A Tale of Two Hillforts

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has Cerdic and Cynric doing nothing much in southern Hampshire until A.D. 534, and Cynric doing the same until A.D. 552. The Chronicle says that Cerdic assumed the kingship in A.D. 519, tough Dumville has calculated that Cerdic became king somewhat later, around A.D. 538. This period of apparent inactivity may be the Chronicle’s way of dealing with the long pause in Anglo-Saxon expansion westward after the battle of Mons Badonicus. Interestingly, Cerdic may have become ruler around the time of the comet, and the end of the pause may have come after the outbreak of plague that followed the comet.

It is difficult to reach any conclusions about Cerdic because the only activities attributed to him are ones which seem historically implausible. However, he must have enjoyed great prestige among the Gewisse/West Saxons who succeeded him, since they were all keen to claim him as their ancestor. The most likely explanation is that he was a British aristocrat from somewhere in the region of Dorchester-on-Thames who spoke both Celtic and Saxon. He may have been a descendant of the Ceretic who was Vortigern’s translator, or he may have had some connection with the court of Powys, which by this time is thought to have abandoned Viroconium/ Wroxeter and moved to Pengwern (possibly Shrewsbury).

More can be said about Cynric, however, because he is credited with some very specific deeds. In A.D. 552 he is said to have captured Old Sarum, though as Yorke points out, the area had already been settled by Saxons: the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Harnham Hill, Salisbury, has burials going back to around A.D. 500; the graves at Petersfinger, just to the south of Salisbury, date from the 5th century; the cemetery at Winterbourne Gunner, northeast of Salisbury, has graves from the 5th and 6th centuries; and the Anglo-Saxon graves at Collingbourne Ducis, on Salisbury Plain, date from a round A.D. 500.

Then in A.D. 556 he is said to have captured Beranbury (Barbury Castle) along with Ceawlin, of which more later. Barbury Castle is an Iron Age hillfort near Wroughton in northeast Wiltshire, just south of Swindon. It is on the Ridgeway, an ancient trackway from Buckinhamshire to the Kennet Valley, which passed near Dorchester-on-Thames—control of Barbury Castle would have secured the route from Oxfordshire to Wiltshire for the Gewisse.

This implies that Cynric and the Wiltshire Gewisse had a base somewhere in north Wiltshire, and one possibility for this base is Ramsbury, in northeast Wiltshire, near the border with Berkshire, 7 miles south of Barbury Castle. Ramsbury was made a bishopric in 909, and this suggests, says Haslam, that Ramsbury was at the time a villa regalis. Ramsbury is only 4 miles from the Roman fortified vicus of Cunetio, which was the successor to the Forest Hill Farm hillfort. Cunetio appears to have been refortified in A.D. 367. The “concentration of Roman villas around Cunetio marks its immediate environs as being a highly organized agricultural region, comparable to the environs of Bath and to Cirencester.”

Haslam argues, following the lead of Cunliffe, that during the late Roman period, some villa estates increased in size at the expense of others, and resources became concentrated at a few estate centers. What followed after the withdrawal of Roman forces is suggested by a model for the transition of Roman to Anglo-Saxon Winchester put forward by Biddle, who has suggested that

a ruling element which emerged from the mercenary presence in Winchester in the late 4th century assumed “power and territorial control from the last remnants of the Romano-British administration, supplanting the social order which it had been their first duty to defend.” The find of a military belt buckle of Hawkes’s type IIA at Cunetio might suggest that this town could also have survived through the support of “mercenaries” (whatever their precise origins) as some sort of political focus after the general collapse of the Roman industrial economy.

Haslam believes that the large estate centers survived into the 6th century, and would have been the natural focus for anybody wishing to establish a military presence in the area. He argues that

the proximity of Ramsbury to Cunetio, the presence there of probable Roman villa and presumably a late Roman estate centre, and its position in the probable avenue of Saxon penetration up the Kennet valley, all suggest that it could well have become the focus of the area in succession to Cunetio, and could have taken on some of the administrative functions of the former late Roman and sub–Roman town, subsequently becoming a villa regalis on the consolidation of the West Saxon kingdom.

The probability is strengthened, says Haslam, by the name Ramsbury, where the burh- element means “fortified dwelling” rather than hillfort (the nearest hillfort is Membury, 5 km to the northwest), and the whole name means “Fortified Dwelling of the Raven” (which has intriguing associations with the Wiltshire past and British mythology).

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