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approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath.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.
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Dorset was an important in the time of King Alfred. Important roles were played by Sherborne, Wimborne, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. An important engagement with the Vikings took place at Wareham. Undoubtedly, much went on that never made it into the historical sources that are available to us today. In this post I shall take a look at Shaftesbury.
King Alfred founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury and it is thought that this was at the same site as where the Normans later constructed their abbey. Although the Norman abbey is now a ruin, it is a delightful and evocative place to visit, as is the rest of the town.
Asser tells us that Alfred ordered the building of a monastery near Shaftesbury’s east gate and that his daughter Æthelgifu was appointed abbess. However, this is initially confusing because the Abbey is south-west of the centre, so it seems that it should have been by a west gate. But the modern centre appears not to align well with what was there in Alfred’s time and, when this is taken into account, the abbey was indeed at the eastern aspect of the town.
Unfortunately, no early source tells us when the nunnery was built. However, Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon indicates that it was after Alfred had restored London, and we know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Alfred took control of London in 886. This suggests that the nunnery may have been built in 886 at the earliest and 893 at the latest (because it had to be present at the time Asser was writing, believed to be 893).
However, Higden also tells us that around the time that Alfred restored the settlement of Shaftesbury in 880, Pope Marinus sent Alfred a piece of the “true cross.” Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicates that this was sent in 882. I found out that Marinus was pope between December 882 and May 884, indicating that the item could only have been sent in December 882. This led me to change my mind from believing that the abbey was built between 886 and 893 to a belief that it was in use by 882 or 883 because it seems plausible that the fragment of the true cross had been destined for either the new and important nunnery at Shaftesbury or the new abbey at Athelney, which was built at about the same time. In a generous attempt to make everything fit, one could argue that the nunnery might have come into use before its completion, with this being in the period 886-893, after King Alfred had restored London, although this itself must have taken some time to complete. The current location of this piece of the “true cross” is not known, although there is a reputed fragment of the true cross, which could be different to the one sent to Alfred, in St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Belgium.
Shaftesbury was clearly a very important place. In 980 the nunnery became the resting place of King Edward the Martyr after he had been murdered at Corfe Castle in 978 (he was initially interred at Wareham). His shrine became a focus for pilgrimage, and perhaps this was what King Canute was undertaking when he died at Shaftesbury in 1035. In 944 the site also became the burial place of Ælfgifu, who was the first wife of King Edmund who also became venerated as a saint. Elisabeth, the wife of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was also briefly held here.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more.
Many thanks to thisisalfred.com for taking an interest in my writing. Hopefully, a recorded chat that we had at the Abbey will be available soon.
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Winchester, in Hampshire, is very aware of its associations with King Alfred. But what exactly are these, and what will we uncover if we dig into the detail?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Winchester had been destroyed by a ship-army in 860, although the attacking forces still lost. Asser (King Alfred’s companion and biographer) tells us that these attackers were Vikings, which perhaps comes as no surprise. However,we do not know where Alfred, who would have been about eleven years old, was at this time.
Although I have seen it implied that Winchester was Alfred’s “capital,” there is little evidence to indicate that Alfred’s court had been centered on a particular location in Wessex. However, we know that Alfred was at Winchester in 896 because he ordered the hanging of captured Vikings after they had run ashore on the Sussex coast. It has also been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, although I have seen no evidence to support this.
It seems that there must have been a royal estate at Winchester in Alfred’s time. Alfred does not give any land away at Winchester in his will, although this still allows the possibility that there was a royal estate that was just not owned by him personally, or was somehow under the control of the church instead. Winchester is also listed in the Burghal Hidage, being the account of Alfred’s defended settlements drawn up in the reign of his son, King Edward the Elder. Indeed it shared first place (with Wallingford in Oxfordshire) as the largest settlement in that document. It is indeed possible that the Old Minster (long destroyed – see below) and the royal residence were part of the same complex. It has been claimed that the royal palace was located directly to the west of the Old Minster (and therefore also directly west of the cathedral). I myself once sat on the lawn here (many do) to enjoy my lunch, without having the faintest idea about what might have once been there. As the tourists make a bee-line for the cathedral they may be unwittingly traversing something of competing significance.
Winchester had Roman walls and, although there is some evidence that the area within the walls became depopulated in the early Anglo-Saxon period, it seems that this area may have become repopulated by the time of King Alfred. I have seen it stated that the King’s Gate (or Kingsgate), to the south of the cathedral, had been the entrance through the walls to the royal palace. I have not seen anything to corroborate this, although this is possible as this would have been the closest gate to both the Old Minster and the site claimed to be that of the royal palace. The present gate is a later construction but might be nonetheless on the site or the original gate. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Alfred himself may have walked through here. I strongly recommend the nearby Wykeham Arms as a location in which to consolidate your thoughts. If that is not to your taste then perhaps visit the small church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate that is built into the walls above the gate.
It is generally accepted that what is now called High Street would have been the main street through Winchester in Alfred’s time. Following High Street to the west one comes to the Westgate, which is an impressive structure that includes some Anglo-Saxon fabric. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to walk a circuit of walls like it is in some other places. However, this did not stop me trying. The most pleasant stretch is to the south-west of the city, where there are actually walls to be seen. These are post-Roman, but generally lie on the route of the Roman walls. Indeed, at one point the wall has been excavated out to show the Roman wall inside. Much of the rest of the route of the wall is covered by buildings, some pleasant and some, in my opinion, quite ugly. There is even a huge multi-story car park on the route.
At the time of writing the location of the remains of King Alfred is not known. The different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out the relocations of Alfred’s remains. I therefore hope that what follows will help (alongside the above map). Important to our story are three buildings built close to each other in the centre of Winchester. These buildings, in their order of construction, were the Old Minster, the New Minster, and Winchester Cathedral. Today, the only building that remains is Winchester Cathedral. The Old Minster was just north of the current cathedral, and it is the outline of this building that you can see marked out today on the cathedral lawn. The New Minster was built in the reign of Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, to the north of the Old Minster, and he had his father’s remains interred there. However, the New Minster was not consecrated until 901, and Alfred, who had died in 899, was therefore initially interred in the Old Minster while the New Minster was being built. It had been King Alfred’s intention to have the New Minster built in his reign but by the time he died he had only managed to obtain the land. This is why the job of building the New Minster fell to his son. Alfred’s remains were joined in the New Minster by those of his wife Ealhswith when she died in 902. The Old Minster continued to exist alongside the New Minster until the cathedral was consecrated in 1093. The Old Minster was then demolished.
I have provided a short video here:
In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was just outside Winchester at this time. It is possible that the New Minster had suffered from a fire prior to 1109, which might have made the move opportune. Or perhaps Henry I did not want the Saxon New Minster crampimg the style of the gleaming new Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey. The blog post for Hyde Abbey and the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains (Winchester, Part 2) is here.
Winchester did not suddenly have greatness thrust upon it at the time of King Alfred. In around 660 it became the episcopal seat of the diocese of Wessex, replacing Dorchester-on-Thames. Bede tells us that the remains of the missionary Birinus were transferred here as well while Hedde was bishop, giving us a date range of 649 (around when Birinus died) and 703 (when Hedde died). I argue elsewhere that Sherborne may for a period during King Alfred’s life have been as important, if not more so, than Winchester. However, before and afterwards this would have not been the case, and even during that period Winchester would have remained very important. That it was the seat of the important Swithun is an indication of this.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click on the image below to learn more about the book.
My apologies to many of you. This post will be somewhat heavier than the others. However, this is our history, right? And it is important to understand what stands behind what we think we know. So I shall take a brief look at a few of the key early documents that I have used to research King Alfred, a “man on the move.” There are of course many other later sources and I shall be compiling these into a reference list for my book. (Update: my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move is now published and available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.)
The most important source is the set of documents known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, with the oldest versions written solely in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a set of several documents that differ in detail. Where I refer to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is in the main manuscript A, sometimes known as the Winchester manuscript, that I am referring to. Although there are nine known versions (labelled by the letters A to I) we do not know how many there once were. All of the versions available to us today have been derived or copied from earlier documents. Nonetheless, it is thought that there was a single original document that has not survived. The parts of this original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that deal with Alfred are thought to have been written more or less at the same time that Alfred was king. Version A is the oldest and probably the closest to the original text and there is evidence that it was commenced in the last years of the ninth century, also while the king, who died in 899, was alive. Modern English translations are available and I encourage those with an interest to obtain a copy. Where I have obtained dates for events from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, these are the adjusted dates that take into account the fact that in the past the New Year did not always commence onJanuary 1st. This may be important as readers may find, paticularly in older texts,that a different date (usually one year later) may be provided.
I also refer to a chronicle written by a person called Æthelweard, which is thought to have been written in the 970s-980s. This is thought to bea translation from Old English into Latin of a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that differed from the others in some aspects. However, it stands separate from the versions A to I of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentioned above. Interestingly, Æthelweard was a descendant of Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred. Indeed, he was writing it for Mathilde, who was an abbess of Essen Abbey in today’s Germany who happened to be a direct descendent of King Alfred via his son King Edward the Elder. Æthelweard’s chronicle is written in particularly difficult Latin. I was particularly grateful to have the support of the translation by John Allen Giles, published in 1906.
I also refer to Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis (history of the English), written in Lincolnshire in Early French in the 1130s. It is clear that for the period relevant to King Alfred a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was being used. It is possible that this version may have been lost and also that it may have differed from other versions. However, it seems impossible to know whether the information only available from Gaimar, such as Alfred’s fleeing to Whistley after the battle at Reading or the inclusion of Dorset forces in the run up to the Battle of Ethandune, derives from a lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or from a less reputable source.
I also repeatedly refer to the writings of Asser, which has become known to us as The Life of King Alfred. Asser was a Welsh monk who spent much time with King Alfred and his writings are sometimes viewed as a biography of the King. Asser records that he was writing Alfred’s biography in 893, as in chapter 91 of his work he tells us that he was writing in Alfred’s forty-fifth year. It therefore seems that he was writing at about the same time that the original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle started to be written.
However, there has been controversy over whether this work was written by Asser or by some other person at a laterdate pretending to be Asser. The arguments for the work having not been written by Asser were strongly put forward by Alfred Smyth, who instead suggested that a monk called Brythferth, who was attached to Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) penned or collated the document around the year 1000. Indeed, I personally find that if one strips away from The Life of King Alfred what could have been obtained from other documents (including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) one is left wondering how a biographer could write so little about King Alfred that was new or different. Unfortunately, the only known ancient copy of The Life of King Alfred was burnt in a fire in 1731. However, an Archbishop of Canterbury called Matthew Parker, who had owned this copy, had published a printed (as opposed to hand-written) version in 1574. A problem is that Matthew Parker, apparently with a team of people working for him, added to and “improved” the text. Although modern eyes have spotted obvious additions, the more clever additions or changes may remain undetectable. We shall visit problem elsewhere when we look at the matter of King Alfred’s burning of the cakes.
However, even if the Life of King Alfred had not been written by Asser, it does not necessarily mean that the contents are erroneous. For example, while other sources provide no indication of Alfred’s birth place, The Life of King Alfred tells us that Alfred was born at Wantage. It must still be the case that, even if the work was written around the year 1000 by someone other than Asser, the location of Wantage could have been correct and based on evidence available at that time. It is clear to me through my research that the predominant view is that the work of Asser was indeed written by Asser. However, I continue to entertain the possibility that The Life of King Alfred may not have been written by Asser, whilst accepting the possibility that the contents of this document may be largely factually correct. That the document is always correct is unlikely as there are known errors. For example, the author locates York on the north bank of the Humber, which it clearly is not. Fortunately, however, a large part of the historical events recorded by Asser are corroborated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
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Although I could find no evidence for King Alfred burning cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move.
The earliest source
When talking to people it is often the first thing that comes up. It first appears in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which seems to have been put together in the late tenth century, where it states that the burning of the cakes took place at Athelney (King Alfred’s refuge in the Somerset Levels prior to his successful reconquest of his kingdom that took place after his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878).
The tale’s journey
The story of King Alfred burning cakes found its way from the Vita S Neoti into a twelfth century compilation of documents that became known as the Annals of St Neots. Then in the sixteenth century it got lifted from the Annals of St Neots and inserted by the theologian Matthew Parker into his copy of Asser’s Life of King Alfred. Because the writings of Asser have been viewed as a serious historical source, this must have given the story a real boost and is probably why it is so famous today. We cannot ultimately prove that it was inserted by Matthew Parker (as opposed to somebody before him doing it) because the Life of King Alfred that he would have been working from was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there are no known surviving ancient copies. The result, nonetheless, was that for a significant period of time the story of the cakes was treated as an integral part of the writings of Asser, when this in fact was not the case.
In brief, the earliest version of the story tells us that Alfred turned up on his own at a pig farmer’s (subulcus, swineherd, was changed in the Annals to uaccarius, cowherd, for reasons unknown) cottage on Athelney where he was taken in and stayed for some days whilst he awaited God’s mercy, and keeping in mind the patience that had been demonstrated by the biblical Job. One day, while the pig-farmer was taking his pigs to a field, the farmer’s wife started baking loaves of bread (not cakes), but then became occupied with other domestic duties. The loaves started to burn and the wife pointed out to Alfred that although he was quite happy to eat them, he hadn’t been so keen to turn them over when he could see that they were burning. It appears that Alfred was shaken but not stirred, and he proceeded to then turn the loaves over.
The tale about King Alfred burning cakes was recast many times subsequently and I suspect a whole book could be written tracing these variations.
There is a legend that the story of Alfred burning of the cakes took place in a field south of the rectory at Brixton Deverill in Wiltshire. However, the Vita S Neoti clearly indicates that this supposed baking mishap took place at Athelney.
Finally, it is interesting to note that this is not the only incident of burning bread in the legends. In the Viking Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar) Ragnar’s men are distracted in the farmhouse of a poor couple by the beauty of Ragnar’s second future wife (Kráka/Aslaug) and they burn the bread they were baking there. This was written in the 13th century and may be a coincidence.
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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandun where the Vikings were defeated. It is notable that Dorset is not mentioned. However, Dorset may be an omission because Gaimar indicates that this county was involved.
Tradition has it that King Egbert, Alfred’s grandfather, marked the point where Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire met with a large stone on the bank of the River Stour. However, it may be unreliable to assume that the counties met at the same location in Egbert’s or Alfred’s time. The woodland then would have extended further south ( as indicated in this book) into today’s Dorset, and because there is some evidence that the edges of the wood were used as boundaries, it is possible that the border could have been further south than it is today. However, I have not seen anything to indicate where any older of boundary might have been.
I drew upon John Peddie’s reference (in this book) to Coombe Street, which is west of Zeals and north of Bourton, as a claimed location. Travelling west, the road crossesthe river where a sign indicates that you have arrived at Pen Selwood. The Stour is narrow at this point, which is unsurprising as its source is at nearby Stourhead. However, I saw no evidence of a significant stone.
There seems to be an impression locally that a stone at Bullpits Golf Course is Egbert’s Stone. However, I have been told that this is not the case. Nearby Factory Hill crosses the Stour at a point where there was once a mill. When I visited this area it was in the process of being developed for housing. There is a footpath that comes off Kite’s Nest Lane that takes you close to where the three counties meet and water can be seen to your right as you walk up. However, maps show that the exact point at which the three counties meet is very close by but on private land, so I was unable to establish whether there was a stone there. However, the quest was not necessarily to find the stone but to find where Alfred brought his troops together, and if this indeed took place where the three counties now meet, then I was satisfied that I had found the spot.
However, it seems logical that Alfred would have used a meeting point that was strategic in terms of routeways and other factors rather than an obscure location where three administrative boundaries now meet. From the evidence available, it also seems difficult to define this as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood, which is required in order to fit Asser‘s and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ descriptions of the location. For these reasons I consider this site to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone. It is possible that somebody wished to mark the junction of the three counties with a stone and that this has somehow become tangled up with the record of Alfred’s assembling of troops from different counties. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not include Dorset as a county providing forces (although Gaimar does), which further weakens the case for Egbert’s Stone being located here.
Michael Wood, the historian and television presenter, attributes the location of Egbert’s Stone to Penselwood, which is very close to the junction between the three counties, although I don’t know whether that was the reason why he chose it. Pen Selwood is also the supposed location of the Battle of Peonnum, which had been an important victory for the Saxons in 658. However, this was before the time of King Egbert so I cannot see how his name would have become associated with this.
Parts two and three of my Egbert’s Stone posts are now available.
You can view my video on Egbert’s Stone below:
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.
The location is close to where the River Tone flows into the River Parrett , and it is important to note that the River Tone runs past Athelney, where King Alfred was hiding out in 878. The location would therefore have been strategic for defending Athelney. It is possible to see Burrow Mump from Athelney and, of course, vice-versa. The location is also close to where the River Cary once joined the Parrett, although the Cary now runs into King’s Sedgemoor Drain to the north. There is a half built 18th century church atop Burrow Mump, which is incomplete because funding ran out, and the structure is now a war memorial. However, there is evidence of earlier building going back to the 12th century. There is a car park, and those who walk up the steep incline are rewarded with great views.
An interesting story was toldto me regarding the King Alfred pub in Burrowbridge. This related to a three-legged so-called “Alfred Table.” Although I was told that it was eventually dated to be much more recent, it still apparently sold for a handsome sum to an American.
Asser tells us that the fortress on the western summit of Athelney Hill was connected to another fortress by a causeway. This second fortress appears to have been at the settlement of East Lyng which, like Athelney, was on higher ground. However, it is important to note that Asser tells us about the causeway and the second fortress in relation to the later founding of a monastery at Athelney by Alfred. There appears to be no evidence that the fortress at Lyng or the causeway were present in 878. The monastic foundation was developed around 893, and the causeway may have been built to facilitate access to and from this. The second fort may have been built as part of Alfred’s defence programme, which he started after 878.
I wondered whether it was possible to see any remains of this second fortification. Whilst not being able to specifically find the fortification it was possible to find evidence of the burgh’s perimeter. Lyng is named in the Burghal Hidage, and a bank and ditch to the west of East Lyng may be the remains of the western perimeter of the burgh defences. I saw it suggested that this ditch and bank was in line with the east wall of St Bartholomew’s church. So, after struggling to find a parking place for the church, that is where I went, and I could indeed see what looked like possible earthworks in the field to the south of the church. I could not explore further because the field appeared to be private land. Fortunately, the presenters in the first ever episode of Time Team (here) appear to have gained access and their programme confirmed that I had indeed been looking across at the correct spot, although the alignment appeared to be more with the the west wall of the church! The bank and ditch would have extended north on the other side of the A361, but there appears to be nothing left to see there. It seems likely that the eastern boundary would be near Cuts Road, and the causeway itself, although the causeway could have taken a different line in Alfred’s time. Therefore it seems that most of the settlement of East Lyng might be sited within the burgh developed by Alfred.
I also wanted to investigate the causeway between Athelney and East Lyng recorded by Asser. There is a structure which can still be seen that goes right up to Athelney Hill. Coming from East Lyng one drives over the first section, and it then passes onto private land (with the route of the causeway remaining visible). This structure is now called the Balt Moor Wall. I have not seen any reference that dates this to before the 12th century, so we cannot be sure that the causeway that we see today follows precisely the same route as it did in King Alfred’s time.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below:
This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Athelney is where King Alfred developed a fortification at Easter 878, at a time when Wessex had fallen to the Vikings, and it was from here that Alfred set out on the successful reconquest of his kingdom. You will rarely find anyone else here at this important location.
When you are at the site it is apparent that Athelney has two small summits, which was enough to make this location an island in the watery Somerset levels. It is suspected that Alfred’s 878 fortification was on the western summit, while the abbey, founded later by Alfred in 893, was on the eastern summit, where a monument to King Alfred now stands. This abbey was later replaced by a medieval monastery, although there is nothing visible above ground today.
I got to this location by taking Cut Road from East Lyng and parking near Athelney Farm. The site is on private land but there is a signpost indicating a route to the monument. Athelney Hill can also be observed from the lay-by on the nearby A361. It’s elevation above the surrounding area is immediately obvious, and one can see the elevation of Burrow Mump not too far away to the north east, which suggests to me the possibility that this other site may have been used for advance defence and signalling back to Athelney. There is other high ground in the area, such as Windmill Hill to the south west, Oath Hill to the south east, and, slightly further and east of Aller village, the high ridge of Aller Hill. Any high ground could have had strategic importance for protecting Athelney. Asser records that Alfred struck out at Vikings from Athelney, which indicates that Vikings had been in the vicinity.
There is evidence that Athelney had previously been an iron age fortification and therefore Alfred was bringing this defended site back into use. Evidence of metalworking at the western summit suggests that weaponry may have been manufactured here to be used in Alfred’s reconquest of Wessex.
There is also a record of a hermit called Æthelwine living at Athelney in the 7th century. Perhaps importantly, this Æthelwine is said to have been the son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, and the brother of the next king, Cenwealh. Athelney may therefore have been a royal site known to Alfred, and this may parhaps help explain why he chose this particular location. Alfred’s construction of an abbey here may therefore have been an enlargement of an already significant religious site.
Athelney, called æþelingaegge in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is derived from Old English Æðelinga eg with the first word indicating a royal connection (and eg meaning an isle). The impression gained from both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser is that this site was already called this when Alfred arrived, rather than it having been given this name retrospectively because Alfred had been there. This is consistent with the hermit Æthelwine being very closely related to the kings of the West Saxons. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles at 658 that King Cenwealh, the brother of the hermit Æthelwine, fought against the Britons (Walas) at Penselwood (peonnum), in Somerset, and that he drove them as far as the Parret. With Athelney not far from the Parret, it might have been about this time that Athelney developed it’s West Saxon royal associations.
If Alfred had been at Chippenham when the Vikings attacked at Twelfth Night in January 878dc, the most obvious escape route would perhaps have been to get to Bath and then go down the Fosse Way. However, he could have taken a Bath to Badbury Rings route and diverted into Selwood Forest. From there he could have made his way across to Athelney by Easter. This route would satisfy Asser’s description of Alfred being in woods as well as defensive positions in swamps or moors. Alternatively, he could have headed straight for the marshes of the levels, only to build the fortress later at Easter. There is also the possibility that he initially went further west into Devon. Ultimately, we do not know where Alfred was between January 878 and Easter 878.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Alfred left for Egbert’s Stone in the seventh week after Easter. Alfred was therefore at the fortress at Athelney for about seven weeks, although of course he could have been at Athelney prior to the fortress being built.
The legend of Alfred burning the cakes when he was put in charge of them by a peasant woman has become associated with his time at Athelney. However, there is no evidence that this baking mishap ever occurred. The earliest known version of the story of the cakes is in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which appears to have been put together in the late tenth century.
Athelney was connected to nearby East Lyng by a causeway. East Lyng, the causeway, and Burrow Mump will be the subject of a different blog post.
Time Team visited the site on two occasions and the videos (first and second) are well worth watching. On the second visit they found human remains at the part of the site where the abbey was located. At least one of these was over the site of an earlier wall indicating that the remains post-dated that part of the abbey structure. The remains of a child was also found. I am not aware of any carbon-dating or isotope analysis having been carried out. However, it seems likely that the remains are associated with the abbey rather than earlier remains from a hillfort or from a conflict at the location prior to the construction of the abbey.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below.
Alfred had seen to it that the Vikings would leave Exeter and the whole of Wessex in 877. However, they would return to Wessex and take Chippenham early in 878. This set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the important Wessex victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun.
The arrival of the Vikings at Chippenham was an important turning point because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings then over-ran Wessex, and It was at this point that Alfred went into hiding. It is worth pausing to reflect on what the Chronicle tells us, which is that the Vikings did not just over-run the area around Chippenham, but probably at least most of Wessex, and all of Wessex if we take it literally. There were clearly parts of Wessex that were beyond their control, such as the area in north Devon where the Battle of Cynuit took place, and Athelney, where Alfred found a safe haven for a while. But the implication is still that, for a short while in 878dc, Wessex had been lost to the Vikings. As Wessex was the last kingdom in what we now call England still independent of Viking rule, this also means that for a short while in 878, between Twelfth Night and some time after Easter, the Vikings had control over the whole of England. With King Alfred on the run they must have seen a permanent victory as a plausible outcome.
It is important to appreciate that Alfred decided to stay and did not flee to, for example, Rome. When Mercia had collapsed under the Vikings in 874, the ruler, King Burghred, fled to Rome. Circumstances would not have been precisely the same, they never are, but I believe things would have turned out very differently had Alfred fled. But he did not. From a position that must have seemed irrecoverable to many he fought and won back his kingdom and, eventually, during the reign of his grandson, Athelstan, all of England would be recovered from Viking rule.
It has been suggested that King Alfred had spent Twelfth Night, in January of 878 at Chippenham. However, I can find no evidence that this was the case. However, it is undoubtedly possible as Chippenham was a royal estate, and it would have provided a reason for the Vikings to arrive there at this particular time. Chippenham seems to have been important as Asser recorded that this had been the location of Alfred’s sister’s marriage to Burghred, King of Mercia in 853. However, Alfred may not have been present at his sister’s wedding as Asser also records that in the same year the young Alfred had gone to Rome, with no indication as to when he returned, although it must have been before 855, as Asser says that Alfred went with his father a second time to Rome in that year (but with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only mentioning his father going).
Chippenham enters the story again, still in 878, immediately after Alfred won the Battle of Ethandun (Edington), for it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that when Alfred put the Vikings to flight, he pursued them as far as an unnamed fortification (geweorc). It has been suggested that this location was perhaps Chippenham. This seems plausible in relation to the most likely sites for the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also tells us that the Vikings moved from Chippenham to Cirencester after Guthrum’s baptism. Chippenham seems to have served as a Viking base. It is unlikely that the unnamed fortification was Bratton Camp, on the north-west edge of Salisbury Plain, as provisions for troops and animals would have been difficult to provide on this elevated landscape over an extended period.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that after the Battle of Ethandun Alfred put this fortification under siege for fourteen days, after which the Vikings surrendered. Asser provides further detail and identifies the location of Alfred’s besieging camp as being in front of the gates of the Viking fortification.
Asser indicates that the location that the Vikings took at Chippenham prior to the Battle of Ethandun as being on the eastern bank of the Avon. It seems likely that any fortification at Chippenham that the Vikings retreated to after Ethandun would be at this same location. Examination of a map shows that there is a bend in the Avon that would allow the Vikings to defend a peninsula, similar to their tactic at Reading. This is where the old town is located. I parked in the Sadler’s Mead car park and walked down to the River Avon, being the same river that flows through Bath and emerges at Avonmouth near Bristol. I walked along the path that heads west and then south along the outer bank, allowing me to appreciate what may have constituted Asser’s east bank of the Avon.
It is important to note that the river today is not the same as it appears on old maps, and It would have been even more different in the time of Alfred. But even going back to the Ordnance Survey map of 1886, one can see an Isle of Rea, which no longer exists as such, just south of the town bridge (High Street). My impression is that this island is where much of the deeply unaesthetic Borough Parade shopping centre now stands. This area can therefore be excluded from being Asser’s east of the Avon. Just south of here the river once divided again into a main stream and a Hardenhuish Brook, forming yet another island called The Ham. However, it seems like it is the brook rather than the main stream that has disappeared so that when we look across the river at this point today we are looking at the east bank of the Avon as opposed to the eastern edge of a former island. So I proceeded to walk all the way down the western bank looking across at the eastern bank. Nowadays, perhaps unsurprisingly, this area has been developed, except at the point where one reaches some playing fields.
So does this help locate the Viking fortress? It could have been anywhere along this stretch of the east bank as it runs through Chippenham, whilst allowing for the disappearance of the Isle of Rea. However, another option arises. Because the Avon bends sharply, there is a second eastern bank a little further east. A Monkton House is located here, and this is on the location of an older manor house. However, I feel that this is a less likely location because of the pattern of the Vikings usage of water to defend themselves on three sides, which the latter site could not provide. But there is also a third option. Neither Asser nor the Chronicle states whether the Vikings set up their own fortress or took over what was already there instead. Asser records that Chippenham was a royal estate and I believe it would therefore have had some defences, particularly bearing in mind its northerly location compared to the rest of Wessex. It seems to me inconceivable that the Vikings would drive the Saxons out of Chippenham and not use the Saxon site as a base. Establishing the location of the royal estate may therefore also be helpful, as this could be the same location as the Viking fortress. St Andrew’s church is near the Market Place (the main focus of the Saxon town) and St Andrew’s has been described as probably the site of the Saxon church. Ordnance Survey maps from 1900 to 1967 indicate a “site of King Arthur’s Palace” between the Market Place and Gladstone Road. Although it is named after King Arthur, who we cannot prove existed, one wonders how this royal connotation came about. The area indicated is to the rear of the current Museum and Heritage Centre and also appears to be at the northern end of a restricted parking area accessed off Timber Street. The access is opposite a very good Caribbean restaurant where I enjoyed the best jerk chicken I have ever tasted.
Anybody who walks down St Mary’s Street will sense it’s age and indeed it is considered to be part of the Saxon settlement, with the area to the north of St Andrew’s chuch considered to be a possibility for the location of the royal estate. Therefore we have two potential sites for a royal palace, one to the west of The Causeway and one to the east. Both of these of course meet Asser’s description of being east of the Avon. However, the latter site would probably be better described as being west of the Avon as it is closer to the other side of the peninsula. It is also possible that the royal site ranged across both of these locations and perhaps we should not always consider them as separate.
For me, therefore, the most likely location for both the Royal Estate and the Viking fortification extends between Borough Parade shopping centre car park in the north, Timber Street in the south, and St Mary’s Street to the east. This would be east of the Avon, yet far enough up the peninsula to make that a defensive feature.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below:
It may come as a surprise to some that Alfred was in Cornwall. However, Asser tells us that at some time prior to his marriage in 868, and therefore also before he became king, Alfred came to Cornwall on a hunting trip. The story goes that he made a detour to the resting place of a St Gueriir where he prayed to be cured of an ailment (thought to be piles) and to have this replaced with something less debilitating. According to Asser’s record, Alfred was cured of the first ailment, but he didn’t get everything that he wanted because it turned out that the second ailment was worse than the one it had replaced (although it didn’t strike until his wedding day).
The location is almost certainly in the village of St Neot in Cornwall, at the site of the church of the same name. We know this because an entry in Asser’s record (made perhaps by another hand and after Alfred’s death) states that the place Alfred went to had also been the resting place of St Neot. This is the same St Neot that is associated with St Neots in Cambridgeshire, as he was later moved there. There must surely have been some local resistance when this happened!
I have seen it mentioned that King Alfred and St Neot had been contemporaries and knew each other. I have even seen it claimed that they were brothers! It can’t be ruled out that they were alive at the same time, but I could find no evidence that they knew each other or were related. However, to take the record literally, they may have met in a very different sense – there is a legend that St Neot came to Alfred twice in an apparition in the run-up to the Battle of Ethandun. However, it has also been written that Alfred had a vision from St Cuthbert.
There also seems to be confusion between the similarly sounding St Neot and a St Anietus, and whether the church was originally dedicated to the latter, with the name shifting to the former over time. It has been said that St Anietus was a Celtic saint and that St Neot was a Saxon saint, but I have not been able to tell whether they were in fact the same person.
Alfred would have needed lodgings, and presumably protection, in what was then a far-flung location. We know from his will that he had an estate at Stratton, near Bude. Also, it is possible that he stayed with a local ruler, and it is worth considering the possibility that he stayed with King Dungarth, perhaps at Liskeard. It has been suggested that Dungarth and Doniert might be the same person, and there is a King Doniert’s stone not far from St Cleer.
Unfortunately, we only have Asser’s account to go on for this visit to Cornwall. I hope to write on the reliability of Asser as a source in a future post. This will be a complicated subject and a contentious one too. The current weight of academic opinion appears to be behind Asser’s work not having been written by somebody else after Alfred’s death.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap on the image below.