On the trail of king Alfred

About the Book

It all started one spring day in Winchester. I tagged along with my partner who had to go there to work for a day. I was at a loose end and had been to Winchester many times. I had seen the cathedral, the round table and so on. So, what should I do? I remembered reading that there had been an abbey at Hyde, just north of the centre, and that it was connected with King Alfred. So I worked out where it was and paid a visit to the location. In contrast to the cathedral, and the city centre generally, there was nobody else there but me. Yet this was  the site where perhaps the greatest king in the history of England had been buried. Surely this could not be correct. Where was everybody? A few weeks later I visited Athelney, the site where Alfred developed a fortification before striking out to defeat the Vikings. There was nobody there either. Then I went to the little church at Aller, where the path of English history was sealed when Alfred baptised the Viking leader Guthrum, leading to a period of peace. You've got it - nobody there either. The strong interest in history that I had always had became re-awakened as I found the experience of finding these places deeply involving and I felt that just being in these locations gave me a direct engagement with 9th century history. I am certain that people are interested in the Anglo-Saxons, and King Alfred in particular; everybody I speak to is genuinely interested.  

It seemed to me that the problem was partly down to information on relevant sites not being readily available. Additionally, accurate locations for some historical events have not been established (e.g. the Battle of Ashdown) so it is easy to sink in a sea of alternative ideas or theories. A further problem that I came across was what today we might call mis-information (or even fake news?) Perhaps often well-intentioned, but over the past few centuries it appears that many places have wanted a slice of King Alfred, even if it means being over-optimistic with regard to the evidence.

I have tried to cut through all of this to produce something that facilitates better engagement with arguably our most important king by visiting locations that are associated with him. Where the location cannot be established, I put forward alternatives and invite the reader to engage with the mystery.

So, join me on a romp from Wantage, Reading, Basing, London, the Somerset Levels and the Berkshire Downs, Kent, Wiltshire, Dorset, Exeter and other places besides. I truly hope that you benefit from a connection and engagement with perhaps our greatest King, just like I have.

 

Dr Paul Kelly.

 

Places explored  (click links to find out more)

 

Wantage, Oxfordshire

 

According to Asser, King Alfred's "biographer", this is where the King was born.

 

Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire

 

There has been speculation that Alfred got married here.

 

Sherborne, Dorset

 

Two of Alfred's elder brothers who had been king before Alfred were interred at Sherborne. Asser was bishop here.

 

Steyning, West Sussex

 

Reported to be the initial resting place of Alfred's father, King Æthelwulf.

 

St Neot, Cornwall

 

According to Asser, Alfred visited this location to pray at this site, which in Alfred's time was the resting place of a St Guerrir. 

 

Wareham, Dorset

 

Alfred engaged with the Vikings here in 876.

 

Exeter, Devon

 

Engagement with Vikings in 876 and 893.

 

Englefield, Berkshire

 

An important battle location not far from Reading, and a precursor to the battle there.

 

Reading, Berkshire

 

An important Viking stronghold and the site of a battle between Alfred's troops and the Vikings in 871.

 

The Battle of Ashdown

 

An important battle. However, the location has not been established. Sites explored include White Horse Hill and Uffington Fort in Oxfordshire, the Berkshire/Oxfordshire downs, including Lowbury Hill, and areas near Streatley and Moulsford, including Kingstanding Hill and the nearby Ridgeway.

 

Basing (Basingstoke), Hampshire

 

An engagement with the Vikings in 871.

 

Battle of Meretun

 

An unknown location but Martin in Hampshire explored. Marden in Wiltshire is also a possibility.

 

Wimborne, Dorset

 

Alfred's elder king brother was interred here. After Alfred died, there was a dispute here between Alfred's son, King Edward the Elder, and the son of King Alfred's elder brother who seized Wimborne.

 

Wilton, Wiltshire

 

The site of Alfred's first battle as king. 

 

Chippenham, Wiltshire

 

Seized by the Vikings in 878 while Alfred may have been there. After the Battle of Edington it is probable that Chippenham was the location that Alfred's troops drove the Vikings back to  and then  held them under siege until they surrendered.

 

Athelney, Somerset

 

Where Alfred was hiding out prior to (or whilst preparing for) engagement with the Vikings, which took place later in 878 at the Battle of Edington.

 

Egbert's Stone

 

A location where troops supporting Alfred came together prior to the battle at Edington. The location is uncertain, but the following locations were explored: the Deverills in Wiltshire, Willoughby Hedge, the vicinity of the junction between Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire near Pen Selwood, King Alfred's Tower, Stourhead, and Kilmington Common.

 

Iley

 

Where Alfred and his troops spent one night before engaging with the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. Another uncertain location, but the following were explored: Southleigh and Eastleigh Woods, including Robin Hood's Bower, near Sutton Veney, not far from Warminster; Cley Hill.

 

Battlesbury Hill

 

It has been suggested that Alfred's troops ascended here up to Salisbury plain in order to cross this to get to Edington

 

The Battle at Edington, Wiltshire

 

A famous and decisive battle. The specific location is unknown. Sites explored include: The village of Edington and nearby hills and combes, Bratton Camp and Bratton Down

 

Aller, Somerset

 

Notable as the location of a church where Alfred baptised Guthrum, the leader of the Vikings, after he defeated him at Edington.

 

Wedmore, Somerset

 

The location of the hospitality provided by Alfred to Guthrum  after the latter had been baptised at Aller.

 

Rochester, Kent

 

Engagement between Alfred and the Vikings in 884

 

Appledore, Kent

 

Alfred camped between two Viking forces that had landed in 892. It is recorded that one of these was at Appledore. Establishing where this was helps determine Alfred's position. Apart from Appledore, other sites explored were Kenardington, Portus Lemanis, and Castle Toll.

 

Milton Regis (Sittingbourne), Kent

 

This is where the other Viking camp was located.

 

Maidstone, Kent

 

Perhaps the site that Alfred used to locate himself between the two Viking forces that had landed in Kent. Bredgar and Stockbury are also explored as possible locations.

 

The River Lea

 

Approximately 20 miles north of London the Vikings built a fortress, but Alfred blocked in their boats. Areas explored include Hertford, Ware, Waltham Abbey, and the River Lea/Lee between these places. 

 

London

 

In 886 Alfred had achieved power in London. Previously this location had been under the control of Mercia. 

 

Winchester, Hampshire

 

Alfred was interred first at the Old Minster (no longer standing) and then eventually at Hyde Abbey, Winchester. However, the location of his bones has not been established. 

 

Dorchester, Dorset.

 

Evidence from charters points to Alfred's presence here

 

Shaftesbury, Dorset

 

Record suggest that Alfred restored this town and he had a monastery built and appointed his daughter as abbess. 

 

Old Wardour, Wiltshire

 

Alfred's presence is recorded in a document relating to a property dispute.

 

Locations of sea battles

 

Dean in Sussex

 

Where Asser first came into contact with King Alfred

 

Swinbeorg

 

Where Alfred was present at an assembly

 

 

This book will be a Black Slash publication.