In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 3. The Upper Deverills

Ford at Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire

This is the third post on Egbert’s Stone. The others are here and here. There is a link to a video at the end of this post. This post is adapted from my book, available on Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

In my book I argue that the place most likely to have been Egbert’s Stone is the collection of villages known today as the Upper Deverills. The Upper Deverills are a short distance south of Warminster (Wiltshire) and consist of three small villages on the River Deverill, now named on maps as part of the River Wylye. These villages are Kingston Deverill, Monkton Deverill and Brixton Deverill.

Looking back to Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire, from the climb up to Cold Kitchen Hill
Looking back to Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire, from the climb up to Cold Kitchen Hill

The ford that lies on the border between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill is thought to be at the junction of two important Roman roads and the area is just a short distance north of the ancient track known as the Harrow Way (also known as the Hard Way). In fact, some of the nearby A303 main road lies on the course of this ancient trackway. Indeed, near Willoughby Hedge service station, the A303 (on the line of the Harrow Way) crosses one of the Roman roads that leads to the aforementioned ford, so this could be a significant location as well, and I expand on this in the book.

A Roman road runs through this hedge. Near Willoughby Hedge service station on the A303
A Roman road runs through this hedge! Near Willoughby Hedge service station on the A303.

Kingston Deverill is also associated with a legend that three large stones were once brought down from Court Hill, adjacent to the village. These once served as stepping stones but were also considered to have been “Egbert’s Stones” (the early sources do not indicate that there was more than one). The name of Court Hill has also been brought into the story in that King Egbert (Alfred’s grand-father) “held court” on the hill. None of this can be proved, but it seems to me that this is the more likely location even without this legend. This is not only because of the proximity of important ancient routes, but also because following the river away from here is a plausible route to options for the location that Alfred went next, which was called Iglea (and the last stop before the Battle of Ethandun. The site also fits with Asser‘s description of Egbert’s Stone being in the eastern part of Selwood.

The ford between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill, Wiltshire. Two Roman roads crossed at or close to here
The ford between Kingston Deverill and Monkton Deverill, Wiltshire. Two Roman roads crossed at or close to here.

I visited the ford and found it to be a lovely spot that also seemed well cared for. Please note that there are signs saying that the ford is not suitable for vehicles to cross. If you visit Kingston Deverill, remember to visit the 15th century St Mary’s church (although there may have been an earlier structure) where I was delighted to find a banner depicting King Alfred, indicating that his connections with this area have not been forgotten.

King Alfred banner in St Mary's church, Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire
King Alfred banner in St Mary’s church, Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire

There is a legend that Alfred prayed at a church at Monkton Deverill before the Battle of Ethandun, and this church later became dedicated to St Alfred the Great. The church is now a private residence, and appears to have been constructed more recently than the time of King Alfred, although there may have been an earlier structure on the site (I am not aware of any evidence of this).

When walking in the hills here I rarely see anyone else and it seems to me that this beautiful rural area is relatively under-visited. I recommend the stiff climb up towards Cold Kitchen Hill (itself an important site in pre-historic and Roman times) for the elevated views over the Upper Deverills that this provides.

I made a video about Egbert’s Stone:

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.

What about the Cakes?

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available at Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Although I could find no evidence that Alfred burnt any cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. 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 Ethandune in 878). The story of the 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 even 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 out 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 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.

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