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 to all of this, there were four charters issued by King Edward the Elder 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, that Bickleigh is located 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 coast without realising this. It has a majestic parish church, which although 15th century, includes a re-sited 12th century doorway. There could have been earlier structures here as well. 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 the town 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. 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.

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 an estate from which King Edward the Elder might 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.

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).

Saxon Dorset: The Æthelwold Rebellion

King Alfred died in 899, but the succession of his son, King Edward the Elder, was not without incident, leading to important events taking place in Saxon Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after Edward succeeded to the throne, his cousin Æthelwold (son of King Æthelred, who had preceded Alfred as king) rode and seized both Wimborne and Christchurch. In response, King Edward rode to where Badbury Rings now stand. Strictly speaking, this post just deals with the earlier part of the Æthelwold rebellion, before he fled Dorset for Northumbria. I hope to deal with later events in subsequent posts. All of these locations are in Dorset. For a map showing these places, please click the link below:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1osvpXIq6KRwPwd0gQRmwKTdK7QzEvNlf&usp=sharing

It seems that Wimborne was Æthelwold’s main base (as opposed to Christchurch). This is because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that he barricaded himself in the estate there. It seems that he was there with a nun as well as some supporters, before he eventually fled under the cover of darkness to Northumbria, with the nun also going on the run. We are told that he took this nun against the orders of bishops, although we cannot be certain of what kind of relationship Æthelwold had with her. Nowhere is she named. It may not have been a hostile abduction. Indeed, Florence of Worcester tells us that Edward had married the nun, and also that she was later returned to Wimborne – and therefore presumably had come from there as well. Perhaps Edward went to Wimborne more because of the nun than because it was the location of his buried father. Æthelwold’s father, King Æthelred, had been buried at Wimborne in 871 some time after the Battle of Meretun. The outline of the Saxon royal estate is not known but it is thought to have been focused around where the minster is currently located, and it is thought that the Minster might be at the location of the Saxon church, nunnery (that had been founded by King Ine in 705) and monastery.

Wimborne Minster, Dorset

Christchurch is called Tweoxnam in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, referring to its location between two water courses, the Rivers Stour and Avon. The priory is thought to sit on (or overlap with) the footprint of the earlier Saxon church.

The modern Saxon cross in Saxon Square, Christchurch
The modern Saxon cross in Saxon Square, Christchurch
Christchurch Priory, Dorset
Christchurch Priory, Dorset

Badbury Rings is an impressively large Iron Age hill fort. King Edward clearly found this location suitable for suppressing his cousin’s rebellion at nearby Wimborne. It is an easy place to visit, with a large car park. A number of Roman roads converge at Badbury Rings, although it is difficult to be certain which of these would have been in use in King Edward the Elder’s time. It is interesting to speculate on how he might have got from Winchester (based on an assumption that he would have been at his father’s interment at Winchester and that the rebellion took place shortly afterwards) to Badbury on any existing Roman roads. It seems likely that a Roman road from Winchester passing through Otterbourne extended through to Ringwood and then onward, probably to Lake Farm, near Corfe Mullen (near Wimborne). There was a Roman road from there to Badbury. Æthelwold may have used most of the same route to get to Wimborne. Other routes may have been available, but when being pursued, or in pursuit, something in a straight line would have been preferred.

If you are particularly interested in Saxon Dorset around the time of King Alfred, you may wish to visit my other posts on Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Dorchester and Wimborne.

Badbury Rings, near Wimborne, Dorset
Badbury Rings, near Wimborne, Dorset. Seem from the south

This post relating to Saxon Dorset is a follow on from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from bookshops and Amazon.

Saxon Crediton, Devon

Saxon Crediton was clearly an important place and, in my opinion, King Alfred probably came here, although there is no written evidence for this. Its importance is revealed when in 909 (King Alfred died in 899 and in 909 his son, Edward the Elder was king) the huge diocese of Sherborne, which extended from Dorset to Lands End, was divided up. A new diocese was created in Somerset, based on Wells, and a new diocese for Devon and Cornwall was created, based on Crediton.

The church of the Holy Cross, Crediton, Devon.
The church of the Holy Cross (Crediton parish church), Devon

It is important to note that Crediton was chosen instead of nearby Exeter. Saxon Crediton was clearly a very important place ecclesiastically and it seems unlikely to me that Crediton would have suddenly became important in 909. It seems more probable that it would have been a significant religious site prior to this. We know that King Alfred was pious and it is recorded that he spent time in Devon and Cornwall, so it seems probable to me that he would therefore have visited Crediton at some point. Exeter would, eventually, have its day when the seat of the diocese was moved from Crediton to Exeter in 1050.

The parish church that one sees today has some 12th century components, but is largely 15th century. It is thought that this church is built over the earlier church (or cathedral as it should be called between 909 and 1050). We don’t know if anything new was built when Saxon Crediton rose to greater prominence or whether it carried on with the same religious buildings that would have been there anyway.

A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church
A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church

St Boniface

It is claimed that St Boniface was born at Crediton in about 680AD. He was a very prominent saint across northern Europe, becoming the patron saint of Germany, and there are moves to make him the patron saint of Devon (I cannot confirm that this has taken place at the time of writing). He was venerated after his death in Fulda (Germany) in 745, so it seems likely that Alfred would have known about him and may have visited Crediton, the claimed birth-place of St Boniface, for this reason as well.

St Boniface's Well (or Winfrith's Well - after his original name), Crediton, Devon.
St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s Well – after his original name), Crediton, Devon.

The Wells

Crediton was created the focus of a diocese at the same time as Wells (Somerset). However, the comparisons do not end there. Both places are closely connected with springs. It may be that many more significant religious locations were associated with water. Perhaps the association has become less obvious over time. At Crediton there are two springs that can be easily visited. One is called Libbets Well, and is just north west of the church. It is not easy to find. You need to go up an unnamed track coming off Church Street, not far opposite the footpath that leads from the church car park. The other is called St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s well – after St Boniface’s original name) and is at the south end of the park that is a short distance west of the cathedral. This well is marked by a “W” on the Ordnance Survey map.

Libbett’s Well, Crediton, Devon.

Although a fair bit further away, there is another interesting well in the lovely settlement at Shobrooke, to the north-east of Crediton. This can also be tricky to find. If you can find St Swithun’s church, Shobrooke, you will see a large thatched farmhouse. The road that goes down past this leads to the well (which is on the right). There is no evidence that any of these wells are ancient (but also no evidence that they are not) and the two in Crediton may be associated with the culverted Littleburn Stream. Perhaps more significant in this regard is a spring marked on the 1890 Ordnance Survey map just north of the church car park. Incidentally, the same map shows the church car park to have once been the site of a (St Gregory’s) cathedral. We now know that the cathedral was not at that location.

The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon
The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon

Copplestone

For those interested in Anglo-Saxon history a visit to the nearby Copplestone Cross, in Copplestone village, is a must. Located on a busy traffic island (it was moved to this location to ease the flow of traffic in 1969), it is a wayside cross thought to date to the 10th century . It is thought to have been erected in memory of a murdered bishop.

Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.

Saxon Wells, Somerset

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

This is one of the places where, although there is no record of his presence, I feel that King Alfred probably would have visited Saxon Wells some point. I excluded many such places from my book (although I included some, like Guildford and Somerton), but I thought it might be good to write a few words about Wells for the blog, especially as I found a few things commemorating King Alfred in the city.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great and his son King Edward the Elder
Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great and his son King Edward the Elder

It is said that a church at Wells was created by Ine, King of Wessex, in 705. This would have survived up to about 1175, when work on the current Cathedral is thought to have commenced. Outside the cathedral, near the south transept, a map on an information board shows where the Saxon church would have been in the early and late Saxon periods.

Wells cathedral, Somerset. An information board in the grounds showing the location of the earlier Saxon church
Wells cathedral, Somerset. An information board in the grounds showing the location of the earlier Saxon church
showing the probable location of the altar of the Saxon church at Wells Cathedral, Somerset
Wells cathedral, Somerset. Using the above map, it seems that the altar of the Saxon church would have been near the wooden bench (to the right of the middle of the picture). I have taken the photo down the line of the orientation of the Saxon church.

I found the parallels between Saxon Wells and Winchester to be striking in that the cathedral is to the side of the Saxon church (although in Winchester it is to the north instead of the south at Wells), and the mis-alignment between the Saxon church and the cathedral is about the same in both cases. Perhaps the cathedrals were built to the side in order to allow people to worship in the earlier building while the new one was being constructed.

Wells cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great. St Martin of Tours is shown to the left
Wells cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great. St Martin of Tours is shown to the left

There are also striking similarities between Saxon Wells and Crediton, in Devon. Not only did they both become the base of new dioceses after 909 upon the division of the diocese of Sherborne, but the main ecclesiastical establishments at both locations are closely associated with wells or springs. It might, however, be that the associations between important religious buildings and such water sources may have been lost in other locations. At Wells, the association has survived in the name of the city, and the well that is thought to have been the inspiration (St Andrew’s well) can still be seen beyond the east end (and slightly to the south) of the cathedral. It lies in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace, but can also be espied through a hole in the wall in the cathedral’s grounds.

St Andrew's Well seen from a gap in the wall from the grounds of the cathedral
St Andrew’s Well seen from a gap in the wall from the grounds of the cathedral

Although there is no evidence that King Alfred was at Wells, I feel that he would have been present at some time. The church was founded by the Wessex King Ine and was significant enough to become a diocese after 909AD after the enormous diocese of Sherborne was divided. King Alfred is certainly remembered in the cathedral. There are two stained glass windows of him, and a seat cover that recalls his presence at Wedmore. There are more details about King Alfred and Wedmore in this post.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Seat cover commemorating King Alfred's presence at Wedmore in 878
Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Seat cover commemorating King Alfred’s presence at Wedmore in 878
Wells, Somerset. A sign of a pub called The King's Head.
This is a sign on a closed pub in Wells. Is it King Alfred, King Ine, or King Arthur (or another king?)

Saxon Hertford, Hertfordshire

This post on King Alfred and Saxon Hertford is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops.

Those of you who have read the previous post will know that in 895 the Vikings built a fortress on the River Lea about 20 miles north of London and that King Alfred arrived and set up camp nearby. King Alfred then rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed in order to block the Viking ships in. The river was indeed obstructed and King Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings then fled. Hertford and Ware are possible locations for these events and here I shall look a little closer at Hertford.

It is worth pointing out at the start that there is a risk of confusion with the two fortifications that were built in Saxon Hertford in 912-913 by King Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder. These two fortifications were north and south of the River Lea. However, the first one to be built by Edward the Elder was the northern one and it strikes me as intriguing that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe it as þa norðran burg, which seems to me to translate as the more northerly burg. This in turn suggests that there was already a burg to the south when King Edward the Elder built his first fortification. It is possible that this could have been one of the fortifications that Alfred had built.

As is also the case with Ware, it is uncertain why the Vikings would have gone to Hertford. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 673 a synod took place at Hertford (Heorotford, or Herutford in Bede’s Latin). Indeed, there is a memorial stone associated with this event in Hertford Castle Gardens. There was also a royal mint here as early as the 920s. Although the mint dates to slightly after the time of Alfred, the record of both a synod and a mint suggests that Hertford was an important place in Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps more important than Ware, and it also indicates that Hertford might have been attractive to the Vikings because of its possessions. However, it is possible that the synod took place at the similarly named Hartford in Cambridgeshire instead.

Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there
Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there

The River Lea divides just north-east of Mill Bridge to form Hertford’s Folly Island. However, the route of the river through Hertford may not have been the same in 895 and this bifurcation may not have been (as has been suggested) where King Alfred divided the river in order to trap the Viking boats. Nonetheless, the bifurcation can be easily observed near the road called Bull Plain. I have seen reference to the course of the river in Roman times lying to the north -west of its current course, although it may have been in its approximate current location in Alfred’s time because a Viking sword was found in modern times when the River Lea was dredged in the centre of Hertford. Although many Viking weapons are found submerged, it is also possible that the sword found its way into water as the river changed its course. I also saw a reference to remains of Viking ships being found near Hertford and Stanstead Abbots, although I have been unable to corroborate this.

The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.
The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.

It was interesting to find on the 1881 Ordnance Survey map an area in Hertford called “Englefield” lying to the east of Bengeo Street and to the north of Warren Park Road. Readers of my book may recall that there was a battle of Englefield near Reading in Berkshire in 871, with the name Englefield probably meaning the land of the Angles. The same map also shows an area called “Daneshill” lying to the south of Warren Park Road, with some nearby land to the north-east being called “Danesbury.” There has also been speculation that the former location of the cricket ground, which used to lie to the east of the pronounced curve of Warren Park Road, could have been a Viking camp. Was there a Viking fortification in this area and did Alfred set up his camp at Englefield? Although we must be cautious of the possibility that antiquarian speculation influenced the place names on the 1881 map, I find the juxtaposition of names potentially referring to Vikings and Anglo-Saxons intriguing. In the absence of definitely-established locations for any Saxon or Viking camps I feel this area must be worth considering. Just a short distance east of these locations lies the 12th century St Leonard’s church. I was told that the current building may have been built on an even older structure that might relate in some way to the Vikings or King Alfred, although I was unable to find any supporting evidence.

St Leonard's church, Hertford
St Leonard’s church, Hertford

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the northerly fortress built by King Edward the Elder in Saxon Hertford was on the other side of the River Beane to the aforementioned Hertford locations of Englefield, Daneshill and Danesbury. The fortress is described as being between the Mimram, the Beane and the Lea (which doesn’t entirely make sense based on current names and geography).

I would like to extend my thanks to the Salisbury Arms in Hertford for their hospitality.

Hyde Abbey, Winchester

This post on Hyde Abbey is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops. This is my second post on Winchester, the first is located here.

King Alfred was buried at Winchester, in Hampshire, but the location of his remains are unknown. His remains were moved at least twice and the different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out where these remains went. I refer you to my first post on Winchester for the first two locations of Alfred’s remains, the Old Minster and the New Minster.

In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was then just outside Winchester. 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 cramping the style of the gleaming Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey. In my opinion, the location of this abbey must be one of the most important of the lesser-known sites in British history, and it deserves to be much more famous.

The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.
The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.

Documents indicate that Alfred was transferred to Hyde Abbey in 1110 and that he was interred in front of the altar. Today, Hyde is just north of the city centre and can be easily visited by walking north up Hyde Street, and then turning right into King Alfred Place. This leads to the location of the altar of Hyde Abbey where three stone slabs show where Alfred, his wife and his son were once buried.

Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester.
Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester. A reminder of what once stood elsewhere in this part of Winchester.

Hyde Abbey was destroyed in 1539 in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Furthermore, the Annals of Winchester tell us that Hyde Abbey was burnt in 1141, which fits with another record that tells us that the abbey laid “in ruins” after having been set alight in a battle between King Stephen and Matilda in 1141. It seems possible to me that Alfred’s and other important remains could have been relocated in 1141, or prior to the 1539 dissolution. However, the discovery of part of a pelvis (see below) shows that bones from the Anglo-Saxon period remained.

There is a detailed story (for those interested, this is in my book) about how eventually some bones, thought to include those of King Alfred, ended up being interred in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s church, which is located within the footprint of the precinct of Hyde Abbey. However, when these bones were radio-carbon dated, they were found to be more recent than the Anglo-Saxon period. This was the subject of a TV documentary, which you may have seen.

St Bartholomew's church, Hyde, Winchester
St Bartholomew’s church, Hyde, Winchester

Nonetheless, testing was carried out on bones from an excavation at the main site of the abbey undertaken in the 1990s, and a sample from an approximately middle-aged (to us!) male pelvis was dated to 895-1017. Although dating to the correct period, because King Alfred died in 899, it is not possible to say whether this pelvis once belonged to him. King Edward the Elder, who died in 924, was also buried at Hyde Abbey and there is evidence that other individuals may have been too: Æthelweard (a son of Alfred), or Ælfweard (son of King Edward the Elder, although he may have been too young to match the profile of the bone), a monk called Grimbald (although he died quite old) and St Judoc (who, however, died in the 7th century). There may, of course, have been other individuals for which we have no record. Because the bones were found in the vicinity of the high altar (even if it was in back-fill from a Victorian dig) it seems to me not impossible that the bone is from King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or Æthelweard. Slightly worrying, though, is a record from 1798 that tells us that when a prison was built on the site, bones that were found were “thrown about.” This might mean that what is found near the high altar might not have started off there. Furthermore, would the builders then build over these scattered bones or have them removed? The latter seems more likely. We must remember that Richard III was discovered under a car park in Leicester, so we should perhaps always be ready to be surprised. Richard III, however, died almost 600 years more recently than King Alfred, something that I assume made using a live relative for a DNA comparison (as was done with Richard III) more straight forward. There may have also been less change in use of the land over time in the case or Richard III.

It was hoped that DNA from the pelvis fragment could be matched with those of King Alfred’s grand-daughter, Eadgyth, who was buried at Magdeburg, in Germany. However, although it was thought that it would be possible to extract DNA from the pelvis fragment, it seemed that the remains of Eadgyth were too poorly preserved to attempt a match.

This is a special place to visit, and I always make time to come here whenever I am in Winchester. In fact, this location was one of my main inspirations for writing my book. It is a hugely important location in the history of England.

The for refreshment. There is even a King Alfred pub close to Hyde Abbey Gardens. I had a beer and a meal in here and both were very good.

There is a community group called Hyde 900 that has done a lot of work in relation to the former abbey, and they deserve a mention. Their website also has more information.

Wessex – where was it?

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.

A  map of Wessex. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred's reign.
A map of Wessex from my book. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred’s reign. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

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.

The little church at Aller, Somerset.

St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset Levels

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.

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.

St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset Levels. Where King Alfred baptised Guthrum, the Viking leader, after he was defeated at the Battle of Ethandun
St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset Levels. Where King Alfred baptised Guthrum, the Viking leader, after he was defeated at the Battle of Ethandun

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.

The older of the two fonts at St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset Levels
The older of the two fonts at St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset Levels

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.

The King Alfred stained glass window at St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset Levels
The King Alfred stained glass window at St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset Levels

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.

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.