Hidden Viking fort still overlooks Devon town

England may have taken on Denmark on the football pitch earlier this week, but more than a thousand years ago it was on the banks of the River Exe that the two sides did battle.

Records suggest that, in the year 1001AD – that is 1020 years ago – a Danish fort was built in Exmouth.

It is still marked on ordnance survey maps to this day (SY00368031 in case you were wondering about references) and, although next to nothing remains of it, its location was where Trefusis Terrace now stands, close to its junction with Carlton Hill.

Read more: Remains of 12 bodies found near Exeter park during archaeological works

But what was it doing there?

In his book ‘A view of Devonshire in MDCXXX’, Thomas Westcote wrote: “Somewhat lower upon the mouth of the river stands Exmouth, that is, the mouth of Exe; anciently Exanmouth;…. yet it should seem it had a castle for its defence above 600 years since; for Mr. Hollinsled saith about the year 1001, the Danes with their navy returned out of Normandy, came to Exmouth and there assaulted the Castle”.

The idea of the Danes coming from their lands in Scandinavia to northern France to then attack England might seem a strange one.

But Normandy actually takes it name from the Vikings who constantly invaded it and ravaged its lands from around 709 until about 10.30.

Medieval Latin documents referred to them as Nortmanni, which means ‘men of the north’.

They used their bases there to make the short crossing across the English Channel to Devon.

It seems the Danes took a particular liking to Normandy, rather than their Norwegian or Swedish cousins.

Unbelievably, in 997, a Viking ship sailed up the river Tamar, plundered the abbey and made of with much of its treasure.

The River Exe was a handy means of travelling further into Devon for the Vikings, and so it made sense for them to protect it with a fort at its mouth.

Sitting about 10m above sea level, it would have enjoyed a fairly commanding view of the surrounding waters.

Quite how significant it was is hard to say. One historian, Delderfield, wrote that ‘In any event the castle was only an earthwork’.

Hints at the Viking influence can actually still be found across much of the county.

The Copplestone Cross near Crediton contains a mounted warrior is in one of the panels.

This would be very out-of-place with other items from that period, but they match other Viking relics which were left behind in the north of England.

The area where the Danish Fort once stood
The area where the Danish Fort once stood
(Image: Google Maps)

People with Scandinavian names such as Carla, Thurgod, Cytel, Scula, Wicing, Farman are recorded as working in the mints in Exeter and at other Devon sites from the end of the 10th Century.

The Vikings even made it as far as North Devon.

Viking raids were a great threat to Devon villages during the reign of Alfred the Great.

Ancient records of Northam exist from around the 10th and 11th Century and they retell the story of a battle with “Hubba the Dane” at Bloody Corner, near Appledore, in the late 9th Century.

Tradition says he landed at what is now Boathyde (Hyde meaning a Cove) with a fleet of ships and marched to attack the “Hill Fort” at Kenwith.

The legend is that they were defeated by Odun, Earl of Devon. Hubba and 1000 of his men were said to have been killed. The men were buried at Bonehill (Bunhill was the old name for a burial ground) and Hubba was buried in a Cairn, in the area now known as Hubbastone. There is a stone tablet at Bloody Corner in Northam (above), erected by Charles Chappell, which reads:

“Stop Stranger Stop,

Near this spot lies buried

King Hubba the Dane,

who was slayed in a bloody retreat,

by King Alfred the Great”

But in 2008 the best selling author of the Horrible Histories books claimed to have discovered the long-lost site of the ancient ‘Battle of Cynwit’ – a bloody clash which saved England from the Vikings.

Nick Arnold, author of the children’s book series, says he solved the 1,200 year mystery and located the site of one the most important conflicts in Britain.

The famous battle in 878 saw the rampaging Viking armies overruning the country except for Devon and Cornwall. England’s ruler, King Alfred the Great, had gone into hiding and the last of the Saxon soldiers took refuge in a fortress named Cynwit or Cynuit (corr).

The stronghold was surrounded and besieged by the 1,200 strong Viking force – but according to historical accounts the English made a final charge. In a last ditch act of defiance the remaining English stormed from the fortress and overcame their invaders – banishing them from the country forever.

This is where Horrible Histories author Nick Arnold thinks the battlefield near Appledore really was.
This is where Horrible Histories author Nick Arnold thinks the battlefield near Appledore really was.

The clash has been dubbed the ‘first battle of Britain’ but the site of the fortress became lost and all attempts to definitively identify it have failed. For 300 years historians have speculated its location.

But Nick claims they were looking in the wrong place and says he has located the remains of the fort and the battlefield at Castle Hill near Beaford.

Both battles have led to numerous ghost stories in the area, with people claiming they can hear the sounds of death and battle to this day.

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