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 at 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.

The parallels with Winchester are 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 with the parish church at 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 they are both also 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?)

Sherborne, Dorset. Was this once the most important place in Wessex?

Sherborne Abbey

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 the book.

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.

Plaque inside Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, informing us that King Ethelberht and King Ethelbald were interred nearby
Plaque inside Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, informing us that King Æthelberht and King Æthelbald were interred nearby

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.

Sherborne Abbey, Dorset
Sherborne Abbey, Dorset

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.

I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.