Offa and Cynewulf: New Perspectives on the Wessex/Mercia Frontier
Ordinary Meeting of Fellows (Fellows and Guests Only)
"Offa and Cynewulf: New Perspectives on the Wessex/Mercia Frontier" Lecture by Professor Andrew Reynolds FSA
This paper considers aspects of the archaeology and history of border country between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, focusing in particular on Wiltshire, where charter evidence, archaeological discoveries, field monuments and toponyms together provide fascinating insights into the nature of settlement and society in a contested region.
The paper considers the nature of central places in the region, the development of frontier earthworks in the form of the Wansdyke and proposes a frontier policy initiated by King Cynewulf of Wessex, a successful yet neglected ruler overshadowed in historical writing by his northern neighbour King Offa of Mercia. The historian Maitland called the West Country the 'land of small boroughs', yet all too few of the small towns of the region have yielded archaeological evidence from which to visualise the nature of such places both before the Norman Conquest and after.
Fieldwork in July 2017 investigated this untapped resource at Great Bedwyn and Chisbury. Bedywn is recorded as a mint in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and it is one of 112 places categorized as a borough – or town – nationally at that time. A century earlier, the place is recorded as a possession of the Abbey of Abingdon, whose foundation story includes a fascinating note purporting to relate to early Bedwyn. According to a 12th century document, a certain King Cissa gave land for the foundation of Abingdon Abbey between AD 674 and 685, while a document of a century later records that Cissa ruled from Bedwyn and gave his name to the closeby Chisbury hillfort, itself one of the 33 fortifications listed in the document known as the Burghal Hidage dating the the reign of King Edward the Elder. Further to the west, the former Roman town of Cvnetio lay at a key point in the communications network linking Wessex with Mercia. A link between Cvnetio – close to the late Anglo-Saxon settlement of Marlborough - and Chisbury in the 8th century is evident in written sources and developing out of this material a case is made for an innovative defensive strategy on the part of Cynewulf whose power base is suggested to lie in eastern Wiltshire. The findings can be related to wider academic debates about the development - or not - of towns in Anglo-Saxon England and the socio-political organisation of power in the Anglo-Saxon landscape.
Location: Burlington House