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.

Battle of Ashdown. Part 2.

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.

This battle against the Vikings  took place in 871AD just four days after the battle at Reading, and while Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred was still king. This battle was an important victory for King Æthelred and Alfred, sandwiched between the two losses at Reading and Basing.

Potential locations for this battle can be divided into two areas. Firstly, the more western sites  around White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, and secondly, about twenty miles to the east, sites on the Downs near Moulsford and Streatley, mainly in Oxfordshire but close to the modern boundary with Berkshire to the south.

This post looks at the second set of sites (click here for part 1). Over the past couple of centuries people have come up with various ideas and because there is no hard evidence it is difficult for anybody to be wrong. However, I think it is still possible to speculate on which sites are perhaps more probable.

A major consideration is the identification of the location of Ashdown itself. In the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  the location of the battle is called æscesdun. This Chronicle also tells us that in 1006, after the time of King Alfred, the Vikings proceeded from Cholsey, now in Oxfordshire, along Æscesdune, to a location known today as Scutchamer Knob, which is about 10 miles west of Cholsey. The general area between these sites may therefore be the æscesdun of 871. In fact, one can wonder whether all of the downs that straddle the current Oxfordshire-Berkshire border were once known as  Æscesdun.

A further consideration is the accessibility of the location for both the Vikings, who appear to have still been based at Reading, and for Alfred and King Æthelred who, four days earlier and after the battle at Reading, had been fleeing east across the river Loddon in the direction of Windsor. Perhaps importantly, the Thames would have allowed easy access by water from Reading to various locations, and an important ancient track called the Ridgeway would have facilitated east-west movements through this area. We also have preserved in the name Moulsford a possible fording point for crossing the Thames.

All this leads me to think that the battle possibly took place west of the Thames on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire downs. If you consult an Ordnance Survey map you will see the area that I am suggesting, which extends from Lowbury Hill in the west to Moulsford Bottom in the east. I feel that it is important to point out that other writers have come to similar conclusions.

Lowbury Hill (from the north)

I find the most tempting location in this area to be Lowbury HillAsser records that the Vikings held the higher position, and if you go up Lowbury Hill you will see that it is a site you would want to use. There is good visibility in all directions and it is close to the Ridgeway. One can envisage the Vikings being on this hill and the Saxons coming west along the Ridgeway, having perhaps forded the Thames at Moulsford, and encountering the Vikings who were at the top of the hill. A line drawn between Cholsey and Cuckhamsley Knob lies just north of here (and also Kingstanding Hill), so it seems to be in the general area of Ashdown. There are footpaths and bridleways that cross the downs, the main one of course being the Ridgeway, which will take you close to the hill.

There are two other locations in this area that have been put forward, and both seem plausible. One is Kingstanding Hill. On the Ordnance Survey map you will see a track heading south west near the hill that eventually becomes called The Fair Mile. It was possible to park at the litter-strewn beginning of this track. Views from the track as it ascends are limited by hedgerows, but there are one or two good views north and south.

On Kingstanding Hill, looking north over Starveall Farm and Moulsford Bottom, across to Moulsford Downs.

The other location is Moulsford Bottom. I found the best way of viewing this to be by following the footpath that runs from near Moulsford Pavilion. 

On a footpath heading west from Moulsford. Moulsford Bottom on the left and Kingstanding Hill ahead.

While at Moulsford you may wish to appreciate a particularly lovely stretch of the nearby Thames Path. This is the section south of Moulsford, accessed by going down Ferry Lane.  I sat down there on a warm late spring afternoon and watched three hobbys feeding over the water whilst red kites were circling overhead. A lovely spot.

Wherever the battle took place, it is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that it was almost two simultaneous battles at the same location, because the Vikings had split into two forces. King Æthelred took on the forces of the Viking kings and Alfred took on the forces of the Viking earls. 

The beautiful Lardons Chase. Great views to be had across the Thames Valley , Streatley and Goring.

Battle of Ashdown – Part 1. A white horse, a fort, and an unlikely musical instrument.

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.

This battle against the Vikings  took place in 871AD just four days after the battle at Reading, and while Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred was still king. This battle was an important victory for King Æthelred and Alfred, sandwiched between the two losses at Reading and Basing.

Potential locations for this battle can be divided into two areas. Firstly, the more western sites  around White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, and secondly, about twenty miles to the east, sites on the Downs near Moulsford and Streatley, mainly in Oxfordshire but close to the modern boundary with Berkshire to the south.

This post looks at the first set of sites. I shall come clean and say that I think the evidence fits better with the second group, which will be the subject of another post.  Look out for Ashdown Part 2!  However, there has been a strong tradition that the battle took place at or near to White Horse Hill, and what better excuse is required to explore this lovely part of England?

I hadn’t been to White Horse Hill for many years. I certainly can’t recall the red kites and ravens that are present there now. It is a beautiful place, but viewing the white horse from the ground isn’t easy. I heard that the best view was from Dragon Hill, but it wasn’t clear from there either. I think our ancestors must have intended it to be best appreciated from the sky.

The head of the horse, with flat-topped Dragon Hill in the distance

The best view of the horse that I could obtain from ground level

The presence of a white horse has been used to support the argument as to why this was the location of the Battle of Ashdown. Because there is a white horse near where the Battle of Ethandun is thought to have been fought, people seem to have assumed that this white horse in Oxfordshire denotes the Battle of Ashdown. There is no evidence that Alfred’s battle sites are connected to the presence of white horses.

The large Iron Age Uffington Fort is almost adjacent to the white horse, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been drawn into the tale of the Battle of Ashdown as being the possible Viking base.

The southern perimeter of Uffington Fort, with the Ridgeway following the line of the fence to the left

Uffington Fort, looking south

The site is clearly significant because of the horse, the fort and the Ridgeway running alongside. A short distance west along the Ridgeway is Wayland’s Smithy, a famous Neolithic long barrow and tomb.

It’s always a joy to be on the ancient Ridgeway

Heading in the other direction along the Ridgeway one comes to Blowingstone Hill.According to legend, Alfred rode up this hill and summoned his men by calling through aperforated sarsen stone that is now known as the Blowing Stone. Almost unbelievably, the reputed Blowing Stone is at the side of the road near a cottage as you drop down into Kingston Lisle.  Leaflets were available, which had the following instruction: “The secret is simply to close the hole completely with the mouth and then blow” 

This presented three problems. Firstly, which of the several available holes should I blow in to?  Secondly, hygiene. And thirdly, all of the holes were filled with dead leaves. So I gave it a miss.

The Blowing Stone

A location called Alfred’s Castle is a Bronze Age enclosure near Ashdown House, just south of Ashbury, and in Victorian times was considered a possible location for the Wessex troops prior to the Battle of Ashdown.

However, the site has only been called Alfred’s Castle since 1828, and it was previously called Ashbury, with that name apparently later transferred to the nearby village . In my opinion, there is insufficient evidence to connect this site with King Alfred. Ashdown House is 17th century, and perhaps drew it’s name from the local legends.

“Alfred’s Castle” Bronze Age enclosure

Sutton Courtenay

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.

There are numerous lovely villages in Oxfordshire, and this is certainly one of them. It has been speculated that this is where Alfred married Ealhswith in 868, around the time of the engagement with the Vikings at Nottingham.

One problem is that Asser tells us that the marriage took place in Mercia. Sutton Courtenay is close to the Thames, which acted as a border between Wessex and Mercia. But Sutton Courtenay is on the Wessex side! However, digging deeper, one discovers that parts of what was then Berkshire (and now Oxfordshire) were under Mercian control. So, on that criterion, Sutton Courtenay is possible as the location of the marriage.

Also of note are the significant archaeological findings. The popular archaeology television programme Time Team conducted a dig (video here) to the west of the village and they found the largest Anglo-Saxon hall in England and suggested that it was royal. However, one problem is that it seemed to be from an earlier period than the time of King Alfred, although we don’t know whether it’s size and significance persisted in some way. For those who like detail, the analysis of the dig is here.

Imagine a huge Anglo-Saxon great hall in these fields! Didcot power station in the distance.

There is also speculation that Sutton Abbey may be on the site of a former Anglo-Saxon royal vill.

The entrance to the Abbey at Sutton Courtenay

Because the site of Alfred’s marriage to Eahlswith is not certain, other sites are available for speculation.  In particular, Gainsborough in Lincolnshire has been put forward. This is on the basis that Ealhswith was the daughter of a chief of a people called the Gaini. However, the place-name may instead be based on an individual called Gegn and we can’t be certain that the Gaini were in this area anyway. Gainsborough is, however, in Mercia and only 40 miles or so from Nottingham, where we know Alfred was in 868. However, many, many places were in Mercia and there is nothing to say that he was anywhere near Nottingham in the year that he married.

Back to Sutton Courtenay, and leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind for a moment, I visited All Saints’ church and found it to be more significant than I had anticipated. Amongst other things, one can visit the graves of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) and the former British prime-minister, Asquith.

George Orwell’s grave

All Saints’ church

Wantage

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.

King Alfred was born in 849 and, according to Asser, Wantage was the place. This leads us directly into the argument about whether the “Life of Alfred” was written by Asser, or somebody later pretending to be Asser. I’ll perhaps write more on this in another post. Suffice to say for the moment that the main consensus is that Asser  did write the “Life of Alfred”, and therefore King Alfred was born at Wantage.

In the first half of the 9th century Berkshire (Wantage was in Berkshire then), or at least parts of it, appears to have been changing hands between Mercia and Wessex. An argument has been made that Alfred would not have been born in a potentially hostile Mercia. However, we cannot tell how hostile Mercia was in  849, and it also seems possible that this part of Berkshire was under Wessex control by then.

There has been much speculation about where the royal palace would have been. I explored these locations but my conclusion was that it is not possible to know for sure where it was.

I like Wantage. It has an old centre based around the market square, and in the middle of this you will see the famous statue of King Alfred, usually surrounded by parked cars. Largely on the back of successful regeneration, Wantage won the Best Town Centre in Britain competition in 2014. These efforts seem to have left a legacy and I am very pleased for Wantage to see this. Wantage also crops up in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure under the guise of “Alfredston”!

KIng Alfred in the Market Square

The plaque on the King Alfred statue

Outside of the centre there is a King Alfred’s Well (or Spring.)” However, it doesn’t seem possible to connect this to King Alfred and, in any case, it appears to be named after an Alfred Hazel, a 17th century cloth manufacturer!

The unassuming Alfred’s Well

It’s difficult to avoid King Alfred in Wantage!