Wessex – where was it?

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.

A map from my book. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred’s reign. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

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.

In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 2: King Alfred’s Tower

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.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandun where the Vikings were defeated.

King Alfred’s Tower is frequently suggested as being at or near the site of Egbert’s Stone, and I read some material dating from 1901 that there had been a local tradition that a beacon had been lit here as a signal for the gathering of Alfred’s forces.

King Alfred’s Tower at sunset

This building is a folly, built from 1762 onwards, and is in a lovely location surrounded by woodland on Kingsettle Hill in Somerset. The first thing that struck me about this monument is it’s size. It is huge. Indeed, an american military aeroplane crashed into it in 1944. The second thing that struck me was it’s unusual three-sided shape. I understand the views from the top are excellent but it was closed when I visited. But is this the site of Egbert’s stone?  The road that goes past the tower is again the ancient Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way), with the ancient name surviving at the nearby Hardway Farm. This is the same Hard Way / Harrow Way that crops up in relation to Willoughby Hedge (in a future post) and the Battle of Basing.

The statue of King Alfred on the tower

From the evidence available, it is, however,  difficult to define the location of King Alfred’s Tower as east of, or in the eastern part of, Selwood, which is required to fit the description given by Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The location is adjacent to an important ancient route (the Hard Way), but this does not seem enough to determine this to be the spot, or even a candidate, for being the correct location of Egbert’s Stone.

King Alfred’s Tower. An unusual three-sided building

Kilmington Common

Kilmington Common was put forward by a Dr Williams-Freeman in the 1950s . Kilmington Common is the name of the village and it lies about a mile east of Alfred’s Tower. The west-east road and track, named Tower Road and Long Lane respectively, lie on the route of the ancient track called the Hard Way, which is  the same Hard Way that goes past King Alfred’s Tower. I parked near where Tower Road meets the village and walked a short distance down the track called Long Lane, partly to appreciate that this was a potential site for Egbert’s Stone and partly for the simple enjoyment of walking on the ancient Hard Way. I looked over to where “the common” is marked on the OS map, but there was little to see apart from crops. Although the case for this location is supported by evidence that tracks ran in other directions near here, it seems difficult to define this location as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood. I therefore consider this to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone.

On the Hard Way near Kilmington Common

Part three will appear later, and this will include the Deverills in Wiltshire.

In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 1: The meeting point of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.

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.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandun where the Vikings were defeated. It is notable that  Dorset is not mentioned. However, Dorset may be an omission because Gaimar indicates that this county was involved.

Tradition has it that King Egbert, Alfred’s grandfather,  marked the point where Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire met with a large stone on the bank of the River Stour. However, it may be unreliable to assume that the counties met at the same location in Egbert’s or Alfred’s time. The woodland then would have extended further south ( as indicated in this book) into today’s Dorset, and because there is some evidence that the edges of the wood were used as boundaries, it is possible that the border could have been further south than it is today. However, I have not seen anything to indicate where any older of boundary might have been.

I drew upon John Peddie’s reference (in this book) to Coombe Street, which is west of Zeals and north of Bourton, as a claimed location. Travelling west, the road crossesthe river where a sign indicates that you have arrived at Pen Selwood. The Stour is narrow at this point, which is unsurprising as its source is at nearby Stourhead. However, I saw no evidence of a significant stone.

The Stour at Coombe Street near Pen Selwood. No Egbert’s Stone to be seen.

There seems to be an impression locally that a stone at Bullpits Golf Course is Egbert’s Stone. However, I have been told that this is not the case. Nearby Factory Hill crosses the Stour at a point where there was once a mill. When I visited this area it was in the process of being developed for housing. There is a footpath that comes off Kite’s Nest Lane that takes you close to where the three counties meet and water can be seen to your right as you walk up. However, maps show that the exact point at which the three counties meet is very close by but on private land, so I was unable to establish whether there was a stone there. However, the quest was not necessarily to find the stone but to find where Alfred brought his troops together, and if this indeed took place where the three counties now meet, then I was satisfied that I had found the spot. 

The White Lion at Bourton. A lovely place to take a break from explorations, and the food was superb.

However, it seems logical that Alfred would have used a meeting point that was strategic in terms of routeways and other factors rather than an obscure location where three administrative boundaries now meet.  From the evidence available, it also seems difficult to define this as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood, which is required in order to fit Asser‘s and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ descriptions of the location. For these reasons I consider this site to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone. It is possible that somebody wished to mark the junction of the three counties with a stone and that this has somehow become tangled up with the record of Alfred’s assembling of troops from different counties. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not include Dorset as a county providing forces (although Gaimar does), which further weakens the case for Egbert’s Stone being located here.

Michael Wood, the historian and television presenter, attributes the location of Egbert’s Stone to Penselwood, which is very close to the junction between the three counties, although I don’t know whether that was the reason why he chose it. Pen Selwood is also the supposed location of the Battle of Peonnum, which had been an important victory for the Saxons in 658. However, this was before the time of King Egbert so I cannot see how his name would have become associated with this.

Superb Egbert’s Stone Ale in the lovely Royal Standard pub, Upwey, Weymouth.

Around Athelney: Lyng and Burrow Mump

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.

Burrow Mump, which looks a bit like a smaller version of Glastonbury Tor, is a literally unmissable natural hill close by the settlement of Burrowbridge in the Somerset Levels.

Burrow Mump

The location is close to where the River Tone flows into the River Parrett , and it  is important to note that the River Tone runs past Athelney, where King Alfred was hiding out in 878. The location would therefore have been strategic for defending Athelney. It is possible to see Burrow Mump from Athelney and, of course, vice-versa. The location is also close to where the  River Cary once joined the Parrett, although the Cary now runs into King’s Sedgemoor Drain to the north. There is a half built 18th century church atop Burrow Mump, which is incomplete because funding ran out, and the structure is now a war memorial. However, there is evidence of earlier building going back to the 12th century. There is a car park, and those who walk up the steep incline are rewarded with great views.

The unfinished church atop Burrow Mump

An interesting story was toldto me regarding the King Alfred pub in Burrowbridge. This related to a three-legged so-called “Alfred Table.” Although I was told that it was eventually dated to be much more recent, it still apparently sold for a handsome sum to an American.

Asser tells us that  the fortress on the western summit of Athelney Hill was connected to another fortress by a causeway. This second fortress appears to have been at the settlement of East Lyng which, like Athelney, was on higher ground. However, it is important to note that Asser tells us about the causeway and the second fortress in relation to the later founding of a monastery at Athelney by Alfred. There appears to be no evidence that the fortress at Lyng or the causeway were present in 878. The monastic foundation was developed around 893, and the causeway may have been built to facilitate access to and from this. The second fort may have been built as part of Alfred’s defence programme, which he started after 878.

St. Bartholomew’s Church, East Lyng

I wondered whether it was possible to see any remains of this second fortification.  Whilst not being able to specifically find the fortification it was possible to find evidence of the burgh’s perimeter. Lyng is named in the Burghal Hidage, and a bank and ditch to the west of East Lyng may be the remains of the western perimeter of the burgh defences. I saw it suggested that this ditch and bank was in line with the east wall of St Bartholomew’s church. So, after struggling to find a parking place for the church, that is where I went, and I could indeed see what looked like possible earthworks in the field to the south of the church. I could not explore further because the field appeared to be private land. Fortunately, the presenters in the first ever episode of Time Team (here) appear to have gained access and their programme confirmed that I had indeed been looking across at the correct spot, although the alignment appeared to be more with the  the west wall of the church! The bank and ditch would have extended north on the other side of the A361, but there appears to be nothing left to see there. It seems likely that the eastern boundary would be near Cuts Road, and the causeway itself, although the causeway could have taken a different line in Alfred’s time. Therefore it seems that most of the settlement of East Lyng might be sited within the burgh developed by Alfred. 

The Balt Moor Wall.

I also wanted to investigate the causeway between Athelney and East Lyng recorded by Asser. There is a structure which can still be seen that goes right up to Athelney Hill. Coming from East Lyng one drives over the first section, and it then passes onto private land (with the route of the causeway remaining visible). This structure is now called the Balt Moor Wall. I have not seen any reference that dates this to before the 12th century, so we cannot be sure that the causeway that we see today follows precisely the same route as it did in King Alfred’s time.

Please also visit the site for the new book.

Athelney. Alfred’s Refuge on the Somerset Levels.

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.

Athelney is where King Alfred developed a fortification at Easter 878, at a time when Wessex had fallen to the Vikings, and it was from here that Alfred set out on the successful reconquest of his kingdom.  You will rarely find anyone else here at this important location.

The route up to the monument. Just me and the sheep.

When you are at the site it is apparent that Athelney has two small summits, which was enough to make this location an island in the watery Somerset levels. It is suspected that Alfred’s 878 fortification was on the western summit, while the abbey, founded later by Alfred in 893, was on the eastern summit, where a monument to King Alfred now stands. This abbey was later replaced by a medieval monastery, although there is nothing visible above ground today.

The King Alfred monument at Athelney

I got to this location by taking Cut Road from East Lyng and parking near Athelney Farm. The site is on private land but there is a signpost indicating a route  to the monument. Athelney Hill can also be observed from the lay-by on the nearby A361. It’s elevation above the surrounding area is immediately obvious, and one can see the elevation of Burrow Mump not too far away to the north east, which suggests to me the possibility that this other site may have been used for advance defence and signalling back to Athelney. There is other high ground in the area, such as Windmill Hill to the south west, Oath Hill to the south east, and, slightly further and east of Aller village, the high ridge of Aller Hill. Any high ground could have had strategic importance for protecting Athelney. Asser records that Alfred struck out at Vikings from Athelney, which indicates that Vikings had  been in the vicinity.

The bust of KIng Alfred on the Athelney monument

There is evidence that Athelney had previously been an iron age fortification and therefore Alfred was bringing this defended site back into use. Evidence of metalworking at the western summit suggests that weaponry may have been manufactured here to be used in Alfred’s reconquest of Wessex.

There is also a record of a hermit called Æthelwine living at Athelney in the 7th century. Perhaps importantly, this Æthelwine is said to have been the son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, and the brother of the next king, Cenwealh. Athelney may therefore have been a royal site known to Alfred, and this may parhaps help explain why he chose this particular location.

Athelney, called æþelingaegge in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is derived from Old English Æðelinga eg with the first word indicating a royal connection (and  eg meaning an isle). The impression gained from both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser is that this site was already called this when Alfred arrived, rather than it having been given this name retrospectively because Alfred had been there. This is consistent with the hermit Æthelwine being very closely related to the kings of the West Saxons. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles at 658 that King Cenwealh, the brother of the hermit Æthelwine, fought against the Britons (Walas) at Penselwood (peonnum), in Somerset, and that he drove them as far as the Parret. With Athelney not far from the Parret, it might have been about this time that Athelney developed it’s West Saxon royal associations.

If Alfred had been at Chippenham when the Vikings attacked at Twelfth Night in January 878dc, the most obvious escape route would perhaps have been to get to Bath and then go down the Fosse Way. However, he could have  taken a Bath to Badbury Rings route and diverted into Selwood Forest. From there he could have made his way across to Athelney by Easter. This route would satisfy Asser’s description of Alfred being in woods as well as defensive positions in swamps or moors. Alternatively, he could have headed straight for the marshes of the levels, only to build the fortress later at Easter. There is also the possibility that he initially went further west into Devon. Ultimately, we do not know where Alfred was between January 878 and Easter 878.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Alfred left for Egbert’s Stone in the seventh week after Easter. Alfred was therefore at the fortress at Athelney for about seven weeks, although of course he could have been at Athelney prior to the fortress being built.

Even with the levels drained it doesn’t take much for the water around the hill to appear again.

The legend of Alfred burning the cakes when he was put in charge of them by a peasant woman has become associated with his time at Athelney. However, there is no evidence that this baking mishap ever occurred. The earliest known version of the story of the cakes is in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which appears to have been put together in the late tenth century.

Athelney was connected to nearby East Lyng by a causeway. East Lyng, the causeway, and Burrow Mump will be the subject of a different blog post.

Time Team visited the site on two occasions and the videos (first and second) are well worth watching.