A hot-spot in the Saxon history of Devon

I refer to Tiverton, Silverton, Cullompton and Bickleigh as being a mid-Devon hot-spot because I came across evidence relating to King Alfred and his son, King Edward the Elder, for these close-together places. It seems that this area was particularly important in the Saxon history of Devon in and around King Alfred’s time.

King Alfred, in his will, left estates at Mylenburnan, Tiverton (Twyfyrde – refering to two former fords across the rivers Exe and Lowman) and Cullompton to his youngest son Æthelweard. The historians Keynes and Lapidge, in their analysis of King Alfred’s will, favour Silverton as the site of Mylenburnan. In addition, there were four charters issued by King Edward the Elder nearby at a place called Bicanleag, which is believed to be Bickleigh. Although most charters seem to have been challenged at some point as to their authenticity (either in whole or part), it seems to me that the presence of four of them means that it is likely that Bickleigh was a high status location at the time. Bickleigh is not far from the important location of Crediton, which I have written about in an earlier post. Transcripts of the charters can be seen here: S372, S373, S1286, S374. To give an indication of the proximity of the locations, the modern distances by road are: Bickleigh to Tiverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Silverton = 4 miles, Bickleigh to Cullompton = 10 miles, Bickleigh to Crediton = 9 miles. This area was clearly significant in the Saxon history of Devon.

I have not seen anything to tell me that Bickleigh was a royal estate at the time of King Alfred. For example it does not appear in King Alfred’s will. However, I wonder whether Bickleigh’s location between Tiverton and Silverton may be more than coincidence.

St Peter's church, Tiverton, Devon
St Peter’s church, Tiverton, Devon

Tiverton

Tiverton was, and remains, an important place in the history of Devon. It is well worth a visit, although most people (myself included) will have passed the town on the A361 dual carriageway to the North Devon coast without realising this. It has a majestic parish church which, although 15th century, includes a re-sited 12th century doorway. It is possible that there might have been an earlier ecclesiastical building on the same site. There are the remains of a 12th century castle adjacent to the church, and the road to the east of the castle and church may have been the market in Saxon times.

View north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon
Looking north from the bridge at Tiverton, Devon. The likely site of the royal Saxon estate is where St Peter’s church can be seen on the right.

It is interesting to note how the focus of the commercial centre of Tiverton has shifted (to the south) over time, as it also seems to have done at Shaftesbury (where it shifted to the east). It seems sensible that the royal estate would have been where the remains of the castle and the church are located, because if the Normans found a position to be defendable, then the Saxons had probably discovered that fact previously. It isn’t entirely obvious from maps, but when on location it was clear to me that the location is high above the River Exe, making it easier to defend.

Silverton

Silverton is a village just off the main road between Exeter and Tiverton (and south of Bickleigh). Not only did King Alfred leave an estate here in his will, but by Domesday, the hundred that included Cullompton was called Sulfretone (Silverton) Hundred. The parish church here is 15th century (as is the case in many places, there could have been an earlier structure) and, when arriving by car, is not at first easy to find because it is set back from the road. There is a footpath that leads from more or less opposite the shops on Newport Road. Unfortunately when I arrived the church was shut to visitors because of internal scaffolding. It seems that this place was more important in the Saxon history of Devon than is currently popularly realised.

St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon
St Mary the Virgin church at Silverton, Devon

Bickleigh

Now to Bickleigh, where it seemed to me that there were two contenders for the location of the estate called Bicanleag from which King Edward the Elder seems to have been issuing charters. The first was the current village centre, focused on St Mary the Virgin church, up a steep hill near Bickleigh Bridge and Bickleigh Mill. The other location was Bickleigh Castle, a manor house and wedding venue. This has been an important location over time, with Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) staying here when on the way to Exeter (after which she would flee to France from Falmouth, Cornwall). The main point of interest for this blog post, however, is the chapel, which is thought to go back to Saxon times. Although I have not found proof of this (any help greatly appreciated) it is at least thought to predate the 15th century church of St Mary the Virgin in the village centre, which has a 12th century font (and I was told that the font came from the chapel at Bickleigh Castle). Although it cannot be said with certainty, it seems to me that the most likely location at Bickleigh for the signing of charters is the general area of Bickleigh Castle.

The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon
The chapel at Bickleigh Castle, Devon

Cullompton

An estate at Cullompton was also left to Æthelweard in King Alfred’s will. I also found it fascinating that by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Cullompton was a vill (referred to as Colitone) within the hundred of Silverton. This is revealed in the Liber Exoniensis (searchable here), which contains assessments for Domesday in the South West based on land-owners. This seems to mark Silverton as being a more significant place than Cullompton, whereas today it is the other way around. A word of caution though: Hundred names might sometimes refer to convenient meeting places or local well-known place-names. A case in point would be Culliford Tree in Dorset where, to this day, there is no habitation at this Bronze Age barrow on the crest of a ridge. But where in Cullompton was King Alfred’s estate? Was it the whole of Cullompton as it existed at that time?

St Andrew's church, Cullompton, Devon
St Andrew’s church, Cullompton, Devon

Importantly, the entry for Cullompton in the main Domesday record makes reference to a church. There was therefore a Saxon church at Cullompton and it seems likely that this would have been at the location of the current 15th century St Andrew’s church in the centre of Cullompton. Unfortunately, the church was locked when I visited, which was a shame as I understand it has a great interior and even a King Alfred window. The Saxon church would have probably been associated with the royal estate, so it seems that we can place this somewhere in the general area around the church. It is interesting to note that settlement in Roman times seems to have been around St Andrew’s Hill (with a fort on top), a short distance to the north. Indeed, in various places, Saxon settlement seems to have been at different locations to earlier Roman settlement. Perhaps the most well known is London, with a shift away from what we call The City to the area around Aldwych.

This blog post relating to the Saxon history of Devon is part of a sequel to my book on King Alfred the Great, available from Amazon and bookshops. Click the image to find out more (it takes you to the description on Amazon).

Saxon Hertford, Hertfordshire

This post on King Alfred and Saxon Hertford is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops.

Those of you who have read the previous post will know that in 895 the Vikings built a fortress on the River Lea about 20 miles north of London and that King Alfred arrived and set up camp nearby. King Alfred then rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed in order to block the Viking ships in. The river was indeed obstructed and King Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings then fled. Hertford and Ware are possible locations for these events and here I shall look a little closer at Hertford.

It is worth pointing out at the start that there is a risk of confusion with the two fortifications that were built in Saxon Hertford in 912-913 by King Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder. These two fortifications were north and south of the River Lea. However, the first one to be built by Edward the Elder was the northern one and it strikes me as intriguing that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe it as þa norðran burg, which seems to me to translate as the more northerly burg. This in turn suggests that there was already a burg to the south when King Edward the Elder built his first fortification. It is possible that this could have been one of the fortifications that Alfred had built.

As is also the case with Ware, it is uncertain why the Vikings would have gone to Hertford. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 673 a synod took place at Hertford (Heorotford, or Herutford in Bede’s Latin). Indeed, there is a memorial stone associated with this event in Hertford Castle Gardens. There was also a royal mint here as early as the 920s. Although the mint dates to slightly after the time of Alfred, the record of both a synod and a mint suggests that Hertford was an important place in Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps more important than Ware, and it also indicates that Hertford might have been attractive to the Vikings because of its possessions. However, it is possible that the synod took place at the similarly named Hartford in Cambridgeshire instead.

Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there
Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there

The River Lea divides just north-east of Mill Bridge to form Hertford’s Folly Island. However, the route of the river through Hertford may not have been the same in 895 and this bifurcation may not have been (as has been suggested) where King Alfred divided the river in order to trap the Viking boats. Nonetheless, the bifurcation can be easily observed near the road called Bull Plain. I have seen reference to the course of the river in Roman times lying to the north -west of its current course, although it may have been in its approximate current location in Alfred’s time because a Viking sword was found in modern times when the River Lea was dredged in the centre of Hertford. Although many Viking weapons are found submerged, it is also possible that the sword found its way into water as the river changed its course. I also saw a reference to remains of Viking ships being found near Hertford and Stanstead Abbots, although I have been unable to corroborate this.

The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.
The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.

It was interesting to find on the 1881 Ordnance Survey map an area in Hertford called “Englefield” lying to the east of Bengeo Street and to the north of Warren Park Road. Readers of my book may recall that there was a battle of Englefield near Reading in Berkshire in 871, with the name Englefield probably meaning the land of the Angles. The same map also shows an area called “Daneshill” lying to the south of Warren Park Road, with some nearby land to the north-east being called “Danesbury.” There has also been speculation that the former location of the cricket ground, which used to lie to the east of the pronounced curve of Warren Park Road, could have been a Viking camp. Was there a Viking fortification in this area and did Alfred set up his camp at Englefield? Although we must be cautious of the possibility that antiquarian speculation influenced the place names on the 1881 map, I find the juxtaposition of names potentially referring to Vikings and Anglo-Saxons intriguing. In the absence of definitely-established locations for any Saxon or Viking camps I feel this area must be worth considering. Just a short distance east of these locations lies the 12th century St Leonard’s church. I was told that the current building may have been built on an even older structure that might relate in some way to the Vikings or King Alfred, although I was unable to find any supporting evidence.

St Leonard's church, Hertford
St Leonard’s church, Hertford

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the northerly fortress built by King Edward the Elder in Saxon Hertford was on the other side of the River Beane to the aforementioned Hertford locations of Englefield, Daneshill and Danesbury. The fortress is described as being between the Mimram, the Beane and the Lea (which doesn’t entirely make sense based on current names and geography).

I would like to extend my thanks to the Salisbury Arms in Hertford for their hospitality.