Tristram Risdon

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-19-07-36In 1701, John Prince (1643-1723) published his great work, The Worthies of Devon, describing the most prominent personages of the county. Among these was Thomas Risdon (d. 1641), Bencher of the Inner Temple; and tacked on at the end of the entry on Thomas, under the same heading, Prince appended a note on Thomas’s cousin: “To this family belonged Tristram Risdon, the famous antiquary of the county of Devon”.

There followed a description of how the young gentleman had  ‘a good school-education’, went up to Oxford, though left  ‘without taking any scholastick degree’, retiring to his (newly) inherited estate at Winscott, St Giles in the Wood, some 12 miles inland from Bideford.

There from 1605, probably not long after his return from Oxford, Risdon devoted himself to the antiquarian study which finally produced the Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon, never published in his lifetime though a number of manuscripts circulated among interested parties.

Prince considered him worth at least an extended note in the article on his kinsman Thomas, though not quite worthy enough to merit an article of his own (the Survey of Devon had still to be published). Nevertheless, he waxed indignant at the criticism levelled at the author of the Survey : ‘Some there are, I know, who either to boast their own skill, which is not much, or to vent their malice, which is more, carp and cavil at this worthy person’s performance herein; and pretend him to be mistaken in things very near his home.’ Who these critics were and of what mistaken views Risdon was accused, Prince does not reveal.

Wm Camden, Britannia, pub. Radulphus Newbery, 1586

Wm Camden, Britannia, pub. Radulphus Newbery, 1586

What we can say, to recap, is that Risdon was not the first to associate the Battle of Cynuit and Hubba the Dane with this corner of Devon, near the river Taw. Camden had heard about this by 1586 when the first edition of Britannia was published in which he was wondering whether Chimligh/Chulmleigh was the location of ‘Kinuith castrum‘.

Risdon nevertheless had a role to play in the story. He might, indeed, have caused Camden to abandon any thought that arx Cynuit was located near Chulmleigh, even if his own studies (still at a very early stage in 1607) had not yet  thrown up a clear alternative.


Tracing the narrative back: Countisbury = Cynuit

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 16.21.55Having now consulted the’ oracle’ of Gover et al., PNDevon, pp 62 -63, it’s difficult to know how to approach this. Scholarly publications such as  Alfred the Great, Keynes and Lapidge, 1983; The Defence of Wessex, Hill and Rumble, 1996; and A Dictionary of British Place Names, AD Mills, 2003, rev 2011, raise no doubts over the identification of arx Cynuit with Countisbury, and reference Gover et al. as evidence.

First, it is to be noted that Gover et al., PNDevon was published in 1931-32, which doesn’t automatically make it unreliable. I just mention it: the English Place Name Society’s publications are considered to be ‘definitive’, but this is now more than 80 years old.

But second, the Countisbury article opens with the sentence:  “Plummer was probably right [ … ] in identifying this with the arx Cynuit of Asser … ” Only ‘probably’? So Gover was more equivocal than recent works would imply?

On phonology: Gover quotes Ekwall’s River Names (1928) where as an example Cound Brook, Shropshire, derives from Domesday Cuneet, with several attested 13th-c. forms (Cunet, Cunette, Cunethe, Cunede &c). Ekwall thinks them very likely [sic] to be from Old Welsh Cunēt from British Cunētiō. The vowel change [to –ou-] ‘seems to be late’, he says.

Cound brook

Cound Brook, Shropshire

But the Domesday form of Countisbury is Contesberie. There is no similar early form with –unet-, ante- or post- Domesday. And since we’re not considering orthography but phonology/phonetics, it may be relevant that Cound (Brook) is pronounced Coond.

What the evidence so far shows is that Cynuit/Cunetus could, phonologically, give a form such as Count[isbury]. That is, if (but only if) Countisbury is derived from Cynuit,  the phonology could be matched by this example; but we don’t know that it’s derived from Cynuit: it’s what we’re trying to prove. And because Cuneete gives Cound, that doesn’t mean that, of necessity, Countisbury must derive from Cuneet[sberie], or some such form. It suggests that it could.

So – if A, then B is a possibility. But A is exactly what we don’t know and can’t assume.

Ekwall is discussing British river names – Cound having the same derivation as  (the river) Kennet. East Kennett,  a village close to the Kennet (and to Roman Cunetio), was (æt) Cynetan in the 10th c. and Chenete in Domesday – neither form resembling Contesberie. And as Stevenson had pointed out, there is no sign of a river or stream near Countisbury with a similar name (the Lyn seems the only nearby watercourse, Lynton being Lintone in Domesday).

Gover deals with this snag by deciding that ‘the name Cunet here must denote a hill’. Because there’s certainly a hill at Countisbury (in fact there are two: Butter Hill, to the north, is slightly higher and marginally closer to the settlement of Countisbury than Wind Hill). It would then, says Gover, be related to Welsh cwn, ‘height’; the final -et remains unaccounted for. So arx Cynuit would have meant no more than ‘the stronghold on the hill’?

Verdict: Gover et al may be right, but the tantalising bit of the jigsaw is missing: a Saxon or Domesday or medieval version of Countisbury resembling Cynetan, Cuneetsberie, Cunedesberie – which one might have expected, given the early forms of Cound and Kennet(t).

Plummers EarleOne further point, on which Gover is mistaken: he says ‘Plummer was probably right’. This was Charles Plummer, the historian, who revised an edition of Two Saxon Chronicles (the Parker and Laud versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), published in 1892. But the original editor was the Anglo-Saxon scholar John Earle, who had published his Two Saxon Chronicles in 1865; and it was he who had first suggested Countisbury – as a possibility.

Earle was considering William Camden’s  musing on whether arx Cynuit might have been Chulmleigh, near Bideford (‘An verò Chimleigh illa sit Kinuith castrum cuius meminit Asserius, non facilè dixerim, Britannia, first ed. 1586).

Earle (a South Devon man) commented: ‘A far more probable spot appears to me to be ‘Countesbury’ near Linton; and possibly if an elder form of the name could be found, it might approach nearer to ‘Cynuit’.’

Emphatically yes, on both points here: Countisbury seems more probable than Chulmleigh (Domesday Calmonleuga); and an ‘elder form of the name’ would be good evidence – but that elder form has not yet come to light. Has it?