Monday, 9 November 2015

Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Bindon (or Beandun) 614 AD

"This year Cynegils and Cwichelm fought at Beandun, and slew two thousand and forty-six of the Welsh."

Map showing the Battle of Bindon on the Devon - Dorset county border
When it comes to saying anything about events that happened during the so called "Dark Age" the name of the era tells you pretty much what to expect.

Time and again, the sources for our analysis of what happened, when, where, between who and why are either so incomplete, non existent or so contradictory as to make many potential facts completely opaque to the modern eye.

My preface to this post is simply echoing most other commentators on this period of history and is merely to state that very often the accounts we have today are most times an educated guess at best and should be considered with all the caveats that statement implies.

Old Parish map showing the remains of the pre -Roman hill fort on Hawkesdown Hill above Axmouth
The last pitched battle fought in Britain is commonly accepted as the Battle of Culloden in 1746, which means that in the preceding centuries, the British Isles has seen many many campaigns and associated battles, and the county of Devon here in the South West of England has seen its fair share of them.

Inspired by my recent post looking at the Iron Age hill fort at Woodbury and the subsequent discussion about "The Bible Book Rebellion" I thought it might be interesting in looking at some of our local battle sites and the eras they were fought in. Of course this is a wargaming blog and thus it would be appropriate to consider these battles from a wargamers point of view and so I may stray occasionally into thoughts about scenario creation.

Satellite picture showing the area of the battle. The road nearer the coast to Dowlands passes over Bindon Hill
The Battle of Bindon or Beandun is reported to have been fought on the Devon and Dorset county border near to the little hamlet of Bindon, close to Axmouth and Seaton on the River Axe.

The battle arose as part of the continuing struggle between the native Britons and the more recently arrived Saxons, which since the Roman withdrawal from the islands, had seen the native populations either gradually assimilated into the Saxon occupied areas or pushed back to the extremities of the mainland to form major strongholds in modern Wales and here in the South West with Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, home to the Dumnonians.

The battle may have occurred as part of a grander plan by the British tribes to drive back the West Saxons of Wessex under King Cynegils, with a combined pincer attack from their forces in Wales under King Nynnio ap Erb ruler of Gwent and Glywysing advancing into Somerset and those in Devon under King Clemen forming the other pincer advancing into Dorset.

The Devon Britons are often described as Welsh, a derivative of a Saxon word that means "stranger" or "foreign" and not the more modern meaning as inhabitants of the great nation of Wales.

Battle Map - Based on Rupert Mathews map - the supposed area for the attack of the West Saxons on the Britons army in Bindon. The circled points show where my pictures were taken
It is thought that Cynegils could command no more than 8,000 men in the field and with a need to maintain garrisons and to provide a force to observe the advance of the forces from Gwent may have only been able to muster about 4,000 men to confront the Dumnonians at Bindon. These troops were infantry and fought in the traditional "shield wall" manner of the armies of this period.

Position 1. - Looking from the road up to Hawkesdown Hill. The hill fort is in the woods on the top and commands views of the River Axe valley.
Clemen is thought to have had about 5,000 men including a small contingent of a few hundred mounted troops, which Rupert Mathews describes as cavalry able to charge and use javelins and that the Britons infantry would have fought in a "late Roman style". I am not sure a late Roman style of fighting would have been much more sophisticated than plenty of chaps lined up in depth with thrusting spears and throwing javelins, with the odd wealthy chap having a bit of chain mail and a half decent helmet.

The Dumnonians advanced from Exeter along the old Roman road, the Fosse Way, towards the River Axe on their way towards Dorchester. On crossing the Axe at Bindon, the ground rises steeply with the prominent feature of Hawkesdown Hill and its pre Roman hill fort commanding views out over the river. It seems likely that any Saxon scouts would have taken advantage of this prominent piece of high ground to observe the invaders.

Position 1. - Looking along the route taken by the Britons into Bindon as they marched towards Saxon territory
From the eastern bank of the Axe, the Britons set off in column of march up the small valley, known as a "combe" in these parts, on their march to Dorchester. It seems that Cynegils was already close at hand and as the Britons column became hemmed in on their climb up through the combe, their lead forces were met by a steadily advancing Saxon shield wall that quickly overcame and drove in the advance guard, causing confusion in the supporting troops and leading to a rout back down the way they had come to the river; where further retreat was greatly restricted and probably lead to the significant casualty count for the Britons, with sources suggesting them losing nearly half their force in the battle.

Position 2. - Slightly further off the battle map above than shown. The view from the road on Bindon Hill, looking back towards Hawkesdown Hill, left centre, with the valley where the battle was fought in between where the ground drops away.
The Britons fell back to Exeter to lick their wounds whilst Cynegils about turned and headed north to Frome in Somerset to deal with the men of Gwent, who on hearing of the defeat of their comrades in arms had already fallen back before the advancing Saxon army.

Position 3. - Where it is thought that King Cynegils formed his Saxon army up before advancing down the valley into the head of the Britons column of march
If we assume the account and position for this battle are broadly correct, then walking the ground can only help give a better sense of what happened. Given this battle happened 1,400 years ago we know that the look of the countryside, even the course and shape of the River Axe would have been different and if we ignore a lot of the field enclosures that cover this part of East Devon, then the lie of the land is quite revealing.

Position 4. - Looking up the combe towards the approaching Saxon army from the position where they struck the cavalry at the head of the Britons column of march. The gate on the right is to the old Saxon manor, Bindon Manor with the small stream flowing under the entrance drive.
The combe forms a natural route up from the river onto the higher ground that leads over the county border and so would seem a predictable route of advance. Even without the hedges, the land would have probably still been covered with the scrubby woodland seen and the combe would have had the cutting running down its length of a small stream leading to the river.

The small hamlet of Bindon would have been only a few small buildings and much less extensive than its modern counterpart and together with the few buildings at Axmouth formed a small habitation across the river from the old Roman harbour town of Seaton.

Position 4. - Looking the other way into Bindon, where the main fighting is thought to have taken place
The questions that came to my mind when walking the terrain is that the ground is perfect for setting an ambush and would negate all the benefits of one force having cavalry, all be it a small amount, over another without.

Given the Britons advantage in mounted troops, how could Cynegils mask his approach and proximity to the Britons and allow his infantry to take advantage of the close country and their uphill advantage that they clearly had in the early fighting?

On reaching the eastern bank of the Axe you would think that Clemen would have secured the Hawkesdown Hill camp and chased off any Saxon scouts and then combed the ground of his proposed advance with cavalry scouts. The view from the opposite side of the combe on Bindon hill would have given the British cavalry patrols plenty of warning of any advancing Saxon force.

The tidal River Axe that would have barred the escape of the fleeing Britons and where many of them probably died in the rout.
Perhaps over confidence played a part in the defeat of the Britons, perhaps they just didn't expect the Saxons to be where they were. Perhaps they were manoeuvring to surprise the Saxon army they believed to be in another area and were caught out when their assumptions were proven false.

Either way, on returning to the River Axe down through Bindon, I could only think that I was glad it was 1,400 years after the event and I was not being chased by hordes of victorious yelling Saxon warriors, with my path of retreat presenting me with the problem of learning to swim and quickly!

The River Axe, looking towards the mouth of the river and Seaton, top right. 
This small little battle presents a classic ambush scenario with relatively small but quite different forces, and given the preponderance of Dark Age figure manufacturers makes modelling it quite straightforward. Given the so many "what ifs" about the so called "facts" of the battle, it presents a wargamer with lots of options to create a scenario with so many different set ups and possible outcomes.

Sources used in this post:
Battlefield Walks - Devon, Rupert Mathews


  1. Very interesting post and photos.

    1. Thanks AWu. These ancient battle sites are intriguing to walk over as they require a lot more imagination and thought to try and piece together clues in the landscape.

  2. Vol II of the Oxford History of England ( p. 63) [ 1971] says that" the fighting in their advance took place at places ( Footnote : Beandun) which cannot now be identified." Well done with your convincing analysis. Julian Aaron -in New Zealand

  3. Hi Julian, thanks for your comment.
    As mentioned in my preamble about, 'all caveats pertaining around educated guesswork', with many of these early battles you 'pays your money and choose your source' and pretty much defy anyone to prove you wrong.

    As someone who spent time pouring over maps hypothesising about the exact location for Bosworth, I was smiling broadly a few years ago when shown around the confirmed site, following extensive metal detecting and a proper dig analysis, and looking at the visitor centre and previous signage all significantly well away from where we needed to be.

    I seem to recall when researching this post one source placed Bindon up in the midlands on the Welsh border.

    Glad you enjoyed the read

  4. I understand the conjecture basis for this post - Beandun links to beam-dun which in Old English means Beam Hill. This would be a place linked to a Irminsul a saxon pillar used in pagan ritual. One place linked to Cwichelm is a hill where such a stake was found that is Scotsman's Knob or Beacon Hill which was called Cwichelmeshlaew. Not because it was his barrow, but because it was the site of genocide. The idea on Wiki and elsewhere that it was his burial place after Edwin killed him is nonsense as Edwin pre deceased him. This place was the place of a legend in Wessex thought which had a saying: a prophecy that if you camped here you would never take a ship from England again. In 1006 some Vikings tested this out. The world of the West Saxons in the 7th Century was small and this genocide of the local tribe was to control the pathway from Dorchester to Winchester then to the sea at Selsey.

    1. Very interesting Jeremy and all ‘grist to the mill’ to the average explorer of British Dark Age history where myth often overlaps with conjecture and possibility and you soon start to see how the likes of J R R Tolkien found such inspiration for his work, mixed in with a good measure of philology and Beowulf.

  5. So much for the oft-repeated assertion that the battle was at Bampton, which is miles from Exeter and/or Dorchester!

    1. Well as discussed here, this period of history leaves a lot to educated guesswork and conjecture, and I often think it is making a hostage to fortune to assert very much, especially when it comes to this period of history. You only have to refer to all the experts that made assertions about the exact location of the battle site at Bosworth to see the results of those expert assertions with a battle tour route having to divert significantly to include the newer asserted site, that at least has archaeology to support it.

      Whatever the case, I think this suggested account and location for Bindon makes an interesting 'what if' scenario to wargame and I might give it a go at some time.