A hot-spot in the Saxon history of Devon

I refer to Tiverton, Silverton, Cullompton and Bickleigh as being a mid-Devon hot-spot because I came across evidence relating to King Alfred and his son, King Edward the Elder, for these close-together places. It seems that this area was particularly important in the Saxon history of Devon in and around King Alfred’s time.

King Alfred, in his will, left estates at Mylenburnan, Tiverton (Twyfyrde – refering to two former fords across the rivers Exe and Lowman) and Cullompton to his youngest son Æthelweard. The historians Keynes and Lapidge, in their analysis of King Alfred’s will, favour Silverton as the site of Mylenburnan. In addition to all of this, there were four charters issued by King Edward the Elder at a place called Bicanleag, which is believed to be Bickleigh. Although most charters seem to have been challenged at some point as to their authenticity (either in whole or part), it seems to me that the presence of four of them means that it is likely that Bickleigh was a high status location at the time. Bickleigh is not far from the important location of Crediton, which I have written about in an earlier post. Transcripts of the charters can be seen here: S372, S373, S1286, S374. To give an indication of the proximity of the locations, the modern distances by road are: Bickleigh to Tiverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Silverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Cullompton = 10 miles, Bickleigh to Crediton = 9 miles. This area was clearly significant in the Saxon history of Devon.

I have not seen anything to tell me that Bickleigh was a royal estate at the time of King Alfred. For example it does not appear in King Alfred’s will. However, that Bickleigh is located between Tiverton and Silverton may be more than coincidence.

St Peter's church, Tiverton, Devon
St Peter’s church, Tiverton, Devon

Tiverton

Tiverton was, and remains, an important place in the history of Devon. It is well worth a visit, although most people (myself included) will have passed the town on the A361 dual carriageway to the coast without realising this. It has a majestic parish church, which although 15th century, includes a re-sited 12th century doorway. There could have been earlier structures here as well. There are the remains of a 12th century castle adjacent to the church, and the road to the east of the castle and church may have been the market in Saxon times.

View north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon
Looking north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon. The likely site of the royal Saxon estate is where St Peter’s church can be seen on the right.

It is interesting to note how the focus of the commercial centre of the town has shifted (to the south) over time, as it also seems to have done at Shaftesbury (where it shifted to the east). It seems sensible that the royal estate would have been where the remains of the castle and the church are located. If the Normans found a position to be defendable, then the Saxons had probably discovered that fact previously. It isn’t entirely obvious from maps, but when on location it was clear to me that the location is high above the River Exe.

Silverton

Silverton is a village just off the main road between Exeter and Tiverton (and south of Bickleigh). Not only did King Alfred leave an estate here in his will, but by Domesday, the hundred that included Cullompton was called Sulfretone (Silverton) Hundred. The parish church here is 15th century (as is the case in many places, there could have been an earlier structure) and, when arriving by car, is not at first easy to find because it is set back from the road. There is a footpath that leads from more or less opposite the shops on Newport Road. Unfortunately when I arrived the church was shut to visitors because of internal scaffolding. It seems that this place was more important in the Saxon history of Devon than is currently popularly realised.

St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon
St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon

Bickleigh

Now to Bickleigh, where it seemed to me that there were two contenders for an estate from which King Edward the Elder might have been issuing charters. The first was the current village centre, focused on St Mary the Virgin church, up a steep hill near Bickleigh Bridge and Bickleigh Mill. The other location was Bickleigh Castle, a manor house and wedding venue. This has been an important location over time, with Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) staying here when on the way to Exeter (after which she would flee to France from Falmouth, Cornwall). The main point of interest for this blog post, however, is the chapel, which is thought to go back to Saxon times. Although I have not found proof of this (any help greatly appreciated) it is at least thought to predate the 15th century church of St Mary the Virgin in the village centre, which has a 12th century font (and I was told that the font came from the chapel at Bickleigh Castle). Although it cannot be said with certainty, it seems to me that the most likely location at Bickleigh for the signing of charters is the general area of Bickleigh Castle.

The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon
The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon

Cullompton

An estate at Cullompton was also left to Æthelweard in King Alfred’s will. I also found it fascinating that by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Cullompton was a vill (referred to as Colitone) within the hundred of Silverton. This is revealed in the Liber Exoniensis (searchable here), which contains assessments for Domesday in the South West based on land-owners. This seems to mark Silverton as being a more significant place than Cullompton, whereas today it is the other way around. A word of caution though: Hundred names might sometimes refer to convenient meeting places or local well-known place-names. A case in point would be Culliford Tree in Dorset where, to this day, there is no habitation at this Bronze Age barrow on the crest of a ridge. But where in Cullompton was King Alfred’s estate? Was it the whole of Cullompton as it existed at that time?

St Andrew's church, Cullompton, Devon
St Andrew’s church, Cullompton, Devon

Importantly, the entry for Cullompton in the main Domesday record makes reference to a church. There was therefore a Saxon church at Cullompton and it seems likely that this would have been at the location of the current 15th century St Andrew’s church in the centre of Cullompton. Unfortunately, the church was locked when I visited, which was a shame as I understand it has a great interior and even a King Alfred window. The Saxon church would have probably been associated with the royal estate, so it seems that we can place this somewhere in the general area around the church. It is interesting to note that settlement in Roman times seems to have been around St Andrew’s Hill (with a fort on top), a short distance to the north.

This blog post relating to the Saxon history of Devon is part of a sequel to my book on King Alfred the Great, available from Amazon and bookshops. Click the image to find out more (it takes you to the description on Amazon).

Saxon Dorset: The Æthelwold Rebellion

King Alfred died in 899, but the succession of his son, King Edward the Elder, was not without incident, leading to important events taking place in Saxon Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after Edward succeeded to the throne, his cousin Æthelwold (son of King Æthelred, who had preceded Alfred as king) rode and seized both Wimborne and Christchurch. In response, King Edward rode to where Badbury Rings now stand. Strictly speaking, this post just deals with the earlier part of the Æthelwold rebellion, before he fled Dorset for Northumbria. I hope to deal with later events in subsequent posts. All of these locations are in Dorset. For a map showing these places, please click the link below:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1osvpXIq6KRwPwd0gQRmwKTdK7QzEvNlf&usp=sharing

It seems that Wimborne was Æthelwold’s main base (as opposed to Christchurch). This is because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that he barricaded himself in the estate there. It seems that he was there with a nun as well as some supporters, before he eventually fled under the cover of darkness to Northumbria, with the nun also going on the run. We are told that he took this nun against the orders of bishops, although we cannot be certain of what kind of relationship Æthelwold had with her. Nowhere is she named. It may not have been a hostile abduction. Indeed, Florence of Worcester tells us that Edward had married the nun, and also that she was later returned to Wimborne – and therefore presumably had come from there as well. Perhaps Edward went to Wimborne more because of the nun than because it was the location of his buried father. Æthelwold’s father, King Æthelred, had been buried at Wimborne in 871 some time after the Battle of Meretun. The outline of the Saxon royal estate is not known but it is thought to have been focused around where the minster is currently located, and it is thought that the Minster might be at the location of the Saxon church, nunnery (that had been founded by King Ine in 705) and monastery.

Wimborne Minster, Dorset

Christchurch is called Tweoxnam in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, referring to its location between two water courses, the Rivers Stour and Avon. The priory is thought to sit on (or overlap with) the footprint of the earlier Saxon church.

The modern Saxon cross in Saxon Square, Christchurch
The modern Saxon cross in Saxon Square, Christchurch
Christchurch Priory, Dorset
Christchurch Priory, Dorset

Badbury Rings is an impressively large Iron Age hill fort. King Edward clearly found this location suitable for suppressing his cousin’s rebellion at nearby Wimborne. It is an easy place to visit, with a large car park. A number of Roman roads converge at Badbury Rings, although it is difficult to be certain which of these would have been in use in King Edward the Elder’s time. It is interesting to speculate on how he might have got from Winchester (based on an assumption that he would have been at his father’s interment at Winchester and that the rebellion took place shortly afterwards) to Badbury on any existing Roman roads. It seems likely that a Roman road from Winchester passing through Otterbourne extended through to Ringwood and then onward, probably to Lake Farm, near Corfe Mullen (near Wimborne). There was a Roman road from there to Badbury. Æthelwold may have used most of the same route to get to Wimborne. Other routes may have been available, but when being pursued, or in pursuit, something in a straight line would have been preferred.

If you are particularly interested in Saxon Dorset around the time of King Alfred, you may wish to visit my other posts on Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Dorchester and Wimborne.

Badbury Rings, near Wimborne, Dorset
Badbury Rings, near Wimborne, Dorset. Seem from the south

This post relating to Saxon Dorset is a follow on from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from bookshops and Amazon.

Saxon Yeovil, Somerset

This post on Saxon Yeovil is relatively short and one that I will probably come back to add to over time. Yeovil is about six miles west of Sherborne, which was an important location (arguably the most important in Wessex) in King Alfred’s time. There is no evidence that allows us to pin King Alfred down at Yeovil, but I include it among those places that he probably did visit. This is because King Alfred, in his will, leaves an estate at Yeovil to his eldest son Æthelweard. The location of this estate is open to speculation, but it seems that the most likely candidate is around where the hospital is currently located, in an area that was once known as Kingston.

https://goo.gl/maps/vBHkPNcpUTwrxRGVA

Old maps show that there was once a manor house here (although not going back to Saxon times, this could have been at or near the site of a predecessor) and a chapel located north of the road called Higher Kingston. It seems that this chapel went back to the 14th century although, again, it could have been on or near the site of a predecessor. The estate at Kingston could have extended as far south as the main church in Yeovil, St John the Baptist’s.

St John the Baptist church in Yeovil, Somerset
St John the Baptist church in Yeovil, Somerset

St John the Baptist’s is a lovely church and goes back to the 1390s. However, it is thought that a preceding Saxon church lay to the west of it. It is possible that this church would have been here at the time of King Alfred. If you walk up and down the lane called Church Path, just to the west of the church, you are possibly therefore walking through the site of the Saxon church.

Church path, to the west of St John the Baptist church in Yeovil, Somerset. Looking south.
Church path, to the west of St John the Baptist church in Yeovil, Somerset. Looking south.

It has also been suggested that the Battle of Peonnum, which took place between the Saxon Wessex King Cenwalh and the Britons in 658. The Britons were defeated and pushed as far as the River Parrett. The Old English text reads: Her Cenwalh gefeaht æt Peonnum wiþ Walas, ond hie gefliemde oþ Pedridan. I translate this as “In this year, Cenwalh fought at Peonnum against the Britons, and they fled as far as the River Parrett. It seems fairly reliable that Pedrida is the Parrett, but Peonnum is far more open to question. It is claimed to relate to the Brittonic word Pen, meaning head and by extension, headland or hill, and the connection has been made with the hills at Yeovil, and in particular Pen Hill, and river crossings over the Yeo in the vicinity of Pen Mill (perhaps better known as one of Yeovil’s train stations). However, other candidates for the site of Peonnum exist, perhaps most prominently Pen Selwood in Wiltshire.

The video below focuses more on Sherborne, but there is a bit about Saxon Yeovil at the end.