Saxon Yeovil, Somerset

This post provides additional material in relation to my book: King Alfred, a Man on the Move, available from Amazon and bookshops.

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.

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 a 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. In this part of Somerset it is wise to be cautious because there is a prominent land-owning family called Penn/Penne/Penny and it is difficult to tell whether the name Pen in a landscape feature relates to the old British word for “head” or whether it relates to this family. Penselwood has the advantage of being Penne at Domesday.

Hundred Stone, Yeovil, Somerset
Hundred Stone, Yeovil, Somerset. Reputed to be the Hundred Stone, which would have been the meeting place for official business going back to Saxon times. Yeovil is located in Stone Hundred. Please note that I have seen no proof that this is the actual stone. It lies on high ground above Yeovil. To find it from Yeovil, go up and up Mudford Road. When it bends sharply to the right, there is a small green park on the left. It is in there.

It seems to me, however, that Peonnum may not relate to Pen at all. In Old English the word seems to me to be a dative plural, therefore pointing back to perhaps Peonnas in the nominative plural. Unfortunately, there is no place called Peonnas, but even if it did mean Pen as in “head”, it seems we should be looking for a place with multiple heads!

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