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.

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 of Wessex. A schematic diagram of territorial divisions at the start of King Alfred's reign.
A map of Wessex 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. Tap or click the image to learn more about the book.