So I finally got around to reading this book, which I had been avoiding in order not to confuse my mind whilst conducting my research on King Alfred. First off, let me say that it is beautifully written – I wish I could write like this. It is obviously thoroughly based on research and I find myself un-enthusiastic in pointing out things that I disagree with, because I know that there will be things that people disagree with in my writings. But I hope to stick my neck out a little.
It seems that Bernard Cornwell moved the Battle of Cynuit forward by a year or so (his Historical Note tells us that he moved the Viking leader Ubba’s death forward, which amounts to the same thing, as he died at Cynuit). I found this difficult because whilst reading I had to constantly remind myself that it had not happened yet. I also found it confusing because it moved the battle of Cynuit to the same time as the Viking attack on Exeter in 876 instead of in 878 when Alfred was on the run and ended up at Athelney, an entirely different context.
Bernard Cornwell tells us in the Historical Note at the back of the book that he placed (following an argument put forward in a book by John Peddie) Cynuit at Cannington in Somerset. To me this does not seem possible as, although the precise location is not known, all of the early sources tell us that the battle took place in Devon.
There are other little things, like Alfred’s elder brother King Æthelred’s death in 871 being moved to after the Battle of Wilton instead of after the Battle of Meretun.
None of this should stop you reading this superbly written book. I fully intend to read the rest of the series. Although I had not read the book, I had seen season 1 of the TV series, shortly before I started my research. For those of you who are wondering whether they should read the book having watched the TV series, I would say “yes”, because for me it really did add something.
This is a peaceful spot and I always like coming here. I never cease to be amazed at how this modest location that was so important in the history of England is so under-visited.
King Alfred defeated the Vikings at the crucial Battle of Ethandune (likely to have been at Edington in Wiltshire) in 878. The Vikings fled to their fortress, which seems to have been at Chippenham, where they then surrendered.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that three weeks after the Vikings surrendered, Guthrum came with thirty of his men to be baptised into Christianity at a place near Athelney called Aller. Asser tells us that Alfred himself raised Guthrum from the baptismal font and that Guthrum became Alfred’s adopted son.
St Andrew’s church at Aller, like Athelney, is on raised ground in the Somerset Levels, suggesting that the church probably would also have been on an island in Alfred’s time. The oldest parts of the current church are 12th century, so the events of 878 must have taken place at a preceding structure. It has been claimed that a font in the church (the more bowl-shaped of the two fonts), recovered from the rectory pond in the nineteenth century, was the one used to Baptise Guthrum. The church can be tricky to find. Coming from Langport direction, it is necessary to take a left turn onto the road called Church Path and then turn left where there is a wooden sign for the church. The church also has a small but beautiful King Alfred Window, which is a memorial to the two reigns of King Alfred and Queen Victoria.
It can be speculated as to why Aller, about fifty miles distant from Chippenham, was chosen as the location instead of somewhere closer. Perhaps Alfred did not trust Guthrum and this was deemed to be a safer location, or perhaps Aller was a more significant place then than it seems to us today. It might even be that Alfred knew Aller well if he came here to pray when he had his base at nearby Athelney.
Aller is only a few miles north-west of Langport, which must have been a significant place in Alfred’s time as it is included in the Burghal Hidage (a list of defended locations), drawn up under his son, King Edward the Elder. Although there is nothing that I could find to specifically connect King Alfred with Langport, it seems likely that he would have been there at some point.
This post follows on from a more general one about King Alfred and London. Here we specifically look at the town walls. There is a Youtube video at the end of this post.
The walls of London are Roman in origin but they would have been present, although probably much repaired in places, when King Alfred restored London around 886. It seems that prior to then the main population focus of London had shifted after the Romans left to the area that we now know as Aldwych , with the site of the Roman town, approximating to the area that we now call “The City”, becoming very much depopulated. It seems that Alfred’s redevelopment of London led to the area of the walled former Roman town becoming a focus of population again.
I decided to see if it was possible to walk what would have been the perimeter of Alfred’s London. Although the wall is sometimes visible (although, even where visible, subject to much repair or later modification), in most places much imagination is required as the line of the wall runs into modern buildings. Nonetheless, it was a fun thing to do and it certainly helped me to appreciate the shape of the old town.
I started in the Tower Hill area, where there are three places at which the wall can be seen. Travelling anti-clockwise (as in the rest of this post) the first location is what is known as the Postern Gate. This is revealed in a big hole on the same side of the busy Tower Hill arterial road as the Tower of London. From here, if you turn back north and cross the road you will not be able to miss one of the best remaining sections of wall. It is in a pleasant little park and you can walk right up to it on both sides.
The next bit of wall is very close indeed, but not immediately obvious. I tried following the line north from the previous bit of wall, proceeding past some modern construction to a point where I could indeed see another stretch of the old wall ahead, although the route was blocked by railings. I found, however, that I could get to the other side by walking to nearby Cooper’s Hill and then down the vehicle entrance to the Grange City Hotel. The wall was then straight in front of me in all its glory. There is a small archway in this wall which allows you to pass through to examine the other side as well. A lovely spot.
The line of the wall then disappears into modern buildings, traversing the railway lines running into Fenchurch Street Station and the enigmatic modern “One America Square.” My research indicated that once the line of the wall had crossed the appropriately named road called “Crosswall”, the next visible section would be to the west of Vine Street. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The location where the remains were supposed to be visible was in fact a huge building site. I looked across the site through the couple of viewing windows inserted into the fence but I could see no evidence of any old wall. It must have been hidden from view because it seems that the development once completed will include a display of the preserved Roman wall. The line of the wall then runs through the more recent buildings on the east side of Jury Street, including the Three Tuns pub.
We then arrived at the site of Aldgate. This was where the Roman road to Colchester left London. There is no remaining remnant of the gate above ground because itwas demolished in 1761. We decided to take a break and got some drinks from the pleasant Kahaila cafe (run by a charity) and sat down in the grounds of St Botolph without Aldgate. We then went on to explore up into Dukes Place and Bevis Marks (names of roads). My research indicated that there was some Roman wall visible in an underpass beneath Dukes Place. I have to admit that I could find no underpass, let alone any wall. So we proceeded north-west up Bevis Marks and Camomile Street, where the line of the old wall would be running under the modern buildings on our right, until we arrived at Bishopsgate.
It seems to me that King Alfred would have passed through Bishopsgate at some point. The Roman road called Ermine Street proceeded northwards from this point, and if it was London that Alfred had left from in order to confront the Vikings when they turned up somewhere near Hertford or Ware (Ware is on Ermine Street) in 895, it seems likely that he would have left through Bishopsgate. There are no remains of Bishopsgate above ground because it was demolished in 1760. The site is however marked by a bishop’s mitre above the branch of Boots the Chemists.
The line of the old wall now follows the north side of Wormwood Street and the appropriately named (if not accurately, because the line of the wall deviates somewhat from it) thoroughfare called London Wall. As you walk down this road called London Wall, you will see that there is a short stretch of old wall around the back of (north of) the church of All-Hallows on the Wall, but apart from this there are no visible clues until one reaches a stretch of wall in what is called St Alphage’s Garden on one side (under reconstruction when we visited) and Salter’s Garden on the other. Once you get to this point, things are a little more complicated as you have arrived at the site of the Roman fort, which was a separate walled-off square area within the overall outline of the old walls. There is no evidence to support this, but it seems plausible that if there was a protected area within the walls then this may have become King Alfred’s residence in London. The case for this is perhaps slightly strengthened by the limited number of alternative sites. The only other one that I have considered is the site of the Roman praetorium that is largely under Cannon Street station. However, in times of Viking threat I feel that Alfred would have preferred to be in a walled area with easy access to an escape route – which favours the fort rather than the praetorium. Of course it cannot be ruled out that Alfred’s residence was an entirely different building, perhaps wooden, of which no traces remain.
On proceeding west from St Alphage’s Garden, one comes very quickly indded to the site of the former Cripplegate. It strikes me that if Alfred’s residence was indeed at the site of the Roman fort then he would almost certainly have used Cripplegate, simply because it was in the wall of the Roman fort.
I found (becauseof railings) that it was necessary to approach the corner of the very north-west section of wall (and therefore also of the fort) from two different directions. This was worth the effort because there are significant stretches of wall visible. The first stretch is immediately south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate and I got there by walking up to the north end of Wood Street and turning left. Just by looking up Wood Street it isn’t immediately obvious that you can do this. The other stretch is accessible from a muddy track leading off from the down access road to the London Wall Underground Car Park. Incidentally, there is some Roman wall preserved at bay 52 of this car park.
We then come to the west side of the fort (this being an outer wall of the fort meaning that it is also the town wall), which runs alongside Noble Street.
From this point there are no remaining above ground sections of the old town wall. The route, however, is known, and much of it can be walked. Let us proceed. From Noble Street the wall would have headed west (to the north of the church of St Anne and St Agnes), cutting through later buildings and emerging onto the road called St Martins-Le-Grand adjacent to the Lord Raglan pub. Indeed, there is a blue plaque at this point marking the site of the Aldersgate. Like the other gates, there are no remains of Aldersgate (it was demolished in 1761). The route of the wall runs into the buildings on the other side of the road, but mercifully appears again in the lovely Postman’s Park, which lies just behind them.
From here the wall roughly follows the route of the access road/pedestrian walk-through of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which you will see on the other side of King Edward Street as you emerge from Postman’s Park. Just before this route meets Giltspur Street, the line of the wall turns south and cuts through the buildings to emerge on Newgate Street at, you’ve guessed it, the site of the Newgate. You will probably also guess by now that it has been long demolished and that there are no visible remains above ground. You would be correct. Newgate (along with Ludgate, which is coming up next) would have been a principal gate in the wall for access to and from the west. The west was of course King Alfred’s “heartland”, so I think it quite likely that he would have used these gates.
The wall then runs south through the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) to emerge on Ludgate Hill at the site of the Ludgate (which again is long demolished and with no visible remains above ground). It seems that the wall would have emerged through the excruciatingly named Ye Olde London pub and ran into the currency exchange shop on the other side of Ludgate Hill.
From here it isn’t possible to follow a particular line, but I do recommend wending down through Blackfriars via Carter Lane and Church Entry. The wall ended somewhere down here (it did not run along the riverside), so I recommend a drink in the wonderful Black Friar pub! From here you can follow Upper Thames Street and Lower Thames Street all the way back to the Tower of London, although you will not see any Roman wall, and I find this route very traffic-heavy and polluted.
Winchester, in Hampshire, is very aware of its associations with King Alfred. But what exactly are these, and what will we uncover if we dig into the detail?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Winchester had been destroyed by a ship-army in 860, although the attacking forces still lost. Asser (King Alfred’s companion and biographer) tells us that these attackers were Vikings, which perhaps comes as no surprise. However,we do not know where Alfred, who would have been about eleven years old, was at this time.
Although I have seen it implied that Winchester was Alfred’s “capital,” there is little evidence to indicate that Alfred’s court had been centered on a particular location in Wessex. However, we know that Alfred was at Winchester in 896 because he ordered the hanging of captured Vikings after they had run ashore on the Sussex coast. It has also been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, although I have seen no evidence to support this.
It seems that there must have been a royal estate at Winchester in Alfred’s time. Alfred does not give any land away at Winchester in his will, although this still allows the possibility that there was a royal estate that was just not owned by him personally, or was somehow under the control of the church instead. Winchester is also listed in the Burghal Hidage, being the account of Alfred’s defended settlements drawn up in the reign of his son, King Edward the Elder. Indeed it shared first place (with Wallingford in Oxfordshire) as the largest settlement in that document. It is indeed possible that the Old Minster (long destroyed – see below) and the royal residence were part of the same complex. It has been claimed that the royal palace was located directly to the west of the Old Minster (and therefore also directly west of the cathedral). I myself once sat on the lawn here (many do) to enjoy my lunch, without having the faintest idea about what might have once been there. As the tourists make a bee-line for the cathedral they may be unwittingly traversing something of competing significance.
Winchester had Roman walls and, although there is some evidence that the area within the walls became depopulated in the early Anglo-Saxon period, it seems that this area may have become repopulated by the time of King Alfred. I have seen it stated that the King’s Gate (or Kingsgate), to the south of the cathedral, had been the entrance through the walls to the royal palace. I have not seen anything to corroborate this, although this is possible as this would have been the closest gate to both the Old Minster and the site claimed to be that of the royal palace. The present gate is a later construction but might be nonetheless on the site or the original gate. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Alfred himself may have walked through here. I strongly recommend the nearby Wykeham Arms as a location in which to consolidate your thoughts. If that is not to your taste then perhaps visit the small church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate that is built into the walls above the gate.
It is generally accepted that what is now called High Street would have been the main street through Winchester in Alfred’s time. Following High Street to the west one comes to the Westgate, which is an impressive structure that includes some Anglo-Saxon fabric. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to walk a circuit of walls like it is in some other places. However, this did not stop me trying. The most pleasant stretch is to the south-west of the city, where there are actually walls to be seen. These are post-Roman, but generally lie on the route of the Roman walls. Indeed, at one point the wall has been excavated out to show the Roman wall inside. Much of the rest of the route of the wall is covered by buildings, some pleasant and some, in my opinion, quite ugly. There is even a huge multi-story car park on the route.
At the time of writing the location of the remains of King Alfred is not known. The different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out the relocations of Alfred’s remains. I therefore hope that what follows will help (alongside the above map). Important to our story are three buildings built close to each other in the centre of Winchester. These buildings, in their order of construction, were the Old Minster, the New Minster, and Winchester Cathedral. Today, the only building that remains is Winchester Cathedral. The Old Minster was just north of the current cathedral, and it is the outline of this building that you can see marked out today on the cathedral lawn. The New Minster was built in the reign of Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, to the north of the Old Minster, and he had his father’s remains interred there. However, the New Minster was not consecrated until 901, and Alfred, who had died in 899, was therefore initially interred in the Old Minster while the New Minster was being built. It had been King Alfred’s intention to have the New Minster built in his reign but by the time he died he had only managed to obtain the land. This is why the job of building the New Minster fell to his son. Alfred’s remains were joined in the New Minster by those of his wife Ealhswith when she died in 902. The Old Minster continued to exist alongside the New Minster until the cathedral was consecrated in 1093. The Old Minster was then demolished.
In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was just outside Winchester at this time. It is possible that the New Minster had suffered from a fire prior to 1109, which might have made the move opportune. Or perhaps Henry I did not want the Saxon New Minster crampimg the style of the gleaming new Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey.
The continuing story of Hyde Abbey, including the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains, will be the subject of a later blog post. Please also visit the website of the forthcoming book. I am also pleased to announce that the book will be a Black Slash publication.