King Alfred. The Basics.

This blog has become quite large, so I thought I would write a summary to enable those less familiar with King Alfred to quickly get an idea about his life. My approach, as in my book, is based around the locations in the UK that can be associated with King Alfred. There will be many links, and I invite you to explore these. You may wish to bookmark this page as it can also serve as a launchpad to the other pages in this blog, which might otherwise be tedious to find.

Alfred was King of Wessex between 871 and 899. We are told by Asser, a companion and “biographer” of King Alfred, that he was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire. His parents were King Æthelwulf of Wessex, who was initially interred at Steyning, West Sussex, and Osburh. He was born in 849 and died in 899. However, we do not know how or where he died. He was buried at Winchester, firstly at the Old Minster (demolished), then at the New Minster (demolished), then at Hyde Abbey (largely demolished at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII). The whereabouts of his remains is currently unknown.

King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.
King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.

He was present at several battles/engagements with the Vikings. Those up to, and including, the Battle of Meretun were while his brother Æthelred was king. The locations of the recorded battles/engagements are: Nottingham (868), Reading (871), Ashdown (871), Basing (871), Meretun (871), Wilton (871), Wareham (876), Exeter (876), Ethandun/Edington (878), Rochester (884), Kent (892, where Alfred camped between two Viking armies), the River Lea (895, when he obstructed the river, trapping the Vikings).

Perhaps the most famous part of his life starts when he was hiding out on the Somerset Levels at Athelney after the Vikings had seized Chippenham and large parts (at least) of Wessex in 878. You may read elsewhere that King Alfred fled from Chippenham with his family when the Vikings attacked. However, I could find no evidence that King Alfred was there when the Vikings attacked. It was from Athelney that King Alfred started his reconquest of the Wessex that he had lost to the Vikings. It is at Athelney that King Alfred is supposed to have burned the cakes, but there is no evidence that this is anything other than a legend. After preparing for battle, King Alfred left Athelney, went to a place called Egbert’s Stone, where his supporting troops from different counties converged. They then moved on for on final stop at a place called Iglea (Iley), and the following day they marched to the site of the Battle of Ethandun, believed to be at Edington, in Wiltshire (although some favour Bratton Down). It was here that King Alfred gained a crucial victory over the Vikings. After their defeat, the Viking leader, Guthrum, was baptised by King Alfred at Aller, Somerset, and he was then hosted by Alfred at the royal estate at Wedmore, in Somerset. Guthrum’s men eventually settled in East Anglia.

King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

King Alfred was clearly highly religious, and had been taken to Rome twice by his father while he was a young child. Asser tells of when, before he got married, he went to visit the resting place of a St Gueriir (at St Neot in Cornwall), and while he was there he asked for his current affliction to be replaced by something less debilitating. He then went on to be married, but he was struck down on his wedding night by the presumed new ailment. Sutton Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, has been put forward as the location of his wedding, but this is not certain. King Alfred was involved in translating (and did some translating himself) of some religious texts.

King Alfred founded Shaftesbury Abbey (Dorset) and had his daughter installed there as abbess. He would also have had connections to Sherborne Abbey (Dorset), because two of his elder brothers (and possibly a third) who had also been kings were buried there, and after Alfred’s death, Asser would become a bishop there. Another of his brothers was buried at Wimborne, some time after the Battle of Meretun. Alfred was next in line and it is interesting to speculate whether Alfred therefore became king at Wimborne (Dorset).

King Alfred took control of London in 886, but entrusted the city to Æthelred, who ruled Mercia (at least the western part, as eastern Mercia was soon to be conceded to the Vikings) and who was also his son-in-law as he had married his daughter Æthelflæd. It seems that King Alfred retained the upper hand in both London and western Mercia

King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset
King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset

The main sources for investigating King Alfred are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Life of King Alfred, written by (probably) Asser. We are also very fortunate in having some surviving charters (documents transferring or confirming rights or land etc.). Although the authenticity of many of these have been challenged, we can work out from these that Alfred was at particular places, including Dorchester (Dorset). Please see here for more about sources.

There really is much, much more to write, but hopefully you will follow the links, or for the full picture, my book is available through Amazon and book shops. Click on the image of the cover to find out more.

Iglea

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

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that one day after Alfred’s troops came together at Egbert’s Stone, they went to a place called Iglea, a place that is referred to in the Latin of Asser (companion and “biographer” of King Alfred) as Aecglea. Unfortunately, we do not know with certainty the location of this place.

Aecglea was Alfred’s final stop before the Battle of Ethandun, which took place in Wiltshire at Edington or, less likely in my opinion, at the location of the Iron Age hillfort called Bratton Camp. In another post I explained that the most probable location for Egbert’s Stone (King Alfred’s previous stop) was the Upper Deverills, and it seems to me that after leaving there he would have had two main routes to get to the battle site. One would be to follow the Ridgeway to skirt around the north-west of Salisbury Plain in order to reach Bratton Down or to continue on to Edington. The other option being to go straight across Salisbury Plain instead of around it. It seems likely that the location of the encampment at Iglea would depend on which route was taken. Alfred had lost Wessex and was operating in enemy territory and it therefore seems likely that he would have gone across Salisbury Plain rather than around it in order to avoid as many significant settlements as possible, and this is what I focus on in this post. In the video below I refer to Edington being close to Sutton Veny. It is indeed not far, but it is on the other side of Salisbury Plain.

Iglea is similar phonetically to “Iley” and there was an ancient meeting place called Iley Oak in what is today known as Southleigh Wood, previously called Sowley Wood, to the south-west of Sutton Veny. The precise location of Iley Oak in this area may have been where five roads and paths used to meet at a point where today the access to a farm comes off the road connecting Longbridge Deverill to Sutton Veny at the southern edge of Southleigh Wood. I find it striking, and perhaps relevant, that there are the remains of a henge very close to this location. The henge is on private land and is not easy to see. Please be careful if you try to view it from the very fast (nearly) adjacent road.

Although they date to the Late Neolithic, it is possible that some henges, or the places at which they were located, might have retained a societal significance beyond that period, perhaps even through Anglo-Saxon times. In the absence of other evidence, I favour the site of this henge as the site of Iglea/Aecglea.

Southleigh Wood provides one more tempting possibility, which is to be found immediately north of the location described above. I refer to Robin Hood’s Bower. I am aware that this has been put forward by others as the site of Iglea/Aecglea but, for me, it does not outweigh the location of the henge. This is a small ancient enclosure that, like the henge referred to above, would have been present long before the time of King Alfred. The outline of the enclosure is clearly discernible and it has been enigmatically planted with many monkey-puzzle trees.

The track running across the centre of Robin Hood's Bower, near Sutton Veny, Wiltshire
The track running across the centre of Robin Hood’s Bower, near Sutton Veny, Wiltshire

It has also been suggested that Iglea was at nearby Bishopstrow. The argument that Iley Oak was located here seems to be tied up with an idea that Iglea would probably have been an island (with the Ig part of the word Iglea meaning island) in the River Wylye. There is an island in the Wylye as it flows past Bishopstrow at Boreham Mill and the road that leads north out of Bishopstrow goes right across the middle of it (look out for the two bridges). However, it seems that we cannot prove that there was an island there in Alfred’s time (it could be the result of later human alteration to the watercourse). All in all, I did not find the arguments for this location to be strong enough to outweigh those that can be applied to the location near the henge at the south edge of Southleigh Wood. I did, however, find the argument that Ig indicates an island sufficiently plausible to make this my second favourite. Bishopstrow could also be relevant as a place where legend has it that the staff of St Aldhelm had grown into an ash tree. St Aldhelm’s church at Bishopstrow is 14th century, but it could have been built over an earlier Saxon church. It is therefore possible, had he been close by, that the pious Alfred could have prayed here before the final march to the battle at Ethandun.

St Aldhelm’s church, Bishopstrow, Wiltshire

There is another (in my opinion, less likely) candidate for Iglea where an unusual number of paths met to the south of Sutton Veny. This, along with possibilities relating to King Alfred going across Salisbury Plain instead of across it, will have to wait for a later post.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.

Wedmore, Somerset: King Alfred hosts Guthrum

St Mary's church, Wedmore, Somerset Levels

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

King Alfred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred then oversaw the Viking leader Guthrum‘s baptism at Aller, on the Somerset Levels, and not far from Athelney, which had been the location of Alfred’s base after the Vikings appear to have taken control of Wessex after their raid on Chippenham in January 878.

We are told by both Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that after his baptism Guthrum spent twelve days with Alfred, and at least part of this time was spent at Wedmore, which Asser describes as a villa regia (royal estate). We are told that after this period the Vikings left Chippenham, where they had a base, and went to Cirencester and then re-located again to settle in East Anglia.

A plaque inside St Mary's church, Wedmore, Somerset Levels recognising Alfred's making of peace with the Vikings
A plaque inside St Mary’s church, Wedmore, Somerset Levels recognising Alfred’s making of peace with the Vikings. NB. The year of King Alfred’s death has been revised to 899

It has been suggested that the royal site at Wedmore was north-west of St Mary’s church at or near the location of a manor house and it seems to me that the wall visible from the churchyard could have been the perimeter of the manor’s grounds. It occurred to me that the location could have been elsewhere in or around Wedmore, so I decided to explore further. I had been intrigued by marks in the ground visible in an aerial photograph in a field north of Manor Lane, although I could see nothing relevant when I arrived there at ground level. I also explored the hill to the north-west by taking the footpath heading west off Lascot Hill. I eventually decided that I could not improve on the suggestion that the royal estate was at the location of the former manor house.

St Mary's church, Wedmore, Somerset Levels
St Mary’s church, Wedmore, Somerset Levels

St Mary’s is a delightful place to visit (as is Wedmore itself).

It was once thought that the Saxon royal residence was at Mudgley, just a short distance south of Wedmore. However, I could find no evidence that this was the case.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.

King Alfred at Exeter

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.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 876 King Alfred pursued the land-based Vikings that had fled from Wareham (Dorset) to Exeter. However, their accompanying navy lost 120 ships in bad weather near Swanage (Dorset). Alfred was unable to catch up with the fleeing land-based Vikings before they got to Exeter. On reaching Exeter the Vikings secured themselves in a fortress, but their situation does not appear to have been particularly positive, perhaps because of the large loss of ships, and they settled for peace with Alfred. After over-wintering (permission to do this being presumably part of the peace settlement), the Vikings left Exeter and went to Mercia, and specifically to Gloucester according to a chronicle written by Æthelweard.

I asked myself whether it was possible to work out from the available information where exactly in Exeter the Vikings went. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles imply that the Vikings occupied a fortress that had already been there, as opposed to building one when they got there, as they would do in Rochester, in Kent, in 884. Exeter’s Rougemont Castle goes back to 1068, so we are looking for something else, but perhaps this would have been on the same site as Rougemont Castle. The case for this is strengthened by the discovery of Anglo-Saxon masonry at Rougemont Castle.

A section of the walls at Exeter where Saxon masonry has been found. This is the path leading up to Athelstan's Tower in Northernhay Gardens.
A section of the walls at Exeter where Saxon masonry has been found. This is the path leading up to Athelstan’s Tower in Northernhay Gardens.

We also know that Exeter had (and largely still has, although much repaired) Roman walls with four entrances and it appears that these were repaired and strengthened in Anglo-Saxon times. The Old English of the Chronicles says that the Vikings came into Exeter, which fits with the idea that the Vikings had managed to get into Exeter through one of the four entrances in the walls and then either occupied a fortification within the walls, or used the walls themselves as a fortification. The length of the circuit of the walls was would have stretched the Viking troops, but with only four entrances, it may have been possible for them to secure the site. I feel that it is more likely that the depleted Viking force took over a fortification within the walls rather than the walls themselves, and it seems to me that the site of (or part of the site of) Rougemont Castle would have been the most likely location for this fortification. From Northernhay Gardens elements of Anglo-Saxon construction in the remains of the wall can be seen. It is thought that King Athelstan (King Alfred’s grandson) restored the city walls in around 928. The site of Rougemont Castle is now called Exeter Castle, and is a commercial enterprise.

It is possible that the land-based Viking contingent, with Alfred in pursuit took the Roman road to Bridport via Dorchester and then the Roman road that now approximates to route of the A35 to Honiton, and then finally the Roman road that is more or less on the current route of the A30 to Exeter. Alternatively, they could have branched off this route onto another Roman road near Charmouth in order to reach Exeter via Colyford and Sidford, approximately following the route of the current A3052. It seems likely that these routes would have been in use in Alfred’s time, because much of these routes have persisted from Roman times right through to today. It also seems likely that the best available route would have been taken by both parties as, speed would have been important, and these would probably have been the remaining Roman routes.

A plaque marking the location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter
A plaque marking the location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon

It seems that either route would have brought them to a gate to the south-west of the walled city at a spot that is towards the southern end of South Street of today’s Exeter. There is still some wall there today (and a plaque) to help you find the precise spot. This South Gate must be, therefore, the most likely point of entry for the Vikings, and also for King Alfred in pursuit, in 876. Unfortunately, there is no gate present there now as, after serving as a prison, it was finally demolished in 1819. Nonetheless, it is possible to explore on foot how these routes come together just outside the former location of the South Gate. If you do make it down here, there are other places of interest such as the old Eye Hospital and the Dissenters’ Graveyard.

The South Gate of the walls of Exeter, Devon. The markings in the pavement referred to by the plaque in the previous image.
The South Gate of the walls of Exeter, Devon. The markings in the pavement referred to by the plaque in the previous image.
The former location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon.
The former location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon. Just follow the line of the wall across the road

Having come through the South Gate, and with Rougemont Castle (as it was later called) at the extreme north end of the walled city, Alfred would have needed to cross the centre of Exeter. Although these events took place prior to Alfred’s post-878 rebuilding programme, it seems likely that there would have been a road leading from the South Gate up to the main city intersection where today South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. It seems that High Street would have been present in Alfred’s time, and this leads in the general direction of Rougemont Castle. I therefore suggest that, if the Vikings were at the location of Rougemont, Alfred and his troops would have proceeded up what is now South Street and turned right on to what is now High Street, with the land-based Vikings having taken the same route just a short time before. Any surviving sea-borne Vikings would have made their way up from the harbour, via the West Gate or perhaps via a lost Roman gate in the wall nearer to the port (the Water Gate may have been a later development not present in Alfred’s time). They may have even disembarked at nearby Topsham and then made their way, like the others, to the South Gate.

Exeter, Devon. It is likely that roads crossed here in the time of King Alfred. This is where South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. The photo is taken from South Street, looking across to North Street, with High Street to the right and Fore Street to the left.
Exeter, Devon. It is likely that roads crossed here in the time of King Alfred. This is where South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. The photo is taken from South Street, looking across to North Street, with High Street to the right and Fore Street to the left.

There is a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to King Alfred heading again to Exeter in 893. While on his way to assist his troops that were besieging a Viking contingent near London, he received word that other Viking forces had landed in North Devon and that Exeter, in South Devon, had also been besieged. Alfred and his troops therefore diverted towards Exeter, although there is no confirmation that he arrived there and there are no records of any engagement with the Vikings either at Exeter or in North Devon at this time.

Many thanks to BBC Radio Devon and The Voice (Barnstaple) for having me on air to talk about my book.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.

King Alfred in Kent. Part 2

A wall of the Archbishop's Palace in Charing, Kent

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.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 893 Alfred camped with his army between the two raiding armies and therefore it would have been between Milton Regis on the north coast of Kent and Appledore towards the south coast of Kent. Anyone who travels around Kent will soon appreciate how difficult it would have been to monitor these distant locations from a single site. I therefore feel that any central camp must have had additional outposts in order to monitor what was going on over a wide area. This would fit with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles telling us that burga (fortresses), noting the plural, were being held by Alfred.

Maidstone, a location that has been put forward, is considered separately in this other post. I now continue with a few others, ending with the locations that I believe to be more plausible.

The village of Bredgar, just south of the M2 motorway has been suggested. The village has a lovely church yard, and is somewhat elevated. However, I could see no special reason to consider that this was Alfred’s main camp, although it could have been one of potentially many outposts. Bredgar lies close to a line drawn between Appledore and Milton, but it is very much closer to the latter, making it an awkward fit with the description of King Alfred being between the two raiding armies.

Church of St John the Baptist, Bredgar, Swale, Kent, with the earliest elements dating to the 12th century.
Church of St John the Baptist, Bredgar, Swale, Kent, with the earliest elements dating to the 12th century.

Stockbury, just a few miles west of Bredgar, has also been put forward, although the earthworks there are thought to be Norman, and therefore more recent than King Alfred’s time. However, it is possible that the Norman construction may have been built over earlier earthworks, and this may be supported by the possibility that part of the name may derive from the Old English burh (stronghold).

St Mary Magdalene Church, Stockbury, Kent and the Norman earthworks
St Mary Magdalene Church, Stockbury, Kent and the Norman earthworks (to the right). Photograph taken from the road.

To find these earthworks it is easiest to find the church first, which is located a little way east from the centre of the village, adjacent to Church Farm. Although the rings are on private land they are easily viewed from the road and the church yard. In fact, the outermost visible ring appears to clip the churchyard. Whilst I accept that the location commands views that could have made it a useful outpost, there did not seem to be any particular reason to believe that this would have been Alfred’s camp. Stockbury, like Bredgar, lies close to a line drawn between Appledore and Milton, but it is very much closer to the latter.

There is a feature to the north-east of the village of Newenden that is called Castle Toll, and you can get quite close to it on a public footpath. Whilst Castle Toll is perhaps 13th century, some of the earthworks marked on the Ordnance Survey map to the south are thought to be the remains of an Anglo-Saxon burgh. It has, however, been suggested that this was the site of Eorpeburnan, a previously lost burgh that is listed in the Burghal Hidage, a document compiled in the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. Newenden is not at all on a line connecting Milton Regis and Appledore, so, although I believe it may have played a role, it does not fit the description of Alfred’s camp.

The Saxon earthworks near Castle Toll, Newenden, Kent
The Saxon earthworks near Castle Toll, Newenden, Kent, are difficult to see. They are on private land but if you look south east from the path near Castle Toll (see OS map), you will be looking in the right direction.
The 13th Century Castle Toll, near Newenden, Kent
The 13th Century Castle Toll, near Newenden, Kent

When the Vikings landed on the north and south coasts of Kent, I feel that Alfred must have been concerned that Canterbury may have been a target. When I disregarded previous suggestions (for which there is no real evidence) and considered an approximate line between Appledore and Milton Regis, I found that there were a few places that could have better met the description of being between these locations and which may also have allowed easier access to Canterbury. I considered two locations in particular: The villages of Great Chart and Charing. However, the landscape feature known as the Greensand Ridge may also be relevant.

It is known that in King Alfred’s time there was a settlement at Great Chart under the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Interestingly, there has been a legend that Great Chart had been burned by the Vikings, and this led to the subsequent development of Ashford.

The Millennium Sign at Great Chart, near Ashford, Kent
The wonderful Millennium Sign at Great Chart, near Ashford, Kent

Charing is approximately half way between Milton and Appledore and has an Archbishop’s Palace associated with Canterbury that dates back to the 8th century. One could be misled into thinking that Alfred’s piety may have led him here because of a legend that the block on which John the Baptist had been beheaded had been located at the church. However, the tradition is that this was brought to England by King Richard I, well after the time of King Alfred. Nonetheless, I feel that this location is the strongest contender for the location of Alfred’s camp. It is located on an approximate line between Milton and Appledore, without being too close to either, and is located by the ancient track to Canterbury that later became known as the Pilgrims’ Way.

The 13th century church of St Peter and St Paul at Charing, Kent.
The 13th century church of St Peter and St Paul at Charing, Kent.

There is much more about the journeys of King Alfred in todays landscapes and cityscapes in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more about it.