Through my work on perceptions of the past in the early medieval period and the Pillar of Eliseg, I continue to explore my interest in the early medieval use of mounds as assembly places.
Me, my son and one of my daughters recently visited Scutchmer Knob (otherwise known as Scutchamer Knob or ‘Scotchman’s Knob’). This is a mound situated on Cuckhamsley or Scutchamfly Hill in the parish of East Hendred (Oxfordshire) and historically in Berkshire.
The Knob is nowhere near has prominent as it might once have been: situated within a stand of trees and only crescent shape following early 20th-century archaeological excavations that suggested it dated to the Iron age, and earlier excavations to quarry soil to fertilise surrounding fields. It would have originally been a conical, flat-topped mound c. 43m in diameter – a huge knob if ever there was one!
In my 1999 paper investigating the locational qualities of high-status barrow-burials of the seventh century AD, I made the argument that Scuthmer Knob is the only burial mound in its vicinity to afford all-round views over long distances, making it an ideal location for communicating by beacon or signal and affording the visitor will the sense of all-encompassing oversight. The only mound in the area giving a similar impression was at Lowbury Hill: a far more modest mound that contained a seventh-century weapon burial. Hence, the Knob’s selection for use as an assembly place was not arbitrary, it was a site on a prominent long-distance routeway, on a principal shire boundary and also one that was especially prominent in the surrounding landscape, and affording spectacular long-distance views. In this regard, Scutchmer Knob is not only a site that allows views northwards over the Upper Thames Valley, it is possible on a clear day to see south to the North Downs.
The Knob’s use as a ‘shire-moot’ (assembly place) for Berkshire is attested from two early medieval sources, one dating to AD 990-92 and one from AD 1006. The second source – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – is intriguing not only because it reveals the mound’s function as an assembly site utilised to muster the shire’s forces for battle, but also because it claims there was a curse upon any enemy army who dared to set foot upon ‘Cwichelmes hlaewe‘ – the mound of Cwichelm.
The point the Chronicle is making is that this is exactly what the Viking army invading the heart of Wessex in wintertime did. Not only had they burnt Wallingford (the nearest burh) and the minster church at Cholsey, they were not challenged by the forces of Berkshire in stationing themselves at Scutchmer Knob and subsequently they marched west along the Ridgeway unchallenged. Implicitly this means they encountered many other ancient ceremonial landscapes, including the landscape famed through association with Alfred the Great’s victory against the Danes on Ashdown, past Uffington Castle and Wayland’s Smithy, and numerous other ancient fortifications, before defeating Wiltshire’s force at the River Kennet. They then moved unhindered down the Avon past the walls of Winchester itself. The Chronicle is utilising the story of a curse on Cwichelm’s mound to emphasise the utter ineptitude of Aethelraed’s military rulership against this invading force as it gutted Wessex from east to south. I discuss this briefly in my 2006 book (Williams 2006).
Of course we have no independent source to confirm that there actually was a curse on the mound. Still, I believe it is not implausible that Berkshire’s assembly place was considered sacred ground for the Christian Anglo-Saxons, hallowed by legendary association with the convert king Cwichelm. Originally the pagan warrior who had managed to come to terms with the powerful King Penda of Mercia, and who is accursed in Northumbrian memory for having sent an assassin to try to kill the first Christian king of that land – Edwin – he is also known to have fought many successful battles against the Britons. There is no doubt that, for a home crowd, this fearful pagan had a secure place in the origin myths and legends of the Christian kingdom of Wessex. It might be the case that the Knob was perceived to be the burial place of Cwichelm, or the site of one of his many battles, containing the bodies of his slaughtered enemies. We will never know for sure. What is likely is that this sepulchral association and ancient legendary connection afforded legitimacy to the military and judicial activities taking place in its environs. If so, what a humiliation it must have been when the news spread that the Danes had camped there unchallenged in 1006 (see Williams 2006)!
Meaney (1964, 46) speculated that the Knob may have once been the meeting place for the entire West Saxon kingdom and ‘therefore quite probably that would have been used for AS secondary burials’. The only recent archaeological work was small in scale and conducted by Sarah Semple and Alexandra Sanmark. Whilst unable to rule out the presence of secondary early medieval graves or confirm a precise date for the monument, their work supported the strong possibility that the mound was indeed of prehistoric origin (Bronze Age) surrounded by a ring-ditch. It may have been augmented on multiple occasions during the Roman and early medieval periods, including the recutting of the ditch and the construction of a square structure, perhaps a building associated with its role as an assembly place, to the mound’s north-east. Their preliminary results are published in the Swedish journal Fornvännen and available online. More info on this site is sure to come out of Sarah and Alex’s assembly place project.
It would be interesting to learn if other assembly places in early England were dedicated to the memory of famed churchmen, saints, kings and heroes. Ongoing research by John Baker at Nottingham University seeks to address this question. Still, on what we know so far, it seems as if Cwichelm – a feared and famous hero of Wessex’s early history – afforded legitimacy and an aura of power to the biggest ever Anglo-Saxon Knob.
Meaney, A. 1964. A Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites, London: Unwin.
Sanmark, A. & Semple, S., 2008. Places of Assembly: New Discoveries in Sweden and England. Fornvännen 103. Stockholm.
Williams, H. 1999. Placing the dead: investigating the location of wealthy barrow burials in seventh century England, in M. Rundkvist (ed) Grave Matters: Eight Studies of Burial Data from the first millennium AD from Crimea, Scandinavia and England. Oxford: BAR International Series 781, pp. 57-86.
Williams, H. 2004. Assembling the dead, in A. Pantos & S. Semple (eds.) Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe. Dublin:Four Courts Press, pp. 109-34.
Williams, H. 2006. Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.