Gafulford: When Devon beat Cornwall in a battle to the death

Old English: “Her waes Weala gefeoht Defna aet Gafulford”.

Translation: “There was a fight between the Weala and the Defna at Gafulford”.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

For centuries the good people of Devon and Cornwall have lived in law abiding harmony. Occasional disputes may flare – who can forget the carnage when Devon claimed to have invented the pasty – but any rivalry is built on a mutual respect for the other’s proud history. Most of the time anyway.

Back in the mists there was a dispute so ferocious that for many years nobody could quite believe it had happened at all. The only reference to it was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In 823 AD, or 825 depending on your preference, the people of Cornwall (the Weala) and Devon (Defna) hacked each other’s mutual respect to pieces near the River Tamar. The term Dark Ages is frowned upon today as it disparages the rich cultural heritage and cosmopolitan outlook of the average Anglo Saxon and Celt. But there really is no doubt that when the Weala and the Defna put their minds to it they were a brutal and dark minded lot.

An engraving by Gustave Dore of the Arthurian legend
An engraving by Gustave Dore of the Arthurian legend

It was an important battle that nevertheless seems to have been mostly overlooked by historians. Perhaps the trauma was too much. There is no doubt it happened, though the bloody details, like jam atop a scone, are in dispute.

Here is what we know about the Battle of Gafulford.

You won’t find Gafulford on a map of the UK and the exact location is unknown today. It’s either in the west of Devon or the East of Cornwall. Among the locations proposed are Camelford (often linked to King Arthur’s legendary Camelot) and Galford near Lew Trenchard in Devon. Both are ancient settlements with a convincing claim, not least being conveniently situated off the A30. Other historians have suggested Dunsford near Exeter, Copplestone in Mid Devon, or just somewhere near the River Tamar.

By 823 the Germanic Anglo-Saxons were well established as the main governing power in much of Britain, the original Angles, who arrived after the Romans left, had even given their name to what became known as England. The people they displaced from much of the land moved west – ending up in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany in France. Whether by conquest or assimilation the Anglo-Saxons and the ‘men of Devon’ were in the ascendancy and the Britons in retreat.

Dark Age Britain kingdoms
Dark Age Britain kingdoms

The Saxon kingdom of Wessex was one of the most powerful in the land and ruled by King Egbert between 802 and 839AD. It is known the king was active at this time in Devon, signing a charter at Crediton, and eyeing a western expansion of his domain into what was then called Dumnonia. The Battle of Gafulford was one of a series of encounters with the people who stood in his way – the West Welsh or Cornish.

The name Weala was given to them by the Anglo-Saxons. Roughly derived from ‘foreigner’ it indicates that our knowledge of what happened at the Battle of Gafulford is tinged by a West-Saxon, or Wessex, perspective.

North Devon’s Dark History

So what happened and who won?

Robert Higham, in his book Making Anglo-Saxon Devon (2008) says the battle took place at modern day Galford near the River Lew. It is thought the name ‘Gafol’ is an old word for tax. The theory goes that the powerful Defna took tribute from the Cornish at this location – much like a modern day river toll. Such behaviour may have fed resentment with a people who to this day are not renowned for parting with cash, and ultimately conflict.

King Egbert seems to have been a formidable king. Almost everywhere he went he was either ravaging or cracking heads to consolidate Wessex power. The Defna were pieces on his chess board of power and at some point at some location in 823 he deployed the ‘Men of Devon’ against his enemy.

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The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is our only contemporary source that the battle ever took place. It doesn’t tell us very much or record which side won. It doesn’t even say that Egbert bothered to turn up at all.

A slightly later scholar, Florence of Worcester, was the first to say with confidence that the Cornish had been defeated. Henry of Huntington said many thousands had been killed on both sides.

It is now generally accepted however that in the year of our lord 823, or thereabouts, the men of Devon gave the Weala a whupping.

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The subsequent history of our island suggests the Defna triumphed but thought better of straying too far into enemy territory after proving their point. The West Saxons would later best the formidable Danes thanks to Egbert’s grandson Alfred the Great, though all would bow to Norman power a few centuries later.

It could be said the Cornish have never really gotten over their right royal beating at the hands of the Devon men and persist in quibbling to this day – as evidenced by the Devon pasty and cream tea episodes.

Of course, the reality of our shared history is much more complicated than Devon fighting Cornwall and people can’t easily be divided into Saxons and Celts. But that isn’t as much fun. The common man in Dark Age Britain probably did what he was told. If that meant smashing heads then better the Weala or the Defna than your own.

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