The Saxon kings in Dorset – Dorset’s royal Wessex dynasty
David Pilling explains Dorset's links with the royal Wessex dynasty
Published in October ’12
From the time of the earliest Saxon kingdoms in England, the history of Dorset has been inextricably linked to the fortunes of the English monarchy. Dorset was a vital centre of religious and secular power, and a place where kings were crowned and buried. Dorset became a powerful Saxon kingdom in its own right, and one that endured and flourished until the Norman Conquest.
Dorset had a long history of human settlement long before the coming of the Saxons. Proof of this can be seen in the remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds, and later Iron Age settlements such as Maiden Castle and Hod Hill. Impressive as the fortifications of these windswept hilltop fortresses might seem, they weren’t enough to deter the Roman Legions that arrived in Dorset in the 1st century AD and set about conquering the local tribes. The Roman occupation lasted until the early 5th century, and when the legions were recalled to Rome they left Dorset at the mercy of the Germanic pirates raiding their coasts. From the mid-5th century onwards, the Saxons came not just to raid and plunder, but to settle.
Dorset was not defenceless, however, and the remains can still be seen of three north-facing defensive earthworks dating from the end of the Roman period. Perhaps the most well-known is Bokerley Dyke, a defensive earthwork over three miles long on Cranborne Chase in north-east Dorset, near the villages of Woodyates and Pentridge. The origins of the dyke are obscure, and it may have originated as a boundary marker in the Bronze Age. The dyke still defines the border of Dorset and Hampshire, and protected the Romano-British settlement at Woodyates against invaders from Hampshire. The other two dykes are Combs Ditch, to the south-west of Blandford Forum, and Battery Banks, west of Wareham along a ridge between the rivers Frome and Piddle.
These defences seem to have been effective, for the Saxons did not make serious inroads into Dorset until the mid-7th century, over a hundred and fifty years since the first boatloads of Saxon settlers arrived in England. Much of Dorset was part of the Romano-British kingdom of Dumnonia that also included Cornwall and Somerset. In 652 the Britons, ‘furious in the recollection of their ancient liberty’ according to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, were defeated in battle at Bradford by the Avon by the Saxon king Cenwalh. The defeat weakened the Britons in Dorset, and at last their stout resistance started to crack.
In 658 Cenwalh scored another victory at the Battle of Peonna, allowing the Saxons to advance into the eastern part of Dumnonia, all the way to the River Parrett that flows through Dorset and Somerset. By the end of the seventh century the Saxon tribes in Dorset – known as the ‘Dormsaete’ – had come under the control of the West Saxons, and Dorset was being used as a base for West Saxon attacks on the remaining British kingdoms in the south-west. Dorset thus became a subkingdom of Wessex, but despite its subordinate status was to play a major role in the fortunes of the West Saxons monarchy, and Saxon England as a whole.
Coenred, a prince or ‘aetheling’ of the royal Wessex dynasty, was sub-king in Dorset from c. 670-694, and in one of the earliest recorded West Saxon charters he gave land in Dorset for the foundation of a monastery at Fontmell Magna. One of his daughters, Cuthburh, followed her father’s lead and founded a nunnery at Wimborne that later became Wimborne Minster. Coenred was the father of Ine, the greatest of the early kings of Wessex, and remembered for his code of laws and customs. The enduring link between Dorset, ‘west of Selwood’, and the royal house of Wessex was to prove crucial in the reign of Coenred’s famous descendent, Alfred the Great.
The kingdom is first referred to as ‘Dorset’ in a charter from 841, over a hundred years after the death of Ine. By this time Aethelwulf was on the throne of Wessex, and a new enemy had appeared in the shape of the Vikings. Hordes of these fierce Danish warriors, in their swift and mobile longboats, threatened the southern coasts throughout the mid-9th century. In 860 the men of Dorset joined with the men of Berkshire to face a Danish war-band that had sacked Winchester. Slowed down by their plunder, the Danish were slaughtered by the combined Saxon host, but that was not the end of the threat.
By the 870s, Alfred was King, and Wessex was the only Saxon kingdom yet to be conquered by the Danes. Dorset would soon feel their wrath. Under their leader, Guthrum, part of the Danish host or ‘Great Army’ overran the royal burh of Wareham, forcing Alfred to lay siege to their camp. Having extracted an oath from Guthrum to cease hostilities, including an exchange of hostages, he allowed the Danes to march away. Such clemency proved unwise as the Danes promptly murdered their hostages and ravaged the kingdom until a provident storm scattered their fleet, forcing them to sue for peace. Alfred’s trusting nature proved his undoing, for in 878, in the depths of winter, Guthrum broke another treaty and his army overran Wessex, forcing the fugitive Saxon king into hiding.
When Alfred re-emerged in the spring, he rallied his militia at ‘Egbert’s Stone’ near Bourton in North Dorset, a standing stone reputedly placed by his grandfather, King Egbert, to mark the boundaries of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. After defeating the Danes, Alfred realized that Wessex needed ships to defend her coasts against the dreaded longboats, and embarked on a ship-building programme. According to legend Alfred’s new warships trapped a Danish fleet that had sailed upriver to Wareham. The Danes were defeated near Arne and driven out to sea, where bad weather wrecked over a hundred of their ships near Studland, just off the Isle of Purbeck.
After Alfred’s death, the history of the Wessex monarchy in Dorset takes a darker turn. His immediate successors succeeded in holding Wessex against the Danes, but their glory ended with the brutal assassination of the boy-king Edward. Edward’s murder in 978 was the final act in a power struggle between the king and his stepmother, Queen Aelfthrith, who wished her own son Ethelred to succeed to the throne. To that end, she invited Edward to the royal palace at Corfe. Weary from hunting all day, the young king returned alone to the palace as dusk fell, where he was greeted at the gates by his smiling stepmother. At a signal from Aelfthrith, her servants dragged him from his horse and knifed him to death. She ordered his body to be buried in Wareham Priory. A heavenly light was later said to shine over his tomb, and many miracles to have occurred there. The people looked on the murdered youth as a saint and remembered him as Edward the Martyr.
Aelfthrith’s son Ethelred, nicknamed ‘the Unready’, was duly proclaimed king, but his reign was a disaster. Incapable of defending his kingdom against the Danes, he finally resorted to ordering all Danish men living in England to be murdered on St Brice’s Day (13 November). Grim proof of this early example of genocide was discovered in 2009 by workmen digging a new road on Ridgeway Hill in Dorset. They uncovered a mass grave containing 54 skeletons, all decapitated and buried alongside their heads. Archeologists dated the remains to Ethelred’s reign, and Dr Britt Baillie of Cambridge University suggested that they were part of a cadre of young, elite Viking warriors known as ‘Jomsvikings’. A chronicle commissioned by Ethelred’s second wife, Queen Emma, mentions the presence of the Jomsvikings in England at this time, and Dr Baillie contends that they were most likely ambushed and methodically butchered by local Anglo-Saxon villagers.
The massacre did Ethelred little good, for it merely enraged the Danes and led to them conquering the whole of his kingdom and driving him into exile. He returned, to reign for two more years before his death in 1016, and was buried at Wimborne. His hard-nosed son, Edmund Ironside, put up a more spirited fight, but died in mysterious circumstances in 1018. Edmund’s rival, the Danish prince Cnut, thus became the first Danish King of England, and ruled in peace for almost twenty years. Having ravaged Dorset as a Viking in his youth, he died peacefully at Shaftesbury Abbey in 1036.
Saxon (and Danish) England came to an abrupt end at Hastings in 1066, where the last Saxon king, Harold Godwinsson, died fighting under the banner of a golden lion, an icon long associated with Dorset as part of the wider kingdom of Wessex: the gold and the lion motif has since been incorporated into the Dorset County Council’s flag. With the death of Harold, England was condemned to the ‘cold heart and bloody hand’ of William the Conqueror, and the imposition of a foreign regime that would change the country forever. Dorset was to play an equally important role in the careers of the Norman kings and beyond, but that’s another story.