By the time of his death in 899, Alfred, King of Wessex was in effect ‘king over all the English’ except for the areas under Danish rule. He was succeeded by his son Edward but there was another contender for the throne. Æthelwald, son of Alfred’s older brother Æthelred, had an equal or stronger claim. Soon after Edward’s accession, Æthelwald took procession of the king’s manors at Christchurch and Wimborne without permission of the king and his counsellors. As a further act of defiance he also seized a woman in holy orders and held her ‘without the king’s leave and against the bishop’s command’. Edward arrived with an army and camped near Badbury Rings while Æthelwald with a few loyal followers barricaded the gates of the manor against him.
The heart of the king’s manor at Wimborne can probably be identified with an earthwork at Abbott Street Copse, now part of the Kingston Lacy estate. A large enclosure, surrounded by banks and palisades contained the important buildings of the manor, with the king’s hall in the centre within its own fortified enclosure. From within this stronghold, Æthelwald made defiant boasts, vowing to stay there, alive or dead but instead he slipped away at night and fled to join the Danes in Northumbria, leaving his followers and the woman he had seized to the mercy of the king. Æthelwald’s rebellion was short-lived. In 902 he landed in East Anglia and persuaded the East Angles to attack Wessex and Mercia but was killed in a battle with the Kentish army in 903.
In the next few decades, Edward and his sons, Æthelstan, Edmund and Eadred, achieved a remarkable reconquest of England. By 955, the Wessex kings were rulers of Mercia, East Anglia and the Danelaw and had received the submission of Northumbria, Strathcyde, Scotland and Wales. During these decades, men from Dorset must have fought in many of the campaigns and helped to defend the burhs gradually set up further and further into Danish territory. Under a system introduced by Alfred, only part of the region’s manpower was called up to fight at any one time, leaving some at home to tend the fields. Then battle-weary men could be replaced by fresh recruits to keep up the momentum of the campaign.
Eadred was succeeded by the young sons of Edmund, Eadwig and Edgar who enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace. It was probably during Edgar’s reign that the administration of the local hundreds was established to apply the king’s laws through regular ‘moots’ or meetings. Architecture, music, book production and the illumination of manuscripts flourished, associated with the school at Winchester, and religious writing in English reached its highest point. One of the most famous writers of the period was Ælfric who was appointed novice-master to the new foundation at Cerne in 987.
When Edgar died in 975 he left two teenaged sons to succeed him, 15-year-old Edward (possibly illegitimate) and 10-year old Æthelred by his second marriage to Ælfthryth. Those nobles who resented the increasing power of the monasteries tended to support Æthelred but Edward’s succession was secured by Archbishop Dunstan. Accounts of Edward suggest that he was a quarrelsome and violent youth but his reputation was to be transformed by a terrible act of violence. On 18th March 978, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward was murdered at Corfe Gap, ‘nor among the English was any worse deed done than this’.
According to legend, the king was hunting near Corfe where Ælfthryth and Æthelred were staying and came unescorted to visit them in the evening. When he rode up to the gate, Ælfthryth herself came out to greet him and offer him a cup of wine. As he drank, one of the servants drew his dagger and stabbed the king who fell from his horse, fatally wounded. The story had it that his body was thrown down a well before being retrieved and buried in Wareham Priory with no kingly honours. Later, miracles were associated with his burial place.
Those responsible for the crime were never identified but the anti-monastic party and Ælfthryth had the most to gain. A year later in March 979, Archbishop Dunstan presided over a ceremony of atonement when the king’s body was exhumed from its humble tomb and reburied in the nunnery at Shaftesbury. In the best holy traditions, the body was said to be uncorrupted and soon Edward the Martyr came to be venerated as a saint.
The teen-aged Æthelred succeeded to the throne as a direct consequence of his brother’s murder, a violent beginning to a disastrous reign. During the years of peace, England had become rich and prosperous while its once powerful defences were neglected and weakened. Now the country faced a new threat from Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway and his successors, Sweyn and Cnut. His troops were well organised and well trained in specially constructed ring-shaped fortresses, found across Scandinavia. They now began a series of raids for plunder and tribute money.
In 982, three Viking ships attacked and ravaged Portland. In 998 they sailed up the Frome and raided ‘as widely as they pleased into Dorset’. The destruction of the 300-year-old monastery at Wimborne probably dated from this time. Chances to counter-attack the raiders were wasted and they were allowed to set up in the Isle of Wight and ravage Sussex and Hampshire. The response of a weak court, divided by self interest and treachery and a king who was both indecisive and vindictive was to pay off the attackers with increasing sums of tribute money. Inevitably, they came back for more. No wonder that Æthelred was given the nickname ‘unraed’ or poorly advised.
In 1002, having failed to put up any defence against the powerful raiders, Æthelred ordered a massacre of the more vulnerable Danish settlers in England on St. Brice’s day because he thought that they were plotting against him. The raids continued and so did the payments. The king even employed Viking mercenaries to fight against Viking raiders. In 2013, Æthelred fled into exile leaving Sweyn in control of the English kingdoms, but Sweyn died the following year and Æthelred was recalled.
The year 2015 was a particularly terrible one locally as Sweyn’s son, Cnut attacked up the Frome, raiding and devastating settlements across Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. The monastery at Cerne was attacked and Sherborne Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and St. Martin’s church, Wareham were probably destroyed at this time.
Æthelred died in 2016 while the battle against Cnut was still raging. His son, Edmund succeeded to the throne and began to mount a much more effective fight against the raiders than his father had done. In fact the two leaders made a treaty by which Edmund received Wessex and Cnut, Mercia. Then Edmund died suddenly and at the age of only 23, Cnut became the first Danish king of all England. After consolidating his position by ruthlessly eliminating the opposition, he turned out to be a wise and able king. He divided the country into four parts for administration, himself retaining Wessex. He married Æthelred’s widow, Emma and was a generous patron of the Church and the arts. He also pledged himself to dispense justice to all his subjects, English and Danish and introduced legislation based on Edgar’s laws. Cnut reigned until 1035 when he died at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester, the traditional burial place of English kings.
It was probably during the confused and violent decades of Æthelred’s reign that an event occurred in Dorset of which vivid evidence remains. A group of around fifty Viking men were taken up to Ridgeway Hill north of Weymouth, and by an old chalk pit surrounded by ancient burial mounds and barrows, were executed by decapitation. The executions were chaotic and brutal. The men were dragged forward, sometimes several at a time, and their heads cut off with swords. Some struggled and fought, receiving terrible injuries to their heads, hands and arms. Sometimes several blows were needed to kill them. Afterwards, the headless torsos were tipped into the pit and the heads flung to one side of it, except for one or two heads which were probably kept to parade as trophies. After the mass killings were over, the pit was filled in and eventually forgotten.
For a thousand years, the burial pit remained undiscovered. Then in 2009 it was found by Oxford Archaeology during the construction of the Weymouth relief road and carefully excavated. Examination of the bones showed that the victims lived around 970-1025 AD and revealed the gruesome details of the how they died. It also showed that they came from Scandinavia, Iceland, the Baltic and Russia. One man had had his front teeth filed in two horizontal grooves that would only be revealed by a grin or a grimace, a custom known from Scandinavia but not previously found in Britain.
What the bones could not tell was the identity of the executioners or the victims or the circumstances of the execution. The choice of location among the ancient barrows might indicate that those carrying out the killing were local people for whom the area had a special significance. Maybe the dead were raiders, mercenaries or prisoners of war, or maybe they were hostages or victims of the St. Brice Day massacre. We will never know the full story, but the discovery is a vivid reminder of a dramatic and brutal age.