Where was Hengestesdun? PDF Print E-mail
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Where was Hengestesdun?
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Could one of the last great battles between the Saxons and the Celts not, as was previously alleged, have taken place at Hingston Down?


One of the last great battles between the Saxons and the Celts is alleged to have taken place at Hingston Down, near Callington. Yet new research shows that this could not have been the case. So...

Where was Hengestesdun?

In the early 9th century, the westward expansion of Wessex under its king Ecgberht was pushing back the borders of the Celtic southwest. The old kingdom of Dumnonia (of which Cornwall was part) had shrunk back from the line of the rivers Axe and Parrott but stubbornly held onto its new frontier on the line of the Exe and the Taw. For the first time since the Cornish victory at an unidentified place called Hehil in 722, possibly under the command of King Gerent II, the southwestern Celts (or the West Wealas, as the Saxons called them) were finding themselves on the receiving end of West Saxon military action.

In 815, Ecgberht “ravaged against the West Wealas as far as the sea”, probably a fast in-and-out raid across the Culm Measures of Devon, north of Dartmoor, to the upper reaches of the Tamar and perhaps as far as the north-south coastline near Bude. Then 10 years of silence until we are told that “the Cornish and the men of Devon fought at Gafalforda” (perhaps Galford, near Lydford). This scant record tells us nothing else, so we have no ideas who even won the battle.

There was, again, a long period of inactivity. Then in the year 838, according to the sole source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, this happened:

“There came a great ship army to the West Wealas where they were joined by the people who commenced war against Ecgberht, the West Saxon king. When he heard this, he proceeded with his army against them and fought with them at Hengestesdun where he put to flight both the Wealas and the Danes”.

For centuries, it has been simply assumed that the battle site mentioned in this brief account was Hingston Down, the high ridge that juts eastward from Kit Hill between Callington and Gunnislake. But was it? If the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles entry are looked at carefully, along with geography, distances, and details of Ecgberht’s known campaigns and record, a site west of the Tamar looks less and less likely.