A hot-spot in the Saxon history of Devon

I refer to Tiverton, Silverton, Cullompton and Bickleigh as being a mid-Devon hot-spot because I came across evidence relating to King Alfred and his son, King Edward the Elder, for these close-together places. It seems that this area was particularly important in the Saxon history of Devon in and around King Alfred’s time.

King Alfred, in his will, left estates at Mylenburnan, Tiverton (Twyfyrde – refering to two former fords across the rivers Exe and Lowman) and Cullompton to his youngest son Æthelweard. The historians Keynes and Lapidge, in their analysis of King Alfred’s will, favour Silverton as the site of Mylenburnan. In addition, there were four charters issued by King Edward the Elder nearby at a place called Bicanleag, which is believed to be Bickleigh. Although most charters seem to have been challenged at some point as to their authenticity (either in whole or part), it seems to me that the presence of four of them means that it is likely that Bickleigh was a high status location at the time. Bickleigh is not far from the important location of Crediton, which I have written about in an earlier post. Transcripts of the charters can be seen here: S372, S373, S1286, S374. To give an indication of the proximity of the locations, the modern distances by road are: Bickleigh to Tiverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Silverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Cullompton = 10 miles, Bickleigh to Crediton = 9 miles. This area was clearly significant in the Saxon history of Devon.

I have not seen anything to tell me that Bickleigh was a royal estate at the time of King Alfred. For example it does not appear in King Alfred’s will. However, I wonder whether Bickleigh’s location between Tiverton and Silverton may be more than coincidence.

St Peter's church, Tiverton, Devon
St Peter’s church, Tiverton, Devon

Tiverton

Tiverton was, and remains, an important place in the history of Devon. It is well worth a visit, although most people (myself included) will have passed the town on the A361 dual carriageway to the North Devon coast without realising this. It has a majestic parish church which, although 15th century, includes a re-sited 12th century doorway. It is possible that there might have been an earlier ecclesiastical building on the same site. There are the remains of a 12th century castle adjacent to the church, and the road to the east of the castle and church may have been the market in Saxon times.

View north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon
Looking north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon. The likely site of the royal Saxon estate is where St Peter’s church can be seen on the right.

It is interesting to note how the focus of the commercial centre of Tiverton has shifted (to the south) over time, as it also seems to have done at Shaftesbury (where it shifted to the east). It seems sensible that the royal estate would have been where the remains of the castle and the church are located, because if the Normans found a position to be defendable, then the Saxons had probably discovered that fact previously. It isn’t entirely obvious from maps, but when on location it was clear to me that the location is high above the River Exe, making it easier to defend.

Silverton

Silverton is a village just off the main road between Exeter and Tiverton (and south of Bickleigh). Not only did King Alfred leave an estate here in his will, but by Domesday, the hundred that included Cullompton was called Sulfretone (Silverton) Hundred. The parish church here is 15th century (as is the case in many places, there could have been an earlier structure) and, when arriving by car, is not at first easy to find because it is set back from the road. There is a footpath that leads from more or less opposite the shops on Newport Road. Unfortunately when I arrived the church was shut to visitors because of internal scaffolding. It seems that this place was more important in the Saxon history of Devon than is currently popularly realised.

St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon
St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon

Bickleigh

Now to Bickleigh, where it seemed to me that there were two contenders for the location of the estate called Bicanleag from which King Edward the Elder seems to have been issuing charters. The first was the current village centre, focused on St Mary the Virgin church, up a steep hill near Bickleigh Bridge and Bickleigh Mill. The other location was Bickleigh Castle, a manor house and wedding venue. This has been an important location over time, with Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) staying here when on the way to Exeter (after which she would flee to France from Falmouth, Cornwall). The main point of interest for this blog post, however, is the chapel, which is thought to go back to Saxon times. Although I have not found proof of this (any help greatly appreciated) it is at least thought to predate the 15th century church of St Mary the Virgin in the village centre, which has a 12th century font (and I was told that the font came from the chapel at Bickleigh Castle). Although it cannot be said with certainty, it seems to me that the most likely location at Bickleigh for the signing of charters is the general area of Bickleigh Castle.

The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon
The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon

Cullompton

An estate at Cullompton was also left to Æthelweard in King Alfred’s will. I also found it fascinating that by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Cullompton was a vill (referred to as Colitone) within the hundred of Silverton. This is revealed in the Liber Exoniensis (searchable here), which contains assessments for Domesday in the South West based on land-owners. This seems to mark Silverton as being a more significant place than Cullompton, whereas today it is the other way around. A word of caution though: Hundred names might sometimes refer to convenient meeting places or local well-known place-names. A case in point would be Culliford Tree in Dorset where, to this day, there is no habitation at this Bronze Age barrow on the crest of a ridge. But where in Cullompton was King Alfred’s estate? Was it the whole of Cullompton as it existed at that time?

St Andrew's church, Cullompton, Devon
St Andrew’s church, Cullompton, Devon

Importantly, the entry for Cullompton in the main Domesday record makes reference to a church. There was therefore a Saxon church at Cullompton and it seems likely that this would have been at the location of the current 15th century St Andrew’s church in the centre of Cullompton. Unfortunately, the church was locked when I visited, which was a shame as I understand it has a great interior and even a King Alfred window. The Saxon church would have probably been associated with the royal estate, so it seems that we can place this somewhere in the general area around the church. It is interesting to note that settlement in Roman times seems to have been around St Andrew’s Hill (with a fort on top), a short distance to the north. Indeed, in various places, Saxon settlement seems to have been at different locations to earlier Roman settlement. Perhaps the most well known is London, with a shift away from what we call The City to the area around Aldwych.

This blog post relating to the Saxon history of Devon is part of a sequel to my book on King Alfred the Great, available from Amazon and bookshops. Click the image to find out more (it takes you to the description on Amazon).

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.

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