Wednesday 13 October 1993

In Search Of Ceawlin


The efforts of Ceawlin, a long forgotten king, to unite the aristocratic forces in Southern England during the latter part of the Sixth Century, was the subject of the October 1993 lecture to Warminster History Society.

Sounds dull and long winded? Definitely not when the speaker is Somerset born Martyn Whittock, head of humanities at Kingdown School, Warminster, and successful author of school textbooks (The Origins Of England AD 410-600 and The Roman Empire) and historical novels (including The Dice In Flight and The Moon In The Morning).

Martyn's fast and audible delivery (as he bounced up and down like a dervish on hot coals), probing the annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and interpreting the evidence on the ground in the countryside both sides of the West Wansdyke, made for a most intriguing glimpse into Wessex nearly 1,500 years ago.

Amusing too, even when it comes to basics ("slaughtering people with swords is a naughty business" said Martyn), but his analogy comparing today's Renault drivers with the Saxons who comandeered the barrow mounds for burying great men was spot on.

"Here," he said, "was a minority signifying their dominance but not being in any great control."

The ancient burial mounds, including King Barrow on the outskirts of Warminster at Boreham, were venerated with folklore in the local landscape; they had native sanctity and came with an already existing culture. Martyn was quick, however, to point out that there is no evidence to tell us what Iron Age or Saxon man (or woman) thought.

And who was Ceawlin? According to Martyn's researches he was an overlord of the Southern English. Although he was never described as a king in any of the varying manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was known as a king locally, albeit a member of a powerful ruling family.

The first reference to him was in 556 AD when, with the help of Cynric, he fought against the Britons at Beranburgh (Barbury Castle on the Ridgeway, now south of the modern Swindon), and so began a turbulent period after 50 years of inactivity in Wessex.

After his triumph at Barbury, Ceawlin went from strength to strength, taking the kingdom of Wessex and making an excursion into Kent (an up and coming kingdom on account of its links with a European trading network).

Then he came back west to kill three other 'kings', namely Coinmail, Condidan and Farinmail, at Dyrham, eight miles north of Bath. The battle site is unknown, but could be associated with the promontory hill fort of Hinton Camp.

In 577, Ceawlin (plus Cuthwine) captured Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath, but they were not the places we immediately think of.

Around Bath were people proud of tradition and clinging to an imperial past, while at Cirencester (Corinium) was an old Roman amphitheatre occupied by somebody with pretensions (he had time and the ability to organise labour to construct fortifications).

In the year 584, Ceawlin captured many villages, with a small band of followers who offered their services in return for a share of the spoils - but he was suddenly angered.

Perhaps the cause of his wrath was Ceol, the new 'king' in Wessex in 591. A year later Ceawlin attempted to regain the initiative at Adam's Grave, the so-called burial mound of Woden, in the Vale of Pewsey; but the tide had turned, for the Chronicle says 'there was great slaughter this year'.

Ceawlin perished in 592, and the end of the Sixth Century saw Wessex as a south coast power. Ceawlin had achieved much, uniting the scattered English population centres by successful military campaigns.

Martyn's Whittock's handling of the evidence, bearing in mind that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a biased report (it ignores, for instance, the Jutes who resided on the Isle of Wight and in the New Forest), was a worthy example of scholarly detective work.

Warminster History Society members were much impressed, and asked many questions after the lecture. A vote of thanks for a unique foray into the area's Dark Ages past was given by Society Chairman Mike Ednay.

Report written by Danny Howell.