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.

History of Dorchester: King Alfred

This post looks at King Alfred in the history of Dorchester (Dorset), and is adapted from my book , King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.

I have lived near Dorchester for many years. Evidence from charters (legal documents showing transfers of land or rights) indicates that Alfred came to Dorchester while his elder brother Æthelred was king, and therefore presumably there would have been some sort of Saxon base there. Links to transcripts of these charters are here and here. Please note that very few charters have not been challenged as to their authenticity, either in whole or in part.

The line of the west wall of Dorchester. Towards Salisbury Street.
The line of the west wall of Dorchester, looking north towards Salisbury Street.

Where was the royal residence?

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

Fordington

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, Dorchester. Dorset
St George’s church, Fordington, Dorchester (Dorset)

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.

Dorchester’s walls

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 he was pursuing the Vikings from Wareham to Exeter, perhaps passing through Dorchester, in 876. The main east-west road through Dorchester is probably just slightly north of the line of the Roman road and at the West Gate, which would have been near the Top o’ Town roundabout, two Roman roads led to Exeter (via Bridport) and Ilchester. The Exeter road is still the main road to Winterborne Abbas. The road to Ilchester survives in the road to Bradford Peverell, but is no longer evident near the Top o’ Town roundabout, where it is submerged under the car park.

To learn more about locations across southern England associated with King Alfred, perhaps try my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from book shops and Amazon. Click the image below to learn more.

Many thanks to Copper Street Brewery, near Dorchester South station, for stocking copies of my book. It goes well with the names of their beers, which have a King Alfred/Anglo-Saxon theme. I have sampled most of their beers and they are excellent. A shout out also to KeeP 106 (Dorchester) radio, where I talked on air about my book and the history of Dorchester in Saxon times.

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

Winchester. Part one. The Centre.

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.

Thorneycroft's statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire
Thorneycroft’s statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, Hampshire

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.

A section of a map of Winchester, Hampshire, from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move.
A section of a map of Winchester, Hampshire, from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018).

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.

The outline of the Old Minster in the lawn adjacent to Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire
The outline of the Old Minster in the lawn adjacent to Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire

 

North of Winchester Cathedral, and the site of the Old Minster. There isn't anything left to indicate that the New Minster would have once been here.
North of Winchester Cathedral, and the site of the Old Minster. There isn’t anything left to indicate that the New Minster would have once been here.

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.

King's Gate from the north. It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred's time, giving access to a royal residence.
King’s Gate from the north. It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred’s time, giving access to a royal residence.

 

King's Gate from the south It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred's time, giving access to a royal residence.
King’s Gate from the south It is possible that there was a gate here in the walls of Winchester in King Alfred’s time, giving access to a royal residence.

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.

I have provided a short video here:

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 blog post for Hyde Abbey and the mystery surrounding King Alfred’s remains (Winchester, Part 2) is here.

 

The Wykeham Arms pub in Winchester, just outside the course of the Roman walls of Winchester
A perfect place to consolidate one’s thoughts.The Wykeham Arms pub in Winchester, just outside the course of the Roman walls of Winchester

Winchester did not suddenly have greatness thrust upon it at the time of King Alfred. In around 660 it became the episcopal seat of the diocese of Wessex, replacing Dorchester-on-Thames. Bede tells us that the remains of the missionary Birinus were transferred here as well while Hedde was bishop, giving us a date range of 649 (around when Birinus died) and 703 (when Hedde died). I argue elsewhere that Sherborne may for a period during King Alfred’s life have been as important, if not more so, than Winchester. However, before and afterwards this would have not been the case, and even during that period Winchester would have remained very important. That it was the seat of the important Swithun is an indication of this.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click on the image below to learn more about the book.

What about King Alfred burning Cakes?

Although I could find no evidence for King Alfred burning cakes it seems appropriate for me to say a few more words about this famous and persistent legend. This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move.

The earliest source

When talking to people it is often the first thing that comes up. It first appears in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which seems to have been put together in the late tenth century, where it states that the burning of the cakes took place at Athelney (King Alfred’s refuge in the Somerset Levels prior to his successful reconquest of his kingdom that took place after his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878).

Athelney, Somerset
Athelney, Somerset, where King Alfred is said to have burnt the cakes

The tale’s journey

The story of King Alfred burning cakes found its way from the Vita S Neoti  into a twelfth century compilation of documents that became known as the Annals of St Neots. Then in the sixteenth century it got lifted from the Annals of St Neots and inserted by the theologian Matthew Parker into his copy of Asser’s Life of King Alfred.  Because the writings of Asser have been viewed as a serious historical source, this must have given the story a real boost and is probably why it is so famous today. We cannot ultimately prove that it was inserted by Matthew Parker (as opposed to somebody before him doing it) because the Life of King Alfred that he would have been working from was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there are no known surviving ancient copies. The result, nonetheless, was that for a significant period of time the story of the cakes was treated as an integral part of the writings of Asser, when this in fact was not the case.

The tale

In brief, the earliest version of the story tells us that Alfred turned up on his own at a pig farmer’s (subulcus, swineherd, was changed in the Annals to uaccarius, cowherd, for reasons unknown) cottage on Athelney where he was taken in and stayed for some days whilst he awaited God’s mercy, and keeping in mind the patience that had been demonstrated by the biblical Job. One day, while the pig-farmer was taking his pigs to a field, the farmer’s wife started baking loaves of bread (not cakes), but then became occupied with other domestic duties. The loaves started to burn and the wife pointed out to Alfred that although he was quite happy to eat them, he hadn’t been so keen to turn them over when he could see that they were burning. It appears that Alfred was shaken but not stirred, and he proceeded to then turn the loaves over.

The tale about King Alfred burning cakes was recast many times subsequently and I suspect a whole book could be written tracing these variations.

There is a legend that the story of Alfred burning of the cakes took place in a field south of the rectory at Brixton Deverill in Wiltshire. However, the Vita S Neoti clearly indicates that this supposed baking mishap took place at Athelney.

Finally, it is interesting to note that this is not the only incident of burning bread in the legends. In the Viking Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar) Ragnar’s men are distracted in the farmhouse of a poor couple by the beauty of Ragnar’s second future wife (Kráka/Aslaug) and they burn the bread they were baking there. This was written in the 13th century and may be a coincidence.

Tap or click the image below to learn more about my book.

 

Swinbeorg. Is it or isn’t it?

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon.

Swinbeorg is an unidentified location that is mentioned in Alfred’s will where he describes an assembly having taken place at which inheritance matters were discussed.  Although this might seem quite mundane there are limited places where we might be able to pin the location of Alfred down quite precisely. If we could find this location it would in fact therefore be quite exciting! The context of the entry in his will indicates that this meeting would have taken place when King Alfred’s brother Æthelred was still alive but after the Viking emergency commenced (i.e. between 870 and the summer of 871). It has been speculated that this would have been at the presumed Anglo-Saxon meeting place called Swanborough Tump near Manningford Abbots in the former Swanborough Hundred in Wiltshire.

The monument in the countryside near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)
The monument in the countryside near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)

Although this seems tempting, the vowel change is problematic as even in 987 the place-name began with “Swan” and not “Swin.” However, I am not aware of any other proposed location so it seems that this site could indeed be Swinbeorg. A plaque at the location indeed decares this to be the case! It is worth noting, though, that there was a Suaneberge Hundred in Sussex, and this location cannot be ruled out. 

The site is easy to visit, being at the roadside on a quiet Wiltshire country lane. It is west of Pewsey and is marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

Detail from the monument near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)
Detail from the monument near Pewsey, Wiltshire, commemorating the meeting between King Alfred the Great (not yet king) and his brother at Swanborough Tump (Swinbeorg)

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more about the book.

King Alfred’s Tower. Egbert’s Stone, Part 2

This post on King Alfred’s Tower and Egbert’s Stone is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.

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 Tower, Somerset.
King Alfred Tower, Somerset.

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 the Great, high up on King Alfred's Tower, Somerset.
The statue of King Alfred the Great, high up on King Alfred’s Tower, Somerset.

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, Somerset. An unusual three-sided folly
King Alfred’s Tower, Somerset. An unusual three-sided folly

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 (also known as the Harrow Way) ancient trackway near Kilmington Common, in Wiltshire. Did King Alfred the Great pass down here after he left Athelney en route to the Battle of Ethandun?
On the Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way) ancient trackway near Kilmington Common, in Wiltshire. Did King Alfred the Great pass down here after he left Athelney en route to the Battle of Ethandun?

Part three is now available and includes the Deverills in Wiltshire. If you missed part one, it is here.

You can view my video on Egbert’s Stone below:

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below.

Saxon Kent and King Alfred. Part 1: Maidstone

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon.

The River Medway at Maidstone, Kent. Looking south from Maidstone Bridge, with the Archbishop's Palace and All Saints' Church in the distance to the left
The River Medway at Maidstone, Kent. Looking south from Maidstone Bridge, with the Archbishop’s Palace and All Saints’ Church in the distance to the left

In 892  a Viking force of 250 ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent and in the same year another Viking force of 80 ships came to the north coast of Kent.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings were at Milton (Milton Regis) to the north and at Appledore to the south, and that Alfred camped with his army between the two raiding armies. Anyone who travels around Kent will soon appreciate the difficulty of simultaneously monitoring these two areas from a single location, because they are quite far apart, so he must have had additional outposts, and perhaps this is what some of the alternative locations (later posts will address these) put forward as Alfred’s base actually were. Indeed, this would fit with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle telling us that burga (fortresses) were being held.

Milton has now become part of Sittingbourne and was accessible from the Swale via the Milton Creek. Appledore is a lovely village that would have been accessible to the Vikings by following the route of the River Limen (now the Rother) as it would have existed at that time.

Although other possibilities exist, Maidstone has been put forward as a serious contender for the location of Alfred’s base during this Kent emergency.

A crossing of the Medway at Maidstone was developed in saxon times  and it has been proposed that the town may have been part of a saxon royal estate with significant ecclesiastical connections.

Maidstone is on the Medway, but it is also  at the crossing of a Roman route from Rochester to Hastings (Margary 13) with a possibly ancient track from Ashford to London, now represented by the A20 either side of Maidstone. It has been suggested that in Saxon times Maidstone grew up around this crossing.

Identifying this crossing may help us establish an approximate location of Alfred’s position, if he was based at Maidstone. It  appears to be where Week Street, King Street, Gabriel’s Hill and High Street meet. When I visited this location, it was clear that it was near the top of a hill. Such sites are generally strategic.

Looking west down the High Street from the probable site of the origin of Maidstone (at the ancient crossing) in Kent
Looking west down the High Street from the probable site of the origin of Maidstone (at the ancient crossing) in Kent

As above, but now looking east towards King Street in Maidstone, Kent.
As above, but now looking east towards King Street in Maidstone, Kent.

However, King Alfred lived in the later Saxon period, and by then Maidstone may have developed beyond the vicinity of the junction described above, making it more difficult to define precisely where Alfred might have been.

The location of the former church of St Mary the Virgin may be an important clue . By the 11th century this church was a minster with 17 dependent churches. Some sort of settlement around this site in Alfred’s time would appear to be likely as it would have taken time for a church to build up this level of significance. This church, which was by the Medway, no longer exists, but it is suggested  that the site is at the approximate location of, or even beneath, All Saints’ Church, which replaced it in the 1390s.

All Saints' church, Maidstone, Medway, Kent
All Saints’ church, Maidstone, Medway, Kent

The oldest parts of the nearby Archbishop’s Palace date to the 14th century, but the location was likely to have been the site of a manor that we know existed because in 1086 it was being held by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is therefore possible that there had been a manor here at the time of King Alfred.

The Archbishop's Palace, Maidstone, Medway, Kent
The Archbishop’s Palace, Maidstone, Medway, Kent

On visiting this area my attention was drawn to an information board  that referred to a track  called Knightrider Street going down to the Medway where it could once be forded. I feel that the possibility of being able to easily cross the Medway at this point adds weight to this part of Maidstone, potentially the manor referred to above, being the location for King Alfred’s camp.

Looking down Knightrider Street to the location where there used to be a ford across the River Medway in Maidstone, Kent
Looking down Knightrider Street to the location where there used to be a ford across the River Medway in Maidstone, Kent

I found myself being impressed by the collection of historic buildings, including All Saint’s Church and the Archbishop’s Palace, and it was pleasant to partake in a small circular riverside walk in this area, made possible by the Millenium and Maidstone Bridges. It is worth noting that the latter was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, of Thames Embankment and London sewers fame.

Maidstone is also close to what appears to have been the original Pilgrim’s Way, which was on the route of an ancient trackway. In addition, Maidstone may have offereda direct route to the vicinity of both Milton Regis.  In the other direction, there may have been access to the area around Appledore via a route about which we now have no knowledge.

However, Maidstone is much closer to Milton than it is to Appledore, and it is quite a way off a line running between these two places. We therefore possibly run into trouble with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle having told us that Alfred set up camp between the two raiding armies.

Overall, I feel that Maidstone must have been involved. It seems to have been an important site and it was not far from a Viking base at Milton Regis.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more about the book. 

History of Rochester: King Alfred and the Vikings

Rochester, Kent. Plaque showing where the East Gate in the Roman walls once was.

This post on the history of Rochester 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.

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.

Where was the Viking camp at Rochester?

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 Chronicles 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. King 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.

Rochester Bridge. River Medway, Kent.
Rochester Bridge over the River Medway (looking north), Kent.

 

At which gate was the Viking camp?

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.

The East Gate

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.

East Gate. Roman walls. Rochester, Kent.
The outline on the ground of the East Gate in the walls of Rochester, Kent. Easily missed. Had there been a Viking fortification just past the lamp post?

The North Gate

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.

Rochester, Kent. North Gate. Roman Walls. Alternative location.
Rochester, Kent. A line in the road called Northgate which seems to be there to indicate the line of the wall, but might it (and the North Gate) have been a little bit further down somewhere near the junction with Corporation Street towards the right on the photo?

The Bridge/West Gate

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.

Rochester, Kent. Bridge Gate. West Gate. Probable location.
Rochester, Kent. The north end of High Street, looking north towards the bridge over the River Medway. If it still existed today, the Bridge Gate would surely be in this picture.

The South Gate

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.

Plaque. South Gate. Roman walls. Rochester, Kent.
The plaque on the wall where the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent, is thought to have been.

 

South Gate. Roman walls. Rochester, Kent.
The site of the South Gate in the Roman walls of Rochester, Kent (plaque on the wall to the right). Looking to the east along Boley Hill

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! It seems 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.

This should provide plenty to think about regarding this important period in the history of Rochester. 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.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Tap or click the image below to learn more about the book. 

 

Battle of Ethandun 878. Viking defeat

This post on the Battle of Ethandun is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.

After Alfred left Athelney, he went via Egbert’s Stone and Iglea to Ethandun where he fought against the Vikings and won. The evidence suggests that after the Vikings had raided Chippenham Wessex had pretty much fallen into their hands. The events leading up to the Battle at Ethandun can therefore be viewed as a reconquest by Alfred for his Kingdom. If Alfred had lost at Ethandun, his loss of Wessex might have become permanent. The stakes were high. However, King Alfred did win this battle, leading to his successful recovery of Wessex.

Paul Kelly, the author of King Alfred: A Man on the Move - climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington, Wiltshire
Paul Kelly, the author of King Alfred: A Man on the Move – climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington, Wiltshire

The route that Alfred would have taken to get from Athelney is contested, largely because the locations of his en-route encampments, at Egbert’s Stone and Iglea, are disputed. If you are interested in the potential routes then you may wish to visit my three posts on Egbert’s Stone (1, 2, 3) and the one on Iglea (here).

Edington

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that this battle took place at Eþandun (þ is pronounced “th”), which I refer to as Ethandun. It seems generally accepted that Ethandun is today’s Edington in Wiltshire. Although the identification of Ethandun is most helpful, it still does not allow us to determine the precise location of the battle in that area. My favoured location is the village itself (it seems that there was a royal estate here, and I can’t imagine that the Vikings wouldn’t have taken this) but because there is no proof I explored other options.

Edington Priory church, Wiltshire. It is plausible that the Battle of Ethandun was fought in the vicinity. King Alfred the Great defeated Guthrum and the Vikings in this battle.
Edington Priory church, Wiltshire. It is plausible that the Battle of Ethandun was fought in the vicinity. King Alfred the Great defeated Guthrum and the Vikings in this battle.

 

Bratton

It has been suggested that Bratton Camp, which is on Bratton Down, had been the Viking base for the Battle of Ethandun. Standing at this Iron-Age hillfort one can appreciate how, coming from the direction of Chippenham to the north (where this particular Viking army appears to have had its base), once the climb up to Bratton Camp had been achieved, they would have had easy access to Salisbury Plain, in order to confront King Alfred and his armies, if indeed they had come that way.

The iron age ramparts at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire. This has sometimes been put forward as the site of the Battle of Ethandun, or perhaps the site of the Viking camp.
The iron age ramparts at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire. This has sometimes been put forward as the site of the Battle of Ethandun, or perhaps the site of the Viking camp.

East of Westbury, and just a short distance south-west of Edington, Bratton Camp is marked on maps and is easy to find. There is i a figure of a white horse marked out on the hillside, sadly today made out of concrete.  I agree with another writer that it seems unusual that two important battles (the other being Ashdown) had been fought in areas with prominent white horses. However,  there is no evidence that a white horse would have been present at Bratton Down at or around Alfred’s time. Furthermore, the location of the Battle of Ashdown seems to me to have not been in the vicinity of the  white horse at Uffington in Oxfordshire. I decided to avoid the unreliable practice of divining battle sites via horse-led inquiry.

The White Horse above Westbury, Wiltshire.
The White Horse above Westbury, Wiltshire.

The parish of Edington extends a fair way south onto Salisbury plain, approximately level with, and just to the west of the deserted village of Imber. On some days the Ministry of Defence allows public access to Imber and some other parts of Salisbury Plain where access is restricted. I went on one of the special services run by Imberbus, where vintage buses go from Warminster train station to permitted locations, including Imber and New Zealand Camp Farm. This was a delightful way of getting around. However, there is much of Salisbury Plain where there is never public access, including south of the village of Edington, and it is perhaps possible that the site of the battle may be beneath an  area where access is restricted owing to unexploded ordnance. The best I could do was to explore the roads and paths to the north of the perimeter of the training area. I include the following suggestion because it seemed most interesting and informative in terms of views, and is also within the Edington parish boundary. Just as you approach Edington coming from Bratton there is a lay-by on the right, with a footpath leading north. This fairly steep path takes you up Picquet Hill and over the top of Luccombe Bottom. As you ascend you will pass ancient tumuli and pillow mounds, and the view will open up in a way that allows one to start to understand the landscape of the potential battle site.

Looking north to Picquet Hill (on the right), Wiltshire. Edington is down over the other side.
Looking north to Picquet Hill (on the right), Wiltshire. Edington is down over the other side.

After their defeat at the battle of Ethandun it is recorded that the Vikings were pursued as far as their fortification. This is generally thought to be Chippenham, but at least one writer has suggested that it could have been Bratton Camp. I can see the temptation to consider Bratton camp as the Viking base, but the evidence for a base at Chippenham is stronger. Of course, Bratton Camp could have been an additional forward base for the battle, but so could have many other places been used as such and it seems possible on Bratton Down to be seduced by the heady combination of a hill-fort, a horse, and wide-ranging views. There is also the matter of maintaining provisions for troops and animals at an elevated position away from water.

A stone and plaque at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, reminding us that the Battle of Ethandun had taken place in the vicinity.
A stone and plaque at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, reminding us that the Battle of Ethandun had taken place in the vicinity.

It has been claimed that that the battle took place at Edington in Somerset. I examine this in my book and find that this is not likely.

You can view my short video on the Battle of Ethandun below:

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below:

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, Somerset Levels.
Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels.

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, Somerset Levels
The unfinished church atop Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels

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, Somerset Levels
St. Bartholomew’s Church, East Lyng, Somerset Levels

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, between Athelney and East Lyng on the Somerset Levels.
The Balt Moor Wall, between Athelney and East Lyng on the Somerset Levels.

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.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, click or tap the image below: