Monday, 13 July 2009

Athelney/ AEthelingaeg: Place in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series

Athelney is located between the villages of Burrowbridge and East Lyng in the Sedgemoor district of Somerset, England. The area is known as the Isle of Athelney, because it was once a very low isolated island in the 'very great swampy and impassable marshes' of the Somerset Levels. Much of the Levels are below sea level. They are now drained for agricultural use during the summer, but are regularly flooded in the winter.
Athelney is around 6 miles from North Petherton, where the Alfred Jewel (an Anglo-Saxon ornament dating from the late 9th century) was discovered in 1693.

Isle of Athelney
The Isle of Athelney is best known for once being the fortress hiding place of King Alfred the Great, from where he went on to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun in May 878.
Archaeological excavations and written evidence indicate that at the time of Alfred the island was linked by a causeway to East Lyng, with either end protected by a semi-circular stockade and ditch. The ditch on the island is now known to date from the Iron Age. It is therefore presumed that the Isle was known by Alfred to have been an ancient fort, and that its existing defences were strengthened by him. Evidence of metalworking on the site suggests that he also used the island to equip his army.

King Alfred's Monument
When translated from the Anglo-Saxon, the name of the isle, Æthelinga íeg, is often thought to mean the Island of Princes; if correct this might suggest that the island had royal connections prior to Alfred.
To give thanks for his victory, Alfred founded a monastery, Athelney Abbey, on the Isle in 888, which lasted until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539, when the value of the rubble was put at £80.

After Athelney Abbey was dissolved the monks then built the church in the neighbouring village of East Lyng.
There are no remains of the monastery above ground, but excavations were carried out as part of the 1st and 100th Time Team television archaeology programmes.
The monastery's location was marked by a small monument on top of the isle in 1801 built by Sir John Slade, 1st Baronet of the Slade Baronets, on the site of a stone vault. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (Somerset County No 367) and Grade II listed building. The monument is now on private land belonging to Athelney Farm and, although visible from a layby off the A361, is not accessible to the public.

Havinden, Michael. The Somerset Landscape. The making of the English landscape. London: Hodder and Stoughton. pp. 94. ISBN 0340201169.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy (1992). A Field Guide to Somerset Archaeology. Wimborne, Dorset: Dovecote Press. ISBN 0946159947.
King Alfred Burning the Cakes

The island of Athelney is a spur of keuper marl which rises proud of the Somerset levels. As the marshy land is now drained the site is considerably less remote than it once was.
Little is known of the prehistory of the site although the occasional find of prehistoric date and the as yet undated cropmarks show the possibility of prehistoric occupation deserves further investigation. Similarly little is known of this area in the Roman period although recent work to the south-west of Lyng is shedding new light on this period.
The place-name Athelney has been translated as ‘isle of the aethlings’ and is traditionally the place where Aethelwine (son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons 611-42, brother of Cenwealh, king of of the West Saxons 642-72) lived as a hermit in the mid-7th century, who later was to be venerated as a saint. It was also the used as a refuge by King Alfred the Great in 878, from Danish invasions according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. During the seven weeks he stayed at Athelney King Alfred is supposed to have built a fortress from which he launched his attack on the Danes. In May of that year he was able to defeat the Danish king Guthrum at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire, after which Guthrum was baptized at Aller with the name Athelstan. Other legends have grown up around the site such as Alfred taking shelter in a swineherds hut where he burnt the cakes. The Life of King Alfred states that Alfred founded a monastery at Athelney in 893, as a thanks-offering for the defeat of the Danish army and describes the site thus ‘..surrounded by, swampy impassable and extensive marshland and ground water on every side. It cannot be reached in any way except by punts or by a causeway which has been built by protracted labour between two fortresses. A formidable fortress of elegant workmanship was set up by the command of the king at the western end of the causeway’. This last probably refers to a burh built on the raised ground of East Lyng which was listed in the Burghal Hideage of the early 10th century. Whether the author of this work was indeed Alfred’s contemporary and friend Asser, is now doubted by some historians, the work may have been written c.1000 by an imposter using the late 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a historical framework. Detail included in this work and absent from the Chronicle (such as that quoted above) should therefore be treated with caution. If not a contemporary document written from first-hand experience, the Life’s sources may have been aural history, tradition and first-hand or related experience of the places mentioned in the text as they were at the turn of the millennium.
Athelney Abbey, established in the county of Somerset, England, was founded by King Alfred in 888, as a religious house for monks of the Order of St. Benedict. It was dedicated to our Blessed Saviour, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Egelwine.
Originally Athelney was a small island in swampland, in what is now the parish of East Lyng, covered with alders and infested by wild animals. It was inaccessible except by boat, according to William of Malmesbury. Here Alfred found a refuge from the Danes; here he built the abbey. The dedication to St. Egelwine suggests that it may have been an enlargement of a hermitage or monastery already in existence.
He peopled it with foreign monks, drawn chiefly from France, with John of Saxony (known as Scotus) as their abbot. The original church was a small structure, consisting of four piers supporting the main fabric and surrounded by four circular chancels. Little is known of the history of the abbey from the eleventh century up to the time of its dissolution except that monks of Glastonbury Abbey attempted to annex it or have it placed under the Glastonbury jurisdiction.
It was not a rich community. An indulgence of thirty days was given in 1321 for those who should assist in the rebuilding of the church, and the monks humbly petitioned Edward I of England to remit corrod for which they were unable to find the means of payment. The last abbot was Robert Hamlyn. With eight monks of his community, he surrendered February, 8, 1540, receiving a pension of £50 per annum and retaining his prebend of Long Sutton. The revenues (26 Hen. VII) were £209. 0s. 3/4 d.
Following the dissolution it was acquired for use as his private residence by Lord Audley. This did not happen and the church was demolished and other buildings fell into disrepair, leaving nothing visible at the site today. Several geophysical surveys have been carried out to explore the remains which still exist below ground level.

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