The Battle of Arx Cynwit (878 CE)
The Case for Countisbury Hillfort (Wind Hill) near Lynmouth Bay, Exmoor
[878 CE] ...the brother of Inwar and Halfdene, with twenty-three ships, came, after many massacres of the Christians, from Dyfed, where he had wintered, and sailed to Devon, where with twelve hundred others he met with a miserable death, being slain, while committing his misdeeds, by the king's thanes, before the fortress of Cynwit, in which many of the king's thanes, with their followers, had shut themselves up for safety — Asser.
This original article presents a comprehensive examination of the Battle of Cynwit [Cynuit], a critical juncture in Anglo-Saxon history that took place in 878 CE. Historians have long argued that the battle site was 'Countisbury Castle', thirteen miles east of Combe Martin, North Devon.
Between 871 and 878, the Kingdom of Wessex almost ceased to exist when three Viking forces - the Great Heathen Army, the Great Summer Army, and Guthrum the Dane - tried to take over. Wessex King Alfred and the West Saxons were driven to fight for survival.
Cynwit, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places in Devon, marked a significant victory for the West Saxons under the leadership of Ealdorman Odda, against a formidable Viking army led by Hubba [Ubba], one of the leaders of the 'Great Heathen Army' that invaded Anglo-Saxon England during the 860s. The Norse invasion left a lasting impact on the British Isles.
Despite its historical significance, the precise location of the battle remains the subject of ongoing debate. Our study supports Countisbury Castle a.k.a. Wind Hill, a prominent Iron Age hillfort near Lynmouth, North Devon, as the likely site of Cynwit in 878.
Drawing on a range of historical sources, including Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as geographical and archaeological evidence: we build a case for Wind Hill promontory fort, and discuss its possible etymology through linguistics.
Following the Battle of Cynuit at which "840" Vikings were slain, the Great Heathen Army was ultimately defeated. We further explore the broader implications of the Battle of Cynwit, discussing its role in the Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Viking invasions, and its enduring impact.
Historians use primary and secondary sources to build a picture of what might have happened, but these sources can be incomplete, biased, or interpreted differently by different people. Translations of medieval texts differ, therefore one key proviso is that we cannot be sure.
Over the winter of 877-878 AD, a Viking army led by Guthrum attacked and seized Chippenham on the River Avon. Around January 878, a second army of some twelve-hundred Danes came from Dyfed, Cymru, and laid siege to a Devon hillfort which the Welsh chronicler Asser called Cynuit/Cynwit. The ensuing battle is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 878 AD.
In a desperate gamble, the West Saxon fyrd garrison, led by Odda [Oddune], Ealdorman of Devon, surged out of Cynuit at dawn and decimated the Viking siege force. As we will see in this article, Wessex King Alfred and Anglo-Saxon England had every reason to thank Earl Odda and his militia. Without their actions, English history might have taken a different course.
In translations of the Life of King Alfred (893 CE), Asser described the fortifications at the arx Cynuit: "the ramparts thrown up in our fashion" (moenia nostro more erecta), or "put up in our fashion", as he himself had "seen". Asser's manuscript survived to modern times in only one copy, subsequently reproduced.
In some translations of Alfred's biography, Asser implies that the hillfort was shabbily constructed and lacked water. Yet, significantly, Asser seems certain that the promontory location was "secure from every direction except the east" (tutissimus est ab omni parte, nisi ab orientali).
Conquering Wessex, the last surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdom, was crucial for Viking dominance. By attacking both Chippenham and the arx Cynuit almost simultaneously, the Vikings put immense pressure on Alfred and his forces.
With King Alfred on the run, the West Saxons, trapped and encircled, managed to defeat Hubba's army. This victory must have been a huge morale boost for the local population and for King Alfred.
Moreover, Earl Odda's militia helped to stop the Vikings' domination of England. And their tactics probably influenced their King's eventual victory over the Great Heathen Army, later that same year.
Ancient hillforts were fortified structures and refuges, strategically placed, and typically encircled by one or more series of embankments and trenches. Timber and clay created a defensive wall or rampart. The name Countisbury [Cunsbear in antiquarian descriptions] can also be transcribed as "the headland camp" (The National Trust, 2024).
A layer of stone, called a revetment, supported the sides of embankments. There are several ancient hillforts in Devon, commonly situated on bluffs, headlands, spurs, or promontories
Asser's Life of King Alfred; 54 "The Danes Defeated at Cynwit".
Historic England: Hillforts.
England on the Cusp of Defeat
When the Vikings seized Chippenham, early in 878: King Alfred and a small retinue fled to Athelney, Bridgwater, in the marshes of Somerset. According to history, it was around this time that a dejected King Alfred 'burned some cakes' at the home of a peasant woman.
Alfred and the men of Somerset continued to resist the Vikings, while Wessex and potentially England appeared to be lost. Yet around January 878 the West Saxons turned the tables.
The Forgotten Battle of Cynwit
The oft-overlooked event contributed to King Alfred's ultimate destruction of the Great Viking Army that had ravaged the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy since the 860s.
Often over-shadowed by more famous victories: Earl Odda's routing of a substantial arm of the Pagan invasion helped to preserve England's independence. Arguably, it shaped the course of English history.
Just a short sea trip from where the Norsemen were overwintering on the Isle of Anglesey: Viking leader Hubba Ragnarsson met his end at Cynwit and a significant part of the Viking fleet was destroyed. According to contemporary records: their totem, Hubba's personal Raven war-flag/Standard, was captured.
Forty of Hubba's personal retinue or hearth-troop were also lost at Cynwit, including his most skilled and experienced advisors. Several locations have been suggested, yet in 2006: Michael Rayner, co-ordinator of the Battlefields Trust, agreed with other historians that the arx Cynwit was "the spectacular" Countisbury Castle on Wind Hill.
Readers can find extracts from our Viking Study reference table attached at the bottom of this page (see Terms), along with a local area map.
Asser's Life of King Alfred: "The Danes Defeated at Cynwit".
The Saxon victory at Cynwit was also recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 878 CE.
The Megalithic Portal: Wind Hill - Hillfort in England in Devon.
Rayner, Michael (2006): English battlefields : 500 battlefields that shaped English history - "Countisbury Hill". The History Press.
The "Heathens Cut Down"
According to the Life—one of the most important sources of information on Alfred the Great —the Danes attempted to starve the Cynwit populace, believing it to be unprepared for battle.
Yet the Saxons caught them off-guard with an ambuscade at dawn. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 878 CE states that the Danish leader "Hubba was slain with 840 of his army".
Asser wrote that "the Christians, before they began at all to suffer from such want, being inspired by Heaven, and judging it much better to gain either victory or death, sallied out suddenly upon the heathen at daybreak.”
[Asser continues] “And from the first, cut [the Danes] down in great numbers, slaying also their king [Hubba alt. Ubbe], so that few escaped to their ships" ("The Danes Defeated at Cynwit").
Despite their fighting prowess, Viking raiders often found themselves outmatched against organised professional soldiers who were well-equipped and supported by the king.
"The Vikings lost quite often, and mass graves show failed raids" (Roesdahl, 2023, Aarhus University, Denmark).
The Chronicon Æthelweardi
Æthelweard [Ethelward] (d. 998), a 10th-century chronicler and ealdorman, wrote a Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle known as the Chronicon Æthelweardi. Æthelweard details the events leading up to 878, yet he only briefly reported the battle at Cynwit and says, curiously, that "in the end the Danes held the victory".
The Danes buried their dead after the battle, including Hubba their leader. Æthelweard acknowledges their resilience and determination; even in defeat they appeared to be masters of the battlefield.
According to an ancient Chronicle cited in the 1770s by the antiquarian scholar Thomas Hearne (Archeologia, Volume VII): when the Danes discovered the fallen warriors Hinguar and Hubba, they reverently carried them to a nearby mountain and erected a sacred memorial.
The exact burial location is not known, and such information is merely part of the myth around Cynwit. Yet Æthelweard's accounts provide valuable insights into the history of Anglo-Saxon England.
He had familial ties to the royal lineage, being a descendant of King Æthelred I of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon monarch and older sibling of Alfred the Great.
Campbell, A. ed. (1962): The chronicle of Æthelweard. London. Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.
Lack of Evidence for Countisbury Wind Hill as Arx Cynuit
Neither the archaeological evidence nor the historical records from that time, including the corpus of Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the writings of Asser, provide clear geographical details that would definitively identify Countisbury Hill, or any other candidate, as the site of the arx Cynwit in the year 878.
The interpretation of historical and linguistic evidence often involves a degree of uncertainty, and new findings can lead to revisions in our understanding of historical events.
Alternative Sites for Cynwit
Kenwith Castle (Torridge, Northam) has been suggested; "The hill is identified by Vidal with the Saxon defensive position before a decisive defeat of the Danes in 878 which is named the "Battle of Cynuit" by the contemporary [Prelate Chronicler] Asser" (Historic England, 2023).
Cannington Parish Council states that "Cannington Hill is believed to be the site of a battle in AD878 when the Saxons under King Odda defeated a force of Danish sea raiders who landed at nearby Combwich". This suggests that arx Cynwit could be Cannington Camp in the Parrett estuary.
The Devonshire Association (Sept. 2023) posits that "the battle’s more plausible location, according to the historical landscape and the military and tenurial history of the Torridge Valley, is [350m south of Woolleigh Bridge] at the Castle Hill settlement near Beaford".
Historic England (2024, List Entry Number 1021417) states that "new studies propose that the Beaford Castle Hill Settlement could potentially be the location of the pivotal Battle of Cynwit/Cynuit in AD 878". They say the hillfort seems to match the descriptions given by chroniclers of the time, and evidence from place-names.
Like the rest of the candidates: Historic England states that "more research is essential" to challenge "the widely accepted belief" that the battle took place at Cannington Hill, near Bridgwater in Somerset.
The Case for Countisbury Hillfort
Documentary evidence such as Asser, and geographical features described in contemporary accounts, also suggest the pivotal battle of Cynwit a.k.a Cynuit took place at Countisbury Castle above Lynmouth, Devon. The British Iron Age monument (c500 BC - 43 AD) is one of the largest fortifications in Britain, and the highest hill within the enclosed area.
Historic England (2024): Earthwork defences of Countisbury Castle promontory fort. List Entry Number: 1020807.
Towering above the eastern flank of the Lyn Gorge, the prominent Wind Hill affords uninterrupted vistas across the Bristol Channel towards what is now Wales. In this context, ‘Cynwit’ or ‘Cynuit’ is more likely to denote a fortified hill or elevated place, according to their etymological roots (English Place-names Society, 2024).
“Burh,” as recorded in Old English, serves as a translation of the Latin term arx. Countisbury Wind Hill (NGR SS 7395 4930) could simply have been Celtic fortress; Latin arx or Old English burh, called Cynwit [Cynuit] (Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names). In Anglo-Saxon, cyn translates to modern English kin, and to noble family.
The Old English terms “burh” and “burg” evolved from the Proto-Germanic word “burg”, which is related to the verb “berg”, meaning “to shut in for protection”. These terms share a common origin with the German word “Burg”, the Dutch word “burcht”, and the Scandinavian word “borg”.
Beyond the English origins, these terms were occasionally used in Old English adaptations or variations of indigenous place names. This includes the Brittonic or Celtic term “dunon” for fortress, and the Welsh term “caer” for fortress.
These terms have variously developed from OE into “borough”, “burg”, "berry", and [Countis] "bury". Notably, Southeast England's [Canter]bury, Suffolk: [Alde]burgh, and Scotland: “[Edin] burgh”.
However, Devon's people are predominantly of Celtic origin, and the Celtic or Common Brittonic language (which developed into Cornish) was spoken in several distinct tongues, well into the Middle Ages. The name “Cynwit” could potentially be derived from Celtic words or roots, as is common with many place names in regions with Celtic history.
The Old English phrase “mid his ágnum burhwarum” translates to “with his own townspeople” in modern English. Whilst it's fun playing with linguistics, we still have no answers.
In Old Welsh, Cunēt is suggested to mean “count” or “reckoning”. It is also associated with a fortified place, and with a Romano-British large-walled place on the River Kennet, Wiltshire: Cunetio, which might later have been occupied by an Anglo-Saxon chieftain.
Countisbury could derive from Cunēt to which was added an explanatory suffix in Old English (450 AD -1100 AD). At a stretch we arrive at the word Cynuit (Cunētsburh/Cunētsbury).
Old Welsh or Hen Gymraeg refers to the period of the Welsh language in use from approximately 800 AD to the early part of the 12th century. Old Welsh features in a number of manuscripts, and as glosses (notations) on Latin texts.
The History Files: Post-Roman Britain - Introduction to Celtic Devon.
A fusion of Old Welsh and Old English reflects the historical significance of this fortified location: a place for counting, strategy, and defense. The Welsh Church chronicler John Asser wrote in Latin, yet his writings show Old Welsh influences.
Alfred's court was multicultural, including scholars from various regions of Britain and mainland Europe. This speculation still fits the timeframe; and as the English Place-names Society (EPNS) notes: Asser's native Old Welsh language appears to have influenced his spelling conventions, such as his use of Celtic and Old Welsh forms for names.
The English Place-names Society (2024): "Countisbury - Major Settlement in the Parish of Countisbury".
Though Cynwit's origins and the battle site remain unknown: EPNS adds that "on the phonological side it should be pointed out that Cynwit [Cynuit] is only one of the numerous Welsh spellings of Anglo-Saxon names found in [Welsh chronicler] Asser".
Moreover, EPNS states that "[Renowned historian Christopher] Plummer was probably right (Two Saxon Chronicles ii, 93) in identifying Countisbury with the arx Cynuit of Asser (c. 54), a place near the Devon coast where Ubba, brother of Ivarr the Boneless, suffered defeat".
Riley & Wilson-North (2001): state that Wind Hill's classic univallate promontory hillfort encloses an area of 35 hectares, or about 86.5 acres. The monument typically comprises a high bank rampart and ditch, denying easy access for raiders (The Field Archaeology of Exmoor).
To provide some context: the Athletes’ Village from the London 2012 Olympics, which once accommodated 17,000 athletes, has been repurposed into the East Village. It now boasts more than 2,800 residences, with an additional 2,000 in the pipeline.
Currently, East Village is a thriving community of approximately 6,000 residents, featuring three playgrounds for children and 35 acres of open spaces and parks.
If the West Saxons occupied the entire enclosure of 85.5 acres on Wind Hill: there could have been a few thousand people living there in January 878. A great number of them would have formed the fyrd militia, possibly more than enough to rout Hubba's 1200 Viking raiders.
Evidence from the Prelate Scribe John Asser
Our understanding of ninth-century Britain, this transformative period, and the rise of Wessex, would be considerably limited without the information provided in Alfred's biography.
By the end of the century, the four distinct and influential Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that were present at the century’s onset—Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex—had consolidated into the single kingdom of Wessex.
John Asser a.k.a. Asserius Menevensis (c. 885-909 CE) described Cynwit, in his biography (893 CE) of King Alfred. Alfred ‘the Great’ ruled Wessex at the time, and later became King of all Anglo-Saxons. Most of the public transactions are found in the pages of the Saxon Chronicle.
According to Asser: the Viking army led by Hubba or Ubbe (brother of Ivar the Boneless), sailed from Dyfed with "twenty-three ships to Devon in Wessex. He was there slain, and with him eight hundred and forty men of his army. And there was taken the war-flag which they called the Raven" (Cook, A. S., Life of King Alfred, transl. 1906).
Asser—Bishop Asser—would have known Countisbury Hill as a conspicuous landmark which he says in the Life “as I myself have seen”, on his Bristol Channel trips from St David's, Dyfed, southwestern Wales.
Asser also noted that the arx Cynwit could only be approached from the eastern side, matching the geographical features of Countisbury Hill. Asser’s detailed account implies that he visited the battle site at Cynwit. Furthermore, the Welsh would have had a long-standing familiarity with Countisbury.
Thus far, we have left out one important piece of information from Asser's account of Cynwit. One translation of the Life states the King's thanes [thegns or lords] had shut themselves up for safety. Another version provided by Fordham University describes them as the King's followers.
Before the Normans conquered England in 1066, thanes were lords or free followers ranked similar to a feudal baron and knight after the Conquest. Thanes were aristocrats who owned substantial land in one or more counties in Anglo-Saxon England. The word thane, ranking below ealdorman, appears in the laws before King Aethelstan died in 939.
Accordingly, the Cynwit garrison described by Asser might have been composed of royal officials or retainers with judicial and military functions, above the common ceorl and secondary to Ealdorman Odda.
If that were true, it suggests Cynwit, possibly at Countisbury Hill comprising 35 hectares, was a significant Wessex stronghold and strategic target for Hubba's army. However, the actual site of the battle at Cynwit will probably never be known.
And besides: literary critic, linguist and scholar Albert S. Cook (1906) was one of the first to state that "Asser is an authority to be used with criticism and caution". Yet, "he is an authority nevertheless, and one whose statements are not to be set aside without adequate reason."
Albert Cook also cautioned that neither the stories of Alfred burning cakes or the Viking Raven war-flag at Cynwit, have any basis in fact (Asser's Life of King Alfred, transl. from the text of Stevenson's edition). Such stories might have been borrowed from Norse Sagas about Ragnar.
Asser's life of King Alfred by Asser, John, d. 909; Cook, Albert S. (Albert Stanburrough), 1853-1927. Boston, New York : Ginn & company.
Historians Supporting Wind Hill as Arx Cynwit
Respected historian and archaeologist Dr Robert Higham, in his Making Anglo Saxon Devon: Emergence of a Shire (2008, p. 64), identified Countisbury near Lynmouth as the “location of the Viking siege led by Ubba [Hubba, Ubbe], one of the commanders of the Great Heathen Army that invaded Anglo-Saxon England in the 860s.”
Michael Rayner, co-ordinator of the Battlefields Trust, placed the battle at Countisbury: "Battle of Countisbury Hill, 878". Rayner describes the victory as "morale boosting for the Wessex Saxons when they had been forced onto the defensive by the Danish Vikings" (2006, p. 109).
Rayner, Michael (2006): English battlefields : 500 battlefields that shaped English history. The History Press; UK ed. edition.
Landscape historian William G. Hoskins CBE FBA, in his well-respected, influential and comprehensive study: A New Survey of England – Devon (1954), states that “the precise scene of the battle was the earthwork, about [one mile] W. of the village, on the high neck of land between the Lyn gorge and the sea.”
Archaeological Evidence for Countisbury Wind Hill
Exmoor Heritage designates Wind Hill as an Iron Age earthwork to the east of Lynton and Lynmouth (Exmoor HER MEM25099). The large promontory fort "is one of the suggested sites for Cynwit mentioned by Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" (online: Battle of Cynwit, Countisbury [Monument]).
The original connotation of a burh was arx, castellum, mons. The origin of the name Cynwit/Cynuit is not certain; yet Arx Cynwit could have been the fortress of an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Countisbury, named `Contesberie' in Domesday.
The earthwork monument is located near postcode EX35 6NT, NGR SS 7395 4930, by the A39 Lynton to Countisbury road, and overlooks Lynmouth Bay to the north. Wind Hill offers a high commanding view of the East Lyn valley, and is strategically positioned for defence.
Under Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxons established a series of fortified towns, or “burhs”, throughout their realm. These strongholds a.k.a. arx were instrumental against Viking raids.
While the Battle of Cynwit was a significant event in the ongoing conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, it’s not directly linked to the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Burghal Hidage in c911. The Burghal Hidage is more directly related to Alfred the Great’s broader defensive strategy against the Vikings.
Burhs protected the inhabitants during assaults and functioned as key military outposts. This novel defensive strategy greatly contributed to King Alfred’s destruction of the Viking invasion. On the whole, the burh system proved to be an effective defence strategy.
Yet as we'll discuss later, Alfred was not the only nemesis of the Vikings in England and Wales.
Why Cynwit of 878 CE is Significant
Cynwit and its significance are often overlooked; firstly, the Danes seem to have overstretched themselves and underestimated the Anglo-Saxons' resolve and prowess. It would have taken a powerful and determined defence force to rout such a large Viking army.
Secondly: contemporary chronicles indicate the majority of twenty-three shiploads of Danes were slain on the Cynwit field. This devastating defeat had a substantial impact on the Viking forces, diminishing their prospects for total conquest.
Power, Politics and Warfare of the Era
Alfred wasn’t the sole adversary of the Vikings, nor was he the only monarch bestowed with the title “Great”. During this era, England and Wales were engaged in territorial struggles. Both nations stood their ground and were formidable opponents against the Viking invasions.
Welsh King Rhodri Mawr 'the Great'
The life and legacy of Welsh King Rhodri ap Merfyn a.k.a. Rhodri 'the Great' (b.c820 - d.c878 CE) are in some ways similar to Alfred's, although Rhodri's legacy is more focused on his military achievements. Rhodri's influence continued after his death, and his other son, named Anarawd, governed the unified realms of Powys and Gwyned.
Edwards, Thomas (2014): Wales and the Britons, 350-106 (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Around 855-856, Rhodri famously defeated the Vikings at Anglesey on the north coast of Wales, and slew their Danish chieftain. Rhodri demonstrated the Vikings could be beaten, and his victory played a crucial role in preserving the independence of his kingdom.
However, in 877, Rhodri was defeated in The Battle of Sunday, on Anglesey, and fled to Ireland. He returned a year later in 878 to defeat the Vikings on Anglesey. Later in 878, Rhodri and his son Gwiard were killed by the Viking client King Ceolwulf's army who were attempting to expand into Gwynedd (Thornton, David E., 2004).
Rhodri Mawr (b. before 844, d. 878), king of Gwynedd. 2004, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Cynwit Marked a Positive Change in Anglo-Saxon Fortunes
Cynwit was a catalyst in the Vikings' failure to conquer the Kingdom of Wessex—the only Anglo-Saxon province that survived the Vikings—or all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The victory at Cynwit was a precursor to a more famous victory later that year. Moreover, the West Saxons demonstrated that victories could be achieved under leaders other than the King.
MacNeill, Ryan (2019): The Great Heathen Failure: Why the Great Heathen Army Failed to Conquer the Whole of Anglo-Saxon England. Thesis, Winthrop University.
The Battle of Cynwit Contributed to Anglo-Saxon Independence
Historians consider that the West Saxons’ victory over the Danes at Cynwit ultimately led to King Alfred’s destruction of the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878, which saved Anglo-Saxon independence. Edington was shortly followed by the Peace of Wedmore.
Oxford Reference (2024): Treaty of Wedmore 878 CE.
Oxford Bibliographies (2023): Alfred The Great - Medieval Studies.
Yorke, Barbara (History Today, 1999): "Alfred the Great: The Most Perfect Man in History?". History Today Vol. 49 Issue 10, 1999.
Anglo-Saxon Ealdormen and the Fyrd
Anglo-Saxon Ealdormen or Earls, held administrative authority for tax collection, governance, and for mobilising the fyrd militia, in the administrative divisions they controlled. These high-ranking royal functionaries governed one or more shires, and answered directly to the king.
In Anglo-Saxon England, every freeman was legally required to serve in the fyrd militia when called upon, although this could not always be enforced in practice.
Mōmmaerts-Browne, T.S.M. (2005): Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy: Tracing Lineages.
Oxford Reference (2023): Fyrd.
Career of Alfred the Great, AD 871-901, by Thomas Hughes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (23 Aug. 2017).
The Viking Age in Europe
The era known as the Viking Age, a significant phase in Denmark’s prehistory, extended from approximately 800 CE to 1050 CE. From the 9th century CE, the first Viking kings emerged. This epoch was marked by maritime voyages to distant lands, and substantial societal transformations. The Vikings sought to trade, accumulate wealth, and to conquer new land.
From the late 8th century CE onwards, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were frequently attacked by the Norsemen. At the start of the Viking Age in Europe: their infamous raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 CE was graphically documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
A sequence of invasions and conflicts followed, as the Vikings ravaged and looted settlements, taking livestock and portable wealth. Initially sending shockwaves throughout English Christendom: these raids would continue for two centuries.
Apart from King Alfred, there were other significant figures who played a role in the resistance against the Vikings during the Anglo-Saxon period. The Viking Age in Europe is widely considered to have ended in the year 1066, marked by the Norman Conquest of England.
English Heritage (2023): The Viking Raid on Lindisfarne.
The Great Heathen Army
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and tradition: Viking commander Hubba/Ubba led an invasion on England around 865 CE, with Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, to avenge the execution of Ragnar Lodbrok at the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king Aella of Northumbria.
The Viking army of up to 3,000 thousand people landed in East Anglia. In the earliest version of the 9th to 12th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: this coalition of Scandinavian Pagans is described in Old English as "micel here" or Great Army. The Parker Chronicle, also known as the A-version, is the oldest surviving manuscript.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a Viking leader named Ragnall or Reginherus, who is believed by some historians to be the "Danish Viking hero king" Ragnar Lothbrok alt. Lodbrok.
The Viking story of Ragnar Lodbrok is primarily told through unreliable mythical sagas and Norse folklore. Poor literacy standards in the contemporary Scandinavia left us very few credible Viking sources.
Read more at The Historical Association (2011): The Vikings in Britain: a brief history.
The Anglo-Saxon Burghal Hidage
The Burghal Hidage, an Anglo-Saxon document thought to have been produced between 911 and 914 (although other theories exist), represents the strategy implemented by Alfred in the late 9th century to brace for the resurgence of Viking invasions, which indeed occurred in 892.
The document provides an in-depth view of the system of fortified towns known as burhs.
The Vikings raided Watchet, Somerset, in 918 according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 902-924. The chronicle records they came to Watchet again in 987, and in 997 with much evil wrought in burning and manslaughter.
Viking chieftains Svein and his offspring Knut extended their activities to the southernmost parts of Anglo-Saxon Devon and Cornwall. Viking leaders such as Pallig Tokeson raided Devon, assaulting a number of coastal settlements.
In 997, the Vikings navigated up the Tamar River, launched an attack on the Tavistock Abbey, and returned to their ships with looted treasure (The Vikings in Devon - Dartmoor Resource).
What if the Vikings Had Won at Arx Cynwit?
If the battle in 878 CE had ended in defeat for the West Saxons: the implications could have been disastrous for England. Alfred would have been dethroned, or worse. England would have become a Danish state with profound implications for its culture, language, and identity (Nick Arnold, 2008: Medieval News - "Site of Battle of Cynuit Discovered").
King Alfred sought to cultivate a shared identity among the Angles, transcending regional factionism. He envisioned Angelcynn—the Anglo-Saxon family—as a means to forge a united, resilient society capable of withstanding the Viking incursions and their cultural impact.
Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon province, and the bulwark against the Danish invasion. A loss for the West Saxons might have undermined the King's resistance and potentially reshaped English history.
Expansion of the Vikings: The West Saxons’ victory at the arx Cynwit was a blow to the Vikings, especially the “Great Heathen Army” that was in the process of conquering and subjugating many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. A victory for the Vikings could have hastened their expansion and reinforced their dominance over more territories.
Political Repercussions: The political dynamics of England could have been dramatically altered, with potential shifts in the power balance among the various kingdoms.
In the event, West Saxony became a central power during the late Anglo-Saxon period from circa the 9th century to the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Conquest deposed England's rulers whose legacy, particularly Alfred the Great and his descendants, laid the foundations for a unified English monarchy and England's sociological development.
Collective Efforts Subdued The Vikings in This Era
Not only Alfred the Great and Rhodri Mawr, but numerous other leaders and communities throughout England and Wales resisted the Viking invasions. Their united stand was instrumental in safeguarding their lands during this period of upheaval.
History is Complex
Our comments merely reflect our understanding and opinions from numerous sources and credible accounts we include here. Texts and records are open to interpretation, and historic texts can be analysed through different lenses while considering the cultural, social, and political contexts of their time.
If the Vikings had taken control of Wessex, the repercussions would have hinged on a multitude of factors, including the strategies of the leaders, alliances, and numerous other historical events.
History is complex and everything is linked; a single event can trigger far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon administrative division; yet his saintly reputation, which draws largely on the politicised Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC), has recently been challenged.
Hagiographies and Propaganda
While neither the valuable ASC nor Asser’s important biography of Alfred are hagiographies: they do contain elements of idealism, such as the portrayal of Alfred as a saint. King Alfred 'The Great' is a celebrated monarch, yet historical sources can sometimes contain elements of propaganda, bias and myth.
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Combe Martin historian John H. Moore reports that "the Vikings left no place names in Devon (if we exclude Lundy which means Puffin Island) but a few Anglo-Danish personal names appear later in Cnuts time." (Sellman 1962 p. 23).
From the 9th to the 11th centuries, the Vikings launched raids and established colonies across vast regions of Europe. An early recorded encounter between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons occurred in 787 CE, when Viking ships arrived on the Dorset coast, executing a royal official.
These incursions escalated in the 860s, with large Viking forces invading and looting the Anglo-Saxon territories of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. In 860, the Vikings blockaded Winchester, the capital of Wessex, but were repelled by the Anglo-Saxons led by King Æthelwulf (r. 839 to 858) and his son Alfred.
The Viking attacks continued until 896, culminating in their retreat to East Anglia where they settled. These raids significantly influenced the political and cultural landscape of West Saxony, prompting the Anglo-Saxons to consolidate their defences.
Alfred’s countermeasures against the Great Heathen Army marked an epoch in the formation of the English kingdom, as noted by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. His victory over the Vikings unified the Anglo-Saxon people, paving the way for his descendants to govern a united England.
Alfred authored significant English legal codes, safeguarded his realm from Viking conquests, and emerged as England’s pre-eminent ruler. He initiated a sense of ‘English’ identity that transcended the smaller existing kingdoms.
His initiatives included translating classical texts from Latin into English, establishing public schools, overhauling the military, and updating and enlarging the legal system. However, some argue that Alfred’s reputation may be partly attributed to propaganda. Among other academic authors, Simon Keynes explores this perspective in his 1999 journal article “The Cult of King Alfred.”
Records and texts are open to interpretation. And despite Alfred’s remarkable reign there are debates surrounding the effectiveness of his military reforms, such as the construction of redoubts, and a network of fortified towns (burhs) garrisoned by a standing army (McDermott, 2009, Alfred the Great: Viking Wars and Military Reforms).
Sources accessed 2023-2024:
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 787: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang08.asp. "These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation."
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 10th Century: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang10.asp. "Stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock".
Cambridge University Press (online): 12 February 2009: The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest.
Heritage Gateway (2023): Heritage Environment Records Hob Uid: 1554202. Battle of Winchester 860 CE.
Hoskins, W.G. (1954): A New Survey of England ; "Devon". Collins, London.
Keynes, Simon: “The Cult of King Alfred the Great.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 28, 1999, pp. 225–356. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44512350. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.
Keynes, Simon; Lapidge, Michael (1983): Alfred the Great, Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
McDermott, Gary (2009): Alfred the Great: Viking Wars and Military Reforms.
National Museum of Denmark: Written sources shed light on Viking travels. https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/expeditions-and-raids/written-sources/.
National Trust (2024): https://heritagerecords.nationaltrust.org.uk/HBSMR/MonRecord.aspx?uid=MNA108011.
Riley, H. & Wilson-North, R. (2001): The Field Archaeology of Exmoor. English Heritage.
Schoolshistory.org.uk: Viking Raid on Lindisfarne: Source Material. https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/primary-history/source-material-the-vikings/viking-raid-on-lindisfarne-source/.
The Historian's Hut: The First Reported Contact Between Britain and Vikings. https://thehistorianshut.com/2019/04/13/the-first-reported-contact-between-britain-and-vikings/.
Thornton, D.E. (2004): Rhodri Mawr (b. before 844, d. 878), king of Gwynedd. Oxford. ODNB.
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Cite this page: Combe Martin History and Heritage Project (2024): A Viking Defeat at Ayx Cynuit (878 CE). Available at https://www.combemartinvillage.co.uk/early-histories/arx-cynuit-countisbury. Accessed (date).
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