Friday, 12 November 2010

War comes to Bindon, Devon, in 612

The Dark Ages did not get their name for nothing. After the Romans left the skills of writing and reading were restricted to a very few people, and most of the books that did remain were subsequently lost, destroyed or simply fell to pieces. Not until the coming of literate Christians from Rome in the 590s does some semblance of recorded history return to Britain. During those lost years much happened: Roman Britain collapsed, King Arthur ruled, the English invaded and countless battles and campaigns were fought.

One of the very first military campaigns to be recorded as writing spread across Britain with Christianity was the Battle of Bindon Hill, fought in 612. In truth the records of the event were not written down until some years later – perhaps as may as fifty or more – so the details are lacking, but the general outline of what happened has been preserved and it is possible to put together a good idea of the battle.

In 612 Britain was a very different place from how it appears today. The English then occupied only part of what is now England. In the north they were restricted east of the Pennines, while in the south they had crossed neither the Severn nor the Axe. Nor were they united: Kent, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were all independent kingdoms. The Welsh were no less disunited with at least 7 kingdoms in what is now Wales, plus Rheged in Cumbria and Strathclyde in southern Scotland. The counties now known as Cornwall and Devon, plus parts of Somerset, then formed the Kingdom of Dumnonia.

It was the Welsh kingdom of Dumnonia and the English kingdom of Wessex that clashed at Bindon Hill.

At this date Wessex stretched from the Axe to Portsmouth and north to the Thames. It was one of the larger English kingdoms, though was rather smaller than Mercia or distant Northumbria. It was ruled by a king named Cynegils, who was probably half Welsh himself and may have been descended from the Celtic aristocracy of Hampshire as much as from English invaders.

This Cynegils was a pagan king of an English kingdom that relied almost exclusively on agriculture for its wealth. The complex trade routes of Roman Britain had vanished. There seems to have been only local trade in agricultural products such as flour or cheese. The ruler gained his wealth by taxing the farmers of his kingdom. For Cynegils and others like him, the only way to get richer was to be king of more land. It was this land hunger that drove the wars of the period.

Cynegils father, King Ceolwulf, had occupied what is now Dorset in around the 590s. Whether this expansion of Wessex was by conquest, diplomacy or dynastic marriage we do not know, but it did bring Wessex on to the borders of Dumnonia.

This prosperous Welsh kingdom had emerged around the year 450 when the tribal aristocracy of the Dumnoni declared themselves independent of the authorities of post-Roman Britain. The records of Dumnonia have been lost, but later legend makes them among the most loyal supporters of King Arthur in his attempts to unite the post-Roman Britons against the invading English. They are also known to have acquired, apparently  by marriage, a ruler from the royal dynasty of the Cornovii, a tribe in east-central Wales. In 612 Dumnonia covered all of Cornwall and Devon, and eastern Somerset at least as far north as Glastonbury.

We do not know the name of the King of Dumnonia in 612, but he was clearly in communication with the King of Gwent in south Wales. The rulers of Dumnonia and Gwent had both been eyeing the expanding might of Wessex with concern. When Ceolwulf died in 611 they decided that the time had come to strike. The new king, Cynegils, was young and inexperienced. His nobles may not have fully trusted the abilities of their new king. Wessex was vulnerable.

It seems that the King of Dumnonia believed that the people of Dorset, being mostly Celtic, were unhappy with rule by the English of Wessex. Perhaps the Dumnonians believed that they could raise a popular rebellion. They certainly launched the campaign by gathering a mighty army at Exeter, then marched east towards Dorchester. Meanwhile, the King of Gwent had mustered his own army and was marching southeast past Gloucester toward Bath.

Cynegils decided to meet the Dumnonian threat first, perhaps that army was marching first. His scouts told him the route being taken by the invading Welsh, and he decided to meet them at Bindon Hill.

This is an extract from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

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