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.

Dorchester in Dorset

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.

Dorchester prison, now being converted to residences, is on the site of the Norman castle, and possibly also the Saxon stronghold/royal location.

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.

St George’s church, Fordington

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.

Dorchester’s only remaining stretch of original Roman wall (on Albert Road, near Top O’ Town roundabout)
South Walks Road. An example of how the line of the Roman walls has become embedded in Dorchester’s layout.

Sutton Courtenay

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.

There are numerous lovely villages in Oxfordshire, and this is certainly one of them. It has been speculated that this is where Alfred married Ealhswith in 868, around the time of the engagement with the Vikings at Nottingham.

One problem is that Asser tells us that the marriage took place in Mercia. Sutton Courtenay is close to the Thames, which acted as a border between Wessex and Mercia. But Sutton Courtenay is on the Wessex side! However, digging deeper, one discovers that parts of what was then Berkshire (and now Oxfordshire) were under Mercian control. So, on that criterion, Sutton Courtenay is possible as the location of the marriage.

Also of note are the significant archaeological findings. The popular archaeology television programme Time Team conducted a dig (video here) to the west of the village and they found the largest Anglo-Saxon hall in England and suggested that it was royal. However, one problem is that it seemed to be from an earlier period than the time of King Alfred, although we don’t know whether it’s size and significance persisted in some way. For those who like detail, the analysis of the dig is here.

Imagine a huge Anglo-Saxon great hall in these fields! Didcot power station in the distance.

There is also speculation that Sutton Abbey may be on the site of a former Anglo-Saxon royal vill.

The entrance to the Abbey at Sutton Courtenay

Because the site of Alfred’s marriage to Eahlswith is not certain, other sites are available for speculation.  In particular, Gainsborough in Lincolnshire has been put forward. This is on the basis that Ealhswith was the daughter of a chief of a people called the Gaini. However, the place-name may instead be based on an individual called Gegn and we can’t be certain that the Gaini were in this area anyway. Gainsborough is, however, in Mercia and only 40 miles or so from Nottingham, where we know Alfred was in 868. However, many, many places were in Mercia and there is nothing to say that he was anywhere near Nottingham in the year that he married.

Back to Sutton Courtenay, and leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind for a moment, I visited All Saints’ church and found it to be more significant than I had anticipated. Amongst other things, one can visit the graves of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) and the former British prime-minister, Asquith.

George Orwell’s grave

All Saints’ church

About the Book

July 2019 update: the book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, is now published and available from Amazon.

It all started one spring day in Winchester. I tagged along with my partner who had to go there to work for a day. I was at a loose end and had been to Winchester many times. I had seen the cathedral, the round table and so on. So, what should I do? I remembered reading that there had been an abbey at Hyde, just north of the centre, and that it was connected with King Alfred. So I worked out where it was and paid a visit to the location. In contrast to the cathedral, and the city centre generally, there was nobody else there but me. Yet this was  the site where perhaps the greatest king in the history of England had been buried. Surely this could not be correct. Where was everybody? A few weeks later I visited Athelney, the site where Alfred hid out before striking out to defeat the Vikings. There was nobody there either. Then I went to the little church at Aller, where the path of English history was sealed when Alfred baptised the Viking leader Guthrum, leading to a period of peace. You’ve got it – Nobody there either. The strong interest in history that I had always had became re-awakened as I found the experience of finding these places deeply involving and I felt that just being in these locations gave me a direct engagement with 9th century history. I am certain that people are interested in the Anglo-Saxons, and King Alfred in particular; everybody I speak to is genuinely interested.

It seemed to me that the problem was partly down to information on relevant sites not being readily available. Additionally, accurate locations for some historical events have not been established (e.g. the Battle of Ashdown) so it is easy to sink in a sea of alternative ideas or theories. A further problem that I came across was what today we might call mis-information (or even fake news?) Perhaps often well-intentioned, but over the past few centuries it appears that many places have wanted a slice of King Alfred, even if it means being over-optimistic with regard to the evidence.

I have tried to cut through all of this to produce something that facilitates better engagement with arguably our most important king by visiting locations that are associated with him. Where the location cannot be established, I put forward alternatives and invite the reader to engage in balancing the evidence.

So, join me on a romp from Wantage, Reading, Basing, London, the Somerset Levels and the Berkshire Downs, Kent, Wiltshire, Dorset, Exeter and other places besides. I truly hope that you benefit a connection and engagement with perhaps our greatest King, just like I have.