Figure 1: Looking east from the land below Athelney towards Burrow Mump on a misty morning. Whilst the land is reclaimed and cultivated nowadays, it was a patchwork of marshes, reeds and flood water. Low islands stood above the wetlands, only accessible by punts and knowledge of how to navigate the thicket of reeds and marsh plants. Since the Neolithic period man has tried to make causeways trackways through the marshes such as what is known today as the Sweet Track. However, the water level is unpredictable as was experienced across the Somerset Levels in the winter of 2013-14 when severe flooding became a national crisis.
The Impact of Alfred at Athelney
Athelney provides a complex of Alfred’s legacy to Wessex. The reason I mention this is that the area was not just a temporary camp for Alfred but key in his established Wessex kingdom. The fortress and later monastery he founded at Athelney links to the following sites.
(a) Isle of Athelney– the island that stands above the marshes & moors – Alfred’s fortress from 878 and later he founded Athelney Abbey on the site in 893. It comprises of a long, low hill, divided by a depression in the ground. On the eastern side, where the Benedictine monastery stood is an 1801 monument to Alfred. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and the building stone removed. On the western side stood Alfred’s fortress. There are no above ground remains.
Asser describes Athelney as:
‘… Athelney, which is surrounded by swampy, impassable and extensive marshland and groundwater on every side. It cannot be reached in any way except by punts or by a causeway which has been built by protracted labour between two fortresses. (A formidable fortress of elegant workmanship was set up by the command of the king at the western end of the causeway). In this monastery he gathered monks of various nationalities from every quarter, and assembled them there.’ (Asser, p. 103).
St. Athelwine & Athelney
The origins and early history of the abbey are a bit obscure. The fact that one of the dedications was to St. Athelwine, the brother of King Kenewalch (they were around in the second half of the 7th C) may suggest an earlier foundation than Alfred’s time (British History Online, pp. 99-103). Collinson writing in the 18th C, relays the story that Alfred took refuge at Athelney (AEthelinga-igge) in a small cottage belonging to St. Athelwine, who had been a hermit there (Collinson, p. 86). It may mean that the charter Alfred granted to the monastery was to enlarge an existing monastery or hermitage, but there is not enough evidence for any certainty.
William of Malmesbury, writing in the first half of the 12th C, describes an original monastery church that Alfred built (I have adjusted the spelling to the modern for ease of reading):
‘The firm land, which is only two acres in breadth, contains a little monastery and dwellings for monks. Its founder was king Alfred, who, being driven over the country by the Danes, spent some time here in secure privacy. Here in a dream St. Cuthbert appearing to him, and giving him assurance of his restoration, he vowed that he would build a monastery to God. Accordingly he erected a church, moderate indeed as to size, but as to method of construction singular and novel: for four piers, driven into the ground, support the whole fabric, four circular chancels being drawn round it. The monks are few in number, and indigent; but they are sufficiently compensated for their poverty by the tranquillity of their lives, and their delight in solitude.’ (Collinson, pp.86-87).
The later Benedictine monastery must have then developed over the ensuring centuries from this early church to become a more recognisable abbey complex, like at Mulcheney in Somerset, with church, cloisters, library, scriptorium, dormitory, refectory, infirmary, abbot’s house, service buildings, guest house, etc.
(b) Burrow Mump– a natural fortification – the ruined church on top of it is much later (unfinished church of the late 18th C). There is no evidence it was part of Alfred’s fortifications at Athelney, it seems logical that it was a strategic look out point and is visible from Athelney.
(c) East Lyng– lies just to the west of Athelney and was one of Alfred’s burhs (settlement fortification). It was connected to Athelney by a causeway over the River Tone. The River Tone runs past Athelney, on its south side and up to Burrowbridge where it flows into the River Parrett. Presumably the Vikings were not familiar with the rivers of the Somerset Levels, although they were beginning to land their ships on the coasts of Devon prior to Alfred’s defeat of Guthrum at Edington in 878.
East Lyng was one of a network of burhs (fortified settlements) established by Alfred. Whilst some burhs existed earlier, it was Alfred who strategically constructed them across Wessex. The burhs are listed in the Burghal Hidage. To connect the burhs, he also set about creating pathways known as herepaths. The burhs were fortifications to provide protection to the inhabitants and those dwelling nearby. As a set of interconnected fortifications, they enabled forces to move between them. They also could provide security for collected rents and portable wealth. Burhs were the focus for not just military activity but also trade and such settlements developed into villages and towns. Some housed the royal mints.
Their construction depended on what resources were available. Some burhs were developed from previous Roman (e.g. Exeter and Winchester) or Iron Age sites. Others were defined by earthwork banks and ditches forming ramparts that would have had wooden palisades and towers on top. One of the best places to visit to get an idea of a burh is Wareham in Dorset. One can walk on the remains of the walls that enclosed Wareham.
Alfred’s causeway linking Athelney to East Lyng
On the right of the picture above is Balt Moor Wall. It is both a causeway and a flood barrier for the River Tone. It is a rare example of medieval engineering. The earliest record of this causeway comes from a charter signed by King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. In the charter he refers to work carried out by the monks of Athelney Abbey as part of a land drainage and reclamation of the area. The causeway was encased in masonry in the 17th C and 19th C.
Archaeological investigations & findings at Balt Moor Wall have unearthed:
- In 1996 an investigation found stone rubble at 3.2 m below the present level which may be the remains of the Saxon causeway or bridge.
- In 1998 environmental samples were taken under the medieval bank and were found to be of 5th C and 7th C.
Balt Moor Wall may have been developed from the causeway of Alfred’s time, which is mentioned in Asser when he describes Athelney – ‘It cannot be reached in any way except by punts or by a causeway which has been built by protracted labour between two fortresses.’ (Asser, p. 103). This was the only land access point to the Isle of Athelney and Alfred ensured defensive mechanisms were put in place.
The causeway may have been a similar construction to the wooden bridge at Ravning Enge in Jutland, Denmark (Keynes, p. 271). Ravning Enge was built circa 980 during the reign of Harold Bluetooth to span the Vejle river valley.
I visited Ravning Enge back in 2010 and found the landscape of Jutland to be very similar to England.
THE BAPTISM OF GUTHRUM AT ALLER
(d) Aller Church– where Asser mentions Guthrum was baptised and made Alfred’s adoptive son. Aller is about 5 miles east of Athelney.
After the defeat of Guthrum’s Viking army at Edington in 878 Alfred’s response to dealing with his defeated commander was to have him baptised, make him an adopted son (probably meaning a godson) and allow him to rule over the eastern side of England (known as Danelaw), leaving Alfred the western part.
‘For three weeks later Guthrum, the king of the Vikings, with thirty of the best men from his army, came to King Alfred at a place called Aller, near Athelney. King Alfred raised him from the holy font of baptism, receiving him as his adoptive son; the unbind of the chrisom on the eighth day took place at a royal estate called Wedmore.’ (Asser, p. 85).
(e) Wedmore– This was where Guthrum received his ‘chrism loosing’ ceremony, and the Treaty of Wedmore was possibly created. Whilst little or nothing remains at Wedmore of a potential palace from Alfred’s time, the name is associated with the peace treaty with Guthrum, leader of the Vikings, made at some point between 878 to 890. Alfred did leave Wedmore to his son, Edward in his will. The reason for mentioning Wedmore is the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclementions The Treaty of Wedmore. Whilst no such a treaty of this name exists, there is the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. It is a peace treaty that outlines the kingdoms of the Saxons and the Vikings. Guthrum’s kingdom, known as the Danelaw, was the eastern part of England.
(f) North Petherton– this is where the ‘Alfred Jewel’ was found in 1693 and was possibly the header of a book pointer (aestal) that Alfred had gifted to Athelney Abbey. North Petherton is 8 miles north of Athelney along the current road system – about 4 directly through the marshes. The inscription around the main image in gold is in Old English: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. It is constructed of gold work, polished rock crystal and cloisonné. At the base of the object is a goldwork head of an imagined creature – perhaps a dragon or wrym? Its mouth holds the setting for an ivory or wooden pointer. The image made from cloisonné-enamel work could possibly be of Christ or may depict the allegorical image of Sight. Other theories have included Alfred himself or a favoured saint such as St. Cuthbert. (Hinton, pp. 12-25)
Figure 13: Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Seeking out physical remains of Alfred’s time in the marshes is difficult as little remains. However, it is the significance of the places that links back to that historical period of Viking invasion, conflict and having a vision for building a nation. Visiting the sites and experiencing Athelney and the surrounding area, made me think about what Alfred was trying to achieve in terms of statecraft whilst fighting for his land and people against a threat that nearly conquered England. His legacy was built on by his children – Edward became king and Athelflaed became ‘Lady of the Mercians’. In 927 his grandson Athelstan defeated the Vikings in the north to become the first King of England.
Asser, ‘Life of King Alfred’, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources (London: Penguin, 1983)
‘Anglo-Saxon burh at East Lyng’, 1972, Historic England, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1019100> [accessed 21 September 2019]
‘Balt Moor Wall’, 1999, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1018952> [accessed 22 September 2019]
Barrow, Julia, ‘Giso (d. 1088)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10778> [accessed 25 September 2019]
‘Burrow Mump: a motte castle, later chapel and associated earthworks’, 1949, Historic England,<https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1011823> [accessed 21 September 2019]
Collinson, Reverend John and Edmund Rack, The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, 3 vols (Bath: [n.pub], 1791), I
‘Church of Saint Andrew’ 1959, Historic England, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1227327> [accessed 25 September 2019]
‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Athelney’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1911), pp. 99-103. British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol2/pp99-103> [accessed 25 September 2019]
‘King’s Alfred Monument with Railings’ 1987, Historic England, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1173838> [accessed 21 September 2019]
Havinden, Michael, The Somerset Landscape: The Make of the English Landscape (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981)
Hinton, David A., The Alfred Jewel and Other Late Anglo-Saxon Decorated Metalwork (Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum, 2008; repr. 2013)
Keynes, Simon and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources (London: Penguin, 1983)
Ravning Enge (Information Board), Kulturarv, Denmark
Savage, Anne, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Authentic Voices of England from the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II (Godalming: Bramley Books, 1997)