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.
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.
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Winchester, in Hampshire, is very aware of its associations with King Alfred. But what exactly are these, and what will we uncover if we dig into the detail?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Winchester had been destroyed by a ship-army in 860, although the attacking forces still lost. Asser (King Alfred’s companion and biographer) tells us that these attackers were Vikings, which perhaps comes as no surprise. However,we do not know where Alfred, who would have been about eleven years old, was at this time.
Although I have seen it implied that Winchester was Alfred’s “capital,” there is little evidence to indicate that Alfred’s court had been centered on a particular location in Wessex. However, we know that Alfred was at Winchester in 896 because he ordered the hanging of captured Vikings after they had run ashore on the Sussex coast. It has also been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, although I have seen no evidence to support this.
It seems that there must have been a royal estate at Winchester in Alfred’s time. Alfred does not give any land away at Winchester in his will, although this still allows the possibility that there was a royal estate that was just not owned by him personally, or was somehow under the control of the church instead. Winchester is also listed in the Burghal Hidage, being the account of Alfred’s defended settlements drawn up in the reign of his son, King Edward the Elder. Indeed it shared first place (with Wallingford in Oxfordshire) as the largest settlement in that document. It is indeed possible that the Old Minster (long destroyed – see below) and the royal residence were part of the same complex. It has been claimed that the royal palace was located directly to the west of the Old Minster (and therefore also directly west of the cathedral). I myself once sat on the lawn here (many do) to enjoy my lunch, without having the faintest idea about what might have once been there. As the tourists make a bee-line for the cathedral they may be unwittingly traversing something of competing significance.
Winchester had Roman walls and, although there is some evidence that the area within the walls became depopulated in the early Anglo-Saxon period, it seems that this area may have become repopulated by the time of King Alfred. I have seen it stated that the King’s Gate (or Kingsgate), to the south of the cathedral, had been the entrance through the walls to the royal palace. I have not seen anything to corroborate this, although this is possible as this would have been the closest gate to both the Old Minster and the site claimed to be that of the royal palace. The present gate is a later construction but might be nonetheless on the site or the original gate. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Alfred himself may have walked through here. I strongly recommend the nearby Wykeham Arms as a location in which to consolidate your thoughts. If that is not to your taste then perhaps visit the small church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate that is built into the walls above the gate.
It is generally accepted that what is now called High Street would have been the main street through Winchester in Alfred’s time. Following High Street to the west one comes to the Westgate, which is an impressive structure that includes some Anglo-Saxon fabric. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to walk a circuit of walls like it is in some other places. However, this did not stop me trying. The most pleasant stretch is to the south-west of the city, where there are actually walls to be seen. These are post-Roman, but generally lie on the route of the Roman walls. Indeed, at one point the wall has been excavated out to show the Roman wall inside. Much of the rest of the route of the wall is covered by buildings, some pleasant and some, in my opinion, quite ugly. There is even a huge multi-story car park on the route.
At the time of writing the location of the remains of King Alfred is not known. The different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out the relocations of Alfred’s remains. I therefore hope that what follows will help (alongside the above map). Important to our story are three buildings built close to each other in the centre of Winchester. These buildings, in their order of construction, were the Old Minster, the New Minster, and Winchester Cathedral. Today, the only building that remains is Winchester Cathedral. The Old Minster was just north of the current cathedral, and it is the outline of this building that you can see marked out today on the cathedral lawn. The New Minster was built in the reign of Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, to the north of the Old Minster, and he had his father’s remains interred there. However, the New Minster was not consecrated until 901, and Alfred, who had died in 899, was therefore initially interred in the Old Minster while the New Minster was being built. It had been King Alfred’s intention to have the New Minster built in his reign but by the time he died he had only managed to obtain the land. This is why the job of building the New Minster fell to his son. Alfred’s remains were joined in the New Minster by those of his wife Ealhswith when she died in 902. The Old Minster continued to exist alongside the New Minster until the cathedral was consecrated in 1093. The Old Minster was then demolished.
In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was just outside Winchester at this time. It is possible that the New Minster had suffered from a fire prior to 1109, which might have made the move opportune. Or perhaps Henry I did not want the Saxon New Minster crampimg the style of the gleaming new Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey.
The continuing story of Hyde Abbey, including the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains, will be the subject of a later blog post. Please also visit the website of the forthcoming book. I am also pleased to announce that the book will be a Black Slash publication.
Many of you will be aware of Basingstoke in Hampshire, but perhaps unaware of nearby Old Basing. In Saxon times Old Basing would have been Basing (the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls it Basengum) and Basingstoke would have been just an outpost of Old Basing. Alfred fought here with his elder brother King Æthelred against the Vikings. The Vikings won. This was one of a series of battles in 871 and took place between the Battle of Ashdown and the battle at Meretun.
So, now we know where Basing was, where did the battle take place. There is not a great deal written on this, but there are perhaps three main contenders.
Firstly, the north-east corner of Hackwood Park. This is south of the M3 as it passes Basingstoke. An important negative point is that it is not at Old Basing, although it is close. A plus for this location is that it is argued (and it seems to be correct) that a stretch of an ancient trackway called the Hard Way (sometimes called the Harrow Way) runs immediately to the north of this site. This is now a road called Dickens Lane. You can drive down here, perhaps to the evocatively named Polecat Corner, imagining that you are on one of Britain’s oldest roads! The argument goes that the Vikings were actually on their way to Winchester and they were travelling on this track in order to connect them with the Roman road that would take them to Winchester. However, this is all just speculation.
There are public footpaths that run through Hackwood Park, and you can work your way round towards the north-east. It is a lovely walk that I am sure you would enjoy irrespective of whether a battle site lies at the end of it!
Another possibility is that the Battle of Basing took place in Old Basing itself. It is tempting to think this because the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is Basing, and Old Basing was Basing. The archaeological evidence suggests that there could have been something here worth raiding, and I have even seen a report go so far as to say that it could have been a royal site.
Finally we come to Lychpit. This is now the residential area to the north-east of Basingstoke, separated from Old Basing by the River Loddon. If you are looking at an Ordnance Survey map, then Little Basing provides a better location. Before the houses were built there was a Lickpit Farm. In Old English lic means corpse and it appears that a legend has developed that the corpses from the Battle of Basing were buried here, and therefore that the battle must have been nearby. However, I have also seen it suggested that bodies from the Civil War were buried here. It is easy to initially view the legend as the product of fertile imaginations. However, digging deeper I found out more.
We can discount the origin of the name being from the Civil War as there is a charter dating to 945AD in which King Edmund grants to a certain Æthelnoth a monastery at Basing and land at Lickpit (named Licepyt in the Latin of the document). Clearly, King Edmund had this to give away, which is also perhaps relevant. It seems that Æthelnoth then granted what King Edmund had given him (including Lickpit) to Hyde Abbey, and it remained in their possession until the dissolution of the monasteries. Hyde Abbey was at Winchester, so it was not far from Basing, but perhaps relevant is that it was were King Alfred was then interred.
With no overwhelming evidence for any site, Lychpit for me seems to have the edge.