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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Camden’s speculation

In the first edition of Camden’s Britannia (1586), he’s musing over whether ‘Chimligh’ (for Chulmleigh) is Asser’s ‘Kinuith’ or not. He describes how the Torridge, not far distant from the Promontory of Hercules (Hartland Point), passes through Torrington and Bideford before joining the Taw. The course of the Taw itself is further inland, rushing through Chulmleigh, not far from the village of  ‘Chettelhampton’ (Chittlehampton) before hurrying on to Barnstaple (click on image for clearer details).

raleigh

Here he pauses to say: ‘An verò Chimligh illa, sit Kinuith castrum cuius meminit Asserius, non facilè dixerim.’ He must have heard this suggestion from someone before 1586 (so not Tristram Risdon who was born c. 1580). Asser’s Domnania and the ASC’s Defenascire stretched much further afield than this little corner of Devon, so who had first located the Danish raid of 878 here?

Following through subsequent editions of Britannia, 1587, 1590 and 1600, Camden adds a number of new details, but the key sentence in 1600 is the same as in 1586: ‘An verò Chimligh illa, sit Kinuith castrum cuius meminit Asserius, non facile dixerim.’

It isn’t until the final edition in 1607 that he omits it, substituting a new passage: ‘Hinc [i.e. from Barnstaple] Tawus Ralegh [an estate north of Barnstaple, not the hamlet of Raleigh close to Henniborough/Henny Castle], quae olim nobiles sui nominis habuit dominus, nunc clarae familiae de Chichester cognominatae possessionem salutans, et postea Towridgi aquis auctior Sabrinianum mare petit, sed Kinuith castrum, cuius meminit Asserius, non invenit.’

The mention of Raleigh appears to be incidental, included in order to give details of the local gentry – an abiding interest of the antiquarians. So between 1600 and 1607, Camden omitted his reference to the possibility of ‘Kinuith castle’ being at Chulmleigh.  Less importantly, since Camden is no authority anyway, what is implied in the final edition which says the Taw does NOT ‘find’ the castle in the region of the lower Taw?

Wm Camden, Britannia, pub. Radulphus Newbery, 1586

Wm Camden, Britannia, pub. Radulphus Newbery, 1586

Risdon began work on his Survey in 1605, so it is possible that he had some contact with Camden before the 1607 edition was completed; but if so he didn’t say that Appledore was the place where Hubba landed, since Camden merely says, ‘Ad hoc enim littus eius nominis castrum erat …’

Risdon, apparently, first names Appledore but in 1586 Camden had an earlier source which identified Hubba’s raid with this part of Devon. Aside from that, it is just possible that he mistook Raleigh, very close to ‘Henny Castle’, for Raleigh north of Barnstaple and added the genealogical details while under that misapprehension.

Somewhere herein? (1)

Yes, I know. Many people have raked over this identical source material, and many times; but somewhere – somewhere here – is there a clue?

Why did a local legend spring up, hundreds of years ago, that it was on the western coast of Devon, at Appledore, that a fleet led by the Danish chief Hubba landed in 878; and that a place close by was Asser’s arx Cynuit where Hubba and his army were slaughtered by a Saxon force? How far back can it be traced? About 1600? Earlier?

1. Devon. Several sources dating from the Saxon era agree that the Danish fleet landed in Domnania or Defenascire (‘on Westseaxum on Defenascire’, ASC Mss A, D & E) or simply ‘on Wessexena rice’ [ASC Mss B & C] . Westseaxum was the kingdom of Wessex,  ‘Devon’ may have been a region rather larger than the modern county. Since we don’t know what the writers themselves understood by ‘Devonshire’ we can assume the modern boundaries. Approximately.

2. More precisely,  writers much later, like William Camden, placed the landing at the mouth of the river Taw, where the Torridge joins it. The last edition of Britannia (1607) and Philemon Holland’s 1610 English translation read:

160710

Which historiographers had written about this? Bishop Asser for the outline only in Domnania: he didn’t mention Hubba, or the rivers Taw and Torridge, or Hubbestow; Geffrei Gaimar, possibly: he mentioned ‘Ubbelawe’ (perhaps reflected in ‘Hubblestow’?) certainly, but said nothing about the Taw or Torridge – just that the hoge was ‘en Devenschire’. Æthelweard? He didn’t mention Hubba; he said the invader was Ivar’s brother Healfdene, who landed in occidentales Anglorum partes and besieged Odda dux provinciae Defenu in a certain stronghold. John of Worcester? No, his Chronicon ex chronicis copies Asser, word for word: just Domnania, arx Cynuit and a nameless Danish leader. Henry of Huntingdon? No, he hardly mentions the incident, doesn’t name the Danish leader but ‘Devon in Wessex’ was where he landed. No Hubba, no Hubbestow, presumably.

So many historici in the post-Conquest 12th century, to say nothing of the near contemporaries, and the legend of Appledore has little support. In any case, even Camden was less certain in 1586 when the first edition of Britannia was printed. “An verò Chimligh illa sit Kinuith castrum cuius meminit Asserius, non facilè dixerim”.

Chulmleigh - or Chymley in Camden's day - about 15 miles from Barnstaple

Chulmleigh – or Chymley in Camden’s day – about 15 miles from Barnstaple

Chimligh illa is the town of  Chulmleigh to which he had been referring a few lines earlier; a Saxon hilltop town, about half way between Barnstaple and Crediton. It’s well inland from the mouth of the Taw so it’s not clear why Camden was suggesting ‘Kinuith’ castle might have been there, other than that it was a large town by the time of Domesday and had Saxon connections.

Camden had no clear idea then where arx Cynuit might have been; and ‘Kinuith’ represents ‘Cynuit’ – not a known place called Kenwith, Kinwith or Kinwic.

But by 1607, it seems, he had gained more information: that the site of Asser’s ‘Kinuith’ was near Raleigh, close to the confluence of the Torridge and the Taw.  So someone had provided Camden with that information (which may or may not have been reliable) – in about 1600 – and that it was Hubba who led the Danes, that he was killed there and that the place was called ‘Hubbestow’.

Note to self: must check editions of Britannia to see when Camden became more precise as to the location: 1586, 1587, 1590, 1594, 1600, 1607.

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.

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.

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.