What does Gaimar say?

Tracking down an Anglo-Norman text of Geffrei Gaimar’s metrical Estorie des Engles that a) doesn’t cost a 3-figure sum and b) is out of copyright took a while. Prof. Short’s now definitive 2009 edition fell down on both these counts. However, his new background information and the critical apparatus were easier to access. I shan’t consider all the interesting questions such as Gaimar’s identity or which sources he used,  as only the dozen or so lines dealing with the ‘Battle of Cynuit’ event are of immediate importance.

Thomas Wright, antiquarian (1810-1877)

Thomas Wright, antiquarian (1810-1877)

The text I’ve used is Thomas Wright’s edition for the Caxton Society, published in 1850, which he based on Ms. R – British Library Royal 13 A xxi – the same manuscript used by Prof. Short. Wright was a highly respected scholar, archaeologist and antiquary in his day: I have left his text unemended, even where obvious corrections could have been suggested. Though old, it is has a latter day relevance to the current question …

Gaimar completed his ‘Estorie’ just before 1140, more than 150 years after Æthelweard wrote his Chronicon. So this was not merely 250 years after the event but also after a seismic régime change in England: no more marauding Danes but Norman French rulers. With the changed society came the poet Geffrei Gaimar, in the service of the Anglo-Norman nobility.

We gathered from the earlier sources that a Danish force landed somewhere in Devon, with 23 or 30 ships; it was led by a brother of Hynguar, possibly his brother Healfdene or a third, unnamed, brother. They may have besieged a band of Saxon thegns (who may have been led by Odda, the ealdorman of Devon) in a stronghold called arx Cynuit, naturally defended on three sides but vulnerable on the eastern side. The two sides engaged in battle and 800-odd Danes, including their leader, were killed. The leader’s Raven banner may have been captured. Finally, unlikely though it may seem, the Danes might actually have won, though the general opinion was that they lost quite badly …

As far as a connection with the west Devonshire coast is concerned, that’s all we had. So what does Gaimar’s version add to the story? I’m going to take the lines 3147 – 3158.

Context: The Danes have attacked Chippenham and caused King Alfred to flee into the wastelands of Somerset ‘to escape their bloody hands’; he had difficulty in gathering any of his forces together to fight with him, while the Danes wrought destruction and caused the people to flee. Nevertheless, even then Alfred managed to kill some of them: ‘Sovent oscist de lur asquanz.’ (l. 3146)

This is the point where the narrative introduces such details as allow us (just) to recognise the battle at arx Cynuit, immediately after Gaimar relates that Alfred has killed some of the Danes:

Un frere Iware e Haldene               A brother of Iware and Haldene  l. 3147

En fu oscis el bois de Pene;             Was killed in Pene Wood

Ubbe out à nun, un mal fesant;     His name was Ubba, a miscreant;

Does that imply that Ubba was one of those killed by Alfred? Is En an adverb of time or place? Or is it a pronoun (‘of them’)? Or just a phatic syllable to complete the octosyllabic line? Where was the bois de Pene? Were those critics right in associating Penselwood in Somerset – Pen Selwood – with King Alfred’s Tower and the mysterious Egbert’s Stone, Ecgbryhtesstan? In Gaimar’s narrative, Alfred  builds up his stronghold in Athelney and four weeks later, after Easter he rides back to ‘Ecbrichstane, in the east of Selwood’: Après Paske quatre semaine/Chevacha à Ecbrichstane/ Co est del hest de Selewode. (ll. 3165-3167).


Penselwood in Somerset appeared in the Domesday Book as ‘Penne’

Ubba has been killed in battle, but so far nothing has linked his whereabouts to west Devon. Gaimar goes on (the  translation doesn’t quite correspond line by line because of the word order):

Sur li firent hoge mult grant                  Over him the Danes built …      l. 3150

Li Daneis, quant l’ourent trové:            A great mound, when they found him:

Ubbelawe l’unt apelé.                            They called it Ubba’s Mound.

La hoge est en Deveneschire.               The burial mound is in Devonshire

So Ubba is named as a brother of Iware and Haldene, killed in battle and buried by the Danes (no mention of Odda here). The mention of ‘Ubbelawe’ is part of the west Devon legend, yet Gaimar’s story doesn’t connect it with the coast. The Danes don’t even arrive in ships: one would assume they were part of the Great Heathen Army already in the Midlands. Apart from the single mention of Ubba’s burial place, all other indications are that this battle took place further east, somewhere in Somerset; it isn’t absolutely clear that the Danes were fighting against Alfred with such forces as he had managed to muster: they still might have landed on the north Devon or Somerset coast but the text doesn’t suggest it.

De gent i out bien grant martyre,           There was great slaughter of men,

Huit cenz quarante en i morurent,        Eight hundred and forty died there,

Quinchald, feluns, perjures furent;         So what? They were criminals and oath-breakers;

Conquis i fu le gumfanun                       There was Ubba’s standard won

Ubbe, ke Raven out nun.                         That was called Raven.

These lines show the clearest evidence that Gaimar had  Anglo-Saxon source material, directly or indirectly. The 840 victims ties in with ASC, but also the name Ubbelawe has the Old English element hlāw, meaning mound or tumulus; and Raven or hræfn doesn’t seem to show any similarity with Gaimar’s Anglo-Norman vocabulary. Deveneschire is also Old English.

The greatest puzzle is geographical: there simply is no textual evidence in Gaimar that the event was connected anywhere near the mouth of the River Taw, or on the River Torridge. And yet, the tradition grew up there. Why? An interesting antiquarian point is Thomas Wright’s footnote to ll. 3148ff. on p.108:

“Gaimar has here added to the information given in the Saxon Chronicle, but it is impossible to say from what source he derived his additional matter. The Chronicle merely says that Ubba was killed in Devonshire [NB No extant version of the Chronicle names Ubba – OS]; the life of Alfred which goes under the name of Asser calls the place Cynuit; it is now called Kinnith or Kenny Castle, near Appledore, in Barnstaple Bay. I am informed that there was formerly a mound on the “Barrows” or sand beach at Appledore, which was called Hubbaston, Ubbaston, and Whibblestan; but it has been long swept away by the tides.”

Detail: Benjamin Donne's 1765 map of Devon showing 'Henny Castle olim K[e]nnith'

Detail: Benjamin Donn’s 1765 map of Devon showing ‘Henny Castle olim Kenwith’ (nearby is Godborough Castle)

Which simply tells us what we already knew: by 1850 the legend had been firmly established for centuries and had now become accepted wisdom. In The Historical Gazetteer of England’s Place-Names, Hubbastone is the only name noted that seemed to have any relevance, a place in the parish of Northam, in Shebbear Hundred. The earliest reference given is the spelling Hubberstone, noted in 1765, although the sources consulted go back to Saxon times.


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.

Which route? (1)

Which route did Alfred take when he left Athelney for Eþandune? Two  factors that he would have borne in mind:

Old trackways link settlements, bridges, burial sites &c.

The old trackways link settlements, bridges, burial sites &c.

1. He would have had to have kept as far as possible to the uplands where the ground provided firm going, and where there would have been existing trackways which would have made travel faster.

2. Since each hundred maintained its ‘fyrd’ – its defence force or militia – Alfred would roughly have taken a route past the meeting places and villages where he could gather his Somerset ‘people’ as he progressed. He must have left Athelney with his small band of retainers, on horseback (equitavit, ‘he gerad’), over the causeway  to East Lyng – rather than struggling across the marshes, hiphopping over a succession of islands until he reached the higher land to the east.

Langport (600 hides) was the next burh en route to Selwood; so crossing the river Tone from Lyng, Alfred would then have followed the southern bank of the Parrett to Langport (Somerton hundred), where he could cross to the other side of the river. From there he would surely have made for Somerton itself, chief town of the Somerton hundred and of Somerset, where the Somerton fyrd could join him and he could gather supplies and equipment .

What then? Would he have zig-zagged his way along, passing through the key towns, or made a fairly straight journey sending messengers to nearby towns summoning the fyrds? I think there would have been no need for the entire troop to visit each place. If the rallying point for the Wiltshire and Hampshire fyrds was to be Ecgbryht’s Stane (as Asser said), it would have made sense to send  swifter messengers to the various towns and get the fyrds with supplies and equipment to follow him.

If Penselwood is taken as the site of Ecgbryht’s Stane, as scholars think, that would suggest a southerly route, perhaps through Ilchester, Queen Camel, South Cadbury and Wincanton. But, in reality, there is little significance in the fact that Penselwood is at the tripoint between Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset since Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle make no mention of the men of Dorset joining at this point, but of Hampshire.

If a line from Athelney to Penselwood is extended, most of Hampshire, centred on Andover, Basingstoke and Farnborough, lies to the north of that line and Edington is well to the north. Why go down to Penselwood?

RoutesBlue route to Penselwood, red route to Bruton

I would suggest that Alfred proceeded, from Somerton, to Keinton Mandeville (Blachathorna hundred) and crossed the Fosse Way at Lydford on Fosse, to Castle Cary (Blachathorna hundred) which was a large settlement: it had 58 households to Somerton’s 52.7 – though this may have provided fewer able-bodied men. Thence to Bruton (Bruton hundred), another meeting place.  Then to the small village of Redlynch where … and here there are three interesting clues – coincidences, even. (To be continued)

The other early source

[Please note: I am not a Anglo-Saxon scholar, so the translation may not be 100% accurate. In fact, I’m not a Latin scholar, so those translations may not be beyond reproach either.]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably written (in Anglo-Saxon) at about the same time as Asser’s Latin account, perhaps a year earlier. Asser seems to have known it and translated bits into Latin. For the year 878, we read:

The Peterborough chronicle: Brittene igland is ehta hund mila lang. 7 twa hund brad

The Peterborough chronicle: Brittene igland is ehta hund mila lang. 7 twa hund brad

Her hiene bestæl se here on midne winter ofer tuelftan niht to Cippanhamme, 7 geridon Wesseaxna lond 7 gesæton 7 micel þæs folces ofer sæ adræfdon, 7 þæs oþres þone mæstan dæl hie geridon, 7 him to gecirdon buton þam cyninge Ælfrede. 7 he lytle werede unieþelice æfter wudum for, 7 on morfæstenum [ … ] 7 þæs on Eastron worhte ælfred cyning lytle werede geweorc æt Æþelingaeigge, 7 of þam geweorce was winnende wiþ þone here, 7 Sumursætna se dæl, se þær niehst wæs; Þa on þære seofoðan wiecan ofer Eastron he gerad to Ecgbryhtes stane be eastan Sealwyda, 7 him to common þær ongen Sumorsæte alle, 7 Wilsætan, 7 Hamtunscir se dæl, se hiere behinon sæ was, 7 his gefægene wærun; 7 he for ymb ane niht of þam wicum to Iglea, 7 þæs ymb ane to Eþandune …

“At this time in mid-winter, after Twelfth Night, the [Viking] army stole into Chippenham and overran the land of the West-Saxons, settling there and driving many of the people over the sea. Most of the rest they rode down and forced them to submit, except Alfred the king. He, with a few troops, and with great difficulty made for the woods and the protection of the swamps [… ] In the Easter of this year King Alfred with his little force constructed a fortification at Athelney, from which, aided by the forces of Somerset that were nearest, he attacked the enemy army. Then, in the seventh week after Easter, he rode to Ecgbryhtes stane [Egbert’s Stone] by the eastern side of Selwood. And all the people of Somerserset, and Wiltshire came out to meet him, and those of Hampshire remaining on this side of the sea. And they rejoiced to see him. And after one night he went from his camp to [Iglea-Iley] and went on to Edington …”

The western site

The Time Team excavations at the western – fort – end of Athelney proved to be more interesting. What seems to be established is that this was the site of an Iron Age fort with a fortification of some sort running around the  western end; it defended a narrow causeway leading to East Lyng.

This was apparently the only access to the island and was probably the way Alfred arrived. As it provided the only access for an invading army,  it seems that Alfred strengthened the existing defences at this point.

Impenetrable reeds

Impenetrable vegetation on the marshes

A hypothesis of the Time Team was that the surrounding marshes at the time of Alfred were filled with thick reeds or sedge which would have made it near impossible to reach the island by boat or punt.

Other archaeological discoveries were extensive signs of metal-working slag, even of steel-making, which seemed to indicate the Saxon presence as they were highly skilled at making steel. A scythe-type blade was found, and a knife with a horn handle may also have dated from that time. The conclusion was that this may have been a centre of weapon-making for the Saxon army – Alfred’s army since he is known to have been on the island.

What didn’t emerge was any indication of whether the island was at any point inhabited. The seventh-century saint, Æthelwine (Egelwine) of Athelney, was son of King Cynegils (611-642) and brother of King Cenwealh (642-672), rulers of the West Saxons. He had lived the life of a hermit on Athelney and the possibility has been mooted that Athelney, Athelings’ Island, was rather a corruption of Æthelwine’s Island. Ockham’s Razor supports this, since evidence as to who (or when) the Athelings, or Princes, were is lacking.

Æthelwine would have been on Athelney 200 years before Alfred (in fact, the later abbey was dedicated to the saints Peter, Paul and Egelwine). As the island was no more than about 800 yards long and 300 yards wide, it wouldn’t have been much of a refuge for a hermit if there were any sized population living nearby.

But what does this say about the likelihood of there being any inhabitants at all when Alfred arrived? He came alone, ‘an exile’, crossing by the causeway, and promptly spotted the hut of a swineherd who lived there with his wife …

Why did he have an entire herd of pigs? Did he breed them? Were they all for home consumption? Were the couple self-sufficient, growing their own wheat for flour to bake their bread? And boiling the surrounding salt water for drinking? Why would they choose such a remote place to live? Alone? If the swineherd drove his herd off to their usual pasture, as the story said, did that mean he kept them indoors overnight? Close to the hut to prevent them being stolen? And who was making these metal implements for Alfred’s army if he was alone when he arrived?

It all sounds a bit strange. Perhaps we should look at another version of the events …

The rains came …

But returning to our island, below is a Met Office satellite picture (much enlarged, placenames added) taken on 23 January 2014. The southern Somerset Levels resemble the Great Lakes. Channel 4’s Time Team made excavations (about which, more later) on both sections of the island site. On the eastern section they found subterranean traces of the medieval Athelney Abbey (post-Alfred); and on the western section the remains of metal-working, considered to be Saxon.

The initial ‘A’ of Athelney is just below the abbey site, to the left of it is the fortress site and to the left again is the causeway leading to East Lyng. More than 1,000 years after Alfred sought refuge in the levels they become as watery as ever – now from the flooding of the rivers over the low-lying land, but before that by the receding of the sea.

The Jan 2014 floods

The Jan 2014 floods


How did he get there?

Alfred was in his winter quarters in Chippenham when on 6 January 878 Guthrum, King of the Danes, launched a surprise attack in the middle of the night and Alfred was forced to flee. Some versions say he fled with his family, others with a small band of men, perhaps soldiers, perhaps servants.

He made for the Somerset marshes (an area that was already familiar to him) and holed up in Athelney. How he reached the ‘island’ itself is unclear as Asser, in his Life of Alfred, said it was ‘surrounded on all sides by very great swampy and impassable marshes, so that no one can approach it by any means except in punts, or by a bridge which has been made with laborious skill between two fortresses’.

Inland salt marsh landscape

Inland salt marsh landscape

And writing in the early 12th c., William of Malmesbury described it as ‘a certain island called Athelney, which from its marshy situation was hardly accessible’ – etiam in insulam quandam palustri uligine vix accessibilem, vocabulo Adelingia, refugerit.

Somerset coastline and inland salt marsh 1000 AD

Somerset coastline and inland salt marsh 1000 AD

The map shows the Somerset coastline in 1000 AD, and the extent of the ‘vast salt marshes’. The light rectangle shows the position of Athelney. It was not much higher than the surrounding marsh and consisted of two low hills; on the more northern one Alfred founded his abbey, the one to the south had had an Iron Age fort which it seems Alfred rebuilt as a fortress of his own.

Somewhere on this island, alone, so the legend goes, Alfred found the swineherd’s hut, though it seems more likely that it was an illustrative story which shows Alfred’s humility (and links him with St Neot – to enhance the latter’s reputation). History says he stayed in this place for four months, though probably not alone. The Saxons eventually regrouped, and the following May they defeated Guthrum’s Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Ethandun.