This post on King Alfred’s navy and the lost battle site is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.
In 896 there was an engagement between King Alfred’s navy and a Viking fleet of six ships that had arrived at the Isle of Wight and had caused harm all along the coast as far as Devon. It seems that Alfred could not have been present at this engagement because some of the fleeing Vikings were captured and taken to him at Winchester where he had them hanged. The few geographic clues provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have led to speculation that the engagement took place in Poole Harbour or Christchurch Harbour in Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to an ufeweard muða (ð is pronounced “th”) and it has been suggested that this means an “upper harbour.” However, I found it striking that there is an area on the north side of the harbour in Christchurch called Mudeford, with a River Mude running through it and into the harbour. Could this be the muða referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles?
Although I have seen it claimed that muða could also mean river, we know from elsewhere in the Chronicles and other documents that rivers were sometimes referred to by their name and that muða appears to usually mean mouth (the similarity between muða and mouth is not a coincidence) with the term for river generally being ea. Furthermore, if muða had been a generic term for river, we might expect to find other survivors such as is the case with the Brittonic language-derived Avon. However, I was unable to find any other examples of a River Mude in England. Update: I have had access to a 1797 map that shows the location as “Midde Ford”, which seems to sever the relationship of the place-name with muða.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Alfred’s ships blocked the Viking ships in so they could not get to the uter mere. It seems unclear to me whether uter mere means “outer lake” or “outer sea”. However, the usual term for the sea in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is sæ, with mere usually meaning a lake. Nonetheless, the Vikings had been blocked into the river and when the tide went out three ships were beached at the upper river mouth and three came forward to attack (making six, matching the number recorded as coming to the Isle of Wight). It appears that at least two Viking ships managed to escape from the trap because we are told that two of the fleeing Vikings crews came ashore in Sussex because their ships were in a poor state. King Alfred had these men hanged at Winchester. It has been suggested that they came aground while trying to get past Selsey Bill. These Vikings would therefore have come aground in Sussex somewhere between East Wittering and Selsey. That they came ashore in Sussex perhaps also makes it less likely that the battle had taken place in distant Devon, after which they would have had to round Portland Bill (or drag their boats across the causeway), near Weymouth in Dorset, first.
Perhaps the clue to potential locations for this battle lies in the fact that there were only six Viking ships. We know that Wareham (with access to Poole harbour) and Christchurch are listed in the Burghal Hidage (a list of places defended by King Alfred after 878), and would therefore probably have been defended by 896. It does not seem to make sense to me that the Vikings would have ventured close to defended locations with just six ships.
Perhaps the Dorset coastal town of Weymouth (not in the Burghal Hidage, so perhaps a weak point) should be regarded as a possible site. Radipole Lake, fed by the River Wey, is connected to the sea via the town harbour, and one of Athelstan’s charters refers to all the water within the coast of Weymouth, indicating that there was an inland body of water here in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, it is thought that the Romans may have had some sort of port at the head of this body of water, and a Roman road ran north from near here to Dorchester. At least parts of this route appear to have remained in use today, which suggests that it might have been in use in 896, thus providing access to any Vikings that intended to raid Dorchester. This area is no stranger to Viking threat. In 840 the Vikings landed at nearby Portland, with fatal consequences for the locals, and in 2009, during construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, near Upwey, fifty-four skeletons of executed Vikings were found, although these dated to a later period than that of King Alfred. Because I live near here, I cannot resist drawing to your attention how rich the South Dorset Ridgeway is in ancient, although very much pre-Alfred, sites. For those who are interested in this, I find this blog particularly good.
The Isle of Wight
However, it seems to me that it is more likely that the events took place at one of the main rivers, including the River Medina, that flow into the Solent on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not state that the engagement took place during a Viking raid on the coast of the mainland, although it is easy to assume this because the Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had been undertaking such raiding. It is an interesting coincidence that the Old English term for the River Medina was Meðume, not terribly different from muða. An old map of the Isle of Wight suggests that the main waterways may have had constricted entrances to the sea, thus meeting the description of the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It seems to me that King Alfred’s Navy, improved after 878 AD, had managed to root out a small Viking base that had set itself up on the Isle of Wight.
My book mentions a few other locations on the south coast that could have been the site of the engagement between King Alfred’s navy and the Vikings. It also contains much more about Alfred’s travels, and contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.