This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available on Amazon.
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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.
I have provided a short video here:
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 blog post for Hyde Abbey and the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains (Winchester, Part 2) is here.
Winchester did not suddenly have greatness thrust upon it at the time of King Alfred. According to version F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a minster at Winchester was established in 648. In around 660 it became the episcopal seat of the diocese of Wessex, replacing Dorchester-on-Thames. Bede tells us that the remains of the missionary Birinus were transferred here as well while Hedde was bishop, giving us a date range of 649 (around when Birinus died) and 703 (when Hedde died). I argue elsewhere that Sherborne may for a period during King Alfred’s life have been as important, if not more so, than Winchester. However, before and afterwards this would have not been the case, and even during that period Winchester would have remained very important. That it was the seat of the important Swithun is an indication of this.
It can be reasonably asked – Why was it that Winchester became so important and not somewhere else? There are no doubt geographical reasons, but I also boldly suggest that it may have been the first settlement of any large (for those times) size made by the Saxons who came to this part of Britain.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click on the image below to learn more about the book.