An Anglo-Saxon Town defending Wessex against the Cornish and the Vikings

LYDFORD is a place of considerable historical importance since it was one of the approximately thirty towns (“burhs”) set up by one of the The Anglo-Saxons Kings of Wessex, Alfred the Great (born 849, died 899, reigned 871-899) as militarised communities for defence of his country against the Vikings of Denmark (who had been making progressively stronger attacks, first on northern England and then on southern and western England since AD 865), and very possibly also against raiders from Cornwall.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex comprised essentially the present counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon. The Saxons had captured northern parts of what is now Dorset probably by about AD 658 (Hinton 1998, page 38) and reached the river that is now called the “River Tamar” by about AD 700 (Campbell, John and Wormald 1982/1991, page 54), after slowly but progressively moving and conquering westwards from the original areas of Eastern England in which they had arrived from Northern Continental Europe from AD 410 onwards after the departure of the Roman armies. There are legends in old literature (eg, in a poem in the “Black Book of Carmarthen”) that refer to a King of Devon named Gerontius (subsequently called “Saint Gerontius”) and/or Geraint, and his wife Enid, and that he died in a battle fought between the Britons and the Saxons in about AD 508. It seems very possible that the particular battle was not in Devon, but was in the area of what is now Portchester in Hampshire, a battle that is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The award of the term “Saint” to Gerontius is due to the fact that the Britons of the West of England were Christians (because of the previous occupation of the country by the Romans) but that the Saxons were not Christians at that date; so death in battle against the Saxons counted as martyrdom. His saint-day in the year is the 10th of August. In all this, there is however the confusion that there was a King of Cornwall who died in AD 596, who also had the name “Gerontius”, and he also was given the title “King Saint”.  (General reference concerning saints: Farmer, 1997).

 Although it is not clear when the area that is now called Cornwall in the south-west of England came under full Anglo-Saxon control, a monk living in the early ninth century wrote that King Egbert of Wessex (AD 802-839) “ravished Cornwall from east to west” in AD 815 (Matthews, 1986). It has been noted also (Radford, 1939) that the Saxon royal records show that King Egbert granted lands in East Cornwall to the See of Sherborne in AD 835, and so it seems that the eastern part of present day Cornwall had been incorporated, at least tentatively, into Wessex by that latter date. Nevertheless, even about forty years later, the most western fortified community of Wessex was that of Lydford, set up by King Alfred as described below, and it is likely that it was intended as a defence not only against the Vikings but also against the Cornish.

 Lydford, initially “Hlidan” and later “Hlidanford”, was established as a fortified town by King Alfred, within the years 870-890 AD, for the purpose of defending the western edge of his country, and the particular site was chosen because of the steep and close downward slopes towards the east, the south (to what is now called Lydford Gorge and the west; only the northern side of the Lydford site could be easily vulnerable, and here was constructed the tall and broad defence-bank of stone and earth that survives in near entirety to the present day. The north-south main street of the Saxon town still exists as the road of and through the present-day village, and the other Saxon streets, running at right angles to that, are now lanes and bridle paths. It is likely that the original Saxon church of Lydford, having walls of wood, was constructed sometime during the 8th century.

  The total area including farming land associated with and defended by the Lydford burh can be estimated from information in the set of 9th-century Anglo-Saxon documents called the “Burghal Hidage”. There it is stated that (in translation) “To Lydford belong one hundred and fifty hides less ten hides” (Hill 1969, page 90), where a “hide” (often written as “hid” and “hiwise”) was defined as the agricultural area needed to sustain one peasant family. The difficulty, however, is that no known Anglo-Saxon documents define a hide in terms of acres or other exact unit of area, and it seems likely that the size of a hide was not the same in different parts of the overall Anglo-Saxon domain. It has been suggested (Stenton 1971, page 279) that, where hides were small, the situation was that it was considered that the peasants were poor and so needed less land to support them, and, indeeed, that, although a hide in what is now Cambridgeshire was about 120 acres (49 hectares), the corresponding area in present-day Wiltshire and Dorset, and probably in much of the then Kingdon of Wessex, was about 40 acres (16 ha). So, if we apply the latter figure to the 140 hides which the Burghal Hidage states for Lydford, we find an area of about 5600 acres (2270 ha) associated with the Lydford burh. That is of course much larger than the area of the burh itself.

 At times of possible enemy attack (by Vikings generally, but probably also by the Cornish Dumnoni tribes in the case of Lydford), the peasants of the land associated with a burh congregated within the defensible boundary of the burh, and the Burghal Hidage states that the peasants were required to provide a defensive force of one man per hide. The Burghal Hidage says (Hill 1969, pages 90, 91) also that each pole-length (ie 16.5 feet, ie close to 5.0 metres) of rampart wall was to be defended by four men. Assessment of the ramparts of many of King Alfred’s burhs has indicated that their lengths mostly agree well or very well with the values calculated as above in terms of the number of hides belonging to the burh. For example, the calculation for Winchester of 2400 hides gives a rampart wall length of 3018 metres, which is within 1% of the actual length of the perimeter wall of old Winchester (Campbell, John and Wormald 1991, page 153).

  So we can be tempted to apply the same calculation to Lydford’s 140 hides, and that leads to a rampart wall length of 175 metres. Interestingly, that is fairly similar to the length of the dominant part of the still visible Anglo-Saxon stone and earth defensive bank, as described above, at the north of the Lydford burh.

 As described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in AD 997, during the reign of Aelthelred II, Vikings, having landed at what is now Plymouth at the mouth of the River Tamar, travelled northwards and strongly attacked Lydford (presumably for the silver and coins described below), and then returned south, destroying and plundering Tavistock Abbey on their way. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not state that Lydford was captured by the Vikings in that attack, and John Allan (2002) has stated that the lack of a break, at that date, in the coin-minting activity at Lydford suggests that the Vikings did not gain access into Lydford. That Lydford-Viking battle of AD 997 is commemorated by a Roadside Plaque, showing a Danish axe on a Saxon shield, at the southern entrance to the Saxon town area (a little way down the hill) and by a Viking-style Runic Stone carved, from local granite, in the field next to the Castle. The plaque was made by a Lydford resident, John Luttman, in 1990, and the Runic Stone was set up in AD 1997 as part of the commemorative 1000th anniversary of the Viking attack, but this time in the presence of a group of peaceful and welcomed Danish visitors.

A Coin-Minting Town for Anglo-Saxon Wessex

  Of further considerable interest and importance is that Lydford was one of a number of Anglo-Saxon coin-minting centres, that in Lydford being established in about AD 973 (Allan, 2002). Silver rather than gold was the currency metal in England for most of the period 600-1066 AD and beyond, and the Lydford area had rich silver mines; indeed one of the existing roads in the village is still called “Silver Street” . Coins in silver called “Lydford Pennies” ( click here for enlarged views of the two faces ) were minted during the reigns of successive Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings, Aethelred II, Canute, Harold I and Edward the Confessor and were used throughout the Kingdom of Wessex. It is thought that such a silver penny represented the value of about one day’s work for a Saxon peasant. In agricultural terms, its value has been estimated as between a third and a fifth of the price of a sheep and about a tenth of the price of a cow (Passmore M, 2001)).

 The coins of the Anglo-Saxons were made at a variety of local mints by expert metal workers called “Moneyers”. It is known that individual moneyers worked in different places during their coin-minting careers, and details of the careers of two moneyers, Hunwine and Aelfwine, whose lives included silver-penny fabrication at Lydford have been described.

It has been estimated (Allan, 2002) that the Lydford Mint produced  somewhat more than 1.5 million silver pennies during its operational period from about AD 973 to 1066. But it must be remembered that, initially, every six years and, later, every three years, all existing silver pennies were recalled by the Crown Authority, and pennies of identical size and weight but of changed design were minted from the same silver. There are twenty-one Lydford Silver Pennies in the British Museum and several in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, but museums in Scandinavia, especially in Stockholm, contain several hundred Lydford Pennies, mostly, no doubt, the result of the “Dangeld” payment exorted from the Anglo-Saxons by the Vikings more than one thousand years ago.

   A particularly interesting fact is that a collection of 523 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies found in 1851 in Valdarve in Sweden contained a very significant fraction, 68 out of the 523, of Lydford Pennies (Allan, 2002). However, since 66 of those 68 Lydford coins were of the “Aethelred Last Small Cross” type, minted in the period AD 1009-1016, their arrival in Scandinavia could not have resulted from the Viking attack on Lydford in AD 997. So the reason for the presence of such number of Lydford Pennies in the Valdarve find is not known.

  Since the arrival of the Vikings at Lydford in AD 997 and their attack upon the town must have been expected, one may wonder whether there are Lydford Pennies, still not found, that were hidden by inhabitants of Lydford who were killed in the defence of their town. There is no record of any Lydford Penny having yet been found in Devon (Allan, 2002).

The End of the Anglo-Saxon Period

 The Battle of Hastings of 1066 and the resultant capture of the whole of England by the Normans marked the formal end of the Anglo-Saxon period. The first Norman castle in Lydford, probably essentially a fort, was built soon after 1066, and the existence of Baron de Brionne’s large Norman Castle in Okehampton was reported in the Domesday Book of 1086.   It is clear that the area that is now called “West Devon” that includes Lydford was essentially under the control of the Normans within a few years of 1066.

     The life of the ordinary people of Lydford was probably however not much changed by those events. A piece of pottery, described as Saxo-Norman “Grog-Ware” of the late 10th/11th centuries, has been recently found in Lydford, and it is very likely that such pottery was in use for many years both before and after the Norman Conquest.