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The Battle of Assandun

Papers read at a Joint Meeting of
The Essex Archaeological Society and
Cambridge Antiquarian Society,
may 24, 1889

Reprinted from the
Cambridge Chronicle, May 31st and June 7th, 1889
Cambridge: Cambridge Antiquarian Society 1889, 1-6

   On Friday, May 24, 1889, the Society made an excursion to Bartlow and neighbourhood. About thirty members and their friends, amongst whom were a number of ladies, started from the Great Eastern Railway Station at 1.45 p.m. in a saloon carriage attached to the ordinary train, and reached Bartlow a little after 2.15 p.m.
The Society, on arriving at Bartlow, went straight to the School-house, where a joint meeting was held with the Essex Archaeological Society. Amongst the members of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society present may be mentioned - Prof. Hughes, Rev. S.S.Lewis (secretary), Messrs. R.Bowes, J.Carter, J.W.Clark, A.H.Evans, M.Fisher (of Ely), N.C.Hardcastle (excursion secretary), H. Johnson, J.J.W. Livett, and Alderman Deck.
The meeting was presided over by G.A.Lowndes, Esq., President of the Essex Society, and various papers were read, including one by the Rev. H.B.Swete, D.D. Rector of Ashdon and late Fellow and Tutor of Caius College, on “The Battle of Assandun”. An adjournment was then made to the Three Hills or Tumuli, and here Prof. Hughes read a paper. The next place to be visited was the ancient Church at Hadstock, a charming village a couple of miles from Bartlow. Here the rector, the Rev. F.E.Smith, M.A., read a paper on “The History of Hadstock”. The members of the two Societies were also invited to inspect the Church plate and register at the Rectory, where Mr. and Mrs. Smith kindly provided afternoon tea. The drive back to Bartlow was particularly pleasant, the evening being a most delightful one. On arrival at the Three Hills Inn, at Bartlow, a substantial tea was served; and the Societies afterwards proceeded to Bartlow Church, where, in the absence of the Rector, the Rev. S.S.Lewis read some remarks on the Church fabric, communicated by the Treasurer of the Cambridge Society, Mr. W.M.Facett. The return journey was commenced at 7.41 p.m., and Cambridge was reached just before 8.30 p.m.

The Battle of Assandun.

On the Identification
of Assanduna with Ashdon

The neighbouring parish of Ashdon is one of the sites which claim to have witnessed the decisive battle between Eadmund and Cnut in a.d. 1016. I have /2/ been asked to put together in the form of a brief paper the data upon which those who maintain the identity of Ashdon with the Assandun of the Chronicles rely.

1. Let me recall the statements of the Chroniclers so far as they bear upon our enquiry.
Under the year 1016, the A.-S. Chronicle relates: “The army [i.e. of Cnut] went up again into Essex, and passed into Mercia, and destroyed whatever it overran … The King [Eadmund] … overtook them in Essex at the down, which is called Assandun … there Cnut had the victory … and all the nobility of the English race was then destroyed.”
Ib. a.d. 1020: “In this year went the king [Cnut] to Assandun, and Archbishop Wulstan … and hallowed the Minster at Assandun.” The Cotton (Canterbury) MS. if the Chronicle adds that this Minster was “built of stone and lime, for the souls of the men who there were slain,” and that one of the King's priests, named Stigand, was left in charge.
Florence of Worcester gives a fuller account of this battle, explaining that Cnut brought his men down the hill to the level ground, where Eadmund's army was drawn up, and that the hill on which Cnut was encamped was called Assandun, which means “the asses' hill.” Florence also relates under 1020 the dedication of the Church; it was marked by "great pomp and magnificence." William of Malmesbury has some additional information about the Church. Cnut it seems, was in the habit of building churches on his battle fields, and endowing in each church a chantry-priest, whose duty it was to sing mass for the slain. He did this at Assandun, and at the consecration of the basilica in 1020, the King himself was present, and votive offerings were made by the English and Danish nobility. At the time when William wrote, if report said true, the Minster had dwindled into a Church of ordinary character in charge of a parish priest.

2. So much for the Assandun of the battle. Now let me collect and compare some facts in the early history of Ashdon.
In Domesday (Essex, p. cxli.) the equivalent of Ashdon is Ascenduna. In 1086 Ascenduna was a domain belonging to Ralf Baignard. Amongst other particulars we are told hat it contained an acre of vineyard.
The Cotton MS. Vesp. F. xv. (dated 1444), consists of a collection of documents having to do with the Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras, Lewes. Among these are sundry deeds relating to the Church of Ashdon, and dating from 1200 to 1387. At the beginning of the 13th century the Baignards, who are represented in Domesday as lords of Ashdon in the time of the Conqueror, made over the benefice to the Prior and Monks of St. Pancras. Most of these papers have to do with their gift and its confirmation; a few refer to /3/ certain Parsons of Ashdon who had dealings from time to time during the next two centuries with their patrons at Lewes. There can be no question as to the identity of the parish named in this Cotton MS. with the Ascenduna of Domesday. Yet the Domesday form of the name does not once appear. It is replaced by Essendun, then Assendun, and lastly Asshedon. The last two forms occur in quotations of 1244 and 1351 respectively, brought together in a single document dated 1387. It seems reasonable to infer that the scribe of the Essex Domesday has inadvertently written Ascenduna for Assanduna, and that Assandun, Essendun, and the like, are the forms from which Ashdon has grown. The corruption can be traced back as far as the middle of the 14th century.

I submit, therefore, that, so far as the name is concerned, there is no reason for doubting the identity of the Assandun of 1016 with the Ashdon of to-day.

3. We come next to existing traces of a battlefield at Ashdon, and of the erection of a Church of prae-Norman date upon it. The traces are faint — perhaps we ought not to expect anything very marked — but I believe them to exist. The present Church stands upon a hill. To the East, immediately in fact below the East window, the ground falls rapidly away to a valley known as Water Lane or Rock Lane, which immediately below the hill widens out into pastures and arable land, and goes off to the North in the direction of Bartlow. This slope between the Church and the valley seems to bear marks of terracing, and I would suggest that it may have been the acre of vineyard mentioned in Domesday. But it is more to my purpose to notice that this field has yielded abundant evidence of the presence of Scandinavian remains. Some sixty years ago, as I have learned from old inhabitants, in digging for gravel, graves were found lying north and south in large numbers, it was stated: and rude weapons were turned up together with (? Roman) pottery. Of these remains, unfortunately nothing has been preserved. But in 1882, observing a very large mound at the bottom of the field, I obtained permission of the owner to cut it open; and it was found to consist of tons of lime, containing organic remains, chiefly the bones of the sheep, ox, and horse, mixed with oyster shells and the shells of esculent crawfish or the like. The quantity of these remains was so large as to preclude the idea that the food which they represented had been consumed by the villagers; and it has been suggested, not I think unreasonably, that such a vast heap agrees well with the supposition that the army of Cnut just come back from their raid into Mercia discussed their good fare on Ashdon Hill the night before the battle or after the victory was won. /4/

But the Church? Does it connect with Cnut's minster or “lime and stone?” The present building is a singular patchwork, chiefly perhaps of centuries xiv, and xv. But there are clear tokens of one, if not more than one, earlier building. During some internal re-arrangements in 1860 the foundations of a smaller church were brought to light. Parts of an old font long disused and until lately forming a door step, and the arch over a stoop for holy water, also recently disclosed, are of early Norman or prae-Norman workmanship. Lastly, the pillars of the nave-arcades rest on square basements about two feet high, composed of squared Barnack stones; and such stones have been freely used in other parts of the present building, where strength was specially needed, the later work being merely of clutch or pebble.

Again I submit that these facts, meagre though they be, are consistent, so far as they go, with the statements of the chroniclers. William of Malmesbury's “ordinary parish church” suggests that Cnut's minster had after the Conquest rapidly lost its pretentions. Was it only in part of lime and stone, and partly of timber? and were the stone substructions used up by successive repairers of the Parish Church for the support of their pillars or the strengthening of their Tower and Chancel arch? I have not the architectural knowledge which is necessary to enter upon these points. But in any case the existing church at Ashdon contains features which point to a much earlier building and which may be due to the minster which Cnut and all England consecrated in 1020.

3. But Ashdon has a competitor whose claims have to be heard. Its present name is Ashington; it is near Rochford, in the S.E. corner of Essex. I will at once confess that Ashington is backed by a formidable champion, the historian of the Norman Conquest. In the History (ed.3, Vol. 1, p.320) Professor Freeman assumes that Ashington is the true site of the battle, and fills up his picture and draws certain inferences accordingly. In the Notes (ib. p.697 s.99), he gives his reasons. They turn partly on a comparison of the names, partly on local correspondences between Ashington and Assandun, as the latter is described by the chroniclers. (1) Ashington, Dr. Freeman argues, is merely a corruption of Assandun, as Huntingdon of Huntandun. The identification of Ashdon with Assandun, on the other hand is probably due to the confusion of Assandun with Æ-cendun, which is found in some mediæval authorities. To which I should venture to reply: (a) it may be freely conceded that Ashington = Assandun, without weakening the claim of Ashdon to the same etymology. Is is quite conceivable that in remote times there were two hills in Essex sacred to the Ass; (b) the confusion with regard to the etymology of Ashdon undoubtedly existed, but, as I /5/ have shown, the forms which connect it with the Ass are prevalent in deeds of the 12th and 13th century, and the solitary occurrence of Ascenduna in Domesday is more probably an error than a true index of the original name. (2) But, Professor Freeman adds, “In June 1866, I went over the ground with Mr. Dawnins, Florence in hand. We found that the place exactly answered his description.” Now I have already cited Florence's description. It speaks merely of a hill outside Mercia, and in Essex, with a level ground below it, where an army could be drawn up. At Ashington Dr. Freeman found two very remarkable hills, and beneath them “a swampy plain watered by the tidal river.” He has worked these details into his narrative, but they are assuredly not in Florence, nor in any ancient chronicler I have seen. And I venture to think that what is really to be found in Florence is not altogether consistent with the local conditions of Ashington. Ashington is close to the Crouch, where the ship of the Danes lay. But the chroniclers lay stress on the fact that the Danish Army had been up in Mercia, and that Eadmund had raised the country against them and given chase, with the result that he overtook them in Essex at Assandun. Does this look as if Assandun had been in the corner of the county more remote from Mercia and quite close to the Danish fleet? In that case should we not have heard something more about the locality? that it was near the Crouch? that Eadmund nearly missed the chance of offering battle? Does it not seem more probable that the Danes had just crossed the border with their booty when Eadmund came up? Then again the two striking and really steep hills that overtook the Crouch, and the swamp below, are very picturesque surroundings; but do they agree with our authorities? The down, along the slope of which Cnut brought his men down very slowly to the level ground (I quote Florence), suggests a different scene. With Dr. Freeman I have been at Ashington; unlike him, it is my lot to live at Ashdon, where I see day by day all the local conditions for which Florence vouches.

I have mentioned two hills at Ashington; the second is called Canewdon, and Dr. Freeman is tempted to connect it according to local tradition with Cnut, though he candidly adds, “It is perhaps a little hard to get it out of Cnutesdûn.” The eldest inhabitant, however, pronounced it in his hearing Canéwdon, “which brings us near, if not to Cnut, at least at Canutus.” But an advocate of the claims of Ashdon may cheerfully make a present to Prof. Freeman of this etymology. Overlooking the Crouch, the height of Canewdon might well preserve the name of the great Danish leader, apart from any direct connexion. There is certainly no need to justify its designation by fixing the site of the great battle of 1016 on a neighbouring hill. /6/

On the whole I submit that the claims of Ashington to the honour of being the Assandun of Cnut's victory are not established, and the balance of probability is in favour of Ashdon. But I shall willingly relinquish this position, if it can be shewn to be due to local prepossessions: and shall be thankful to the present meeting if it can throw any light on a subject which is far from clear.

  • The Cambridge Antiquarian Society has its own website: http://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/DEPT/CAS/. The secretay is Ms Sue M. Oosthuizen, Board of Continuing Education, Madingley Hall, Madingley Cambridge CB3 8AQ
  • The Essex Archaeological Society is now known as the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. The secretary is Dr. C. Thornton, 75, Victoria Road, MALDEN, Essex.
  • The ‘Cambridge Chronicle’ newspaper was published between 1762 and 1934, when it was taken over by a rival newspaper, the ‘Cambridge Indepent Press’.
  • For a comparison of three primary sources (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Florence of Worcester and William of Malmsbury) for the reign of Cnut the Great see William Bakken, 'Piety and Power. King Cnut and the English Church, 1014 to 1035', appendix 1