Nearing the conclusion. Possibly.

Or at least as far as I’m likely to go. My aim was not to disprove the legend that Hubba the Dane landed at Appledore in Devon in 878 (or 879), or that arx Cynuit, the fortification in front of which the Danish leader met his death according to Asser, was in the near vicinity.

I was curious to find out why anyone ever thought it was there, why the belief dates back hundreds of years and has persisted up to the present day. Scholarly opinion gives it little credence and the early sources which record the historical event don’t pinpoint the location.

Between the earliest records (i.e. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and similiar annals deriving from it, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and, for instance, Gaimar’s Estorie des Engleis) and the time when the popular legend appeared there is a gap of several hundred years.

I’ve consulted the writings of ten different historians, antiquarians and scholars, starting with John Leland who undertook his West Country Itinerary in 1542/3, and ending with Robert Studley Vidal, who wrote his letter to Archæologia in 1804. Of these, William Camden seems to me to have played a pivotal role here. The first edition of his Britannia was published in 1586 and the last in 1607 and there are important changes between the two. But leaving him for the moment …

John Leland

John Leland

1. Before him was John Leland, whose Itinerary wasn’t published until the 18th century. He doesn’t appear to have heard anything of the legend – or at least he didn’t think it worth mentioning:

The ryver of Taw is no very mayne streame at the ebbe as it apperith at Berstaple. From Berstaple to the very haven mouth a v. miles: and the very mouth of it is no large thing, and a little without is a barre. There rennith a shore on the west side of the haven; a 3. miles byneth Berstaple to this nesse or point metith the ryver of Turege and Taw togither, making a brode water, and go to the Severn se [ed. Toulmin Smith].

And after Camden came Thomas Westcote who wrote A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX. Although this wasn’t published for over 200 years, in 1845, it does tell us what people knew or believed in 1630. There are several references to the fate of Hubba the Dane, and it’s worth looking at each of these extracts:

1. [p 89 Book I Ch XXIII]

Thought of some [stones] to be there erected and fixed in memory of the great victory at the overthrow and slaughter of Hubba, the Dane; who, with Hungar, his associate, having harried over all the country, from Eglisdon (now St. Edmondsbury,) to this country, was here utterly vanquished, and with his whole army slain, anno 879, and the banner (wherein was curiously wrought, by the fingers of the daughters of King Loth-brook, (in English, Leather-breech,) a raven, which they called Rephan, whereon they reposed no small confidence for good success, having been so oftentimes fortunately and with so happy success displayed,) taken, and the place since that time called Hubbleston. But for that place we may perchance find it hereafter near the mouth of Torridge.

This could either mean that possibly the site is ‘near the mouth of Torridge’ (but it could be elsewhere); or, more literally, that he understands it to be there and he may perhaps be able to find it.

2. [p 275 Book IV Ch VIII]

Now I thought I might have left Chulmleigh, but I am staid at Stone-Castle. Asserius speaking of the overthrow of Hubba the Dane, who had so horribly vexed our country, says it was at Kenwith-Castle, and the place after was called Hubble-Stow, or Hubbes-Stone. We shall seek this place at Henna, or Hennaborow, in Northam, and at Instow; and what we shall find there we will impart to you. Some would have Hubble-Stone to be this castle, (now by the ruins a heap of stones,) for site, strong on every side but east; so was this: and as it hath lost its strength and beauty, so it hath lost (if it be the same,) the two first syllables of its name.

It’s not known what version of Asser’s work Westcote had seen, but there is no mention of anything like Hubble-Stow or Hubbes-Stone in the surviving text, nor did Asser name Hubba. I looked at Matthew Parker’s ‘editorialised’ version of 1574 and there was no additional information in that passage either.

Asser, of course, wrote of arx Cynuit, not ‘Kenwith-Castle’.  Interestingly, in 1630 Westcote is referring to the actual site as Henna or Hennaborow, which accords with Vidal’s information that local people knew it as Henni Castle or Henni-borough (and not Kenwith which they said was a recent name).

3. [p310-11 Book IV Ch XIX]

Here [Instow] I should seek for Kenwith Castle, where Hubba, the Dane, was overthrown, and the place after called Hubblestow: now whether it should be here or not is questionable. The congruity of the names may somewhat persuade and import much, as Instowe abbreviated from Danestow, and that again from Hub-dan-stow; and over against it, on the farther side of Torridge, the inhabitants of Northam have a place which they call Hubblestow, or Hubblestone. Let everyone applaud his own opinion: you know mine; and what I find elsewhere I will impart unto you.

Instow is opposite Appledore, on the other side of the Torridge, so is a quite distinct site. Westcote’s etymologising is worthy of William Baxter: since the name in Domesday is Iohannestou and the medieval (14th c.) church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, that would seem to be at the origin of the name.

Church of St John the Baptist, Instow

Church of St John the Baptist, Instow

4. [p342 Book IV Ch XXVIII]

Here [Northam] may we see some remains of the Castle Hennaburgh as it is said, as also that hereby was Kenith-Castle, so famous for that Hubba the Dane was vanquished at the siege thereof and slain, and his ominous banner Refan taken: in remembrance whereof a great heap of stones was there piled up together as a trophy of the victory gotten by the natives, and the place yet remembered by the name Whibbestow ; not much exchanged from Asserius his word Hubbastow. Though the heap of stones be long time since swept away by the continual encroaching of the sea. But to tell you truly, I find as many places in this county claim the honour of this victory, as cities in Greece for the birth of Homer.

Again Westcote refers to Asser’s mention of ‘Hubbastow’. If indeed he did find it in the copy which he saw of Asser’s Life of Alfred, it seems likely that it was a later addition. Hubbastow is a Saxon form (Hubba + stow) – Hubba’s Place, and therefore distinct from Gaimar’s Ubbelawe (Ubbe + hlāw) – Hubba’s burial mound.

The burial itself may also have been a late introduction (by Gaimar?) into the narrative, since Asser’s version was that few Danes survived and escaped to their ships. This seemed to leave little opportunity for them to find their dead leader among the hundreds of corpses and bury him beneath a monument of stones.

5. [p 350 Book V Ch I]

Westcote says he was given the poem, of which this is part, by Tristram Risdon, who completed his own Chorographical description or survey of the county of Devon in about 1632, roughly two years later, though he certainly started it several years before. Although this wasn’t published until 1811, the manuscript circulated among his antiquarian friends, of whom Westcote was one; so they knew each other’s work. Here the poet (Risdon himself, I presume) is describing the river Torridge:

At Bideford with bridge his stream is crown’d,
For number and fair arches much renown’d.
His tilting tides near unto Appledore
Have clean swept Hubba’s trophy off the shore
That there was set : posterity might know
At Kenwith Castle his great overthrow.
So forcible are those his swelling waves
They wash the dead again out of their graves.
Forward she forceth on the sandy burrows
On what we term the Bar, in foaming furrows.

So before we get back to Camden, the outline of the legend is in place: Appledore, Kenwith Castle, Hubba, Hubbastone, the Raven banner. We still lack ealdorman Odda – or earl Oddune – and the origin of Northam’s Bloody Corner. This is also a detail which doesn’t fit the facts. If Henni Castle is arx Cynuit then Bloody Corner can hardly be the site of the battle: Asser’s narrative describes how the Saxons burst out of the stronghold early in the morning and fell upon the besieging Danes, taking them by surprise. The Saxons would have had to pursue the fleeing enemy for a good two miles before slaying them at Bloody Corner, Northam. That is not what the surprise attack implies.

An assemblage of facts could provide an explanation of the origin of the legend, possibly. But that’s for next time.

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).

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-20-44-40

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.