Wessex – where was it?

This post is aimed at answering one of the most common questions that I am asked. I live in a county (Dorset) for which the regional National Health Service is designated “Wessex”, and a local radio station is called Wessex FM. People tend to know that they are in Wessex (probably) but are uncertain of the area it should be thought to cover. I wish that the answer that I am called upon to provide was more straight-forward.

As this blog is based on King Alfred, I shall describe what Wessex was in that time period. As King Alfred is often associated with Wessex, this will hopefully answer the question for most people. Alfred was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. The following is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, which is available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.

In King Alfred’s time, Wessex included the counties that we now call Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire (and some of adjacent Oxfordshire), Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, East and West Sussex, Kent and Surrey. Also included was Essex until it was ceded to Guthrum the Viking in a treaty drawn up around the year 886. It is worth pointing out that there were additional areas where King Alfred seems to have had the upper hand in power-sharing arrangements. By the end of his reign, this included London, which had earlier been under Mercian control. It also seems from Asser’s writings that at some time before 893 South Wales came under King Alfred’s control. Nor must we forget Mercia itself. After about 879, western and southern Mercia (eastern Mercia remained under Viking control) was ruled by Æthelred, who was the son-in-law of King Alfred, and it seems that it was Alfred who had the upper hand.

A map from my book. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred’s reign. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

The extent of Wessex control in Cornwall is still unclear. The Annales Cambriæ tell us that King Dungarth of Cornwall drowned in 875, but after that there is no mention of who was ruling in Cornwall until 926 where a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions a King Huwal of West Wales, which would have then meant Cornwall. It therefore seems to me that from a monarchical point of view Cornwall remained independent during Alfred’s time. However, we know that the diocese of Sherborne (in Dorset and therefore in Wessex) extended across the whole of Cornwall.

I did say earlier that it was not straight forward. But perhaps this post will lead to a better understanding.

King Alfred in Cornwall. A tale of four saints and two kings

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 a copy.

It may come as a surprise to some that Alfred was in Cornwall. However, Asser tells us that at some time prior to his marriage in 868, and therefore also before he became king, Alfred came to Cornwall on a hunting trip. The story goes that he made a detour to the resting place of a St Gueriir where he prayed to be cured of an ailment (thought to be piles) and to have this replaced with something less debilitating. According to Asser’s record, Alfred was cured of the first ailment, but he didn’t get everything that he wanted because it turned out that the second ailment was worse than the one it had replaced (although it didn’t strike until his wedding day).

The location is almost certainly in the village of St Neot in Cornwall, at the site of the church of the same name. We know this because an entry  in Asser’s record (made perhaps by another hand and after Alfred’s death) states that the place Alfred went to had also been the resting place of St Neot. This is the same St Neot that is associated with St Neots in Cambridgeshire, as he was later moved there. There must surely have been some local resistance when this happened!

The church of St Neot, at St Neot, Cornwall, on a very rainy day!

I have seen it mentioned that King Alfred and St Neot had been contemporaries and knew each other. I have even seen it claimed that they were brothers! It can’t be ruled out that they were alive at the same time, but I could find no evidence that they knew each other or were related. However, to take the record literally, they may have met in a very different sense – there is a legend that St Neot came to Alfred twice  in an apparition in the run-up to the Battle of Ethandun. However, it has also been written that Alfred had a vision from St Cuthbert.

Remembering St Neot inside the church

There also seems to be confusion between the similarly sounding St Neot and a St Anietus, and whether the church was originally dedicated to the latter, with the name shifting to the former over time. It has been said that St Anietus was a Celtic saint and that St Neot was a Saxon saint, but I have not been able to tell whether they were in fact the same person.

Alfred would have needed lodgings, and presumably protection, in what was then a far-flung location. We know from his will that he had an estate at Stratton, near Bude. Also, it is possible that he stayed with a local ruler, and it is  worth considering the possibility that he stayed with King Dungarth, perhaps at Liskeard. It has been suggested that Dungarth and Doniert might be the same person, and there is a King Doniert’s stone not far from St Cleer.

KIng Doniert’s Stone (the one on the left). Taken in heavy rain. I’m surprised that the picture came out as well as this!

Unfortunately, we only have Asser’s account to go on for this visit to Cornwall. I hope to write on the reliability of Asser as a source in a future post. This will be a complicated subject and a contentious one too. The current weight of academic opinion appears to be behind Asser’s work not having been written by somebody else after Alfred’s death.