Wessex – where was it?

This post is aimed at answering one of the most common questions that I am asked. I live in a county (Dorset) for which the regional National Health Service is designated “Wessex”, and a local radio station is called Wessex FM. People tend to know that they are in Wessex (probably) but are uncertain of the area it should be thought to cover. I wish that the answer that I am called upon to provide was more straight-forward.

As this blog is based on King Alfred, I shall describe what Wessex was in that time period. As King Alfred is often associated with Wessex, this will hopefully answer the question for most people. Alfred was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. The following is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, which is available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.

In King Alfred’s time, Wessex included the counties that we now call Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire (and some of adjacent Oxfordshire), Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, East and West Sussex, Kent and Surrey. Also included was Essex until it was ceded to Guthrum the Viking in a treaty drawn up around the year 886. It is worth pointing out that there were additional areas where King Alfred seems to have had the upper hand in power-sharing arrangements. By the end of his reign, this included London, which had earlier been under Mercian control. It also seems from Asser’s writings that at some time before 893 South Wales came under King Alfred’s control. Nor must we forget Mercia itself. After about 879, western and southern Mercia (eastern Mercia remained under Viking control) was ruled by Æthelred, who was the son-in-law of King Alfred, and it seems that it was Alfred who had the upper hand.

A map from my book. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred’s reign. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

The extent of Wessex control in Cornwall is still unclear. The Annales Cambriæ tell us that King Dungarth of Cornwall drowned in 875, but after that there is no mention of who was ruling in Cornwall until 926 where a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions a King Huwal of West Wales, which would have then meant Cornwall. It therefore seems to me that from a monarchical point of view Cornwall remained independent during Alfred’s time. However, we know that the diocese of Sherborne (in Dorset and therefore in Wessex) extended across the whole of Cornwall.

I did say earlier that it was not straight forward. But perhaps this post will lead to a better understanding.

Dorchester in Dorset

This post is adapted from my book , King Alfred: A Man on the Move,(available on Amazon). It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

I have lived near Dorchester for many years. Evidence from charters (legal documents showing transfers of land or rights) indicates that King Alfred came to Dorchester and presumably he would have had some sort of base there. But where exactly was this?

Clues about Dorchester’s Saxon past are scant, and this includes any evidence that might help us establish the location of a Saxon royal residence at the time of King Alfred. My personal speculation, which I have heard others suggest as well, is that the royal site would have included the location on the northern edge of the town where the current prison buildings are sited, where we know that the Norman castle was also located. It seems to make sense that if a site was deemed defendable by the Saxons (which a royal site would need to be) then it would hold a similar appeal for the Normans. It therefore seems plausible that the Normans would have built their castle on the site of the previous Saxon fortification/royal residence. There is a very pleasant footpath that follows the River Frome and which passes below the site of the former castle. From there one can understand how elevated (and therefore defendable) the site would have been.

Dorchester prison, now being converted to residences, is on the site of the Norman castle, and possibly also the Saxon stronghold/royal location.

It has been suggested that King Alfred spent every Christmas at a royal manor at Fordington, which is now part of Dorchester but was once a separate settlement to the east. I have also read that Fordington became a royal manor after the Romans left and that the first church there had been built about 857, and that this was a royal church dedicated to St George. Although the earliest parts of the current St George’s church date to the 11th century, it is located at the site of a Roman cemetery so the location was clearly a significant one stretching back to ancient times, which makes the presence of a church being there in 857 seem more plausible.

St George’s church, Fordington

So, we have two potential royal locations that are close to each other, one in the centre of Dorchester at the site of the former prison, and the other at Fordington. Although the evidence from charters suggests that Dorchester really was a royal location, I am not aware of any charters having been issued from Fordington. It is perhaps possible that a royal residence at Fordington would have been close enough to Dorchester to go under that name, or that the residence was at Fordington while the charters were signed at nearby Dorchester. Fordington is so close to Dorchester that I found that I could walk, at a brisk pace, from St George’s church in Fordington to the closest point of Dorchester’s former Roman walls in a matter of three minutes. It seems to me that the Roman walls (perhaps replaced or repaired in places) would have been present in Alfred’s time and would have probably continued to define and defend the town. This is supported by the fact that even today much of the line of the walls can still be followed. The exception to this is the northern section stretching between Northernhay and Salisbury Street where it is possible that there was no wall at all, with the River Frome providing defence instead. My personal opinion is that there would have been a wall here as well, which has long since been destroyed and built over. A recognition that the town was walled leads to a discussion about the location of gates through which King Alfred might have passed, including when Alfred was pursuing the Vikings from Wareham to Exeter, and perhaps passing through Dorchester, in 876.

I go into more detail on the gates and the charters in my book.

Dorchester’s only remaining stretch of original Roman wall (on Albert Road, near Top O’ Town roundabout)
South Walks Road. An example of how the line of the Roman walls has become embedded in Dorchester’s layout.

Shaftesbury, Dorset

The below is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available on Amazon

It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Dorset was an important in the time of King Alfred. Important roles were played by Sherborne, Wimborne, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. An important engagement with the Vikings took place at Wareham. Undoubtedly, much went on that never made it into the historical sources that are available to us today. In this post I shall take a look at Shaftesbury. 

King Alfred founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury and it is thought that this was at the same site as where the Normans later constructed their abbey. Although the Norman abbey is now a ruin, it is a delightful and evocative place to visit, as is the rest of the town.

King Alfred in the grounds of Shaftesbury Abbey.

Asser tells us that Alfred ordered the building of a monastery near Shaftesbury’s  east gate and that his daughter Æthelgifu was appointed abbess. However, this is initially confusing because the Abbey is south-west of the centre, so it seems that it should have been by a west gate. But the modern centre appears not to align well with what was there in Alfred’s time and, when this is taken into account, the abbey was indeed at the eastern aspect of the town.

Unfortunately, no early source tells us when the nunnery was built. However, Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon indicates that it was after Alfred had restored London, and we know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Alfred took control of London in 886. This suggests that the nunnery may have been built in 886 at the earliest and 893 at the latest (because it had to be present at the time Asser was writing, believed to be 893).

Looking down Gold Hill (perhaps the most famous place in Shaftesbury). The wall to the right, known as Park Wall, once formed the western boundary to the Abbey’s grounds. The outline of the abbey’s grounds in Alfred’s time is not known.

However, Higden also tells us that around the time that Alfred restored the settlement of Shaftesbury in 880, Pope Marinus sent Alfred a piece of the “true cross.” Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicates that this was sent in 882. I found out that Marinus was pope between December 882 and May 884, indicating that the item could only have been sent in December 882. This led me to change my mind from believing that the abbey was built between 886 and 893 to a belief that it was in use by 882 or 883 because it seems plausible that the fragment of the true cross had been destined for either the new and important nunnery at Shaftesbury or the new abbey at Athelney, which was built at about the same time. In a generous attempt to make everything fit, one could argue that the nunnery might have come into use before its completion, with this being in the period 886-893, after King Alfred had restored London, although this itself must have taken some time to complete. The current location of this piece of the “true cross” is not known, although there is a reputed fragment of the true cross, which could be different to the one sent to Alfred, in St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Belgium.

Shaftesbury was clearly a very important place. In 980 the nunnery became the resting place of King Edward the Martyr after he had been murdered at Corfe Castle in 978 (he was initially interred at Wareham). His shrine became a focus for pilgrimage, and perhaps this was what King Canute was undertaking when he died at Shaftesbury in 1035. In 944 the site also became the burial place of Ælfgifu, who was the first wife of King Edmund who also became venerated as a saint. Elisabeth, the wife of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was also briefly held here.

In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 3. The Upper Deverills

This is the third post on Egbert’s Stone. The others are here and here. There is a link to a video at the end of this post. This post is adapted from my book, available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

In my book I argue that the place most likely to have been Egbert’s Stone is the collection of villages known today as the Upper Deverills. The Upper Deverills are a short distance south of Warminster (Wiltshire) and consist of three small villages on the River Deverill, now named on maps as part of the River Wylye. These villages are Kingston Deverill, Monkton Deverill and Brixton Deverill.

Looking back to Kingston Deverill from the climb up to Cold Kitchen Hill

The ford that lies on the border between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill is thought to be at the junction of two important Roman roads and the area is just a short distance north of the ancient track known as the Harrow Way (also known as the Hard Way). In fact, some of the nearby A303 main road lies on the course of this ancient trackway. Indeed, near Willoughby Hedge service station, the A303 (on the line of the Harrow Way) crosses one of the Roman roads that leads to the aforementioned ford, so this could be a significant location as well, and I expand on this in the book.

A Roman road runs through this hedge! Near Willoughby Hedge service station on the A303.

Kingston Deverill is also associated with a legend that three large stones were once brought down from Court Hill, adjacent to the village. These once served as stepping stones but were also considered to have been “Egbert’s Stones” (the early sources do not indicate that there was more than one). The name of Court Hill has also been brought into the story in that King Egbert (Alfred’s grand-father) “held court” on the hill. None of this can be proved, but it seems to me that this is the more likely location even without this legend. This is not only because of the proximity of important ancient routes, but also because following the river away from here is a plausible route to options for the location that Alfred went next, which was called Iglea (and the last stop before the Battle of Ethandun. The site also fits with Asser‘s description of Egbert’s Stone being in the eastern part of Selwood.

The ford between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill. Two Roman roads crossed at or close to here.

I visited the ford and found it to be a lovely spot that also seemed well cared for. Please note that there are signs saying that the ford is not suitable for vehicles to cross. If you visit Kingston Deverill, remember to visit the 15th century St Mary’s church (although there may have been an earlier structure) where I was delighted to find a banner depicting King Alfred, indicating that his connections with this area have not been forgotten.

King Alfred in St Mary’s church, Kingston Deverill

There is a legend that Alfred prayed at a church at Monkton Deverill before the Battle of Ethandun, and this church later became dedicated to St Alfred the Great. The church is now a private residence, and appears to have been constructed more recently than the time of King Alfred, although there may have been an earlier structure on the site (I am not aware of any evidence of this).

When walking in the hills here I rarely see anyone else and it seems to me that this beautiful rural area is relatively under-visited. I recommend the stiff climb up towards Cold Kitchen Hill (itself an important site in pre-historic and Roman times) for the elevated views over the Upper Deverills that this provides.