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:


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.

Robert Studley Vidal (1770-1841)

Vidal was a lawyer and antiquary, the son of an Exeter solicitor. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine says that he died in Cornborough (‘Hornburgh’ in the 14th century), where he ‘kept a pack of harriers’. His home was at Cornborough House, some two miles west of Bideford, and less than a mile further on beyond Kenwith Castle.

On 25 January 1804, Vidal wrote a letter to his friend and fellow antiquary, Henry Wansey, containing ‘what particulars I have been able to collect respecting the site of Kenwith or Kenwic Castle’. This was published in 1806 in Archæologia (vol. XIX), the journal of the Society of Antiquaries, as: ‘An Inquiry respecting the Site of Kenwith . or Kenwic Castle in Devonshire. By Robert Studley Vidal, Esq, In a Letter to Henry Wansey,. Esq. F.A.S.’.

The interest of the site, Vidal explained, was that ‘by the fortunate sally of an intrepid band of Anglo-Saxons from Kenwith Castle, to which the Danes had lain siege towards the close of the ninth century, the main western army of these ferocious invaders was routed, 1200 of them, including their principal leader, killed, their consecrated standard taken, and the gloomy aspect of affairs so entirely changed, that our immortal Alfred was enabled to leave his hiding place, and again to assume the command of his armies and the government of his people‘.

Vidal was a man who read Latin, knew his Asser (with reservations!) and provided an accurate account  of what Asser had written about the castle of Cynuit; he marvelled that such antiquaries as the Williams – Camden (1551-1623) and Baxter (1650-1723) – should have decided that no trace of the fortress now remained (and of Camden and Baxter, more later). For Vidal, their conclusions were ‘by far too peremptory’.


Judging by the name Cynwit or Kenwic, ‘I was led to conceive, that this fortress might have been situated towards the higher end of some branch or marshy reach of a river‘ (although he admitted that that was probably not the meaning of the name: ‘but whether the name was given in allusion to its situation (and which I must confess there is very great reason to doubt)…’. Vidal was struck by the similarity between Asser’s description of arx Cynuit and a certain local hill, which he had inspected in some detail. From the local old people he established that in living memory it had never been called anything but Henni-borough or Henny Castle. And without wanting to insist on the point, or give it too much weight, Vidal surmised that Kenwith or Kenwic might well have been shortened to Kenni or Henni …

But, enquire as he would, he could find no local tradition that supported his theory:  “… though I made generally known my wish to learn any popular history that might be attached to this old place, and listened with every possible degree of patience to many foolish and inconsistent tales, yet I never could in this way obtain a single particular worth attending to, or that I could find had the least bearing towards what I considered as the genuine history. I say this in regard to the stories of the common people ; but few of the better informed inhabitants of the neighbourhood appeared to have given the subject the least attention.”

The results of Vidal’s physical inspection of the site, and his reasons for finding that they supported his theory, are not really relevant here. The relevant points are:

1. that Vidal’s knowledge was based on such primary sources as we already know (though there is reason to think he knew Asser through Matthew Parker’s ‘editorialised’ edition), none of which identify any location as the site of arx Cynuit.

2. that in spite of making enquiries, he could find no evidence of a local tradition surviving at that time, 1804 (yet something had seemingly been known to Camden and Baxter).


Title page (and extract from page 25) of Gray’s Traveller’s Companion

3. For local people in 1804 it was ‘Henny Castle’, as it was for the Late Mr Gray (Author of The ELEGY Written in a Country Church-Yard, &c.)  in his Traveller’s Companion (1773), listing Antiquities, Houses, Parks in Devonshire) .

4. As he concedes, none of the early sources which he cited named Ubba as the leader of the Danes, though he surmised it from what he thought Asser had said. In fact, it looks as if this could have been an ‘editorial interpolation’ by Matthew Parker in his edition of Asser (first printed in 1574), rather than the original text. This might be where ‘Ubba’ made his first appearance in this connection, but without checking Parker’s edition I’m not sure. The paragraph wasn’t in Asser’s original.

5. his own researches were published (and reviewed in the Gentleman’s Magazine) so would have circulated in such circles as might have influenced Thomas Wright and Charles Kingsley. In other words, the story had circulated widely and could have been a key source for later re-tellings of the tradition.

There appears, from this much, to have been something of a leap from reading Asser to, metaphorically, looking from his window in Devon at Kenwith Castle and thinking, ‘Could that be it …?’ Yet, that seems to be what happened, according to his description. But he was acquainted with the writings of Camden and Baxter. What were their sources and what did they say at an earlier date?

A footnote on Hubberstone

I mentioned that the Historical Gazetteer of England’s Place-Names records the name Hubbastone in Devon (hundred Shebbear > parish Northam > settlement Northam > place Hubbastone), the earliest version of the name being ‘Hubberstone’, 1765. The  source is given as ‘T. Donne, Map of the County of Devon, 1765’.

Title of Benjamin Donn's map of Devon. 'Entered in the Hall Book of the Company of Stationers and Published according to Act of Parliament, January 1.t 1765.

Title of Benjamin Donn’s map of Devon. ‘Entered in the Hall Book of the Company of Stationers and Published according to Act of Parliament, January 1.t 1765.

However, I find no record of a ‘T. Donne’, only Benjamin Donn[e] who produced a very famous Map of the County of Devon in 1765 (click on the graphic for a much clearer image).

So was Benjamin Donn’s map the source of the Gazetteer’s reference? Thomas Wright’s footnote in his edition of Gaimar (1850) said: “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.”

Certainly the problem of the tidal erosion of the Northam Burrows had existed for a long time, but did Benjamin Donn’s map of 1765 indicate a place called ‘Hubberstone’?


Detail from Benjamin Donn’s Map of Devon 1765: Northam Burrows, Henny Castle, Tapeleigh park

There is Henny Castle Olim Kenwith, west of Bideford, but I can’t make out Hubberstone, or anything like it, anywhere near Appledore or Northam. I have emailed the Gazetteer for clarification but have no idea if such queries elicit replies.

However, having mentioned 19th-c. historical fiction in the last post, it’s interesting to note ‘Burrough’ on this map, just to the right of the name ‘Northam’ (lower case, south of the Burrows). An original Burrough House, was probably built by a Stephen Burrough in the 16th century and subsequent generations were, like him, seafarers and adventurers (A Short history of Northam, CM Davis, 1967). It was pulled down by a Captain Yeo (denounced as ‘a barbarian’ on the Devon County Council website) in 1868 and replaced with the present building. In Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855), Burrough Court was  the family home of the young hero, Amyas Leigh:

Beneath him on his right, the Torridge, like a land-locked lake, sleeps broad and bright between the old park of Tapeley and the charmed rock of the Hubbastone, where, seven hundred years ago, the Norse rovers landed to lay siege to Kenwith Castle, a mile away on his left hand; and not three fields away, are the old stones of “The Bloody Corner”, where the retreating Danes, cut off from their ships, made their last fruitless stand against the Saxon sheriff and the valiant men of Devon. Within that charmed rock, so Torridge boatmen tell, sleeps now the old Norse Viking in his leaden coffin, with all his fairy treasure and his crown of gold … ” (Westward Ho!, Ch. I).

On this basis, ‘Hubbastone’ is not on the Northam Burrows but somewhere on the left bank of the Torridge, opposite Tapeley Park (Tapeleigh on Donn’s map), near Burrough House or Knapp. However, Kingsley was writing a novel …

Burrough House, Northam

Burrough House, Northam

While on the subject of ‘romantic fiction’ perhaps this is also the place to mention Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England, first published in 1831. Lewis had no known connection with Devon (unlike Kingsley who spent his childhood in nearby Clovelly, or Donn who was born in Bideford), and he subsequently published similar dictionaries for Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This is what he wrote about Appledore:

“… a small sea-port town, in the parish of NORTHAM, hundred of SHEBBEAR … This place is celebrated in history for the many battles between the Saxons and the Danes which took place in the immediate vicinity, more especially for the decisive and important victory obtained, by Earl Odun and the men of Devon, over a large army of Danes under the command of Hubba, who, in the reign of Alfred, landed at this place with thirty-three ships. The invaders were repulsed with great slaughter and the loss of their leader, who, being taken prisoner, was beheaded on a hill in the neighbourhood, on which a stone has been erected to mark the spot, and which still retains the name of Hubberstone Hill.”

Poor old Hubba to be so treated! It seems unlikely that Lewis or his local informant had known anything about Asser or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; but it’s a fair bet that many people with a local interest in the area were now learning a lot more about Lewis’s Appledore: the Topographical Dictionary ran into seven editions between 1831 and 1849, and must have been on many an educated library shelf. Along with Kingsley’s Westward Ho!.

So, 1831 and the main players are there in Appledore, at Kenwith Castle: Hubba and Earl Odun, Bloody Corner … And thirty-three Viking ships. Onwards and backwards.

Æthelweard et Cie

Oh, well, head down and get on with things … tuh.

Æthelweard was writing approximately 100 years after the incident at arx Cynuit (878). He wrote the Chronicon Æthelweardi in about 980. This, in full, is his description of the event:

In eodē anno advectus est Healfdene Iguuares tyranni frater cum triginta moneribus in occidētales Anglorum partes, obseditq; Oddan ducem provinciæ Defenu in quodam castro, incenderuntq; Martem intus & foras Barbarum, rex ruit, octoginta quippe cum eo decades. Postremo victorię obtinent locum etiam Dani.

In the year 878, Healfdene, brother of the tyrant Hynguar reached the western territory of the Angles with 30 ships. So now we see a departure from the common narrative. No longer an unnamed brother of Healfdene and Hynguar, but Healfdene himself; not 23 ships but 30; we are in the region of the Angles, not the Saxons.

What we do have is confirmation of Asser’s narrative: that the Saxons – or Angles – were besieged in a certain castle. And  Odda, ‘dux provinciæ Defenu’, or ealdorman of Devon is introduced as the leader of the Saxons – or Angles – against whom Healfdene unleashed savage war on all sides.

Next follows a particularly garbled version: the king (presumably the pagan ‘king’ Healfdene) was overthrown and with him 800 of his men – yet the Danes were victorious. Not only does this contradict the lucid narrative of Asser and of the ASC, it doesn’t make much sense.

There is no clue as to where this fleet landed – not even specifically that it was in ‘Devon’, though the inference is that it was somewhere under the jurisdiction of the ‘dux provinciæ Defenu’, perhaps those ‘Western Provinces’ at that time under the full control of the West Saxons, in Dumnonia. Certainly no suggestion that the landfall was in west Devon, rather than the north. Odda here makes an appearance, but not Ubba.

A 15th-c. representation of Ragnar Lothbrok with sons Hinguar and Ubba worshipping devils

A 15th-c. representation of Ragnar Lothbrok with sons Hinguar and Ubba worshipping devils

Where did Ubba come from? If he wasn’t named in either of the two contemporary sources – the ASC and Asser’s Life of King Alfred – originally set down a mere 15 years after the event – why did he appear later on? and with what authority was this brother of Healfdene and Hynguar identified as Ubba?

In fact, to say he wasn’t named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle needs some clarification. One manuscript, Ms F, stands somewhat apart from the others in that each paragraph written in Anglo-Saxon is followed by the translation into Latin. The British Library dates its Cotton MS Domitian A viii to the late 11th or early 12th century (post-Conquest, hence the need for the Latin translation to accompany the Anglo-Saxon). The original text has been heavily annotated at a later date. One particularly messy folio is 54r:


The entry for 869/870, according to Ms E (in Garmonsway) reads:

In this year the [Danish] host went across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford. And the same winter St Edmund the king fought against them, and the Danes won the victory, and they slew the king and overrran the entire kingdom …

And at this point a later annotation in the margin reads: ‘the names of the leaders who slew the king were Inguar and Ubba‘:

BL Cotton Domitian A viii, folio 54r

The note has some abbreviations, but I would read it as: ‘Nom[ina] princip[i]um qui [prae…????] regem occiderunt fuerunt (??) Inguare et Ubba.’

From the date of the original manuscript, it seems unlikely that this addition could have been earlier than about 1100.

The insertion seems to have followed the Latin Passio Sancti Eadmundi of Abbo of Fleury, written 985-987 using information given him by Dunstan,  then retired archbishop of Canterbury. No mention of arx Cynuit, of course, in Abbo’s account of the martyrdom of Edmund but it includes (from the edition of Michael Winterbottom):

Fuit autem idem aduersarius Hinguar uocabulo dictus, qui cum altero, / Ubba nomine, eiusdem peruersitatis homine, nisi diuina inpediretur miseratione conatus est in exterminium adducere totius fines Brittanniae. 

Abbo is explaining how ‘the enemy of the human race’ has despatched two men against King Edmund, to reduce the whole kingdom of Britain to ruin. Hinguar, already mentioned, was one; the other a man of equal depravity named Ubba.

Ælfric of Eynsham, basing his own Anglo-Saxon version on Abbo’s, has a similar though not identical version:

On þam flotan wæron þa fyrmestan heafod-men
hinguar and hubba · geanlæhte þurh deofol ·
and hí on norð-hymbra-lande gelendonn

In the Danish fleet were their chief leaders, Hinguar and Hubba,  united as servants of the devil, who landed in Northumbria. Hinguar turned to the east while Hubba stayed in the north, Ælfric then went on to say..

What we have from the 10th-11th centuries is the introduction of Hinguar and Hubba, but so far none of these sources identify the two as brothers. So  did Ubba’s name become attached to Hinguar’s because the two were often named together at the head of the Danish army? Or did Asser’s frater, ASC’s broþur, not literally mean they were brothers? Whatever the case, the early sources don’t name Ubba as leader of the raid on arx Cynuit.

The 12th-c. Latin compilation, the Annals of St Neots, follows Abbo’s account of the death of  St Edmund, just as it quotes, almost word for word, Asser’s account of the ‘Battle of arx Cynuit‘. It’s therefore late and adds nothing new.

Next: Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis

A very good place to start

There are two near contemporary accounts of the so-called Battle of Cynuit, both written in or around 893 – about 15 years after the event. There was the brief outline in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) amounting to a few lines, and the fuller description in Asser’s Latin Life of King Alfred.

The ASC has slightly varying accounts, but they agree that a brother (unnamed) of Hinguar and Healfdene arrived with a fleet of 23 ships in Defenascire and there the unnamed leader was killed along with 840 of his men. Most manuscripts add that in that battle, the Danes’ Raven banner was captured.

From this, we don’t know the name of the slain leader, nor who the men of Wessex were who defeated him, nor any more than that it was in Defenascire, a region whose boundaries, at that time, are by no means certain.

Facsimile of the opening page of Asser's Life of King Alfred, Cotton MS. OTHO A. XII, burnt in

Facsimile of the opening page of Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Cotton MS. OTHO A. XII

Asser gives a much more detailed account of the battle itself and says that the fleet of 23 ships had sailed to Domnania from Dyfed, but still doesn’t name the brother of Inwar and Healfdene who led them.

He says no more of the Wessex men than that they were ministri regis and took refuge from the Danes in the unidentified arx Cynuit.

Again, there is nothing about any Saxon leader: the decision to burst out unexpectedly upon the besieging army was apparently collectively agreed, not an act of canny generalship by a commander. They slew 1,200 Danes, including their leader, and a few escaped to their ships.

In terms of who, what and where, this is all we know from those two contemporary sources: a brother of Hinguar/Inwar and Healfdene, 23 ships, Domnania or Defenascire, the rout of the Danish force and death of their leader.

A now lost version of the ASC is supposed to have been the source of the 10th-c. Latin Chronicon Æthelweardi. Æthelweard died c.998 and was probably writing his chronicle 100 years after the event. So what does he say about it?

As in the ASC, it is dispatched in a few lines. The writer indicates that it was Healfdene, the brother of Inguuar, who led the fleet of 30 ships in ‘the western parts of the Angles’ (in occidentales Anglorum partes). We learn that Odda, dux provinciae Defenu was leader of the Saxons and they were besieged in quodam castro (unnamed). Rex ruit must refer to the Danish leader, so he was slain with 800 of his men. This could tally with the 840 mentioned in ASC as this referred to 800 fighting men and 40 of the Danish leader’s retinue.

Why Æthelweard speaks of Anglorum rather than Saxonum, I don’t know, though this may be his later perspective on the situation. The Angles would have been in the eastern half of England. Both Saxons and Angles held territory in the east, so what Æthelweard meant by occidentales partes is also fairly imprecise. It seems to be merely a rough equivalent of Domnania or Defenascire.

The suggested boundaries of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th century. The 'occidentales partes' of the West Saxons might have been anywhere within the black square

The suggested boundaries of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th century. The ‘occidentales partes’ of the West Saxons might have been anywhere within the black rectangle

Those who have made a close study of Æthelweard’s entire text will have their reasons for positing a lost version of ASC as its source. But from the four lines here relevant I see three possible mistakes, either in Æthelweard’s source manuscript, misreadings by him or mistakes by his own copyist (that Healfdenes was a nominative not a genitive, that xxiii was read as xxx, and that he misinterpreted the outcome of the battle).

The one point which seems genuinely different is the reference to the siege of the camp, mentioned by Asser but not in any of the extant ASC versions. So could he not have been writing a précis of Asser, rather than using a manuscript of ASC? The rest of his text must indicate otherwise, I suppose.

One possible addition of his own is the name of Odda as dux provinciae Defenu (with ‘dux’ occurring in other sources as the equivalent of ealdorman). Here the point of interest is that Æthelweard was himself ealdorman of the Western Provinces (presumably ‘Dumnonia’). Possibly this position (a royal appointment, not inherited) enabled him to discover the name of his predecessor in 878, though discovering the incumbent’s name does not prove his presence in the battle; but personal names bring vividness to a narrative.

So far, no clear geographical indications, and no sign of Hubba or Ubba. But Odda now plays a role in the story, 100 years on: and once he has been mentioned in writing, to be read by others, he is likely to return for another 1,000 years – regardless of whether he took part in the battle or not.

À propos: much of the current Wikipedia article on Odda is based on some kind of historical fiction. I plan to clean that up when I can find time.

“Alfred was faced with an issue of loyalty, with the real possibility that many of his people would not remain faithful to him, and instead lend their allegiance to Guthrum, King of the Danish Vikings and conqueror of much of Wessex. […] Odda was forced to choose between Alfred and Guthrum in early 878 when an army of Vikings, led by Ubba, supposed son of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, landed on the north Devon or Somerset coast, possibly near modern-day Lynmouth. Choosing not to side with the invaders, Odda gathered an army, mostly composed of inexperienced farmers and peasants, and retreated to a defensive position overlooking the beach. […] Realising the problem, Odda decided he could not remain atop the hill indefinitely, and at the break of dawn he led his troops down the hill, taking the Vikings by surprise. In the ensuing battle around a thousand Vikings were killed, as was Ubba himself, possibly at Odda’s own hand.” And so on.

Not bad for a man who may not even have been there. And who, if he was there, was indifferently both victorious and defeated.

[To be continued]