895 AD.Twenty Miles North of London.

The River Lee

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.

This matter turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. It will therefore be broken down into a few posts. This one is more-or-less introductory, to be followed by posts on Hertford and Ware.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 895 some Vikings left Mersea Island in Essex and built a fortress by the River Lea at a point about 20 miles north of London. They were then attacked by garrisons loyal to Alfred, which were in turn beaten back by the Vikings, with some loss of life. We are then told that later that year, at harvest-time, King Alfred himself arrived and camped in the vicinity of the Viking fortification in order to prevent the Vikings from stopping the locals from reaping their corn. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also tell us that after this, but still in the same year, Alfred rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed in order to block the Viking ships in. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record that the river was indeed obstructed and that Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings abandoned their ships because they realised that they were being trapped, and fled overland all the way to Bridgnorth (or possibly nearby Quatford) on the River Severn in what is now Shropshire. We do not know whether the ships were being physically hemmed in or whether they were being immobilised because of some sort of drainage of the river.

a stretch of the original River Lea, just north of Waltham Abbey
The author walking a stretch of the original River Lea, just north of Waltham Abbey (although I think it must have been wider)

The River Lee Navigation (the river is variably called “Lea” or “Lee”, whereas the man-made navigation is always called “Lee”), which runs the whole stretch of our area of interest from Hertford, in Hertfordshire, to London, was cut in 1770. However, before 1770 there were at least four streams, and there may have been as many as seven, so it seems difficult to establish with certainty the course of the River Lea in Alfred’s time. Back then, if the total volume of water was anything like it is today, feeding through different streams and large lakes, the river must have been much wider than the remnants of what today are said to be original course of the Lea.

The Lakes near Fishers Green, north of Waltham Abbey
The Lakes near Fishers Green, north of Waltham Abbey

So, we have four things that it would be nice to locate. The Viking fortification, Alfred’s camp, the point where the river had been obstructed, and Alfred’s pair of incomplete fortifications on the River Lea. Because we cannot be certain about the distance represented by a mile (with Saxon, Roman and modern miles being slightly different) , or how accurate measurement was at the time, I feel that it would be sensible to consider the distance for the Viking fortress of twenty miles north of London as approximate. Twenty miles takes us to somewhere just south of Hertford, and perhaps the stretch of the river near Hoddesdon and Broxbourne. Only slightly further on are the towns of Hertford and Ware and I think these deserve serious consideration because they are approximately twenty miles from London. I shall look at these places more closely in later posts.

Winchester 2: Hyde Abbey

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.

King Alfred was buried at Winchester, in Hampshire, but the location of his remains are unknown. His remains were moved at least twice and the different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out where these remains went. I refer you to my first post on Winchester for the first two locations of Alfred’s remains, the Old Minster and the New Minster.

In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was then just outside Winchester. It is possible that the New Minster had suffered from a fire prior to 1109, which might have made the move opportune, or perhaps Henry I did not want the Saxon New Minster cramping the style of the gleaming Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey.

The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.
The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.

Documents indicate that Alfred was transferred to Hyde Abbey in 1110 and that he was interred in front of the altar. Today, Hyde is just north of the city centre and can be easily visited by walking north up Hyde Street, and then turning right into King Alfred Place. This leads to the location of the altar of Hyde Abbey where three stone slabs show where Alfred, his wife and his son were once buried.

Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester.
Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester. A reminder of what once stood elsewhere in this part of Winchester.

Hyde Abbey was destroyed in 1539 in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Furthermore, the Annals of Winchester tell us that Hyde Abbey was burnt in 1141, which fits with another record that tells us that the abbey laid “in ruins” after having been set alight in a battle between King Stephen and Matilda in 1141. It seems possible to me that Alfred’s and other important remains could have been relocated in 1141, or prior to the 1539 dissolution. However, the discovery of part of a pelvis (see below) shows that bones from the Anglo-Saxon period remained.

There is a detailed story (for those interested, this is in my book) about how eventually some bones, thought to include those of King Alfred, ended up being interred in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s church, which is located within the footprint of the precinct of Hyde Abbey. However, when these bones were radio-carbon dated, they were found to be more recent than the Anglo-Saxon period. This was the subject of a TV documentary, which you may have seen.

St Bartholomew's church, Hyde, Winchester
St Bartholomew’s church, Hyde, Winchester

Nonetheless, testing was carried out on bones from an excavation at the main site of the abbey undertaken in the 1990s, and a sample from an approximately middle-aged (to us!) male pelvis was dated to 895-1017. Although dating to the correct period, because King Alfred died in 899, it is not possible to say whether this pelvis once belonged to him. King Edward the Elder, who died in 924, was also buried at Hyde Abbey and there is evidence that other individuals may have been too: Æthelweard (a son of Alfred), or Ælfweard (son of King Edward the Elder, although he may have been too young to match the profile of the bone), a monk called Grimbald (although he died quite old) and St Judoc (who, however, died in the 7th century. There may, of course, have been other individuals for which we have no record. Because the bones were found in the vicinity of the high altar (even if it was in back-fill from a Victorian dig) it seems to me not impossible that the bone is from King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or Æthelweard. Slightly worrying, though, is a record from 1798 that tells us that when a prison was built on the site, bones that were found were “thrown about.” This might mean that what is found near the high altar might not have started off there. Furthermore, would the builders then build over these scattered bones or have them removed? The latter seems more likely. We must remember that Richard III was discovered under a car park in Leicester, so we should perhaps always be ready to be surprised. Richard III, however, died almost 600 years more recently than King Alfred, something that I assume made using a live relative for a DNA comparison (as was done with Richard III) more straight forward. There may have also been less change in use of the land over time in the case or Richard III.

It was hoped that DNA from the pelvis fragment could be matched with those of King Alfred’s grand-daughter, Eadgyth, who was buried at Magdeburg, in Germany. However, although it was thought that it would be possible to extract DNA from the pelvis fragment, it seemed that the remains of Eadgyth were too poorly preserved to attempt a match.

This is a special place to visit, and I always make time to come here whenever I am in Winchester. In fact, this location was one of my main inspirations for writing my book. It is a hugely important location in the history of England.

The for refreshment. There is even a King Alfred pub close to Hyde Abbey Gardens. I had a beer and a meal in here and both were very good.

There is a community group called Hyde 900 that has done a lot of work in relation to the former abbey, and they deserve a mention. Their website also has more information.