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.

Athelney. Alfred’s Refuge on the Somerset Levels.

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.

The route up to the King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels. Just me and the sheep.
The route up to the King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels. Just me and the sheep.

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.

The King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels.
The King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels.

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.

The bust of King Alfred the Great on the monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels

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.

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.

Even with the Somerset Levels drained it doesn't take much for the water around Athelney hill to appear again.
Even with the Somerset Levels drained it doesn’t take much for the water around Athelney hill to appear again.

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.

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.