Battle of Cynwit

The Battle of Cynwit,[a] was a battle between West Saxons and Vikings in 878 at a fort which Asser calls Cynwit. The location of the battle is not known for sure but probably was at Countisbury Hill[b], near Countisbury, Devon.[c][4][5][6]

Battle of Cynwit
Part of the Viking invasions of England
Cynwits Castle Cannington Somerset Map.jpg
Cannington hill fort, a possible site of the battle
Result West Saxon victory
West Saxons Vikings
Commanders and leaders
Odda, Ealdorman of Devon Ubba 
Unknown 1,200
Casualties and losses
Unknown 800


The Viking army, by tradition, led by Ubba[d] brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson. Sailed from Dyfed (where they had overwintered) and landed on the coast at Countisbury[c] with 23 ships and twelve hundred men.[1][3] On landing the Viking army discovered that the West Saxons[e] had taken refuge in a stronghold at Cynuit (Countisbury?), they perceived that the stronghold was unprepared for battle and decided to besiege it instead, particularly as the stronghold did not seem to have any food or water supply.[1]

The battleEdit

According to Asser [f] (Alfred's biographer) the West Saxons burst out of the fortress, one day, at dawn and were able to overwhelm the Viking forces killing their leader and over eight hundred of his men. They also captured the fabled "Raven banner".[11]The Anglo Saxon Chronicle reported it thus:

And the same winter the brother of Hingwar and of Halfdene came with twenty-three ships to Devonshire in Wessex; and 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.

— Giles 1914, ASC 878
Track up Wind Hill (Countisbury Hill) probable site of the battle
Modern interpretation of the Raven banner.
Cannington Camp a possible site of the battle.[3]


At the time of the battle Alfred the Great was on the run from the Vikings in the marshes of Somerset. It was therefore an important victory for the West Saxons won by someone other than Alfred, the king of Wessex who at the time was spearheading the West Saxon resistance to the Viking invasions.[11] The Chronicle, in addressing the year 878, makes the claim that "all but Alfred the King" had been subdued by the Vikings:

This year, during midwinter, after twelfth night, the army stole away to Chippenham, and overran the land of the West-Saxons, and sat down there; and many of the people they drove beyond sea, and of the remainder the greater part they subdued and forced to obey them, except king Alfred

— Giles 1914, ASC 878

The Battle of Cynwit was one of several triumphant stories, recorded by Asser and the Chronicle, for 878 that culminated in victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington.[11]

The battle in fictionEdit

The battle appears in The Marsh King, a children's historical novel by C. Walter Hodges, where its location is called "Kynwit". Although this novel is about King Alfred, it gives due credit to Ealdorman Odda for this victory, although the description of the battle may not be very accurate, showing the Vikings as making a landing at night and being defeated immediately on the landing ground.

The battle also features in Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom. Cornwell ascribes the victory, as well as the killing of Ubba, to his hero Uhtred, though he is supported by forces commanded by Odda.[12]


  1. ^ Alternative spellings of Cynwit include Cynuit. It is also known as the Battle of Countisbury Hill.[1]
  2. ^ More commonly known as Wind Hill [2]
  3. ^ a b A possible, alternative site for the siege and battle was at was Cannington Camp in the Parrett estuary near Combwich[3]
  4. ^ The Anglo Saxon Chronicle does not name the leader of the Vikings but by tradition it is said to have been Ubba.[7] Legend has it that Ubba's father was Ragnar Lodbrok however there is no references in the annals to support this assertion. [8]
  5. ^ According to the 10th century chronicler Æthelweard the West Saxons were led by Odda, Ealdorman of Devon[9][7]
  6. ^ The historian, Barbara Yorke suggests that Asser's detailed account of the area may indicate that he visited the site of the siege.[10]


  1. ^ a b c Keynes & Lapidge 1983, pp. 83–84.
  2. ^ Historic England 2002.
  3. ^ a b c James 2013, pp. 31–32.
  4. ^ Baggs & Siraut 1992, pp. 73–76.
  5. ^ National Trust 2014.
  6. ^ Exmoor National Park 2014.
  7. ^ a b Keynes & Lapidge 1983, p. 298 n.99.
  8. ^ Munch 1926, p. 358.
  9. ^ Giles 1906, p. 31.
  10. ^ Yorke 1995, p. 105.
  11. ^ a b c Hindley 2015, pp. 192–193.
  12. ^ Cornwell 2005.


Further readingEdit

  • Keary, C. F (1891). The Vikings in Western Christendom. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
  • Smyth, Alfred P (1995). King Alfred the Great. Oxford University Press.
Early sources