Battle of Cynwit

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Battle of Cynwit
Part of the Viking invasions of England
Date 878
Location Uncertain
Result West Saxon victory
West Saxons Vikings
Commanders and leaders
Odda, Ealdorman of Devon Ubba
Unknown 1200
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

The Battle of Cynwit, also spelt Cynuit, took place in 878 at a fort which Asser calls Cynwit. The location of the battle is uncertain. Possible sites include Cannington Hill, near Cannington, Somerset;[1] and Countisbury Hill (also known as Wind Hill), near Countisbury, Devon.[2][3]


A party of Vikingers led by Ubba, brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, landed on the coast at Combwich with 23 ships and twelve hundred men.[4] There they observed that a number of English Thanes and all of their men had taken refuge in the fort of "Cynwit" for safety.

Siege and battle[edit]

Ubba and the Vikings proceeded to besiege the fort, expecting the English to surrender eventually from lack of water (as there was no available source near the fort).[4]

Odda, Ealdorman of Devon commanded Wessex forces, which entrenched themselves atop the hill, reinforcing the pre-existing defensive fort. However, realizing that there was no source of fresh water for the Saxon defenders, Ubba decided not to attack, and ordered his forces to wait instead so that thirst would drive Odda to surrender. Ubba's army bore the raven banner, symbol of Odin, and it flapped strongly in the wind, signifying victory.[7] According to legend, this banner was woven by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrok, the sisters of Ubba, and could foretell what would happen in forthcoming battle, flapping strongly for a victory and hanging limply for a defeat.[9] Realizing the problem, Odda decided he could not remain atop the hill indefinitely, and at the break of dawn he led his troops down the hill, taking the Vikings by surprise. In the ensuing battle around a thousand Vikings were killed, as was Ubba himself, possibly at Odda's own hand.[1] The raven banner was captured by Odda's men and a great victory was won.[7] The battle would later be known as the Battle of Cynwit, or sometimes as the Battle of the Raven Banner.[9]


Cannington hill fort, a possible site of the battle

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle glosses over the battle of Cynwit, it is important for two reasons.

Firstly, it was an important victory for the English won by someone other than Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex at the time who was spearheading the English resistance to the Viking invasions. The Chronicle, in addressing the year 878, makes the claim that "all but Alfred the King" had been subdued by the Vikings.[5]

Secondly, at the battle of Cynwit, Odda, Ealdorman of Devon and the English forces not only succeeded in killing Ubba,[6] but they also captured the Hrefn, the Raven banner. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only briefly mentions the battle, it does draw attention to the capture of the banner, which is interesting considering that it does not single out any other trophy captured by the English in the many other victories they had against the Danes.

The battle in fiction[edit]

The battle appears in The Marsh King, a children's historical novel by C. Walter Hodges, where its location is called "Kynwit". Although this novel is about King Alfred, it gives due credit to Ealdorman Odda for this victory, although the description of the battle may not be very accurate, showing the Vikings as making a landing at night and being defeated immediately on the landing ground.

The battle also features in Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom. Cornwell ascribes the victory, as well as the killing of Ubba, to his fictional hero Uhtred.[7]



Further reading[edit]

  • Keary, C. F (1891). The Vikings in Western Christendom. London: T. Fisher Unwin. 
  • Smyth, Alfred P (1995). King Alfred the Great. Oxford University Press. 
Early sources
  • Asser. The Life of King Alfred. 
  • Æthelweard (1961). "Chronicon". In Campbell, Alistair. The Chronicle of Æthelweard. London.