Monday, March 21, 2016

St. Athelwin, Wessex and Athelney before Alfred’s Abbey

St. Athelwin, Wessex and Athelney before Alfred’s Abbey

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

In the winter of 878 the Kingdom of Wessex, and Anglo-Saxon England, was reduced to a small island in the Somerset levels known as the Isle of Athelney. Here King Alfred of Wessex tried to work out the future as the Danes held most of the rest of England. On the seventh week after Easter 878 King Alfred went forth from Athelney and met the Danish army of King Guthrum at Ethandun and won a great victory. Thereafter England was divided in two between Danish north-east and Saxon south-west. Two centuries before Alfred’s time Athelney was famous as the home of St. Athelwin the hermit, otherwise known as St. Athelwin the Confessor.

The Isle of Athelney

The Isle of Athelney, according to the Abbey records, contained about ten acres of arable land and twenty acres of meadow along with part of moor situated on the south side.[1] The Isle is a low lying hill, in two parts, on the north side of the River Tone and is the only point of elevation on that side of the river of any consequence.[2] But that elevation, according to Professor Mike Aston, is only about thirty feet above the water level.[3] Before the drainage of the Somerset levels, the Isle was surrounded by lakes such as Horlake, Eastlake, Saltmoor and Southlake. Asser, the biographer of King Alfred, described Athelney in Alfred’s time as “a spot so surrounded in all directions by waters that save for one bridge there was no access to it except by boat”.[4]

Athelney in the Iron Age

The first documentary history of Athelney comes in the seventh century. Archaeology is the only opener on the pre-seventh century history of the island. The Time Team archaeology programme dug at Athelney and discovered an Iron Age fort on the east side of the Isle opposite the causeway from East Lyng. East Lyng is to the west of Athelney. The bank around this Iron Age fort was visible in the time of King Alfred and was reused by him. Iron Age pottery was also discovered on the Isle.[5]

Athelney around Alfred's time

The Iron Age fort was gone out of use by the seventh century otherwise St. Athelwin who not have enjoyed a hermits life on Athelney with all those Iron Age people singing songs, baking cakes and making noise. 

The Kingdom of Dyvnaint

At the end of the Roman Empire in Britain the country broke up into a great number of different kingdoms. The area of modern Somerset formed part of the Kingdom of Dyvnaint and this included the Isle of Athelney.

The growth of the Kingdom of Wessex

After the Saxon invasion, or colonisation, in the fifth century the British were pushed westwards into Wales and the south-west of England. Much of modern-day England was divided into a number of Saxon kingdoms. Eventually three great kingdoms emerged; Northumbria in the north-east, Mercia in the Midlands and Wessex in the south.

Wessex, kingdom of the West Saxons, was originally centred on the counties of Berkshire and Hampshire but over time it expanded eastwards to Kent and westwards to Cornwall. In 568 the Kingdom of Wessex acquired Surrey after defeating King Aethelberht of Kent. In 571 King Cuthwulf crossed the River Thames and after defeated the British-Welsh army took the Vale of Aylesbury. In 574 the Kingdom of Wessex reached the River Severn on the eastern edge of modern Somerset.[6]

King Cyneglis (also spelt as Kynegilsus) of Wessex came to the throne about 611 and early in his reign extended the kingdom frontier by defeating the British at Beandun, said to be Bindon in east Devon. In 626 a failed assassination attempt by Cyneglis’s son Cwichelm on the Northumbrian king resulted in a vengeful attack on Wessex in which five royal princes were killed. Wessex expansion was curtailed further by attacks by Mercia. After the battle of Cirencester in 628 Wessex lost much of its territory gained in the lower Severn valley. In 635 King Cyneglis was converted to Christianity by St. Birinus “the Roman” on the recommendation of the powerful Northumberland King Oswald.[7]

St. Athelwin the Confessor

King Cyneglis had a number of children like Cwichelm mentioned above and another son, Kenwealth who succeeded his father as King of Wessex. St. Athelwin of Athelney was another son of King Cyneglis of Wessex.[8] The name of Athelwin translates as “noble friend”.

In the early days of Christianity, particularly in places like Ireland, you often get a son or daughter of a royal family becoming a Christian preacher, bishop, abbot or in the case of St. Athelwin, a hermit in an isolate place. It is not known when St. Athelwin took up the religious life but the succession of his brother to the Wessex throne may have been the impious for Athelwin to go into Somerset and Athelney.  

When his son, Kenwealth, also spelt as Coenwalch, succeeded to the throne of Wessex in 643 the kingdom reverted to the old religion from Christianity. For this, but more so because King Kenwealth repudiated his wife, who was the sister of the Mercian king, in 645 King Penda of Mercia drove Kenwealth from the throne.[9] It may be possible that about the same time that the king’s brother, Athelwin, left Wessex and settled on the Isle of Athelney as a hermit. If Wessex was Christian no more it would be no place for a Christian like Athelwin and thus King Alfred was not the first of the royal House of Wessex who sought refuge in the Isle of Athelney.

The Athelney which Athelwin saw was described by Roger of Wendover as “girded in with fen on every side, and not to be come at, save by boat. Thereon is all dense alder brake, full of stags and goats and such creatures, and in the midst one bit of open ground, scare two acres.[10] In this isolated place Athelwin found peace and had time for prayer. Over time the hermit became well respected among the people of the Somerset levels and became known as St. Athelwin the Confessor. The term confessor is usually means a saintly person with unworldly ambitions who didn’t suffer a martyr’s death. Dr. Sam Newton said that a confessor was a saintly priest or monk. King Edward the Confessor would be a more famous person to hold the title.

In the early centuries of Christianity many religious people went off to isolated places to be away from the world and closer to God. In the Middle East the hermits went out into the desert. Ireland and Britain had no desert but as two island nations surrounded by water there were plenty of off shore islands where hermits could go. Islands such as Iona, Lindisfarne, Skellig Michael come to mind as examples. Athelney was also an island, cut off from the world, and so place apart like the offshore islands.

Wessex become Christian again

Meanwhile King Kenwealth spent about three years in East Anglia before his restoration as an under king to Penda of Mercia. While in exile King Kenwealth re-embraced Christianity and in 646 was baptised. King Kenwealth became a zealous champion of the new religion and upon his restoration founded an abbey at Winchester and established a bishopric, the first in the kingdom.[11]

But it was war and the restoration of Wessex power and ambitions of expansion which truly governed the heart of King Kenwealth. Early in the 650s Wessex made war on the British kingdom of Dyvnaint and in 652 won an important victory at Bradford-on-Avon. This success pushed the boundary of the two kingdoms westward to the Mendip Hills.[12] By 658 King Kenwealth had pushed the boundaries of Wessex as far west as South Petherton on the River Parret in Somerset.[13] This followed the Wessex victory in the battle of Poenna. Athelney was still in British held Somerset – a foreign country – or was it Wessex that was the foreign country.

The fall and rise of Wessex expansion

But the expansion of Wessex was not left happen without the watchful eye of its northern neighbour. In 661 King Wulfhere of Mercia defeated Wessex in Shropshire and severely punished Wessex taking Surrey, Sussex and the Isle of Wight from the latter kingdom. After a rest the westward expansion of Wessex continued and by 670 King Kenwealth had brought the area around Glastonbury within Wessex.[14]

King Kenwealth died in 672 and was succeeded by his queen, Seaxburh. She held the throne for a year when Aescwine became king. He died in 676 after a poor reign which included another defeat by Mercia. Kentwine, brother of Kenwealth then became king and in 682 renewed the war against the British of Somerset. The latter were driven west “to the sea” and the Wessex kingdom took in the land around Watchet.[15]

For a time, it is said, King Kentwine advanced the Kingdom of Wessex as far as Taunton but he did not hold that place for long. Instead King Kenwealth held the west bank of the River Parret and the north side of the River Tone up to the Quantock Hills and west as far as West Monkton.[16] If this be true it was the first time that the Isle of Athelney came within the Kingdom of Wessex.

King Kenwealth was succeeded by King Ceodwalla in 686 who in his short reign recovered the Isle of Wight and twice ravaged Kent. It is said that Ceodwalla grew tired of wars and bloodshed and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. There he was baptised and died shortly after.[17] He was buried in St. Peter’s with a noble Latin epitaph.[18] In 689 he was succeeded by King Ine who continued to consolidate Wessex power south of the Thames. In 710 the war was resumed between Wessex and Dyvnaint. It seems that King Gerent of Dyvnaint was determined to recover the territory around Glastonbury and the great abbey of that place. King Ine had to procure levies from Sussex to hold back the Britons and with the larger force pushed the boundary of Wessex to Taunton where a fort was built. King Ine permitted the British living in Wessex controlled Somerset to enjoy the same laws as their Wessex neighbours. At this point the power of Dyvnaint was kept in check and open warfare between the two kingdoms did not resume until about 755.[19]

The Isle of Athelney was now most certainly within the Kingdom of Wessex and formed part of the vast royal domain of the Wessex kings in Somerset. In fact the only significant land not part of the royal domain was the property held by Glastonbury Abbey. If St. Athelwin had founded a religious community on the Isle it did not have any major impact beyond perhaps contributing to the name of Athelney. Robin Bush, of Time Team fame and former deputy county archivist for Somerset, said that Athelney was known in King Alfred’s day as Athelinsey or the Isle of the Athelings or Island of the Princes/Nobles.[20] May be St. Athelwin had gathered around him some princes of the royal House of Wessex.

An image of Athelney in Alfred's time

But the community didn’t survive for long. When King Alfred came to Athelney in 878 only a swine-herd or cow-herd, called Denewolf and his family appeared to be living there.[21] Yet the memory of St. Athelwin continued to form part of veneration by the local people. The lost Athelney cartulary said that King Alfred lodged in an old cottage that once belonged to St. Athelwin the hermit.[22] King Alfred stayed in Athelney in the winter of 877-8 and for seven weeks after Easter in 878 when he went forth and defeated the Danes and divided England between Wessex and the Danes. For more see

Athelney Abbey

After King Alfred recovered Wessex, he sent Denewolf the cow-herd to the University and advanced him to become Bishop of Winchester.[23] In about 888 King Alfred founded a Benedictine abbey on the Isle of Athelney in thanks for his own deliverance and that of Wessex. A person called John the Old Saxon was appointed first abbot.[24] Another source says John of Aeldex was first abbot and that for want of religious people in Wessex, monks were hired in France to come to Athelney. These French monks didn’t enjoy their stay in Somerset and conspired to kill Abbot John before the church altar but their plan was discovered and the abbey continued to operate. For more see

The first church was a square building with circular apes on each side and this was seen in 1125 by William of Malmesbury. In later times the abbey was rebuilt with a large church and a cloister on the south side. There was extensive rebuilding in the fourteenth century. After the dissolution of the monasteries the site of Athelney Abbey was left fall into ruin. In about 1674, workmen of John Hocker came and took down all the buildings and dug up the foundations.[25] Today nothing is to be seen of the abbey above ground and robber trenches mean little is left underground.

Monument on site of Athelney Abbey

Athelney Abbey dedication – St. Peter

It appears that for the first two hundred years of Athelney Abbey that the abbey was dedicated to St. Peter with no mention of the ancient local saint of the Island, St. Athelwin. A later charter of King Alfred described Athelney as “the church of St. Saviour of Athelney”.[26] In 937 King Athelstane granted the manor of Lenge (Lyng) to the church of S. Peter of Athelney. In this charter King Athelstane refers to the founding of the abbey by his grandfather, King Alfred.[27]

In 1007 King Athelred gave Athelney Abbey a small piece of ground in Hamme and described the Abbey dedication as “the monastery of the most holy and chief of the Apostles which is called Athelney”.[28] In about 1020-1025 King Cnut gave to Abbot Athelwin and Athelney the manor of Sevenhampton. In this charter Athelney was described as dedicated to God and to St. Peter, prince of the Apostles.[29]

Athelwin begins to appear

On some rare occasions between about 888 and the 1130s St. Athelwin appears as a patron saint of Athelney Abbey. In the reign of King Athelstane (about 937), Maenchi the count, son of Pretignor, gave the land of Lanlovern to St. Heldenus (Athelwin) forever. This charter was made in the land of the Saxons on the island of Adelne (Athelney) on the feast of All Saints before the altar of SS Peter and Paul in the presence of Seigna the abbot.[30] Sometime before 1242 a monk of Athelney produced a grant giving the abbey fuel rights in Stanmore in a court case. The document described Athelney as founded by King Alfred and dedicated to St. Saviour, the Apostles Peter and Paul and to the holy Athelwin the confessor.[31] 

Change of dedication

The twelfth century saw a change in the dedication of Athelney Abbey. When William of Malmesbury visited Athelney about 1125, he observed that the small, poor community of monks living there sang well the praises of their patron saint, St. Athelwin, who they said was a brother of King Coenwalch of Wessex.[32]

From about the 1130s St. Athelwin appears alongside St. Peter as the patron saints of the abbey. The charter of John de Erleigh, made between 1136 and 1165, in which he granted land at Cantock to the abbey, was made on the feast of St. Athelwin in the abbey church. The grant of the land was made in perpetuity to “God and St. Peter and the blessed Athelwin and to the monks of the church of Athelney”.[33]

The appearance of St. Athelwin among the patron saints of Athelney in the 1130s may have something to do with the civil war of that time. The Norman King Henry I left only a daughter called Matilda as his heir and swore the barons to accept her as their Queen. But shortly after the old king died, his nephew, Stephen of Blois seized the throne of England and became king. Civil War erupted between the two claimants which sent the country into a period of anarchy. As neither Stephen nor Matilda were English, the monks of Athelney Abbey may have wished to assert their English and Wessex heritage by including St. Athelwin the Confessor among their patrons. Between c.1135 and c.1159 a person called Simon was abbot of Athelney.

In charters from the 1140s onwards St. Athelwin appears more often than heretofore. A charter of Roger de Mandeville, made between 1147 and 1166, granted the island of Andresia to the church of St. Peter and St. Athelwin of Athelney.[34] In about 1186 Matilda de Chandos gave a man servant to the church of St. Athelwin of Athelney.[35] Towards the end of the twelfth century the full dedication of Athelney Abbey appears in the charters. In about 1174-1191 Alexander de Piroa gave to God and the monastery of St. Saviour, St. Peter and St. Athelwin of Athelney, his serf, Thomas de Bosco and some land.[36]

Athelwin remembered

As noted, Athelwin gained recognition over time as one of the patron saints of Athelney. He was noted in the abbey records and was remembered in the abbey prayers. Most churches and abbeys kept a record book, a calendar, in which they recorded the feast day throughout the year. The calendar of Athelney does not survive but that for the neighbouring abbey of Muchelney does survive. In it the feast of St. Athelwin of Athelney was remembered on 14th September. The main feast celebrated on that date was the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the declining feast of the martyrs Cornelius and Cyprian. It seems that Athelney Abbey considered that its ancient patron saint was being overshadowed by the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and so more their feast day to 18th September. The Muchelney calendar later noted this change of date.[37]


William of Malmesbury said that St. Athelwin had a chronic disease but whether this was the cause of his death or made take up the hermit life is unclear.[38] It may be noted somewhere in what year Athelwin died but I have not found that source yet – a job for another day.


End of post


[1] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of the Benedictine Abbeys of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset (Somerset Record Society, Vol. XIV, 1899), p. 191
[2] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex (Blandford Press, Pole, Dorset, 1978), p. 45
[4] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 47
[6] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 33
[7] Audrey MacDonald, ‘Cyneglis’, in John Cannon (ed.), The Oxford companion to British History (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 271
[8] B. Schofield (ed.), Muchelney Memoranda (Somerset Record Society, Vol. XLII, 1927), p. 157
[9] Audrey MacDonald, ‘Cenwalh’, in John Cannon (ed.), The Oxford companion to British History, p. 183
[10] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 49
[11] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 36
[12] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 54
[13] B. Schofield (ed.), Muchelney Memoranda, p. 157
[14] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 58
[15] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, p. 64
[16] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, pp. 64, 70
[17] David Hume, History of England (London, 1871), p. 30
[18] James Campbell, ‘Caedwalla’, in John Cannon (ed.), The Oxford companion to British History, p. 151
[19] Albany Major, Early Wars of Wessex, pp. 77, 78
[20] accessed on 20 March 2016; Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), The particular description of the County of Somerset by Thomas Gerard of Trent (Somerset Record Society, Vol. XV, 1900), p. 216
[21] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), The particular description of the County of Somerset by Thomas Gerard of Trent, p. 216
[22] B. Schofield (ed.), Muchelney Memoranda, p. 157
[23] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), The particular description of the County of Somerset by Thomas Gerard of Trent, p. 217
[24] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 115, 116
[26] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 126-8
[27] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 155, 156
[28] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 146, 147
[29] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 141, 142
[30] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, p. 156
[31] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 190, 191
[32] B. Schofield (ed.), Muchelney Memoranda, pp. 156, 157
[33] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, p. 172
[34] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, p. 166
[35] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, p. 150
[36] Rev. E.H. Bates (ed.), Two cartularies of Muchelney and Athelney in the County of Somerset, pp. 135, 136
[37] B. Schofield (ed.), Muchelney Memoranda, p. 156


  1. Excellent Niall! Wish I could have seen it in the time of Alfred.

    1. Thanks Susan. The two Time Team programmes about Athelney on Youtube show illustrations of how it may have looked in Alfred's day.