Legends and Locations

A historical landscape is impossible to recover, but we can still feel its power.

Profound but intangible: Scutchamer Knob on the Ridgeway Path of the Berkshire Downs.There are some historical events which only come sharply into focus when you stand on the spot where they took place. I was reminded of this recently when I visited an unassuming hillside mentioned in a memorable story in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, concerning something which happened during a Viking raid on southern England in the reign of Æthelred II. It is a slightly mysterious story, a glimpse into a long-vanished landscape of power that now only survives half-hidden in the name of a Berkshire barrow mound.

In the winter of 1006 a Danish army was ravaging Wessex, raiding its way through Hampshire and Berkshire without much effective resistance from the English. It sacked and burned the towns of Reading and Wallingford before travelling along the Berkshire Downs, finally reaching a place the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls ‘Cwichelmeshlæw’, that is, ‘Cwichelm’s mound’. There, it records, the army ‘waited for what they had been proudly threatened with, because it had often been said that if they reached Cwichelmeshlæw they would never get to the sea’. But the threatened response never materialised and the Danes did make it back to the sea, a ‘proud and undaunted army’ flaunting its spoils as it marched past the gates of Winchester on its way to its ships.

Cwichelmeshlæw (now called Cuckhamsley Barrow or Scutchamer Knob) was a significant local landmark, set in a landscape that by 1006 was already rich in history.

It is a mound standing in a prominent position on the ancient track of the Icknield Way, high on the Berkshire Downs. Though probably a prehistoric barrow, it takes its name from Cwichelm, a seventh-century king of Wessex; Cwichelmeshlæw may have been believed to be his burial-mound or the site of one of his battles.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period this region was the heart of the kingdom of Wessex, the site of royal settlements and its first episcopal see at Dorchester-on-Thames, where Cwichelm was baptised in 636. Later, it was an area particularly associated with Alfred the Great, whose birthplace, Wantage, is just a few miles away from Cuckhamsley Barrow. For an English audience in 1006, the name Cwichelmeshlæw and the whole area of the Berkshire Downs would have had resonant associations with earlier ages of West Saxon power and past victories over the Vikings by Wessex’s greatest king.

But in 1006, at least from the perspective of the chronicler, the Vikings were consciously using that landscape to humiliate the English and demonstrate their control. The threat about Cuckhamsley Barrow is framed as a boast but it has also been interpreted as a superstition, even a curse, suggesting that Cwichelm was believed to still hold some supernatural power over the mound that bore his name. If so, the Vikings defied the curse; so fallen was the kingdom of Wessex from its former greatness, the chronicler bitterly implies, that not only King Æthelred but even the once mighty Cwichelm were helpless to resist the invaders.

I first read this story some years ago, but it was only last summer, when I actually visited Cuckhamsley Barrow, that I really felt I understood it. Not much remains of the mound itself today: it has been ploughed out, so now it is a steep-sided hollow, overgrown with long grasses. High on its hill, it feels remote, frequented only by walkers and cyclists passing along the Ridgeway. But one glance out across the landscape and immediately you realise why this place once held so much power. From here you can see for miles and instantly the story in the Chronicle comes to life: the triumphant Vikings, pausing to celebrate their victories, scanning the downs for an opposing army that never came.

Of course, the landscape which Cuckhamsley Barrow overlooks is not quite the one the Viking army saw: its most prominent landmarks today are not barrow-mounds but the towers of Didcot Power Station. Perhaps it is impossible to recover, or even to imagine accurately, what historical landscapes were really like and the further back in the past we try to go the more difficult it gets. But the power of such a place is always partly in the mind, in its legends as much as its location. To understand it you need not only to see the landscape but to try to see it with the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, to whom the name and the place both meant something profound but intangible – and, at that point, imagination has to take over.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.