How it evolved: A View …

… on the west Devon connection. In fact, I may by now have forgotten a lot that I once found out, but this is a summing up of what I remember.

Camden’s first edition of Britannia in 1586 mentions the possibility that ‘Chimligh’ might have been the location of Asser’s arx Cynuit where the Viking leader Hubba Danus met his death – a suggestion which Camden confesses he isn’t certain about. But where did the suggestion originate? – Camden was mainly based in London, and his visit to Devon was apparently in 1589, three years after the publication of the first edition.

He is known to have used John Leland’s earlier research which dates from about 1543 – but Leland seemed mainly concerned with the local topography, the rivers, the hills, bridges and churches, the local gentry and where they lived … He writes of the rivers Taw and Turidge, of Berstaple, Bedeford and Apledour/Appledre, of Taringtun, Litle Tarington.

Stevenstone, the ‘fair brik house’ of Mr Rollys, is north west of St Giles in the Wood; Risdon’s Winscott is south east

He refers to ‘a very fair brik house at S Giles half a mile by est out of Taringtun’: this was Stevenstone, abode of the Rolle family (as Leland states) since about 1524. The Risdon home was also as St Giles in the Wood, at nearby Winscott, on the opposite side of St Giles. But Leland has nothing here to say about Ubba, castrum Kinuith or Chimligh/Chulmleigh, about 12 miles away.

However, these Renaissance historians were known to ‘network’ closely with each other and some (for example, John Hooker, Sir William Pole – both Devon men) were at work on their separate surveys of Devon at the end of the 16th century. Camden and William Lambarde, the Kent antiquarian, were among the first members of the College of Antiquaries, founded in about 1586 and the immediate predecessor of the 18th-c. Society of Antiquaries.  Furthermore, as Professor Richardson has written (‘William Camden and the Rediscovery of England’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archæological and Historical Society, 78 (2004), p 119):

“Localism was one of the most deeply ingrained characteristics of the Tudor and Stuart age and the country gentry were its most ardent exponents and followers. For them local history – especially the history of counties – was not a digression, a pastime, a second-best kind of history, a poor relation of historical studies. It was the most relevant and important kind of history of all so far as they were concerned – the kind of history that coincided most closely with the miniature worlds which the gentry knew intimately, dominated, and to a large extent effectively controlled.” 

Frontispiece, Matthew Parker’s 1574 edition of Asser’s Life of King Alfred

The publication in 1574 of Bishop Parker’s edition of Asser’s Ælfredi regis res gestae – the sole contemporary source for the description of the Viking siege of ‘arx Cynuit’ – may well have sparked off the interest and speculation regarding the precise location of the event. Asser simply says that the invading Danes sailed ‘ad Domnaniam’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which would have been known to some through the manuscripts – though there was no printed edition until 1644 – specified ‘Defenascire’.

Parker’s Asser would have found a place in the library of many educated country gentlemen and they, repositories of local knowledge, communicated with the burgeoning antiquarian ‘movement’. One of these ‘local historians’ seems a likely source for the Chulmleigh connection.

This – 1586 – was too early for Tristram Risdon himself to have suggested a connection with Chulmleigh, but perhaps another member of the local gentry? There is always a hope that these unidentified places lie close to where we ourselves live and we are able to explore them.

The only apparent connection with Chulmleigh is that it was a Saxon centre. In Domesday it was Calmonleuga or Chalmonleuga. It seems agreed that this derives from the common Saxon name Ceolmund, though the version reported in Chumleigh village (Heritage) that: “In the year 815 AD Ceolmund , a 24 year old Saxon thegn, was charged by King Egbert of Wessex to go forth and settle in the land of the Dumnonii with a royal bride, as a reward for distinguished service in the field of battle’ is not given any source. Given that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the area would have still been something of a battlefield, with the ‘West Welsh’, it seems an unlikely place for a young man to take his royal bride and set out to look for a place to settle down – unless he took a strong militia with him and was prepared to fight for it.

There is no reason to doubt that the personal name Ceolmund is at the root of the name, but the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England knows of no such Ceolmund associated with Devon at that date, so one is is left to wonder where the appealing story of young Ceolmund, the 24-year-old thegn, originated. But that need not detain us here … More to the point, what part of Chulmleigh resembles the topography of arx Cynuit as Asser so memorably described it? Would arx Cynuit really have been so far inland?

The medieval castle just outside Chulmleigh: perched on a hill but otherwise not at all like Asser’s description

Verdict on Chulmleigh: wishful thinking by a local person with antiquarian interests.

Without there being any manuscript survival, oral ‘suggestions’ regarding the history of the local area seem likely to have been the source of Camden’s 1586 edition. By 1607, he may well have been in contact with Tristram Risdon whose own speculative suggestion was that the elusive arx Cynuit was Hennaborough – Henny Castle. While this was only a conjecture, Risdon was more certain that Hubba the Dane landed at or near Appledore – ‘Apultreo in Saxon’. His reasoning is unclear.

Camden changed his mind about Chulmleigh between the 1600 edition and that of 1607 when he appears to have switched his attention from Chulmleigh to the confluence of the Taw and the Torridge. It is estimated that Risdon began to work on his Chorography in about 1605 …

As for Risdon’s text, he seems to have been influenced by William Lambarde’s Perambulation of Kent, where Apultreo is given as the ‘Saxon name’ for Kentish Appledore, the site of a slightly later Danish invasion. If mere conjecture was valid, he preferred to speculate on a site somewhat more likely (and very slightly closer to where he lived): not Chulmleigh but, perhaps, Hennaborough?

“And hereabout it was that [Hubba the Dane] laid siege to the castle of Kenwith [sic], which place some have sought for, as it were for ants’ paths, but found it not, unless they guess Hennaborough, a fort not far hence …”

Risdon’s reference to ‘Chimleigh’, however, retains the faintest reference to Asser: “Within the tything stands a castle, of stone [sic italics in the 1811 printed edition, p 302], for scite on all quarters (except the east) very defensible” – but no suggestion here that this is arx Cynuit.

[NB For comments on Risdon’s text, it should be pointed out that no reliable text, based on an original manuscript, has yet been published of what Risdon actually wrote. Until a manuscript source has been studied, no comment can be considered definitive]

Camden seemed to keep an open mind on this later idea too, not least because he knew of no precise location for the stronghold (Risdon had not at this point worked long on his Chorography, and he too was, seemingly, conjecturing). Nevertheless, the chase was pointing in the direction of the mouth of the river Taw and a place called ‘Hubbastow’ (that certainly came from a local source – perhaps Risdon – who adds that ‘the stones were long since swept away by the sea’s encroaching’). In 1702 William Baxter began work on his Glossarium (published in 1719). In a slightly obscure passage he appears to consider Barnstaple as the site of ‘Asserii nostri Arx Kinchüith’, subsequently(?) called Ubbonis Sedes or Ubbestow. This famous place, said Baxter, had long since been swallowed up by the sea and was no longer visible. It seems clear that both Risdon and Baxter were referring to Ubba’s burial mound having been swept away by the sea, not arx Cynuit itself.

That appeared to have been the state of knowledge and conjecture until Robert Studley Vidal wrote his influential paper in 1804 for the Society of Antiquaries’ publication Archæologia. In pressing the case for Kenwith Castle (Henni-borough or Henni Castle) he was opting for a site virtually on his own doorstep, since he himself lived in Cornborough House, no more than a mile away. He had therefore examined the site and ‘proved’ the case where Camden and Baxter had doubted (‘That [their] conclusions, however, were by far too peremptory, and probably drawn in a moment of negligence or haste, will, it is presumed, evidently appear from the circumstances I am about to adduce, in order to prove that not only the site of this castle, but also the enemy’s intrenchments, and the line by which the defeated Danes sought to regain their ships, may clearly be ascertained even at this day.’)

His own certainty convinced his readers and posterity – fellow antiquaries, romantic novelists, local historians, the tourist industry. From then on Ubba landed at Appledore, arx Cynuit was ‘Kenwith Castle’ – and Bloody Corner, just beyond Northam, was the very place where that battle took place in which the Danes were defeated and their raven standard captured.

Verdict on Hennaborough: This seems wishful thinking too, though could arx Cynuit be somewhere else in the area?

Well, the fleet led by Ubba (or whoever) in 878 consisted of 23 ships. The one that rowed up to Appledore in Kent in 892 had 250 ships and was followed by a further 80. These were invading forces, ‘Ubba’s’ was still a mere raiding party. It would follow that the Danes would have expected there to be something to raid and it’s not easy to see where there was sufficient Saxon wealth to tempt them in west Devon. On the north coast, especially in (present) west Somerset there were a number of documented raids; there were also at least three supposed royal estates – at Carhampton, Williton and Cannington – and therefore many ministri regis to maintain and defend them. One, at least – Carhampton – was raided twice in the 9th century. On the basis of likelihood – though no more evidence! – this seems a better guess.

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In the Saxon tongue Apultreo (1)

The explanation as to when (and why) this corner of Devon became associated with Hubba and arx Cynuit predates Tristram Risdon. But Risdon’s own contribution is (a bit) clearer.

He seems to have been the first to name the village of Appledore as the place where the Danish fleet landed in 878. The text below is from the earliest edition (1714) of his Survey which, though generally unsatisfactory, differs little from the equivalent paragraph in the more reliable 1811 edition:

APLEDORE is in the Saxon Tongue APULTREO, [ … ] it is the Outlet of two notable Rivers into the Sea, and the next Harbour for Ships within the Bar. In this Place it was that Hubba, the Dane, in the Days of King Alfred that Saxon monarch, landed with 33 Sail of Ships, coming out of South Wales, where he had wasted all in his Way with Fire and Sword. And hereabout it was he laid Siege to the Castle of Kenwith; which Place some have sought for, as it were for Ants Paths, but found it not, unless they guess Hennaborough, a Fort not far hence …

His source would seem to be, in part, Asser (for the mention of the slaughter in South Wales). But ‘Appledore, in the Saxon’s tongue Apultreo’ is puzzling. Appledore isn’t mentioned at all in the Post-Conquest Domesday Book, and its first recorded name, 1335, is given as le Apildore in the manor of Northam. Neither Asser nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the two sources dating from Saxon times, mentions where the raid took place,  so what was Risdon’s source for saying that Appledore had been called ‘Apultreo’ in Saxon times? Where was this recorded?

In fact, there is evidence of it as a name for Appledore in John of Worcester’s 12th-century Chronicon ex chronicis. He records the arrival of a Danish fleet at the river mouth and how they constructed a fortress ‘in loco qui dicitur Apultreo’. Was Risdon’s source John of Worcester? It’s possible, though John, following the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was recording a Danish landing in 892 at Appledore in Kent, not Appledore in Devon. Lord William Howard published his edition of John’s chronicle – attributed then to Florence of Worcester – in 1592, though the name appears there as ‘Apultrea’ rather than ‘Apultreo’, so is less likely to be the source.

William Lambarde (1536-1601)

William Lambarde (1536-1601)

The antiquarian William Lambarde, of the circle of Archbishop Matthew Parker and a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, describes this same event in his Perambulation of Kent (1576).  Lambarde writes:  ‘Apledore, corruptly,  for the Saxon Apultreo: in Latine Malus, that is, An Apletree’. This seems a more likely source for Risdon’s own ‘Appledore, in the Saxon’s tongue Apultreo’.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself records the 892 raid on Appledore: a large fleet of 250 ships sailed from Boulogne into the mouth of the Lympne, followed soon after by a smaller fleet – 80 ships led by the Danish chief Hæsten – which entered the mouth of the Thames.

þa comon up on Limene muþan. mid .ccl. (hunde) scipa. Se muþa is on easte weardre Cent …  Þa sona æfter þæm com Hæsten mid .lxxx. scipa up on Temese muðan, 7 worhte him geweorc æt Middeltune, 7 se oþer here æt Apuldre [ … ] Wæs Hæsten þa þær cumen mid his herge, þe ær æt Middeltune sæt. 7 eac se micla here wæs þa þærto cumen, þe ær on Limene muþan sæt æt Apuldre .

The larger fleet landed at Appledore, which was a port at that time; but the Saxon name given here is not Apultreo but Apuldre (in all the extant manuscripts, or Apuldran in the Latin Annals of St Neots). Apultreo looks like apul + treów and Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary records the forms æpel-tre, æppel-treów, along with æppelder, æppeldor, apulder, apuldor, apuldur, all in the sense of apple-tree.

However, these are not Apultreo, the exact form common to John of Worcester, William Lambarde – and Risdon. Since the first two refer to Appledore in Kent, it looks as if Risdon made an  assumption: that since the place-name Appledore in Kent derived from the Saxon Apultreo, Appledore in Devon must have the same origin. Perhaps the raid on the Kentish Appledore at the mouth of the river Lympne/Limene caused him to realise that the mouth of the river Taw was a likely place for the raid of 878 …

However, one other fact suggests that Risdon was not the onlie begetter of this Devon legend. To whom was he referring when he wrote: ‘And hereabout it was he laid Siege to the Castle of Kenwith; which Place some have sought for, as it were for Ants Paths, but found it not, unless they guess Hennaborough, a Fort not far hence …’? Who had already been speculating that Hennaborough, or Henny Castle, was this ‘Castle of Kenwith’? Or was Risdon inventing them to add support to his own theory?

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.

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.

And here’s another one …

Namely, Alfred. An Epic Poem, In Twenty-Four Books, by Joseph Cottle,  first edition published in 1800.

Joseph Cottle, bookseller and publisher, of Bristol

This is just a short cul-de-sac to compare it with Fitchett’s poem and Cumberland’s drama.

The poem is mainly ‘history’ and battle, judging from the first volume, more manly epic than Gothic romance. And the main difference is it’s shorter than Fitchett (and less florid in style) and longer than Cumberland.

The ‘Battle of Cynuit’ is (un)interesting in that there is no reference to Devon: the Danes don’t land there, Oddune is not earl of Devonshire, ‘Kenwith Castle’ is not said to belong to him and it’s not even imprecisely located, nor indeed does it appear to belong to anyone in particular – no one is mentioned as living there. Oddune with his Saxons takes refuge there from Hubba’s bloodthirsty army, and they find themselves besieged with only ten days (or perhaps twenty – I’ve forgotten exactly) provisions.

King Alfred, on his way to Selwood Forest, is made aware of Oddune’s plight but he has his hands rather full and tries to decide which of many tasks he should do first: fight the Danes, set their fleet on fire or rescue Oddune, whose fate hangs in the balance for a few books.

Hubba eventually attacks the castle, putting ladders up to the ramparts but is beaten back with great slaughter of Danes, though Hubba himself is not a victim. Unfortunately, Oddune and his men are still besieged as they don’t break out in the way that Asser describes. Ingeniously however, he and his men manage to sneak out quietly under cover of night while the furious Danes are noisily clamouring for their blood. Thus they escape death by starvation or thirst, and go off to Selwood Forest to meet up with King Alfred. The next day the Danes raid the undefended castle and find the enemy gone, which isn’t very canonical.

Not really much of interest insofar as the Devon legend is concerned: we have the name Kenwith, a castle somewhere near a coast; Oddune, not particularly associated with Devon; and Hubba who is not killed (Ivar and Guthrum are also present, though Guthrum will presumably have to hasten to Edington where Alfred will defeat him in the same year), nor is the Reafan standard captured. In fact, a bit of poetic licence makes the Kenwith episode more of a Great Escape story than a Saxon victory.

Next time: back to Richard Cumberland’s play where there was something quite interesting.

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.

dramatis-personae

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.

Fitchett prolixissimus

John Fitchett

John Fitchett

John Fitchett, of Liverpool (1776-1838), a lawyer and writer with antiquarian interests, had no reason, as far as I can tell, to be very familiar with the West Country. His great work  – King Alfred, a Poem – was published for private circulation between 1808 and 1834  – in five  volumes.

A projected revised edition was published three years after his death, with some 2,500 lines added by the editor, Robert Roscoe, bringing the entire, completed work to six volumes and about 131,000 lines of Proustian diffuseness. If the Athenæum, reviewing the poem at the time, is correct, it is about five times as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, and twelve times as long as Milton’s Paradise Lost. It has,  rather harshly, been described as a ‘prodigious monument of misapplied learning and mental energy’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

This is Late Gothic-Early Romantic fiction, written in Shakespearean, pseudo-archaic blank verse. Historically, it makes little distinction between the high middle ages and the Saxon era. Noble Oddune, ‘Devon’s valiant earl’, holds court in many-tower’d Camelot Kenwith, just as the legendary chieftain Arthur of Britain (who may or may not have existed in about 500 AD) was transformed into King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table with their code of chivalry.

Nevertheless, the poem has some interest because Fitchett uses material which he hasn’t invented himself but which must have been quite widely known in the early years of the nineteenth century when he started on his magnissimum opus. I can’t see that this monumental work could ever have been popular, though it might have influenced later popularisers. To be honest, I begin to feel very tired after reading about 10 lines …

In Book XX, Odda – here earl Oddune – is in Kenwith Castle relating to King Alfred (Asser is also present) everything that happened during the siege of Kinwith and the heroic victory over the Danes (much of which has already been recounted in Book XIX). Most of the essentials of the modern Devon legend are there.

  • The broad geography: the Danes arrive at the mouth of the Taw; ‘Toward the sequester’d port of Apuldore’, ‘by sandy Torridge mouth’, Northam, Abbotsham, Cornborough;
  • the two  opponents are named – Hubba and Oddune (rather than Odda);
  • Hubba and his host besiege Oddune’s stronghold, Kinwith Castle;  they are routed and slaughtered, as Oddune tells King Alfred:

“Beside a spot where the main way that leads
From this our castle
[i.e. Kinwith] on toward Apuldore
Turns suddenly into a narrow nook,
Beneath the field that borders Northam’s fort … ”

And Alfred, being told of all this:

Bids fix a massive stone upon the ground ;
And in the presence of the assembled throng
Adds : ” Be this spot, in memory of the fight,
To latest ages Bloody Corner named.”

So now we even have Bloody Corner, and a massive memorial stone, though this is not the ‘Hubbastone’ that marks the Danish leader’s burial place. I have not yet located in the poem the place where this is mentioned.

The people, the places and the general action corresponding with the living legend are nearly all present here. According to Joanne Parker (England’s Darling: The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great, Manchester UP, 2007), Fitchett began work on his poen in 1798. There is evidence which suggests  details of the Kenwith story already had a wider literary currency.

So far we can say that Devon’s legend was known at the turn of the 19th century.

One point to add, simply as a footnote to all this, is that almost all of the suspiciously numerous local place names, many of which seem to be there to add local colour, appear on Benjamin Donn’s 1765 map of Devon, so it is reasonable to suppose that Fitchett’s researches involved studying a map of the area.

Title page, volume 6 of King Alfred, A Poem

Title page, volume 6 of King Alfred, A Poem

A wonderful discovery, having consulted the résumé of each of the 48 books is that this epic poem (epic in size and subject matter) covers about two years of Alfred’s life; from about 876, when the Danes were rampaging through the country and Alfred withdrew to Athelney, until 878 when having rallied his forces he defeated  Guthrum at Edington. On which triumphant note it ends, having introduced plots, sub-plots, betrayals, devils and  angels (Satan also has a key role to play), Guy of Warwick … 6 volumes and 48 books to cover what Asser dealt with in three pages.

The final book, Book 48, relates the final glorious outcome of the bloody battle of Edington whose slaughter began in Book 47. It was left to Fitchett’s editor, Robert Roscoe, to finish the story. Fitchett left it as the mortally wounded Osmund, earl of Cornwall, takes his leave of his son Athelard and of his King. As Roscoe’s footnote says: ‘This passage of his Poem, describing a happy death-bed, “seen in the good man’s calm and holy peace,” formed a close, at once appropriate and affecting, to the long labours of the author, who, at this point was destined to resign, in a state still incomplete, the work on which he had concentrated his thoughts, and exercised his industry, for so long a course of years.’

Roscoe modestly says that he felt it was his responsibility to bring the great work to an end as briefly as was consistent with the author’s original plan, the difficulties of this being the ‘best excuse for its defects.’ It gives some pleasure to report that Roscoe’s pallid verse is no match for the majesty of Fitchett’s sublimely oratorical, rolling sentences. Overblown certainly, ridiculous in its invention frequently, yet at moments genuinely touching. Most of it (thankfully) quite irrelevant to our Devon legend – to which I shall return.