BBC History Magazine: the battle of Hengest’s Hill

The September issue of BBC History Magazine is still on news-stands, featuring my article on forgotten battles of the Viking Age. I was delighted to make it onto the cover:

Here’s an extract from the pre-publication draft:

The Battle of Hengest’s Hill, 838

‘King Ecgbehrt (Egbert) of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In 825, he had established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (just outside Swindon). It had been a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink’. This, however, was only one front in Ecgbehrt’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms and peoples of Britain. In 815, he had raided Cornwall ‘from east to west’ – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great ship-horde came to Cornwall’ which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Ecgbehrt’s power. Ecgbehrt led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill (Hengestesdun). This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon (Hengestesdun). We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This, it would transpire, was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.’

The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.

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Medieval Warfare III.5

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Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).

Ringmere

Yesterday I visited the site that has long been associated with the Battle of Ringmere (as named by John of Worcester and called Hringmaraheiðr in various Norse saga accounts which include some fascinating contemporary skaldic verse relating to the battle). The connection of the battle to a remarkable geological feature – Ringmere – on Wretham Heath is a long-standing one, which has only recently been seriously challenged in a well reasoned article by Keith Briggs that appeared in ‘Notes and Queries’ [read it here]. Nevertheless, the site at Wretham remains a compelling one, not least due to the preservation of an open and atmospheric landscape thanks to the designation of Wretham Heath as a nature reserve (run by the Norfolk Naturalists Trust).

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Ringmere, Wretham Heath, Norfolk

A feature of this landscape that – to the best of my knowledge – has not previously been remarked upon in discussions of the battle is the presence of a small circular ditched enclosure of indeterminate date that lies very close to the pool now labelled on maps as Ringmere. Briggs’ comments on the possible origins of the ring/hring element notwithstanding, the possibility must exist that the mere was named in relation to the earthwork enclosure nearby. Given the location of this place at the juncture of seven parishes, it is conceivable that this structure may have served as a moot-site of some kind.

Ringmere enclosure

Circular enclosure on Wretham Heath

There is a demonstrable pattern of association between early medieval battlefields and circular prehistoric structures (most strikingly at the Kennet battlefield and at one of the contenders for the Hengestes dune battlefield: both situated at henge monuments) which may derive from the use of established meeting points and landmarks as muster-points and battlefields (Halsall 1989). If East Wretham Heath was the site of the battle, it is possible that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference to ‘the place Ulfcytel was with his army’ refers to a mustering point for the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire levies focussed on this ring-shaped man-made structure and the extraordinary lake nearby.

As I wandered about the site, a great cloud of Rooks billowed up into an ominous sky to swirl madly in the gathering dusk. Their hoarse cries were a timeless echo in that bleak landscape – it was hard not to imagine the wild expanse of heathland strewn with the corpses of Saxons and Danes as the birds of battle wheeled in anticipation of their coming feast.

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[Originally posted 21st September 2012]

Ethandune, that savage and sacred spot

In the last few weeks I have been considering the location of the iconic battle of Ethandune for a chapter submitted for inclusion in an edited volume of essays on the ‘Danes in Wessex’ (Lavelle and Roffey (eds.) forthcoming). Whilst poking about in the literature, I came across the following lines written by G.K.Chesterton and published in 1911 in his collection of essays ‘Alarms and Discursions’ (Dodd, Mead and Company). The location that Chesterton describes – the environs of Edington (Wilts.) and the prehistoric enclosure at Bratton Camp – has since been established fairly securely as the site of the battle (although, as Ryan Lavelle has shown, this was by no means an uncontentious view when Chesterton was writing; Lavelle 2010, 302, 308-14). His lines are a powerful evocation of the way in which weather, landscape and the memory of violence can combine to exert a powerful pull on the imagination – a power which must have been no less in Alfred’s day than it was in Chesterton’s or, indeed, our own:

“Perhaps you do not know where Ethandune is. Nor do I; nor does anybody. That is where the somewhat sombre fun begins. I cannot even tell you for certain whether it is the name of a forest or a town or a hill. I can only say that in any case it is of the kind that floats and is unfixed. If it is a forest, it is one of those forests that march with a million legs, like the walking trees that were the doom of Macbeth. If it is a town, it is one of those towns that vanish, like a city of tents. If it is a hill, it is a flying hill, like the mountain to which faith lends wings. Over a vast dim region of England this dark name of Ethandune floats like an eagle doubtful where to swoop and strike, and, indeed, there were birds of prey enough over Ethandune, wherever it was. But now Ethandune itself has grown as dark and drifting as the black drifts of the birds.

And yet without this word that you cannot fit with a meaning and hardly with a memory, you would be sitting in a very different chair at this moment and looking at a very different tablecloth. As a practical modern phrase I do not commend it; if my private critics and correspondents in whom I delight should happen to address me “G. K. Chesterton, Poste Restante, Ethandune,” I fear their letters would not come to hand. If two hurried commercial travellers should agree to discuss a business matter at Ethandune from 5 to 5.15, I am afraid they would grow old in the district as white-haired wanderers. To put it plainly, Ethandune is anywhere and nowhere in the western hills; it is an English mirage. And yet but for this doubtful thing you would have probably no Daily News on Saturday and certainly no church on Sunday. I do not say that either of these two things is a benefit; but I do say that they are customs, and that you would not possess them except through this mystery. You would not have Christmas puddings, nor (probably) any puddings; you would not have Easter eggs, probably not poached eggs, I strongly suspect not scrambled eggs, and the best historians are decidedly doubtful about curried eggs. To cut a long story short (the longest of all stories), you would not have any civilization, far less any Christian civilization. And if in some moment of gentle curiosity you wish to know why you are the polished sparkling, rounded, and wholly satisfactory citizen which you obviously are, then I can give you no more definite answer geographical or historical; but only toll in your ears the tone of the uncaptured name–Ethandune.

I will try to state quite sensibly why it is as important as it is. And yet even that is not easy. If I were to state the mere fact from the history books, numbers of people would think it equally trivial and remote, like some war of the Picts and Scots. The points perhaps might be put in this way. There is a certain spirit in the world which breaks everything off short. There may be magnificence in the smashing; but the thing is smashed. There may be a certain splendour; but the splendour is sterile: it abolishes all future splendours. I mean (to take a working example), York Minster covered with flames might happen to be quite as beautiful as York Minster covered with carvings. But the carvings produce more carvings. The flames produce nothing but a little black heap. When any act has this cul-de-sac quality it matters little whether it is done by a book or a sword, by a clumsy battle-axe or a chemical bomb. The case is the same with ideas. The pessimist may be a proud figure when he curses all the stars; the optimist may be an even prouder figure when he blesses them all. But the real test is not in the energy, but in the effect. When the optimist has said, “All things are interesting,” we are left free; we can be interested as much or as little as we please. But when the pessimist says, “No things are interesting,” it may be a very witty remark: but it is the last witty remark that can be made on the subject. He has burnt his cathedral; he has had his blaze and the rest is ashes. The sceptics, like bees, give their one sting and die. The pessimist must be wrong, because he says the last word.

Now, this spirit that denies and that destroys had at one period of history a dreadful epoch of military superiority. They did burn York Minster, or at least, places of the same kind. Roughly speaking, from the seventh century to the tenth, a dense tide of darkness, of chaos and brainless cruelty, poured on these islands and on the western coasts of the Continent, which well-nigh cut them off from all the white man’s culture for ever. And this is the final human test; that the varied chiefs of that vague age were remembered or forgotten according to how they had resisted this almost cosmic raid. Nobody thought of the modern nonsense about races; everybody thought of the human race and its highest achievements. Arthur was a Celt, and may have been a fabulous Celt; but he was a fable on the right side. Charlemagne may have been a Gaul or a Goth, but he was not a barbarian; he fought for the tradition against the barbarians, the nihilists. And for this reason also, for this reason, in the last resort, only, we call the saddest and in some ways the least successful of the Wessex kings by the title of Alfred the Great. Alfred was defeated by the barbarians again and again, he defeated the barbarians again and again; but his victories were almost as vain as his defeats. Fortunately he did not believe in the Time Spirit or the Trend of Things or any such modern rubbish, and therefore kept pegging away. But while his failures and his fruitless successes have names still in use (such as Wilton, Basing, and Ashdown), that last epic battle which really broke the barbarian has remained without a modern place or name. Except that it was near Chippenham, where the Danes gave up their swords and were baptized, no one can pick out certainly the place where you and I were saved from being savages for ever.

But the other day under a wild sunset and moonrise I passed the place which is best reputed as Ethandune, a high, grim upland, partly bare and partly shaggy; like that savage and sacred spot in those great imaginative lines about the demon lover and the waning moon. The darkness, the red wreck of sunset, the yellow and lurid moon, the long fantastic shadows, actually created that sense of monstrous incident which is the dramatic side of landscape. The bare grey slopes seemed to rush downhill like routed hosts; the dark clouds drove across like riven banners; and the moon was like a golden dragon, like the Golden Dragon of Wessex.

As we crossed a tilt of the torn heath I saw suddenly between myself and the moon a black shapeless pile higher than a house. The atmosphere was so intense that I really thought of a pile of dead Danes, with some phantom conqueror on the top of it. Fortunately I was crossing these wastes with a friend who knew more history than I; and he told me that this was a barrow older than Alfred, older than the Romans, older perhaps than the Britons; and no man knew whether it was a wall or a trophy or a tomb. Ethandune is still a drifting name; but it gave me a queer emotion to think that, sword in hand, as the Danes poured with the torrents of their blood down to Chippenham, the great king may have lifted up his head and looked at that oppressive shape, suggestive of something and yet suggestive of nothing; may have looked at it as we did, and understood it as little as we.”

(G. K. Chesterton, 1911, Alarms and Discursions)

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