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).

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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.

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Let battle commence

In the blue corner, Penselwood; in the red corner, Kingston Deverill … both competing to be the site of Egbert’s Stone.

Assessing the various bits of information, Kingston Deverill at least offers some interesting features.

1. Kingsettle Hill to Kingston Deverill was on a main trackway, the Harrow Way according to Timperley and Brill, passing through Redlynch just south east of Bruton as the present Hardway. I can see no ancient trackway passing near Penselwood from the west that might have been King Alfred’s route from Athelney.

Several major tracks meet in the vicinity of Kilmington Common

Several major tracks meet in the vicinity of Kilmington Common

2. There was also the Mendip track and several other tracks meeting in the vicinity of Kilmington Common, all of which could have brought the Hundreds fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and (north) Hampshire to the common assembly point.

3. Accepting that ‘Penselwood’ could mean ‘in or near Penselwood itself’, I haven’t discovered a prominent landmark which might have been recognised in Saxon times as Ecgbryhtesstane. It is true that the tripoint of Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset is just here, but did King Egbert have anything to do with the establishment of the boundaries? And why would that be important? Surely, if the fyrds were being summoned there needed to be some well-known landmark to tell them where to gather? Kingston Deverill had the prominent sarsen stones on Court Hill and there seems to have been a much larger open space for the fyrds to gather.

4. There seems to be an authentic tradition of Court Hill in Kingston Deverill having been a place of assembly, a local meeting place, which seems to go back to a distant past.

5. Penselwood is not in the eastern part of Selwood Forest,  administratively (i.e. in Wiltshire) or geographically: it is in Somerset in the west. Kingston Deverill is well into Wiltshire, and in the eastern half. That fits with the descriptions in Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

6. The snag about Kingston Deverill being too close to Iley Oak can be explained away by the geographical features of Salisbury Plain and the logistics of moving a large army; and if it was a serious difficulty, it pretty much applied to Penselwood as well.