Figure 1: Low-lying mist looking across the Somerset Levels from Aller Church at dawn
In this post and the next one I want to concentrate on an area in the Somerset Levels that was a key turning point in the history of Wessex and England. This first post is to provide some contextual history of King Alfred (circa 848 – 899) and the wetlands of Somerset. Whilst there is not much to see in terms of building history in the wetlands from Alfred’s time, his strategic approach to Wessex and locations of settlements, I find fascinating.
Building history is often informed by other disciplines such as geography, geology, archaeology, history and art history. Geography and geology are factors as to where settlements were chosen by our ancestors. Rivalry, belief, war, safety, access, links, landscape, and the availability of resources such as water, building materials, ores, etc. are key factors in settlement establishment and the significance of buildings.
The settlement of Athelney and the surrounding area has an intriguing history. Whilst there is not much to see today at Athelney, the location was shaped at one level by the threat of Viking invasions, guerrilla warfare and the need to disappear. It is represented by the spirit of the place and its significance in a nation’s history.
Its significance increases as one realises that Alfred’s Wessex was not just shaped by conflict but also by the needs of rule and administration, a network of settlements, interconnecting pathways, trade, ports, royal mints and industry, all running alongside religious institutions and rituals.
The key historical sources for King Alfred are as follows. These help to build up the importance of Athelney in the Somerset marshes and the surrounding landscape.
- Contemporary biography of King Alfred by Asser. Asser was a monk (and possibly bishop) of St. David’s in Wales. He became Alfred’s close associate and later bishop of Sherborne.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a series of annals started in the late 9th C written in Old English. They were likely started in Alfred’s reign. There is no evidence of his involvement, although he did encourage literacy in Old English. Possibly started by the monks at Winchester. The annuals started at the birth of Christ and continued up until 1154. Seven manuscripts and two fragments survive. The original manuscripts are in the British Library, Bodelian Library and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
- Law codes and charters
- The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum – The treaty still exists and is in Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. It was written in Old English and later under the reign of Henry I a Latin version was created.
- Personal records of Alfred – letters to the king.
- The literary works of Alfred – he translated works he considered important into Old English and annotated them with his own reflections.
- Vita S Neoti (Life of St. Neot) – circa late 10th C, anonymous. Original source of the legend of Alfred burning the cakes.
- Book of Hyde or Liber Monasterii de Hyda – Put together in the late 15th C, it is a narrative of Anglo-Saxon history and a collection of charters recording grants of land associated with Hyde Abbey, Winchester. It covers the period 455 to 1023. It contains versions of Alfred’s will written in Old English, Middle English and Latin. The Liber Vitae (Book of Life of Hyde Abbey) also contains a copy of his will. Alfred and his wife were buried at Hyde Abbey.
- Burghal Hidage– circa first half of the 10th C. It records the network of burhs (fortified settlements) established by Alfred the Great across Wessex. The book records the number of hides (Anglo-Saxon word is hid) that comprised a burh. A hide is a unit of measurement that represented the size of land to support a household. For a burh the hide amount was calculated using the length of the defensive wall. Each pole (5 ½ yards (5m)) of wall was to be manned by 4 men and that 1 man would be supplied from one hide. Lyng (nowadays the village of East Lyng), a burh connected to the western end of Athelney by a causeway, was assessed to be 100 hides. That meant for each hide one man would be provided from the hides in the vicinity of the burh – i.e. Lyng would need 100 men for its garrison.
- AEthelweard’s account of the closing years of Alfred’s Reign – AEthelweard was an ealdorman of the western shires in the last quarter of the 10th C. He had translated into Latin the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but this part of his chronicle does not survive. However, his account of the latter parts of Alfred’s reign (893-899) has survived, even if his Latin is somewhat suspect and difficult to translate.
The contemporary historical writings of Asser and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record that early in 878 Alfred retreated into the Somerset wetlands from the invading Vikings. The Vikings had ordered themselves in what was known as the Great Heathen Army (micel here). The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 865. Their organised army was a coalition of warriors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. By the time they turned their campaign towards Wessex in 871, they had defeated the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. Battles were fought and payment made for them to leave Wessex, until early 878 when an attack forced Alfred to retreat. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that in 878:
‘The force stole in midwinter, after Twelfthnight, to Chippenham. They rode over Wessex and occupied it, and drove many of the people over the sea; the other, greater part they overcame, except king Alfred with a little company, which with difficulty went through the woods onto the inaccessible moors.’ (Savage, p. 96).
ATHELNEY – AN ISLE IN THE SOMERSET WETLANDS
At Easter, 878 Alfred built his fort at Athelney and Asser wrote:
‘In the same year, after Easter [23 March], King Alfred, with a few men, made a fortress at a place called Athelney, and from it with the thegns of Somerset he struck out relentlessly and tirelessly against the Vikings.’ (Asser, p. 84)
It was the Isle of Athelney which became Alfred’s fortress and where, according to the monk Asser, he later founded an abbey on the site in 893. It is on the north bank of the River Tone and consists of 2 low hills with a shallow depression dividing them. Athelney probably had been some sort of settlement before Alfred hauled up there. The isle is nearly 40 feet (12 m) high and covers some 24 acres. Today it is part of a farm.
The monastery was dedicated to the Blessed Saviour, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Athelwine. It was built on the east hill. On the west hill Alfred built a fortress called Ethelingaeigge.
It was a perfect spot for guerrilla warfare on the approaching Vikings. The whole area was boggy marshes and flood water with a few low-level islands. To get to the islands punts and local knowledge of ‘pathways’ was needed to navigate through the watery marshes thick with reeds. It was an ideal secret hideaway to gather resources.
The Time Team did two programmes on Athelney, 10 years apart. They found evidence of Anglo-Saxon metal working on the fort site, which was likely from Alfred’s time. They also found evidence of the Iron Age – probably a fort. It is likely that the Isle of Athelney was an occupied site known to Alfred prior to his retreat there in 878. In the Vita S. Neot it is referred to as Athelings’ Isle (the Isle of Princes) (Keynes, p. 197) which suggests it may have been an established royal site (perhaps for hunting?).
The Anglo-Saxons were masters of steel making, probably unparalleled until the 18th C. Their processes of steel making for sharp-cutting swords needed experts in the complex technological art and it was highly expensive.
Figure 4: Replica Sutton Hoo Burial Sword – highly polished steel fit for a king. The sword has been pattern-welded in its manufacture. This technique of pattern-welding is the forging of sheets and/or rods of iron that have been twisted and welded together. The process produces a pleasing pattern but also improves the fracture performance of the sword than a non-pattern-welded sword. (Birch, pp. 127-13).
Figure 5: Replica Sutton Hoo Burial Sword – high quality steel provided a sharp edge and tip.
Alfred’s Defeat of the Viking Army in Wessex
Asser tells us (which is backed up by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) that from Athelney, seven weeks after Easter 878 [4-10 May] he rode out to Egbert’s stone, which according to Asser is in the eastern part of Selwood Forest. All the ‘inhabitants of Somerset and Wiltshire and all the inhabitants of Hampshire – those who had not sailed overseas for fear of the Vikings met Alfred there. They made camp at this meeting place and then the following night they camped at Iley.’ (Asser, p. 84).
The ‘overseas’ for the inhabitants of Hampshire may refer to western Hampshire with the sea in question being Southampton Water. Iley Oak is a place name now lost, was a meeting place for the Hundreds of Warminster and Heytesbury. It is now identified with Eastleigh Wood in Sutton Veny, Wiltshire. (Keynes, p. 249).
From Iley they went onto Ethandun (modern name Edington) and Alfred’s forces defeated Guthrum and his Viking army.
THE HIDDEN ISLE
When I visited Athelney and the surrounding area at first light on a September morning I could see the other natural phenomenon that would keep Alfred safe. The low-lying mist covering the whole area would have meant Alfred had a helpful cloaking device for the first couple of hours of sunrise. I have also seen the mists in the early hours of midsummer. Both these experiences were in fine weather. In low cloud, with wet weather, the isle could easily be lost to the naked eye.
The reeds and withies of the marshlands would have provided an impenetrable thicket around the island, making it like an invisible bunker for Alfred’s war preparations.
One can get an impression of the mystical experiences Alfred reportedly had whilst in the misty marshes. He had visions of St. Cuthbert and St. Neot urging him to rise up and defeat the Vikings. It must have felt like he was a new King Arthur emerging from the misty Isle of Avalon, wearing a newly made Excalibur and ready to fight for his nation.
Asser, ‘Life of King Alfred’, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources (London: Penguin, 1983)
‘Back to Our Roots, Athelney’, Time Team, Series 10 Episode 8 (2003) <https://www.channel4.com/programmes/time-team/on-demand/33104-008> [accessed: 21 September 2019]
Birch Thomas, ‘Does pattern-welding make Anglo-Saxon swords stronger?’, Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy (2013) (Historical Metallurgy Society), pp.127-13
Havinden, Michael, The Somerset Landscape: The Make of the English Landscape (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981)
‘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].
Keynes, Simon and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources (London: Penguin, 1983)
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)
Treasures of Hyde Abbey <http://hyde900.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/CUS0184-0334-treasures-of-hyde-abbey-web.pdf> (Winchester City Council, 2010) pp. 5-9