King Alfred and the Vikings at Wareham

Wareham Quay from the south bank of the Frome.

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.

Wareham and nearby Poole harbour are lovelyplaces to visit. However, not everybody will be aware of the dramatic events that took place here in the 9th century.

Wareham had been occupied by the Vikings in 875, but Alfred  made piece with them in 876 when the Vikings swore on the halgan beage (holy ring) that they would leave Wessex. However, they left under the cover of darkness and went instead to Exeter, in Devonshire but also part of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had  given hostages to Alfred as part of the deal, and that these men had been the worthiest in the Viking army. We cannot be sure if this ring was presented in the negotiations by Alfred or by the Vikings, or who it was “holy” to, if not to both parties. It is possible that either the Vikings or Alfred had access to a holy ring as they travelled from place to place. If it was a Viking ring, then Alfred clearly must have had the upper hand to make them swear on it, which would fit with the fact that Alfred was also given important hostages, which could be killed if the Vikings reneged on the deal. The Vikings must have seen Exeter as a great prize if it meant sacrificing  their worthiest men. One can imagine how the Vikings might have viewed the subsequent loss of 120 ships near Swanage in a storm as they fled to Exeter as divine retribution for breaking an oath sworn on a holy ring.

On balance it seems to me that this ring was presented by Alfred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to it as “holy” and it seems unlikely to me that something un-Christian would be referred to in this way.

Lady St Mary’s church from the south bank of the Frome. Was this the heart of early to middle Saxon Wareham?

But, what was at Wareham when the Vikings attacked? Asser describes Wareham as a castellum (fortification) and the location of a convent for nuns. We know that Alfred embarked on a programme of defending settlements after 878 and it is thought that the origins of the walls that we see today were built then, although we know that they were modified over subsequent centuries. The fortification referred to by Asser is therefore probably not the same as the walls we see today. Castellum could also relate to an ancient or Roman construction, for which there is no remaining evidence, or even Saxon pre-878 defences developed because of a specific risk of Viking attack.

The north stretch of the Saxon wall, with the River Piddle disappearing off to the west.
The west section of Wareham’s Saxon wall.

However, things become even more complicated when we look at Æthelweard’s chronicle. He describes the Vikings moving down from Cambridge to near  (iuxta) Wareham and occupying a location alongside (coniecit statum communem cum) a Western Army. There appears to be a significant difference between Æthelweard and Asser as the latter states that the Viking army enterred (intravit) the castellum of Wareham. However these two sources may just be providing two snapshots of a sequence. Taking it all together it appears that the Vikings camped outside of the settlement of Wareham and then took it over, perhaps after besieging it.

But where did the Vikings camp and how did they get there? We know that there must have been a combined land and sea force because that is what left Wareham when they fled to Exeter. We also know that the seaborne force must have been considerable because the Vikings lost 120 ships in a storm near Swanage when fleeing. The ships must have come in to Poole harbour, and perhaps they would have taken some ships up the Frome in order to get closer to Wareham. Presumably, with that many ships, they would have defended their rear by perhaps occupying Brownsea Island and the harbour entrance. This would have been a most serious situation. Try to imagine today over 120 Viking ships in Poole harbour. In fact there would have been more than this as 120, the only figure that we have, is the number that sunk in the storm of Swanage. It is unlikely that all Viking boats had sunk. And on top of this was the  land-basedViking army. It is difficult to see that the native settlement at Wareham would have had a chance. The Vikings broke their oath when they fled to Exeter, but Alfred’s intervention had saved Wareham, and we must remember that when the Vikings got to Exeter they had to deal with Alfred again, and this time they did leave Wessex.

How the Viking land-based forces got to Wareham must be very speculative. There may have been a Roman road from Wareham to Woodbury Hill, near Bere Regis. This may have been in use in Alfred’s time because there is still today a straight road that heads in that direction. However, this seems to be in the wrong place (being north-west instead of north-east) if they had come from Cambridge. There is nothing to indicate where Alfred had travelled from.

The nearby church of Lady St Mary, although subject to much rebuilding, has an important history going back to at least the 8th century. Inside the church are several pieces of masonry that are dated to Anglo-Saxon times.

Lady St Mary’s church

Another important location in Wareham is the very old St Martin’s church, . This church is generally locked outside of the main tourist season, but there is usually an indication of where to get the key in normal trading hours (it is kept in a shop). It is thought that the current building dates to about 1030. The church also contains important 12th century wall paintings.

St Martin’s church

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) tells us that King Edward the Martyr was initially buried at Wareham after he had been murdered at nearby Corfe in 978. Although he was later transferred to Shaftesbury, his initial burial would probably have been at or near the site of St Mary’s church. I have seen it written that King Beorhtric of Wessex had been buried at Wareham in 802, but I have not found any evidence to support this. Had I done so, this would have made Wareham a more important place prior to the Viking attack in 875.

This was not the last that Wareham would see of the Vikings. They attacked Dorset again via the Frome, which then runs past Wareham, in 998 and 1015.