It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Dorset was an important in the time of King Alfred. Important roles were played by Sherborne, Wimborne, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. An important engagement with the Vikings took place at Wareham. Undoubtedly, much went on that never made it into the historical sources that are available to us today. In this post I shall take a look at Shaftesbury.
King Alfred founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury and it is thought that this was at the same site as where the Normans later constructed their abbey. Although the Norman abbey is now a ruin, it is a delightful and evocative place to visit, as is the rest of the town.
Asser tells us that Alfred ordered the building of a monastery near Shaftesbury’s east gate and that his daughter Æthelgifu was appointed abbess. However, this is initially confusing because the Abbey is south-west of the centre, so it seems that it should have been by a west gate. But the modern centre appears not to align well with what was there in Alfred’s time and, when this is taken into account, the abbey was indeed at the eastern aspect of the town.
Unfortunately, no early source tells us when the nunnery was built. However, Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon indicates that it was after Alfred had restored London, and we know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Alfred took control of London in 886. This suggests that the nunnery may have been built in 886 at the earliest and 893 at the latest (because it had to be present at the time Asser was writing, believed to be 893).
However, Higden also tells us that around the time that Alfred restored the settlement of Shaftesbury in 880, Pope Marinus sent Alfred a piece of the “true cross.” Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicates that this was sent in 882. I found out that Marinus was pope between December 882 and May 884, indicating that the item could only have been sent in December 882. This led me to change my mind from believing that the abbey was built between 886 and 893 to a belief that it was in use by 882 or 883 because it seems plausible that the fragment of the true cross had been destined for either the new and important nunnery at Shaftesbury or the new abbey at Athelney, which was built at about the same time. In a generous attempt to make everything fit, one could argue that the nunnery might have come into use before its completion, with this being in the period 886-893, after King Alfred had restored London, although this itself must have taken some time to complete. The current location of this piece of the “true cross” is not known, although there is a reputed fragment of the true cross, which could be different to the one sent to Alfred, in St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Belgium.
Shaftesbury was clearly a very important place. In 980 the nunnery became the resting place of King Edward the Martyr after he had been murdered at Corfe Castle in 978 (he was initially interred at Wareham). His shrine became a focus for pilgrimage, and perhaps this was what King Canute was undertaking when he died at Shaftesbury in 1035. In 944 the site also became the burial place of Ælfgifu, who was the first wife of King Edmund who also became venerated as a saint. Elisabeth, the wife of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was also briefly held here.
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.
Many thanks to thisisalfred.com for taking an interest in my writing. Hopefully, a recorded chat that we had at the Abbey will be available soon.
The ford that lies on the border between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill is thought to be at the junction of two important Roman roads and the area is just a short distance north of the ancient track known as the Harrow Way (also known as the Hard Way). In fact, some of the nearby A303 main road lies on the course of this ancient trackway. Indeed, near Willoughby Hedge service station, the A303 (on the line of the Harrow Way) crosses one of the Roman roads that leads to the aforementioned ford, so this could be a significant location as well, and I expand on this in the book.
Kingston Deverill is also associated with a legend that three large stones were once brought down from Court Hill, adjacent to the village. These once served as stepping stones but were also considered to have been “Egbert’s Stones” (the early sources do not indicate that there was more than one). The name of Court Hill has also been brought into the story in that King Egbert (Alfred’s grand-father) “held court” on the hill. None of this can be proved, but it seems to me that this is the more likely location even without this legend. This is not only because of the proximity of important ancient routes, but also because following the river away from here is a plausible route to options for the location that Alfred went next, which was called Iglea (and the last stop before the Battle of Ethandun. The site also fits with Asser‘s description of Egbert’s Stone being in the eastern part of Selwood.
I visited the ford and found it to be a lovely spot that also seemed well cared for. Please note that there are signs saying that the ford is not suitable for vehicles to cross. If you visit Kingston Deverill, remember to visit the 15th century St Mary’s church (although there may have been an earlier structure) where I was delighted to find a banner depicting King Alfred, indicating that his connections with this area have not been forgotten.
There is a legend that Alfred prayed at a church at Monkton Deverill before the Battle of Ethandun, and this church later became dedicated to St Alfred the Great. The church is now a private residence, and appears to have been constructed more recently than the time of King Alfred, although there may have been an earlier structure on the site (I am not aware of any evidence of this).
When walking in the hills here I rarely see anyone else and it seems to me that this beautiful rural area is relatively under-visited. I recommend the stiff climb up towards Cold Kitchen Hill (itself an important site in pre-historic and Roman times) for the elevated views over the Upper Deverills that this provides.
Later on, I found an additional contender for Egbert’s Stone just south of the railway line, and on the county boundary, about a third of the way between Westbury and Frome. This appeared on OS maps as Ecbright’s Stone until 1901, after which it disappeared. However, this seems to be far too close to Edington (bearing in mind Alfred would camp an additional night somewhere else before the battle). Today the OS map marks it as a boundary stone, just on the edge of a feature called Round Wood, and perhaps that is all it ever was. Looking at maps, it seems that this site has no public access.
I made a video about Egbert’s Stone:
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I made a short video about these locations:
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.
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.
From there the route goes a short way down Pentonville Road until King’s Cross Road branches off, which it 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.
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.
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.
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.
So I finally got around to reading this book, which I had been avoiding in order not to confuse my mind whilst conducting my research on King Alfred. First off, let me say that it is beautifully written – I wish I could write like this. It is obviously thoroughly based on research and I find myself un-enthusiastic in pointing out things that I disagree with, because I know that there will be things that people disagree with in my writings (available on Amazon). But I hope to stick my neck out a little.
It seems that Bernard Cornwell moved the Battle of Cynuit forward by a year or so (his Historical Note tells us that he moved the Viking leader Ubba’s death forward, which amounts to the same thing, as he died at Cynuit). I found this difficult because whilst reading I had to constantly remind myself that it had not happened yet. I also found it confusing because it moved the battle of Cynuit to the same time as the Viking attack on Exeter in 876 instead of in 878 when Alfred was on the run and ended up at Athelney, an entirely different context.
Bernard Cornwell tells us in the Historical Note at the back of the book that he placed (following an argument put forward in a book by John Peddie) Cynuit at Cannington in Somerset. To me this does not seem possible as, although the precise location is not known, all of the early sources tell us that the battle took place in Devon.
There are other little things, like Alfred’s elder brother King Æthelred’s death in 871 being moved to after the Battle of Wilton instead of after the Battle of Meretun.
None of this should stop you reading this superbly written book. I fully intend to read the rest of the series. Although I had not read the book, I had seen season 1 of the TV series, shortly before I started my research. For those of you who are wondering whether they should read the book having watched the TV series, I would say “yes”, because for me it really did add something.
This is a peaceful spot and I always like coming here. I never cease to be amazed at how this modest location that was so important in the history of England is so under-visited.
King Alfred defeated the Vikings at the crucial Battle of Ethandun (likely to have been at Edington in Wiltshire) in 878. The Vikings fled to their fortress, which seems to have been at Chippenham, where they then surrendered.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that three weeks after the Vikings surrendered, the Viking leader Guthrum came, accompanied by thirty of his men, to be baptised into Christianity at a place near Athelney called Aller. Asser tells us that Alfred himself raised Guthrum from the baptismal font and that Guthrum became Alfred’s adopted son.
St Andrew’s church at Aller, like Athelney, is on raised ground in the Somerset Levels, suggesting that the church probably would also have been on an island in Alfred’s time. The oldest parts of the current church are 12th century, so the events of 878 must have taken place at a preceding structure. It has been claimed that a font in the church (the more bowl-shaped of the two fonts), recovered from the rectory pond in the nineteenth century, was the one used to baptise Guthrum. The church can be tricky to find. Coming from Langport direction, it is necessary to take a left turn onto the road called Church Path and then turn left where there is a wooden sign for the church. The church also has a small but beautiful King Alfred Window, which is a memorial to the two reigns of King Alfred and Queen Victoria.
It can be speculated as to why Aller, about fifty miles distant from Chippenham, was chosen as the location instead of somewhere closer. Perhaps Alfred did not trust Guthrum and this was deemed to be a safer location, or perhaps Aller was a more significant place then than it seems to us today. It might even be that Alfred knew Aller well if he came here to pray when he had his base at nearby Athelney.
Aller is only a few miles north-west of Langport, which must have been a significant place in Alfred’s time as it is included in the Burghal Hidage (a list of defended locations), drawn up under his son, King Edward the Elder. Although there is nothing that I could find to specifically connect King Alfred with Langport, it seems likely that he would have been there at some point.
I made a short video at Aller:
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To find out more about the book, click or tap the image below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 marked by a bishop’s mitre above the branch of Boots the Chemists.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Winchester, in Hampshire, is very aware of its associations with King Alfred. But what exactly are these, and what will we uncover if we dig into the detail?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Winchester had been destroyed by a ship-army in 860, although the attacking forces still lost. Asser (King Alfred’s companion and biographer) tells us that these attackers were Vikings, which perhaps comes as no surprise. However,we do not know where Alfred, who would have been about eleven years old, was at this time.
Although I have seen it implied that Winchester was Alfred’s “capital,” there is little evidence to indicate that Alfred’s court had been centered on a particular location in Wessex. However, we know that Alfred was at Winchester in 896 because he ordered the hanging of captured Vikings after they had run ashore on the Sussex coast. It has also been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, although I have seen no evidence to support this.
It seems that there must have been a royal estate at Winchester in Alfred’s time. Alfred does not give any land away at Winchester in his will, although this still allows the possibility that there was a royal estate that was just not owned by him personally, or was somehow under the control of the church instead. Winchester is also listed in the Burghal Hidage, being the account of Alfred’s defended settlements drawn up in the reign of his son, King Edward the Elder. Indeed it shared first place (with Wallingford in Oxfordshire) as the largest settlement in that document. It is indeed possible that the Old Minster (long destroyed – see below) and the royal residence were part of the same complex. It has been claimed that the royal palace was located directly to the west of the Old Minster (and therefore also directly west of the cathedral). I myself once sat on the lawn here (many do) to enjoy my lunch, without having the faintest idea about what might have once been there. As the tourists make a bee-line for the cathedral they may be unwittingly traversing something of competing significance.
Winchester had Roman walls and, although there is some evidence that the area within the walls became depopulated in the early Anglo-Saxon period, it seems that this area may have become repopulated by the time of King Alfred. I have seen it stated that the King’s Gate (or Kingsgate), to the south of the cathedral, had been the entrance through the walls to the royal palace. I have not seen anything to corroborate this, although this is possible as this would have been the closest gate to both the Old Minster and the site claimed to be that of the royal palace. The present gate is a later construction but might be nonetheless on the site or the original gate. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Alfred himself may have walked through here. I strongly recommend the nearby Wykeham Arms as a location in which to consolidate your thoughts. If that is not to your taste then perhaps visit the small church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate that is built into the walls above the gate.
It is generally accepted that what is now called High Street would have been the main street through Winchester in Alfred’s time. Following High Street to the west one comes to the Westgate, which is an impressive structure that includes some Anglo-Saxon fabric. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to walk a circuit of walls like it is in some other places. However, this did not stop me trying. The most pleasant stretch is to the south-west of the city, where there are actually walls to be seen. These are post-Roman, but generally lie on the route of the Roman walls. Indeed, at one point the wall has been excavated out to show the Roman wall inside. Much of the rest of the route of the wall is covered by buildings, some pleasant and some, in my opinion, quite ugly. There is even a huge multi-story car park on the route.
At the time of writing the location of the remains of King Alfred is not known. The different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out the relocations of Alfred’s remains. I therefore hope that what follows will help (alongside the above map). Important to our story are three buildings built close to each other in the centre of Winchester. These buildings, in their order of construction, were the Old Minster, the New Minster, and Winchester Cathedral. Today, the only building that remains is Winchester Cathedral. The Old Minster was just north of the current cathedral, and it is the outline of this building that you can see marked out today on the cathedral lawn. The New Minster was built in the reign of Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, to the north of the Old Minster, and he had his father’s remains interred there. However, the New Minster was not consecrated until 901, and Alfred, who had died in 899, was therefore initially interred in the Old Minster while the New Minster was being built. It had been King Alfred’s intention to have the New Minster built in his reign but by the time he died he had only managed to obtain the land. This is why the job of building the New Minster fell to his son. Alfred’s remains were joined in the New Minster by those of his wife Ealhswith when she died in 902. The Old Minster continued to exist alongside the New Minster until the cathedral was consecrated in 1093. The Old Minster was then demolished.
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.
Winchester did not suddenly have greatness thrust upon it at the time of King Alfred. In around 660 it became the episcopal seat of the diocese of Wessex, replacing Dorchester-on-Thames. Bede tells us that the remains of the missionary Birinus were transferred here as well while Hedde was bishop, giving us a date range of 649 (around when Birinus died) and 703 (when Hedde died). I argue elsewhere that Sherborne may for a period during King Alfred’s life have been as important, if not more so, than Winchester. However, before and afterwards this would have not been the case, and even during that period Winchester would have remained very important. That it was the seat of the important Swithun is an indication of this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Although I could find no evidence for King Alfred burning cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move.
The earliest source
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 Ethandun in 878).
The tale’s journey
The story of King Alfred burning 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 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 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 about King Alfred burning cakes 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.
Finally, it is interesting to note that this is not the only incident of burning bread in the legends. In the Viking Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar) Ragnar’s men are distracted in the farmhouse of a poor couple by the beauty of Ragnar’s second future wife (Kráka/Aslaug) and they burn the bread they were baking there. This was written in the 13th century and may be a coincidence.
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