The Last Kingdom of Wessex Part 1 Shaftesbury

What does the Kingdom of Wessex have to do with a walking holiday?

Posted by Mark Armstrong 21st February 2017

We have a walking holiday that we call 'Wonders of Wessex' and in an article on our website I explain a bit about where the region known as Wessex originated from and how the term became popularised. As a new series of the Last Kingdom is coming back to the BBC this spring, I thought I would take the opportunity to show how the landscape of our walking holidays are very much featured in this story of the making of England.

Everyone that has lived in or travelled through the Dorset town of Shaftesbury will probably know that it is a Saxon Hilltop Town as the signs tell you this as you enter. After King Alfred defeated the Danes in 878 he organised Wessex's defences; he drew up a document called the 'Burghal Hidage' which lists the 29 'burghs' or manned defence points and Shaftesbury was one of these.

Shaftesbury's nearest river is more than 5 miles away and this may have influenced Alfred in his decision to found a burgh and a nunnery there; the Danes mainly attacked along coasts and up rivers. On the defensible promontory of Shaftesbury he placed his abbey for nuns where he sent his daughter Ethelgifu, who had according to Bishop Asser, 'taken the veil on account of ill health.' Asser described the abbey as being by the east gate of the town, indicating that the earliest buildings were on the west end of the promontory with Bimport being the spine road. Bimport is an Anglo-Saxon name possibly indicating that it was the site of the first town market. Although it's possible that the earliest Abbey church was made of wood, fragments of Saxon carved stone were identified amongst the Abbey ruins.

In 927 King Athelstan, Alfred’s grandson, conquered Northumbria, bringing the whole of England under one ruler for the first time. The Kingdom of Wessex had become the Kingdom of England. A year earlier Athelstan decreed that Shaftesbury could have 2 mints (London had 8 and Winchester 6).

Althestan did not marry and the throne descended to Alfred's other grandsons, Edmund and Eadred and to his great grandson Edgar. King Edmund's widow St Elgiva (Aelfgifu) became a nun and was buried in Shaftesbury. King Edgar's second queen reputedly murdered his heir, King Edward in 979. He died at the hands of his step-mother's servants whilst on a hunt in Purbeck. The body was brought with great ceremony from Wareham to be buried in Shaftesbury. Pilgrims travelled long distances to the tomb as miracles were reported.

In 1941 the 'Shaftesbury Hoard' was unearthed just outside the town, consisiting of over 100 silver coins of King Ethelred II. Were they buried by a local person in fear of Danish raiders who were in Dorset in 998 and 1003 or maybe by a Dane fleeing from the massacre of the Danes ordered by Ethelred in 1002 on St Brice's Day?

However, in 1017 the Dane Canute (Cnut) became King of England after defeating Ethelred's son, King Edmund. King Canute died in 1035 in Shaftesbury possibly as a patient of the nuns and was buried in Winchester. It's strange to think that if the sons of Canute had not died within a decade of his death, Canute's reign might have been the foundation for a complete political union between England and Scandinavia.

It is the English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, who is regarded as being largely responsible for the popular modern use of the term “Wessex” to describe the south-west region of England (with the exception of Cornwall). Hardy re-created the ancient Kingdom of Wessex, producing a detailed map of his territory with his fictional place names supplanting the real ones. In his novel Jude the Obscure, however Hardy uses the name Shaston, which is actually a common abbreviation of Shaftesbury that's been used for centuries.

There are many local businesses that have gone on to use the term Wessex as part of their name. Shaftesbury even has a cafe called King Alfred's Kitchen which has been trading under this name for many years. Possibly named thus, because of a particularly memorable legend which tells how when Alfred first fled to the Somerset Levels, he was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of who he was, left him to watch some cakes she had left cooking. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidentally let the cakes burn, and was scolded by the woman upon her return.

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