The English Conquest & Settlement

The English Conquest & Settlement

Little is known of just how and when the English came to Dorset, but they certainly arrived much later than in the counties further east. While Wiltshire is full of traces of pagan burials, Dorset has so far only four rather doubtful examples; and it seems that the English ‘ were mostly already Christian before they arrived. According to the Anglo—Saxon Chronicle, which here fits well with excavation evidence, Wiltshire was over- run by West Saxons in the middle of the sixth century; and the Battle of Dyrham near Bath in 577 finally cut off the Britons of the South-West from those of Wales and carried the English border to the lower Severn. Not till 658, however, was the barrier of Selwood Forest broken and East Somerset conquered, and this probably involved Dorset as well.

English Conquest & Settlement

On the other hand, there is some reason to think that English settlers had already been entering the county by the Stour and the Poole Harbour rivers, and founding small Villages in the valleys. This could have gone on without conquest: the lands the English wanted for their ox—plough farming lay apart from the British farmsteads on the higher ground, and the two peoples with their different agriculture could have lived warily side by side without actual fighting. We hear nothing of battles in Dorset, and the settlement was probably in the main peaceful. Certainly the British were not all slaughtered or driven out, and two hundred years later King Alfred’s laws show that people of British descent were among the nobles and large landowners of Wessex.

The Saxons learnt and used nearly all the British names for Dorset rivers, though very few Celtic village names survived. The reason is probably that while the rivers were fixtures the villages were not, and in most cases the English preferred to carve out new fields in the richer lowland soils to which the Britons in time moved and left their old upland sites deserted.

In Dorset, as elsewhere, the English began the long patient work of clearing the clay soils of the trees which naturally grew on them, making space for their much heavier eight-ox plough which was so awkward to turn that they used long strips instead of squarish fields. Once brought into cultivation, these soils were much more productive than the thin chalk and heath land of earlier inhabitants.

In course of time the remaining Britons came to regard themselves as Englishmen, and by the period of the Danish Invasions King Alfred found his most steadfast support in the former British lands west of Selwood.

Celtic Hill Settlements & their Saxon Successors