Cornish Britons won their future at the battle of Hehil
- by Rob Simmons
In the beginning of the eighth century, the old British Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia was in the midst of a titanic struggle against the expansionist Saxon kingdom of Wessex.
Both kingdoms sent generation after generation of men into battle, for the West Britons this war was about national survival – To decide whether the Britons, the Cornish, would remain masters of their own destiny. These events with great repercussions to this day were decided in the crucible of war.
This struggle between Saxon and Celt over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia was to last over three centuries. The western Britons (called also West Welsh) fought tenaciously, but victory always remained elusive, however in 722 all of this was to change with a great victory at Hehil.
This article aims to explore this event by addressing three fundamental questions about it: What do we know of this battle? Who was there? What was the importance of this victory so long ago?
As anyone that has tried to delve into the murky depths of Dark Age history will know, facts are hard to come by and sources are both rare and brief. This is very true of our forebears; no surviving historical accounts remain of the period from a Cornish perspective.
Certainly the people were literate and determinedly so, as the memorial men-scryfas and menhirs testify. Yet unfortunately nothing they wrote about the war with Wessex survives.
We can only rely on other sources to try to examine Cornish ‘Dark Age’ history, principally the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which chooses to omit their defeat at Hehil.
However, Welsh sources survive and it is from these that we learn of the battle of Hehil.
The Annales Cambriae translated from the original Latin informs us that in 722 there was:
“The battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, the battle of Pencon among the South Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.”
As we can see from this source it actually illuminates very little about what went on at Hehil, where it was or how victory was attained. This doubt has lead to a flurry of internet based speculation, particularly concerning the opponents of the Cornish, claiming that as none are mentioned it may not have been the Saxons defeated at Hehil.
At face value it seems like a reasonable point to be made but when thought about logically it holds no water.
Firstly if it had been some sort of civil war then the sources would have specified this, rather than stating the Britons were victors. This also indicates that the Britons at the battle in Dumnonia and the two in Wales were facing a common enemy. This leaves us with only one possibility; the Anglo-Saxons.
The Vikings did not start to come to Britain until their raid on Lindisfarne in 793, besides this the Danes and Cornish were better known for being allies than enemies. The only credible enemy to be suggested is the Anglo-Saxons, the reason that the Annales Cambriae does not specify this, is because it went without saying.
Aiding in this fight was a Welsh army under their own king; Rhodri Molwynog ap Idwal of the kingdom of Gwynedd. Rhodri was no ordinary Welsh king he was grandson of the much revered Cadwaladr last high-king of the Britons. Ruling over the ‘petty kings’ Cadwaladr had considerable power and was able to muster large armies to combat the Saxons.
In this way the union was an advantage to all the Britons and the similarity of all the people in language and culture made for an obvious alliance forged with strong bonds. The desire of Rhodri to take up the reins of his grandfather’s legacy and to rally the Britons in a common cause provided ample reason for the Welsh expedition to Dumnonia.
The Celtic army fought at Hehil and this has for a long time been considered to have taken place near the River Camel, based primarily upon the fact that the name of the river used to be Heil. This location has recently come under increasing scrutiny. The reason for this is the Camel is much further west than battles both before and after 722, in 653 Wessex was victorious at Penselwood, Somerset, and pushed the Britons past the River Parret and later in 710 they won a victory, probably at Langport, again in Somerset.
With this sparse information it is very difficult to outline the border between the two kingdoms, reference to a Saxon fort at Taunton provides further clues, but whether this was a frontier position or deeper within Wessex remains unclear. Quite where the border was is uncertain, but there is very little to suggest Saxon occupation deep into Devon let alone into Cornwall.
The reason that gains on the battlefield were so paltry and that the defeat of the West Britons took three centuries was due partly to stubborn resistance but also to do with geography. There were no significant Roman roads west of Exeter, instead there were mere tracks not designed for large bodies of men. Combined with the rivers, valleys and moor land, travelling across Dumnonia was a long and arduous prospect. These same geographical features made for ideal defensive points making a deep thrust some hundred miles across the Tamar not feasible for Wessex.
The presence of the Welsh also undermines a battle west of the Tamar in 722, the Welsh force too would have been slow and cumbersome and it would have taken considerable time for them to rally in Wales and cross over by sea. This indicates that rather than being a reactive force it was a proactive one, crossing the Celtic Sea not in reaction to a Saxon attack but to aid the Cornish in launching an attack of their own.
The Annales Cambriae gives further clues that may hold the key to finding Hehil. Written in three manuscripts they each spell the location differently; in the A version it is Hehil, in B Heyl and in C Heil all conforming rather neatly with different spellings of the word estuary in Cornish (Heyl). There are no estuaries called Hehil or something similar that we may suspect, this is because the Anglo-Saxons by and large, renamed places they occupied from the ancient Brythonic into Old English. As the majority of place names were not recorded until the advent of Norman bureaucracy and the Domesday Book, it is impossible to know what the Britons knew places as.
Although we may be tempted to find something closely like Hehil, Heyl or Heil in all likelihood it is now called something radically different. Hehil may indeed be one of the estuaries (or rivers thereof) of eastern Dumnonia and this produces a considerable list; the rivers Parret and Lyn on the north coast and the Axe, Exe, Teign and Dart on the south coast.
Determining which of these may have once been called Hehil would be an arduous and most likely unprofitable venture. Without uncovering further evidence we will have to content ourselves with disregarding the River Camel and suspecting a long renamed estuary mush further east.
The importance of victory in 722
So what is the point of bringing up a battle so long ago? To remember a more violent time in Cornish history or to reminisce over a victory are adequate historical reasons, but the real reason we should remember 722 is not sentimental but acknowledging it’s importance.
722 was a decisive date in Cornish history; in the short term it brought the longest period of peace between the seventh and 10th centuries and in the long term this period of peace was a breathing space for Cornish culture. The victory and peace won secured a brighter future for the west Britons of the eighth century, it would be 814 before the Saxons resumed their assaults.
This time without the scourge of war, was a chance for the people to concentrate on their homes, livelihoods and families. For nearly a 100 years the people worried not about war, fathers, sons and brothers were not sent to the battlefield to die or be injured. In this way the period after 722 was unusual for the time and represented a golden age of peace and prosperity.
In the long term, the victory in 722 had massive effects; it ensured continuing Cornish independence until the mid-10th century, something that affects us even today.
Without 722, Cornwall would have probably fallen much earlier and spent considerably longer within the English realm.
The effect of two more centuries of Anglicisation would have had a great effect on culture and language and in all likelihood native speaking of the tongue would have disappeared much earlier. The Celtic identity would have suffered great set backs perhaps even making the later Celtic revival impossible.
Defeat in the eighth century would have radically changed the fabric and identity of Cornish identity and we might have ended up with the same fate as that of Cumbria once a Celtic kingdom but now indistinguishable from its neighbours.
So although the battle was so long ago its effects have echoed down the ages.
A great Celtic victory over the Saxons!
[Ed. More Cornish history that Cornish children should be taught!]
This magazine feature loaded by Admin – Cornwall 24.net e-magazine – By permission of the author Rob Simmons
19 October, 2011