Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Battle of Deorham

                             Hinton Hill fort and the lynchets or terracing on the slopes of the hill

; "AD 577 Now Cuthwine and Ceawline fought with the Britains, and three kings they slew, Commagil, Condidan, and farinmagil in the place that is called Deorham and they took three cities, Glevan-ceaster, Ciren-ceaster and Bathan-Ceaster"

These words taken from the Anglo -Saxon Chronicle are the only evidence of a battle believed to have taken place near  Dyrham, the battle itself in the hillfort at Hinton. The Saxons after a long march had managed to invade this last bastion of the West, the end of Wessex and its British culture, and had taken the old Roman towns of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. In the following link written in the nineteenth century ......

the author argues that the Saxons came from the south down the Portway, through the old roman stations of Castle Combe and ...... and that the Saxons in wanting to defeat the British, had their goal as Bath, giving them entrance to the Severn Valley, the last stronghold of the British. This may be the case, we know that there was a strong Saxon influence in Bath from the early monastic settlement there in the 7th century, and the Saxon influence in the churches around Gloucester and Somerset is very strong.

                     The slopes of Hinton Hillfort, Dyrham Park and House behind the camera

To understand this part of the world, you must envisage the Cotswold escarpment slowly coming to an end just before Bath. Great hillforts are to be found along this ridge, Bathampton and Solsbury guard the southern trackways into Bath, but turn north up the long length of the Cotswold, and you will find Hinton, Old Sodbury and Horton hillforts in near proximity to each other.
Old Sodbury is an enormous hillfort, beautifully delineated banks, 'improved' by the Romans who also used this fort as well. Hinton and Horton are much smaller but still impressive.

                                                     Old Sodbury Hillfort banks

The interior of Old Sodbury, showing the 'romanisation of the banks and the height, exhausted Moss in the centre, gave up on a hot afternoon and went to sleep
Horton hillfort is much smaller but still has banks up to 15 foot in height, these three forts follow the line of the A46 road....

Horton Hillfort; this photo shows what the hillforts may have been guarding, the last stronghold of British  land with Wales over the other side of the Severn Estuary.

                                                    Interior of Horton with sizeable banks

Note; lynchets are a form of farming along the sides of the downs and they can be found all over this part of Somerset and Gloucester. They can come from the Iron Age I think, definitely the Romans, but the ones on Hinton Hill look medieval.

In the Battle of Maldon, fought four hundred years (991 ad) later than the Battle of Dyrham, we meet the East Saxons fighting the Vikings. The Saxons by now have encompassed Christianity and they are fighting the heathen Scandinavians who are after gold and loot. But it is in the word of this famous early English poem that we may have some idea of the idealism that lay at the heart of these terrible battles. Bryhtnoth is the elderly leader of the Saxons and

                                                .....He raised shield-board,
Shook the slim ash-spear, shaped his words
Stiff with anger, he gave him answer.
'Hearest 'ou, seaman, what this folk sayeth?
Spears shall be all the tribute they send you,
viper-stained spears and the swords of forbears,
such a haul of harness as shall hardly profit you.

In the Dyrham battle we have the West Saxons as the invading, marauding force, pitted against the British  tribes. The battle was lost of course, The british (or the Walesi) were forced over the Severn Estuary back into Wales, there is a famous story of one of the Saints. Saint Beauno was walking by a river one day, and heard a man calling out to his dogs in a strange language on the other side. Furious, Beuno went back to his small monastery collected his entourage and moved further into Wales to escape the terrible Saxons....

Dyrham/Deorham - the place of the deer, still to be found at Dyrham Park, and all over the countryside round Bath.

There are photographs taken by Chance on The Modern Antiquarian of Castle Combe presumed hillfort, that the Saxons could have passed if they had come the way that the Gloucester article says. Presumably the Saxons followed the old Roman roads, and would have had to cross rivers; Chippenham has always been a good crossing point for the River Avon, and in later history in the time of Alfred, there was supposed to be a stronghold/residence of Alfred here.

AD 878 In this year, at midwinter,
after Twelve Night, the host stole away to Chippenham
and overran the land of the West Saxons and occupied it.
And many of the people they drove beyond the sea
and the greater part of those who remained they harried
and the people submitted to them,
except the King Alfred.
And he with a small band, retreated through the woodlands
and into the fastness of the marshes.

Guthrum was the Viking who made war on Alfred of Wessex, and drove him of course near to Glastonbury at Athelnay.


  1. Interesting post, there are so many hillforts around, many more than most people including me, realise. I like the picture that the words of Bryhtnoth conjure up. Did they use adder's venom to poison the spear tips? If so I haven't heard that before.

  2. What a wonderful post - I really enjoyed this, especially the poem. I shall look at Dyrham Park in a new light now when I next pass it (never visited as always on the way to elsewhere).

  3. Hello you two, don't know if they did use adder's venom Rowan, or it was a figure of speech. But there are many hillforts round the West country, whether they were always defensive, or perhaps settlements or even places for herding the animals in once a year, I suppose we shall never know.
    Jennie it was a bit rushed as a post, wanted to do more but did'nt have time. My friends often walk round the outskirts of Dyrham Park, and you can look over to the two bridges over the Severn to Wales and of course the mountains as well from there.
    Its a fascinating time in history, I think modern thinking seems to say that the Saxons colonised slowly and intergrated rather than pitched battles all the way, though I'm sure there was some.