Battle of Hehil
|Battle of Hehil|
West Saxons (probably)
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Hehil was a battle won by a British force, probably against the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex in the year 721 or 722. The location is unknown, except that it was apud Cornuenses (among the Cornish).
The Annales Cambriae say that in 722 there were:
"The battle of Hehil among the Cornish" translates the Latin bellum Hehil apud Cornuenses. Although this source does not specifically identify the Anglo-Saxons as the enemy in all three cases, it is considered that the failure to specify the enemy was simply because this was so obvious to all, and that any other combatants would have been named.
The site of Hehil has long been considered to be near the River Camel, previously known as the 'Heil', but the Camel is much further west than the known sites of other battles which took place before and after 722. In 653, Wessex had won a battle at Penselwood, pushing the West Britons back beyond the River Parrett; and, in 710, they had won another victory, probably at Langport, Somerset.
There are problems with the assumption that because the Cornish were involved the battle must be in or near Cornwall. Firstly, the Cornish and Dumnonia were often considered to be one and the same. Secondly, unless Hehil was an internal dispute, so far inside British territory the year 722 was too early for it to be a battle with Anglo-Saxons.
Interestingly, 722 is also the year identified by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a that of the sacking a West-Saxon fortress at Taunton by a South-Saxon force. It may not be a coincidence that there is a Hele just to the West of Taunton.
If there is any key to finding the place, it will need to be in the Annales Cambriae. Three manuscripts of those annals each spell the name differently: Hehil, Heyl and Heil, suggesting that the word may be the Cornish Heyl, or estuary. There are no estuaries in east Cornwall now called anything like Hehil, but many places in Devon and Somerset were later given new names from Old English, and few place-names were recorded until the time of the Domesday Book. If Hehil is an estuary of Dumnonia, there are many candidates for it, including the estuaries of the rivers Parrett, Lyn, Axe, Exe, Teign and Dart. The location of the battle thus remains a matter of speculation.
One historian who has analysed the period considers that the site of the battle may have been "at or near the spot where the fifteenth century bridge at Wadebridge crosses the Camel". Another has suggested Jacobstow in Cornwall, a third states that "The most obvious interpretation of 'Hehil among the Cornish' is the river Hayle in west Cornwall", and a fourth merely notes that "722 The Annales Cambriae record a British victory at Hehil in Cornwall" (although that is an incorrect reading of the Latin word apud which means amongst or by and not in as suggested). Donald MacKinnon says [it was] "a third British victory at Hehil in the Devonian peninsula".
The British or Cornish victory at Hehil in 722 appears to have proved decisive in the history of the West Britons, bringing them a long period of peace and enabling the survival of their culture in what are now Cornwall and Devon. It was not until 814 that the Saxons returned to the assault, so the battle is seen as making possible a continuation of the independent Kingdom of Cornwall until the mid-10th century. Defeat at Hehil might have led to Dumnonia's sharing the fate of the Celtic kingdom of Cumbria in the Old North, which disappeared almost without trace. Cumbria had lost its Cumbric language by about the 11th century, whereas the Cornish language survived into the 19th century.
- Robert Simmons, The battle of Helil?, in Cornish World Magazine online
- Annales Cambriae at fordham.edu
- 722 and all that at yudu.com
- The place-names of Devon, Volume 8 (1934), p. xviii
- Hele, Somerset, at Google maps
- Leonard Dutton, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: the power struggles from Hengist to Ecgberht (1993), p. 232
- Della Hooke, Pre-conquest charter-bounds of Devon and Cornwall (1994), p. 1
- Leslie Alcock, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (1987), p. 231
- Christopher Allen Snyder, The Britons (2003), p. 292 online
- Donald Mackinnon, The Celtic Review, Volume 10 (1916), p. 325
- Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Language (2004), p. 118 online