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King Alfred’s legacy to Wareham

Wareham’s familiar walls were part of a remarkable defensive system conceived and carried out by Wessex’s greatest king. Kester George tells their story and raises some questions.

Over 1100 years ago and nearly 200 years before William the Conqueror enforced his dubious claim on the English throne, Dorset was a central part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Although Alfred was by no means the first king of the West Saxons, he it was who consolidated this little kingdom (very roughly, modern England south of the Thames without Cornwall) between the death of his brother in 871 and his own death in 899. Whether or not he burnt the cakes while sheltering in the Somerset Levels from the Viking invaders, he certainly left his mark on Wareham. Indeed, no historically-minded visitor to Wareham today could fail to be struck by the grassy embankments that so prominently encircle the middle of the town.

The first thing to note about Wareham is its position between two rivers, the Piddle to the north and the Frome to the south, which would have made it an obvious site for early human settlement. Some barely decipherable stone inscriptions now kept in the church of Lady St Mary in the town have been seen as evidence of a Celtic survival after both the Roman and the early Saxon invasions. While this is quite possible, not least because the Saxons took several centuries before securing their domination over the British tribes abandoned by the Romans, what we know for sure is that in 876 Wareham was occupied by Viking raiders. Asser in his Life of King Alfred refers to Wareham at this time as ‘a fortified site’, but it is uncertain how developed the fortifications and organisation of the town were.

King Alfred etching
King Alfred, the only English king given the title ‘the Great’, in an early 19th-century etching possibly by Rudolph Ackermann

It was fortifications and organisation that were King Alfred’s gift to Wareham and to 29 other places in Wessex, for he set about building a ring of forts, or burhs, not more than 20 miles apart, all around his kingdom to keep the raiders in check. Wareham’s distinction is that the fortifications have survived better there than anywhere else, although they can also be seen, for instance, in Wallingford on the Thames and at Cricklade in Wiltshire. At Wareham the defensive plan can still be traced throughout their route: the earthen embankment runs round the eastern, northern and western sides of the old town but appears to have relied on the River Frome on the southern side. The banks on the western side were enhanced in 1940 when they were brought back into service as anti-tank ditches, but it is believed that they are no higher now than they were at the end of the 9th century.

Fortifications like these were a remarkable achievement a thousand years and more before the invention of bulldozers and earth-moving lorries, especially when one remembers how many of these burhs there were and how small was the pool of manual labour on which Alfred had to draw; the population of Wessex as a whole may then have been less than that of Bournemouth and Poole today. It seems reasonable to suppose that sheer terror induced by the Viking raids provided some of the motivation. News of successive raids and massacres at one end of Wessex would have reached the other within a short time. Wareham can have needed little prompting: anyone who had survived the occupation of 876 would have been only too keen to accept the orders of a king with a flair for organisation and leadership. Those qualities stand out to this day, both in the writings of his biographer, Asser, and in a document now known to historians as the Burghal Hidage, which dates from the reign of Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, but which is confidently believed to record his father’s instructions.

These instructions were far-reaching, defining both the length of the embankments round each burh and the number of men needed to defend them: ‘If every hide is represented by 1 man, then every pole of wall can be manned by 4 men. Then for the maintenance of 20 poles of wall 80 hides are required, and for a furlong 160 hides are required by the same reckoning’, etc. More remarkable is that they go on to allocate the land, measured in hides (an area of about 40 acres, or 16 hectares), to provide a living for the men who were to defend the embankments when summoned to do so. Thus Wareham was allocated 1600 hides, which was more than Cricklade (1500) but fewer than Winchester, Alfred’s main administrative centre, which got 2400 hides, or Wallingford (also 2400 hides, perhaps because it stood on the most important crossing of the Thames).

The walls of Wallingford
The walls of Wallingford show the line of the original Saxon fortifications which were re-used by the Normans when they built the castle. It eventually had three moats and was one of the largest in the land.”

More remarkable still is the indication that, at least in what is now South Oxfordshire, Alfred had the allocated land divided up into manors for his supporters in return for the latter agreeing to help build, maintain and defend the walls of their local burh. Thus at least some of the 2400 hides allocated to Wallingford seem to have been carved up into strips of land. Each had access to the Thames, meadowland for feeding horses and cattle and wooded upland for firewood, building material and pig food – in fact, they were what modern economists would call ‘viable economic units’. We know of the existence of these manors partly because they transmuted over the centuries into parishes, some of which retained the boundaries of the original manors. Another clue comes from the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in 1085, in which these manors are listed with their hides and manpower. But William only asked for a record of what already existed and if he did not invent them, who did? The answer may well be Alfred, further assisted by his son and successor, known as Edward the Elder. Why did they do it? Surely to provide manpower for the defence of the burhs to which they were committed?

The west walls shows Christmas Close, the old workhouse, in the background
This old photograph of the west walls shows Christmas Close, the old workhouse, in the background

If this theory is right about the arrangements Alfred made to maintain the burh at Wallingford, what about the arrangements at Wareham? 1600 hides, or 4800 acres, is an awful lot of land and none of it can have been more than about ten miles or half a day’s journey on foot from the centre of Wareham. Where was it and can any of it be traced today? Here it is only fair to point out that Wallingford is very near Benson, which was a royal manor in Alfred’s time and one that seems to have owned much of what is now South Oxfordshire. It may therefore have been relatively easy for Alfred’s men to carve up the 2400 hides allocated to Wallingford into ‘viable economic units’ or manors. But if Alfred made detailed provision for one of the burhs on which the defence of his kingdom depended, would he have left all the others – indeed, any of the others – to chance? It seems unlikely, and a challenge for local historians is to come up with indications of similar arrangements for Wareham or indeed for any of the other three burhs in what is now Dorset: Bridport, Shaftesbury and Christchurch.

We know that some of Alfred’s burhs were not built in time to keep the Vikings at bay, while others failed to withstand all the assaults that would be made on them (eg. Wallingford in 1006). None the less, when taken together they afford good evidence of a planned defence policy that gave detailed administrative coherence to the south of this island for the first time since the Romans abandoned the Britons to their fate in around the year 400. Many former burhs, including Wareham, still show signs of a Saxon attempt at town planning and many survived to become market towns that have played a significant part in British history over the last 1000 years – and all ultimately because of the vision, determination and administrative wisdom of one man, whose handiwork can still be seen to best advantage at Wareham

 The west walls at Wareham
The west walls at Wareham were improved in 1940 for use as anti-tank defences but are no higher now than they were in King Alfred’s time

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