Wessex – where was it?

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.

A map from my book. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred’s reign. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

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.

The Emergency in Kent. Alfred’s Base Part 1: Maidstone

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon.

The Medway at Maidstone. Looking south from Maidstone Bridge, with the Archbishop’s Palace and All Saints’ Church in the distance to the left

In 892  a Viking force of 250 ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent and in the same year another Viking force of 80 ships came to the north coast of Kent.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings were at Milton (Milton Regis) to the north and at Appledore to the south, and that Alfred camped with his army between the two raiding armies. Anyone who travels around Kent will soon appreciate the difficulty of simultaneously monitoring these two areas from a single location, because they are quite far apart, so he must have had additional outposts, and perhaps this is what some of the alternative locations (later posts will address these) put forward as Alfred’s base actually were. Indeed, this would fit with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle telling us that burga (fortresses) were being held.

Milton has now become part of Sittingbourne and was accessible from the Swale via the Milton Creek. Appledore is a lovely village that would have been accessible to the Vikings by following the route of the River Limen (now the Rother) as it would have existed at that time.

Although other possibilities exist, Maidstone has been put forward as a serious contender for the location of Alfred’s base during this Kent emergency.

A crossing of the Medway at Maidstone was developed in saxon times  and it has been proposed that the town may have been part of a saxon royal estate with significant ecclesiastical connections.

Maidstone is on the Medway, but it is also  at the crossing of a Roman route from Rochester to Hastings (Margary 13) with a possibly ancient track from Ashford to London, now represented by the A20 either side of Maidstone. It has been suggested that in Saxon times Maidstone grew up around this crossing.

Identifying this crossing may help us establish an approximate location of Alfred’s position, if he was based at Maidstone. It  appears to be where Week Street, King Street, Gabriel’s Hill and High Street meet. When I visited this location, it was clear that it was near the top of a hill. Such sites are generally strategic.

Looking west down High Street from the probable site of the origin of Maidstone (at the ancient crossing)

As above, but now looking east towards King Street

However, King Alfred lived in the later Saxon period, and by then Maidstone may have developed beyond the vicinity of the junction described above, making it more difficult to define precisely where Alfred might have been.

The location of the former church of St Mary the Virgin may be an important clue . By the 11th century this church was a minster with 17 dependent churches. Some sort of settlement around this site in Alfred’s time would appear to be likely as it would have taken time for a church to build up this level of significance. This church, which was by the Medway, no longer exists, but it is suggested  that the site is at the approximate location of, or even beneath, All Saints’ Church, which replaced it in the 1390s.

All Saints’ church, Maidstone

The oldest parts of the nearby Archbishop’s Palace date to the 14th century, but the location was likely to have been the site of a manor that we know existed because in 1086 it was being held by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is therefore possible that there had been a manor here at the time of King Alfred.

The Archbishop’s Palace, Maidstone

On visiting this area my attention was drawn to an information board  that referred to a track  called Knightrider Street going down to the Medway where it could once be forded. I feel that the possibility of being able to easily cross the Medway at this point adds weight to this part of Maidstone, potentially the manor referred to above, being the location for King Alfred’s camp.

Looking down Knightrider Street to the location where there used to be a ford across the River Medway

I found myself being impressed by the collection of historic buildings, including All Saint’s Church and the Archbishop’s Palace, and it was pleasant to partake in a small circular riverside walk in this area, made possible by the Millenium and Maidstone Bridges. It is worth noting that the latter was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, of Thames Embankment and London sewers fame.

Maidstone is also close to what appears to have been the original Pilgrim’s Way, which was on the route of an ancient trackway. In addition, Maidstone may have offereda direct route to the vicinity of both Milton Regis.  In the other direction, there may have been access to the area around Appledore via a route about which we now have no knowledge.

However, Maidstone is much closer to Milton than it is to Appledore, and it is quite a way off a line running between these two places. We therefore possibly run into trouble with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle having told us that Alfred set up camp between the two raiding armies.

Overall, I feel that Maidstone must have been involved. It seems to have been an important site and it was not far from a Viking base at Milton Regis

Alfred and the Vikings at Rochester

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.

Rochester is a lovely and historic city, worth visiting in its own right. However, this city was clearly a  target for the Vikings. Rochester had already been sacked by the Vikings in 842, before Alfred was born. However, it was attacked by the Vikings again in 884, but this time King Alfred saw them off.

You may wish to open a map application to help you get the most out of the below. Otherwise just relax and read on.

The records indicate that on arrival in 884 the Vikings built a fortress around themselves, and we know that this must have been outside of Rochester’s walls because it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the inhabitants defended the settlement. Asser tells us that the Viking fortification was at the entrance to the town but, unfortunately for modern-day investigators, there were four entrances, and so the precise location of the Viking fortification has remained unknown. Alfred later arrived with his forces in 885, and locating the site of the Viking fortification could shed light on where and how Alfred might have engaged with the Vikings and saw that they left. Fortunately, the outline of Rochester’s Roman walls is known. It has been suggested that there would be no Saxon-built stone walls, so the configuration of the walls in 885 should have remained perhaps unchanged since Roman times.

Rochester Bridge over the River Medway (looking north)

There had been four gates in the Roman walls. A northern “Bridge Gate” that opened on to the position of the Roman bridge across the River Medway. A north gate, which is more east than north, an east gate that is more south than east, and a south gate that is more west than south. The confusion is explained when one realises that the name seems to indicate the direction in which one could travel  after passing through a particular gate, rather than the orientation of the gate itself.

There is evidence that the East Gate was about where the City Wall Wine Bar on High Street is located. On visiting I noticed that the outline of the gate was helpfully marked out with bricks in the pavement and the road, with a metal plaque in the pavement confirming the location.

The outline of the East Gate on the ground. Easily missed. Had there been a Viking fortification just past the lamp post?

The North Gate appears to be preserved in the current road name of Northgate. It has been suggested that this gate might have just lead to marshy ground. However, there has also been speculation that it may have led to a harbour. Evidence suggests that the Noth Gate would have been approximately where today Northgate meets Corporation Street, being approximately equidistant from Watling Street (which ran along a line close to that of the current High Street) on one side as the cathedral is on the other. This location seems to be consistent with an existing piece of wall that one can see at the back of The Common car park, accessible via Gas House Road and then Acorn Wharf Road. However, the line of bricks in the road at Northgate, outside the Corn Exchange, suggests that at least some person may have thought that the gate may have been not quite as far down Northgate as the junction with Corporation Street. However, I could find no plaque to explain the reason for the bricks embedded into the road at this point.

A line in the road called Northgate which seems to be there to indicate the line of the wall, but might it (and the North Gate) have been a little bit further down somewhere near the junction with Corporation Street towards the right on the photo?

The Romans built a bridge at Rochester and a bridge is recorded as present in 960, so a bridge may well have been maintained in the intervening period, including at the time of the Viking attack in 885. This bridge across the Medway is thought to have remained in approximately the same location as today. The location of the gate by the bridge (which I have seen referred to as both Bridge Gate and West Gate) has not been proved although it must have existed in order to allow access to and from the bridge. The gate would most likely have been more or less in line with the bridge. However, the modern bridge is much wider than it has been in the past. Fortunately, the entrance to the old bridge is marked by  black lions, which perhaps allows us to speculate that the Bridge Gate would have been at the point where a line drawn from the bridge would have met the town wall.

The north end of High Street, looking north towards the bridge. If it still existed the Bridge Gate would surely be in this picture.

It is thought that the South Gate would have been just before where Boley Hill meets St Margaret’s Street, and there is a helpful plaque on a wall that identifies the location. One can wonder whether, if the Viking fortification had been outside this gate, the location would have been where Boley Hill House and Lodge now stand, near the junction of Boley Hill with St Margaret’s Avenue.

The plaque on the wall where the South Gate is thought to have been

The site of the South Gate (plaque on the wall to the right). Looking to the east along Boley Hill

I did not find it possible to exclude any of the entrances as a possible site for the Viking fortification, although I favour the Bridge Gate because the Vikings had a tendency to use waterways and, by blocking the Bridge Gate, they could fend off any support for Alfred from that direction. I was also told by a helpful volunteer at the cathedral that the Bridge Gate currently appears to be the narrow favourite! I thought it unlikely that an attacking force would cross the bridge, because such structures restrict the flow of men, making them more vulnerable. If there really had been docks beyond the North Gate it is possible that they could have disembarked there. Alternatively, the Vikings could have disembarked at Chatham and then came up Watling Street to the East Gate of Rochester.

Plenty to think about. When you get a chance, pay Rochester a visit, have a look for the sites of the gates of the Roman walls, and see what you think! Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle are well worth a visit. You can also see the outline of the Saxon church outlined in the ground partly inside and partly outside of the cathedral.