At least two Kings of Wessex were buried here. 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approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath.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.
The following 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.
Wimborne (or Wimborne Minster) is a significant historic town in Dorset and is the location of the important Wimborne Minster, which has a history going back to the 8th century. Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after the 871 AD battle at Meretun (unknown location, but possibly Martin in Hampshire) King Æthelred, Alfred’s older brother, was buried at Wimborne. However, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tells us that he was buried at Sherborne, which seems plausible as the two previous kings and brothers of Alfred, Æthelbald and Æthelbehrt, had been buried there. I consider it possible that Æthelred was initially interred at Wimborne, and then later moved to Sherborne, probably because of the relative importance of the latter location. It is further recorded that Alfred had been present at his brother’s funeral rites, which is what we would expect.
We know that Alfred himself became king after the death of King Æthelred, although the location where this formally took place has not been recorded. I suggest, however, that there is a very good chance that Alfred became king at Wimborne, particularly if he had already been designated as next in line, which Asser tells us was the case. Alfred’s immediate elevation on the death of his brother also makes sense in the context of the kingship having run sequentially through Æthelwulf’s sons up to that point. It should be borne in mind, however, that just because we are told that Æthelred had been buried at Wimborne does not mean that he died there, with this meaning that Alfred could have become king somewhere else. Nonetheless, Wimborne seems plausible because we know that it had significance because the royal estate there was seized in 899 by Æthelwold after Alfred’s death (if it was significant in 899 it seems likely that had been so in 871).
The battles that took place in 871 indicate that Wessex was clearly in a state of emergency at the time King Æthelred died, and perhaps the formal ceremonial arrangements of Alfred’s accession were delayed until the relatively peaceful period between 872 and 874 when the Vikings that had been at Reading were causing trouble in Mercia and Northumbria instead. If there was ever a formal ceremony, we have no evidence of it. It has been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, but I have seen no evidence of this. Furthermore, it appears that Kingston-upon-Thames had not yet become (as it would) the favoured site for the consecration of the Anglo-Saxon kings.
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.
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.
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.
I have lived near Dorchester for many years. Evidence from charters (legal documents showing transfers of land or rights) indicates that King Alfred came to Dorchester and presumably he would have had some sort of base there. But where exactly was this?
Clues about Dorchester’s Saxon past are scant, and this includes any evidence that might help us establish the location of a Saxon royal residence at the time of King Alfred. My personal speculation, which I have heard others suggest as well, is that the royal site would have included the location on the northern edge of the town where the current prison buildings are sited, where we know that the Norman castle was also located. It seems to make sense that if a site was deemed defendable by the Saxons (which a royal site would need to be) then it would hold a similar appeal for the Normans. It therefore seems plausible that the Normans would have built their castle on the site of the previous Saxon fortification/royal residence. There is a very pleasant footpath that follows the River Frome and which passes below the site of the former castle. From there one can understand how elevated (and therefore defendable) the site would have been.
It has been suggested that King Alfred spent every Christmas at a royal manor at Fordington, which is now part of Dorchester but was once a separate settlement to the east. I have also read that Fordington became a royal manor after the Romans left and that the first church there had been built about 857, and that this was a royal church dedicated to St George. Although the earliest parts of the current St George’s church date to the 11th century, it is located at the site of a Roman cemetery so the location was clearly a significant one stretching back to ancient times, which makes the presence of a church being there in 857 seem more plausible.
So, we have two potential royal locations that are close to each other, one in the centre of Dorchester at the site of the former prison, and the other at Fordington. Although the evidence from charters suggests that Dorchester really was a royal location, I am not aware of any charters having been issued from Fordington. It is perhaps possible that a royal residence at Fordington would have been close enough to Dorchester to go under that name, or that the residence was at Fordington while the charters were signed at nearby Dorchester. Fordington is so close to Dorchester that I found that I could walk, at a brisk pace, from St George’s church in Fordington to the closest point of Dorchester’s former Roman walls in a matter of three minutes. It seems to me that the Roman walls (perhaps replaced or repaired in places) would have been present in Alfred’s time and would have probably continued to define and defend the town. This is supported by the fact that even today much of the line of the walls can still be followed. The exception to this is the northern section stretching between Northernhay and Salisbury Street where it is possible that there was no wall at all, with the River Frome providing defence instead. My personal opinion is that there would have been a wall here as well, which has long since been destroyed and built over. A recognition that the town was walled leads to a discussion about the location of gates through which King Alfred might have passed, including when Alfred was pursuing the Vikings from Wareham to Exeter, and perhaps passing through Dorchester, in 876.
I go into more detail on the gates and the charters in my book.
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
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.
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
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.
Wareham and nearby Poole harbour are lovelyplaces to visit. However, not everybody will be aware of the dramatic events that took place here in the 9th century.
Wareham had been occupied by the Vikings in 875, but Alfred made piece with them in 876 when the Vikings swore on the halgan beage (holy ring) that they would leave Wessex. However, they left under the cover of darkness and went instead to Exeter, in Devonshire but also part of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had given hostages to Alfred as part of the deal, and that these men had been the worthiest in the Viking army. We cannot be sure if this ring was presented in the negotiations by Alfred or by the Vikings, or who it was “holy” to, if not to both parties. It is possible that either the Vikings or Alfred had access to a holy ring as they travelled from place to place. If it was a Viking ring, then Alfred clearly must have had the upper hand to make them swear on it, which would fit with the fact that Alfred was also given important hostages, which could be killed if the Vikings reneged on the deal. The Vikings must have seen Exeter as a great prize if it meant sacrificing their worthiest men. One can imagine how the Vikings might have viewed the subsequent loss of 120 ships near Swanage in a storm as they fled to Exeter as divine retribution for breaking an oath sworn on a holy ring.
On balance it seems to me that this ring was presented by Alfred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to it as “holy” and it seems unlikely to me that something un-Christian would be referred to in this way.
But, what was at Wareham when the Vikings attacked? Asser describes Wareham as a castellum (fortification) and the location of a convent for nuns. We know that Alfred embarked on a programme of defending settlements after 878 and it is thought that the origins of the walls that we see today were built then, although we know that they were modified over subsequent centuries. The fortification referred to by Asser is therefore probably not the same as the walls we see today. Castellum could also relate to an ancient or Roman construction, for which there is no remaining evidence, or even Saxon pre-878 defences developed because of a specific risk of Viking attack.
However, things become even more complicated when we look at Æthelweard’s chronicle. He describes the Vikings moving down from Cambridge to near (iuxta) Wareham and occupying a location alongside (coniecit statum communem cum) a Western Army. There appears to be a significant difference between Æthelweard and Asser as the latter states that the Viking army enterred (intravit) the castellum of Wareham. However these two sources may just be providing two snapshots of a sequence. Taking it all together it appears that the Vikings camped outside of the settlement of Wareham and then took it over, perhaps after besieging it.
But where did the Vikings camp and how did they get there? We know that there must have been a combined land and sea force because that is what left Wareham when they fled to Exeter. We also know that the seaborne force must have been considerable because the Vikings lost 120 ships in a storm near Swanage when fleeing. The ships must have come in to Poole harbour, and perhaps they would have taken some ships up the Frome in order to get closer to Wareham. Presumably, with that many ships, they would have defended their rear by perhaps occupying Brownsea Island and the harbour entrance. This would have been a most serious situation. Try to imagine today over 120 Viking ships in Poole harbour. In fact there would have been more than this as 120, the only figure that we have, is the number that sunk in the storm of Swanage. It is unlikely that all Viking boats had sunk. And on top of this was the land-basedViking army. It is difficult to see that the native settlement at Wareham would have had a chance. The Vikings broke their oath when they fled to Exeter, but Alfred’s intervention had saved Wareham, and we must remember that when the Vikings got to Exeter they had to deal with Alfred again, and this time they did leave Wessex.
How the Viking land-based forces got to Wareham must be very speculative. There may have been a Roman road from Wareham to Woodbury Hill, near Bere Regis. This may have been in use in Alfred’s time because there is still today a straight road that heads in that direction. However, this seems to be in the wrong place (being north-west instead of north-east) if they had come from Cambridge. There is nothing to indicate where Alfred had travelled from.
The nearby church of Lady St Mary, although subject to much rebuilding, has an important history going back to at least the 8th century. Inside the church are several pieces of masonry that are dated to Anglo-Saxon times.
Another important location in Wareham is the very old St Martin’s church, . This church is generally locked outside of the main tourist season, but there is usually an indication of where to get the key in normal trading hours (it is kept in a shop). It is thought that the current building dates to about 1030. The church also contains important 12th century wall paintings.
One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) tells us that King Edward the Martyr was initially buried at Wareham after he had been murdered at nearby Corfe in 978. Although he was later transferred to Shaftesbury, his initial burial would probably have been at or near the site of St Mary’s church. I have seen it written that King Beorhtric of Wessex had been buried at Wareham in 802, but I have not found any evidence to support this. Had I done so, this would have made Wareham a more important place prior to the Viking attack in 875.
This was not the last that Wareham would see of the Vikings. They attacked Dorset again via the Frome, which then runs past Wareham, in 998 and 1015.