It’s remarkable that some pivotal events and figures in history are so little known. Oddly enough, everyone in Cumbria thinks they know about Dunmail. There’s the shopping centre in Workington; a Dunmail Close and a Dunmail Crescent; a guest house; a fantasy book character; until its recent sad demise, a rather tasty beer; and a brand of mattress. Some people might even mention Dunmail Raise, which is closer to the mark.
Dunmail Raise is a pile of stones in the middle of the road between Grasmere and Thirlmere. Not that long ago it was on the dividing line between the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, and had a wall over the top of it. There are no carvings, or fencing, or English Heritage signs: it’s just an unremarkable-looking heap. And yet, when the mountain pass was widened not all that long ago, the site’s ancient reputation ensured that the pile of stones was largely left alone. This is startling when you consider that similar road-widening efforts have led to the removal of stone circles and standing stones.
Dunmail himself was the last of a long line of Cumbrian kings of ancient British lineage. His father, Owain, supposedly the ‘giant’ buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith, fought and lost at the great Battle of Brunanburh against the Saxon King Athelstan in 937CE. Just eight years later, his son found himself similarly imperilled at the site of Dunmail Raise.
The critical factor was the allegiance of the Scots. In 937CE, King Constantine fought with Owain of Cumbria. In 945CE, Constantine’s son Malcolm switched sides and fought with the Saxon King Edmund against Dunmail. Their combined forces were overwhelming, and the Cumbrians were defeated.
‘This year, King Edmund overran all Cumbraland; and let to Malcolm King of the Scots, on the condition that he became his ally both by sea and by land.’ (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles)
So what is Dunmail Raise? Many piles of stone on Lake District mountains are known to be ancient – by which I mean Bronze Age – burial cairns, but this doesn’t apply to Dunmail Raise. No remains have been found when the rocks have been disturbed over the last couple of hundred years, although there has never been a formal archaeological dig.
‘… that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland’ (William Wordsworth, ‘The Waggoner’ (1819))
Another suggestion is that the Raise is not a burial cairn but a pile of ‘soul stones’. Each stone, representing the life of a single warrior, was added to the pile, to be removed after victory. Thus, the sizeable pile represents the number of men killed.
Dunmail’s crown was believed to possess the magical property of legitimising the kingship of the wearer, so, anxious that it should not be seized by the Saxons or Scots, the fatally-wounded king asked for it to be thrown into nearby Grizedale Tarn. He told his men that one day, when Cumbria needed him, he would return for his crown.
It’s said that every year, the spirits of his warriors retrieve the crown and go to Dunmail Raise to ask their king if he is ready to take the crown again, but each year, he replies, ‘not yet, not yet; wait awhile, my warriors’.
This pretty story has a very medieval ring to it – far too late to originate in Dunmail’s own time. It’s very reminiscent of medieval stories about the ‘once and future king’, King Arthur, and reminds me a great deal of the story I was told as a child about the sleeping knights of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. And, as we’ve already noted, Dunmail may not be buried at the Raise. And then there’s the small matter of Dunmail’s survival.
That’s right: it seems that Dunmail was alive and well until he died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 975CE. He may well have been deposed, and he may well have lived the rest of his life in exile, but history says he did not die at Dunmail Raise.
Or did he? The history of the kings of Cumbria is very confused because the original records are scanty and contradictory; unlike most of the history we were taught at school, no one knows the correct answer. Dunmail is sometimes known as Dunmael, or Dumnall, or Duffnal, or Duvenald. And then there’s all the Donalds and Dunwallons. Who’s to say that they haven’t been mixed up – as is forever seen with the three Owains and three Coels – and Dunmail did die on that mountain pass in 945CE and is buried deep below the Raise? Perhaps the man who died in Rome was a Duffnal or a Donald. Until someone goes-a-digging, with a lot of patience, some fancy technical equipment and a lot of luck, there’s no hope of certain knowledge.
Whatever happened to Dunmail, it was the end of the ancient British rule of Cumbria and within fifty years, Cumbrians had stopped speaking their native language (a version of Welsh). King Edmund’s rule of England was increasingly chaotic for four more years until his death, and the Scots spent the next 600 years trying to secure Cumbria. The age of the Border Reivers had begun.