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approximate location of the burials of Æthelbald and Æthelberht, and there is nearby a small area where the floor has been replaced by glass and some bones can be seen beneath.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.

Shaftesbury, Dorset

King Alfred at Shaftesbury Abbey

The below is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available on Amazon

It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Dorset was an important in the time of King Alfred. Important roles were played by Sherborne, Wimborne, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. An important engagement with the Vikings took place at Wareham. Undoubtedly, much went on that never made it into the historical sources that are available to us today. In this post I shall take a look at Shaftesbury. 

King Alfred founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury and it is thought that this was at the same site as where the Normans later constructed their abbey. Although the Norman abbey is now a ruin, it is a delightful and evocative place to visit, as is the rest of the town.

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

Asser tells us that Alfred ordered the building of a monastery near Shaftesbury’s  east gate and that his daughter Æthelgifu was appointed abbess. However, this is initially confusing because the Abbey is south-west of the centre, so it seems that it should have been by a west gate. But the modern centre appears not to align well with what was there in Alfred’s time and, when this is taken into account, the abbey was indeed at the eastern aspect of the town.

Unfortunately, no early source tells us when the nunnery was built. However, Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon indicates that it was after Alfred had restored London, and we know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Alfred took control of London in 886. This suggests that the nunnery may have been built in 886 at the earliest and 893 at the latest (because it had to be present at the time Asser was writing, believed to be 893).

Looking down Gold Hill (perhaps the most famous place in Shaftesbury). The wall to the right, known as Park Wall, once formed the western boundary to the Abbey's grounds. The outline of the abbey's grounds in Alfred's time is not known
Looking down Gold Hill (perhaps the most famous place in Shaftesbury). The wall to the right, known as Park Wall, once formed the western boundary to the Abbey’s grounds. The outline of the abbey’s grounds in Alfred’s time is not known.

However, Higden also tells us that around the time that Alfred restored the settlement of Shaftesbury in 880, Pope Marinus sent Alfred a piece of the “true cross.” Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicates that this was sent in 882. I found out that Marinus was pope between December 882 and May 884, indicating that the item could only have been sent in December 882. This led me to change my mind from believing that the abbey was built between 886 and 893 to a belief that it was in use by 882 or 883 because it seems plausible that the fragment of the true cross had been destined for either the new and important nunnery at Shaftesbury or the new abbey at Athelney, which was built at about the same time. In a generous attempt to make everything fit, one could argue that the nunnery might have come into use before its completion, with this being in the period 886-893, after King Alfred had restored London, although this itself must have taken some time to complete. The current location of this piece of the “true cross” is not known, although there is a reputed fragment of the true cross, which could be different to the one sent to Alfred, in St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Belgium.

Shaftesbury was clearly a very important place. In 980 the nunnery became the resting place of King Edward the Martyr after he had been murdered at Corfe Castle in 978 (he was initially interred at Wareham). His shrine became a focus for pilgrimage, and perhaps this was what King Canute was undertaking when he died at Shaftesbury in 1035. In 944 the site also became the burial place of Ælfgifu, who was the first wife of King Edmund who also became venerated as a saint. Elisabeth, the wife of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, was also briefly held here.

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.

Many thanks to thisisalfred.com for taking an interest in my writing. Hopefully, a recorded chat that we had at the Abbey will be available soon.