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 and Surrey: Exploring a ‘hotspot.”

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.

I was contacted by somebody who noticed that there was a window depicting King Alfred in a church at Busbridge, not far from Godalming in Surrey. At first I thought that this window was just a random dedication to King Alfred, perhaps associated with the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of his death in 1901 (back then they thought he had died in 901 instead of what it is now know to be, which is 899). However, this for me set off a chain of events that led to me exploring Eashing, Godalming and Guildford. Each place was already significant to me in its own right, but there was no record of Alfred having been at any of them. However, when I looked at these places collectively it seemed to me unlikely that he would never have been at any of these places. Let me explain.

King Alfred window at St John the Baptist church, Busbridge

From the same window. This shows the now lost church at Tuesley, and the well to the left has become Ladywell Convent.

King Alfred’s will includes estates at Guildford, Godalming and Eashing, and the Burghal Hidage (a list of Alfred’s defended settlements after 878, but drawn up under his son, King Edward the Elder) includes Eashing.  These three locations are close together and are all on the River Wey, which flows into the Thames. Alfred’s connection to the area is remembered in a beautiful stained-glass window in the already mentioned Victorian church of St John the Baptist in Busbridge,  just a couple of miles south of Godalming (there are other stunning windows in this church). He is depicted above an image in the same window of a Saxon church at a place called Tuesley. Tuesley, just to the south-west of Busbridge, is the site of this now lost 7th century Saxon church, and it may be that there was a site of worship here going back to pagan times. It seems that Tuesley derives from the name of the pagan god Tiw , from which we also get “Tuesday”. It has been suggested that the settlement at Tuesley was a predecessor to the settlement at Godalming although, as Tuesley is mentioned in the 1068 Domesday book, the settlement would still have been present in Alfred’s time.  The location of this church is now a shrine to the Virgin Mary and is on land now owned by Ladywell Convent. At the time of writing there is access to this location every day except 21st December. It is a peaceful and beautiful site and I highly recommend spending some time there. We know that Alfred was pious and if he was in this area I think he would have come to this significant church. The shrine is on the other side of the road to the convent, and the access is through a gate down a very short track.

The shrine of the Virgin Mary inside a wall depicting the outline of the old Saxon church. I have read that this church had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

In Godalming there is good evidence that a church on the current site of the church of St Peter and St Paul would have been present in the 9th century , while King Alfred was alive, and it seems plausible that the church would have been associated with the royal estate there. The royal estate may therefore have been in this part of Godalming, potentially around Church Street, to the south of the church. I was told that an archaeological investigation was carried out before some new buildings were built to the south-west of the church and that hundreds of Anglo-Saxon skeletons had been discovered. However, when I visited Godalming’s museum (with its excellent and helpful staff) I found out that more mid to late-Saxon pottery had been found at the site of what is now Waitrose on Bridge Street, than anywhere else in Surrey and it was now thought that the “Royal Manor” could have been at this location instead, which is quite a distance from the church. However, it seems impossible to tell whether particular estates that Alfred left in his will comprised the whole of that named place or just a part of it. In other words, he might have left the whole of Godalming because he owned all of it. In this situation, looking for a separate “Royal Manor” would be a mistake.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Godalming.

We cannot be certain of the location of the royal estate at Guildford but it seems most likely that it would have been located where evidence suggests there was a Saxon presence.  Indeed, following the argument applied to Godalming, he may have owned all of what comprised Guildford at that time.It appears that the Saxon settlement at this time would have been in the area around St Mary’s church. There is evidence that this church may have been preceded by a timber structure. I was very grateful for the assistance given to me in my research by this church and a local historian, and I thank them here. I found it pleasant to wander around this area,which is essentially around Quarry Street. The remains of Guildford’s Norman castle are also in this area. 

St Mary’s Church and Quarry Street, Guildford

The main contender for the the fortified site at Eashing  is immediately to the east of the famous Eashing Bridges, which are marked on Ordnance Survey maps.  There is no public access across the site although a combination of roads and footpaths delineate the perimeter. It may be significant that this site would have been able to defended a crossing over the River Wey at the site of the Eashing Bridges. Today, the location is largely open space, and it is thought that this is because Guildford replaced it as the regional centre.

The author at the site of the burgh of Eashing.

The two sides that have a footpath are easy to find. I parked at the little car park on the other side of the historic bridges,walked across and then up the path leading uphill on the west side. From here I could really appreciate how the burgh would have been in an elevated position above the River Wey. But I could only see the (likely) site of the burgh when I got to the path that runs across the north of the site. It was just an open field, but I found that I could use my imagination. I decided not to follow the road for the two remaining sides of the square as it looked dangerous, with no footpath.