King Alfred died in 899, but the succession of his son, King Edward the Elder, was not without incident, leading to important events taking place in Saxon Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that after Edward succeeded to the throne, his cousin Æthelwold (son of King Æthelred, who had preceded Alfred as king) rode and seized both Wimborne and Christchurch. In response, King Edward rode to where Badbury Rings now stand. Strictly speaking, this post just deals with the earlier part of the Æthelwold rebellion, before he fled Dorset for Northumbria. I hope to deal with later events in subsequent posts. All of these locations are in Dorset. For a map showing these places, please click the link below:
It seems that Wimborne was Æthelwold’s main base (as opposed to Christchurch). This is because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that he barricaded himself in the estate there. It seems that he was there with a nun as well as some supporters, before he eventually fled under the cover of darkness to Northumbria, with the nun also going on the run. We are told that he took this nun against the orders of bishops, although we cannot be certain of what kind of relationship Æthelwold had with her. Nowhere is she named. It may not have been a hostile abduction. Indeed, Florence of Worcester tells us that Edward had married the nun, and also that she was later returned to Wimborne – and therefore presumably had come from there as well. Perhaps Edward went to Wimborne more because of the nun than because it was the location of his buried father. Æthelwold’s father, King Æthelred, had been buried at Wimborne in 871 some time after the Battle of Meretun. The outline of the Saxon royal estate is not known but it is thought to have been focused around where the minster is currently located, and it is thought that the Minster might be at the location of the Saxon church, nunnery (that had been founded by King Ine in 705) and monastery.
Christchurch is called Tweoxnam in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, referring to its location between two water courses, the Rivers Stour and Avon. The priory is thought to sit on (or overlap with) the footprint of the earlier Saxon church.
Badbury Rings is an impressively large Iron Age hill fort. King Edward clearly found this location suitable for suppressing his cousin’s rebellion at nearby Wimborne. It is an easy place to visit, with a large car park. A number of Roman roads converge at Badbury Rings, although it is difficult to be certain which of these would have been in use in King Edward the Elder’s time. It is interesting to speculate on how he might have got from Winchester (based on an assumption that he would have been at his father’s interment at Winchester and that the rebellion took place shortly afterwards) to Badbury on any existing Roman roads. It seems likely that a Roman road from Winchester passing through Otterbourne extended through to Ringwood and then onward, probably to Lake Farm, near Corfe Mullen (near Wimborne). There was a Roman road from there to Badbury. Æthelwold may have used most of the same route to get to Wimborne. Other routes may have been available, but when being pursued, or in pursuit, something in a straight line would have been preferred.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that one day after Alfred’s troops came together at Egbert’s Stone, they went to a place called Iglea, a place that is referred to in the Latin of Asser (companion and “biographer” of King Alfred) as Aecglea. Unfortunately, we do not know with certainty the location of this place.
Aecglea was Alfred’s final stop before the Battle of Ethandun, which took place in Wiltshire at Edington or, less likely in my opinion, at the location of the Iron Age hillfort called Bratton Camp. In another post I explained that the most probable location for Egbert’s Stone (King Alfred’s previous stop) was the Upper Deverills, and it seems to me that after leaving there he would have had two main routes to get to the battle site. One would be to follow the Ridgeway to skirt around the north-west of Salisbury Plain in order to reach Bratton Down or to continue on to Edington. The other option being to go straight across Salisbury Plain instead of around it. It seems likely that the location of the encampment at Iglea would depend on which route was taken. Alfred had lost Wessex and was operating in enemy territory and it therefore seems likely that he would have gone across Salisbury Plain rather than around it in order to avoid as many significant settlements as possible, and this is what I focus on in this post. In the video below I refer to Edington being close to Sutton Veny. It is indeed not far, but it is on the other side of Salisbury Plain.
Iglea is similar phonetically to “Iley” and there was an ancient meeting place called Iley Oak in what is today known as Southleigh Wood, previously called Sowley Wood, to the south-west of Sutton Veny. The precise location of Iley Oak in this area may have been where five roads and paths used to meet at a point where today the access to a farm comes off the road connecting Longbridge Deverill to Sutton Veny at the southern edge of Southleigh Wood. I find it striking, and perhaps relevant, that there are the remains of a henge very close to this location. The henge is on private land and is not easy to see. Please be careful if you try to view it from the very fast (nearly) adjacent road.
Although they date to the Late Neolithic, it is possible that some henges, or the places at which they were located, might have retained a societal significance beyond that period, perhaps even through Anglo-Saxon times. In the absence of other evidence, I favour the site of this henge as the site of Iglea/Aecglea.
Southleigh Wood provides one more tempting possibility, which is to be found immediately north of the location described above. I refer to Robin Hood’s Bower. I am aware that this has been put forward by others as the site of Iglea/Aecglea but, for me, it does not outweigh the location of the henge. This is a small ancient enclosure that, like the henge referred to above, would have been present long before the time of King Alfred. The outline of the enclosure is clearly discernible and it has been enigmatically planted with many monkey-puzzle trees.
It has also been suggested that Iglea was at nearby Bishopstrow. The argument that Iley Oak was located here seems to be tied up with an idea that Iglea would probably have been an island (with the Ig part of the word Iglea meaning island) in the River Wylye. There is an island in the Wylye as it flows past Bishopstrow at Boreham Mill and the road that leads north out of Bishopstrow goes right across the middle of it (look out for the two bridges). However, it seems that we cannot prove that there was an island there in Alfred’s time (it could be the result of later human alteration to the watercourse). All in all, I did not find the arguments for this location to be strong enough to outweigh those that can be applied to the location near the henge at the south edge of Southleigh Wood. I did, however, find the argument that Ig indicates an island sufficiently plausible to make this my second favourite. Bishopstrow could also be relevant as a place where legend has it that the staff of St Aldhelm had grown into an ash tree. St Aldhelm’s church at Bishopstrow is 14th century, but it could have been built over an earlier Saxon church. It is therefore possible, had he been close by, that the pious Alfred could have prayed here before the final march to the battle at Ethandun.
There is another (in my opinion, less likely) candidate for Iglea where an unusual number of paths met to the south of Sutton Veny. This, along with possibilities relating to King Alfred going across Salisbury Plain instead of across it, will have to wait for a later post.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 876 King Alfred pursued the land-based Vikings that had fled from Wareham (Dorset) to Exeter. However, their accompanying navy lost 120 ships in bad weather near Swanage (Dorset). Alfred was unable to catch up with the fleeing land-based Vikings before they got to Exeter. On reaching Exeter the Vikings secured themselves in a fortress, but their situation does not appear to have been particularly positive, perhaps because of the large loss of ships, and they settled for peace with Alfred. After over-wintering (permission to do this being presumably part of the peace settlement), the Vikings left Exeter and went to Mercia, and specifically to Gloucester according to a chronicle written by Æthelweard.
I asked myself whether it was possible to work out from the available information where exactly in Exeter the Vikings went. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles imply that the Vikings occupied a fortress that had already been there, as opposed to building one when they got there, as they would do in Rochester, in Kent, in 884. Exeter’s Rougemont Castle goes back to 1068, so we are looking for something else, but perhaps this would have been on the same site as Rougemont Castle. The case for this is strengthened by the discovery of Anglo-Saxon masonry at Rougemont Castle.
We also know that Exeter had (and largely still has, although much repaired) Roman walls with four entrances and it appears that these were repaired and strengthened in Anglo-Saxon times. The Old English of the Chronicles says that the Vikings came into Exeter, which fits with the idea that the Vikings had managed to get into Exeter through one of the four entrances in the walls and then either occupied a fortification within the walls, or used the walls themselves as a fortification. The length of the circuit of the walls was would have stretched the Viking troops, but with only four entrances, it may have been possible for them to secure the site. I feel that it is more likely that the depleted Viking force took over a fortification within the walls rather than the walls themselves, and it seems to me that the site of (or part of the site of) Rougemont Castle would have been the most likely location for this fortification. From Northernhay Gardens elements of Anglo-Saxon construction in the remains of the wall can be seen. It is thought that King Athelstan (King Alfred’s grandson) restored the city walls in around 928. The site of Rougemont Castle is now called Exeter Castle, and is a commercial enterprise.
It is possible that the land-based Viking contingent, with Alfred in pursuit took the Roman road to Bridport via Dorchester and then the Roman road that now approximates to route of the A35 to Honiton, and then finally the Roman road that is more or less on the current route of the A30 to Exeter. Alternatively, they could have branched off this route onto another Roman road near Charmouth in order to reach Exeter via Colyford and Sidford, approximately following the route of the current A3052. It seems likely that these routes would have been in use in Alfred’s time, because much of these routes have persisted from Roman times right through to today. It also seems likely that the best available route would have been taken by both parties as, speed would have been important, and these would probably have been the remaining Roman routes.
It seems that either route would have brought them to a gate to the south-west of the walled city at a spot that is towards the southern end of South Street of today’s Exeter. There is still some wall there today (and a plaque) to help you find the precise spot. This South Gate must be, therefore, the most likely point of entry for the Vikings, and also for King Alfred in pursuit, in 876. Unfortunately, there is no gate present there now as, after serving as a prison, it was finally demolished in 1819. Nonetheless, it is possible to explore on foot how these routes come together just outside the former location of the South Gate. If you do make it down here, there are other places of interest such as the old Eye Hospital and the Dissenters’ Graveyard.
Having come through the South Gate, and with Rougemont Castle (as it was later called) at the extreme north end of the walled city, Alfred would have needed to cross the centre of Exeter. Although these events took place prior to Alfred’s post-878 rebuilding programme, it seems likely that there would have been a road leading from the South Gate up to the main city intersection where today South Street, North Street, Fore Street and High Street meet. It seems that High Street would have been present in Alfred’s time, and this leads in the general direction of Rougemont Castle. I therefore suggest that, if the Vikings were at the location of Rougemont, Alfred and his troops would have proceeded up what is now South Street and turned right on to what is now High Street, with the land-based Vikings having taken the same route just a short time before. Any surviving sea-borne Vikings would have made their way up from the harbour, via the West Gate or perhaps via a lost Roman gate in the wall nearer to the port (the Water Gate may have been a later development not present in Alfred’s time). They may have even disembarked at nearby Topsham and then made their way, like the others, to the South Gate.
There is a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to King Alfred heading again to Exeter in 893. While on his way to assist his troops that were besieging a Viking contingent near London, he received word that other Viking forces had landed in North Devon and that Exeter, in South Devon, had also been besieged. Alfred and his troops therefore diverted towards Exeter, although there is no confirmation that he arrived there and there are no records of any engagement with the Vikings either at Exeter or in North Devon at this time.
Many thanks to BBC Radio Devon and The Voice (Barnstaple) for having me on air to talk about my book and Saxon Exeter at the time of King Alfred.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image of the front cover below.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 893 Alfred camped with his army between the two raiding armies and therefore it would have been between Milton Regis on the north coast of Kent and Appledore towards the south coast of Kent. Anyone who travels around Kent will soon appreciate how difficult it would have been to monitor these distant locations from a single site. I therefore feel that any central camp must have had additional outposts in order to monitor what was going on over a wide area. This would fit with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles telling us that burga (fortresses), noting the plural, were being held by Alfred.
Maidstone, a location that has been put forward, is considered separately in this other post. I now continue with a few others, ending with the locations that I believe to be more plausible.
The village of Bredgar, just south of the M2 motorway has been suggested. The village has a lovely church yard, and is somewhat elevated. However, I could see no special reason to consider that this was Alfred’s main camp, although it could have been one of potentially many outposts. Bredgar lies close to a line drawn between Appledore and Milton, but it is very much closer to the latter, making it an awkward fit with the description of King Alfred being between the two raiding armies.
Stockbury, just a few miles west of Bredgar, has also been put forward, although the earthworks there are thought to be Norman, and therefore more recent than King Alfred’s time. However, it is possible that the Norman construction may have been built over earlier earthworks, and this may be supported by the possibility that part of the name may derive from the Old English burh (stronghold).
To find these earthworks it is easiest to find the church first, which is located a little way east from the centre of the village, adjacent to Church Farm. Although the rings are on private land they are easily viewed from the road and the church yard. In fact, the outermost visible ring appears to clip the churchyard. Whilst I accept that the location commands views that could have made it a useful outpost, there did not seem to be any particular reason to believe that this would have been Alfred’s camp. Stockbury, like Bredgar, lies close to a line drawn between Appledore and Milton, but it is very much closer to the latter.
There is a feature to the north-east of the village of Newenden that is called Castle Toll, and you can get quite close to it on a public footpath. Whilst Castle Toll is perhaps 13th century, some of the earthworks marked on the Ordnance Survey map to the south are thought to be the remains of an Anglo-Saxon burgh. It has, however, been suggested that this was the site of Eorpeburnan, a previously lost burgh that is listed in the Burghal Hidage, a document compiled in the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. Newenden is not at all on a line connecting Milton Regis and Appledore, so, although I believe it may have played a role, it does not fit the description of Alfred’s camp.
When the Vikings landed on the north and south coasts of Kent, I feel that Alfred must have been concerned that Canterbury may have been a target. When I disregarded previous suggestions (for which there is no real evidence) and considered an approximate line between Appledore and Milton Regis, I found that there were a few places that could have better met the description of being between these locations and which may also have allowed easier access to Canterbury. I considered two locations in particular: The villages of Great Chart and Charing. However, the landscape feature known as the Greensand Ridge may also be relevant.
It is known that in King Alfred’s time there was a settlement at Great Chart under the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Interestingly, there has been a legend that Great Chart had been burned by the Vikings, and this led to the subsequent development of Ashford.
Charing is approximately half way between Milton and Appledore and has an Archbishop’s Palace associated with Canterbury that dates back to the 8th century, making it a significant location in Saxon Kent. One could be misled into thinking that Alfred’s piety may have led him here because of a legend that the block on which John the Baptist had been beheaded had been located at the church. However, the tradition is that this was brought to England by King Richard I, well after the time of King Alfred. Nonetheless, I feel that this location is the strongest contender for the location of Alfred’s camp. It is located on an approximate line between Milton and Appledore, without being too close to either, and is located by the ancient track to Canterbury that later became known as the Pilgrims’ Way.
The discovery in 2012 of a large Saxon hall near the location of a former Anglo-Saxon abbey at Lyminge generated much interest (resources here). These may go back to the 6th to 9th centuries. Although Lyminge appears to have been an important Saxon location, it does not seem to meet the geographical requirements of those unnamed places mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
There is much more about the journeys of King Alfred in todays landscapes and cityscapes in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more about it.
The Battle of Meretun took place two months after the battle at Basing. Alfred and his brother were fighting against the Vikings, but lost, which is what also happened at Basing. There appear to be two main candidates for the location of this battle, one being Martin in Hampshire and the other being Marden in Wiltshire. However, we have very little to go on and other places with similar names are possible. Merdon Castle, in Hampshire, is another possibility, although I have been unable to discover whether this name was acquired after the Norman Conquest. The place that seems to make the most sense to me is Martin in Hampshire, which is a village just south of the A354 main road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum.
King Æthelred (Alfred’s elder brother) died after the Battle of Meretun and he was buried at Wimborne in Dorset. It is therefore possible that he died from wounds sustained in battle but it is also possible that he lived a little longer and died of something else. If he had died of his wounds then it may be relevant to point out that Wimborne is not very far from Martin (about 14 miles). Indeed, the Roman road known as Ackling Dyke runs past Martin on its way to Badbury Rings, which is only four miles from Wimborne.
The geographic feature called Martin Down lies a short distance to the west of Martin and there one can explore the famous Bokerley Ditch, which pre-dates the time of Alfred, but perhaps could have been used strategically in battle. Bokerley Ditch also cuts across a Roman road so it could have been used for either side to attack the other coming up that route. To the north this Roman road is still a bridleway and to the south it is now under the A354, so it seems likely that it would have been in use in Anglo-Saxon times. Interestingly, the county boundary between Dorset and Hampshire in this area still follows Bokerley Ditch. One can speculate as to why the Vikings might have been at Martin, and it occurs to me that a contingent from the base at Reading may have been trying to get west, perhaps to Exeter. The Vikings would indeed attack Exeter in 876 and 893, and it therefore seems plausible that they would have liked to have done so in 871.
It may be impossible to disprove that the battle took place at Marden (Wiltshire) instead, but the place-name of Marden seems to have derived from Mercdene, quite dissimilar to Meretun. A charter issued by King Edmund between 944 and 946 shows Martin in Hampshire being referred to as Mertone, which is not much different from the Meretun of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. I therefore think Marden is a less likely location than Martin for the battle of Meretun.
I was also tempted by Marten in Wiltshire (yes, this does get confusing), largely because of its proximity to the Inkpen Ridgeway, connecting it to Basing, the location of the previous battle. I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image.
In 896 there was an engagement between King Alfred’s navy and a Viking fleet of six ships that had arrived at the Isle of Wight and had caused harm all along the coast as far as Devon. It seems that Alfred could not have been present at this engagement because some of the fleeing Vikings were captured and taken to him at Winchester where he had them hanged. The few geographic clues provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have led to speculation that the engagement took place in Poole Harbour or Christchurch Harbour in Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to an ufeweard muða (ð is pronounced “th”) and it has been suggested that this means an “upper harbour.” However, I found it striking that there is an area on the north side of the harbour in Christchurch called Mudeford, with a River Mude running through it and into the harbour. Could this be the muða referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles?
Although I have seen it claimed that muða could also mean river, we know from elsewhere in the Chronicles and other documents that rivers were sometimes referred to by their name and that muða appears to usually mean mouth (the similarity between muða and mouth is not a coincidence) with the term for river generally being ea. Furthermore, if muða had been a generic term for river, we might expect to find other survivors such as is the case with the Brittonic language-derived Avon. However, I was unable to find any other examples of a River Mude in England. Update: I have had access to a 1797 map that shows the location as “Midde Ford”, which seems to sever the relationship of the place-name with muða.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Alfred’s ships blocked the Viking ships in so they could not get to the uter mere. It seems unclear to me whether uter mere means “outer lake” or “outer sea”. However, the usual term for the sea in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is sæ, with mere usually meaning a lake. Nonetheless, the Vikings had been blocked into the river and when the tide went out three ships were beached at the upper river mouth and three came forward to attack (making six, matching the number recorded as coming to the Isle of Wight). It appears that at least two Viking ships managed to escape from the trap because we are told that two of the fleeing Vikings crews came ashore in Sussex because their ships were in a poor state. King Alfred had these men hanged at Winchester. It has been suggested that they came aground while trying to get past Selsey Bill. These Vikings would therefore have come aground in Sussex somewhere between East Wittering and Selsey. That they came ashore in Sussex perhaps also makes it less likely that the battle had taken place in distant Devon, after which they would have had to round Portland Bill (or drag their boats across the causeway), near Weymouth in Dorset, first.
Perhaps the clue to potential locations for this battle lies in the fact that there were only six Viking ships. We know that Wareham (with access to Poole harbour) and Christchurch are listed in the Burghal Hidage (a list of places defended by King Alfred after 878), and would therefore probably have been defended by 896. It does not seem to make sense to me that the Vikings would have ventured close to defended locations with just six ships.
Perhaps the Dorset coastal town of Weymouth (not in the Burghal Hidage, so perhaps a weak point) should be regarded as a possible site. Radipole Lake, fed by the River Wey, is connected to the sea via the town harbour, and one of Athelstan’s charters refers to all the water within the coast of Weymouth, indicating that there was an inland body of water here in Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed, it is thought that the Romans may have had some sort of port at the head of this body of water, and a Roman road ran north from near here to Dorchester. At least parts of this route appear to have remained in use today, which suggests that it might have been in use in 896, thus providing access to any Vikings that intended to raid Dorchester. This area is no stranger to Viking threat. In 840 the Vikings landed at nearby Portland, with fatal consequences for the locals, and in 2009, during construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, near Upwey, fifty-four skeletons of executed Vikings were found, although these dated to a later period than that of King Alfred. Because I live near here, I cannot resist drawing to your attention how rich the South Dorset Ridgeway is in ancient, although very much pre-Alfred, sites. For those who are interested in this, I find this blog particularly good.
The Isle of Wight
However, it seems to me that it is more likely that the events took place at one of the main rivers, including the River Medina, that flow into the Solent on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not state that the engagement took place during a Viking raid on the coast of the mainland, although it is easy to assume this because the Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had been undertaking such raiding. It is an interesting coincidence that the Old English term for the River Medina was Meðume, not terribly different from muða. An old map of the Isle of Wight suggests that the main waterways may have had constricted entrances to the sea, thus meeting the description of the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It seems to me that King Alfred’s Navy, improved after 878 AD, had managed to root out a small Viking base that had set itself up on the Isle of Wight.
My book mentions a few other locations on the south coast that could have been the site of the engagement between King Alfred’s navy and the Vikings. It also contains much more about Alfred’s travels, and contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
At least two Kings of Wessex were buried at Sherborne. 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.
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.
The following article on King Alfred and Wimborne 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.
Death of Æthelred
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.
Alfred becomes King
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 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.
The relationship between King Alfred and Wimborne is an interesting one.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.
Update on the plaque in Wimborne Minster.
I came across some articles of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, which shed further light on the plaque (or, more correctly, plaques. The 1918 contribution by Reverend Almack reminds us that restoration took place 1855-7. he goes on to tell us that the slab that had been over the remains of King Æthelred “was cut away, in spite of protest, and only the portion sufficient to cover the brass was allowed to remain.” We are also told that during restoration the remains of a tesselated pavement and the bases of columns were observed, which has led to speculation that the first church here was built over a Roman temple. However, the authors of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments suggests that this may have been from the original church of St Cuthburh.
This monument was clearly a hot topic as in the 1919 issue there is a long article by Reverend Fletcher, which he had read out in 1918. In this he states that the plaque(s) were “placed in the floor on the north side of the sanctuary at Wimborne Minster, about 15 ft from the east wall, and consists of three metal plates.” Of course, today, the plaques are on the wall and not on the floor. The author reminds us that brasses were not used in England until about the 13th century, although this one may be more recent, possibly 15th century. Therefore, the brass cannot be contemporaneous with the death of Æthelred. Furthermore, the author points out that the section with script is even more recent and is copper not brass. This second inscription plate was found to be a palimpsest and may be 18th century (Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club Proceedings 1919, p32)
So, where are King Æthelred’s remains? Unless there is a huge coincidence, we can be sure that they are not where the plaque is, because it has been moved at least once, and is not contemporaneous with his death in any case. It is possible, however, that when the brass sections were made they were placed at the (at least claimed) location of his remains, which would have been within the footprint of the Saxon church and probably near the altar. This would have been just to the east of the crossing, which seems to have stayed in the same place over time (RCHM. Dorset. Vol V; East). It needs to be recalled, however, that he may have been moved to Sherborne. If he had been moved to Sherborne, there was still a record of him by Leland in 1536 at Wimborne.
Leland describes the text on the plaque, which is the same as we have now except for a different (and obviously wrong) date. Camden, writing in 1586, tells us that the tomb had been recently repaired, so it is possible that the date was corrected then and that the text part of the plaque that we have now dates to that time. Or perhaps Camden just wrote the wrong date down and the plaque did not need correction at the time of the repair. Leland also tells us that by 1828 Æthelred’s tomb had been by that of St Cuthberga, which was at the north side of the Presbytery (chancel). He goes on to tell us that St Cuthberga was then moved to the east end of the altar. St Cuthberga is hugely important to this church, but I will have to go into that further elsewhere, time permitting.
Things are further complicated by the finding (as reported by a Dr Smart in The Genetleman’s Magazine, 1865) that when enlarging a vault under the presbytery in 1837, a skeleton of a man was exhumed at the north east corner, near the site of the original altar. This man was 6ft 4 ins tall. Could this have been Æthelred? It certainly seems a suitable location. This same source includes a suggestion that Æthelred died of his wounds at Witchampton (north of Wimborne), based on this being a similar name to “Whittingham”, a place mentioned by earlier writers, such as Camden. However, we don’t know where Camden got this from and, in any case, Witchampton does not seem to connect with the name Whittingham (Mills, Place Names of Dorset. Part 2)
The keen-eyed will note that the upper portion of Æthelred’s sceptre has been broken off.
A King Sigferth was also buried at Wimborne, in AD 962. This is a mysterious character who we know very little about, including what he was king of. The entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles is generally translated that he committed suicide. I am uncertain whether he would have been allowed to have been buried in the church if that was the case. Much rests on the meaning of offeoll in “Sigferð cyning hine offeoll“.
It is fascinating to think that Wimborne Minster once had a spire, which fell in 1600.
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. Tap or click the image to learn more about the book.