The Age of Kings and Saints

The Age of Kings and Saints

When in the 12th century the monks of Glastonbury and Muchelney were trying to prove the antiquity of their houses they produced charters by which the early Saxon kings gave them parcels of their newly-conquered lands. These charters were not exactly forgeries, though the surviving texts are sometimes open to suspicion because dates or witnesses are incongruous. But if not exactly authentic and often copied inaccurately, they are clear declarations of historical truth. The two earliest charters of Glastonbury relating to Somerset recall how Cenwealh, king of the West Saxons (641-62), had granted to the monks the estate of Meare and the islands of Beckery, Godney, Marchey, and Nyland, probably in the last two years of his reign. That was 100 years after Cuthwine and Ceawlin, leaders of the advancing Saxons, had killed three British kings at the battle of Dyrham and captured three of their cities, including Bath; it was only eighty years after St Augustine began the conversion of the kingdom of Kent.

The Saxons seem to have found their way westwards barred for a generation, but after the conversion of Cyngils at Dorchester (Oxon.) in 635 the church was firmly established among his people. Cenwealh, son of Cynegils, began the next advance west by defeating the British at Penseiwood in 658, driving them as far as the Parrett. By 682 Saxon influence reached almost to Devon, for Glastonbury was given land in the front line, the island by the hill near the Tone whose British name Cructan was still remembered beside its new Saxon name Crycbeorh, now Creechbarrow, Taunton.

Witnesses to charters and the charters themselves show that an important part of the Saxon advance was the establishment of the church. The conquered lands west of Penselwood were at first part of the diocese of Winchester, whose bishop, Haedde (676-705), was witness to charters of King me to Glastonbury and Muchelney. On Haedde’s death his huge see was divided and St Aldhelm, the renowned abbot of Malmesbury who had already founded a monastery at Frome c. 685, and who had almost certainly been preaching and teaching further west, was given episcopal oversight over the western end of the West Saxon kingdom with his seat at Sherbome. He remained both abbot and bishop until his death at Doulting in 709, whence the route taken by his body back to Malmesbury was marked every seven miles by a cross of stone.

When Aldheim died, me (688-726) had been king for over twenty years. Conqueror of the British King Geraint in Cornwall in 710, me was founder of minsters or mission centres at Wells and Taunton, benefactor to Muchelney, and above all creator of the independence of Glastonbury and builder of the principal church there. His laws, almost the earliest English laws to survive, were drawn up with the advice and instruction of his father Cenred, of his bishops, Haedde of Winchester and Eorcenwald of London, of his ealdormen and chief councilors, and a great assembly of the servants of God. The laws reveal the formal social hierarchy of Saxon England, beginning with bishops, abbots, nobles, ealdormen, and officials set in authority over freemen, free peasants, household men, Welshmen, and slaves. The laws assume the existence of petty fighting and bands of marauders, strangers and foreigners wandering in the woods away from roads, escaping servants, traders in the countryside, and stolen and hidden meat. There are laws covering broken marrige contracts, the care of fatherless children. and foundlings, and the recognition that a nobleman moving house would need to take with him his reeve, his smith, and his children’s nurse.

Ine’s successors in Wessex found themselves on occasions less secure, their power challenged by the Midland kingdom of Mercia and by the Britons in the far west. Aethelheard lost Somerton, perhaps his local capital, to the Mercians in 733, but defeated them in 740. His successor, Cynewulf (757-86) may have been forced to give Offa of Mercia land south of the Avon near -the Mercian city of Bath, but for most of his long reign managed to remain respectably independent and spent his energies winning unnamed victories against the Britons. But a greater threat was on the horizon.

In 789 men from Norway landed in Dorset and killed a local official. For several years thereafter they attacked the north, leaving Egbert (802-39) to extend the influence of the West Saxons to the Humber. But large Danish raiding parties attacked Carhampton in 836 and 843, defeating the Saxons sent against them, though in 845 the ealdorman Eanwulf led the people of Somerset and their neighbours from Dorset to a victory at the mouth of the Parrett. Somerset people under their own ealdorman were there mentioned for the first time, and he led them until his death in 867 when he was buried in Glastonbury as befitted a man of his rank. Eanwulf’s successor faced an even greater threat, for in the dreadful year 871 the Saxons were involved in nine pitched battles with the advancing Danes in Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Bishop Heahmund of Sherborne was among the fallen, and was buried at Keynsham; and his king, Ethelred, followed him to the grave.

To Ethelred succeeded his remarkable brother, Alfred, and the most dramatic event in his reign belongs peculiarly to Somerset. In 878 the Danes were in strength both in Wiltshire and Devon; Somerset was virtually isolated and many of her local leaders in flight, though the ealdorman Aethelnoth stayed with a small force, according to a local chronicler ‘in a certain wood’. Alfred himself sought refuge in the ‘woods and fen-fastnesses’ of the Levels, and even there survived only with difficulty, ‘for’, wrote his biographer, Asser, ‘he had nothing to live on except what he could seize by frequent raids, either secretly or openly, from the pagans and even from the Christians who had surrendered to the rule of the pagans’. The story of the abstracted king allowing the peasant woman’s cakes to burn is suitable local colour. Yet from this extremity at Easter 878 Alfred with some local followers left his stronghold at Athelney, the island of the princes, and rode into Wiltshire to win a great victory at Edington. It was fitting that Guthrum, the Danish leader, and 30 others were baptised at the church on another island, at Aller, the church of the royal estate which covered the ridge from Somerton to Langport; fitting, too, that the new converts should be publicly recognised at a ceremony on the royal island of Wedmore attended by the Somerset ealdorman, and that the formal peace agreement made between Alfred and Guthrum should have been named after Wedmore, even though it was drawn up perhaps ten years after the English victory.

The remarkable qualities of Alfred belong to the whole of England. His particular contributions to Somerset. were the foundation, or perhaps the re-foundation, of the abbey on the fortified island of Athelney, and the Alfred Jewel, found nearby in 1693. Monastic life in Alfred’s kingdom had for some time been virtually abandoned, perhaps because of the Danish raids, perhaps because of ‘the nation’s too great abundance of riches of every kind’ (Bishop Asser was not certain which). Alfred therefore imported foreign monks for his new abbey—John the Old Saxon as the first abbot, and other monks from Gaul, including some children who were taught in a new school there, and even a young man ‘of the pagan race’. The monastery survived until 1539, but no trace of it now remains above ground.

The Alfred Jewel still survives. Its exact purpose may never be proved, but it may perhaps have been the end of one of the aestels or pointers for public reading and study of an important book. An aestel, worth 50 mancuses (the price of 300 sheep or 50 oxen), accompanied each copy of the king’s translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, sent to every diocese in his kingdom. The work was designed to play an important part in the revival of scholarship in the kingdom, for young men were to be encouraged to learn English, and those destined for the church to study Latin. The value of the pointer showed hw important the king considered the book to have been.

The Peace of Wedmore was not the end of fighting, and fortifications at Bath, Axbridge, Lyng (at the end of a causeway leading to Athelney) and Watchet were part of a chain of strongholds providing some sort of defence against invasion. But in 914 despite these defences a Danish force from Brittany landed east of Watchet and also at Porlock. The raiders were beaten off with heavy losses, and the survivors had to swim for their boats, and then spent some time, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, on the island of Steepholm in the Bristol channel.

Somerset, where Alfred himself had owned estates along the threatened coast at Carhampton, Kilton, Cannington and Burnham, as well as at Wedmore and Crewkeme, continued to be an important part of the kingdom under his successors. cheddar, with its religious community and royal palace complex, was the scene of at least three meetings of the witan, and Somerton of a fourth during the reigns of Edmund, Eadred (who died at Frome), Eadwig and Edgar, and it was the ancient borough of Acemannesceaster, that Edgar ‘with a great company, was consecrated king . . .’. The ceremony, probably devised by St Dunstan, has been the model for English coronations ever since. Edgar died two years later and was buried, like Edmund, at Glastonbury. His body was later removed to a copper and gilt tomb in the magnificent eastern chapel of the abbey church built by Abbot Bere and embellished by Abbot Whiting.

The link between the Saxon kings and Glastonbury, so evident from the gifts later showered upon the house, was never so close nor so significant for the history of the whole country as during the time of Dunstan. Dunstan was born at Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury, of royal stock in 909, the year when his relative, Atheim, was consecrated the first bishop of the Somerset people. He was introduced to the royal household under Atheistan about 925. About 943, after King Edmund’s miraculous escape from death on the cliffs at Cheddar while hunting, Dunstan was appointed ‘abbot’ of the community at Glastonbury and there re-established the Benedictine Rule of monasticism which became the model for the religious life throughout England. The chosen counsellor of Eadred, under whom Glastonbury became the repository of the royal treasure and archives, he was banished by Eadwig, and spent his exile at Ghent, learning of the monastic revival on the Continent. He was recalled in 957 by Eadwig’s brother, Edgar, then king of Mercia, and was appointed bishop first of Worcester (957-61), then of London (959-61). Edgar succeeded his brother as king of Wessex in 959, and in the following year Dunstan became archbishop of Canterbury.

Dunstan, the great monastic leader, belongs to the history of the nation, like Alfred, and his talents as musician, illuminator, designer, and metal-worker were enjoyed not simply by Glastonbury. The consequences of his work there, however, may be shown in the fact that four of its monks became bishops of Wells in the 10th century, and of the six archbishops who succeeded him at Canterbury, five came from Glastonbury, and the sixth was one of Dunstan’s relatives, St Alfheah, probably a native of Twerton, and former monk and abbot of Bath, who was martyred by the Danes at Greenwich in 1012.

By that time the threat of invasion had again become a reality. Attacks on the south coast had begun in 980, early in the long reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), and Dunstan ‘after long and anxious thought’ transferred the relics of St Aldheim, ‘reverently wrapped in scarlet and fine linen,’ from their shrine to a plain tomb at Malmesbury, lest they proved too much of a temptation to plundering Danes. In 988, the year of his own death, Watchet was ravaged, and again in 997, when the Danish army ‘did much damage there, burning and slaying’. By 1011 the army had overrun the kingdom as it had done under Alfred, Danish control reaching over much of Wiltshire. Small wonder that there is a particular concentration of mints in Somerset producing coin in Etbeired’s reign, and that at least one was transferred from its vulnerable site at lichester to the refortified hilltop of South Cadbury, where coins were minted between c. 1009 and 1019. The purpose of this expanded production is clear, for many of those coins are still to be found in Scandinavia: they were the tribute extracted from a constantly defeated king.

Swein Forkbeard altered the struggle by his arrival in 1013 to claim the kingdom from Ethelred. He received the submission of the western shires at Bath, but died in the following year, leaving his son, Cnut, to continue his policy. Ethelred himself died early in 1016, but his son, Edmund Ironside, ‘stoutly defended his Kingdom while his life lasted’, fighting at Penselwood the first of six engagements. An agreement between Edmund and Cnut left Edmund ruling Wessex, but he died before the end of the same year, and was buried at Glastonbury. Somerset, like the rest of Wessex, was ruled by Cnut. The Cadbury moneyers struck coins for a while in the name of the new king, but soon transferred their work to the market centres of Bruton and Crewkerne.

The orderly rule of Cnut (1016-1035) brought Wessex under Earl Godwine. He and his sons, Swein and Harold, established a large estate in Somerset. Their doubtful allegiance to Edward the Confessor brought banishment for all three in 1051, but Harold returned in 1052, defeating a royal force after landing at Porlock. Somerset followed Earl Harold when he succeeded the Confessor as king in 1066. The fragment of the True Cross found on St Michael’s Hill at Montacute became the object of Harold’s particular interest, and its name was the war cry of the English troops at the battle of Hastings.

Montacute, perhaps not surprisingly, was one of the places where there was active opposition to that last great wave of conquest, and the count of Mortain’s castle there was besieged in 1068. The Saxon sheriff, Tofig, and the Saxon military leader, Eadnoth the Staller, supported William the Conqueror when Harold’s sons attempted to regain their father’s kingdom. Eadnoth fell fighting for his new king, and the people of Somerset found themselves again at the mercy of outsiders.

The king himself took the lands like Somerton and Cheddar, Wedmore and Axbridge, Frome and Bruton, once held by the royal house of Wessex. He seized great estates like Dulverton, Old Cleeve, Congresbury, and Keynsham, which had belonged to Earl Harold, or his sister, Edith. Saxon landowners gave place to Norman bishops and Norman lords, their names declaring their origins across the Channel. Walter de Dowai, Roger de Courceulles, William de Mohun, William de Falaise, and the count of Mortain were among the great tenants-in-chief. The count, half-brother to King William, had a vast holding spreading across the south of the county, with its centre at Montacute. Among the men who came to England with him were Alfred the butler, and Robert the constable, Bretel de St Clair, and Drew de Mont agud. Two by their names suggest their relationship with their lord, two their origins in the countryside of Normandy. But they came as permanent settlers in a new land, and left there, too, more than a memory of their existence. Bretel held, among other places, a manor called Ash, which he or others distinguished from other places of that name by the addition of his; thus was Ashbrittle born. Robert and Drew were the ancestors of the Beauchamps and the Montacutes, two families who belong to the very heart of medieval Somerset, two families still remembered at Hatch Beauchamp and Shepton Montague among the many Somerset place-names which owe their euphony to their Norman owners.