Winchester. Part one. The Centre.

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available on Amazon.

It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Thorneycroft's statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire
Thorneycroft’s statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire

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.

A section of a map of Winchester, Hampshire, from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move.
A section of a map of Winchester, Hampshire, from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

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.

The outline of the Old Minster in the lawn adjacent to Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
The outline of the Old Minster in the lawn adjacent to Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
North of Winchester Cathedral, and the site of the Old Minster. There isn't anything left to indicate that the New Minster would have once been here.
North of Winchester Cathedral, and the site of the Old Minster. There isn’t anything left to indicate that the New Minster would have once been here.

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.

King's Gate from the north. It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred's time, giving access to a royal residence.
King’s Gate from the north. It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred’s time, giving access to a royal residence.
King's Gate from the south It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred's time, giving access to a royal residence.
King’s Gate from the south It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred’s time, giving access to a royal residence.

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.

I have provided a short video here:

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 blog post for Hyde Abbey and the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains (Winchester, Part 2) is here.

 

The Wykeham Arms pub in Winchester, just outside the course of the Roman walls of Winchester
A perfect place to consolidate one’s thoughts.The Wykeham Arms pub in Winchester, just outside the course of the Roman walls of Winchester

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

Delving Deep

My apologies to many of you. This post will be somewhat heavier than the others. However, this is our history, right? And it is important to understand what stands behind what we think we know. So I shall take a brief look at a few of the key early documents that I have used to research King Alfred, a “man on the move.” There are of course many other later sources and I shall be compiling these into a reference list for my book. (Update: my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move is now published and available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.)

The most important source is the set of documents known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, with the oldest versions written solely in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a set of several documents that differ in detail. Where I refer to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is in the main manuscript A, sometimes known as the Winchester manuscript, that I am referring to. Although there are nine known versions (labelled by the letters A to I) we do not know how many there once were. All of the versions available to us today have been derived or copied from earlier documents. Nonetheless, it is thought that there was a single original document that has not survived. The parts of this original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that deal with Alfred are thought to have been written more or less at the same time that Alfred was king. Version A is the oldest and probably the closest to the original text and there is evidence that it was commenced in the last years of the ninth century, also while the king, who died in 899, was alive. Modern English translations are available and I encourage those with an interest to obtain a copy. Where I have obtained dates for events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, these are the adjusted dates that take into account the fact that in the past the New Year did not always commence onJanuary 1st. This may be important as readers may find, paticularly in older texts,that a different date (usually one year later) may be provided.

My well-thumbed copy of Michael Swanton’s work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. This book is highly recommended to anybody who wants to delve into Anglo-Saxon history.

I also refer to a chronicle written by a person called Æthelweard, which is thought to have been written in the  970s-980s. This is thought to bea translation from Old English into Latin of a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that differed from the others in some aspects. However, it stands separate from the versions A to I of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentioned above. Interestingly, Æthelweard was a descendant of Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred. Indeed, he was writing it for Mathilde, who was an abbess of Essen Abbey in today’s Germany who happened to be a direct descendent of King Alfred via  his son King Edward the Elder. Æthelweard’s chronicle is written in particularly difficult Latin. I was particularly grateful to have the support of the translation by John Allen Giles, published in 1906.

I also refer to Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis (history of the English), written in Lincolnshire in Early French in the 1130s. It is clear that for the period relevant to King Alfred a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was being used. It is possible that this version may have been lost and also that it may have differed from other versions. However, it seems impossible to know whether the information only available from Gaimar, such as Alfred’s fleeing to Whistley after the battle at Reading or the inclusion of Dorset forces in the run up to the Battle of Ethandune,  derives from a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or from a less reputable source.

This is a beautiful book. However, it may not be that easy to get hold of (at a sensible price!)

I also repeatedly refer to the writings of Asser, which has become known to us as The Life of King Alfred. Asser was a Welsh monk who spent much time with King Alfred and his writings are sometimes viewed as a biography of the King. Asser records that he was writing Alfred’s biography in 893, as in chapter 91 of his work he tells us that he was writing in Alfred’s forty-fifth year. It therefore seems that he was writing at about the same time that the original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  started to be written.

A superb piece of work by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. As you can see I have read it until it has fallen apart. Highly recommended. Several key documents (including the Life of King Alfred) dealt with in one book

However, there has been controversy over whether this work was written by Asser or by some other person at a laterdate pretending to be Asser. The arguments for the work having not been written by Asser were strongly put forward by Alfred Smyth, who instead suggested that a monk called Brythferth, who was attached to Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) penned or collated the document around the year 1000.  Indeed, I personally find that if one strips away from The Life of King Alfred what could have been obtained from other documents (including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) one is left wondering how a biographer could write so little about King Alfred that was new or different. Unfortunately, the only known ancient copy of The Life of King Alfred was burnt in a fire in 1731. However, an Archbishop of Canterbury called Matthew Parker, who had owned this copy, had published a printed (as opposed to hand-written) version in 1574. A problem is that Matthew Parker, apparently with a team of people working for him, added to and “improved” the text. Although modern eyes have spotted obvious additions, the more clever additions or changes may remain undetectable. We shall visit problem elsewhere when we look at the matter of King Alfred’s burning of the cakes.

An older book than the one by Keynes and Lapidge. However, a pleasure to read and full of detail. Has Asser in Latin for those who want that.

However, even if the Life of King Alfred had not been written by Asser, it does not necessarily mean that the contents are erroneous. For example, while other sources provide no indication of Alfred’s birth place, The Life of King Alfred tells us that Alfred was born at Wantage. It must still be the case that, even if the work was written around the year 1000 by someone other than Asser, the location of Wantage could have been correct and based on evidence available at that time. It is clear to me through my research that the predominant view is that the work of Asser was indeed written by Asser. However, I continue to entertain the possibility that The Life of King Alfred may not have been written by Asser, whilst accepting the possibility that the contents of this document may be largely factually correct. That the document is always correct is unlikely as there are known errors. For example, the author locates York on the north bank of the Humber, which it clearly is not. Fortunately, however, a large part of the historical events recorded by Asser are corroborated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Tap or click on the image below to find out more about my book. 

 

What about the Cakes?

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available at Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Although I could find no evidence that Alfred burnt any cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. When talking to people it is often the first thing that comes up. It first appears in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which seems to have been put together in the late tenth century, where it states that the burning of the cakes took place at Athelney (King Alfred’s refuge in the Somerset Levels prior to his successful reconquest of his kingdom that took place after his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandune in 878). The story of the cakes found its way from the Vita S Neoti  into a twelfth century compilation of documents that became known as the Annals of St Neots. Then in the sixteenth century it got lifted from the Annals of St Neots and inserted by the theologian Matthew Parker into his copy of Asser’s Life of King Alfred.  Because the writings of Asser have been viewed as a serious historical source, this must have given the story a real boost and is probably why it is so famous today. We cannot ultimately prove that it was inserted by Matthew Parker (as opposed to somebody even before him doing it) because the Life of King Alfred that he would have been working from was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there are no known surviving ancient copies. The result, nonetheless, was that for a significant period of time the story of the cakes was treated as an integral part of the writings of Asser, when this in fact was not the case.

In brief, the earliest version of the story tells us that Alfred turned up on his own at a pig farmer’s (subulcus, swineherd, was changed in the Annals to uaccarius, cowherd, for reasons unknown) cottage on Athelney where he was taken in and stayed for some days whilst he awaited God’s mercy, and keeping in mind the patience that had been demonstrated by the biblical Job. One day, while the pig-farmer was out taking his pigs to a field, the farmer’s wife started baking loaves of bread (not cakes), but then became occupied with other domestic duties. The loaves started to burn and the wife pointed out to Alfred that although he was quite happy to eat them, he hadn’t been so keen to turn them over when he could see that they were burning. It appears that Alfred was shaken but not stirred, and he proceeded to then turn the loaves over.

The tale was recast many times subsequently and I suspect a whole book could be written tracing these variations.

There is a legend that the story of Alfred burning of the cakes took place in a field south of the rectory at Brixton Deverill in Wiltshire. However, the Vita S Neoti clearly indicates that this supposed baking mishap took place at Athelney.

Tap or click the image below to learn more about my book.

 

Alfred and the Vikings in North Kent in 892.

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.

In 892 a Viking force of 250 ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent and in the same year another Viking force of 80 ships came to the north coast of Kent at a place called Middletune. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Alfred camped with his army between the two Viking armies. In trying to locate Alfred we therefore must try to find the locations that he set up camp between. It seems that the Viking camp in north Kent must have been in the general area of Milton Regis and Sittingbourne, but I could not resist trying to pin it down more specifically.

It is also possible that Alfred himself may have been at this site. The leader of the Vikings that landed on the north coast of Kent was called Hæsten and Alfred must have had some sort of contact with him as it emerges in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that a son of Hæsten had become a godson (as had Guthrum in 878) of Alfred. Clearly the history is incomplete, but it is possible that negotiations took place between Alfred and Hæsten at his site at Milton, or at Alfred’s site (another unknown location examined in a future post), or perhaps somewhere else.

Middletune is thought to be Milton Regis, which lies to the north of Sittingbourne, and is now part of that town. Milton was apparently a significant Saxon site. It is said that Queen Seaxburgh of Kent became a nun at the abbey she founded at MIlton, becoming St Seaxburgh, and that her son became king there in 680.

Castle Rough

The earliest reference that I found for this being the site for the Vikings that came to north Kent is in Edward Hasted’s 1797 writings on the history of Kent.  The location is just east of Kelmsley, to the west of Milton creek, and close to the evocatively named Saxon Shore Way. It has been suggested that Castle Rough would have been a man-made island. Evidence from limited examination by Sittingbourne and Swale Archaeological Research Group indicated that the lowest parts of the mound contained 13th-14th century pottery, and therefore must have been built after the time of King Alfred. Although this does not rule out this site, because a more extensive examination may have produced more evidence, it does cast doubt upon this being the site of the Viking camp. The location is also moated, which may indicate a date later than the time of King Alfred. Oliver Rackham found that to his knowledge there were no mentions of moats in Anglo-Saxon charters, in place names, or in Domesday. It is therefore possible that moats were a later development. Oliver Rackham also suggested that moats may have become status symbols, which may have been the case here as a moat of this relatively small size would have been largely ineffective against a determined army. It seems that Castle Rough may have been a medieval moated manor, although we cannot rule out that it was something else previously. It was not easy to observe Castle Rough. I pulled over near a gate when driving north along Swale Way, just after crossing over Milton Creek and the Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway. I crossed the road on foot and from this elevated position I fancied that I could pick out Castle Rough. However, I needed my Ordnance Survey map to guide my eye to the approximate location.

Looking across from the road to the site of Castle Rough, Milton Regis, near Sittingbourne in north Kent, where the Vikings may have set up a camp in 892.
Looking across from the road to the site of Castle Rough, Milton Regis, near Sittingbourne in north Kent, where the Vikings may have set up a camp in 892.

I came across a rumour that the camp was under a canteen at the Kemsley paper mill (close to Castle Rough), but I have been unable to find anything to support this.

The former Kemsley paper mill, near Milton Regis, Sittingbourne, north Kent. On the site of the Viking camp?
The former Kemsley paper mill, near Milton Regis, Sittingbourne, north Kent. On the site of the Viking camp?

Bayford Castle and Bayford Court

The former location of a place called Bayford Castle, on the other side of Milton Creek to Castle Rough,  may have been the site of the Viking fortification. However, Hasted, in his 1797 writings on the history of Kent  tells us that it was Alfred who built some fortifications against the Vikings on the other side of Milton Creek from Castle Rough at “Baford-castle.” It should be noted that Hasted appears to be an early originator (if not the originator) of the legend that Castle Rough had been the Viking fortification.

The location of Bayford Castle appears on older Ordnance Survey maps with an indication that it was erected in 893. By the time of the 1960 map references to the location had disappeared. There is nothing for the casual visitor to see there now as the location appears to be approximately where there are now industrial units to the east of a karting track. Although evidence is lacking in terms of it being either a Viking or Saxon site, it is at least in a suitable location being near to  Milton Creek.

To confuse matters, maps dating to 1590 show that the location of Bayford Castle used to be called Castle Ruffe. I haven’t seen anything to explain why the name of Castle Ruffe disappears from the east side of Milton Creek and then a Castle-ruff (later becoming “Castle Rough”)  appears on the other side of the Milton Creek in the 1797 writings of Edward Hasted.

There has been confusion with Bayford Court, which is south of where Bayford Castle appears to have been. This site is located near the centre of Sittingbourne in an industrial area north of Eurolink Way just off Crown Quay Lane. The remains of the Bayford Court moat  are marked on the Ordnance Survey map and it was possible to pull over and have a look.  However, as described under Castle Rough, moats may have been a later development, and nor is the moat here sufficiently wide to stop a determined army. I therefore feel that although Bayford Court may be an interesting old location, the evidence does not stack up sufficiently for it to be seriously considered as a site for the Viking fortification.

The moat at Bayford Court, Sittingbourne, north Kent.
The moat at Bayford Court, Sittingbourne, north Kent.
The moat at Bayford Court, Sittingbourne, north Kent.
The moat at Bayford Court, Sittingbourne, north Kent.

It seems that although we know that the Viking fortification was at Milton , we cannot locate it precisely. It could, of course, have been located somewhere other than the three locations described above.

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. 

 

Swinbeorg. Is it or isn’t it?

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon.

Swinbeorg is an unidentified location that is mentioned in Alfred’s will where he describes an assembly having taken place at which inheritance matters were discussed.  Although this might seem quite mundane there are limited places where we might be able to pin the location of Alfred down quite precisely. If we could find this location it would in fact therefore be quite exciting! The context of the entry in his will indicates that this meeting would have taken place when King Alfred’s brother Æthelred was still alive but after the Viking emergency commenced (i.e. between 870 and the summer of 871). It has been speculated that this would have been at the presumed Anglo-Saxon meeting place called Swanborough Tump near Manningford Abbots in the former Swanborough Hundred in Wiltshire.

The monument in the countryside near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)
The monument in the countryside near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)

Although this seems tempting, the vowel change is problematic as even in 987 the place-name began with “Swan” and not “Swin.” However, I am not aware of any other proposed location so it seems that this site could indeed be Swinbeorg. A plaque at the location indeed decares this to be the case!

The site is easy to visit, being at the roadside on a quiet Wiltshire country lane. It is west of Pewsey and is marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

Detail from the monument near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)
Detail from the monument near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)

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.

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.

In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 2: King Alfred’s Tower

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 Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandun where the Vikings were defeated.

King Alfred’s Tower is frequently suggested as being at or near the site of Egbert’s Stone, and I read some material dating from 1901 that there had been a local tradition that a beacon had been lit here as a signal for the gathering of Alfred’s forces.

King Alfred Tower, Somerset.
King Alfred Tower, Somerset.

This building is a folly, built from 1762 onwards, and is in a lovely location surrounded by woodland on Kingsettle Hill in Somerset. The first thing that struck me about this monument is it’s size. It is huge. Indeed, an american military aeroplane crashed into it in 1944. The second thing that struck me was it’s unusual three-sided shape. I understand the views from the top are excellent but it was closed when I visited. But is this the site of Egbert’s stone?  The road that goes past the tower is again the ancient Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way), with the ancient name surviving at the nearby Hardway Farm. This is the same Hard Way / Harrow Way that crops up in relation to Willoughby Hedge (in a future post) and the Battle of Basing.

The statue of King Alfred the Great, high up on King Alfred's Tower, Somerset.
The statue of King Alfred the Great, high up on King Alfred’s Tower, Somerset.

From the evidence available, it is, however,  difficult to define the location of King Alfred’s Tower as east of, or in the eastern part of, Selwood, which is required to fit the description given by Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The location is adjacent to an important ancient route (the Hard Way), but this does not seem enough to determine this to be the spot, or even a candidate, for being the correct location of Egbert’s Stone.

King Alfred's Tower, Somerset. An unusual three-sided folly
King Alfred’s Tower, Somerset. An unusual three-sided folly

Kilmington Common

Kilmington Common was put forward by a Dr Williams-Freeman in the 1950s . Kilmington Common is the name of the village and it lies about a mile east of Alfred’s Tower. The west-east road and track, named Tower Road and Long Lane respectively, lie on the route of the ancient track called the Hard Way, which is  the same Hard Way that goes past King Alfred’s Tower. I parked near where Tower Road meets the village and walked a short distance down the track called Long Lane, partly to appreciate that this was a potential site for Egbert’s Stone and partly for the simple enjoyment of walking on the ancient Hard Way. I looked over to where “the common” is marked on the OS map, but there was little to see apart from crops. Although the case for this location is supported by evidence that tracks ran in other directions near here, it seems difficult to define this location as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood. I therefore consider this to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone.

On the Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way) ancient trackway near Kilmington Common, in Wiltshire. Did King Alfred the Great pass down here after he left Athelney en route to the Battle of Ethandun?
On the Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way) ancient trackway near Kilmington Common, in Wiltshire. Did King Alfred the Great pass down here after he left Athelney en route to the Battle of Ethandun?

Part three is now available and includes the Deverills in Wiltshire.

You can view my video on Egbert’s Stone below:

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

In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 1: The meeting point of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.

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 Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandun where the Vikings were defeated. It is notable that  Dorset is not mentioned. However, Dorset may be an omission because Gaimar indicates that this county was involved.

Tradition has it that King Egbert, Alfred’s grandfather,  marked the point where Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire met with a large stone on the bank of the River Stour. However, it may be unreliable to assume that the counties met at the same location in Egbert’s or Alfred’s time. The woodland then would have extended further south ( as indicated in this book) into today’s Dorset, and because there is some evidence that the edges of the wood were used as boundaries, it is possible that the border could have been further south than it is today. However, I have not seen anything to indicate where any older of boundary might have been.

I drew upon John Peddie’s reference (in this book) to Coombe Street, which is west of Zeals and north of Bourton, as a claimed location. Travelling west, the road crossesthe river where a sign indicates that you have arrived at Pen Selwood. The Stour is narrow at this point, which is unsurprising as its source is at nearby Stourhead. However, I saw no evidence of a significant stone.

The River Stour at Coombe Street near Pen Selwood. No Egbert's Stone to be seen.
The River Stour at Coombe Street near Pen Selwood. No Egbert’s Stone to be seen.

There seems to be an impression locally that a stone at Bullpits Golf Course is Egbert’s Stone. However, I have been told that this is not the case. Nearby Factory Hill crosses the Stour at a point where there was once a mill. When I visited this area it was in the process of being developed for housing. There is a footpath that comes off Kite’s Nest Lane that takes you close to where the three counties meet and water can be seen to your right as you walk up. However, maps show that the exact point at which the three counties meet is very close by but on private land, so I was unable to establish whether there was a stone there. However, the quest was not necessarily to find the stone but to find where Alfred brought his troops together, and if this indeed took place where the three counties now meet, then I was satisfied that I had found the spot. 

The White Lion Inn at Bourton, north Dorset. A lovely place to take a break from explorations, and the food and beer are superb.
The White Lion Inn at Bourton, north Dorset. A lovely place to take a break from explorations, and the food and beer are superb.

However, it seems logical that Alfred would have used a meeting point that was strategic in terms of routeways and other factors rather than an obscure location where three administrative boundaries now meet.  From the evidence available, it also seems difficult to define this as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood, which is required in order to fit Asser‘s and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ descriptions of the location. For these reasons I consider this site to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone. It is possible that somebody wished to mark the junction of the three counties with a stone and that this has somehow become tangled up with the record of Alfred’s assembling of troops from different counties. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not include Dorset as a county providing forces (although Gaimar does), which further weakens the case for Egbert’s Stone being located here.

Michael Wood, the historian and television presenter, attributes the location of Egbert’s Stone to Penselwood, which is very close to the junction between the three counties, although I don’t know whether that was the reason why he chose it. Pen Selwood is also the supposed location of the Battle of Peonnum, which had been an important victory for the Saxons in 658. However, this was before the time of King Egbert so I cannot see how his name would have become associated with this.

Parts two and three of my Egbert’s Stone posts are now available.

Superb Egbert's Stone Ale, made by the Copper Street Brewery in Dorchester, Dorset, on the pump in the lovely Royal Standard pub, Upwey, Weymouth.
Superb Egbert’s Stone Ale, made by the Copper Street Brewery in Dorchester, Dorset, on the pump in the lovely Royal Standard pub, Upwey, Weymouth.

You can view my video on Egbert’s Stone below:

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.

King Alfred in Kent. Part 1: Maidstone

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon.

The River Medway at Maidstone, Kent. Looking south from Maidstone Bridge, with the Archbishop's Palace and All Saints' Church in the distance to the left
The River Medway at Maidstone, Kent. Looking south from Maidstone Bridge, with the Archbishop’s Palace and All Saints’ Church in the distance to the left

In 892  a Viking force of 250 ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent and in the same year another Viking force of 80 ships came to the north coast of Kent.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings were at Milton (Milton Regis) to the north and at Appledore to the south, and that Alfred camped with his army between the two raiding armies. Anyone who travels around Kent will soon appreciate the difficulty of simultaneously monitoring these two areas from a single location, because they are quite far apart, so he must have had additional outposts, and perhaps this is what some of the alternative locations (later posts will address these) put forward as Alfred’s base actually were. Indeed, this would fit with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle telling us that burga (fortresses) were being held.

Milton has now become part of Sittingbourne and was accessible from the Swale via the Milton Creek. Appledore is a lovely village that would have been accessible to the Vikings by following the route of the River Limen (now the Rother) as it would have existed at that time.

Although other possibilities exist, Maidstone has been put forward as a serious contender for the location of Alfred’s base during this Kent emergency.

A crossing of the Medway at Maidstone was developed in saxon times  and it has been proposed that the town may have been part of a saxon royal estate with significant ecclesiastical connections.

Maidstone is on the Medway, but it is also  at the crossing of a Roman route from Rochester to Hastings (Margary 13) with a possibly ancient track from Ashford to London, now represented by the A20 either side of Maidstone. It has been suggested that in Saxon times Maidstone grew up around this crossing.

Identifying this crossing may help us establish an approximate location of Alfred’s position, if he was based at Maidstone. It  appears to be where Week Street, King Street, Gabriel’s Hill and High Street meet. When I visited this location, it was clear that it was near the top of a hill. Such sites are generally strategic.

Looking west down the High Street from the probable site of the origin of Maidstone (at the ancient crossing) in Kent
Looking west down the High Street from the probable site of the origin of Maidstone (at the ancient crossing) in Kent
As above, but now looking east towards King Street in Maidstone, Kent.
As above, but now looking east towards King Street in Maidstone, Kent.

However, King Alfred lived in the later Saxon period, and by then Maidstone may have developed beyond the vicinity of the junction described above, making it more difficult to define precisely where Alfred might have been.

The location of the former church of St Mary the Virgin may be an important clue . By the 11th century this church was a minster with 17 dependent churches. Some sort of settlement around this site in Alfred’s time would appear to be likely as it would have taken time for a church to build up this level of significance. This church, which was by the Medway, no longer exists, but it is suggested  that the site is at the approximate location of, or even beneath, All Saints’ Church, which replaced it in the 1390s.

All Saints' church, Maidstone, Medway, Kent
All Saints’ church, Maidstone, Medway, Kent

The oldest parts of the nearby Archbishop’s Palace date to the 14th century, but the location was likely to have been the site of a manor that we know existed because in 1086 it was being held by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is therefore possible that there had been a manor here at the time of King Alfred.

The Archbishop's Palace, Maidstone, Medway, Kent
The Archbishop’s Palace, Maidstone, Medway, Kent

On visiting this area my attention was drawn to an information board  that referred to a track  called Knightrider Street going down to the Medway where it could once be forded. I feel that the possibility of being able to easily cross the Medway at this point adds weight to this part of Maidstone, potentially the manor referred to above, being the location for King Alfred’s camp.

Looking down Knightrider Street to the location where there used to be a ford across the River Medway in Maidstone, Kent
Looking down Knightrider Street to the location where there used to be a ford across the River Medway in Maidstone, Kent

I found myself being impressed by the collection of historic buildings, including All Saint’s Church and the Archbishop’s Palace, and it was pleasant to partake in a small circular riverside walk in this area, made possible by the Millenium and Maidstone Bridges. It is worth noting that the latter was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, of Thames Embankment and London sewers fame.

Maidstone is also close to what appears to have been the original Pilgrim’s Way, which was on the route of an ancient trackway. In addition, Maidstone may have offereda direct route to the vicinity of both Milton Regis.  In the other direction, there may have been access to the area around Appledore via a route about which we now have no knowledge.

However, Maidstone is much closer to Milton than it is to Appledore, and it is quite a way off a line running between these two places. We therefore possibly run into trouble with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle having told us that Alfred set up camp between the two raiding armies.

Overall, I feel that Maidstone must have been involved. It seems to have been an important site and it was not far from a Viking base at Milton Regis.

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. 

 

Alfred and the Vikings at Rochester

Rochester, Kent. Plaque showing where the East Gate in the Roman walls once was.

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.

Rochester is a lovely and historic city, worth visiting in its own right. However, this city was clearly a  target for the Vikings. Rochester had already been sacked by the Vikings in 842, before Alfred was born. However, it was attacked by the Vikings again in 884, but this time King Alfred saw them off.

You may wish to open a map application to help you get the most out of the below. Otherwise just relax and read on.

The records indicate that on arrival in 884 the Vikings built a fortress around themselves, and we know that this must have been outside of Rochester’s walls because it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that the inhabitants defended the settlement. Asser tells us that the Viking fortification was at the entrance to the town but, unfortunately for modern-day investigators, there were four entrances, and so the precise location of the Viking fortification has remained unknown. Alfred later arrived with his forces in 885, and locating the site of the Viking fortification could shed light on where and how Alfred might have engaged with the Vikings and saw that they left. Fortunately, the outline of Rochester’s Roman walls is known. It has been suggested that there would be no Saxon-built stone walls, so the configuration of the walls in 885 should have remained perhaps unchanged since Roman times.

Rochester Bridge over the River Medway (looking north), Kent.
Rochester Bridge over the River Medway (looking north), Kent.

There had been four gates in the Roman walls. A northern “Bridge Gate” that opened on to the position of the Roman bridge across the River Medway. A north gate, which is more east than north, an east gate that is more south than east, and a south gate that is more west than south. The confusion is explained when one realises that the name seems to indicate the direction in which one could travel  after passing through a particular gate, rather than the orientation of the gate itself.

There is evidence that the East Gate was about where the City Wall Wine Bar on High Street is located. On visiting I noticed that the outline of the gate was helpfully marked out with bricks in the pavement and the road, with a metal plaque in the pavement confirming the location.

The outline on the ground of the East Gate in the walls of Rochester, Kent. Easily missed. Had there been a Viking fortification just past the lamp post?
The outline on the ground of the East Gate in the walls of Rochester, Kent. Easily missed. Had there been a Viking fortification just past the lamp post?

The North Gate appears to be preserved in the current road name of Northgate. It has been suggested that this gate might have just lead to marshy ground. However, there has also been speculation that it may have led to a harbour. Evidence suggests that the Noth Gate would have been approximately where today Northgate meets Corporation Street, being approximately equidistant from Watling Street (which ran along a line close to that of the current High Street) on one side as the cathedral is on the other. This location seems to be consistent with an existing piece of wall that one can see at the back of The Common car park, accessible via Gas House Road and then Acorn Wharf Road. However, the line of bricks in the road at Northgate, outside the Corn Exchange, suggests that at least some person may have thought that the gate may have been not quite as far down Northgate as the junction with Corporation Street. However, I could find no plaque to explain the reason for the bricks embedded into the road at this point.

Rochester, Kent. A line in the road called Northgate which seems to be there to indicate the line of the wall, but might it (and the North Gate) have been a little bit further down somewhere near the junction with Corporation Street towards the right on the photo?
Rochester, Kent. A line in the road called Northgate which seems to be there to indicate the line of the wall, but might it (and the North Gate) have been a little bit further down somewhere near the junction with Corporation Street towards the right on the photo?

The Romans built a bridge at Rochester and a bridge is recorded as present in 960, so a bridge may well have been maintained in the intervening period, including at the time of the Viking attack in 885. This bridge across the Medway is thought to have remained in approximately the same location as today. The location of the gate by the bridge (which I have seen referred to as both Bridge Gate and West Gate) has not been proved although it must have existed in order to allow access to and from the bridge. The gate would most likely have been more or less in line with the bridge. However, the modern bridge is much wider than it has been in the past. Fortunately, the entrance to the old bridge is marked by  black lions, which perhaps allows us to speculate that the Bridge Gate would have been at the point where a line drawn from the bridge would have met the town wall.

Rochester, Kent. The north end of High Street, looking north towards the bridge over the River Medway. If it still existed today, the Bridge Gate would surely be in this picture.
Rochester, Kent. The north end of High Street, looking north towards the bridge over the River Medway. If it still existed today, the Bridge Gate would surely be in this picture.

It is thought that the South Gate would have been just before where Boley Hill meets St Margaret’s Street, and there is a helpful plaque on a wall that identifies the location. One can wonder whether, if the Viking fortification had been outside this gate, the location would have been where Boley Hill House and Lodge now stand, near the junction of Boley Hill with St Margaret’s Avenue.

The plaque on the wall where the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent, is thought to have been.
The plaque on the wall where the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent, is thought to have been.

The site of the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent (plaque on the wall to the right). Looking to the east along Boley Hill
The site of the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent (plaque on the wall to the right). Looking to the east along Boley Hill

I did not find it possible to exclude any of the entrances as a possible site for the Viking fortification, although I favour the Bridge Gate because the Vikings had a tendency to use waterways and, by blocking the Bridge Gate, they could fend off any support for Alfred from that direction. I was also told by a helpful volunteer at the cathedral that the Bridge Gate currently appears to be the narrow favourite! I thought it unlikely that an attacking force would cross the bridge, because such structures restrict the flow of men, making them more vulnerable. If there really had been docks beyond the North Gate it is possible that they could have disembarked there. Alternatively, the Vikings could have disembarked at Chatham and then came up Watling Street to the East Gate of Rochester.

Plenty to think about. When you get a chance, pay Rochester a visit, have a look for the sites of the gates of the Roman walls, and see what you think! Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle are well worth a visit. You can also see the outline of the Saxon church outlined in the ground partly inside and partly outside of the cathedral.

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.