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

This post is adapted from, and provides additional materials for, my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops. If you scroll down you will find a short video that I made on-location about Sherborne.

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.

Plaque inside Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, informing us that King Ethelberht and King Ethelbald were interred nearby
Plaque inside Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, informing us that King Æthelberht and King Æthelbald were interred nearby
Bones Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
The bones to be found near the plaque. Although they are located near the plaque there is no evidence that these are the bones of King Alfred’s brothers. They are viewed through a glass panel fitted into the floor.

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.

Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

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.

Approximate postulated outline of the Saxon abbey precinct (after Dorset Historic Towns Survey: Sherborne, 2011)

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.

Stained glass window in Sherborne Abbey showing King Alfred and Asser
Stained glass window in Sherborne Abbey showing King Alfred and Asser

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.

Statue of Aldhelm inside Sherborne Abbey. Aldhelm became the first bishop of Sherborne in 705 AD. By Marzia Colonna, and erected 2004.

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.

Map of Sherborne. 1802, based on 1735 map by Ladd.
Map of Sherborne (detail). 1802, adapted from a 1735 map by Ladd.

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.