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.
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
The writings of a man called Æthelweard tell us that that Alfred besieged London in 886, and another early writer called Henry of Huntingdon suggested that an opportunity had arisen because the Viking presence had been weakened as a result of some having left to join Viking forces on the continent. Although The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Asser record Alfred in London at this time, neither source mentions that Alfred had taken London by force. The Chronicles also tell us that in the same year Alfred entrusted London to his son-in-law and ruler of Mercia, Æthelred. London had been a Mercian city and there may have been some resentment after it had been taken over by Wessex, with this being defused by Alfred handing it over to Mercian Æthelred in order to control on behalf of both of them. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that London had been under Viking occupation in 871 when they had moved there from Reading. However, the Chronicles also tell us that these Vikings left for Northumbria in 872, and it was perhaps this that subsequently allowed Alfred to start to extend his power to London. Indeed, there is evidence from coins suggesting that London may have been under Alfred’s protection as early as the late 870s.
But what was this London that Alfred was gaining control over? It has been suggested that after Roman control ended the population left the fortified area at the current site of the City of London and went to a place called Lundenwic, approximately 1 mile to the west, perhaps because this provided easier access to a ford at Westminster. The wic element of Lundenwic persists in the modern name Aldwych. It appears that people later moved back to re-use the earlier Roman fortifications (as also appears to have happened at Winchester), and it seems plausible that this move had been triggered by Viking attacks. So, when Alfred took control of London it could well have comprised what is now the City of London and the area around Aldwych, with the two settlements connected by what we now call Fleet Street.
It is thought that Alfred restored London after 868 and it has been suggested that the site of the restored Alfredian burgh extended along the north bank of the Thames from near Queenhithe in the west to near Billingsgate in the east, and extending inland by about 300m. It is interesting to note that this area only occupied a small part of the Roman walled area, but in Alfred’s time much space might have been taken up by crops and livestock. Much of this stretch along the river can be walked and for me the most interesting location is Queenhithe, where there are some information boards and one can look out over what would have been a dock in Alfred’s time. Queenhithe is named after Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, but the location had previously been called Æthelred’s Hithe, named after king Alfred’s son-in-law.
It may be that the administrative centre of London at Alfred’s time was somewhere near Aldermanbury. If this is the case then it seems likely that Alfred would have been there at some point. However, this is based on the presence of the Old English burh in the place name, and it is not known whether this was acquired after the time of King Alfred.
Aldermanbury is immediately to the north-west of the current Guildhall, with Wood Street running north-south through the middle of it. It is possible, based on the 13th century Matthew Paris quoting an 11th century source, that there had been a saxon royal palace at Aldermanbury near the site of the former church of St Alban on Wood Street. This does not allow us to confirm that it was there when Alfred was alive, but there must have been at least one royal residence and there are few other potential locations within the circuit of London’s walls (another being the site of the former Roman praetorium, the remains of which are largely under Cannon Street station). This church was a victim of the 1940 Blitz and all that remained, with the exception of the tower, was demolished in the 1950s. The tower, now a private residence, still stands in splendid isolation in the middle of Wood Street. if it was still standing, the church would extend eastwards into where the police station is located. Also perhaps of significance is that this was in a particularly important part of Roman London, being within the outline of the Roman fort, and also very close to the Roman amphitheatre. You may not wish to miss the remains of the amphitheatre, which are located beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery. It is also possible that the walls of the Roman fort were still intact, and this square area at the north-east aspect of the walled city might itself have served as a base (more details on this, with a map, in this post). There is some evidence that there may have been royal palaces at Brentford and Chelsea in the 8th century, but whether these were still in service at the time of King Alfred is not known.
A predecessor to St Paul’s would have been present at or near the site of today’s cathedral, as this had been founded in 604. All Hallows by the Tower shows evidence of Saxon work, so it is possible that a church was also standing there in Alfred’s time.
Southwark is mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, issued in the reign of Edward the Elder (Alfred’s son) after Alfred’s death, so it seems likely that there was a burgh in place here on the south side of the Thames before Alfred died. Indeed, it is possible that a London Bridge, as a replacement or a repair of the earlier Roman structure, may have been built, perhaps during Alfred’s lifetime, in order to connect the two burghs on either side of the river and to act as a defence against Vikings trying to proceed upstream.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more about the book.
Alfred had seen to it that the Vikings would leave Exeter and the whole of Wessex in 877. However, they would return to Wessex and take Chippenham early in 878. This set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the important Wessex victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun.
The arrival of the Vikings at Chippenham was an important turning point because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings then over-ran Wessex, and It was at this point that Alfred went into hiding. It is worth pausing to reflect on what the Chronicle tells us, which is that the Vikings did not just over-run the area around Chippenham, but probably at least most of Wessex, and all of Wessex if we take it literally. There were clearly parts of Wessex that were beyond their control, such as the area in north Devon where the Battle of Cynuit took place, and Athelney, where Alfred found a safe haven for a while. But the implication is still that, for a short while in 878dc, Wessex had been lost to the Vikings. As Wessex was the last kingdom in what we now call England still independent of Viking rule, this also means that for a short while in 878, between Twelfth Night and some time after Easter, the Vikings had control over the whole of England. With King Alfred on the run they must have seen a permanent victory as a plausible outcome.
It is important to appreciate that Alfred decided to stay and did not flee to, for example, Rome. When Mercia had collapsed under the Vikings in 874, the ruler, King Burghred, fled to Rome. Circumstances would not have been precisely the same, they never are, but I believe things would have turned out very differently had Alfred fled. But he did not. From a position that must have seemed irrecoverable to many he fought and won back his kingdom and, eventually, during the reign of his grandson, Athelstan, all of England would be recovered from Viking rule.
It has been suggested that King Alfred had spent Twelfth Night, in January of 878 at Chippenham. However, I can find no evidence that this was the case. However, it is undoubtedly possible as Chippenham was a royal estate, and it would have provided a reason for the Vikings to arrive there at this particular time. Chippenham seems to have been important as Asser recorded that this had been the location of Alfred’s sister’s marriage to Burghred, King of Mercia in 853. However, Alfred may not have been present at his sister’s wedding as Asser also records that in the same year the young Alfred had gone to Rome, with no indication as to when he returned, although it must have been before 855, as Asser says that Alfred went with his father a second time to Rome in that year (but with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only mentioning his father going).
Chippenham enters the story again, still in 878, immediately after Alfred won the Battle of Ethandun (Edington), for it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that when Alfred put the Vikings to flight, he pursued them as far as an unnamed fortification (geweorc). It has been suggested that this location was perhaps Chippenham. This seems plausible in relation to the most likely sites for the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also tells us that the Vikings moved from Chippenham to Cirencester after Guthrum’s baptism. Chippenham seems to have served as a Viking base. It is unlikely that the unnamed fortification was Bratton Camp, on the north-west edge of Salisbury Plain, as provisions for troops and animals would have been difficult to provide on this elevated landscape over an extended period.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that after the Battle of Ethandun Alfred put this fortification under siege for fourteen days, after which the Vikings surrendered. Asser provides further detail and identifies the location of Alfred’s besieging camp as being in front of the gates of the Viking fortification.
Asser indicates that the location that the Vikings took at Chippenham prior to the Battle of Ethandun as being on the eastern bank of the Avon. It seems likely that any fortification at Chippenham that the Vikings retreated to after Ethandun would be at this same location. Examination of a map shows that there is a bend in the Avon that would allow the Vikings to defend a peninsula, similar to their tactic at Reading. This is where the old town is located. I parked in the Sadler’s Mead car park and walked down to the River Avon, being the same river that flows through Bath and emerges at Avonmouth near Bristol. I walked along the path that heads west and then south along the outer bank, allowing me to appreciate what may have constituted Asser’s east bank of the Avon.
It is important to note that the river today is not the same as it appears on old maps, and It would have been even more different in the time of Alfred. But even going back to the Ordnance Survey map of 1886, one can see an Isle of Rea, which no longer exists as such, just south of the town bridge (High Street). My impression is that this island is where much of the deeply unaesthetic Borough Parade shopping centre now stands. This area can therefore be excluded from being Asser’s east of the Avon. Just south of here the river once divided again into a main stream and a Hardenhuish Brook, forming yet another island called The Ham. However, it seems like it is the brook rather than the main stream that has disappeared so that when we look across the river at this point today we are looking at the east bank of the Avon as opposed to the eastern edge of a former island. So I proceeded to walk all the way down the western bank looking across at the eastern bank. Nowadays, perhaps unsurprisingly, this area has been developed, except at the point where one reaches some playing fields.
So does this help locate the Viking fortress? It could have been anywhere along this stretch of the east bank as it runs through Chippenham, whilst allowing for the disappearance of the Isle of Rea. However, another option arises. Because the Avon bends sharply, there is a second eastern bank a little further east. A Monkton House is located here, and this is on the location of an older manor house. However, I feel that this is a less likely location because of the pattern of the Vikings usage of water to defend themselves on three sides, which the latter site could not provide. But there is also a third option. Neither Asser nor the Chronicle states whether the Vikings set up their own fortress or took over what was already there instead. Asser records that Chippenham was a royal estate and I believe it would therefore have had some defences, particularly bearing in mind its northerly location compared to the rest of Wessex. It seems to me inconceivable that the Vikings would drive the Saxons out of Chippenham and not use the Saxon site as a base. Establishing the location of the royal estate may therefore also be helpful, as this could be the same location as the Viking fortress. St Andrew’s church is near the Market Place (the main focus of the Saxon town) and St Andrew’s has been described as probably the site of the Saxon church. Ordnance Survey maps from 1900 to 1967 indicate a “site of King Arthur’s Palace” between the Market Place and Gladstone Road. Although it is named after King Arthur, who we cannot prove existed, one wonders how this royal connotation came about. The area indicated is to the rear of the current Museum and Heritage Centre and also appears to be at the northern end of a restricted parking area accessed off Timber Street. The access is opposite a very good Caribbean restaurant where I enjoyed the best jerk chicken I have ever tasted.
Anybody who walks down St Mary’s Street will sense it’s age and indeed it is considered to be part of the Saxon settlement, with the area to the north of St Andrew’s chuch considered to be a possibility for the location of the royal estate. Therefore we have two potential sites for a royal palace, one to the west of The Causeway and one to the east. Both of these of course meet Asser’s description of being east of the Avon. However, the latter site would probably be better described as being west of the Avon as it is closer to the other side of the peninsula. It is also possible that the royal site ranged across both of these locations and perhaps we should not always consider them as separate.
For me, therefore, the most likely location for both the Royal Estate and the Viking fortification extends between Borough Parade shopping centre car park in the north, Timber Street in the south, and St Mary’s Street to the east. This would be east of the Avon, yet far enough up the peninsula to make that a defensive feature.
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below:
There are numerous lovely villages in Oxfordshire, and this is certainly one of them. It has been speculated that this is where Alfred married Ealhswith in 868, around the time of the engagement with the Vikings at Nottingham.
One problem is that Asser tells us that the marriage took place in Mercia. Sutton Courtenay is close to the Thames, which acted as a border between Wessex and Mercia. But Sutton Courtenay is on the Wessex side! However, digging deeper, one discovers that parts of what was then Berkshire (and now Oxfordshire) were under Mercian control. So, on that criterion, Sutton Courtenay is possible as the location of the marriage.
Also of note are the significant archaeological findings. The popular archaeology television programme Time Team conducted a dig (video here) to the west of the village and they found the largest Anglo-Saxon hall in England and suggested that it was royal. However, one problem is that it seemed to be from an earlier period than the time of King Alfred, although we don’t know whether it’s size and significance persisted in some way. For those who like detail, the analysis of the dig is here.
There is also speculation that Sutton Abbey may be on the site of a former Anglo-Saxon royal vill.
Because the site of Alfred’s marriage to Eahlswith is not certain, other sites are available for speculation. In particular, Gainsborough in Lincolnshire has been put forward. This is on the basis that Ealhswith was the daughter of a chief of a people called the Gaini. However, the place-name may instead be based on an individual called Gegn and we can’t be certain that the Gaini were in this area anyway. Gainsborough is, however, in Mercia and only 40 miles or so from Nottingham, where we know Alfred was in 868. However, many, many places were in Mercia and there is nothing to say that he was anywhere near Nottingham in the year that he married.
Back to Sutton Courtenay, and leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind for a moment, I visited All Saints’ church and found it to be more significant than I had anticipated. Amongst other things, one can visit the graves of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) and the former British prime-minister, Asquith.