Saxon Crediton, Devon

Saxon Crediton was clearly an important place and, in my opinion, King Alfred probably came here, although there is no written evidence for this. Its importance is revealed when in 909 (King Alfred died in 899 and in 909 his son, Edward the Elder was king) the huge diocese of Sherborne, which extended from Dorset to Lands End, was divided up. A new diocese was created in Somerset, based on Wells, and a new diocese for Devon and Cornwall was created, based on Crediton.

The church of the Holy Cross, Crediton, Devon.
The church of the Holy Cross (Crediton parish church), Devon

It is important to note that Crediton was chosen instead of nearby Exeter. Saxon Crediton was clearly a very important place ecclesiastically and it seems unlikely to me that Crediton would have suddenly became important in 909. It seems more probable that it would have been a significant religious site prior to this. We know that King Alfred was pious and it is recorded that he spent time in Devon and Cornwall, so it seems probable to me that he would therefore have visited Crediton at some point. Exeter would, eventually, have its day when the seat of the diocese was moved from Crediton to Exeter in 1050.

The parish church that one sees today has some 12th century components, but is largely 15th century. It is thought that this church is built over the earlier church (or cathedral as it should be called between 909 and 1050). We don’t know if anything new was built when Saxon Crediton rose to greater prominence or whether it carried on with the same religious buildings that would have been there anyway.

A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church
A wood carving of St Boniface inside Crediton parish church

St Boniface

It is claimed that St Boniface was born at Crediton in about 680AD. He was a very prominent saint across northern Europe, becoming the patron saint of Germany, and there are moves to make him the patron saint of Devon (I cannot confirm that this has taken place at the time of writing). He was venerated after his death in Fulda (Germany) in 745, so it seems likely that Alfred would have known about him and may have visited Crediton, the claimed birth-place of St Boniface, for this reason as well.

St Boniface's Well (or Winfrith's Well - after his original name), Crediton, Devon.
St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s Well – after his original name), Crediton, Devon.

The Wells

Crediton was created the focus of a diocese at the same time as Wells (Somerset). However, the comparisons do not end there. Both places are closely connected with springs. It may be that many more significant religious locations were associated with water. Perhaps the association has become less obvious over time. At Crediton there are two springs that can be easily visited. One is called Libbets Well, and is just north west of the church. It is not easy to find. You need to go up an unnamed track coming off Church Street, not far opposite the footpath that leads from the church car park. The other is called St Boniface’s Well (or Winfrith’s well – after St Boniface’s original name) and is at the south end of the park that is a short distance west of the cathedral. This well is marked by a “W” on the Ordnance Survey map.

Libbett’s Well, Crediton, Devon.

Although a fair bit further away, there is another interesting well in the lovely settlement at Shobrooke, to the north-east of Crediton. This can also be tricky to find. If you can find St Swithun’s church, Shobrooke, you will see a large thatched farmhouse. The road that goes down past this leads to the well (which is on the right). There is no evidence that any of these wells are ancient (but also no evidence that they are not) and the two in Crediton may be associated with the culverted Littleburn Stream. Perhaps more significant in this regard is a spring marked on the 1890 Ordnance Survey map just north of the church car park. Incidentally, the same map shows the church car park to have once been the site of a (St Gregory’s) cathedral. We now know that the cathedral was not at that location.

The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon
The Holy Well, Shobrooke, near Crediton, Devon

Copplestone

For those interested in Anglo-Saxon history a visit to the nearby Copplestone Cross, in Copplestone village, is a must. Located on a busy traffic island (it was moved to this location to ease the flow of traffic in 1969), it is a wayside cross thought to date to the 10th century . It is thought to have been erected in memory of a murdered bishop.

Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.
Copplestone Cross, Copplestone, Devon.

Saxon Wells, Somerset

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

This is one of the places where, although there is no record of his presence, I feel that King Alfred probably would have visited Saxon Wells some point. I excluded many such places from my book (although I included some, like Guildford and Somerton), but I thought it might be good to write a few words about Wells for the blog, especially as I found a few things commemorating King Alfred in the city.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great and his son King Edward the Elder
Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great and his son King Edward the Elder

It is said that a church at Wells was created by Ine, King of Wessex, in 705. This would have survived up to about 1175, when work on the current Cathedral is thought to have commenced. Outside the cathedral, near the south transept, a map on an information board shows where the Saxon church would have been in the early and late Saxon periods.

Wells cathedral, Somerset. An information board in the grounds showing the location of the earlier Saxon church
Wells cathedral, Somerset. An information board in the grounds showing the location of the earlier Saxon church
showing the probable location of the altar of the Saxon church at Wells Cathedral, Somerset
Wells cathedral, Somerset. Using the above map, it seems that the altar of the Saxon church would have been near the wooden bench (to the right of the middle of the picture). I have taken the photo down the line of the orientation of the Saxon church.

I found the parallels between Saxon Wells and Winchester to be striking in that the cathedral is to the side of the Saxon church (although in Winchester it is to the north instead of the south at Wells), and the mis-alignment between the Saxon church and the cathedral is about the same in both cases. Perhaps the cathedrals were built to the side in order to allow people to worship in the earlier building while the new one was being constructed.

Wells cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great. St Martin of Tours is shown to the left
Wells cathedral, Somerset. Stained glass window showing King Alfred the Great. St Martin of Tours is shown to the left

There are also striking similarities between Saxon Wells and Crediton, in Devon. Not only did they both become the base of new dioceses after 909 upon the division of the diocese of Sherborne, but the main ecclesiastical establishments at both locations are closely associated with wells or springs. It might, however, be that the associations between important religious buildings and such water sources may have been lost in other locations. At Wells, the association has survived in the name of the city, and the well that is thought to have been the inspiration (St Andrew’s well) can still be seen beyond the east end (and slightly to the south) of the cathedral. It lies in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace, but can also be espied through a hole in the wall in the cathedral’s grounds.

St Andrew's Well seen from a gap in the wall from the grounds of the cathedral
St Andrew’s Well seen from a gap in the wall from the grounds of the cathedral

Although there is no evidence that King Alfred was at Wells, I feel that he would have been present at some time. The church was founded by the Wessex King Ine and was significant enough to become a diocese after 909AD after the enormous diocese of Sherborne was divided. King Alfred is certainly remembered in the cathedral. There are two stained glass windows of him, and a seat cover that recalls his presence at Wedmore. There are more details about King Alfred and Wedmore in this post.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Seat cover commemorating King Alfred's presence at Wedmore in 878
Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Seat cover commemorating King Alfred’s presence at Wedmore in 878
Wells, Somerset. A sign of a pub called The King's Head.
This is a sign on a closed pub in Wells. Is it King Alfred, King Ine, or King Arthur (or another king?)

King Alfred. The Basics

This blog on King Alfred has become quite large, so I thought I would write a summary to enable those less familiar with him to quickly get an idea about his life. My approach, as in my book, is based around the locations in the UK that can be associated with this great king. There will be many links, and I invite you to explore these. You may wish to bookmark this page as it can also serve as a launchpad to the other pages in this blog, which might otherwise be tedious to find.

Alfred was King of Wessex between 871 and 899. We are told by Asser, a companion and “biographer” of King Alfred, that he was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire. His parents were King Æthelwulf of Wessex, who was initially interred at Steyning, West Sussex, and Osburh. He was born in 849 and died in 899. However, we do not know how or where he died. He was buried at Winchester, firstly at the Old Minster (demolished), then at the New Minster (demolished), then at Hyde Abbey (largely demolished at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII). The whereabouts of his remains is currently unknown.

King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.
King Alfred in the Market Square, Wantage, Oxfordshire.

He was present at several battles/engagements with the Vikings. Those up to, and including, the Battle of Meretun were while his brother Æthelred was king. The locations of the recorded battles/engagements are: Nottingham (868), Reading (871), Ashdown (871), Basing (871), Meretun (871), Wilton (871), Wareham (876), Exeter (876), Ethandun/Edington (878), Rochester (884), Kent (892, where Alfred camped between two Viking armies), the River Lea (895, when he obstructed the river, trapping the Vikings).

Perhaps the most famous part of his life starts when he was hiding out on the Somerset Levels at Athelney after the Vikings had seized Chippenham and large parts (at least) of Wessex in 878. You may read elsewhere that King Alfred fled from Chippenham with his family when the Vikings attacked. However, I could find no evidence that Alfred was there when the Vikings attacked. It was from Athelney that King Alfred started his reconquest of the Wessex that he had lost to the Vikings. It is at Athelney that King Alfred is supposed to have burned the cakes, but there is no evidence that this is anything other than a legend. After preparing for battle, King Alfred left Athelney, went to a place called Egbert’s Stone, where his supporting troops from different counties converged. They then moved on for on final stop at a place called Iglea (Iley), and the following day they marched to the site of the Battle of Ethandun, believed to be at Edington, in Wiltshire (although some favour Bratton Down). It was here that King Alfred gained a crucial victory over the Vikings. After their defeat, the Viking leader, Guthrum, was baptised by King Alfred at Aller, Somerset, and he was then hosted by Alfred at the royal estate at Wedmore, in Somerset. Guthrum’s men eventually settled in East Anglia.

King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
King Alfred in the grounds of Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

King Alfred was clearly highly religious, and had been taken to Rome twice by his father while he was a young child. Asser tells of when, before he got married, he went to visit the resting place of a St Gueriir (at St Neot in Cornwall), and while he was there he asked for his current affliction to be replaced by something less debilitating. He then went on to be married, but he was struck down on his wedding night by the presumed new ailment. Sutton Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, has been put forward as the location of his wedding, but this is not certain. King Alfred was involved in translating (and did some translating himself) of some religious texts.

He founded Shaftesbury Abbey (Dorset) and had his daughter installed there as abbess. He would also have had connections to Sherborne Abbey (Dorset), because two of his elder brothers (and possibly a third) who had also been kings were buried there, and after Alfred’s death, Asser would become a bishop there. Another of his brothers was buried at Wimborne, some time after the Battle of Meretun. Alfred was next in line and it is interesting to speculate whether Alfred therefore became king at Wimborne (Dorset).

King Alfred took control of London in 886, but entrusted the city to Æthelred, who ruled Mercia (at least the western part, as eastern Mercia was soon to be conceded to the Vikings) and who was also his son-in-law as he had married his daughter Æthelflæd. It seems that King Alfred retained the upper hand in both London and western Mercia

King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew's church, Aller, Somerset
King Alfred in a stained glass window in St Andrew’s church, Aller, Somerset

The main sources for investigating King Alfred are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Life of King Alfred, written by (probably) Asser. We are also very fortunate in having some surviving charters (documents transferring or confirming rights or land etc.). Although the authenticity of many of these have been challenged, we can work out from these that Alfred was at particular places, including Dorchester (Dorset). Please see here for more about sources.

There really is much, much more to write, but hopefully you will follow the links, or for the full picture, my book is available through Amazon and book shops. Click on the image of the cover to find out more.