David Hancocks Cunval’s Mission
David Hancocks studied Architecture and Building, and so it may have been inevitable that his historical interests have manifested themselves in reports and articles in archaeological journals. This, his first novel, is set in the Age of the Saints, that period which overlapped the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, and it may also be no coincidence that he was involved with landscaping several acres of woodland by the river Monnow where much of the novel is set.
A young priest called Cunval is sent to begin a mission in the territory of a pagan chief north of Abermenei (a precursor of the later medieval Monmouth). You can trace his journey from post-Roman Caerleon, where he has been trained, along rivers like the Usk, the Trothi and the Wye to the Monnow, where he sets up his llan or ecclesiastical enclosure. As you might expect, life is not easy for the new priest, what with bandits, local opposition, taboo violations and Saxon threats, but he persists and wins over the local population. But tragedy is never far away in such volatile times.
Hancocks’ novel teems with memorable characters and is set in a community and landscape that we get to know extraordinarily well. His background detail, unusually for many so-called historical novels, is based on a sound archaeological knowledge, though education nearly always takes a back seat to entertainment, as it should in a work of fiction. Through the young Cunval’s eyes we revel in the progress of the seasons, the appearance of wild flora and fauna, the technology of building kilns, coracles and cells, and the early medieval agricultural cycle; all in all, an impressive first novel.
Having been involved in the excavation of an early medieval church enclosure, I recognised the steps the young priest takes in setting up his llan, though I was expecting a differentiation between his living cell and the shelter for the altar, and I was surprised at the building of a pottery kiln in a relatively aceramic part of Britain (though so-called Monnow pottery was widespread in South Wales in a much later period). But Hancocks will know his area and its history well, and I wouldn’t be too shocked to see an archaeological report on a previously unknown Dark Age site connected with a Cunval, the name (or a variation, Cynfal in modern Welsh) of several historically recorded personages from the 6th century onwards.
Though neither a groundbreaking nor an outstanding novel, Cunval’s Mission is a vivid snapshot of the kind of lives that were lived in a marginalised area at a time of historical transition.