Watchet in Somerset – a Saxon Settlement

This post is one of several providing information on places not necessarily covered in my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and bookshops.

Watchet is on the North Somerset coast, and is a great place to visit, irrespective of its connections to the Anglo-Saxons.

There is no record of Alfred having been at Watchet, although this by no means rules his presence out at some point. Watchet was listed in the Burghal Hidage as Weced and is also referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as Wæced. Although this document in the form currently available to us was drawn up under King Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, it seems likely that Weced would have also been there at the time of King Alfred, and may indeed have been part of his post-878 improvement of Wessex defences against the Vikings through the development of fortified settlements (burhs). Other listed burhs in Somerset are Watchet, Axbridge and Lyng . Bath is also included, but this might not have been in Somerset in King Alfred’s time.

“Yankee Jack” at the harbour, Watchet, Somerset.

Watchet was clearly vulnerable and a target. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in the harvest-time of 914, in the rule of Edward the Elder, King Alfred’s son, the Vikings landed at night east of Watchet but were repelled by the Saxons and fled to either Steepholm or Flatholm, before crossing to Wales and then Ireland. It is important to note that Weced may not have been where Watchet is today. It is thought that the defended settlement was at what is now called Daw’s Castle, which is on the Coast Path a little to the west of today’s Watchet. It occurs to me that the attack of 914, which we are told took place to the east of Watchet, might just mean that it took place at what is now Watchet harbour. Points further east are, of course, still possible. Although Weced was probably at Daw’s Castle it seems implausible that, even in King Alfred’s times, there would not have been some sort of settlement down at the harbour as well, before the place later became referred to as Wecedport (see below).

View from Daws Castle, Watchet, Somerset, looking west towards Minehead.
View from Daws Castle, Watchet, Somerset, looking west towards Minehead.

Watchet was raided in 988 (and/or 987 – different dates are provided by different versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) when there was great slaughter, although it seems that the Vikings lost (according to a reference I saw to a document called the Life of St Oswald). It seems possible that Watchet was by now including the harbour as well as Daw’s Castle as, importantly, both the C and E versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle now name the place as Wecedport (although note that the word “port” could also mean trading place as well as what we today generally think of as being a port). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Watchet (Wecedport) was raided again in 997, with much slaughtering and burning.

Getting to Daw’s Castle is quite straight forward, but it is quite a long climb out of Watchet up West Street and then Cleeve Hill until the footpath comes off on your right (at the time of writing). This takes you straight into the site of Daws Castle. 

St Decuman's Well, near St Decuman's Church, Watchet, Somerset
St Decuman’s Well, near St Decuman’s Church, Watchet, Somerset

St Decuman’s Church, with its Holy Well should not be missed. St Decuman’s is a short distance (but quite a long walk) south of the centre of Watchet. The well is a lovely location and the church is of great interest. According to legend, Decuman crossed from Wales in Saxon times (in the 600s) on a raft with a cow and lived here as a hermit. He was decapitated by an evil man, but as a miracle he replaced his head on his shoulders and carried on, and local people assisted him in building a church. To visit the well you need to go down the little track past the church (not down the track that leads down to Watchet -there is a sign pointing the way).

St Decuman's Church, Watchet, Somerset
St Decuman’s Church, Watchet, Somerset

You may wish to take time to visit the “traditional” site of a battle between the Saxons and the Danes near Williton, a short distance south of Watchet. It is located near Danesfield School and there is a convenient lay-by where you can look across into the field. Please note that the field is private land. A tumulus (these typically, but not always, date to the Bronze Age) can be easily seen from the lay-by. On old Ordnance Survey maps the location is called “Battle Gore” and is marked on the 1888 to 1930 maps as “Site of Battle A.D. 918”. The lines of earthworks are also indicated. The field is the one to the south of where the small stream flows. Please note that this may just be legensd and I am not aware of any corroboration that a battle took place here. The year 918 does not fit well with the years of recorded attacks stated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 

Map of Watchet, Somerset by Mudge
Map. Watchet, Somerset. Detail from 1809 map by Mudge