by Joe Earp
The reign of King Alfred the Great (871- 99) is among the most stirring periods of English history. It saw the Kingdom of Wessex taken from the brink of Viking conquest to the threshold of an undertaking that led eventually to the political unification of England. It is a story of enduring personal interest, for Alfred himself emerges as a man who had overcome considerable difficulties in effecting the survival of his Kingdom, and whose practical intelligence and vision contributed both materially and spiritually to the future prosperity of his country.
Alfred was born at Wantage in Oxfordshire in 849, fourth or fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. Following the wishes of their father, the sons succeeded to the kingship in turn. At a time when the country was under threat from Danish raids, this was aimed at preventing a child inheriting the throne with the related weaknesses in leadership. In 870 AD the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, whose forces were commanded by Alfred’s older brother, King Aethelred, and Alfred himself.
In 871 AD, Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The following year, he succeeded his brother as king. Despite his success at Ashdown, the Danes continued to devastate Wessex and Alfred was forced to withdraw to the Somerset marshes, where he continued guerrilla warfare against his enemies. In 878 AD, he again defeated the Danes in the Battle of Edington. They made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. In 886 AD, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danes. England was divided, with the north and the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory – later known as the ‘Danelaw’. Alfred therefore gained control of areas of West Mercia and Kent which had been beyond the boundaries of Wessex.
Asser (died c 909) was a Welsh monk from St David’s, Dyfed, who became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s. About 885 he was asked by Alfred the Great to leave St David’s and join the circle of learned men. Asser recounts how Alfred recruited him as a scholar for his court. Alfred held a high opinion of the value of learning and recruited men from around Britain and from continental Europe to establish a scholarly centre at his court. In 893, Asser wrote a biography of Alfred entitled The Life of King Alfred; in the original Latin, the title is Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum. The date is known from Asser’s mention of the king’s age in the text. The work, which is less than twenty thousand words long, is one of the most important sources of information on Alfred the Great
In the Life of King Alfred there are several mentions of Nottingham. Quite surprisingly Asser refers to Nottingham as ‘Tig Guocobauc’. It is strange how Asser would refer to a settlement using an old ‘British’ place name. It has been suggested that Asser was writing more for a Welsh audience that an English audience when he wrote the Life. Keynes and Lapidge (1983) explain “That Asser had a Welsh audience uppermost in his mind is clear not only from his concern to explain the local geography of the place that he mentions but especially from the various locations on which he provides an explanation in Welsh of an English place-name: Nottingham for example is called Tig Guocobauc in Welsh or Speluncarum Domus [house of caves] in Latin and Exeter is Cairuuisc in Welsh or civitas Exae [city of the Exe] in Latin.
It has been further suggested that “Such information would have been inscrutable and unnecessary to an Anglo-Saxon audience, and while it would not have been of much help even to the Welsh, at least it might have made them feel more at home. Indeed it was argued that Asser intended his Life of King Alfred to reassure the Welsh that they had submitted themselves to a wise, just, effective and Christian King” (Keynes and Lapidge 1983).
Below is the full extract of the reference to Nottingham from Asser’s Life of King Alfred:
“In the same year the Viking army left Northumbria (868), came to Mercia and reached Nottingham (which is called Tig Guocobauc in Welsh, or Speluncarrum Domus [house of caves] in Latin, and they spent the winter that year in the same place. Immediately upon their arrival there, Burgred, King of the Mercians, and all the leading men of that people sent messages to Æthelred, King of the West Saxons, and to his brother Alfred, humbly requesting that they help them, so that they would be able to fight against the Viking army; they obtained this easily. For the brothers, promptly fulfilling their promise, gathered an immense army from every part of their kingdom, went to Mercia and arrived at Nottingham, single-mindely seeking battle. But since the Vikings, protected by the defences of the stronghold, refused to give battle, and since the Christians were unable to breach the wall, peace was established between the Mercians and the Vikings, and the two brothers, Æthelred and Alfred, returned home with their forces”.
Nottingham (Snotengaham) signifies literally the Ham (settlement) of the people of a person called Snot. Nottingham was renowned for its ancient cave dwellings and Tig Guocobauc does mean precisely ‘cavy house’ in old Welsh. There is no obvious reason, however, why the Welsh should have had a special name for Nottingham, and it may perhaps have been Asser’s invention, based on his own knowledge of the place or alternatively he was told about the caves in Nottingham. Asser’s work also proves that there was certainly caves in Nottingham around the time of Alfred in the 9th century. It also proves that just because archaeologically the caves can only be dated to the 13th century this certainly does not mean that they date to this time and they are certainly older than the Norman Conquest (1066).
Sources used for the article include:
Alfred the Great by Richard Abels (1998) and Alfred the Great Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources edited by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (1983).