Winchester 2: Hyde Abbey

This post is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.

King Alfred was buried at Winchester, in Hampshire, but the location of his remains are unknown. His remains were moved at least twice and the different religious buildings built at different times can cause confusion in trying to work out where these remains went. I refer you to my first post on Winchester for the first two locations of Alfred’s remains, the Old Minster and the New Minster.

In 1109 Henry I ordered that the New Minster be moved to land that he had provided at Hyde, which was then just outside Winchester. 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 cramping the style of the gleaming Norman Winchester Cathedral. The re-located New Minster would then become known as Hyde Abbey. In my opinion, the location of this abbey must be one of the most important of the lesser-known sites in British history, and it deserves to be much more famous.

The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.
The three stone slabs at Hyde Abbey Gardens, Winchester,marking the location near the high altar where King Alfred, King Edward the Elder (his son) and Ealhswith (his wife) would have been once buried. Their (or some of) their remains may still be present in the vicinity.

Documents indicate that Alfred was transferred to Hyde Abbey in 1110 and that he was interred in front of the altar. Today, Hyde is just north of the city centre and can be easily visited by walking north up Hyde Street, and then turning right into King Alfred Place. This leads to the location of the altar of Hyde Abbey where three stone slabs show where Alfred, his wife and his son were once buried.

Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester.
Hyde Abbey fifteenth century gateway, Winchester. A reminder of what once stood elsewhere in this part of Winchester.

Hyde Abbey was destroyed in 1539 in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Furthermore, the Annals of Winchester tell us that Hyde Abbey was burnt in 1141, which fits with another record that tells us that the abbey laid “in ruins” after having been set alight in a battle between King Stephen and Matilda in 1141. It seems possible to me that Alfred’s and other important remains could have been relocated in 1141, or prior to the 1539 dissolution. However, the discovery of part of a pelvis (see below) shows that bones from the Anglo-Saxon period remained.

There is a detailed story (for those interested, this is in my book) about how eventually some bones, thought to include those of King Alfred, ended up being interred in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s church, which is located within the footprint of the precinct of Hyde Abbey. However, when these bones were radio-carbon dated, they were found to be more recent than the Anglo-Saxon period. This was the subject of a TV documentary, which you may have seen.

St Bartholomew's church, Hyde, Winchester
St Bartholomew’s church, Hyde, Winchester

Nonetheless, testing was carried out on bones from an excavation at the main site of the abbey undertaken in the 1990s, and a sample from an approximately middle-aged (to us!) male pelvis was dated to 895-1017. Although dating to the correct period, because King Alfred died in 899, it is not possible to say whether this pelvis once belonged to him. King Edward the Elder, who died in 924, was also buried at Hyde Abbey and there is evidence that other individuals may have been too: Æthelweard (a son of Alfred), or Ælfweard (son of King Edward the Elder, although he may have been too young to match the profile of the bone), a monk called Grimbald (although he died quite old) and St Judoc (who, however, died in the 7th century). There may, of course, have been other individuals for which we have no record. Because the bones were found in the vicinity of the high altar (even if it was in back-fill from a Victorian dig) it seems to me not impossible that the bone is from King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or Æthelweard. Slightly worrying, though, is a record from 1798 that tells us that when a prison was built on the site, bones that were found were “thrown about.” This might mean that what is found near the high altar might not have started off there. Furthermore, would the builders then build over these scattered bones or have them removed? The latter seems more likely. We must remember that Richard III was discovered under a car park in Leicester, so we should perhaps always be ready to be surprised. Richard III, however, died almost 600 years more recently than King Alfred, something that I assume made using a live relative for a DNA comparison (as was done with Richard III) more straight forward. There may have also been less change in use of the land over time in the case or Richard III.

It was hoped that DNA from the pelvis fragment could be matched with those of King Alfred’s grand-daughter, Eadgyth, who was buried at Magdeburg, in Germany. However, although it was thought that it would be possible to extract DNA from the pelvis fragment, it seemed that the remains of Eadgyth were too poorly preserved to attempt a match.

This is a special place to visit, and I always make time to come here whenever I am in Winchester. In fact, this location was one of my main inspirations for writing my book. It is a hugely important location in the history of England.

The for refreshment. There is even a King Alfred pub close to Hyde Abbey Gardens. I had a beer and a meal in here and both were very good.

There is a community group called Hyde 900 that has done a lot of work in relation to the former abbey, and they deserve a mention. Their website also has more information.

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.

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

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.

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.

To view the book on Amazon, click or tap the image below.