The Battle of Meretun took place two months after the battle at Basing. Alfred and his brother were fighting against the Vikings, but lost, which is what also happened at Basing. There appear to be two main candidates for the location of this battle, one being Martin in Hampshire and the other being Marden in Wiltshire. However, we have very little to go on and other places with similar names are possible. Merdon Castle, in Hampshire, is another possibility, although I have been unable to discover whether this name was acquired after the Norman Conquest. The place that seems to make the most sense to me is Martin in Hampshire, which is a village just south of the A354 main road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum.
King Æthelred (Alfred’s elder brother) died after the Battle of Meretun and he was buried at Wimborne in Dorset. It is therefore possible that he died from wounds sustained in battle but it is also possible that he lived a little longer and died of something else. If he had died of his wounds then it may be relevant to point out that Wimborne is not very far from Martin (about 14 miles). Indeed, the Roman road known as Ackling Dyke runs past Martin on its way to Badbury Rings, which is only four miles from Wimborne.
The geographic feature called Martin Down lies a short distance to the west of Martin and there one can explore the famous Bokerley Ditch, which pre-dates the time of Alfred, but perhaps could have been used strategically in battle. Bokerley Ditch also cuts across a Roman road so it could have been used for either side to attack the other coming up that route. To the north this Roman road is still a bridleway and to the south it is now under the A354, so it seems likely that it would have been in use in Anglo-Saxon times. Interestingly, the county boundary between Dorset and Hampshire in this area still follows Bokerley Ditch. One can speculate as to why the Vikings might have been at Martin, and it occurs to me that a contingent from the base at Reading may have been trying to get west, perhaps to Exeter. The Vikings would indeed attack Exeter in 876 and 893, and it therefore seems plausible that they would have liked to have done so in 871.
It may be impossible to disprove that the battle took place at Marden (Wiltshire) instead, but the place-name of Marden seems to have derived from Mercdene, quite dissimilar to Meretun. A charter issued by King Edmund between 944 and 946 shows Martin in Hampshire being referred to as Mertone, which is not much different from the Meretun of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. I therefore think Marden is a less likely location than Martin for the battle of Meretun.
I was also tempted by Marten in Wiltshire (yes, this does get confusing), largely because of its proximity to the Inkpen Ridgeway, connecting it to Basing, the location of the previous battle. I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image.
At least two Kings of Wessex were buried at Sherborne. It was the most important ecclesiastical location in an area covering Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. One of Anglo-Saxon history’s most important characters, Asser, King Alfred’s companion and “biographer” became bishop here. I believe there is a plausible case to be made for this to have been the most important place in Wessex until shortly after King Alfred died (when Winchester appears to have become more important). This of course challenges what you might read elsewhere, in that Winchester was King Alfred’s “Capital”. There is no evidence that this was the case.
Sherborne’s most important feature is its abbey, and it is here that two elder brothers of King Alfred, Æthelbald (died 860) and Æthelberht (died 865) were buried, and I consider it likely that Alfred would have been present at their funerals, or would have at least visited their resting places. He would have been about eleven years old at the time of the first death, and about sixteen at the time of the second. It is also possible that a third brother of Alfred was buried at Sherborne as well. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, with the exception of the B version, have this brother, Æthelred, buried at Wimborne (Dorset), but the B version tells us that he was buried at Sherborne. I consider that this contradiction can be resolved by considering that Æthelred may initially have been interred at Wimborne and then later moved to Sherborne, probably because of the relative importance of the latter location. That the other two brothers had been interred at Sherborne supports the idea that this place was more important than Wimborne.
There is a plaque in the abbey indicating the approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath. However, I was told that it is not really known whose remains these are.
It is significant that Asser, King Alfred’s companion and biographer, and from whose writings we derive so much information, became bishop of Sherborne at some time in the 890s, while King Alfred was still alive, and it appears that he continued in this role until his death in 909, ten years after Alfred had died. In order to understand the importance of Sherborne in Alfred’s time it is important to appreciate that it had a huge diocese, created by King Ine of Wessex in 705, that extended all the way down to Land’s End in Cornwall. The Abbey still has Saxon elements despite much of the earlier church being demolished by Roger of Caen to be replaced by a larger Norman one. As you walk around Sherborne it is easy to be unaware of just how important this place would have been. In my opinion it must have been one of the most important places in Wessex, perhaps even the most important, in a period before Winchester would be able to claim that title.
I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
The following article on King Alfred and Wimborne 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.
Death of Æthelred
Wimborne (or Wimborne Minster) is a significant historic town in Dorset and is the location of the important Wimborne Minster, which has a history going back to the 8th century. Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after the 871 AD battle at Meretun (unknown location, but possibly Martin in Hampshire) King Æthelred, Alfred’s older brother, was buried at Wimborne. However, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tells us that he was buried at Sherborne, which seems plausible as the two previous kings and brothers of Alfred, Æthelbald and Æthelbehrt, had been buried there. I consider it possible that Æthelred was initially interred at Wimborne, and then later moved to Sherborne, probably because of the relative importance of the latter location. It is further recorded that Alfred had been present at his brother’s funeral rites, which is what we would expect.
Alfred becomes King
We know that Alfred himself became king after the death of King Æthelred, although the location where this formally took place has not been recorded. I suggest, however, that there is a good chance that Alfred became king at Wimborne, particularly if he had already been designated as next in line, which Asser tells us was the case. Alfred’s immediate elevation on the death of his brother also makes sense in the context of the kingship having run sequentially through Æthelwulf’s sons up to that point. It should be borne in mind, however, that just because we are told that Æthelred had been buried at Wimborne does not mean that he died there, with this meaning that Alfred could have become king somewhere else. Nonetheless, Wimborne seems plausible because we know that it had significance because the royal estate there was seized in 899 by Æthelwold after Alfred’s death (if it was significant in 899 it seems likely that had been so in 871).
The battles that took place in 871 indicate that Wessex was clearly in a state of emergency at the time King Æthelred died, and perhaps the formal ceremonial arrangements of Alfred’s accession were delayed until the relatively peaceful period between 872 and 874 when the Vikings that had been at Reading were causing trouble in Mercia and Northumbria instead. If there was ever a formal ceremony, we have no evidence of it. It has been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, but I have seen no evidence of this. Furthermore, it appears that Kingston-upon-Thames had not yet become (as it would) the favoured site for the consecration of the Anglo-Saxon kings.
The relationship between King Alfred and Wimborne is an interesting one.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
Update on the plaque in Wimborne Minster.
I came across some articles of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, which shed further light on the plaque (or, more correctly, plaques. The 1918 contribution by Reverend Almack reminds us that restoration took place 1855-7. he goes on to tell us that the slab that had been over the remains of King Æthelred “was cut away, in spite of protest, and only the portion sufficient to cover the brass was allowed to remain.” We are also told that during restoration the remains of a tesselated pavement and the bases of columns were observed, which has led to speculation that the first church here was built over a Roman temple. However, the authors of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments suggests that this may have been from the original church of St Cuthburh.
This monument was clearly a hot topic as in the 1919 issue there is a long article by Reverend Fletcher, which he had read out in 1918. In this he states that the plaque(s) were “placed in the floor on the north side of the sanctuary at Wimborne Minster, about 15 ft from the east wall, and consists of three metal plates.” Of course, today, the plaques are on the wall and not on the floor. The author reminds us that brasses were not used in England until about the 13th century, although this one may be more recent, possibly 15th century. Therefore, the brass cannot be contemporaneous with the death of Æthelred. Furthermore, the author points out that the section with script is even more recent and is copper not brass. This second inscription plate was found to be a palimpsest and may be 18th century (Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club Proceedings 1919, p32)
So, where are King Æthelred’s remains? Unless there is a huge coincidence, we can be sure that they are not where the plaque is, because it has been moved at least once, and is not contemporaneous with his death in any case. It is possible, however, that when the brass sections were made they were placed at the (at least claimed) location of his remains, which would have been within the footprint of the Saxon church and probably near the altar. This would have been just to the east of the crossing, which seems to have stayed in the same place over time (RCHM. Dorset. Vol V; East). It needs to be recalled, however, that he may have been moved to Sherborne. If he had been moved to Sherborne, there was still a record of him by Leland in 1536 at Wimborne.
Leland describes the text on the plaque, which is the same as we have now except for a different (and obviously wrong) date. Camden, writing in 1586, tells us that the tomb had been recently repaired, so it is possible that the date was corrected then and that the text part of the plaque that we have now dates to that time. Or perhaps Camden just wrote the wrong date down and the plaque did not need correction at the time of the repair. Leland also tells us that by 1828 Æthelred’s tomb had been by that of St Cuthberga, which was at the north side of the Presbytery (chancel). He goes on to tell us that St Cuthberga was then moved to the east end of the altar. St Cuthberga is hugely important to this church, but I will have to go into that further elsewhere, time permitting.
Things are further complicated by the finding (as reported by a Dr Smart in The Genetleman’s Magazine, 1865) that when enlarging a vault under the presbytery in 1837, a skeleton of a man was exhumed at the north east corner, near the site of the original altar. This man was 6ft 4 ins tall. Could this have been Æthelred? It certainly seems a suitable location. This same source includes a suggestion that Æthelred died of his wounds at Witchampton (north of Wimborne), based on this being a similar name to “Whittingham”, a place mentioned by earlier writers, such as Camden. However, we don’t know where Camden got this from and, in any case, Witchampton does not seem to connect with the name Whittingham (Mills, Place Names of Dorset. Part 2)
The keen-eyed will note that the upper portion of Æthelred’s sceptre has been broken off.
A King Sigferth was also buried at Wimborne, in AD 962. This is a mysterious character who we know very little about, including what he was king of. The entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles is generally translated that he committed suicide. I am uncertain whether he would have been allowed to have been buried in the church if that was the case. Much rests on the meaning of offeoll in “Sigferð cyning hine offeoll“.
It is fascinating to think that Wimborne Minster once had a spire, which fell in 1600.
This post is aimed at answering one of the most common questions that I am asked. I live in a county (Dorset) for which the regional National Health Service is designated “Wessex”, and a local radio station is called Wessex FM. People tend to know that they are in Wessex (probably) but are uncertain of the area it should be thought to cover. I wish that the answer that I am called upon to provide was more straight-forward.
As this blog is based on King Alfred, I shall describe what Wessex was in that time period. As King Alfred is often associated with Wessex, this will hopefully answer the question for most people. Alfred was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. The following is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, which is available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.
In King Alfred’s time, Wessex included the counties that we now call Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire (and some of adjacent Oxfordshire), Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, East and West Sussex, Kent and Surrey. Also included was Essex until it was ceded to Guthrum the Viking in a treaty drawn up around the year 886. It is worth pointing out that there were additional areas where King Alfred seems to have had the upper hand in power-sharing arrangements. By the end of his reign, this included London, which had earlier been under Mercian control. It also seems from Asser’s writings that at some time before 893 South Wales came under King Alfred’s control. Nor must we forget Mercia itself. After about 879, western and southern Mercia (eastern Mercia remained under Viking control) was ruled by Æthelred, who was the son-in-law of King Alfred, and it seems that it was Alfred who had the upper hand.
The extent of Wessex control in Cornwall is still unclear. The Annales Cambriæ tell us that King Dungarth of Cornwall drowned in 875, but after that there is no mention of who was ruling in Cornwall until 926 where a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions a King Huwal of West Wales, which would have then meant Cornwall. It therefore seems to me that from a monarchical point of view Cornwall remained independent during Alfred’s time. However, we know that the diocese of Sherborne (in Dorset and therefore in Wessex) extended across the whole of Cornwall.
I did say earlier that it was not straight forward. But perhaps this post will lead to a better understanding. Tap or click the image to learn more about the book.
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.
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.
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! It is worth noting, though, that there was a Suaneberge Hundred in Sussex, and this location cannot be ruled out.
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.
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.