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.

The River Fleet. Dividing the two London Saxon settlements.

It is known that prior to the time of King Alfred the Saxon community in London had largely moved out of the old Roman walled city and had moved to the area that we now know as Aldwych and Covent Garden. After about 886, when King Alfred is said to have restored London, the main settlement became once again within the Roman walls. It seems clear that for a period of time there would have been two communities. In King Alfred’s time the two communities would have been separated by the River Fleet, which presumably would have been bridged at some point. It is important to note that this was not a small river. This is easy to forget now that it’s flow is subterranean in sewers. However, there are clues from the landscape and from history for those who look for them. In this post I only look at the course through central London, as this is the most relevant to establishing what made London at the time of King Alfred. The sources for the river are the springs feeding the ponds that are on the high ground at Hampstead and at Highgate. I pick up the route at Old St Pancras Church, which is to the west side of the tracks coming out of St Pancras International train station. I will place a video at the end, which picks up the route a little further on at King’s Cross Road. Things are complicated by there being three routes: one being the course of the lost river,  another being the canalised sewer that now holds the flow, and yet another being an overflow. My priority was the course of the river itself.

St Pancras Road, London, looking south. On the left is Old St Pancras Church and straight ahead is St Pancras International train station. A yellow line gives a broad indication of the former course of the River Fleet.
St Pancras Rd, London, looking south. On the left is Old St Pancras Church and straight ahead is St Pancras International train station. The yellow line gives a broad indication of the former course of the River Fleet.

The river ran to the west of St Pancras Old Church and its course then runs under St Pancras Train Station to then reappear on the other side where it explains the curve in the Great Northern Hotel.

Looking north from Euston Road, London. St Pancras train station is on the left, King's Cross train station is out of shot on the right, and the Great Northern Hotel is visible on the right. An arrow shows the approximate former course of the River Fleet. The arrow follows the curve of the Great Northern Hotel.
Looking north from Euston Road, London. St Pancras train station is on the left, King’s Cross train station is out of shot on the right, and the Great Northern Hotel is visible on the right. The arrow shows the approximate former course of the River Fleet. The arrow is attempting to follow the curve of the Great Northern Hotel.

From there the route goes a short way down Pentonville Road until King’s Cross Road branches off, which it then follows.

After King's Cross train station, the course of the River Fleet heads down Pentonville Road until it meets with King's Cross Road. This photo shows which road is Pentonville Road, and therefore the former course of the river must head in this direction. The photo is taken looking east, with King's Cross just visible on the left.
After King’s Cross train station, the course of the River Fleet heads down Pentonville Road until it meets with King’s Cross Road. This photo shows which road is Pentonville Road, and therefore the former course of the river must head in this direction. The photo is taken looking east, with King’s Cross just visible on the left.

Looking east and showing the junction of Pentonville Road with King's Cross Road, which the course of the River Fleet then follows.
Looking east and showing the junction of Pentonville Road with King’s Cross Road, which the course of the River Fleet then follows.

Things get a bit trickier when one arrives at Cubitt Street as the river then ceases to follow King’s Cross Road but bends to the west instead. It is tricky to follow the exact route here (you will see the confusion in my video!), but its route can be picked up again in Mount Pleasant (near the Royal Mail sorting office, built on the site of Coldbath prison) from where it runs down Warner Street and Ray Street until it joins Farringdon Road.

At Mount Pleasant, looking west. The dip in the road, where the River Fleet would have flowed, can be clearly seen.
At Mount Pleasant, looking west. The dip in the road, where the River Fleet would have flowed, can be clearly seen.

At Mount Pleasant, looking east. Again, the dip in the road where the River Fleet would have flowed can be clearly seen.
At Mount Pleasant, looking east. Again, the dip in the road where the River Fleet would have flowed can be clearly seen.

I was told that outside the Coach pub and restaurant (previously Coach and Horses pub) one could hear the waters of the Fleet through a grill. I am very pleased to say that this was the case, although this of course is not the actual river but the canalised flow. It did sound quite healthy though.

A grill in the road where the flow of the River Fleet can be heard.
This photo should help you find the correct grill

Once you have reached Farringdon Road the course is much simpler to follow as it follows Farringdon Road, then Farringdon Street, then New Bridge Street down to where it flowed into the Thames where Blackfriars Bridge is today. There are some great places to see how the river flowed through here by looking at the landscape. My favourite is to walk up towards Smithfield Market (up Charterhouse Street) and look back. It is very easy to see the dip in which the river once flowed.

On Charterhouse Street, London, looking west. If you look carefully you can see that the roads runs downhill and then rises again after the yellow arrow. A yellow arrow shows the former line of the River Fleet running down into Farringdon Street.
On Charterhouse Street, London, looking west. If you look carefully you can see that the roads runs downhill and then rises again after the yellow arrow. The yellow arrow shows the former line of the River Fleet running down into Farringdon Street.

As you head closer to the Thames you pass Ludgate Circus, which would have in the past been the site of an important bridge across the Fleet. Whether there was a bridge here in Saxon times is not known.  On the right as you proceed further you will pass the site of Henry the VIII’s palace called the Bridewell. It is amazing to think that Henry VIII had a waterfront palace on this lost waterway. This later became another prison.

I understand that the flow into the Thames can be seen, but it seemed to me that the position from which one could view this was obstructed by construction work when I visited.

Near the end of the route there is a pub called the Black Friar, which I thoroughly recommend for a break.

You can watch the video below. My book, King Alfred: a Man on the Move, is available on Amazon.

King Alfred and London’s walls

This post follows on from a more general one about King Alfred and London. Here we specifically look at the town walls. There is a Youtube video at the end of this post.

The walls of London are Roman in origin but they would have been present, although probably much repaired in places, when King Alfred restored London around 886. It seems that prior to then the main population focus of London had shifted after the Romans left to the area that we now know as Aldwych , with the site of the Roman town, approximating to the area that we now call “The City”,  becoming very much depopulated. It seems that Alfred’s redevelopment of London led to the area of the walled former Roman town becoming a focus of population again.

I decided to see if it was possible to walk what would have been the perimeter of Alfred’s London. Although the wall is sometimes visible (although, even where visible, subject to much repair or later modification), in most places much imagination is required as the line of the wall runs into modern buildings. Nonetheless, it was a fun thing to do and it certainly helped me to appreciate the shape of the old town.

A map from my book. King Alfred: A Man on the Move. A dashed line shows the course of the old town wall of London
A map from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move. The dashed line shows the course of the old town wall of London. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

I started in the Tower Hill area, where there are three  places at which the wall can be seen. Travelling anti-clockwise (as in the rest of this post) the first location is what is known as the Postern Gate. This is revealed in a big hole on the same side of the busy Tower Hill arterial road as the Tower of London. From here, if you turn back north and cross the road you will not be able to miss one of the best remaining sections of wall. It is in a pleasant little park and you can walk right up to it on both sides.

A stretch of the original (repaired) Roman wall of London. The Tower of London is in the distance.Ahead is the site of the Postern Gate, this being the start of the Roman wall.
A stretch of the original (repaired) Roman wall of London. The Tower of London is in the distance. Ahead (through the buses!) is the site of the Postern Gate, this being the start of the Roman wall.

The next bit of wall is very close indeed, but not immediately obvious. I tried following the line north from the previous bit of wall, proceeding past some modern construction to a point where I could indeed see another stretch of the old wall ahead, although the route was blocked by railings. I found, however, that I could get to the other side by walking to nearby Cooper’s Hill and then down the vehicle entrance to the Grange City Hotel. The wall was then straight in front of me in all its glory. There is a small archway in this wall which allows you to pass through to examine the other side as well. A lovely spot. 

A section of the Roman wall of London, located behind the Grange City Hotel, not far from the Tower of London.
A section of the Roman wall of London, located behind the Grange City Hotel, not far from the Tower of London.

The line of the wall then disappears into modern buildings, traversing the railway lines running into Fenchurch Street Station and the enigmatic modern “One America Square.”   My research indicated that once the line of the wall had crossed the appropriately named road called “Crosswall”, the next visible section  would be to the west of Vine Street. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The location where the remains were supposed to be visible was in fact a huge building site. I looked across the site through the couple of viewing windows inserted into the fence but I could see no evidence of any old wall. It must have been hidden from view because it seems  that the development once completed will include a display of the preserved Roman wall. The line of the wall then runs through the more recent buildings on the east side of Jury Street, including the Three Tuns pub. 

We then arrived at the site of Aldgate. This was where the Roman road to Colchester left London. There is no remaining remnant of the gate above ground because itwas demolished in 1761. We decided to take a break and got some drinks from the pleasant Kahaila cafe (run by a charity) and sat down in the grounds of St Botolph without Aldgate. We then went on to explore up into Dukes Place and Bevis Marks (names of roads). My research indicated that there was some Roman wall visible in an underpass beneath Dukes Place. I have to admit that I could find no underpass, let alone any wall. So we proceeded north-west up Bevis Marks and Camomile Street, where the line of the old wall would be running under the modern buildings on our right, until we  arrived at Bishopsgate.

Where the Aldgate, one of the gates through the Roman walls of London, would have once stood.
Where the Aldgate, one of the gates through the Roman walls of London, would have once stood.

It seems to me that King Alfred would have passed through Bishopsgate at some point. The Roman road called Ermine Street proceeded northwards from this point, and if it was London that Alfred had left from in order to confront the Vikings when they turned up somewhere near Hertford or Ware (Ware is on Ermine Street) in 895, it seems likely that he would have left through Bishopsgate. There are no remains of Bishopsgate above ground because it was demolished in 1760. The site is however markeby a bishop’s mitre above the branch of Boots the Chemists. 

Looking west from Bishopsgate up to Camomile Street, which ta red London bus is turning in to, and Bevis Marks. One of the gates in the Roman walls of London would have been here (a short distance to my left)
Looking west from Bishopsgate up to Camomile Street, which the red London bus is turning in to, and Bevis Marks. One of the gates in the Roman walls of London would have been here (a short distance to my left)

 

The bishop's mitre, marking the location of the original Bishopsgate, one of the gates in the Roman walls of London.
The bishop’s mitre, marking the location of the original Bishopsgate, one of the gates in the Roman walls of London.

The line of the old wall now follows the north side of Wormwood Street and the appropriately named (if not accurately, because the line of the wall deviates somewhat from it) thoroughfare called London Wall. As you walk down this road called London Wall, you will see that there is a short stretch of old wall around the back of (north of) the church of All-Hallows on the Wall, but apart from this there are no visible clues until one reaches a stretch of wall in what is called St Alphage’s Garden on one side (under reconstruction when we visited) and Salter’s Garden on the other. Once you get to this point, things are a little more complicated as you have arrived at the site of the Roman fort, which was a separate walled-off square area within the overall outline of the old walls. There is no evidence to support this, but it seems plausible that if there was a protected area within the walls then this may have become King Alfred’s residence in London. The case for this is perhaps slightly strengthened by the limited number of alternative sites. The only other one that I have considered is the site of the Roman praetorium that is largely under Cannon Street station. However, in times of Viking threat I feel that Alfred would have preferred to be in a walled area with easy access to an escape route – which favours the fort rather than the praetorium. Of course it cannot be ruled out that Alfred’s residence was an entirely different building, perhaps wooden, of which no traces remain. 

The Roman wall of London at Salter's Garden. The other side of this wall is St Alphage's Garden. This is to the north of the road called London Wall. It is a fairly short walk from the Museum of London.
The Roman wall of London at Salter’s Garden. The other side of this wall is St Alphage’s Garden. This is to the north of the road called London Wall. It is a fairly short walk from the Museum of London.

On proceeding west from St Alphage’s Garden, one comes very quickly indded to the site of the former Cripplegate. It strikes me that if Alfred’s residence was indeed at the site of the Roman fort then he would almost certainly have used Cripplegate, simply because it was in the wall of the Roman fort.

Plaque at Cripplegate, where there would have been a gate in the Roman Walls of London. This photo shows one of the ceramic plaques put up in about 1984. Disappointingly, the spirit behind these seems to have withered, as some of these plaques are no longer present.
Plaque at Cripplegate, where there would have been a gate in the Roman Walls of London. This photo shows one of the ceramic plaques put up in about 1984. Disappointingly, the spirit behind these seems to have withered, as some of these plaques are no longer present.

I found (becauseof railings) that it was necessary to approach the corner of the very north-west section of wall (and therefore also of the fort) from two different directions. This was worth the effort because there are significant stretches of wall visible. The first stretch is immediately south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate and I got there by walking up to the north end of Wood Street and turning left. Just by looking up Wood Street it isn’t immediately obvious that you can do this. The other stretch is accessible from a muddy track leading off from the down access road to the London Wall Underground Car Park. Incidentally, there is some Roman wall preserved at bay 52 of this car park. 

The Roman (repaired/replaced) wall of London near the church of St Giles Cripplegate. This is near the Barbican.
The Roman (repaired/replaced) wall of London near the church of St Giles Cripplegate. This is near the Barbican.

 

The Roman wall of London (repaired/replaced) just north of (and facing towards) the down ramp to the London Wall underground car park
The Roman wall of London (repaired/replaced) just north of (and facing towards) the down ramp to the London Wall underground car park

 

The section of the Roman wall of London at Bay 52 in the London Wall underground car park
The section of the Roman wall of London at Bay 52 in the London Wall underground car park

Within the area of the fort is the location of St Alban’s church (a rumoured site of King Alfred’s palace), which I write about in another post.

We then come to the west side of the fort (this being an outer wall of the fort meaning that it is also the town wall), which runs alongside Noble Street.

The stretch of the Roman wall of London (repaired/replaced) running alongside Noble Street. Also showing the church of St Anne and St Agnes.
The stretch of the Roman wall of London (repaired/replaced) running alongside Noble Street. Also showing the church of St Anne and St Agnes.

From this point there are no remaining above ground sections of the old town wall. The route, however, is known, and much of it can be walked. Let us proceed. From Noble Street the wall would have headed west (to the north of the church of St Anne and St Agnes), cutting through later buildings and emerging onto the road called St Martins-Le-Grand adjacent to the Lord Raglan pub. Indeed, there is a blue plaque at this point marking the site of the Aldersgate. Like the other gates, there are no remains of Aldersgate (it was demolished in 1761). The route of the wall runs into the buildings on the other side of the road, but mercifully appears again in the lovely Postman’s Park, which lies just behind them. 

From here the wall roughly follows the route of the access road/pedestrian walk-through of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which you will see on the other side of King Edward Street as you emerge from Postman’s Park. Just before this route meets Giltspur Street, the line of the wall turns south and cuts through the buildings to emerge on Newgate Street at, you’ve guessed it, the site of the Newgate. You will probably also guess by now that it has been long demolished and that there are no visible remains above ground. You would be correct. Newgate (along with Ludgate, which is coming up next) would have been a principal gate in the wall for access to and from the west. The west was of course King Alfred’s “heartland”,  so I think it quite likely that he would have used these gates. 

Blue plaque at the site of Newgate, where there would have been a gate in the walls of London.
Blue plaque at the site of Newgate, where there would have been a gate in the walls of London.

The wall then runs south through the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) to emerge on Ludgate Hill at the site of the Ludgate (which again is long demolished and with no visible remains above ground). It seems that the wall would have emerged through the excruciatingly named Ye Olde London pub and ran into the currency exchange shop on the other side of Ludgate Hill.

From here it isn’t possible to follow a particular line, but I do recommend wending down through Blackfriars via Carter Lane and Church Entry. The wall ended somewhere down here (it did not run along the riverside), so I recommend a drink in the wonderful Black Friar pub! From here you can follow Upper Thames Street and Lower Thames Street all the way back to the Tower of London, although you will not see any Roman wall, and I find this route very traffic-heavy and polluted.

The Black Friar pub, close to Blackfriars train station and the River Thames.
The Black Friar pub, close to Blackfriars train station and the River Thames.

I put together a video about London’s walls. I apologise for the poor sound quality in places. It was a windy day.

To learn more about my book, click or tap the image below:

King Alfred and London

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.

The writings of a man called Æthelweard tell us that that Alfred besieged  London in 886, and another early writer called Henry of Huntingdon suggested that an opportunity had arisen because the Viking presence had been weakened as a result of some having left to join Viking forces on the continent. Although The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Asser record Alfred in London at this time, neither source mentions that Alfred had taken London by force.  The Chronicles also tell us that in the same year Alfred entrusted London to his son-in-law and ruler of Mercia, Æthelred. London had been a Mercian city and there may have been some resentment after it had been taken over by Wessex, with this being defused by Alfred handing it over to Mercian Æthelred in order to control on behalf of both of them. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that London had been under Viking occupation in 871 when they had moved there from Reading. However, the Chronicles also tell us that these Vikings left for Northumbria in 872, and it was perhaps this that subsequently allowed Alfred to start to extend his power to London. Indeed, there is evidence from coins suggesting that London may have been under Alfred’s protection as early as the late 870s.

But what was this London that Alfred was gaining control over? It has been suggested that after Roman control ended the population left the fortified area at the current site of the City of London and went to a place called Lundenwic, approximately 1 mile to the west, perhaps because this provided easier access to a ford at Westminster. The wic element of Lundenwic persists in the modern name Aldwych.  It appears that people later moved back to re-use the earlier Roman fortifications (as also appears to have happened at Winchester), and it seems plausible that this move had been triggered by Viking attacks.  So, when Alfred took control of London it could well have comprised what is now the City of London and the area around Aldwych, with the two settlements connected by what we now call Fleet Street.

The Queenhithe mosaic on the north bank of the River Thames, London. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great's time.
The Queenhithe mosaic on the north bank of the River Thames, London. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great’s time.

It is thought that Alfred restored London after 868 and it has been suggested that the site of the restored Alfredian burgh extended along the north bank of the Thames from near Queenhithe in the west to near Billingsgate in the east, and extending inland by about 300m. It is interesting to note that this area only occupied a small part of the Roman walled area, but in Alfred’s time much space might have been taken up by crops and livestock. Much of this stretch along the river can be walked and for me the most interesting location is Queenhithe, where there are some information boards and one can look out over what would have been a dock in Alfred’s time. Queenhithe is named after Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, but the location had previously been called Æthelred’s Hithe, named after king Alfred’s son-in-law.

Queenhithe, on the north bank of the River Thames in London, with the Millenium Bridge and Tate Modern in the distance. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great's time.
Queenhithe, on the north bank of the River Thames in London, with the Millenium Bridge and Tate Modern in the distance. There would have been a dock here in King Alfred the Great’s time.

It may be that the administrative centre of London at Alfred’s time was somewhere near Aldermanbury. If this is the case then it seems likely that Alfred would have been there at some point. However, this is based on the presence of the Old English burh in the place name, and it is not known whether this was acquired after the time of King Alfred.

The ward of Aldermanbury, London.
The ward of Aldermanbury, London.

Aldermanbury is immediately to the north-west of the current Guildhall, with Wood Street running north-south through the middle of it. It is possible, based on the 13th century Matthew Paris quoting an 11th century source, that there had been a saxon royal palace at Aldermanbury near the site of the former church of St Alban on Wood Street. This does not allow us to confirm that it was there when Alfred was alive, but there must have been at least one royal residence and there are few other potential locations within the circuit of London’s walls (another being the site of the former Roman praetorium, the remains of which are largely under Cannon Street station). This church was a victim of the 1940 Blitz and all that remained, with the exception of the tower, was demolished in the 1950s. The tower, now a private residence, still stands in splendid isolation in the middle of Wood Street. if it was still standing, the church would extend eastwards into where the police station is located. Also perhaps of significance is that this was in a particularly important part of Roman London, being within the outline of the Roman fort, and also very close to the Roman amphitheatre. You may not wish to miss the remains of the amphitheatre, which are located beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery. It is also possible that the walls of the Roman fort were still intact, and this square area at the north-east aspect of the walled city might itself have served as a base (more details on this, with a map, in this post). There is some evidence that there may have been royal palaces at Brentford and Chelsea in the 8th century, but whether these were still in service at the time of King Alfred is not known.

St Alban's bell tower, Wood Street, London. Inside the outline of the Roman fort. Was there a Saxon royal residence here?
St Alban’s bell tower, Wood Street, London. Inside the outline of the Roman fort. Was there a Saxon royal residence here?

A predecessor to St Paul’s would have been present at or near the site of today’s cathedral, as this had been founded in 604. All Hallows by the Tower shows evidence of Saxon work, so it is possible that a church was also standing there in Alfred’s time.

The north bank of the River Thames, looking east towards London Bridge
The north bank of the River Thames, looking east towards London Bridge

Southwark is mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, issued in the reign of Edward the Elder (Alfred’s son) after Alfred’s death, so it seems likely that there was a burgh in place here on the south side of the Thames before Alfred died. Indeed, it is possible that a London Bridge, as a replacement or a repair of the earlier Roman structure, may have been built, perhaps during Alfred’s lifetime, in order to connect the two burghs on either side of the river and to act as a defence against Vikings trying to proceed upstream.

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