It was summer in 838, and the band of Cornish warriors and their unlikely allies, a group of arauding Danes whose ships were drawn up in the valleys to the south of their position, waited on the top of Hingston Down. Meanwhile, Egbert, King of the West Saxons, having raised a levy of local fighting men, advanced up the northern slope of the Down from the ford at Latchley, where the combined host of Cornish and Danish men had failed to prevent them from crossing the river Tamar.
Only thirteen years before the Cornish had success fully routed the Saxons at Galford in Lew Trenchard, on the other side of the river. Since that time, the Cornish had probably harried and burnt the farmsteads of the more intrepid Saxon farmers who had settled west of the Tamar, as far as the river Lynher. Now, however, the combined armies of Cornish and Danish presented a threat which the West Saxons could not afford to ignore, and retribution was on its way.
Whether the Cornish decided to make their stand at the site of the old Iron Age fort, now hidden deep in the woods of Greenscombe just above Latchley, or whether they took up positions on the heights of the Down, maybe on Kit Hill itself, we shall never know. One thing is certain, the results of the ensuing battle were to prove vital to Cornwall’s continuing independence.
The story began over 400 years before, when the withdrawal of the Romano-Celtic legions from Britain had left the country defenceless. Subsequently the country had been invaded by Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes and Norsemen from mainland Europe, and even by fellow Celts from Eireland.
Over the years, the heartlands of Britain had been completely taken over, eventually becoming called Angle-land. As a result, the original Celtic Britons were killed, enslaved, or merely marginalised on the poorer land, maybe even intermarrying, as the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms warred for upremacy over each other.
In the west, the Celtic Kingdoms of Wales resisted the onslaught, but in the south, only one Celtic Kingdom remained. It was called Dumnonia, and stretched through-out modern Cornwall, Devon, and parts of Dorset and Somerset.
Alas for the Dumnonians, their West Saxon neighbours were to prove the most vigorous of the new kingdoms, eventually dominating all the others. One thing was certain, the new kingdom of Wessex couldn’t afford to tolerate an active and dangerous Celtic kingdom as a neighbour.
For a time the West Saxons were contained and beaten, maybe by Cornwall’s folk hero Arthur, but things were soon to change. Thus in the 600s, the men of Wessex fought battle after battle to subdue the area east of the Tamar.
The Saxons eventually penetrated deep into Devon and then returned to roll up the remaining Celts in Dorset and Somerset after gaining the fertile lands north and south of Dartmoor. Here, any remaining Britons probably took refuge on the higher slopes around the edges of Dartmoor.
All that effectively faced Wessex now was the remnant of Dumnonia known as Kernow, which however was well protected by the deep and wide river Tamar for the majority of its length. At the head of the river, the huge hill fort of Dunheved, now known as Launceston, stood as guardian, whilst away over on the coast, Tintagel stood as the fortress capital of the kings of Dumnonia.
In 682, the Cornish, protected by these two great fortresses, crossed eastwards over the upper reaches of the Tamar. Then, together with the remaining British Celts on Dartmoor, they challenged the men of Wessex to do their worst.
The West Saxon King at the time was Centwine, and although we do not know the exact location of the battle, his Saxon men routed the Cornish and they were driven back over the Tamar as far as the coast, almost to Tintagel itself. It was a disaster of the greatest magnitude.
From now on, the Saxons felt safe enough to settle in north-east Cornwall, dispossessing the Cornish of their farmsteads. By avoiding Dunheved and the country immediately to the south, they managed to ford the Tamar, probably at Latchley, and pushed as far as the Lynher, settling in the country between the two rivers.
Under the jurisdiction of Centwine’s successor, King Ine, many Celts in Devon settled down to life as before. However, the Cornish clearly resented the encroachment on their soil, and in 710, Geraint, the King of Dumnonia fought, and lost, another set battle against the Saxons. The supremacy of Wessex seemed to be certain, with the native Cornish pushed back beyond the river Lynher and the river Ottery.
However, the Cornish were not yet beaten. In 721, they invited the Welsh to help them, and together they beat the Saxons at a great battle somewhere on the river Camel.
As a result of this a somewhat uneasy truce must have existed between the two kingdoms of Wessex and Cornwall, as it was coming to be known by the Saxons.
As might be expected, the Cornish still resented Saxons settled on their lands and they fought unsuccessful battles against the Saxons in 753, and again later in the century.
Eventually, the Cornish must have been proving so troublesome that in 815, the latest King of Wessex, Egbert, harried the whole of Cornwall from east to west in a punitive campaign.
It was probably that the Cornish crossed the Tamar and this time defeated the Saxons at Galford in 825 How they must have cheered at this great success. It was this that probably emboldened the Cornish to join forces with the great Danish host which appeared of the coast. Maybe the flower of Cornish fighting men were called in to take part in what may have been seen as the final showdown with the West Saxons.
The Battle of Hingston Down. Prior to 838, all the battles had taken place across the Tamar to the north of the great hill fort of Dunheved. The battle of Hingston Down was crucial as it enabled the Saxons to outflank the Tintagel-Dunheved defensive axis.
The final showdown it was, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 838 records: “In this year came a great pirate host to Cornwall, and the Danes and Britons of Cornwall united, and continued fighting against Egbert, king of Wessex. Then he made an expedition against them, and fought them at Hingston Down, and there put to flight both Britons and Danes.” In spite of their defeat, the Cornish retained their identity, probably as a client kingdom, because ninety years later, King Athelstan of Wessex declared the Tamar to be the boundary of Cornwall, expelling all the Britons from Exeter at the same time. However, Cornwall’s independence had truly gone. Saxons were settled well beyond the Tamar boundary, and over the years, they settled further and further west without much of a struggle. Cornwall’s customs and language held out against the increasing Anglo-Saxon influence with great difficulty. By 1065, it was all over, and the Domesday book shows that the once proud and independent kingdom of Dumnonia existed no longer, and Cornwall was seen as just another county of England by beaten Saxons and conquer-ing Normans alike. What is truly amazing is that the spirit of Cornwall has survived for more than a thousand years since that decisive battle on Hingston Down.
Maybe the Cornish weren’t defeated in the true sense. May modern Cornish folk of ancient Saxon stock proudly proclaim their Cornishness. Perhaps being Cornish is an attitude of mind? In that case the battle of Hingston Down wasn’t lost at all. Where is the site of this famous battle now? Like so many things it is shrouded in the mists of time. Most of the open Down was enclosed as fields in the last century and cannot be found as such. The sole remnant is Kit Hill, not now thought of as being part of the old down, yet it cer-tainly was. Maybe the battle was at the summit, which would have been a good defensive position. Come and drive your car up to the top and look around. Look east-wards, and there you will see the true Hingston Down where I believe the battle to have been fought. The old hill-fort protecting the Latchley ford is hidden in the woods on the northern slopes of the Down. All we have truly left is the name perpetuated in folk usage and in the names of Hingston Down Farm, Hingston Down House and Hingston Down Quarry. The farm is still working, and the house is now a pleasant hotel and guest house. The quarry is as busy as ever. Here local men have worked for a century or more, and the very stones of Hingston Down are now part of the numerous buildings dotting the landscape below you.