. Or would it have been too shallow and rocky? At any rate, the fleet had to land somewhere and the cliffs below Wind Hill were too steep to climb very easily.

Would 23 ships, each with, say, 35 oarsmen (total 805) aboard have been able to make their way up the river (in Gaul at this time Viking fleets made up of hundreds of ships sailed up the River Seine in raids)? An engraving shows the position of the fortress quite well, with Wind Hill and the earthwork rampart on the far side. If Countisbury was the correct site, it does seem as if the only way to besiege the refugees in their stronghold was to sail up the river to where access was easier. It may be that there was access from the beach further to the east, perhaps as far as Porlock.

The mouth of the River Lyn and the valley of the East Lyn river

The mouth of the River Lyn and the valley of the East Lyn river

Wind Hill Iron Age fort, facing the eastern earthwork

Wind Hill Iron Age fort, facing the eastern earthwork

I don’t have a lot more to say about this, but may sum up in a further post.

Movin’ on

Having conceded defeat on the location of the Battle of Edington, I take up another issue. First, a new map (much like several others already posted): this is from the Langport and River Parrett Visitor Centre and is an illustration of the present day extent of the Somerset Levels. These are now largely drained except when there is flooding: no permanent swamps, but you can still see the familiar shapes of several ‘islands’ and the westward pointing ‘finger’ of the Polden Hills.

The Levels and some interesting places

The Levels and some interesting places

In early modern times there was a ferry between Combwich and Pawlett, and before that there was thought to have been a Roman ford.  Combwich itself had a harbour and this whole area was quite heavily Romanised. There are the remains of a Roman settlement under the M5 by Pawlett.

I’ve marked the Fosse Way and the Roman road along the Poldens, both passing through the Roman Lindinis (Ilchester); also the crossings from Street to Glastonbury and from Combwich to Pawlett. The main mass to the north is Mendip, of course, pushing out to Brean Down and Kewstoke;  to the west, beyond ‘Cummidge’ and Cannington, are the Quantocks.

Crandon Bridge, now across the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, was in earlier times on the River Parrett whose course roughly corresponded in places with where the Drain is now. And Crandon Bridge was in fact a port in Roman times. This is an article by Stephen Rippon about the coastal trade at the time of the Romans. I have purloined one of his diagrams (below). I hope he will not mind: it is so very à propos as it shows where the old course of the river was. I have added a bit of colouring.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 21.29.01According to Stephen Rippon’s article in which he wrote up details of the excavations carried out before the M5 destroyed so much of the archaeology, the main goods seem to have been pottery and coal, and perhaps stone for building. He suggests the port supplied the legionary fortress at Caerleon, where a large Roman port has also been recently discovered.

This is all very interesting, but next I want to look at Combwich and Cannington which have provided more grounds for speculation. What I wanted to establish here was that this was a centre of navigation as well as having good communications by road; that the Parrett was navigable as far as Crandon Bridge and beyond.

Well, one has to admit …

… it is at least tempting.  A few blogs ago, I wrote: ‘Eþandune was NOT, alas, Edington in Somerset, in the Polden Hills not far from Athelney’, and then I thought ‘but supposing it was’.

I’ve found a very interesting map prepared by the River Parrett Drainage Board to show the areas on either side of the river that were liable to flooding  (it shows, not unsurprisingly, a remarkable resemblance to the conjectural maps of AD 1000 and AD 390 before drainage began on the Levels, when the Parrett valley was dotted with a number of small islands amid water or swamp).

I have superimposed the Ordnance Survey map over it: the Drainage Board map wasn’t 100% accurate, so there isn’t perfect congruence. On this combined map I’ve shown the main routes to and from Ilchester (click on this to enlarge).

Ordnance Survey superimposed on Parrett Drainage Board map

Ordnance Survey superimposed on Parrett Drainage Board map

The Fosse Way goes from centre bottom to top rightish. The lower section of the A37 is the road from Dorchester, and a continuation passes through Somerton to the eastern end of the Poldens, near Street (Domesday Strate from Latin strata, the Roman road, or causeway across the River Brue, to Glastonbury). From Street, a Roman road passed along the ridge of the Poldens, through Edington and probably on to Pawlett where a ford crossed the river to the port of Combwich – about which, more later. The two other roads running roughly west-east lead to Kingston Deverill and Penselwood respectively.

The blue circles pinpoint Oakley (Æcglea?), Edington (Eþandune?), Aller (Alre) and, just off to the north, Wedmore (Weþmor). Too neat? From Oakley the fyrd marched up the Roman road to the Poldens and along to Edington?

Except, of, course, that that doesn’t quite work. If Guthrum had come from the direction of Chippenham,  was he heading west along the Poldens and did Alfred chase after him?  Or did he approach Edington from the north? And where was the stronghold where he was driven back and besieged for a fortnight?

Although an as-the-crow-flies straight line from Chippenham to Edington passes enticingly pretty much through Bath and Wells, it’s hard to see how Guthrum would have come to be in Edington. And even if they did do battle there, Asser said Alfred pursued Guthrum back to the ‘Viking stronghold’ (‘ante portas paganicae‘) and made camp outside the gates until Guthrum was forced to concede through lack of supplies. What stronghold? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle just says ‘him æfter rad oþ þæt geweorc‘, ‘pursued him up to the fortification’. And Henry of Huntingdon, ‘eum persecutus est usque ad firmitatem suam‘. Having then been forced into making certain promises, Guthrum came three weeks later to the king in Aller where he was baptised. And thence to Wedmore. If, as is supposed, the stronghold, fortification, firmitas was Chippenham, then Edington in Wiltshire must be indicated. I cannot see a likely solution in Somerset Æcglea or no Æcglea, so I fear must give up.

Oh, well.