Saxons Beleaguered

It was in Ethelred's reign that the Vikings returned, more organised, more disciplined, more formidable than before. By 1009 the Danish army had rampaged over every shire in Wessex, so it is not surprising that Ethelred chose to hold a witan that year in the relative safety of Bath.(1) St Ælfheah, by then Archbishop of Canterbury, was captured in 1012 and murdered when he would not allow himself to be ransomed, but this was not part of a widespread attack on the Church. The Vikings were Christian by this time. So when King Sweyn of Denmark advanced on Bath during his campaign of conquest in 1013, he is unlikely to have sacked the abbey. In fact the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of nothing more violent than his camping at Bath, where he received the submission of the ealdorman and thanes from the west. However, there are clues that Bath put up some resistance. A memorial rune at Navelsjo, Sweden, presumed to date from this period, says Gunnar, son of Rode, was buried by his brother Helge in a stone coffin in Bath.(2) A broken tenth-century sword found in the city ditch outside the North Gate could have been simply thrown away, but the position hints at an assault on the city.(3)

If Sweyn's son Cnut paid any attention to Bath during his reign, we know nothing of it. Only when the English monarchy was restored do royal charters to Bath Abbey resume.(4) Edward the Confessor and Queen Edith acted as witnesses to a lease of land by Abbot Ælfwig of Bath to Archbishop Stigand.(5) The queen had a particular interest in Bath; it was part of her dower.(6) She held it until her death in 1075, so the advent of the Normans had little immediate impact on the city, except for one curious episode. From 1061 to 1084 Abbot Wulfwold held the abbeys of Bath and Chertsey, Surrey, in plurality. Chertsey must have been his preferred house, for a second abbot was needed to actually run Bath. In 1066 Sæwold had not long taken over this post from Abbot Ælfwig.(7) His fear of the Normans was such that at the Conquest he fled to Arras, taking with him many books from the Bath Abbey library.(8)

Colophon from the Saxon gospels of Bath Abbey (Corpus Christi College Cambridge)Happily these did not include the Anglo-Saxon gospels which now belong to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.(9) The four gospels are written in different hands, each on a separate quire; probably four monks worked on the book simultaneously. The scribe of Matthew inserted a colophon (left), giving his name as Ælfric and saying that he wrote the gospel in the monastery at Bath and gave it to the prior Brihtwold.(10) That is a clue that Bath was between abbots at the time. Blank pages were then used to record solemn undertakings here sworn on this Christ's book, of which the earliest is a manumission by Abbot Sæwold,(11) so the gospels were probably finished just before his appointment. Ælfric was still among the monks in 1077.(12)

The self-exiled Sæwold was replaced by Abbot Ælfsige, who seems to have been an industrious and worthy man. Alsi's Bath (later the Hot Bath) was presumably named after him; he perhaps built a Saxon bath there to replace the ruined Roman one.(13) He allowed a number of the slaves on the Bath Abbey estates to purchase their freedom, or that of their children, and freed two for the good of his soul.(14) He made an inventory of the abbey's huge collection of relics. Most were together in the shrine, but relics of St Barbara belonged to the altar of St Mary.(15) That may have been within the church of St Peter, or in a Saxon predecessor of St Mary of Stalls.

Under the dowager Queen Edith and Abbot Ælfsige, Bath remained essentially Saxon. In 1077 all the monks still had Saxon names.(16) The same is true of the witnesses to Ælfsige's transactions, except for the portreeves. The end of Saxon Bath really came on the deaths of William I and Abbot Ælfsige in 1087. In the upheaval that followed, Bath was sacked, but emerged anew as the cathedral city of Somerset.(17)


  1. English Historical Documents Vol.1, no.45, n.4.
  2. S.B.F.Jansson, The Runes of Sweden (1962), pp.52-53.
  3. T.J.O'Leary et al 'A Viking period sword from Upper Borough Walls, 1981' in Davenport ed., Archaeology in Bath 1976-1985, pp.1-3.
  4. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.28 (Sawyer no.1034).
  5. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.15 (Sawyer no.1426).
  6. Domesday Somerset, see under section 1, no.26.
  7. Knowles, Heads of Religious Houses, p.28.
  8. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature pp.205-06, 208, n.141.
  9. This book was acquired at the Dissolution by Archbishop Matthew Parker, along with many other manuscripts from monastic libraries, and donated to Corpus Christi College.
  10. M.R.James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1912), Vol.1, no.140; N.R.Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo- Saxon (Oxford, 1957), no.35.
  11. J.Earle, A Handbook to the Land-charters and other Saxonic Documents (Oxford, 1888), p.271.
  12. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.4; translated in Pelteret no.78.
  13. Ancient Deeds, bundle 5, nos.66-78; Medieval Deeds of Bath and District, section 1, nos.47-8. The name Alsi's Bath occurs from c.1200 to 1366, when the Cross and King's Baths were identified as such, so it must be the Hot Bath.
  14. Earle, Handbook, pp.268-271; translations of most of these by Pelteret, pp.90-5.
  15. Two Chartularies, pp.lxxv-lxxvi; calendared by Pelteret, p.90.
  16. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.4; trans. by Pelteret, no.78.
  17. Manco, 'Bath Priory', p.77.


My greatest debt is to Peter Davenport for the years of discussion and debate that stirred my interest in the subject. I would also like to thank Stephen Clews, Dr. Michael Costen and Prof. Barry Cunliffe for their careful reading of the first draft of this paper. Helpful comments on etymology were also made by Dr Oliver Padel, who directed me to Professor Richard Coates, who in turn kindly sent me his work on Acemannesceastre.