Where did the battle of 896 take place – the Isle of Wight?

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.

In 896 there was an engagement between Alfred’s fleet 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.

View of Christchurch Harbour, taken from an aeroplane at dusk.
My photograph of Christchurch Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk.

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 , 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.

Poole Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk
My photograph of Poole Harbour, Dorset, taken from an aeroplane at dusk

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.

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 Alfred’s improved naval force 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. It also contains much more about Alfred’s travels, and contains maps and references. Tap or click the image to learn more.

King Alfred and Surrey: Exploring a ‘hotspot.”

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 a copy.

I was contacted by somebody who noticed that there was a window depicting King Alfred in a church at Busbridge, not far from Godalming in Surrey. At first I thought that this window was just a random dedication to King Alfred, perhaps associated with the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of his death in 1901 (back then they thought he had died in 901 instead of what it is now know to be, which is 899). However, this for me set off a chain of events that led to me exploring Eashing, Godalming and Guildford. Each place was already significant to me in its own right, but there was no record of Alfred having been at any of them. However, when I looked at these places collectively it seemed to me unlikely that he would never have been at any of these places. Let me explain.

King Alfred stained glass window at St John the Baptist church, Busbridge, near Godalming, Surrey
King Alfred stained glass window at St John the Baptist church, Busbridge, near Godalming, Surrey
From the same stained glass window. This shows the now lost church at Tuesley, Surrey, and the well to the left has become Ladywell Convent
From the same stained glass window. This shows the now lost church at Tuesley, Surrey, and the well to the left has become Ladywell Convent.

King Alfred’s will includes estates at Guildford, Godalming and Eashing, and the Burghal Hidage (a list of Alfred’s defended settlements after 878, but drawn up under his son, King Edward the Elder) includes Eashing.  These three locations are close together and are all on the River Wey, which flows into the Thames. Alfred’s connection to the area is remembered in a beautiful stained-glass window in the already mentioned Victorian church of St John the Baptist in Busbridge,  just a couple of miles south of Godalming (there are other stunning windows in this church). He is depicted above an image in the same window of a Saxon church at a place called Tuesley. Tuesley, just to the south-west of Busbridge, is the site of this now lost 7th century Saxon church, and it may be that there was a site of worship here going back to pagan times. It seems that Tuesley derives from the name of the pagan god Tiw , from which we also get “Tuesday”. It has been suggested that the settlement at Tuesley was a predecessor to the settlement at Godalming although, as Tuesley is mentioned in the 1068 Domesday book, the settlement would still have been present in Alfred’s time.  The location of this church is now a shrine to the Virgin Mary and is on land now owned by Ladywell Convent. At the time of writing there is access to this location every day except 21st December. It is a peaceful and beautiful site and I highly recommend spending some time there. We know that Alfred was pious and if he was in this area I think he would have come to this significant church. The shrine is on the other side of the road to the convent, and the access is through a gate down a very short track.

The shrine of the Virgin Mary inside a wall depicting the outline of the old Saxon church at Tuesley, Surrey. I have read that this church had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary
The shrine of the Virgin Mary inside a wall depicting the outline of the old Saxon church at Tuesley, Surrey. I have read that this church had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

In Godalming there is good evidence that a church on the current site of the church of St Peter and St Paul would have been present in the 9th century , while King Alfred was alive, and it seems plausible that the church would have been associated with the royal estate there. The royal estate may therefore have been in this part of Godalming, potentially around Church Street, to the south of the church. I was told that an archaeological investigation was carried out before some new buildings were built to the south-west of the church and that hundreds of Anglo-Saxon skeletons had been discovered. However, when I visited Godalming’s museum (with its excellent and helpful staff) I found out that more mid to late-Saxon pottery had been found at the site of what is now Waitrose on Bridge Street, than anywhere else in Surrey and it was now thought that the “Royal Manor” could have been at this location instead, which is quite a distance from the church. However, it seems impossible to tell whether particular estates that Alfred left in his will comprised the whole of that named place or just a part of it. In other words, he might have left the whole of Godalming because he owned all of it. In this situation, looking for a separate “Royal Manor” would be a mistake.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Godalming, Surrey
Church of St Peter and St Paul, Godalming, Surrey

We cannot be certain of the location of the royal estate at Guildford but it seems most likely that it would have been located where evidence suggests there was a Saxon presence.  Indeed, following the argument applied to Godalming, he may have owned all of what comprised Guildford at that time.It appears that the Saxon settlement at this time would have been in the area around St Mary’s church. There is evidence that this church may have been preceded by a timber structure. I was very grateful for the assistance given to me in my research by this church and a local historian, and I thank them here. I found it pleasant to wander around this area,which is essentially around Quarry Street. The remains of Guildford’s Norman castle are also in this area. 

St Mary's Church and Quarry Street, Guildford, Surrey
St Mary’s Church and Quarry Street, Guildford, Surrey

The main contender for the the fortified site at Eashing  is immediately to the east of the famous Eashing Bridges, which are marked on Ordnance Survey maps.  There is no public access across the site although a combination of roads and footpaths delineate the perimeter. It may be significant that this site would have been able to defended a crossing over the River Wey at the site of the Eashing Bridges. Today, the location is largely open space, and it is thought that this is because Guildford replaced it as the regional centre.

Paul Kelly. Author of King Alfred: A Man on the Move, at Eashing burgh, Surrey.
The author at the site of the burgh of Eashing, Surrey

The two sides that have a footpath are easy to find. I parked at the little car park on the other side of the historic bridges,walked across and then up the path leading uphill on the west side. From here I could really appreciate how the burgh would have been in an elevated position above the River Wey. But I could only see the (likely) site of the burgh when I got to the path that runs across the north of the site. It was just an open field, but I found that I could use my imagination. I decided not to follow the road for the two remaining sides of the square as it looked dangerous, with no footpath.

I made a short video about these locations:

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.