The Battle of Meretun took place two months after the battle at Basing. Alfred and his brother were fighting against the Vikings, but lost, which is what also happened at Basing. There appear to be two main candidates for the location of this battle, one being Martin in Hampshire and the other being Marden in Wiltshire. However, we have very little to go on and other places with similar names are possible. Merdon Castle, in Hampshire, is another possibility, although I have been unable to discover whether this name was acquired after the Norman Conquest. The place that seems to make the most sense to me is Martin in Hampshire, which is a village just south of the A354 main road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum.
King Æthelred (Alfred’s elder brother) died after the Battle of Meretun and he was buried at Wimborne in Dorset. It is therefore possible that he died from wounds sustained in battle but it is also possible that he lived a little longer and died of something else. If he had died of his wounds then it may be relevant to point out that Wimborne is not very far from Martin (about 14 miles). Indeed, the Roman road known as Ackling Dyke runs past Martin on its way to Badbury Rings, which is only four miles from Wimborne.
The geographic feature called Martin Down lies a short distance to the west of Martin and there one can explore the famous Bokerley Ditch, which pre-dates the time of Alfred, but perhaps could have been used strategically in battle. Bokerley Ditch also cuts across a Roman road so it could have been used for either side to attack the other coming up that route. To the north this Roman road is still a bridleway and to the south it is now under the A354, so it seems likely that it would have been in use in Anglo-Saxon times. Interestingly, the county boundary between Dorset and Hampshire in this area still follows Bokerley Ditch. One can speculate as to why the Vikings might have been at Martin, and it occurs to me that a contingent from the base at Reading may have been trying to get west, perhaps to Exeter. The Vikings would indeed attack Exeter in 876 and 893, and it therefore seems plausible that they would have liked to have done so in 871.
It may be impossible to disprove that the battle took place at Marden (Wiltshire) instead, but the place-name of Marden seems to have derived from Mercdene, quite dissimilar to Meretun. A charter issued by King Edmund between 944 and 946 shows Martin in Hampshire being referred to as Mertone, which is not much different from the Meretun of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. I therefore think Marden is a less likely location than Martin for the battle of Meretun.
I was also tempted by Marten in Wiltshire (yes, this does get confusing), largely because of its proximity to the Inkpen Ridgeway, connecting it to Basing, the location of the previous battle. I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image.
In 896 there was an engagement between King Alfred’s navy and a Viking fleet of six ships that had arrived at the Isle of Wight and had caused harm all along the coast as far as Devon. It seems that Alfred could not have been present at this engagement because some of the fleeing Vikings were captured and taken to him at Winchester where he had them hanged. The few geographic clues provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have led to speculation that the engagement took place in Poole Harbour or Christchurch Harbour in Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to an ufeweard muða (ð is pronounced “th”) and it has been suggested that this means an “upper harbour.” However, I found it striking that there is an area on the north side of the harbour in Christchurch called Mudeford, with a River Mude running through it and into the harbour. Could this be the muða referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles?
Although I have seen it claimed that muða could also mean river, we know from elsewhere in the Chronicles and other documents that rivers were sometimes referred to by their name and that muða appears to usually mean mouth (the similarity between muða and mouth is not a coincidence) with the term for river generally being ea. Furthermore, if muða had been a generic term for river, we might expect to find other survivors such as is the case with the Brittonic language-derived Avon. However, I was unable to find any other examples of a River Mude in England. Update: I have had access to a 1797 map that shows the location as “Midde Ford”, which seems to sever the relationship of the place-name with muða.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Alfred’s ships blocked the Viking ships in so they could not get to the uter mere. It seems unclear to me whether uter mere means “outer lake” or “outer sea”. However, the usual term for the sea in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is sæ, with mere usually meaning a lake. Nonetheless, the Vikings had been blocked into the river and when the tide went out three ships were beached at the upper river mouth and three came forward to attack (making six, matching the number recorded as coming to the Isle of Wight). It appears that at least two Viking ships managed to escape from the trap because we are told that two of the fleeing Vikings crews came ashore in Sussex because their ships were in a poor state. King Alfred had these men hanged at Winchester. It has been suggested that they came aground while trying to get past Selsey Bill. These Vikings would therefore have come aground in Sussex somewhere between East Wittering and Selsey. That they came ashore in Sussex perhaps also makes it less likely that the battle had taken place in distant Devon, after which they would have had to round Portland Bill (or drag their boats across the causeway), near Weymouth in Dorset, first.
Perhaps the clue to potential locations for this battle lies in the fact that there were only six Viking ships. We know that Wareham (with access to Poole harbour) and Christchurch are listed in the Burghal Hidage (a list of places defended by King Alfred after 878), and would therefore probably have been defended by 896. It does not seem to make sense to me that the Vikings would have ventured close to defended locations with just six ships.
Perhaps the Dorset coastal town of Weymouth (not in the Burghal Hidage, so perhaps a weak point) should be regarded as a possible site. Radipole Lake, fed by the River Wey, is connected to the sea via the town harbour, and one of Athelstan’s charters refers to all the water within the coast of Weymouth, indicating that there was an inland body of water here in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, it is thought that the Romans may have had some sort of port at the head of this body of water, and a Roman road ran north from near here to Dorchester. At least parts of this route appear to have remained in use today, which suggests that it might have been in use in 896, thus providing access to any Vikings that intended to raid Dorchester. This area is no stranger to Viking threat. In 840 the Vikings landed at nearby Portland, with fatal consequences for the locals, and in 2009, during construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, near Upwey, fifty-four skeletons of executed Vikings were found, although these dated to a later period than that of King Alfred. Because I live near here, I cannot resist drawing to your attention how rich the South Dorset Ridgeway is in ancient, although very much pre-Alfred, sites. For those who are interested in this, I find this blog particularly good.
The Isle of Wight
However, it seems to me that it is more likely that the events took place at one of the main rivers, including the River Medina, that flow into the Solent on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not state that the engagement took place during a Viking raid on the coast of the mainland, although it is easy to assume this because the Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had been undertaking such raiding. It is an interesting coincidence that the Old English term for the River Medina was Meðume, not terribly different from muða. An old map of the Isle of Wight suggests that the main waterways may have had constricted entrances to the sea, thus meeting the description of the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It seems to me that King Alfred’s Navy, improved after 878 AD, had managed to root out a small Viking base that had set itself up on the Isle of Wight.
My book mentions a few other locations on the south coast that could have been the site of the engagement between King Alfred’s navy and the Vikings. It also contains much more about Alfred’s travels, and contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
At least two Kings of Wessex were buried at Sherborne. It was the most important ecclesiastical location in an area covering Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. One of Anglo-Saxon history’s most important characters, Asser, King Alfred’s companion and “biographer” became bishop here. I believe there is a plausible case to be made for this to have been the most important place in Wessex until shortly after King Alfred died (when Winchester appears to have become more important). This of course challenges what you might read elsewhere, in that Winchester was King Alfred’s “Capital”. There is no evidence that this was the case.
Sherborne’s most important feature is its abbey, and it is here that two elder brothers of King Alfred, Æthelbald (died 860) and Æthelberht (died 865) were buried, and I consider it likely that Alfred would have been present at their funerals, or would have at least visited their resting places. He would have been about eleven years old at the time of the first death, and about sixteen at the time of the second. It is also possible that a third brother of Alfred was buried at Sherborne as well. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, with the exception of the B version, have this brother, Æthelred, buried at Wimborne (Dorset), but the B version tells us that he was buried at Sherborne. I consider that this contradiction can be resolved by considering that Æthelred may initially have been interred at Wimborne and then later moved to Sherborne, probably because of the relative importance of the latter location. That the other two brothers had been interred at Sherborne supports the idea that this place was more important than Wimborne. However, it should be noted that there is a 10th century charter (S813) issued by King Edgar that tells us that he had ancestors resting at Sherborne, with these being Æthelbald and Æthelberht, with Æthelred unmentioned, and therefore probably not transferred there after all.
There is a plaque in the abbey indicating the approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath. However, I was told that it is not really known whose remains these are. Asser tells us that when Æthelberht died he was buried next to his brother Æthelbald. Leland, writing in the sixteenth century tells us that he saw no tombs for these kings nor any written indication of where they might be. He also says that they were buried behind the high altar, but he does not disclose how he knew that.
It is significant that Asser, King Alfred’s companion and biographer, and from whose writings we derive so much information, became bishop of Sherborne at some time in the 890s, while King Alfred was still alive, and it appears that he continued in this role until his death in 909, ten years after Alfred had died. In order to understand the importance of Sherborne in Alfred’s time it is important to appreciate that it had a huge diocese, created by King Ine of Wessex in 705, that extended all the way down to Land’s End in Cornwall.
I have see it claimed (in an unpublished work; it perhaps appears elsewhere) that the young Alfred was educated at Sherborne under Bishop Ealhstan. Because Sherborne was a place of importance this cannot be ruled out. However, this would have to mean (Asser chapter 22) that Sherborne was the location of the royal court, and I don’t think that there is enough evidence that it was. The royal court may have been at Winchester or it may not have even had a fixed location.
The Abbey still has Saxon elements despite much of the earlier church being demolished by Roger of Caen to be replaced by a larger Norman one. As you walk around Sherborne it is easy to be unaware of just how important this place would have been. In my opinion it must have been one of the most important places in Wessex, perhaps even the most important, in a period before Winchester would be able to claim that title.
Some background. Sherborne became a bishopric in 705 when the see of Winchester was divided. Aldhelm became its first bishop. However, there is evidence, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there was an ecclesiastic foundation at Sherborne before that date, called Lanprobus. However, I will stop here for fear of drifting too far from the subject of King Alfred. Perhaps I shall post separately with more details in future.
I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
The following article on King Alfred and Wimborne is adapted from, and provides additional materials for, my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Death of Æthelred
Wimborne (or Wimborne Minster) is a significant historic town in Dorset and is the location of the important Wimborne Minster, which has a history going back to the 8th century. Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after the 871 AD battle at Meretun (unknown location, but possibly Martin in Hampshire) King Æthelred, Alfred’s older brother, was buried at Wimborne. However, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tells us that he was buried at Sherborne, which seems plausible as the two previous kings and brothers of Alfred, Æthelbald and Æthelbehrt, had been buried there. I consider it possible that Æthelred was initially interred at Wimborne, and then later moved to Sherborne, probably because of the relative importance of the latter location. It is further recorded that Alfred had been present at his brother’s funeral rites, which is what we would expect.
Alfred becomes King
We know that Alfred himself became king after the death of King Æthelred, although the location where this formally took place has not been recorded. I suggest, however, that there is a good chance that Alfred became king at Wimborne, particularly if he had already been designated as next in line, which Asser tells us was the case. Alfred’s immediate elevation on the death of his brother also makes sense in the context of the kingship having run sequentially through Æthelwulf’s sons up to that point. Asser points out a couple of times that Alfred had been what he calls secundarius and that he took over immediately (confestim) on the death of his brother. It should be borne in mind, however, that just because we are told that Æthelred had been buried at Wimborne does not mean that he died there, with this meaning that Alfred could have become king somewhere else. Nonetheless, Wimborne seems plausible because we know that it had significance because the royal estate there was seized in 899 by Æthelwold after Alfred’s death (if it was significant in 899 it seems likely that had been so in 871).
The battles that took place in 871 indicate that Wessex was clearly in a state of emergency at the time King Æthelred died, and perhaps the formal ceremonial arrangements of Alfred’s accession were delayed until the relatively peaceful period between 872 and 874 when the Vikings that had been at Reading were causing trouble in Mercia and Northumbria instead. If there was ever a formal ceremony, we have no evidence of it. It has been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, but I have seen no evidence of this. Furthermore, it appears that Kingston-upon-Thames had not yet become (as it would) the favoured site for the consecration of the Anglo-Saxon kings.
The relationship between King Alfred and Wimborne is an interesting one.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
Update on the plaque in Wimborne Minster.
I came across some articles of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, which shed further light on the plaque (or, more correctly, plaques. The 1918 contribution by Reverend Almack reminds us that restoration took place 1855-7. he goes on to tell us that the slab that had been over the remains of King Æthelred “was cut away, in spite of protest, and only the portion sufficient to cover the brass was allowed to remain.” We are also told that during restoration the remains of a tesselated pavement and the bases of columns were observed, which has led to speculation that the first church here was built over a Roman temple. However, the authors of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments suggests that this may have been from the original church of St Cuthburh.
This monument was clearly a hot topic as in the 1919 issue there is a long article by Reverend Fletcher, which he had read out in 1918. In this he states that the plaque(s) were “placed in the floor on the north side of the sanctuary at Wimborne Minster, about 15 ft from the east wall, and consists of three metal plates.” Of course, today, the plaques are on the wall and not on the floor. The author reminds us that brasses were not used in England until about the 13th century, although this one may be more recent, possibly 15th century. Therefore, the brass cannot be contemporaneous with the death of Æthelred. Furthermore, the author points out that the section with script is even more recent and is copper not brass. This second inscription plate was found to be a palimpsest and may be 18th century (Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club Proceedings 1919, p32)
So, where are King Æthelred’s remains? Unless there is a huge coincidence, we can be sure that they are not where the plaque is, because it has been moved at least once, and is not contemporaneous with his death in any case. It is possible, however, that when the brass sections were made they were placed at the (at least claimed) location of his remains, which would have been within the footprint of the Saxon church and probably near the altar. This would have been just to the east of the crossing, which seems to have stayed in the same place over time (RCHM. Dorset. Vol V; East). It needs to be recalled, however, that he may have been moved to Sherborne. If he had been moved to Sherborne, there was still a record of him by Leland in 1536 at Wimborne.
Leland describes the text on the plaque, which is the same as we have now except for a different (and obviously wrong) date. Camden, writing in 1586, tells us that the tomb had been recently repaired, so it is possible that the date was corrected then and that the text part of the plaque that we have now dates to that time. Or perhaps Camden just wrote the wrong date down and the plaque did not need correction at the time of the repair. Leland also tells us that by 1828 Æthelred’s tomb had been by that of St Cuthberga, which was at the north side of the Presbytery (chancel). He goes on to tell us that St Cuthberga was then moved to the east end of the altar. St Cuthberga is hugely important to this church, but I will have to go into that further elsewhere, time permitting.
Things are further complicated by the finding (as reported by a Dr Smart in The Genetleman’s Magazine, 1865) that when enlarging a vault under the presbytery in 1837, a skeleton of a man was exhumed at the north east corner, near the site of the original altar. This man was 6ft 4 ins tall. Could this have been Æthelred? It certainly seems a suitable location. This same source includes a suggestion that Æthelred died of his wounds at Witchampton (north of Wimborne), based on this being a similar name to “Whittingham”, a place mentioned by earlier writers, such as Camden. However, we don’t know where Camden got this from and, in any case, Witchampton does not seem to connect with the name Whittingham (Mills, Place Names of Dorset. Part 2). Witchampton as a legendary place of death of Æthelred is again mentioned in A Topography of Alfred’s Wars in Wessex, by Williams-Freeman. However, I haven’t come across anything to support this other than that Witchampton is on a plausible route between Martin and Wimborne. Nonetheless, a portable information board in the church at Witchampton states: “The old records say his funeral procession came through Witchampton, where the bier rested on its way to Wimborne. Among the mourners was his brother who later became King Alfred the Great.” Unfortunately, we are again not told what these “old records” are. Witchampton was also the location of the discovery of late Saxon chess pieces.
A King Sigferth was also buried at Wimborne, in AD 962. This is a mysterious character who we know very little about, including what he was king of. The entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles is generally translated that he committed suicide. I am uncertain whether he would have been allowed to have been buried in the church if that was the case. Much rests on the meaning of offeoll in “Sigferð cyning hine offeoll“.
It is fascinating to think that Wimborne Minster once had a spire, which fell in 1600.