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Street Tales: Tig Guocobauc (House of Caves)

8 April 17 words: Joe Earp

The Nottingham Hidden History Team tell us the stories they never would have taught you at school...

Image: Eva Brudenell

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. But what ties King Alf to our fair city?

Asser (died c909) was a Welsh monk from St David’s, Dyfed, who became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s. In about 885 he was asked by Alfred the Great to leave St David’s and join the circle of learned men. 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. The work, which is less than 20,000 words long, is one of the most important sources on Alfred the Great.

In The Life of King Alfred there are several mentions of Nottingham. Quite surprisingly, Asser refers to Nottingham by its old British title, Tig Guocobauc, although it’s been suggested that it might be due to him writing it more for a Welsh than English audience. Indeed it was argued that Asser intended his biography 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-mindedly 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 were certainly caves in Nottingham around the time of Alfred in the ninth century. It also proves that just because archaeologically the caves can only be dated to the thirteenth century, this does not mean they date to this time, and are certainly older than the Norman Conquest (1066).

Nottingham Hidden History website

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