View Full Version : Where was Hengestesdun?

04-14-2009, 11:55 PM
Where was Hengestesdun?

Could one of the last great battles between the Saxons and the Celts not, as was previously alleged, have taken place at Hingston Down?


One of the last great battles between the Saxons and the Celts is alleged to have taken place at Hingston Down, near Callington. Yet new research shows that this could not have been the case. So...

Where was Hengestesdun?

In the early 9th century, the westward expansion of Wessex under its king Ecgberht was pushing back the borders of the Celtic southwest. The old kingdom of Dumnonia (of which Cornwall was part) had shrunk back from the line of the rivers Axe and Parrott but stubbornly held onto its new frontier on the line of the Exe and the Taw. For the first time since the Cornish victory at an unidentified place called Hehil in 722, possibly under the command of King Gerent II, the southwestern Celts (or the West Wealas, as the Saxons called them) were finding themselves on the receiving end of West Saxon military action.

In 815, Ecgberht “ravaged against the West Wealas as far as the sea”, probably a fast in-and-out raid across the Culm Measures of Devon, north of Dartmoor, to the upper reaches of the Tamar and perhaps as far as the north-south coastline near Bude. Then 10 years of silence until we are told that “the Cornish and the men of Devon fought at Gafalforda” (perhaps Galford, near Lydford). This scant record tells us nothing else, so we have no ideas who even won the battle.

There was, again, a long period of inactivity. Then in the year 838, according to the sole source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, this happened:

“There came a great ship army to the West Wealas where they were joined by the people who commenced war against Ecgberht, the West Saxon king. When he heard this, he proceeded with his army against them and fought with them at Hengestesdun where he put to flight both the Wealas and the Danes”.

For centuries, it has been simply assumed that the battle site mentioned in this brief account was Hingston Down, the high ridge that juts eastward from Kit Hill between Callington and Gunnislake. But was it? If the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles entry are looked at carefully, along with geography, distances, and details of Ecgberht’s known campaigns and record, a site west of the Tamar looks less and less likely.


A map detailing possible movements of the Saxon and Celt forces in 838AD.

In 838AD, the eastern Cornish border was still on the Exe-Taw line and it was to be nearly another century before Aethelstan was to push it back to the east bank of the Tamar where, of course, it remains today. The whole of Dartmoor and the South Hams was still exclusively Cornish territory. In August 825, Ecgberht stated in a Charter involving lands in Hampshire that he was signing it in a place called Creodantreow (thought to be close to Crediton) where he was “among the enemy, the Britons”, confirming that the Exe-Taw line remained the border.

Both the 815 raid and the Gafalforda battle were likely to have been rapid in-and-out campaigns and the Creodantreow record implies that Ecgberht considered it too risky to base himself any further west. As a soldier and commander, King Ecgberht of Wessex was vastly experienced and nobody’s fool. In 829 he had even taken the large Saxon kingdom of Mercia by force. Would such a man really have taken such a huge and foolhardy risk venture deep into largely unknown territory, and west of the deepening Tamar valley, far from safety, to hit a combined Cornish-Viking force 50 miles or more inside enemy land? It is my belief that he would never have entertained the idea for a second, and the battle site was not west of the Tamar, but much closer to that ancient border than previously assumed.

There is another aspect to this argument. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles clearly state that the Danes and the Cornish teamed up to make a move against Ecgberht who only responded once that intelligence reached him. He would not have been anywhere west of Crediton or Exeter and the only realistic goal for the Cornish-Viking alliance would be to wrest those places back from his control. There was no other target west of those places. This means that intelligence travelled 40 or 50 miles up to Ecgberht, by land or by sea, after which he mustered his forces and marched the same distance westward. The current assumption asks us to believe that, in the time it took for all that to happen, the Cornish-Danish army had travelled only 10 miles or so to Kit Hill, deep inside their own territory and greatly remote from any West Saxon activity. It simply does not stack up.

We need to look again at the whole scenario. Why should a Viking fleet come to the Cornish in friendship? Was it that the Cornish were providing safe havens for the Danish fleet to use as bases from which they could sail out and attack West Saxon ports along the Channel coast? Into which harbour did this “great ship army” arrive? We will probably never know, but the outstanding candidate is Plymouth Sound, then well within Cornish territory, yet conveniently placed for mounting attacks upon Wessex ports. The Cornish Hingston Down lies 10 miles north of the Sound but, more importantly in this scenario, Plymouth Sound lies at the southwestern end of an ancient trackway route (now largely followed by the B3212 road) that crosses Dartmoor in a virtual straight line towards Exeter.

To the West Saxons in 838, the vast wilderness of Dartmoor would have been unknown and probably greatly feared territory. Its northern and eastern edges, though, were likely to have been well scouted and explored, with some features visible from Saxon-held territory being given Anglo-Saxon names such as Hengestesdun. It is noticeable that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles firmly name “Hengestesdun”, rather than “the place that is called Hengestesdun”, as though it was a familiar place. It is surely also the case that no location so deep in unknown Cornish territory as the Callington Hingston Down could have been given a Saxon name at that time. Bearing that in mind, plus the comparative times and distances in travel between the Cornu-Viking force and Ecgberht’s army in mind (the latter to include the transport of the initial intelligence), we must be looking for a site much further to the east. Is there such a place?

The answer is yes. The trackway across Dartmoor from Plymouth to Exeter begins to descend from the moor close to Moretonhampstead and a mile east of that village is a hill spur bearing the name of Hingston Down. This spot lies ten miles from both Exeter and Crediton and both this site and the Cornish one were recorded as Hengesdon (presumably Old English hengestes dun or stallion’s hill) a few years either side of 1300. The Moretonhampstead Hingston Down is surely a far more likely location for Hengestesdun.

It does not, however, lend itself well to being the site of a pre-planned battle. It is, though, a perfect place for Ecgberht to have lain in wait, with his army concealed in the thickly wooded Teign valley, or in the spur valleys below the hill and then to have launched an ambush. On approaching from the southwest, the Cornish-Viking army would not have had a hope of catching a glimpse of them until it was too late. From Ecgberht’s point of view, had it gone wrong, retreat to Exeter would have been an easy option. For him, though, it didn’t go wrong. “He put to flight both the Wealas and the Danes”, evidently back across the wilds of Dartmoor where the West Saxon forces had more sense than to follow.

This proposal is perhaps the first time that the site of Hengestesdun has ever been questioned and, with so little to go on, the jury must remain out. The writer invites any comment or further suggestion on the subject. Other questions emerge from this whole event. Who acted as interpreters between the Celtic-speaking Cornish and their Nordic-speaking allies? Who carried the news to Ecgberht? I can offer no real suggestion to the first question. As far as the second is concerned, the Danish arrival and alliance might have been witnessed by a West Saxon fishing boat but perhaps a more likely suspect would be a priest who could have overheard the plans, and Canterbury was then appointing many Saxon priests to Cornish churches. It seems to have been the case that, during this period of history, both Celtic and Saxon priests could travel where they pleased without fear of molestation, in the same way that the bards of old were guaranteed safe passage throughout the kingdoms of Britain.

The scanty sources of this kind of historical information give us very little in the way of fact. Modern and recent historians, though, have seen fit to project those sources into flights of pure fantasy, and to present those fanciful conclusions as “fact”. This has especially been the case where early Cornish history is concerned and I hope to follow this article in a future issue with examples of this “twisted history” (or “twistory” as I call it).

Source (http://www.cornishworldmagazine.co.uk/content/view/71/101/)