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Wiltshire battles

Numerous books about the history of the Anglo-Saxons give terse details of battles in and around Wiltshire. But few of these sources put the conflicts into any sort of context, least of all making it clear that the West Saxons – later to be contracted to Wessex – had three successive adversaries: the British, the Mercians and the Vikings.

Initially, the West Saxons fought to expand their territory from initial settlements inland from the Solent and in the upper Thames valley. They succeeded in driving the British-speaking tribes back towards the west but eventually the British were able to successfully defend against further incursions.

Before these conflicts with the British had ceased the Wessex kings and the equally powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom to the north, Mercia, fought for control of the upper Thames, especially the part of modern Wiltshire north of the Wansdyke.

Subsequently, there were numerous struggles with the Vikings right through to the early eleventh century. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon not to become subservient to the Scandinavians, so most of the pitched battles of the ninth century take place in the south-west.

West Saxon expansion

Old Sarum


Barbury Castle


'Woden's Barrow', now known as Adam's Grave

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, although largely written down in the ninth century, provide seemingly reliable evidence of the West Saxons 'invading' north Wiltshire, north Somerset and south Gloucestershire. No less than six battles are mentioned in seventy years.

522 Searoburh (probably Old Sarum, Wiltshire)
556 Barbury (Barbury Castle, Wiltshire)
571 Biedcanford (location not identified but almost certainly in or near Oxfordshire)
577 Deorham (Dyrham, Gloucestershire)
584 Fethanleag (perhaps near Stoke Lyne, Oxfordshire)
592 'Woden's Barrow' (Adam's Grave above Alton Priors, Wiltshire)

The intervals between these six conflicts was 4, 15, 6, 7 and 4 years. In other words, every generation would have been involved in at least one of these hostilities and the aftermath. In addition there were probably numerous skirmishes and endemic 'cattle raids' that never made the annals – we need only think of the Irish legends which purport to recount events at a similar time to flesh out some of the 'social history' which is missing from the terse wording of the Chronicles.

The scant available evidence suggests that at the time of these battles the West Saxons were settled in an area inland from the Solent, including central Hampshire and southern Wiltshire. What the battle sites tell us is that until the end of the sixth century they made serious and sustained attempts to extend their territory by pushing back the British tribes.

The 'reliable ones' of the upper Thames

But what of the two battles which seem to have taken place in or near Oxfordshire? If we can rely on a twelfth century document which indicates that the battle at Fethanleag in 584 was near Stoke Lyne in north-eastern Oxfordshire (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 58) then this might have been the most ambitious of these West Saxon incursions. However, the earlier battle in 571 at Biedcanford seized control of Limbury (Bedfordshire), Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire), Bensington (perhaps Benson in south Oxfordshire) and Eynsham (Oxfordshire) from the British.

These seem rather ambitious if the West Saxon 'power base' was closer to the Solent. However, there is plausible evidence that the West Saxons in Hampshire also had a 'power base' in the upper Thames (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 58–9). This would account for the involvement of West Saxon leaders in the battles at Fethanleag and Biedcanford, despite all the other battles being attempts to expand the Hampshire territory into adjoining counties.

Winchester has been an important 'trading place' since early in the Anglo-Saxon era

Bede provides some indications of this upper Thames 'power base' because he refers to the conversion of the West Saxons by Bishop Birinus in 635. Bede refers to them using the name they used for themselves, Gewissæ, 'the reliable ones' (which strikes me as an Old English forerunner to the Latin motto semper fidelio, 'forever faithful', used by numerous army battalions since the seventeenth century).

Birinus was granted a bishopric at Dorchester-on-Thames – which makes little sense if the West Saxons only had territory in and adjacent to Hampshire. Hannah and Martyn Whittock suggest that the evidence is consistent with the Gewissæ originating in the upper Thames (probably as Germanic mercenaries recruited during the sub-Roman period) and related to a similar settlement in the Solent. By the time of Bede the latter had expanded from Hampshire into what is now southern Wiltshire and had established a 'power base' at Winchester. As a result of the battles being discussed and, no doubt, other factors too, by the later seventh century the two 'clans' had expanded and merged, and were known collectively as the West Saxons (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 58–60).

The east-west Wiltshire frontier

However the rise to power was not without setbacks. Wherever exactly the battle of Fethanleag took place, the West Saxons came off the worse and their leader, Cutha, was killed. Although another warlord, Ceawlin, survived long enough to lead the battle at Woden's Barrow four years later, he was 'driven out' and died the following year. In both cases the victors were the British tribes associated with Somerset. Perhaps no surprise that the next recorded battle is not for thirty-six years, and by then the West Saxons' adversaries are fellow Anglo-Saxons from Mercia, not the indigenous tribes.

Possible and probable British place-names in Wiltshire (from Eagles 2001)

British-speaking settlements can still be identified in north-west and, to a lesser extent, in south-west Wiltshire. These settlements are associated with heavy clay soils rather than the chalk uplands regarded as typical of the county. In the north of the county the dividing line runs north-south a few miles to the west of the Ridgeway and the Marlborough Downs. In the north-west three settlements in close proximity – Calne, Cherhill and Chittoe – all take their names from 'Celtic' (or, more accurately, Brittonic or Brythonic) words rather than Old English. In the south-west the names Knook and Chitterne reveal the same origins. Several other Wiltshire settlement names may or may not derive from Brittonic rather than Germanic words – the earliest written forms do not allow for conclusive interpretations. (For detailed discussions see Coates and Breeze 2000 and Eagles 2001.)

Sadly there has been no comprehensive study of minor toponyms, such as fieldnames, in Wiltshire. In counties where there has been such research (for example Leicestershire) then Brittonic place-name elements survive, usually in clusters. These clusters are often, though not always, in proximity to settlements called 'Walton' or walh tun, which had the original sense of 'settlement of the British-speaking slaves'. Old English walh is the origin of modern English 'Welsh'. But, back then, it had the dual sense of 'British-speaker' and 'slave'. Clearly in Leicestershire and many other English counties the British-speaking population were living in places akin to Apartheid-era South African townships.

The absence of any surviving Walton place-names in Wiltshire and adjoining parts of adjacent counties suggests that in this area the British-speaking population were not restricted to living in walh tuns. Indeed, the comparative abundance of Brittonic settlement names indicates that the British retained their own land into the Anglo-Saxon era. The documentary evidence of the sixth and seventh century battles adds some scant historical details to the place-name evidence. We can reasonably deduce that British-speaking people were living at Calne, Cherhill, Chitterne, Chittoe and Knook until at least the first quarter of the seventh century and, plausibly, a few generations later.

In the mid-seventh century the British were still capable of defending their territory against the West Saxons. The Chronicles record two major battles:

652 Bradford on Avon (Wiltshire)
658 Penne or Peonnan (probably Penselwood, near Wincanton, Somerset)

After the Battle of Deorham in 577, when the West Saxons took control of Bath, the border between the West Saxons and the Britons seems to have been marked by the western stretch of the Wansdyke running along the crest of the Mendip Hills. However this frontier was breached following the battle at Bradford on Avon on 652, although it seems little extra territory was acquired by Wessex.

A squabble between Penda, then king of Mercia, and Cenwalh, the leader of the West Saxons at Bradford on Avon, and led to the latter being temporarily exiled to East Anglia. However, Cenwalh returned to Wessex and in 658 led a decisive victory over the British at Peonnan, usually considered to be Penselwood near Wincanton, Somerset.

The amount of territory gained was not especially large – only about thirty miles of central and eastern Somerset as far as the River Parrett – but it contained the lands associated with Glastonbury Abbey, which would have been exceptionally valuable. Looking at it the other way, the loss of Glastonbury's wealth and revenue would have been a major setback for the British aristocracy at the time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are exceptionally terse about the battles of 652 and 658. Presumably this was because these entries were written at the time – and everyone knew the details. In comparison, the older entries in the Chronicles had been compiled long after the events, so were historic sources in their own right. The Chronicles do not even bother to mention that the West Saxons were fighting against the British – but a later source, written by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century is unambiguous – the British had been engaged in ongoing resistance to the loss of their lands. Cenwalh clearly felt a need to suppress this resistance. As an aside, note that Cenwalh is a British name – and a somewhat pejorative one, as it incorporates wahl – even though he was a Saxon leader fighting the British.

Things settled down until 681–5 when Centwine of Wessex succeeded in defeating Cadwaladr of Gwynedd and his allies, allowing Wessex to occupy the rest of Somerset. During the reign of Ine (688 to 726) Wessex extended its territory into Devon, although by the end of his reign there had been significant losses, though these did not affect Wiltshire or adjacent parts of adjoining counties.

The new enemy in the north

After the West Saxons were defeated by the British forces at Woden's Barrow in 592 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles suggest there were thirty-six peaceful years. I doubt it. More probably there were incessant raids and skirmishes, all quite normal for the era, so not worthy of mention in the Chronicles in the same way as major pitched battles.

Well before the battles at Bradford on Avon and Penselwood, the West Saxon forces had been pitted against new rivals – the aggressive Anglo-Saxons to the north, the Mercians. The first-known conflict was at Cirencester in 626. Again the West Saxon forces lost. Ultimately however the West Saxons did become as powerful as the Mercians – we know their kingdom by a contraction of their earlier name: 'Wessex'.

Nevertheless the Mercians acquired more and more territory. Part of the boundary between these two 'super powers' of Anglo-Saxon England fell across what is now the middle of Wiltshire.

Liddington Iron Age hill fort


Knapp Hill Neolithic causewayed enclosure

At the time Wiltshire was nothing like as big as it is now. Back then the name only referred to the southern part of the modern county, centred on the town from which it took its name – Wilton. Anywhere north of the Wansdyke was not Wiltshire, not even Wessex. It was part of Mercia. We can reasonably assume that the dramatic ridge to the north, connecting Wroughton to Chisledon and the Iron Age hill forts at Barbury and Liddington was an earlier territorial boundary, as this is the watershed for the upper Thames drainage. The even more dramatic chalk escarpment close to the Wansdyke forms the watershed for the Wiltshire and Hampshire Avon, draining into the Solent. Little wonder that the area between these two natural boundaries would become debatable lands.

The Anglo-Saxon chapel of St Laurence at Bradford on Avon


Bath and the river

To the west the lower reaches of the River Avon, around Bath and Bradford on Avon, formed a frontier. Over several centuries these places passed from Wessex to Mercia and back again. Hannah and Martyn Whittock wrote a whole book describing the history of the Avon as an Anglo-Saxon frontier (Whittock and Whittock 2014) and parts of this article are based on their research.


Malmesbury was also right another section the disputed frontier. An earlier church had existed a few miles to the west at Foxley but this was abandoned in the mid-seventh century, right at the same time Malmesbury came to prominence. Almost certainly the community at Foxley moved upstream to the more prestigious hilltop location.

Malmesbury's increasing importance as a religious centre led to the estates associated with the abbey being deemed 'out of bounds' for both warring armies. After all it was the wealth generated by such religious communities that the leaders wanted to capture – there was little point in fighting if the end outcome would not increase their wealth.

The Debatable Lands – a possible parallel with early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

The 'Debatable Lands' or 'Reiver Country' between northern England and southern Scotland remained under the de facto control of local 'warlords' or reeves until King James VI of Scotland also became king of England in 1603. And between the 650s and 825 the northern parts of Somerset and Wiltshire were equally 'debatable lands'.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms relied on raiding the next kingdom to generate wealth. Think about it. These early kingdoms were the size of Rutland – the only modern English county to have survived with its boundaries intact since the Iron Age (Phythian-Adams 1980). We can reasonably conclude that in the Midlands many of the administrative hundreds started out with boundaries which related to similar-sized early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Because of the nature of the topographical features which often form the boundaries, these territorial units probably date back into prehistoric times.

Small kingdoms have large boundaries in relation to their area and population. Think about it. Take a large sheet of paper. Metaphorically this is as big as modern day England. Measure the lengths of the four sides. Now tear it into three. You now have something akin to later Anglo-Saxon England under the three dominant kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumberland. Measure the lengths of all the sides of all three pieces – self-evidently it is greater than the single sheet. Now tear each of these three pieces into 'county'-sized pieces. The length of the edges has increased greatly again. Then tear each of these 'counties' into four or five – approximating to the early hundreds which predated the counties. You now have some idea of how long the boundaries are. All the while the original area has not changed an iota.

The area of a kingdom determines how many people can live in that territory. This in turn determines how many men there can be in a leader's army. Except there is another important factor. The leader needs to pay – perhaps the better term would be 'bribe' – suitable men to fight for him. That income didn't come from taxing those men – where's the benefit in being taxed to pay your own wages – but from successful raids across the borders. The less successful leaders lost out and lost their territories. Kingdoms rapidly combined. For a time this was fine. But steadily the ratio between area (and population) and available borders to raid began to diminish. At the same time the 'neighbours' were getting bigger and stronger too, and better able to defend against incursions. At some point the ability to pay for armies by the spoils of 'pillage' began to wane.

The alternative source of money was to get the people who lived in the kingdom to pay for the privilege of being protected by the army. Call it 'protection money'. That system is the one which has prevailed ever since, except the politicians are savvy enough not to call it 'protection money' – we know it as taxation.

Next time you get an income tax demand, you might want to consider that this way of generating money is arguably better than the earlier system of raiding the neighbours' cattle and such like.

For much of the earlier Anglo-Saxon era I suspect that the people living in the 'debatable lands' we know as the Marlborough Downs and adjoining areas would have preferred an income tax demand to the perils of endemic raiding, and the demands by war lords for protection money.

The intrigues of Offa's reign

The stark entries of the Chronicles reveal that Cynewulf became king of Wessex in 757, a few months before the Mercian king Æthelbald died. Cynewulf took full advantage of this situation and re-conquered lands in north Somerset and what is now north Wiltshire which Æthelbald had taken from the Wessex kingdom. But matters did not end there. In 779, at Bensington in Oxfordshire, Cynewulf was defeated by King Offa. While Cynewulf conceded territory to Offa, there is no suggestion he regarded Offa as his overlord.

The outcome was that Offa seemingly contrived to have Cynewulf murdered in 786, and helped Beorhtric become the next West Saxon king. While we cannot be sure of these 'intrigues', Beorhtric recognised Offa as his overlord, and married Offa's daughter, Eadburh (who, according to opinions recorded by Asser and attributed to King Alfred, was seemingly a rather feisty woman).

At the same time Offa was trying to exert more control over the Hwiccan kingdom. This occupied Worcestershire and parts of adjoining modern counties, including a large part of Gloucestershire – the modern diocese of Worcester more or less retains the boundaries of the Hwicca's territory. Offa regarded the Hwiccian leaders as 'sub-kings' – the Old English words were regulus ('petty king') and dux ('leader', later to become the word 'duke'). Records suggest that Ealdred, the leader of the Hwicca at the time, had a less subservient view of the relationship. The outcome was that he and his relatives disappear from official records.

The death of Offa in 796 seems to have encouraged the Hwiccians to reassert their independence. In 802 an ealdorman called Æthelmund gathered together an army and invaded Wessex, crossing the border at Kempsford, a village just to the south of the modern-day airfield at Fairford, Gloucstershire. The Wessex fyrd led by Weohstan promptly stopped this army and killed Æthelmund.

The fyrd or 'army' was mustered by the thegns and freemen, usually to defend against incursions. The fyrd was far more effective than a 'Dad's army', but not a full-time fighting force.

The demise of Mercia

Wessex remained subservient to Mercia until September 825 when the king of Wessex, Egbert, heavily defeated the Mercian forces led by Beornwulf. According to the Chronicles, it took place south of Swindon at a place called Ellandun or Ellendun. Several places have been suggested, but the modern consensus is that Ellandun was near Wroughton.

While Wroughton may not seem to be the centre of the universe, even for people who live there, the outcome of this battle had wide-reaching implications. As a direct result of the battle fought there in 825 Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex all came under the control of Wessex. Over the next four years Egbert went on to conquer the rest of Mercia.

But this did not mean Mercians gave in peacefully, still less that the region ceased to have its own identity. In 830 Mercia once again had its own king, Wiglaf. Mercia struggled on as an independent kingdom until the 860s. At this point rivalries between Mercia and its neighbours gave way to conflict with a common enemy, the Vikings.

What about the Wansdyke?

The conflicts between Mercia and Wessex have left an impressive monument in the Wiltshire landscape – the Wansdyke. The eastern stretch of the Wansdyke – between Morgan Hill and West Woods would seem to be have been created by Wessex to defend against Merican incursions. The westerly stretch of the Wansdyke would have been of some benefit, although as already noted more this was probably in existence by the 570s. I have tried to make sense of the 'when' and 'whys' of the Wansdyke – or perhaps that should be 'the Wansdykes' rather than 'The Wansdyke – in a separate article, called 'Understanding the Wansdykes'.

Suffice to say for the moment that the Wansdyke would cease to have any strategic purpose after the battle of Ellandune in 825, and may have begun to become overgrown with trees soon after.

The near-demise and rapid rise of Alfred

The first recorded Scandinavian incursion was in 789, when a Norwegian 'raiding party' killed a reeve of the Wessex king at Portland, Dorset. But the more dramatic start to these hostilities was the devastation of the monastic site at Lindisfarne, on the Northumbrian coast, in 793.

By and large the Vikings had little impact on Wessex before the middle of the ninth century, although the same cannot be said for Mercia.

January 878 was a low point in English history. Alfred was at Chippenham when a surprise attack by Vikings, led by Guthrum, overwhelmed his men. He fled into the marshlands of the Somerset Levels and led low-level raids – presumably the main intention was to win food and essential supplies rather than inflict any significant losses on the Vikings.

Edington church

By May that year he had recruited enough allies to take on Guthrum's 'Great Heathen Army' in a pitched battle. According to the Chronicles, this took place at Ethandun or Ethandune (rather too easily confused with the battle of Ellendun in 825). Modern scholars consistently agree that we now know the place as Edington, near Westbury. The exact date of the engagement is not clear, but it was between 6th and 12th May 878.

The victory was decisive and Guthrum had to sue for peace and provide hostages. The terms of the Treaty of Wedmore, negotiated a little later in the year, required the Vikings to leave their base at Chippenham. They eventually withdrew as far as East Anglia where Guthrum became king. One of the terms of the Treaty was that Guthrum received Christian baptism.

Once Guthrum was out the way, control of southern England fell to Wessex. Few readers will need reminding that King Alfred took full advantage and established what we now think of as the basis of English monarchy (although control of all England by one king was not achieved until the start of the reign of Athelstan in 954).

Towns: a key difference between Mercia and Wessex

After the Battle of Edington there were few 'pitched battles' with the Vikings in Wessex. And this was because of a significant difference between Mercia and Wessex. In a word 'towns'. Of course the Romans had created towns and regional centres, or civitas. But to all intents and purposes these were mostly abandoned in the fifth century (Wroxter in the Welsh Marches is a key exception).

The Christian missionary activities up to and, more especially during, the seventh century created major ecclesiastical centres, led by bishops or abbots. The wealth generated by their activities meant that they rapidly evolved into something like the small county market towns. For pragmatic reasons these ecclesiastical centres were often where a strategic road crossed the upper reaches of navigable water (discussed in detail in Trubshaw 2015).

Wessex had a number of these major ecclesiastical centres, including Winchester, Malmesbury, Glastonbury and Chippenham. But by the mid-ninth century Mercia had gone further down this route towards urbanisation and there were five major towns: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. These had significant influence over the surrounding regions – indeed, the first four were to evolve into county towns. The absence of a 'Stamfordshire' has long puzzled scholars, but the reason seems to be anomalous late Scandinavian settlement in that town.

The Five Boroughs of the Danelaw

So important were these five towns to their regions in the mid-ninth century that the Vikings could gain control of substantial areas simply by successively laying siege to each town. In 874, after over-wintering on the banks of the River Trent at Repton, the Viking army drove the Mercian king into exile and quickly conquered the Mercian towns. They took over the administration (and oh-so-valuable taxes and tolls on trade) and imposed their own legal system, the eponymous 'Danelaw'. So came into being the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw.

One of the differences of the Danish legal code over the Germanic one was the ability to buy and sell land. Hitherto land could only be 'gifted' by the king (who could, and sometimes did, later 'ungift' it). So, in a sense, the Vikings were the first 'estate agents'. Not a big surprise as they were even better at all aspects of trade than they were at warfare and pillage.

In contrast to Mercia, Wessex was a much more slippery fish for the Vikings to appropriate. There were no towns which had the same control over surrounding rural areas. Control of Wessex meant taking on the whole Wessex army and defeating it. Guthrum tried and failed disastrously in 878. No great surprise that there were no takers to lead a re-match – this would have been in the nature of a 'winner takes all' contest. Much better to stick with making loads of money from Mercia.

In the end this Viking procrastination led to the downfall of the Danelaw. Despite the Treaty of Wedmore, agreed in 878, setting the boundary between Wessex and the Danelaw mostly along Watling Street (the modern A5), clearly this did not fully satisfy the leaders of Wessex and what remained of former Mercia. During 916 and 917 Edward the Elder (king of Wessex) and ÆthelflÆd (queen of Mercia), simply took their armies into the Danelaw and steadily regained control of the towns, one by one, and regions they controlled. The same urbanisation which allowed the Vikings to win Mercia also allowed the Mercians to win themselves.

In the meantime Wessex just went on being Wessex, mostly giving new-fangled towns a wide berth. With one key exception. Winchester was well on the way to becoming even more important than any of the Five Boroughs.

Trading, raiding and revenge

The re-conquest of the Danelaw did not spell the end of Viking-led conflicts. Numerous Scandinavian kings and their relations attempted to exert their influence over various parts of Britain, especially Northumbria. The impact on Wessex was usually indirect. Instead southern England mostly engaged in peaceful trading. For example, the forerunner to Southhampton, known as Hamwic, was comparatively modest in size. The name suggests quite a small and informal coastal settlement. Yet the archaeological evidence reveals vast amounts of trade. Less is known about Bristol at this time, but this too seems to have already become an important trading port too. There would have been other places too, including a number of coastal 'minsters' around Chichester, such as Bosham and Selsey, which also engaged in cross-Channel trade.

None of this peaceful trading would ever make the annals of history in the same way the sporadic raiding and pillage sometimes did. As a result the Vikings got a bit of a rep for 'rape and pillage' instead of being ace 'wheelers-and-dealers'. But the raiding was persistent. Every year between 997 and 1001 there were extensive losses. Attempts to buy off the Scandinavians simply led to demands for more bullion. In 1002 King Æthelred was told that the Danish men in England 'would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards.' What to do? Æthelred's answer was to order all the Danish men in England to be killed. Which, to some extent, is what happened on 13th November that year. This is the feast day of St Brice, so the event is known to historians as 'St Brice's Day Massacre'.

How many 'Danes' were killed is debatable. This edict could hardly have been enacted within the Danelaw where a substantial part of the population was Scandinavian. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that only in 'frontier' towns (such as Oxford) and larger towns with small Danish communities (such as Bristol, Gloucester and London) could such killings have taken place.

Sweyn's response

However not only were at least some men slain, but some significant women too. Among those thought to have been killed is Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of King Sweyn I of Denmark. Sweyn is better known as 'Sweyn Forkbeard' and, as I will outline shortly, briefly became king of England in 1013. Once news of the St Brice Day Massacre reached Sweyn in Denmark he seems to have felt the need to extract revenge. Presumably that is why he organised successive raids into eastern England.

A mid-thirteenth century record says Sweyn's army was causing serious trouble between 1002 and 1005, 1006 and 1007, then once again between 1009 and 1012. Interestingly he made landfall not on the southern coast, but along the Humber estuary, establishing a power base at Gainsborough, then proceeded right into the centre of England along the Trent. This was of course the former Danelaw and, at least in part, long since extensively settled by Scandinavians.

The reason Sweyn returned home in 1005 was because of a serious famine (I assume back in Denmark, where he was king, rather than in England). This had fateful consequences for central Wiltshire. Forkbeard's forces were heading south down the Ridgeway, with the intention of setting sail from the Solent. The local fyrd was mustered and thought the ford at East Kennett would give them an advantage. But they were overwhelmed by the battle-hardened Vikings and, presumably, slaughtered. In a separate article ('East Kennett: the church on the boundary') I have described how this seemingly explains where there came to be a chapel (now the parish church for East Kennett) in what is otherwise an anomalous location.

Three kings, two years, one kingdom

When Sweyn returned in 1012 he was acknowledged as king by the Anglo-Danish parts of England. He quickly took control of Oxford and Winchester – the latter the centre of power for the Wessex king, Æthelred II, who fled to Normandy – and later took control of London in December 1013. He was now undisputed king of England. Much good did it do him – he died six weeks later, on 3rd February 1014. But his legacy was profound. His son, Cnut (otherwise known as Canute) became king.

Sherston church

Cnut did not take up the throne in 1014 without opposition. His main rival was Edward Ironside, whose power base was around the Wiltshire Avon and into the former Hwiccian kingdom. Numerous battles were fought during 1015, including another at Penselwood and one at Sherston, five miles west of Malmesbury, which lasted two days but seemed not have been won by either side.

The following year the two armies met again at Alney, Gloucestershire. Again their was no decisive winner. A treaty was drawn up, giving Wessex to Cnut and Mercia to Edward. But a few months later, on 30th November 2016, Edward died, making Cnut the undisputed king of England; he was already king of Denmark. Cnut reign was remarkably long, as he did not die until 1035. He continued to fight numerous battles, but these were to take control of Norway.

England was essentially at peace during Cnut's reign. This enabled an era of political and economic stability which made England into a wealthy kingdom, and elevated Winchester to the 'cultural capital' of the entire Viking trading empire, extending as far as Russia.

From Cnut to the Conqueror

After Cnut's death there were once again numerous power struggles, resolved only with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William the Conqueror opted to use London, rather than Winchester, as his power base. He made his mark most emphatically by erecting the Tower of London right by the major bridge over the Thames. The size and sheer substance of this building would have been intimidating enough by the standards of the time, when a timber palisade on a modest earth mound was deemed a castle. But William, in an act of outright arrogance, went the whole hog and had this edifice constructed from the fashionable, and very expensive, white stone from Cæn in Normandy. Today it would be like some nouveau riche person building a multi-suite mansion covered in gold leaf, when all they needed was a cottage in the country.

The rest is history. London became ever-more important, while Winchester's significance steadily declined, then slipped dramatically after the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. Wessex went on quietly generating wealth, mostly from agriculture, but – unlike Mercia – largely missed out on the industrialisation of towns in the later nineteenth century, just as it had missed out on the original phase of urbanisation a millennium before.

These days there seems to be a significant difference between the East Midlands counties which once comprised the Danelaw and the region still thought of as Wessex. But in the Anglo-Saxon period they were more akin. Both regions are geologically diverse, with soils that allow for large areas of productive arable and pastoral farming. Both are almost land-locked, so relying on navigable watercourses for trade. The Romans had created a network of roads which 'intersected' with fordable places on these rivers (especially at the upper limits of navigation). Early churches were established at such 'nodes' in the transport system, often evolving into key market towns in the medieval period.

Medieval warfare rarely impacted too badly on English towns – certainly there were few of the setbacks on the scale that many Continental towns suffered – so the biggest setback was not until the 1540s after most of the abbeys and monasteries had been suppressed. The economic consequences would have been severe for about a generation, but this tends to be overlooked because once Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 the whole country became exceptionally wealthy, not least because of the growth of overseas trade.

Since the Civil Wars ended and the monarchy was restored in 1660 there have been no pitched battles fought in England. The idea of inter-regional conflicts, or of fending off Viking raiders, seems entirely alien to modern ways of life. Only in Northern Ireland during the late twentieth century has there been anything comparable to life in Anglo-Saxon times.


This article was inspired by the work of Hannah and Martyn Whittock. Whereas the focus of their attention was the River Avon around Bath, I have attempted to consider the whole Wessex region. Barbara Yorke's pioneering study remains an important starting point, but detailed scholarship has come on massively since her work was published in 1990, as the list of sources partially indicates. My thanks to all the researchers whose work is cited, although they may not necessarily agree with some of the details.


Adams, Max, 2013, The King of the North: The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria, Head of Zeus.
Coates, Richard and Andrew Breeze, 2000, Celtic Voices, English Places: Studies of the Celtic Impact on Place-names in England, Shaun Tyas.
Costen, Michael, 2011, Anglo-Saxon Somerset, Oxbow Books.
Draper, Simon, 2006, Landscape, settlement and society in Roman and early Medieval Wiltshire, ArchÆopress.
Eagles, Bruce, 2001, 'Anglo-Saxon presence and culture in Wiltshire c.AD450–c.675', in Peter Ellis (ed), Roman Wiltshire and After: Papers in honour of Ken Annable, Wiltshire archaeological and Natural History Society.
Fowler, Peter and Ian Blackwell, 2009, An English Countryside Explored: The land of Lettice Sweetapple, 3rd edn (first published Tempus 1998).
Fowler, Peter, 2011, 'A field archaeology in West Woods, Fyfield and West Overton, Wiltshire, Wiltshire Studies, Vol.104, p135–41.
Hooke, Della, 2010, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England, Boydell and Brewer.
Jones, Richard, and Sarah Semple, 2012, Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England, Shaun Tyas.
Phythian-Adams, Charles, 1980, 'The emergence of Rutland and the making of the realm', Rutland Record, 1, 5–12.
Pryor, Francis, 2006, Britain in the Middle Ages: An archaeological history, Harpur.
Semple, Sarah, 2003, 'Burials and political boundaries in the Avebury region, north Wiltshire', Anglo-Saxon Studies in ArchÆology and History, Vol. 12, p72–91.
Sims-Williams, Patrick, 1990, Religion and Literature in Western England 600–900, Cambridge UP.
Small, Fiona, 1999, Avebury World Heritage Site Mapping Project, Wiltshire; online at
Speed, Gavin, 2015, Towns in the Dark? Urban transformation from Late Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, Archaeopress.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2013–14, 'The queen of the valley'; online at www.indigogroup.co.uk/twilight/ast0340.htm
Trubshaw, Bob, 2015, Minsters and Valleys: A topographical comparison of seventh and eighth century land use in Leicestershire and Wiltshire, Heart of Albion; online at www.hoap.co.uk/general.htm#m&v
Trubshaw, Bob, 2016, The Especially Sacred Grove: Six Hills and Vernemetum, Leicestershire (second edition; first published 2012); online at www.hoap.co.uk/general.htm#sixhills
Whittock, Hannah and Martyn, 2014, The Anglo-Saxon Avon Valley Frontier: A river of two halves, Fonthill.
Yorke, Barbara, 1990, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Routledge.


This article was written before the publication of Danes in Wessex: The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c.800–c.1000 edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey (Oxbow 2016). This contains much useful information on the tenth and eleventh century battles, especially Edington/Ethandun.

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:

Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.

Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury sunrises and sunsets

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery