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.

King Alfred’s Navy. The lost battle site of 896AD

This post on King Alfred’s navy and the lost battle site is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.

In 896 there was an engagement between King Alfred’s navy and a Viking fleet of six ships that had arrived at the Isle of Wight and had caused harm all along the coast as far as Devon. It seems that Alfred could not have been present at this engagement because some of the fleeing Vikings were captured and taken to him at Winchester where he had them hanged. The few geographic clues provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have led to speculation that the engagement took place in Poole Harbour or Christchurch Harbour in Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to an ufeweard muða (ð is pronounced “th”) and it has been suggested that this means an “upper harbour.” However, I found it striking that there is an area on the north side of the harbour in Christchurch called Mudeford, with a River Mude running through it and into the harbour. Could this be the muða referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles?

The River Mude flowing into Christchurch Harbour
The River Mude flowing into Christchurch Harbour

Although I have seen it claimed that muða could also mean river, we know from elsewhere in the Chronicles and other documents that rivers were sometimes referred to by their name and that muða appears to usually mean mouth (the similarity between muða and mouth is not a coincidence) with the term for river generally being ea. Furthermore, if muða had been a generic term for river, we might expect to find other survivors such as is the case with the Brittonic language-derived Avon. However, I was unable to find any other examples of a River Mude in England. Update: I have had access to a 1797 map that shows the location as “Midde Ford”, which seems to sever the relationship of the place-name with muða.

View of Christchurch Harbour, taken from an aeroplane at dusk.
My photograph of Christchurch Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Alfred’s ships blocked the Viking ships in so they could not get to the uter mere. It seems unclear to me whether uter mere means “outer lake” or “outer sea”. However, the usual term for the sea in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is , with mere usually meaning a lake. Nonetheless, the Vikings had been blocked into the river and when the tide went out three ships were beached at the upper river mouth and three came forward to attack (making six, matching the number recorded as coming to the Isle of Wight). It appears that at least two Viking ships managed to escape from the trap because we are told that two of the fleeing Vikings crews came ashore in Sussex because their ships were in a poor state. King Alfred had these men hanged at Winchester. It has been suggested that they came aground while trying to get past Selsey Bill. These Vikings would therefore have come aground in Sussex somewhere between East Wittering and Selsey. That they came ashore in Sussex perhaps also makes it less likely that the battle had taken place in distant Devon, after which they would have had to round Portland Bill (or drag their boats across the causeway), near Weymouth in Dorset, first.

Poole Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk
My photograph of Poole Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk

Perhaps the clue to potential locations for this battle lies in the fact that there were only six Viking ships. We know that Wareham (with access to Poole harbour) and Christchurch are listed in the Burghal Hidage (a list of places defended by King Alfred after 878), and would therefore probably have been defended by 896. It does not seem to make sense to me that the Vikings would have ventured close to defended locations with just six ships.

Weymouth, Dorset

Perhaps the Dorset coastal town of Weymouth (not in the Burghal Hidage, so perhaps a weak point) should be regarded as a possible site. Radipole Lake, fed by the River Wey, is connected to the sea via the town harbour, and one of Athelstan’s charters refers to all the water within the coast of Weymouth, indicating that there was an inland body of water here in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, it is thought that the Romans may have had some sort of port at the head of this body of water, and a Roman road ran north from near here to Dorchester. At least parts of this route appear to have remained in use today, which suggests that it might have been in use in 896, thus providing access to any Vikings that intended to raid Dorchester. This area is no stranger to Viking threat. In 840 the Vikings landed at nearby Portland, with fatal consequences for the locals, and in 2009, during construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, near Upwey, fifty-four skeletons of executed Vikings were found, although these dated to a later period than that of King Alfred. Because I live near here, I cannot resist drawing to your attention how rich the South Dorset Ridgeway is in ancient, although very much pre-Alfred, sites. For those who are interested in this, I find this blog particularly good.

The Isle of Wight

However, it seems to me that it is more likely that the events took place at one of the main rivers, including the River Medina, that flow into the Solent on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not state that the engagement took place during a Viking raid on the coast of the mainland, although it is easy to assume this because the Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had been undertaking such raiding. It is an interesting coincidence that the Old English term for the River Medina was Meðume, not terribly different from muða. An old map of the Isle of Wight suggests that the main waterways may have had constricted entrances to the sea, thus meeting the description of the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It seems to me that King Alfred’s Navy, improved after 878 AD, had managed to root out a small Viking base that had set itself up on the Isle of Wight.

My book mentions a few other locations on the south coast that could have been the site of the engagement between King Alfred’s navy and the Vikings. It also contains much more about Alfred’s travels, and contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.