This post 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.
I have lived near Dorchester for many years. Evidence from charters (legal documents showing transfers of land or rights) indicates that King Alfred came to Dorchester and presumably he would have had some sort of base there. But where exactly was this?
Clues about Dorchester’s Saxon past are scant, and this includes any evidence that might help us establish the location of a Saxon royal residence at the time of King Alfred. My personal speculation, which I have heard others suggest as well, is that the royal site would have included the location on the northern edge of the town where the current prison buildings are sited, where we know that the Norman castle was also located. It seems to make sense that if a site was deemed defendable by the Saxons (which a royal site would need to be) then it would hold a similar appeal for the Normans. It therefore seems plausible that the Normans would have built their castle on the site of the previous Saxon fortification/royal residence. There is a very pleasant footpath that follows the River Frome and which passes below the site of the former castle. From there one can understand how elevated (and therefore defendable) the site would have been.
It has been suggested that King Alfred spent every Christmas at a royal manor at Fordington, which is now part of Dorchester but was once a separate settlement to the east. I have also read that Fordington became a royal manor after the Romans left and that the first church there had been built about 857, and that this was a royal church dedicated to St George. Although the earliest parts of the current St George’s church date to the 11th century, it is located at the site of a Roman cemetery so the location was clearly a significant one stretching back to ancient times, which makes the presence of a church being there in 857 seem more plausible.
So, we have two potential royal locations that are close to each other, one in the centre of Dorchester at the site of the former prison, and the other at Fordington. Although the evidence from charters suggests that Dorchester really was a royal location, I am not aware of any charters having been issued from Fordington. It is perhaps possible that a royal residence at Fordington would have been close enough to Dorchester to go under that name, or that the residence was at Fordington while the charters were signed at nearby Dorchester. Fordington is so close to Dorchester that I found that I could walk, at a brisk pace, from St George’s church in Fordington to the closest point of Dorchester’s former Roman walls in a matter of three minutes. It seems to me that the Roman walls (perhaps replaced or repaired in places) would have been present in Alfred’s time and would have probably continued to define and defend the town. This is supported by the fact that even today much of the line of the walls can still be followed. The exception to this is the northern section stretching between Northernhay and Salisbury Street where it is possible that there was no wall at all, with the River Frome providing defence instead. My personal opinion is that there would have been a wall here as well, which has long since been destroyed and built over. A recognition that the town was walled leads to a discussion about the location of gates through which King Alfred might have passed, including when Alfred was pursuing the Vikings from Wareham to Exeter, and perhaps passing through Dorchester, in 876.
I go into more detail on the gates and the charters in my book.
This post follows on from a more general one about King Alfred and London. Here we specifically look at the town walls. There is a Youtube video at the end of this post.
The walls of London are Roman in origin but they would have been present, although probably much repaired in places, when King Alfred restored London around 886. It seems that prior to then the main population focus of London had shifted after the Romans left to the area that we now know as Aldwych , with the site of the Roman town, approximating to the area that we now call “The City”, becoming very much depopulated. It seems that Alfred’s redevelopment of London led to the area of the walled former Roman town becoming a focus of population again.
I decided to see if it was possible to walk what would have been the perimeter of Alfred’s London. Although the wall is sometimes visible (although, even where visible, subject to much repair or later modification), in most places much imagination is required as the line of the wall runs into modern buildings. Nonetheless, it was a fun thing to do and it certainly helped me to appreciate the shape of the old town.
I started in the Tower Hill area, where there are three places at which the wall can be seen. Travelling anti-clockwise (as in the rest of this post) the first location is what is known as the Postern Gate. This is revealed in a big hole on the same side of the busy Tower Hill arterial road as the Tower of London. From here, if you turn back north and cross the road you will not be able to miss one of the best remaining sections of wall. It is in a pleasant little park and you can walk right up to it on both sides.
The next bit of wall is very close indeed, but not immediately obvious. I tried following the line north from the previous bit of wall, proceeding past some modern construction to a point where I could indeed see another stretch of the old wall ahead, although the route was blocked by railings. I found, however, that I could get to the other side by walking to nearby Cooper’s Hill and then down the vehicle entrance to the Grange City Hotel. The wall was then straight in front of me in all its glory. There is a small archway in this wall which allows you to pass through to examine the other side as well. A lovely spot.
The line of the wall then disappears into modern buildings, traversing the railway lines running into Fenchurch Street Station and the enigmatic modern “One America Square.” My research indicated that once the line of the wall had crossed the appropriately named road called “Crosswall”, the next visible section would be to the west of Vine Street. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The location where the remains were supposed to be visible was in fact a huge building site. I looked across the site through the couple of viewing windows inserted into the fence but I could see no evidence of any old wall. It must have been hidden from view because it seems that the development once completed will include a display of the preserved Roman wall. The line of the wall then runs through the more recent buildings on the east side of Jury Street, including the Three Tuns pub.
We then arrived at the site of Aldgate. This was where the Roman road to Colchester left London. There is no remaining remnant of the gate above ground because itwas demolished in 1761. We decided to take a break and got some drinks from the pleasant Kahaila cafe (run by a charity) and sat down in the grounds of St Botolph without Aldgate. We then went on to explore up into Dukes Place and Bevis Marks (names of roads). My research indicated that there was some Roman wall visible in an underpass beneath Dukes Place. I have to admit that I could find no underpass, let alone any wall. So we proceeded north-west up Bevis Marks and Camomile Street, where the line of the old wall would be running under the modern buildings on our right, until we arrived at Bishopsgate.
It seems to me that King Alfred would have passed through Bishopsgate at some point. The Roman road called Ermine Street proceeded northwards from this point, and if it was London that Alfred had left from in order to confront the Vikings when they turned up somewhere near Hertford or Ware (Ware is on Ermine Street) in 895, it seems likely that he would have left through Bishopsgate. There are no remains of Bishopsgate above ground because it was demolished in 1760. The site is however marked by a bishop’s mitre above the branch of Boots the Chemists.
The line of the old wall now follows the north side of Wormwood Street and the appropriately named (if not accurately, because the line of the wall deviates somewhat from it) thoroughfare called London Wall. As you walk down this road called London Wall, you will see that there is a short stretch of old wall around the back of (north of) the church of All-Hallows on the Wall, but apart from this there are no visible clues until one reaches a stretch of wall in what is called St Alphage’s Garden on one side (under reconstruction when we visited) and Salter’s Garden on the other. Once you get to this point, things are a little more complicated as you have arrived at the site of the Roman fort, which was a separate walled-off square area within the overall outline of the old walls. There is no evidence to support this, but it seems plausible that if there was a protected area within the walls then this may have become King Alfred’s residence in London. The case for this is perhaps slightly strengthened by the limited number of alternative sites. The only other one that I have considered is the site of the Roman praetorium that is largely under Cannon Street station. However, in times of Viking threat I feel that Alfred would have preferred to be in a walled area with easy access to an escape route – which favours the fort rather than the praetorium. Of course it cannot be ruled out that Alfred’s residence was an entirely different building, perhaps wooden, of which no traces remain.
On proceeding west from St Alphage’s Garden, one comes very quickly indded to the site of the former Cripplegate. It strikes me that if Alfred’s residence was indeed at the site of the Roman fort then he would almost certainly have used Cripplegate, simply because it was in the wall of the Roman fort.
I found (becauseof railings) that it was necessary to approach the corner of the very north-west section of wall (and therefore also of the fort) from two different directions. This was worth the effort because there are significant stretches of wall visible. The first stretch is immediately south of the church of St Giles Cripplegate and I got there by walking up to the north end of Wood Street and turning left. Just by looking up Wood Street it isn’t immediately obvious that you can do this. The other stretch is accessible from a muddy track leading off from the down access road to the London Wall Underground Car Park. Incidentally, there is some Roman wall preserved at bay 52 of this car park.
We then come to the west side of the fort (this being an outer wall of the fort meaning that it is also the town wall), which runs alongside Noble Street.
From this point there are no remaining above ground sections of the old town wall. The route, however, is known, and much of it can be walked. Let us proceed. From Noble Street the wall would have headed west (to the north of the church of St Anne and St Agnes), cutting through later buildings and emerging onto the road called St Martins-Le-Grand adjacent to the Lord Raglan pub. Indeed, there is a blue plaque at this point marking the site of the Aldersgate. Like the other gates, there are no remains of Aldersgate (it was demolished in 1761). The route of the wall runs into the buildings on the other side of the road, but mercifully appears again in the lovely Postman’s Park, which lies just behind them.
From here the wall roughly follows the route of the access road/pedestrian walk-through of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which you will see on the other side of King Edward Street as you emerge from Postman’s Park. Just before this route meets Giltspur Street, the line of the wall turns south and cuts through the buildings to emerge on Newgate Street at, you’ve guessed it, the site of the Newgate. You will probably also guess by now that it has been long demolished and that there are no visible remains above ground. You would be correct. Newgate (along with Ludgate, which is coming up next) would have been a principal gate in the wall for access to and from the west. The west was of course King Alfred’s “heartland”, so I think it quite likely that he would have used these gates.
The wall then runs south through the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) to emerge on Ludgate Hill at the site of the Ludgate (which again is long demolished and with no visible remains above ground). It seems that the wall would have emerged through the excruciatingly named Ye Olde London pub and ran into the currency exchange shop on the other side of Ludgate Hill.
From here it isn’t possible to follow a particular line, but I do recommend wending down through Blackfriars via Carter Lane and Church Entry. The wall ended somewhere down here (it did not run along the riverside), so I recommend a drink in the wonderful Black Friar pub! From here you can follow Upper Thames Street and Lower Thames Street all the way back to the Tower of London, although you will not see any Roman wall, and I find this route very traffic-heavy and polluted.
It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.
Winchester, in Hampshire, is very aware of its associations with King Alfred. But what exactly are these, and what will we uncover if we dig into the detail?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that Winchester had been destroyed by a ship-army in 860, although the attacking forces still lost. Asser (King Alfred’s companion and biographer) tells us that these attackers were Vikings, which perhaps comes as no surprise. However,we do not know where Alfred, who would have been about eleven years old, was at this time.
Although I have seen it implied that Winchester was Alfred’s “capital,” there is little evidence to indicate that Alfred’s court had been centered on a particular location in Wessex. However, we know that Alfred was at Winchester in 896 because he ordered the hanging of captured Vikings after they had run ashore on the Sussex coast. It has also been suggested that Alfred became king in Winchester, although I have seen no evidence to support this.
It seems that there must have been a royal estate at Winchester in Alfred’s time. Alfred does not give any land away at Winchester in his will, although this still allows the possibility that there was a royal estate that was just not owned by him personally, or was somehow under the control of the church instead. Winchester is also listed in the Burghal Hidage, being the account of Alfred’s defended settlements drawn up in the reign of his son, King Edward the Elder. Indeed it shared first place (with Wallingford in Oxfordshire) as the largest settlement in that document. It is indeed possible that the Old Minster (long destroyed – see below) and the royal residence were part of the same complex. It has been claimed that the royal palace was located directly to the west of the Old Minster (and therefore also directly west of the cathedral). I myself once sat on the lawn here (many do) to enjoy my lunch, without having the faintest idea about what might have once been there. As the tourists make a bee-line for the cathedral they may be unwittingly traversing something of competing significance.
Winchester had Roman walls and, although there is some evidence that the area within the walls became depopulated in the early Anglo-Saxon period, it seems that this area may have become repopulated by the time of King Alfred. I have seen it stated that the King’s Gate (or Kingsgate), to the south of the cathedral, had been the entrance through the walls to the royal palace. I have not seen anything to corroborate this, although this is possible as this would have been the closest gate to both the Old Minster and the site claimed to be that of the royal palace. The present gate is a later construction but might be nonetheless on the site or the original gate. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Alfred himself may have walked through here. I strongly recommend the nearby Wykeham Arms as a location in which to consolidate your thoughts. If that is not to your taste then perhaps visit the small church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate that is built into the walls above the gate.
It is generally accepted that what is now called High Street would have been the main street through Winchester in Alfred’s time. Following High Street to the west one comes to the Westgate, which is an impressive structure that includes some Anglo-Saxon fabric. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to walk a circuit of walls like it is in some other places. However, this did not stop me trying. The most pleasant stretch is to the south-west of the city, where there are actually walls to be seen. These are post-Roman, but generally lie on the route of the Roman walls. Indeed, at one point the wall has been excavated out to show the Roman wall inside. Much of the rest of the route of the wall is covered by buildings, some pleasant and some, in my opinion, quite ugly. There is even a huge multi-story car park on the route.
At the time of writing the location of the remains of King Alfred is not known. The different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out the relocations of Alfred’s remains. I therefore hope that what follows will help (alongside the above map). Important to our story are three buildings built close to each other in the centre of Winchester. These buildings, in their order of construction, were the Old Minster, the New Minster, and Winchester Cathedral. Today, the only building that remains is Winchester Cathedral. The Old Minster was just north of the current cathedral, and it is the outline of this building that you can see marked out today on the cathedral lawn. The New Minster was built in the reign of Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, to the north of the Old Minster, and he had his father’s remains interred there. However, the New Minster was not consecrated until 901, and Alfred, who had died in 899, was therefore initially interred in the Old Minster while the New Minster was being built. It had been King Alfred’s intention to have the New Minster built in his reign but by the time he died he had only managed to obtain the land. This is why the job of building the New Minster fell to his son. Alfred’s remains were joined in the New Minster by those of his wife Ealhswith when she died in 902. The Old Minster continued to exist alongside the New Minster until the cathedral was consecrated in 1093. The Old Minster was then demolished.
In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was just outside Winchester at this time. It is possible that the New Minster had suffered from a fire prior to 1109, which might have made the move opportune. Or perhaps Henry I did not want the Saxon New Minster crampimg the style of the gleaming new Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey.
The continuing story of Hyde Abbey, including the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains, will be the subject of a later blog post. Please also visit the website of the forthcoming book. I am also pleased to announce that the book will be a Black Slash publication.
Rochester is a lovely and historic city, worth visiting in its own right. However, this city was clearly a target for the Vikings. Rochester had already been sacked by the Vikings in 842, before Alfred was born. However, it was attacked by the Vikings again in 884, but this time King Alfred saw them off.
You may wish to open a map application to help you get the most out of the below. Otherwise just relax and read on.
The records indicate that on arrival in 884 the Vikings built a fortress around themselves, and we know that this must have been outside of Rochester’s walls because it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the inhabitants defended the settlement. Asser tells us that the Viking fortification was at the entrance to the town but, unfortunately for modern-day investigators, there were four entrances, and so the precise location of the Viking fortification has remained unknown. Alfred later arrived with his forces in 885, and locating the site of the Viking fortification could shed light on where and how Alfred might have engaged with the Vikings and saw that they left. Fortunately, the outline of Rochester’s Roman walls is known. It has been suggested that there would be no Saxon-built stone walls, so the configuration of the walls in 885 should have remained perhaps unchanged since Roman times.
There had been four gates in the Roman walls. A northern “Bridge Gate” that opened on to the position of the Roman bridge across the River Medway. A north gate, which is more east than north, an east gate that is more south than east, and a south gate that is more west than south. The confusion is explained when one realises that the name seems to indicate the direction in which one could travel after passing through a particular gate, rather than the orientation of the gate itself.
There is evidence that the East Gate was about where the City Wall Wine Bar on High Street is located. On visiting I noticed that the outline of the gate was helpfully marked out with bricks in the pavement and the road, with a metal plaque in the pavement confirming the location.
The North Gate appears to be preserved in the current road name of Northgate. It has been suggested that this gate might have just lead to marshy ground. However, there has also been speculation that it may have led to a harbour. Evidence suggests that the Noth Gate would have been approximately where today Northgate meets Corporation Street, being approximately equidistant from Watling Street (which ran along a line close to that of the current High Street) on one side as the cathedral is on the other. This location seems to be consistent with an existing piece of wall that one can see at the back of The Common car park, accessible via Gas House Road and then Acorn Wharf Road. However, the line of bricks in the road at Northgate, outside the Corn Exchange, suggests that at least some person may have thought that the gate may have been not quite as far down Northgate as the junction with Corporation Street. However, I could find no plaque to explain the reason for the bricks embedded into the road at this point.
The Romans built a bridge at Rochester and a bridge is recorded as present in 960, so a bridge may well have been maintained in the intervening period, including at the time of the Viking attack in 885. This bridge across the Medway is thought to have remained in approximately the same location as today. The location of the gate by the bridge (which I have seen referred to as both Bridge Gate and West Gate) has not been proved although it must have existed in order to allow access to and from the bridge. The gate would most likely have been more or less in line with the bridge. However, the modern bridge is much wider than it has been in the past. Fortunately, the entrance to the old bridge is marked by black lions, which perhaps allows us to speculate that the Bridge Gate would have been at the point where a line drawn from the bridge would have met the town wall.
It is thought that the South Gate would have been just before where Boley Hill meets St Margaret’s Street, and there is a helpful plaque on a wall that identifies the location. One can wonder whether, if the Viking fortification had been outside this gate, the location would have been where Boley Hill House and Lodge now stand, near the junction of Boley Hill with St Margaret’s Avenue.
I did not find it possible to exclude any of the entrances as a possible site for the Viking fortification, although I favour the Bridge Gate because the Vikings had a tendency to use waterways and, by blocking the Bridge Gate, they could fend off any support for Alfred from that direction. I was also told by a helpful volunteer at the cathedral that the Bridge Gate currently appears to be the narrow favourite! I thought it unlikely that an attacking force would cross the bridge, because such structures restrict the flow of men, making them more vulnerable. If there really had been docks beyond the North Gate it is possible that they could have disembarked there. Alternatively, the Vikings could have disembarked at Chatham and then came up Watling Street to the East Gate of Rochester.
Plenty to think about. When you get a chance, pay Rochester a visit, have a look for the sites of the gates of the Roman walls, and see what you think! Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle are well worth a visit. You can also see the outline of the Saxon church outlined in the ground partly inside and partly outside of the cathedral.