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.


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).


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.

What’s in a name (2)

Looking at Asser’s Latin text  Vita Ælfredi regis, there are interesting points about the place names that he uses. Sometimes he quotes a  name ‘saxonice’, sometimes ‘latine’, sometimes ‘britannice’/Welsh, or one, two or all three of them in various permutations. So for Selwood Forest, as we’ve seen, he first refers to it by its Saxon name Seluudu,  then Latine autem sylva magna and Britannice Coit Maur. The British/Welsh form and the Latin have the same meaning – ‘great wood’, but the Saxon name is not (apparently) equivalent, since Selwood is supposed to derive from the word for ‘sallow’ or ‘willow’. It  seems rather strange that there should be an extensive forest which is predominantly sallow  (salix) – which usually grows near rivers and streams, but … So Asser, being a Welshman, simply translated the Welsh name into Latin but does not comment on the Saxon.

The river Wylye (Guilou) near Wilton, lined with pollarded willows

The river Wylye (Guilou) near Wilton, lined with pollarded willows

Anyway, it seems that there are only two Welsh names in the text which have no gloss or alternative. The meaning of one is clear: the river Guilou is the Wylye in Wiltshire, because ‘Wiltun’ is said to lie on its southern bank of the river which gave its name to both Wilton and Wiltshire.

The other example is arx Cynuit, where there is no clue as to where it is except that it was in ‘Domnania’ and from the context it was probably on the north coast of Devon/Somerset. Latin arx appears a number of times in Asser’s text and is usually translated as ‘stronghold’ or ‘fortress’. The Penguin edition of Keynes and Lapidge translates it as in front of the ‘stronghold at Cynuit [Countisbury]’ which is partly best guess (Countisbury) and partly a puzzle. ‘AT Cynuit? Cynuit seems to be somebody’s proper name, so ‘Cynuit’s stronghold’ seems to be the meaning.

Cynuit needs to be scrutinised more carefully. There are two possibilities, which may be the same one, but there’s still a bit of a mystery. Next time …


Oakley? Oakley?

As we know, when Alfred rallied his army at Ecgbryhtesstane, they pitched camp there for one night and next morning set off for Æcglea or Iglea where they again camped one night before moving off to Eþandune to take on Guthrum’s army.

The location of Egbert’s Stone is explicit enough, in that it was in the eastern part of Selwood Forest. But what of Æcglea (Asser), Æglea (Henry of Huntingdon), Iglea (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)? The evidence of the Place Names of Wiltshire (EPNS, Gover) appears clear, to the satisfaction of scholars, that this was a place called Iley Oak, in Eastleigh Wood, near Sutton Veny – on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain. This, it seems, was the Saxon meeting-place for Heytesbury and Warminster Hundreds, but not only does it not exist now, there seems no trace of such a place in Domesday, which is a bit annoying.

The Victoria County History for the Hundred of Warminster says:

In 1439 the sheriff’s tourn for the hundreds of Warminster and Heytesbury was held at ‘Ilegh‘, later called Iley Oak, a great tree which stood probably in Southleigh or Eastleigh Woods between Sutton Veny and Longbridge Deverill. It was still the meeting place of the tourns in 1652. Nothing is known of the meeting place of the other hundred courts until 1831, when they met in the Town Hall at Warminster.  The name Moot Hill, applied to the low mound across the Wylye south-west of Norton Bavant village, which was formerly a detached part of Warminster parish, may indicate that the early meeting place of the hundred was there.

Oakley Brook Pond, near Lower Oakley Farm. Æcglea or not?

Oakley Brook Pond, near Lower Oakley Farm. Æcglea or not?

However, Aecglea was not where the fyrds assembled – that had been at Ecgbryhtesstane; and in any case, this is late medieval, and one would like evidence that it existed pre-Conquest. Oakley in Somerset is in Domesday in the form of Achelai, and vestiges still exist of place and name. It seems in size to have been at least as significant as ‘Iley Oak’.

It was also strategically interesting, a mile or so south of the old Roman town of Ilchester, a fortified site on the River Yeo – a key communication point as there had been a ford there in Roman times, although by the late Saxon period there would probably have been a bridge.  The town lay on two main Roman routes to the south: the Fosse Way, the road from Exeter to Lincoln through Cirencester; and a road from Dorchester which joined the Fosse Way at Ilchester. Oakley was set between Oakley Brook and the old Roman road (now the A37); it was on the borders of Stone Hundred (incl. Yeovil) and Tintinhull Hundred (incl. Ilchester).

The two southern Roman roads converging at Ilchester (red line is, roughly, the Fosse Way)

The two southern Roman roads converging at Ilchester (red line is, roughly, the Fosse Way)

Furthermore, according to an article by the archaeologist, Jeremy Haslam (2012?), Ilchester was ‘probably’ one of King Alfred’s burhs – the  system of fortresses he built up as a defence against the Danes (Haslam’s rather dense argument is based on the number of Somerset hides given in the Burghal Hidage: they appear not to correspond with the number given in Domesday, suggesting that at least one burh was missing from the burghal list).

Map of the Burghal Hidage: was Ilchester on a line with Langport and Wareham?

Map of the Burghal Hidage: was Ilchester on a line with Langport and Wareham?

More about roads next time.

[To be continued]

And finally (for the moment)

I have now taken the map showing the boundaries of Selwood Forest, from Michael McGarvie’s ‘The Bounds of Selwood’ (this shows the smaller, western section in Somerset, as established according to the perambulations, as well as the main section within Wiltshire), and superimposed it – they didn’t quite fit – over a map of the Hundreds of Wiltshire. This is just the southern half of the forest, but including Edington.

Selwood Forest and the Wiltshire Hundreds

Selwood Forest and the Wiltshire Hundreds

Now, consider the words of Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi:

Iterumque in septima hebdomada post Pascha ad Petram Aegbryhta, quae est in orientali parte saltus, qui dicitur Seluudu [ … ] equitavit …

Also, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (these two sources interdependent), Anno 878:

Þa on þære seofoðan wiecan ofer Eastron he gerad to Ecgbryhtes stane be eastan Sealwyda

Well, take a look at the map. I’ve added green dots to show the extent of the forest. How can anyone imagine that Penselwood is in the east of the forest? It just isn’t. It’s in the west. The question is not where Egbert’s Stone was, but why did most people think it was at Penselwood?

Each Hundred had its meeting-place. The blue Hundred, bottom left, is Mere Hundred;. Penselwood was actually in Wincanton Hundred. I haven’t found a source which identifies where all the meeting-places were, but Wincanton was probably the meeting-place for Wincanton Hundred, and Mere for Mere Hundred. These would have been where each Hundred assembled its fyrd. Still no connection with Penselwood.

I’ve shown – very roughly (I think it should have been slightly further to the west) – the extent of Salisbury Plain nowadays. This suggests that Alfred’s final line of march was over the Plain. Also the pass  (the two small blue lines) near Alfred’s Tower which Colt Hoare suggested was the route Alfred took after leaving Athelney.

Well, I did say …

a few weeks ago: “This subject is an over ploughed field: everything has already been suggested by someone, and the ground is so churned up it’s hard to make progress.”

Sir Richard Colt Hoare FRS (1758-1838)

Sir Richard Colt Hoare FRS (1758-1838)

The more I read, the more I find everything  I’ve written has been said before; but nothing of it seems to be demonstrably wrong. However, it does seem useful to sort out the obviously wrong from the possibly right, so step forward Sir Richard Colt Hoare, archæologist and antiquarian, some of whose ideas appear to ‘anticipate’ mine – but who is not infallible.

I’ve been reading his History of Ancient Wiltshire, London, 1812 (if the volumes are separately paginated, it’s volume I, pp 62-63). Examining Alfred’s route from Athelney to Brixton Deverill, he considers the most direct route, ‘which Alfred would have chosen’,  passed near Somerton, Castle Cary, Bruton and Maiden Bradley. That was my conclusion. Hoare writes:

“From Castle Cary or Bruton, he would have penetrated through Selwood by the road now bearing the name of HARDWAY, which leads to the summit of a hill called KINGSETTLE upon which a lofty tower was built by my predecessor and grandfather Henry Hoare, Esq., in honour of king Alfred […] From this eminence the British road would have led him in a direct line over Kilmington Common, by Rodmead farm, to the Vale of the Deverills, and to Brixton, or the PETRA ÆGBRYHTA, where his first day’s fatiguing march terminated.”

I was with him on the Hardway, or Harrow Way, as far as Kingsettle Hill (and King Alfred’s Tower) and over Kilmington Common; but I stopped at Kingston Deverill for reasons that Hoare wot not of 200 years ago. On pp 97-98, Hoare writes [sorry, digitisation not always clear]:

“BRIXTON, the town or stone of Brithric, or Egbert, and the Petra Egbryhta of Asser and the Saxon Chronicle  [Note: The village may have owed its appellation either to Brihtric, who succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons on the death of Cynewulf in the year 784[?], and reigned over it till the year [800?]; or it may have been so called from his successor Ecbryght, or Egbert: the latter bears the greatest affinity to the Ecgbryhtes-ston of the Chronicle.“]

Domesday entry for [Brixton] DEVREL: Brictric tenuit Tempore Regis Edwardi [the Confessor] (Image made available by Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater - thank you)

Domesday entry for [Brixton] DEVREL: Brictric tenuit Tempore Regis Edwardi [that is, Edward the Confessor, Harold’s predecessor]
(Image kindly made available by Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater)

Hoare, a distinguished archæologist, did not have instant access to the the text of the Domesday Book (unlike me who knows nothing of archæology or so-called ‘Antiquities’). All the modern Deverills – Brixton, Kingston, Hill and Longbridge & Monkton  – are separately noted for taxation purposes in Domesday, but none is distinguished by any name but ‘Devrel’. So the name Brixton did not exist, even as far back as 1066, so certainly not in the time of Asser.

When the Deverills were finally distinguished from each other Hill and Longbridge took local features, Monkton’s lord was the abbey of Glastonbury, Kingston’s lord in 1066 was Queen Edith, and became Crown property. Brixton’s lord in 1066 was Brictric (son of Algar).

Brixton was therefore a late name having nothing to do with Cynewulf’s successor, Beorhtric, nor his successor Ecgbryht; but was Brictric’s-ton, a name given to it some time after 1066 to distinguish it from the other ‘Devrels’.

A second point: although I read Hoare’s section on Kingston Deverill, he made no mention there of the sarsen stones – a strange omission for an archæologist writing about his county’s antiquities. The explanation for this could well be that our Kingston farmer had, before 1812, when Hoare’s work was published, already moved the stones from Court Hill and they were now serving as stepping stones down by the river.  They weren’t moved up to the rectory garden and reassembled in recognisable form until the mid 19th century. Hence Sir Richard would have overlooked Kingston and passed on to Brixton.

Just one other small point: I felt, as Hoare did, that Athelney to Egbert’s Stone could be covered in a single day, though less of a ‘fatiguing march’ in that Alfred was on horseback for this part of the journey, as Asser and the Chronicle say.

There are a couple more points from Hoare’s work which are relevant, but here I will stop for the moment.

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.