Sherborne, Dorset. Was this once the most important place in Wessex?

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

At least two Kings of Wessex were buried here. 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.

Plaque inside Sherborne Abbey informing us that Æthelberht and Æthelbald were interred nearby

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.

Sherborne Abbey

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approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath.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.

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. 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.

Wimborne, Dorset. Did Alfred the Great become King of Wessex here?

The following is adapted from 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.

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.

The plaque dedicated to King Æthelred. Incidentally, there is no evidence that he was killed in battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicate that it was some time afterwards.

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 very 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. 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 tower of Wimborne Minster

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.