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Narrative History of the County of Somerset
by Brenda Ralph Lewis & David Nash Ford


Saxon Times

Initially, the new Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain appear to have taken little notice of the Romano-British Celts in the South-West. The nearest Saxons, in the Kingdom of Wessex, centred on Wiltshire and Hampshire, made an early incursion into the area in AD 577, defeating the armies of three local kings at the Battle of Dyrham. The ruler of Caer-Bathan (Bath) was apparently killed, but the city remained outside the bounds of Saxon settlement, as internal English quarrels led Wessex to look to defences on its Mercian border. The boundary with Dumnonia (and therefore Somerset) seems to have been set, perhaps agreed, as the Forest of Penselwood; and thus it remained until the Wessex kings began to interfere in western affairs in the early 7th century. A raiding party, reaching as far as Bindon (Dorset) in AD 614, appears to have been repelled, but the watershed for Saxon encroachment appears in The Anglo Saxon Chronicle under the year AD 658. It reads: "Cenwalh [King of Wessex] fought at Peonnum [Penselwood] with the Welsh [ie. the Celtic people of the South-West], and put them to flight to the Parret". The Parrett is a river in the east of Somerset, and King Cenwalh followed up his invasion three years later with a push further into what is now Devon.

Wessex had pushed back Dumnonian control but was not able to fully establish its government over the 'Summer lands' of its Western settlers. Dumnonian influence remained strong in the region for almost a century and the two enemies found the Church to be a powerful weapon in the fight for full control of their border regions. King Ine of Wessex refounded the Abbey at Glastonbury in AD 681 and this was joined by Muchelney in 693 and the minster at Wells in 705. Whilst Gerren of Dumnonia was making grants to monasteries as far away as Sherborne in Dorset (AD 705) in order to acquire support for his cause. In the north of the county, the Mercian sub-kings of the Hwicce held sway over Bath, where King Osric founded a nunnery, amongst the old Roman springs, in AD 676. This was refounded by King Offa in the AD 750s when the city also became a convenient western centre for this itinerant monarch.

The Wessex kings also took to granting many estates in Somerset to warriors in their army, since warfare became virtually perennial in the area. Many of the local roads had military purposes: they were called "herepaths" - "here" meaning "troop," "army" or the more sinister "predatory band".

Wars and civil wars may account for the lack of archaeological finds in Saxon Somerset, though enough has been uncovered to build a picture of families living in single farmsteads and small hamlets, surrounded by a network of roads of Roman origin which sometimes delineated the boundaries between estates. By AD 710, the Dumnonian armies were crushed for the last time in Somerset. They withdrew even further west and King Ine established a fortress at Taunton. As the Saxons of Wessex became established in Somerset, settlements such as this began to appear with familiar Saxon names, ending in "-tun" (manor or mansion) or including "cyng" (king) or "burgh" (a strong place or fort): Somerton, Bruton, Petherton or Kingsbury. Some of these may have been Celtic villages, partly renamed or translated, others were new to the landscape.

Royal centres were established at Glastonbury, Cheddar, Bath, Frome, Somerton, Wedmore and Carhampton. Major excavations at Cheddar have revealed a great deal about such Anglo-Saxon Royal palaces. A great long hall was established here in the 9th century or before. Around 930, this was rebuilt and a chapel and other buildings added. The Witan is known to have met here in AD 941, 956 & 968 and the Saxon Kings were generally frequent visitors to the county. Somerset became one of the heartland shires of the Kingdom of Wessex. King Edred died in his palace at Frome in AD 955, whilst his brother and nephew, Kings Edmund the Magnificent and Edgar the Peacable, both chose to be buried at Glastonbury. The latter's coronation in AD 973 is the earliest recorded and the order of service and symbols of Royalty used can still be seen in the ceremony of today. It took place at Bath Abbey.

There was, however, little respite from warfare as the damage caused by internecine wars was followed by the devastation wrought by the Viking invaders from Scandinavia. Somerset stood firmly behind the Kings of Wessex who spent many years fending off these ferocious invaders. In AD 878, when Alfred the Great was king and in desperate straits, following the latest Viking incursion, which was made in daunting strength, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:
"At Easter, King Alfred, with a little company, built a fort at Athelney, and from the fort kept fighting the force, with the help of those of Somerset who were nearest. In the seventh week after Easter, he rose to Ecgybryht's Stone, east of Selwood. All those of Somerset came to meet him..."
During this time of guerilla warfare, undertaken from the Somerset Levels, Alfred is said to have 'burnt the cakes' of a local peasant woman while contemplating his future fate. He got a hiding for his trouble from the unsuspecting housewife, but he resolved to fight back with cunning. It was supposedly at Athelney that he slipped into the enemies' camp, dressed as a minstrel, and learnt of their battle plans. Shortly afterwards, Alfred converted himself from fugitive into victor by thrashing the Viking army at Edington in neighbouring Wiltshire. Though a peace treaty was signed, at Wedmore, renewed warfare was never far away. This was why Alfred built a fort at Lyng to guard the important centre of Somerton and another at Axbridge, to protect the Royal centre of Cheddar. Others were built at Watchet & Langport. He also restored some of the original Roman defences at Bath and Ilchester. King Alfred also founded the famous abbey at Athelney in thanksgiving for his deliverance from obscurity.

Despite the ravages of war, Somerset grew into a substantial centre for trade during the 10th century and its towns grew with it, accommodating important markets for local and imported goods. The towns also afforded a protected environment where money could be minted. In the countryside, where the great majority of Somerset folk earned their living from agriculture, the landscape was drastically changed by a reorganization of the land into a new, open-field system. Villages grew up close by and with this, the scattered single farmsteads largely disappeared and were replaced by close communities living close to their farmlands. In time, the villages were themselves grouped together in "hundreds" and monthly "hundred" courts were set up in places like Bempstone, near Stone Allerton, where civil, criminal and religious cases were heard.

By AD 988 though, Viking attacks had begun once more in Somerset - at Watchet - as with the rest of the Southern English coastline. This latest wave of Danish aggression forced King Aethelred the Unready to attempt a pay-off using vast sums of Danegeld. Minting in the county increased to meet this demand and vulnerable mints, like the one at Ilchester, were moved to protected hilltop locations - in this case, the old hillfort at nearby South Cadbury. In 1013, raiding turned to invasion. Across the country, the shires quickly began submitting to the forces of King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark. He received the leaders of the Western shires at Bath. Upon Svein's death soon afterward, his son, Canute, carried on the process of conquering England. He fought Aethelred's son, Edmund Ironside, at Penselwood and elsewhere and eventually a division of the country was agreed. Saxon dominance only finally returned with the accession of Canute's step-son, King Edward the Confessor. During his reign, Somerset was largely held under the influence of the mighty Earl Godwin and his family. Their position at court was very oscillatory and Godwin's son, Harold, when banished, was forced to land with an invasion force at Porlock which persuaded the King to listen to his pleas. Harold eventually became the Edward's brother-in-law and finally King himself. This was short-lived, however, for he was soon to fall at Hastings.

Next: Norman & Medieval Times

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