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, there were four charters issued by King Edward the Elder nearby 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, I wonder whether Bickleigh’s location 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 North Devon coast without realising this. It has a majestic parish church which, although 15th century, includes a re-sited 12th century doorway. It is possible that there might have been an earlier ecclesiastical building on the same site. 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 Tiverton 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, because 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, making it easier to defend.

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 the location of the estate called Bicanleag from which King Edward the Elder seems to 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. Indeed, in various places, Saxon settlement seems to have been at different locations to earlier Roman settlement. Perhaps the most well known is London, with a shift away from what we call The City to the area around Aldwych.

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 Crediton, Devon

Saxon Crediton was clearly an important place and, in my opinion, King Alfred probably came here, although there is no written evidence for this. Its importance is revealed when in 909 (King Alfred died in 899 and in 909 his son, Edward the Elder was king) the huge diocese of Sherborne, which extended from Dorset to Lands End, was divided up. A new diocese was created in Somerset, based on Wells, and a new diocese for Devon and Cornwall was created, based on Crediton.

The church of the Holy Cross, Crediton, Devon.
The church of the Holy Cross (Crediton parish church), Devon

It is important to note that Crediton was chosen instead of nearby Exeter. Saxon Crediton was clearly a very important place ecclesiastically and it seems unlikely to me that Crediton would have suddenly became important in 909. It seems more probable that it would have been a significant religious site prior to this. We know that King Alfred was pious and it is recorded that he spent time in Devon and Cornwall, so it seems probable to me that he would therefore have visited Crediton at some point. Exeter would, eventually, have its day when the seat of the diocese was moved from Crediton to Exeter in 1050.

The parish church that one sees today has some 12th century components, but is largely 15th century. It is thought that this church is built over the earlier church (or cathedral as it should be called between 909 and 1050). We don’t know if anything new was built when Saxon Crediton rose to greater prominence or whether it carried on with the same religious buildings that would have been there anyway.

A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church
A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church

St Boniface

It is claimed that St Boniface was born at Crediton in about 680AD. He was a very prominent saint across northern Europe, becoming the patron saint of Germany, and there are moves to make him the patron saint of Devon (I cannot confirm that this has taken place at the time of writing). He was venerated after his death in Fulda (Germany) in 745, so it seems likely that Alfred would have known about him and may have visited Crediton, the claimed birth-place of St Boniface, for this reason as well.

St Boniface's Well (or Winfrith's Well - after his original name), Crediton, Devon.
St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s Well – after his original name), Crediton, Devon.

The Wells

Crediton was created the focus of a diocese at the same time as Wells (Somerset). However, the comparisons do not end there. Both places are closely connected with springs. It may be that many more significant religious locations were associated with water. Perhaps the association has become less obvious over time. At Crediton there are two springs that can be easily visited. One is called Libbets Well, and is just north west of the church. It is not easy to find. You need to go up an unnamed track coming off Church Street, not far opposite the footpath that leads from the church car park. The other is called St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s well – after St Boniface’s original name) and is at the south end of the park that is a short distance west of the cathedral. This well is marked by a “W” on the Ordnance Survey map.

Libbett’s Well, Crediton, Devon.

Although a fair bit further away, there is another interesting well in the lovely settlement at Shobrooke, to the north-east of Crediton. This can also be tricky to find. If you can find St Swithun’s church, Shobrooke, you will see a large thatched farmhouse. The road that goes down past this leads to the well (which is on the right). There is no evidence that any of these wells are ancient (but also no evidence that they are not) and the two in Crediton may be associated with the culverted Littleburn Stream. Perhaps more significant in this regard is a spring marked on the 1890 Ordnance Survey map just north of the church car park. Incidentally, the same map shows the church car park to have once been the site of a (St Gregory’s) cathedral. We now know that the cathedral was not at that location.

The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon
The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon

Copplestone

For those interested in Anglo-Saxon history a visit to the nearby Copplestone Cross, in Copplestone village, is a must. Located on a busy traffic island (it was moved to this location to ease the flow of traffic in 1969), it is a wayside cross thought to date to the 10th century . It is thought to have been erected in memory of a murdered bishop.

Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.

Saxon Exeter: King Alfred

This post on Saxon Exeter at the time of King Alfred is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon. Please also scroll down for my Youtube video on Exeter.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 876 King Alfred pursued the land-based Vikings that had fled from Wareham (Dorset) to Exeter. However, their accompanying navy lost 120 ships in bad weather near Swanage (Dorset). Alfred was unable to catch up with the fleeing land-based Vikings before they got to Exeter. On reaching Exeter the Vikings secured themselves in a fortress, but their situation does not appear to have been particularly positive, perhaps because of the large loss of ships, and they settled for peace with Alfred. After over-wintering (permission to do this being presumably part of the peace settlement), the Vikings left Exeter and went to Mercia, and specifically to Gloucester according to a chronicle written by Æthelweard.

I asked myself whether it was possible to work out from the available information where exactly in Exeter the Vikings went. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles imply that the Vikings occupied a fortress that had already been there, as opposed to building one when they got there, as they would do in Rochester, in Kent, in 884. Exeter’s Rougemont Castle goes back to 1068, so we are looking for something else, but perhaps this would have been on the same site as Rougemont Castle. The case for this is strengthened by the discovery of Anglo-Saxon masonry at Rougemont Castle.

Walls at Exeter, Devon, where Saxon masonry found. The path leading up to Athelstan's Tower in Northernhay Gardens.
A section of the walls at Exeter where Saxon masonry has been found. This is the path leading up to Athelstan’s Tower in Northernhay Gardens.

We also know that Exeter had (and largely still has, although much repaired) Roman walls with four entrances and it appears that these were repaired and strengthened in Anglo-Saxon times. The Old English of the Chronicles says that the Vikings came into Exeter, which fits with the idea that the Vikings had managed to get into Exeter through one of the four entrances in the walls and then either occupied a fortification within the walls, or used the walls themselves as a fortification. The length of the circuit of the walls was would have stretched the Viking troops, but with only four entrances, it may have been possible for them to secure the site. I feel that it is more likely that the depleted Viking force took over a fortification within the walls rather than the walls themselves, and it seems to me that the site of (or part of the site of) Rougemont Castle would have been the most likely location for this fortification. From Northernhay Gardens elements of Anglo-Saxon construction in the remains of the wall can be seen. It is thought that King Athelstan (King Alfred’s grandson) restored the city walls in around 928. The site of Rougemont Castle is now called Exeter Castle, and is a commercial enterprise.

It is possible that the land-based Viking contingent, with Alfred in pursuit took the Roman road to Bridport via Dorchester and then the Roman road that now approximates to route of the A35 to Honiton, and then finally the Roman road that is more or less on the current route of the A30 to Exeter. Alternatively, they could have branched off this route onto another Roman road near Charmouth in order to reach Exeter via Colyford and Sidford, approximately following the route of the current A3052. It seems likely that these routes would have been in use in Alfred’s time, because much of these routes have persisted from Roman times right through to today. It also seems likely that the best available route would have been taken by both parties as, speed would have been important, and these would probably have been the remaining Roman routes.

Plaque marking the location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter
A plaque marking the location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon

It seems that either route would have brought them to a gate to the south-west of the walled city at a spot that is towards the southern end of South Street of today’s Exeter. There is still some wall there today (and a plaque) to help you find the precise spot. This South Gate must be, therefore, the most likely point of entry for the Vikings, and also for King Alfred in pursuit, in 876. Unfortunately, there is no gate present there now as, after serving as a prison, it was finally demolished in 1819. Nonetheless, it is possible to explore on foot how these routes come together just outside the former location of the South Gate. If you do make it down here, there are other places of interest such as the old Eye Hospital and the Dissenters’ Graveyard.

The South Gate of the walls of Exeter, Devon. Outline marked in pavement.
The South Gate of the walls of Exeter, Devon. The markings in the pavement referred to by the plaque in the previous image.
The former location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon.
The former location of the South Gate in the walls of Exeter, Devon. Just follow the line of the wall across the road

Having come through the South Gate, and with Rougemont Castle (as it was later called) at the extreme north end of the walled city, Alfred would have needed to cross the centre of Exeter. Although these events took place prior to Alfred’s post-878 rebuilding programme, it seems likely that there would have been a road leading from the South Gate up to the main city intersection where today South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. It seems that High Street would have been present in Alfred’s time, and this leads in the general direction of Rougemont Castle. I therefore suggest that, if the Vikings were at the location of Rougemont, Alfred and his troops would have proceeded up what is now South Street and turned right on to what is now High Street, with the land-based Vikings having taken the same route just a short time before. Any surviving sea-borne Vikings would have made their way up from the harbour, via the West Gate or perhaps via a lost Roman gate in the wall nearer to the port (the Water Gate may have been a later development not present in Alfred’s time). They may have even disembarked at nearby Topsham and then made their way, like the others, to the South Gate.

Exeter, Devon. Ancient crossroads.  From South Street, looking across to North Street, with High Street to the right and Fore Street to the left.
Exeter, Devon. It is likely that roads crossed here in the time of King Alfred. This is where South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. The photo is taken from South Street, looking across to North Street, with High Street to the right and Fore Street to the left.

There is a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to King Alfred heading again to Exeter in 893. While on his way to assist his troops that were besieging a Viking contingent near London, he received word that other Viking forces had landed in North Devon and that Exeter, in South Devon, had also been besieged. Alfred and his troops therefore diverted towards Exeter, although there is no confirmation that he arrived there and there are no records of any engagement with the Vikings either at Exeter or in North Devon at this time.

Many thanks to BBC Radio Devon and The Voice (Barnstaple) for having me on air to talk about my book and Saxon Exeter at the time of King Alfred.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.

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 of Wessex. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred's reign.
A map of Wessex 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. Tap or click the image to learn more about the book.