Alfred's Borough

Thus far, although Bath continued to be called a town, we may imagine it more as a modest set of baths, presided over by a monastery. It was another great king who made Bath a true town once more. One of the most familiar stories in English history is how Alfred the Great was overwhelmed by Viking marauders at Chippenham in January 878 and had to take refuge in the Somerset marshes.(1) But the outcome still astonishes. By 886 (on the most recent dating) Alfred had built a chain of fortresses around Wessex.

Bath of course was over the border in Mercia, but that had become an academic point. Mercia had been taken by the Danes. Burgred was the last King of Mercia to hold court at Bath. In 864 he was there with Queen Æthelswith (the sister of Alfred), attended by his nobles and bishops.(2) Just ten years later he was driven out and replaced by a puppet king. Alfred supported a rival Mercian leader, Æthelred, who married Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd. So Bath was a natural link in the chain of defence. The city was protected on two sides by the curve of the Avon and had at least remnants of its Roman defences.(3) The city wall would have been about 600 years old by Alfred's day. Even a century and a half earlier the author of The Ruin saw a sadly dilapidated structure:

Wondrous is this masonry, shattered by fate. The stronghold has burst open; the handiwork of giants is mouldering. The roofs have fallen, the towers are in ruin; The barred gate is roofless; there is rime on the mortar.(4)

Although the poetic style is impressionistic, these lines appear to refer to the city walls. The image conjured up is a late Roman wall, with roofed gate-towers.

Alfred generally built in earth and timber for rapid security. A timber barricade, apparently Saxon, was found outside and parallel to the northern city wall in 1980. The length of this timber outwork would correspond more closely than that of the stone wall with the assessment of Bath in the Burghal Hidage, the list of Alfred's fortresses now thought to date from 886.(5) Alfred perhaps threw this outwork around Bath at speed; within its shelter the stone wall could be repaired at greater leisure. With the city full of Roman ruins, the masons would not have far to go for materials. Early antiquaries visiting Bath were fascinated to discover chunks of Roman carving embedded in the upper part of the city wall. Such repair-work could scarcely date from much later than Alfred. He and his son can be credited with such a thorough re- organisation of the town that Roman ruins would not be much in evidence thereafter.

Late Saxon Bath (J.Manco)

Although some of Alfred's forts were no more than that, Bath was one of a string of burhs created by him and his children.(6) The charter of Worcester demonstrates their twin purposes. Æthelred and Æthelflæd stated that, having ordered the borough at Worcester built for the protection of the people, they now granted to St Peter's half their rights in the market and borough, including the tax levied for repair of the borough wall.(7) A successful market town would generate revenue and pay for its own defence. As a river crossing on the Foss Way, Bath was in a good trading position.

The Roman street pattern would have been lost under the debris, so the town had to be laid out afresh. Alfred's burhs follow a standard pattern. A broad main street running between the city gates housed the market. Then lanes ran out from that at fairly regular intervals to join a street circling the city, which gave easy access for those defending the walls.(8) In Bath the Saxon street plan was later disrupted by the Norman cathedral priory and bishop's palace. These changes need to be mentally peeled away to discern the Saxon pattern beneath. It was logical to suppose initially that the main Saxon artery ran straight down from the North Gate to a Saxon south gate on the site of the medieval Ham Gate,(9) but it is now clear that it had to make a detour around the abbey. The northern part - High Street- is still there. The market was there in the medieval period and probably from the first.(10) The southernmost part became a lane from the priory gate to the Ham Gate in the medieval period. In the middle the street swung west around the abbey. Part of it was apparently adopted as the boundary between the Norman bishop's close and priory.(11) It would have simplified Norman planning to lay out the close between two Saxon streets, so another Saxon street probably underlies Stall Street.

Westgate Street was part of another important thoroughfare, which probably continued eastwards to the East or Lot Gate (OE ludgeat = postern.) That would have led out to the town mill. Bath Abbey had a mill at Domesday, probably in the same place as the later Monk's Mill. Mills tend to remain on the same site, however often they are rebuilt. (The medieval lane to the mill made a detour around the Norman priory cemetery, shifting the East Gate to its present position.(12)) Today the eastern arm of Westgate Street is Cheap Street. Although it sounds convincingly Anglo- Saxon (OE ceap = market), it is actually quite a late name. Before 1399 it was Sutor (shoemaker's) Street, which was considered undignified, so the citizens requested a name change.(13)

Still today there are remnants of Saxon planning in the blocks of property along the two main streets. Standard burgage plots can be discerned behind the modern map, with narrow houses facing the street and long gardens and yards behind. Merchants and artisans would have been encouraged to settle in this permanently built-up area, while land in the back lanes was probably left open to make camp sites. Then if danger threatened, the villagers around could take refuge within the walls.(14) This may explain the name Binnebury for the south-west quarter of the city. OE binnan burh meant within the fortified place.(15) Originally Binnebury (now Bilbury) Lane ran north to Westgate Street. A short section of Saxon street along the route has been excavated.(16) On the north side of Westgate Street back lanes survive today, though their names have changed. Bridewell Lane was Plumtreow strete or twichen in the thirteenth century.(17) Here the Old English spelling of 'tree' had been retained, as well as twicen, meaning a place where two roads meet. One can picture a plum tree as a landmark on the corner.

If Bath was not already a functioning burh by the time of Alfred's death in 899, then it became one soon afterwards, for his son Edward the Elder established a mint there in the early years of his reign.(18) Mints were confined to ports, which were market towns, both coastal and inland. Essentially they were synonymous with the burhs, but the emphasis was on their trading function, which the mints supported. Edward ordered that all buying and selling should be done in a port, with a reeve as witness, partly to hinder the sale of stolen property.(19) The reeve or portreeve was the royal official in charge of a market town. The first known reeve of Bath was one Alfred, whose death in 906 was noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Domesday survey of 1086 shows just how successful Alfred's policy was. The mint was still flourishing and Bath had become the largest town in Somerset, taxed as the equivalent of twenty hides and with 178 burgesses. While sixty-four of them paid rent to the king and twenty-four to Bath Abbey, ninety were 'burgesses of the king's barons'.(20) As with other royal boroughs, Alfred or his successors had involved their nobles in Bath's development. Grants of borough land would encourage them to build there and use the market.(21) Some of the lords of Somerset manors had houses in Bath, either for their own use or for rent.(22) Centuries later we have a clue to one of their purposes. Walter Hussey of Swainswick leased part of his property in Bath about 1220, with the proviso that he and his heirs could lodge there in time of war.(23)

Lords with a town house might build a chapel for themselves and their tenants, just as they did on their own manors. The evolution of such chapels into parish churches accounts for the high number of churches in towns with Roman or Saxon origins.(24) Of Bath's medieval churches within the walls, only St Peter's (with St Mary of Stalls) had a cemetery before 1400.(25) The lack of a cemetery is a strong indication that St Michael Within, All Saints in Binnebury (26) and St Mary Northgate sprang from domestic chapels, either late Saxon or Norman. From the thirteenth century the Champney family held the advowson of St Mary Northgate and rents in Bath along with their manor of Wilmington.(27) Possession of the advowson indicates that they or their predecessors had founded the church. The origin of the first church of St James is more intriguing. It lay beside the main Saxon street and was swallowed up by the Norman bishop's close. Burials have been found on the site. Since the bishop would scarcely permit burials in his courtyard, they are thought to be Saxon.(28) The advowson was part of the royal estate in Bath.(29) So it is possible that Alfred or Edward the Elder built the first church of St James for the people of the new burh.

The fact that Edward established a mint in Bath early in his reign shows that the city had been permanently transferred to Wessex. (Mercia, regained from the Danes, was controlled by Edward's brother-in-law Æthelred until the latter's death in 910.(30)) The transfer was to have long-term implications for the city. As the shire system crystallised, Bath fell into Somerset, not Gloucestershire. The see of Somerset (based at Wells) was created in 909, so Bath also changed diocese. Evidently for ease of administration the lands owned by Bath Abbey in Alfred's time were embraced by the see and county of Somerset.


  1. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  2. Kemble, no.290 (Sawyer no.210).
  3. The city wall was largely demolished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but its line is marked on several earlier maps. Excavations of parts of it have demonstrated a Roman origin. T.J.O'Leary, 'Excavations at Upper Borough Walls, Bath, 1980', Medieval Archaeology Vol. 25 (1981), pp.1-30; B.Cunliffe, Roman Bath, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London No.24 (Oxford 1969), pp.173-5; A Roman ditch was found in 1995 by the Bath Archaeological Trust outside the East Gate (Peter Davenport, personal communication).
  4. R.F.Leslie ed., Three Old English Elegies (Manchester, 1961), p.51.
  5. C.A.Ralegh Radford, 'Later pre-conquest boroughs and their defences', Medieval Archaeology Vol. 14 (1970), pp.83-103; O'Leary, pp.22-23; R.H.C.Davis, 'Alfred and Guthrum's frontier', English Historical Review Vol.97 (1982), pp.807-9.
  6. M.Biddle and D.Hill, 'Late Saxon planned towns', Antiquaries Journal Vol. 51 (1971), pp.70-85; D.Hill, Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1981), fig.235.
  7. English Historical Documents Vol.1, p.498.
  8. Biddle and Hill, 'Late Saxon planned towns', p.70.
  9. Cunliffe 'Saxon Bath', pp.351-52; Greening, p.14. On the site of Ham Gate, J.Manco, 'The buildings of Bath Priory', SANH, Vol.137 (1994 for 1993), p.82, corrects W.Wedlake, 'The City Walls of Bath', Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, Vol.110 (1966), p.97, Fig.5B.
  10. A deed of 1319 mentions 'Northgate Street [an earlier name for High Street] where the market is situated' (Ancient Deeds, bundle 2, no.83).
  11. Manco, 'Bath Priory', pp.80-82.
  12. Manco, Bath Priory, pp.78, 94-5. Excavation outside the East Gate has dated the medieval lane as post- Norman (P. Davenport, personal communication.)
  13. Ancient Deeds, bundle 3, no.66.
  14. M.Aston and J.Bond, The Landscape of Towns (1976), p.69.
  15. A.H.Smith, English Place-Name Elements part 1, English Place-name Society Vol.25 (1956), pp.26, 58.
  16. P.Davenport, 'Excavations at Bath Street, Bath', Avon Past Vol.16 (1993), p.14.
  17. Bath and North Somerset Record Office, Ancient Deeds, bundle 5, nos.60-61.
  18. The style of the coin was modelled upon his father's coins from Exeter and Winchester; Edward's coins from 910 are in a different style. C.H.V. Sutherland, English Coinage 600-1900 (1973), p.28; L.V.Grinsell, The Bath Mint: an historical outline (1973), pp.10-11.
  19. Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons, pp.130-1, 176.
  20. Domesday gen.ed. J.Morris, Vol.8: Somerset ed. C. and F Thorn (Chichester 1980), section 1, no.31, section 7, no.1 and p.313.
  21. F.M.Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1971), pp.530-2.
  22. Domesday Somerset, section 1, no.28, section 5, nos.20, 30, 66, section 40, no.1, section 41, no.1.
  23. Ancient Deeds, bundle 1, no.19.
  24. J.Schofield and A.Vince, Medieval Towns (1994), p.147.
  25. Manco, 'Bath Priory', p.80.
  26. Ancient Deeds, bundle 4, no.88, bundle 6, no.43.
  27. Feet of Fines for the County of Somerset ed E. Green, SRS Vol.6 (1892), pp.253-4; Vol.12 (1898), p.137; Vol.17 (1902), pp. 82-3; British Library Egerton Charters nos.260, 336; The Registers of ...Bishop[s] of Bath and Wells 1518..[to] 1559, SRS Vol.55 (1940), no.496.
  28. Manco, 'Bath Priory', pp.80-82; Davenport ed., Archaeology in Bath, pp.104, 109, 116, fig.91.
  29. Sold to Bishop John de Villula c.1090 and re-acquired by the Crown in 1193. In 1274 the advowson was held to be part of that estate. Rotuli Hundredorum Vol. 2 (1818), p.123.
  30. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Davis, 'Alfred and Guthrum's frontier'.