Chester in 900

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The Puzzle

Around the year 900 something which was to be important for the history of Chester happened there. This was around the time that Britain was emerging from so-called "Dark Ages" once named for a lack of historical records, and now known as the "early modern period". Just what occurred is only known in outline, but within a few years Roman Chester had been "restored" and thereafter the course of its history is a little clearer. The names of many of those involved in the events at Chester are known, but exactly what happened remains something of a mystery. In part, this appears to be due a deliberate concealment of the truth.

According to some accounts Pengwern was a Brythonic settlement of sub-Roman Britain situated in what is now the English county of Shropshire, adjoining the modern Welsh border. It is generally regarded as being the early seat of the kings of Powys before its establishment at Mathrafal, further west, but the theory that it may have been an early kingdom (or a sub-kingdom of Powys itself) has also been postulated. Its precise location is uncertain. A tradition, recorded by Gerald of Wales in the late 12th century, associates it with the site of modern Shrewsbury (although that town has been known as Amwythig in Welsh since the Middle Ages). A number of alternative locations have been proposed. A more recent suggestion is the Berth, a dramatic hillfort at Baschurch, but the archaeological evidence shows only the Iron Age fort with possible Roman reuse. Wroxeter, the former Roman town of Viroconium Cornoviorum lies in proximity to these places. Archaeological evidence suggests that Wroxeter continued in use after the Roman withdrawal and was only finally abandoned in about 520 when it had become indefensible as the last vestiges of Romano-British central government broke down. Another theory is that the earthworks under Whittington Castle may be Pengwern.

The Welsh kingdoms had been subject to Mercia since the mid seventh-century, and in 853 the Mercians under Burgred received the assistance of the West Saxons to maintain their hegemony. In the 870s Mercia became subject to attacks by the Viking Great Heathen Army, and in 874 it drove out King Burgred. He was succeeded by the last independent King of Mercia, Ceolwulf II, who was presented by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a puppet of the Vikings. In 877 the Vikings partitioned Mercia, taking the east for themselves and leaving the west to Ceolwulf. Gwynedd was also under attack from the Vikings, and in 877 King Rhodri Mawr was defeated and driven out. He returned the following year, but immediately came under attack from Mercia, which was still trying to maintain its hegemony in Wales. King Alfred's victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in May 878 relieved the pressure on Mercia, and in the same year Mercia defeated and killed Rhodri Mawr. Ceolwulf died or was deposed in 879, and was succeeded as Lord of the Mercians by Æthelred. Æthelred was in turn defeated by the Welsh in 881 but survived to become an ally of Alfred.

Chester sits squarely in the disputed territory between Mercia and Wales. In 830 some authorities make it the capital of Gwynedd. Ecgbert of Wessex appears to have visited Chester but once, around 830. As one writer records:

  • During Egbert’s final war with Cornwall, the North Welsh had to the best of their ability aided their fellow Britons, and therefore Egbert launched a punitive expedition against them. He laid siege to and took Chester, then capital of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd – strongest of all the several North Welsh states. Of the punishments Egbert visited upon these Britons, the most humiliating was his command that the statue of their ancient king, Cadwalhon, be destroyed and never replaced. When he returned to Wessex, Egbert decreed that all the Welsh and their offspring leave his kingdom within six months or be put to death. Egbert ordered this apparently at the instigation of his wife, Redburga, who did exercise some political influence over her husband, and whose hatred of the Welsh was well-known.

Just one of the complications with this statement is that the "traditional" boundary of Mercia and Wales, Offa's Dyke, lies to the west of Chester. Other theories have proposed that at times the boundary lay along the River Gowy, to the east of Chester. So one aspect of the puzzle is, just when and how did Chester cease to be a Welsh city?

Disputes over the border had existed long before the years around 900 and would continue for centuries afterwards. It is not clear where the border between the pre-Roman tribes lay, with the Bronze Age occupants being the Deceangli in North Wales and the Cornovii in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire among others. The local topography provides several possible choices: the line of Offa's Dyke, the fords along the valley of the River Dee and the Sandstone Ridge with its Hillforts.

The issue of the relation between the Deceangli (Copper) and the Cornovii (Salt) is where to put the boundary between these two tribes: in the Welsh Hills, along the flooding river systems or on the Sandstone Ridge?. All locations are approximate, but yellow arrows show river crossings which are flood-resistant, squares are hill-forts, blue circles are brine springs and "cups" are where Very Coarse Pottery has been found. Evidence of both metal working and VCP have been found at Beeston. The red circles are where copper ore is known to exist.

Some fifty years after Ecgbert's raid there was a further conflict at Chester, when a party of Vikings camped there. At this time Chester has been described as "deserted". Within a very few years the city had been "restored" and thereafter the city seems to enjoyed a degree of prosperity. Filling in the gaps in this very sketchy period of what appears to be a significant transition is difficult. Information on events and people is scarce and there has evidently been some manipulation of the few known facts either through a deliberate attempt to conceal some elements or to try to create a coherent picture out of what may be isolated events.

Modern studies and public perceptions are complicated by the join-the-dots temptations of "pseudoarchaeology", hang-overs from Victorian perceptions of Anglo-Saxon history, assumptions of the domimance of the West-Saxons under Alfred (or Ecgbert), assumptions about the continuity of "Roman" culture or christianity at Chester and nearby (such as at Eccleston) and other factors. Only scraps of information exist as to when the Saxons arrived in Chester and how they integrated with those living there at the time.

Dramatis Personae

The following list of characters are all known to historians, and there is considerable certainty that they existed, but much about their lives is clouded by propaganda. Some (Offa, Rhodri, Alfred) are known to the general public. Others played an important part in events but are far less well known. Fictional portrayals of them often make assumptions about their character and significant changes to their actual role.

A key source for the period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals in Old English narrating the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The Chronicle was a West Saxon production, however, and is sometimes thought to be biased in favour of Wessex; hence it may not accurately convey the extent of power achieved by Offa, and other Mercians. Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Victorian historians would puff-up the role played by Wessex, especially when Wessex had victories, although both would downplay the defeats which Wessex suffered.

One important thing to note is the weakness of some to the sources of supposedly historical information.

Werburgh, (died c.700), Mercian saint:

According to legend Wulfhere had a fortified camp at "Wulferecester" (Bury Bank) near Stone. This kind of hill-fort dates to the Iron Age period, most having been constructed and occupied between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD - long before the actual time of Wulfhere.

The establishment of the cult of Werburgh at Chester was a key element in the development of the city towards the end of the Dark Ages. She never visited Chester and her relics and cult only arrived in the city long after her death.

An Anglo-Saxon princess who became the patron saint of the city of Chester. Werburgh was born at Stone (now in Staffordshire), and was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia (himself the Christian son of the pagan King Penda of Mercia) and his wife St Ermenilda, herself daughter of the King of Kent. She obtained her father's consent to enter the Abbey of Ely, which had been founded by her great aunt Etheldreda (or Audrey), the first Abbess of Ely and former queen of Northumbria, whose fame was widespread. Werburgh was trained at home (traditionally by St. Chad, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield), and by her mother; and in the cloister by her aunt and grandmother. Werburgh was a nun for most of her life. The shrine of St Werburgh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. A shrine to St Werburgh was established at the Church of St Peter and St Paul (the site is now occupied by Chester Cathedral). In 975, the Church of St Peter and St Paul was re-dedicated to St Werburgh and the Northumbrian saint Oswald. A monastery in the names of these two saints was attached to the church in the 11th century.

Some of the supposed history of Werburgh seems obviously false, even Chambers in his "Book of Days" is suspicious, especially as regards some of the stories which became associated with her father and brothers. Parts of her story do seem to be backed-up by other evidence - such as the fact that one brother became king after her uncle had stood in as ruler during his youth for some years. Both the uncle and the brother appear to have eventually become monks. Other parts are less believable, including the supposed murder of other brothers by her father. She probably was a very well-connected "royal saint" at a time when royalty who favoured the church found many of their deceased achieving sainthood. There is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, then king of the Mercians, granted to "the familia of St. Werburgh" 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow.

The problem with the actual re-location of Werburgh to Chester is that while it is mentioned by Bradshaw, it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, Werburgh's hagiographer (who was alive in 1106). This was not Werbergh's first post-mortem journey. According to the traditional version she died at Trentham (3 February, 699 or 700) and, according to some, was originally buried there. Existence of this nunnery is disputed and a connection with Saint Werburgh is also disputed, there is some evidence that she died at Threekingham.

Offa, (died 796), Mercian King:

Offa left a lasting mark on history in the name of the dyke which bears his name. It's date and purpose are still the subject of debate.

Offa's reign is considered the zenith of Mercian authority in Britain. Thereafter Mercia declined and Wessex became ascendant.

Many historians regard Offa as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. He is associated with Offa's Dyke a large linear earthwork that roughly follows the current border between England and Wales. For 200 years (between 626 and 825), having annexed or gained submissions from five of the other six kingdoms of the Heptarchy (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex), Mercia dominated England south of the River Humber: this period is known as the Mercian Supremacy. Offa died in July 796. His son Ecgfrith succeeded him but reigned for less than five months before Coenwulf came to the throne. In the last few years of Offa's rule the first recorded Viking raids on Britain started. The first being in 789, with the noted Lindisfarne raid being in 793. The Vikings would be a significant influence on the next three-hundred years of British history, including that of Chester.

Offa is at times portrayed as something of a despot who ruthlessly eliminated all possible rivals to the sucession of his son. A letter written by Alcuin of York in 797 to a Mercian ealdorman named Osbert makes it apparent that Offa had gone to great lengths to ensure that his son Ecgfrith would succeed him. Alcuin's opinion is that Ecgfrith:

  • "has not died for his own sins; but the vengeance for the blood his father shed to secure the kingdom has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son."

The association of Offa with his supposed dyke has been disputed, even though it is mentioned by such apparently careful historians as Bishop Asser, in recent years views have diverged even about such basic questions as its purpose and even when it was built. The traditional theory is that it marks the border between Mercia and Wales, and may have been a symbol that the power of Mercia was such that attacking would be fruitless. It is unclear how effective as it was as a barrier/border: in c895 Asser, with the benefit of hindsight and in the setting of Alfred’s newly-ascendant West Saxon kingdom in the late ninth-century, saw Offa’s Dyke fundamentally as a vainglorious exercise by an unscrupulous and ruthless king. Asser should however be considered potentially biased as he tends at times to follow the West-Saxon policy of negativity towards all things Mercian.

Even given such an impressive monument as Offa's Dyke it would perhaps be wrong to assume that it marked any kind of traditional and permanent boundary between the western part of English Mercia and Wales.

Ecgbert, (771/775 – 839), King of Wessex:

Ecgbert's reign was portrayed by the West-Saxons as the time from which Wessex began to challenge the authority of Mercia.

Porch sculpture at the Town Hall - Egbert - believed at the time to be the first king of England. Visited Chester once - to invade it. Note the footstool: in the ancient Near East the footstool was seen as a symbol of the king’s power and the root word for footstool that derives from the Hebrew expresses "dominion" - many Near Eastern bas-reliefs use the footstool as a symbol of victory.

King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. His father was reputedly Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s Ecgbert was forced into exile to Charlemagne's court in the Frankish Empire by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric's death in 802 Ecgberht returned and took the throne of Wessex. In Chester, Ecgbert is commemorated by a bas-relief in the porch of the Town Hall with the somewhat enigmatic label "KING EGBERT UNITING THE KINGDOMS MERCIA" and a lot of foot-kissing by what are presumably the then local administration in Chester - although they may be meant to be conquered kings as they appear to be piling crowns at his feet. The "traditional" story being portrayed at the Town Hall is that Ecgbert conquered all of England.

Ecgbert also seems to have been the subject of a certain amount of historical propaganda on the part of Wessex, who were writing a chronicle at the behest of his grandson Alfred. The later Wessex chronicle-writers sought to portray Ecgbert as a heroic figure who was a rightful king, wrongly exiled and swearing an oath to return at Ecgbert's Stone, who did indeed return from the prestigious court of Charlemagne and became the overlord of the whole land. There is certainly a core of truth in this account of him, but much of the detail appears to have been presented in such a manner as to support the position that Alfred's Wessex was the logical inheritor of the English crown.

Ecgbert's supposed dominion of England came to an end with Wiglaf's recovery of power in Mercia the following year. Wiglaf's return is followed by evidence of his independence from Wessex. Historians have sought reasons why Ecgbert's rulership of Britain was so brief. It could be that he was fortunate as regards being able to exploit political instability in the other kingdoms of Britain. It is possible that he had for a while strong support from the Carolingians which faded away when the power of Louis the Pious was weakened by civil war after about 830. It is also possible that the alliance between the Cornish and the Vikings was a long drain on his resources. he was defeated by the Danes in 836 and it took him until 838 to finally defeat the alliance. Another view is that Ecgbert never really had "overlordship" but simply conducted a series of raids against enemies who were suffering from temporary weakness and would have been quite unable to hold all the teritory that he supposedly "united".

It is possible to argue that Chester was "deserted" in 883/4 as a consequence of Ecgbert's raid in 829, but this seems unlikely given the frequent shifts in borders.

Alfred ("the Great"), (c.848 — 26 October 899) King of Wessex:

The reign of Alfred of Wessex saw considerable Scandinavian settlement in Britain and the conquest and division of Mercia by the "Vikings". Alfred came within a hair's breadth of losing his kingdom.

Alfred with axe and scrolls, a typical Victorian view of him.

King of the West Saxons from 871 to c. 886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c. 886 to 899. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. His father died when he was young. Three of Alfred's brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, reigned in turn before him. After ascending the throne, Alfred spent several years fighting Viking invasions. He won a decisive victory in the Battle of Edington in 878 and made an agreement with the Vikings, creating what was to become known as the "Danelaw" in the North and East of England. Alfred also oversaw the conversion of Viking leader Guthrum to Christianity. He is portrayed as having defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, becoming the dominant ruler in England.

Alfred is believed to have instituted the "Burh" system. This consisted of the development of fortified settlements and a network of roads connecting them. Some were new constructions; others were situated at the site of Iron Age hillforts, promontory forts or Roman forts and often employed materials from the original fortifications. Burhs also had a secondary role as commercial and sometimes administrative centres. Their fortifications were used to protect England's various royal mints. Initially established in Wessex by Alfred, later Burhs were developed in Mercia by his son Edward the Elder, his daughter Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. The Burhs were instrumental in not only defending against attack but enabling the Mercians to regain and hold lost territory. The Burhs ensured that all of King Alfred's subjects would be close to safety, typically not more than 20 miles (one day) away. The image of a united England where everyones fortified home-town was in effect his castle was taken up by Victorian historians with great enthusiasm.

While Alfred was eventually a highly successful ruler he has also been the subject of historical propaganda. The "reconquest" of the Danelaw was the work of later rulers and can perhaps be better seen as a political union between the by then "native" Anglo-Saxons and the later Viking settlers, although there were periods when hegemony was achieved by force of arms on the part of "Wessex". One of Alfred's other innovations was that his will largely excluded the sons of his older brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred from either a share in the succession to the West Saxon kingdom or its patrimony, which passed instead (but not without some problems) to Alfred’s son Edward the Elder. This was an unusual step to take both in an Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian context, but would, with some very minor exceptions, ensure that the nascent England would not be fragmented: although a few conflicts and/or murders resulted from this system.

Alfred was involved with the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document now considered to show considerable bias in favour of Wessex.

Rhodri the Great, (c. 820–878), Welsh king:

Wales (British) was the traditional enemy of Mercia (Anglo-Saxon). For a long time it was made up of a number of small kingdoms but gradually became more unified.

Succeeded his father, Merfyn Frych, as King of Gwynedd in 844. In 853 Burgred of Mercia sent messengers to Ecgbert's son Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, seeking his help to subjugate the Welsh. Æthelwulf advanced with Burgred against the Welsh, and successfully repressed their "rebellion". Rhodri may well have accepted the overlordship of the Mercians at that point, as did other Welsh rulers. Rhodri then turned his attention to expansion of his authority within Wales. He annexed Powys c. 856 and Seisyllwg c. 871. The last king of Powys prior to its conquest was Cyngen ap Cadell who raised Eliseg's Pillar in memory of his grandfather then went to Rome and died. Rhodri is called "King of the Britons" by the Annals of Ulster. In some later histories, he is referred to as "King of Wales", although the title is anachronistic and his realm did not include southern Wales.

The Chronicle of the Princes records his death occurring at the Battle of Sunday on Anglesey in 873; the Annals of Wales record the two events in different years. According to the Chronicle, Rhodri and his brother Gwriad were killed during an Anglo-Saxon invasion (which probably would have been under Ceolwulf of Mercia), although there is an alternative theory that he was engaged in conflict with the "dark foreigners" (Vikings). All the sources call his son Anarawd's victory over the Mercians at the Battle of the Conwy in 881 "God's vengeance for Rhodri". The fact that the battle was fought at Conwy seems to suggest that the Mercians under Ceolwulf II had seized teritory as far as the Conwy valley and that there was a counter-attack by the Welsh. Anarawd made an alliance with the Danish king in York in an attempt to guard himself against further Mercian attacks. After that alliance proved unsatisfactory, he came to an agreement with Alfred the Great of Wessex, visiting Alfred at his court. He received honours and gifts from the Saxons, and King Alfred stood witness at his confirmation.

Nennius, the Welsh historian, lived c830 when he wrote his "Historia Brittonum" which describes the unlikely settlement of Britain by Trojan expatriates and states that Britain took its name after Brutus, a descendant of the mythical Trojan Aeneas. He was writing during the youth of Rhodri at a time of dynastic change in Wales and may have provided some inspiration for the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an "official" version of history.

The role of the Welsh in the history of Mercia, especially that part of it which was to become Cheshire, should not be overlooked. It is especially important given that when Mercia was at war with Wales it would have reduced forces available to deal with any Viking threat from the east.

Coelwulf II, (died c.880) ruler of Mercia:

Britain in 878 - showing the area of Danish occupation after the division of Mercia. The border between the Danelaw and English Mercia is not known with any certainty, but near Chester the Mercian teritory was a relatively narrow region between the Welsh and the Danes.

The last king of Mercia and almost written out of history.

He succeeded Burgred of Mercia who was deposed by the Vikings in 874. His reign is generally dated 874 to 879 based on a Mercian regnal list which gives him a reign of five years. However, he possibly reigned into the early 880s. By 883, he had been replaced by Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who became ruler of Mercia with the support of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. Up until 2015 historians generally believed the Wessex chronicler version that Coelwulf II was "an unwise king's thane" who was appointed as king of Mercia as the puppet of the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle writes of Ceolwulf:

  • "...He swore them oaths and gave hostages, so that it would be ready for them on whatever day they would have it, and he himself ready, and all those who would follow him at the force's need."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is however, known to be biased in favour of Wessex. It is considered to be politically motivated, written with a view of strengthening the claims of Alfred and his son Edward the Elder to the overlordship of Mercia, and playing down any contribution by the Mercians. This is seen particularly clearly in terms of the deeds of Æthelflæd who was almost entirely written out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. That Coelwulf was rather more than a "foolish thane" is evidenced by a 2015 find of Anglo-Saxon "Imperial" coins dated to around 879 CE, known as the Watlington Hoard presumed to have been buried by retreating Vikings. Most of the coins show an emperor’s head on one side and two royal figures seated side by side on the other. The coins are believed to depict both Ceolwulf as a king as well as Alfred on the same coins, leading some experts to conclude that the two were being portrayed as equals. Only a single instance of this coin had been found before. Other coinage of Coelwulf and Alfred also show similarities, and this has been taken as further evidence that they may have co-operated against the Vikings. The newly found coins cover several years and were struck in different mints, demolishing the earlier belief that the two kings issued "joint" coins in only one year, marking a very short-lived alliance and a one-off issue.

Ceolwulf II is almost completely written out of history by the West-Saxon authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in what few traces remain of him he is portrayed as almost a traitor to his own people who was appointed by the Vikings. Nothing is recorded of the circumstances of his death or other fate.

Æthelred of Mercia, (died 911), ruler of Mercia:

Became ruler of English Mercia shortly after the presumed death of its last king, Ceolwulf II.

His rule was confined to the western half, as eastern Mercia was then part of the Viking-ruled Danelaw. Æthelred's ancestry is unknown. He was probably the leader of an unsuccessful Mercian invasion of Wales in 881, and soon afterwards he acknowledged the lordship of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The alliance was cemented by the marriage of Æthelred to Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd. In effect he was the sub-king of Mercia under the hegemomy of Alfred's Wessex, although he was never referred to as such, being simply the "Lord of the Mercians".

Æthelred was probably considerably older than Æthelflæd and for much of the later part of his life (after around 902) he appears to have suffered from poor heath. It is not known whether this was due to battle injury or disease. He was a significant military leader in his younger days, and apparently trusted by Alfred to lead the joint West-Saxon and Mercian forces when Alfred was busy elsewhere.

Asser, (died c.909) Bishop of Sherborne

A Welsh monk from St David's, Dyfed, who became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s.

About 885 he was asked by Alfred the Great to leave St David's and join the circle of learned men whom Alfred was recruiting for his court. In 893, Asser wrote a biography of Alfred, called the Life of King Alfred. The manuscript survived to modern times in only one copy, which was part of the Cotton library. That copy was destroyed in a fire in 1731, but transcriptions that had been made earlier, together with material from Asser's work which was included by other early writers, have enabled the work to be reconstructed. The biography is the main source of information about Alfred's life and provides far more information about Alfred than is known about any other early English ruler. The Life ends abruptly with no concluding remarks and it is considered likely that the manuscript is an incomplete draft. Asser lived a further fifteen or sixteen years and Alfred a further six, but no events after 893 are recorded. It is possible that the work was written principally for the benefit of a Welsh audience. Asser takes pains to explain local geography, so he was clearly considering an audience not familiar with the areas he described. More specifically, at several points he gives an English name and follows it with the Welsh equivalent.

It is not clear why Asser's work was left unfinished in 893, as both Alfred (died 899) and Asser (died 909) lived on for some years and there were important events in Alfred's life left unmentioned, particularly the progress of the "war" against Hastein. Proposals as to why the work breaks off abruptly include the suggestion that the final part of the book has been lost and that which survives is only a draft. Other possibilities are that Asser (who was Welsh) disagreed with Alfred's dealings with the Welsh after 893, when Hastein ravaged parts of southeast Wales.

Plegmund, (died 923), Alfred's archbishop:

Lived as a hermit just north of Chester and became Alfred's archbishop.

Little is known of the early life of Plegmund except that he was of Mercian descent. A later tradition, dating 300 years after his death, stated that Plegmund lived as a hermit at Plemstall in Cheshire. His reputation as a scholar attracted the attention of King Alfred the Great, who was trying to revive scholarship. Some time before 887, Alfred summoned Plegmund to his court, and in 890 made him archbishop of Canterbury.

The actual extent of Plegmund's influence on policy is hard to pin down, especially as regards events in and around Chester. Taking it to an extreme, he could have influenced Æthelflæd to re-fortify Chester and establish the cult of Werburgh (and thus bolster the Mercian state). He could have had a part in keeping the peace with her brother Edward the Elder (at least while she lived) and possibly influenced Edward to continue building a defensive line for Mercia north of Chester - and to continue the recovery of the lands occupied by the Vikings on the eastern coastline. Plegmund could have influenced Æþelstān to be somewhat overly religious and to take up arms against the combined armies of Olaf III Guthfrithson (Viking King of Dublin), Constantine II (King of Scotland) and Owian (King of Strathclyde), who were subjected to a crushing defeat at the Battle of Brunanburh which confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

"Urnes" style runic inscription at St Johns. This is possibly graffiti originally carved on the wall of the Amphitheatre during the Viking raid of 894. As the stone is in the very base of the wall this possibly indicates significant rebuilding after 894, but quite when and for what reason is uncertain.

Hastein, (c.835-c.996) Viking leader:

A notable Viking chieftain of the late 9th century who made several raiding voyages.

He was one of the most notorious and successful Vikings of all time, having raided dozens of cities across many kingdoms in Europe and North Africa. He became a Viking raider sometime around 859 and spent much of his career raiding France and Italy. He seems to have been active in Viking Brittany, but the early dates of the first mention of him would give him a very long active life, so it has been suggested that there are actually two Hastein's.

In 866 he was present at the Battle of Brissarthe. Hastein remained in the Loire country until 882, when he was finally expelled by Charles the Bald and then relocated his army north to the Seine. There he stayed until the Franks besieged Paris and his territory in the Picardy was threatened. It was at this point he became one of many experienced Vikings to look to England for riches and plunder. In 892 Haesten led a large Viking contingent from Boulogne in France to England. A fleet of around 250 ships landed at Appledore, Kent, while Haesten and 80 ships laned in Northern Kent and made camp at Milton. He initially came to terms with Alfred - a settlement was reached whereby Alfred gave him money and treasures while Haesten gave Alfred hostages and swore an oath of peace. Haesten agreed that his sons could be baptised. King Alfred was godfather to one son while Aethelred of Mercia was godfather to the other. Peace did not last, and Haesten fought in the Battle of Buttington (see Map - the site of the battle is disputed).

The campaign which effectively ended with the Battle of Buttington was the first of three which Hastein appears to have undertaken across English Mercia within a relatively short period of time. The size of the army which undertook Hastein's campaigns is difficult to judge. The annals for 893 reported that a large Viking army had landed in the Lympne Estuary, Kent and a smaller force had landed in the Thames estuary under the command of Hastein. These were reinforced by ships from the settled Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria. The Viking forces split, with a part taking a sea-passage to Devon. For Buttington the ASC records:

  • "after many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English and Welsh] were masters of the place of death. In that battle, the most noble Ordheah and many of the king's thegns were killed."

"many thousands" may be an over-estimate by the Wessaex chronicle-writers.

Later that year, Hastein moved his men from East Anglia to the "deserted" Roman fortress at Chester. However, the Mercians laid siege on the fortress and attempted to starve the Danes by removing any livestock and destroying all the crops in the area. In the autumn of 893, Hastein’s army left Chester, marched down to the south of Wales and devastated the Welsh kingdoms of Brycheiniog, Gwent, and Glywysing until the summer of 894. Again, the size of the force is unknown, but it was able to fight it's way through Mercia and then Wales to spend time pillaging in southeast Wales before retreating.

Hastein may be last heard of at Danesford, his last winter camp in 895/896 before he disappeared into obscurity. Around 300 long boats would have been needed to bring in such a large force which would have meant they were moored along the length of The River Severn from Quatford, though Danesford to Bridgnorth – approximately 3 miles. Subsequently in 912, Æthelflæd constructed a mound on the west bank of the River Severn, or possibly on the site of Bridgnorth Castle, as part of an offensive against the Danes.

Ingimund, Viking leader:

Ingimund was a Viking who had been expelled from Ireland on 902 and had attempted to settle in north Wales where he came into immediate conflict with the Welsh. According to the Welsh Annals, Ingimund came to Anglesey and held "Maes Osmeliaun", whilst the Welsh vernacular chronicle reports that Ingimund held "Maes Ros Meilon". The site itself appears to have been located on the eastern edge of Anglesey, perhaps near Llanfaes (effectively the later site of Beaumaris) if the aforesaid place names are any clue. Another possibility is that Ingimund was settled near Llanbedrgoch, where evidence of farming, manufacturing, and trading has been excavated at a Viking-age settlement. There is reason to suspect that the Llanbedrgoch site formed an aristocratic power centre, and that it may have originated as an informal Viking trading centre just prior to Ingimund's attempted colonisation. The centre itself could have provided an important staging post between the Welsh and other trading centres in the Irish Sea region. The Welsh attacked Ingimund and he fled to the Wirral. The conflict with the Vikings is well-attested in the Welsh records but Ingimund's subsequent move to the Wirral is only based on evidence from the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland:

  • "Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory. After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred's death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time."

There appears to be some confusion as to who fought Ingimund. Rhodri died leaving at least four sons to share his land among themselves. The traditional account is that his eldest, Anarawd, became king of Gwynedd and the head of the subsequent House of Aberffraw which produced Gruffudd ap Cynan and Llywelyn the Great. Another son, Cadell (as mentioned in the Irish records), was given Ceredigion and killed his brother Merfyn to claim Powys as well. Cadell's family was later known as the House of Dinefwr, after its base of operations was moved by Hywel the Good to Dyfed following another (supposed) inheritance via his marriage to Elen ferch Llywarch. Hywel's wide domain, later known as Deheubarth, briefly eclipsed Gwynedd under his immediate heirs before fracturing. However, at the time that the "fragments" were written Hywel was the better known and his ancestor is named as the person who defeated Ingimund, when it mas more likely Anarawd.

There is no English source for the story of Ingimund. However, when this is seen in the context of events happening elsewhere a possible reason why the Vikings were allowed to settle on the Wirral emerges. If the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland is to be believed, the Mercians' plans of making use of such settlement may have backfired as Ingimund later turned against the English, and convinced other leading Vikings to aid him in what was an unsuccessful assault on Chester itself.

It is possible that Ingimund is identical to a certain "Agmund hold" who is accounted as one of the slain combatants of the Battle of Tettenhall (910) by the C and D versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred of Wessex married into the Mercian ruling elite and is traditionally believed to have restored and extended the City Walls along their modern course.

Æthelflæd, eldest child of Alfred and his wife Ealhswith of Mercia:

As she was ruler of Mercia, and possibly because she was a woman, her role was downplayed in the official version of history written by the scribes of Wessex.

Æthelflæd played a key role in the establishment of a burh at Chester, strengthening the church organisation with her promotion of the cults of Oswald and Werburgh and extending the City Walls to their present size. She was a formidable military leader and did much to help her brother Edward recover the Danelaw from Danish rule. With her control of Chester, the rest of Mercia and the submission to her of Welsh kings and potentially the Vikings of York, she was the efffective ruler of a large part of Britain.

Æthelflæd is almost ignored in the standard West Saxon version of the Chronicle, in what one historian (Frederick Threlfall Wainwright) described as a "conspiracy of silence". Brief details of her actions were preserved in a pro-Mercian version of the Chronicle known as the "Mercian Register" or the "Annals of Æthelflæd" which covers the years 902-924; although the original text of that work is now lost, and all that remains are elements which were incorporated into several surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle derived later. The insertion is rather crude, and the manuscript B of the Chronicle contains two completely different versions of events for the years 902–924. The first version is similar to that found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript A, and focuses on the deeds of the West Saxon King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924) as he conquered lands controlled by the descendants of Viking raiders. Immediately after those annals, the scribe copied a group of annals for the same years from the ‘Mercian Register". These preserve details of the part played in campaigns against Scandinavian and Welsh forces by Ealdorman Æthelred of the Mercians, and his wife Æthelflæd. A comparison of the two texts (see the links below) shows the striking differences between these two accounts of the same period of history.

Edward the Elder, (c. 874 – 17 July 924) Alfred's son;

Being placed between his father Alfred and his son Æthelstan, Edward was largely overlooked by historians until the 1990s.

King of the Anglo-Saxons from 899 until his death. He was the elder son of Alfred the Great and his wife Ealhswith. When Edward succeeded to the throne, he had to defeat a challenge from his cousin Æthelwold, who had a strong claim to the throne as the son of Alfred's elder brother and predecessor, Æthelred. In 924 he faced a Mercian and Welsh revolt at Chester, and after putting it down he died at Farndon on 17 July 924. He was succeeded by his eldest son Æthelstan.

Historian Nick Higham described him as "perhaps the most neglected of English kings", partly because few primary sources for his reign survive. His reputation rose in the late twentieth century and he is now seen as destroying the power of the Vikings in southern England while laying the foundations for a south-centred united English kingdom. Edward was admired by medieval chroniclers, and in the view of William of Malmesbury, he was "much inferior to his father in the cultivation of letters" but "incomparably more glorious in the power of his rule".

Æthelwold, (died 902) cousin to Edward the Elder;

The younger of two known sons of Æthelred I, King of Wessex from 865 to 871. Æthelwold and his brother Æthelhelm were still infants when their father the king died while fighting a Danish Viking invasion. The throne passed to the king's younger brother (Æthelwold's uncle) Alfred the Great, who carried on the war against the Vikings and won a crucial victory at the Battle of Edington in 878. After Alfred's death in 899, Æthelwold disputed the throne with Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, but was unable to get sufficient support to meet Edward in battle and fled to Viking-controlled Northumbria, where he was accepted as king. In 901 or 902 he sailed with a fleet to Essex, where he was also accepted as king. The following year Æthelwold persuaded the East Anglian Danes to attack Edward's territory in Wessex and Mercia, one of Edward's most important allies, as far as Cricklade, in Wiltshire. The prospect of an attack must have been evident to Edward for some time.

A hostile Viking landing on the Wirral was the last thing that Edward needed as he would be faced with enemies on two fronts. The solution may have been for Æthelflæd to come to a deal with Ingimund, alowing him to settle. This may have also involved a payment by Ingimund's Vikings, who had been engaged in the slave trade in Dublin and had possibly escaped from Ireland with their treasury. The mint in Chester appears to have been kick-started to a new level of production about this time, but the details of any deal are unknown. What is known is that Edward now retaliated with a raid on East Anglia, ravaging as far north as the Devil's Dyke and the River Wissey and forcing the enemy to return home in order to protect their own lands. When Edward withdrew the men of Kent lingered and met the East Anglian Danes at the Battle of the Holme (13 December 902). The Danes were victorious but suffered heavy losses, including the death of the "rebel" Æthelwold and of Eohric, the Viking King of East Anglia. Kentish losses included Sigehelm, father of Edward the Elder's third wife, Eadgifu of Kent. With Æthelwold dead, Edward's throne was somewhat more secure. The West Saxon chronicler who gave the fullest account of the battle was at pains to explain why Edward and the rest of the English were not present, as if this had been a subject of criticism.

The Issue: "Chester Renewed"

Almost all of what is known of the history of Æthelflæd's times comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899). Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred's reign, possibly on his own instructions, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals' date for Caesar's invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. There are also places where the different versions contradict each other. Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the decades following the Norman conquest.

The earliest extant manuscript, the Parker Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891, late in the reign of Alfred. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes. This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser's use of a version of the Chronicle in his work "Life of King Alfred", known to have been composed in 893, but left unfinished. The Chronicle has a clear bias in favour of Wessex and in particular the house founded by Ecgbert, grandfather of Alfred.

There are only a few mentions of Chester in the ASC and while these provide some bare bones of history they illustate several contradictions. Even taken together with other available materials the actions of the parties sometimes seem to make little military sense unless some other explanation is missing.

The Battle of Chester (616)

  • "This year Ceolwulf fought with the South-Saxons. And Ethelfrith led his army to Chester; where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith: If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons." There were also slain two hundred priests, who came thither to pray for the army of the Welsh. Their leader was called Brocmail, who with some fifty men escaped thence."

This is discussed in more detail under Battle of Chester. There is no doubt that the battle too place and clear suggestions that Chester was occupied at the time, with all the evidence suggesting that it was occupied by the Welsh. The events of 616 have no direct bearing on the events of around 900, but they do illustrate that there was some occupancy at Chester after the departure of the Romans, and perhaps that it retained some strategic importance, especially to the remnants of Roman rule which may have survived in Wales. However, whether this occupation was continuous or represented any form of local political power or acted as a center of religion is unknown.

St Johns (689)

Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church (already built in stone) in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia.

Tradition ascribes the foundation of St. John's to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. He was the uncle to Werburgh. The direct authority for this statement quoted by John Leland is the Itinerary of Giraldus Cambrensisc (Gerald of Wales). However no such information is found in the surviving texts of the Itinerary (it was written in 1191). Two authorities of a subsequent date quote the early date in such a mannner as to imply their acceptance of it, and the source as being Giraldus: the MS Chronicle of St Werburgh and by Henry Bradshaw a native of Chester and monk of St Werburgh's Abbey. In his "Life of St Werburgh" (1513), Bradshaw writes:

  • "The year of grace six hundred fourescore and nyen As sheweth myne auctour a Bryton Giraldus Kynge Ethelred myndynge moost the blysse of Heven Edyfyed a Collage Churche notable and famous In the suburbs of Chester pleasaunt and beauteous In the honor of God and the Baptyst Saynt Johan With helpe of bysshop Wulfrice and good exortacion"

The first clear problem here is the unconfirmable primary source and the second that a Mercian is now founding a church in what was recently a part of Wales (see: Saxon for more on this). One possible explanation is that Bradshaw is trying to create an early association between Werburgh, her brother Æthelred and Chester. Werbergh herself never visited Chester (at least when alive), and it is not clear who controlled the site of the city following the Battle of Chester (616) and during her lifetime (~650-700).

The "Wulfrice" (Wilfid) mentioned by Bradshaw and in the Annals of Chester appears to be an exiled Bishop from Northumbria. Æthelred had also made Wilfrid bishop of the Middle Angles, and supported him at the council of Austerfield in about 702, when Wilfrid argued his case for restoration to the see of York before an assembly of bishops led by Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Æthelred's support for Wilfrid embroiled him in dispute with both Canterbury and Northumbria, and it is not clear what his motive was, though it may be relevant that some of Wilfrid's monasteries were in Mercian territory. Wilfrid was not known for his diplomacy and commentators have said that Wilfrid "came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age". Hindley, an historian of the Anglo-Saxons, states that "Wilfrid would not win his sainthood through the Christian virtue of humility". Wilfrid was known as an advocate of Benedictine monasticism, regarding it as a tool in his efforts to "root out the poisonous weeds planted by the Scots". By 'Scots' he probably meant the Irish Celts, so his involvement in the establishment of St John's may well have been part of an attempt to wipe out the last of the influence of the "Celtic" church.

Ecgbert (829/30)

Ecgbert seemingly attacks a Welsh Chester which is the capital of Gwynedd and has provided some assistance and support to the Cornish. At this stage therefore the borders of Wales must have extended at least as far as the River Dee, indicating that the Welsh had taken back much of the teritory which the Mercians appear to have gained under Offa and others. The last we know of the conflict between Mercia and Noth Wales is that Coenwulf of Mercia took advantage of Welsh interal troubles in 817, occupying Rhufoniog (between the Clwyd and the Conwy) and laying waste to the mountains of Snowdonia. Coastal Wales along the Dee Estuary must have remained under Mercia’s control through 821, as Coenwulf is recorded dying peacefully at Basingwerk in that year. In 823, Mercia laid waste to Powys and returned to Gwynedd to burn Deganwy to the ground. Gwynedd and Powys then gained a respite when Mercia's attention turned elsewhere and its fortunes waned. King Beornwulf was killed fighting the East Anglians in 826, his successor Ludeca suffered the same fate the following year, and Mercia was conquered and occupied by Ecgberht of Wessex in 829. It seems very strange that between 823 when Deganwy was burned and 829 when Ecgbert sacked Chester that the Welsh had moved their capital to Chester.

Werburgh (c876)

Comparing the dates of the burhs shows that Chester was initially quite isolated from the south of English Mercia.

The shrine of St Werburgh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. As recorded in the Annales Cestriensis:

  • In the same year, when the Danes made their winter quarters at Repton after the flight of Burgred, king of the Mercians, the men of Hanbury, fearing for themselves, fled to Chester as to a place which was very safe from the butchery of the barbarians, taking with them in a litter the body of S Werburgh, which then for the first time was resolved into dust.

This is not mentioned in the ASC, but there is good evidence from archaeology that the Vikings were at Repton, and possibly even that they had a plague in their camp, which might have prompted the men of Hanbury to evacuate. The fact that Chester was seen as a safe place, and therfore presumably occupied by the Mercians confirms that it had not returned to Welsh hands.

Vikings after 892/3

  • The "A" text of the ASC for the given year 894 is is described as " ... þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten ..." translated as referring to a "deserted" place on the Wirral;
  • The "C" text of the ASC for the given year 907 states simply "Her wæs Ligcester geedniwod" which is normally translated as "Here was Chester renewed".

The Burh (907)

Æthelflæd's establishment of burh's sometimes assisted by her brother are recorded in the ASC, and more information is given in the Mercian Register. As noted above Chester was "restored" in 907. 912 saw fortifications at Scargeat (location unknown) and Bridgnorth. 913 saw her fortify Tamworth and Stafford. The following year she added fortifications at Eddisbury and Warwick, adding Runcorn in 915 and three further burhs on the Welsh border, including Chirbury, and likely Hereford and Shrewsbury. 917 saw her capture of Derby (which retained its Viking name).

One potential problem with these dates it that she appears to start with a relatively isolated fortress at Chester (907) with comparatively little supporting infrastructure to the south and then adds other fortifications in subsequent years.

Battle of Tettenhall (910)

The Battle of Tettenhall (sometimes called the Battle of Wednesfield or Wōdnesfeld) took place, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, near what is now Wolverhampton on 5 August 910. The allied forces of Mercia and Wessex met an army of Northumbrian Vikings in Mercia.

The remains of Bardney Abbey on LIDAR. This is to the east of Lincoln and would have been very deep into Scandinavian territory at the time of the Mercian raid.

The previous year (909) the allies had launched a five-week campaign against Lindsey and had at least claimed to have successfully recovered the relics of Saint Oswald of Northumbria from Bardney Abbey. Oswald was the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria from 633 to 642. Bede wrote that he asserted his authority over all the peoples of southern England. Oswald died at Maserfield, traditionally sited near Oswestry, on 5th August 642 AD, at the hands of the last pagan king of Mercia, Penda. In keeping with pagan tradition Penda had Oswald's body dismembered and his head and arms mounted on poles. A year after the conflict Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. Some years later, between 675–697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso bones and legs that remained, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey, which was later destroyed during a Danish raid in 869. Somehow, forty years later, Æthelflæd managed to identify the relics of Oswald and recover them.

It seems something of a stretch to assume that the only reason for an expedition deep into Viking territory was the hope that Oswald's once-scattered bones could be recovered or even identified amongst the ruins of Bardney. Various theories have been put forward, including that the attack was motivated by Edward the Elder who was seeking to punish the Scandinavians for border violations.

The traditional view is that the Vikings quickly sought retaliation for the Northern excursion. In 910, the Danelaw kings assembled a fleet and transported a Danish army, via the River Severn, directly into the heart of Mercia. This would have involved a long voyage round Wessex and could hardly have been concealed. There they ravaged the land and collected large amounts of valuable plunder, but quickly sought to return north rather than be trapped in hostile territory. Of course, it is possible that the two raids were not related at all, except in the minds of later historians. The Viking raiders did not make it home unscathed, and were brought to battle at Tettenhall. The Viking dead at the battle may have included Ingmundir (depending on the date). Whether Æthelflæd fought in the battle is not known, although her already ill husband appears to have fought in the battle and may have been killed either at the battle or died as a result of injuries sustained. The deaths of their two kings, Halfdan and Eowils, in the battle of Tettenhall left the Scandinavian kingdom of York without a ruler. This created the opportunity for Ragnall, the grandson of Imar, a king of Dublin, to seize control by a coup in 911. Ragnald had just enough time to issue some coins in his own name before the Christian Danes opposed to his paganism drove him out. This group tried to organise an alliance with Æthelflæd, but their attempt was cut short by her death in 918.

Making sense of events around 900?

Taken together the supposed facts seem hoplessly contradictory: a Welsh stronghold even descibed as the capital of Gwynedd has a major church founded by a Mercian king and is then sacked by the ruler of Wessex, thereafter the men of Hanbury in Mercia see it as a safe place to transfer the relics of Werburgh. It is raided by the Vikings who camp there before going off to ravage Wales and somehow the cult of Werburgh survives to be promoted by Æthelflæd who builds a fortress city at an isolated end of Mercia without any supporting infrastructure. Comparing the versions of history there are several difficulties with the "traditional view" that Chester was re-fortified by Æthelflæd. The issue was discussed at some length by the historian Tony Sharpe and others, but many historical guides to Chester skip over the details.

One major complication is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle cannot be considered entirely trustworthy. Æthelflæd is almost ignored in the standard West Saxon version of the Chronicle, in what one historian (Frederick Threlfall Wainwright) described as a "conspiracy of silence". Brief details of her actions were preserved in a pro-Mercian version of the Chronicle known as the "Mercian Register" or the "Annals of Æthelflæd" which covers the years 902-924; although the original text of that work is now lost, and all that remains are elements which were incorporated into several surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle derived later. The insertion is rather crude, and the manuscript B of the Chronicle contains two completely different versions of events for the years 902–924. The first version is similar to that found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript A, and focuses on the deeds of the West Saxon King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924) as he conquered lands controlled by the descendants of Viking raiders. Immediately after those annals, the scribe copied a group of annals for the same years from the ‘Mercian Register". These preserve details of the part played in campaigns against Scandinavian and Welsh forces by Ealdorman Æthelred of the Mercians, and his wife Æthelflæd. A comparison of the two texts (see the links below) shows the striking differences between these two accounts of the same period of history.

Broader considertions have not been covered in any detail, but there was much else happening around the year 900, which was remembered as a year of extremely rainy weather followed by a "great scarcity" and a cattle plague. Plague struck people in 907 and a further cattle disease followed in 909. From 912, the year of Halley's comet, "rain and darkness" lasted for two years, obviously something of a hyperbole, but indicative that the climate was unsettled with torrestial rains, failed harvests and disease as a result.

Several questions can be asked about the period to which there are no clear answers:

What was the status of Chester at the time of the Viking raid in 894?

Scandinavian derived place names in England and the southern part of Watling Street.

The following account of Hasteins second foray towards Wales appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 894:

  • Þa hie on Eastseaxe comon to hiora geweorce. 7 to hiora scipum. þa gegaderade sio laf eft of Eastenglum, 7 of Norðhymbrum micelne here onforan winter 7 befæston hira wif, 7 hira scipu, 7 hira feoh on Eastenglum, 7 foron anstreces dæges 7 nihtes, þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten; Þa ne mehte seo fird hie na hindan offaran, ær hie wæron inne on þæm geweorce; Besæton þeah þæt geweorc utan sume twegen dagas, 7 genamon ceapes eall þæt þær buton wæs, 7 þa men ofslogon þe hie foran forridan mehton butan geweorce, 7 þæt corn eall forbærndon, 7 mid hira horsum fretton on ælcre efenehðe. 7 þæt wæs ymb twelf monað þæs þe hie ær hider ofer sæ comon. (As soon as they came into Essex to their fortress, and to their ships, then gathered the remnant again in East-Anglia and from the Northumbrians a great force before winter, and having committed their wives and their ships and their booty to the East-Angles, they marched on the stretch by day and night, till they arrived at a western city in Wirral that is called Chester. There the army could not overtake them ere they arrived within the ramparts: they besieged the ramparts though, without, some two days, took all the cattle that was thereabout, slew the men whom they could overtake outside the ramparts, and all the corn they either burned or consumed with their horses every evening. That was about a twelvemonth since they first came hither over sea.)

Taking the records at face value it appears that Chester was "deserted" in 894 when it was supposedly occupied by the Vikings. One possible explanation is that "west" used to describle the location of the "castra" (Chester = fortress) has been misread as "waste". However, this explanation simply leads to the issue of how any local ecclesiastical community survived the presence of starving Vikings. If the city was "desrted", then there is also the issue of who had deserted it. Either the Welsh or the Mercians could have been the last occupants. Both of these could have already have begun to fortify, or re-fortify, the site which is already seen to have been of strategic and religious importance: Roman Chester was built there, the Battle of Chester (616) was fought here, St Johns (689) was founded there Ecgbert (829) attacked there, the remains of Werburgh (876) were translated to there as a place of safety from the Vikings, and Plegmund (before 887) possibly lived there.

Tony Sharpe offers the tentative conclusion that the "burh" may have already existed before Æthelflæd restored it (907) and have been effectively founded by the Welsh (or even the Vikings). He considers that the fact that Edward the Elder died at Farndon (924) following a revolt at Chester could indicate that the fortress was not firmly under Mercian control, although Æthelflæd (died 918) has clear associations with the city through her promotion of the cult of Werburgh and the monastery at "Brunnesburgh" (Bromborough?) which she is said to have established in 912.

Many writers assume that the border of what was to later become known as the Danelaw essentially followed the line of Watling Street from London to Chester. This split Mercia into "English" Mercia and the "Danish" part, but the actual extent of English Mercia is not at all clear. Alfred's treaty with Guthrum does not seem to have defined a border north of Guthrum's kingdom, and the "Watling Street" border only seems to appear in the time of Olaf Guthfrithson c.941. However the line of this Roman (and possibly much older route) is a fairly good approximation to the line along which Mercia was split between the English and the Vikings.

Looking at what was later "reconquered" by the Mercians it would seem that the Vikings may have controlled territory in the Midlands quite close to the Welsh border. A charter of 855 records the presence of "pagans in Wreocensetun" and around the year 870 Wenlock Priory was attacked by Vikings. Destroyed in the raid St Milburgh's tomb was lost for many centuries until it was conveniently "rediscovered" by the Cluniac monks in 1101 following their refoundation of the priory. In 896 the Vikings journeyed up the Severn and camped at Bridgnorth. They dispersed the following year without confrontation. The place-name evidence does not suggest that there was ever any permanent Viking settlement within Shropshire, but they do seem to have raided into the area frequently, possibly as far as the river Severn.

Taking the above together it is not yet possible to establish the status of Chester at the time of Hastein's "occupation". It is also hard to see how this matter might be resolved, whether by the discovery of unknown written evidence or archaeology.

A map showing Scandinavian-derived place-names around Chester, and the location of the Saxon fortified burhs.

Why choose to establish an isolated burh at Chester (907) without the infrastructure to support it?

There are potential explanations for this. Chester could have been seen as a particularly important site, with a good harbour and easy access to the Irish Sea. There was also the fact that Mercia had frequent conflicts with Wales and that the Vikings had settled on the Wirral sometime after 902, something which is attested to by the very large numbers of place names in the northwest part of the Wirral which have origins in Old Norse. Viking's also gave place names to locations around Macclesfield, perhaps suggesting that settlers were moving into that region from the east and or north. Name examples include generic settlement such as Newbold ("bold" ON dwelling), personal names such as Archild ("Arnkell" ON personal name), and topographical references such as various Hulme's (ON for island).

It might simply have not been possible to delay building a Mercian fortress here. It was obviously also the site of a Roman fortress which might have further demonstrated its strategic importance, especially if the Roman road network was still in use. In North Wales many of the Roman sites had become later religious sites and the Roman Roads were probably still in use.

North Wales had tended, at various times, to favour either the Vikings or the Mercians as enemies and allies. Anarawd allied himself with the Northumbrian Vikings shortly after the Battle of the Conwy (881), but he then abandoned this alliance to follow Æthelred in accepting Alfred's lordship. Mercia was forced (for a while) to abandon its claim to lordship over north Wales, although Æthelred continued to attempt to exercise power over the south-eastern Welsh kingdoms of Glywysing and Gwent. These kingdoms sought the lordship of Alfred the Great, according to Alfred's biographer, Asser:

  • "At that time, and long before, all the countries in South Wales belonged to King Alfred, and still belong to him. For instance, King Hemeid, with all the inhabitants of the region of Dyfed, restrained by the violence of the six sons of Rhodri, had submitted to the dominion of the king. Howel also, son of Ris, King of Glywyssing, and Brochmail and Fernmail, sons of Mouric, kings of Gwent, compelled by the violence and tyranny of Ealdorman Æthelred and of the Mercians, of their own accord sought out the same king".

Asser's choice of words are noteworthy given that Æthelred was an ally of Alfred and Asser was writing in 893, just after Æthelred led an army of Mercians, West Saxons and Welsh to victory over a Viking army at the Battle of Buttington (892). Also by this time Æthelred was married to Alfred's daughter - a fact that Asser mentions just a few paragraphs before.

It is possible that the establishment of a self-supporting Burh at Chester was a combination of having the need to defend the strategic location at Chester against the Welsh (or the Vikings) and the supply difficulties associated with the distance from the "core" of English Mercia. Chester, without a good river connection deeper into Mercia) could not simply be a military base, but needed a lot more local infrastructure to be a viable proposition.

The ongoing conflict between Edward the Elder and his cousin Æthelwold could also have been a relevant issue. As noted above Edward had plenty of notice that Æthelwold was mobilising against him, with Æthelwold having moved with a Northumbrian fleet to Essex in 901 or early 902. If Æthelflæd allowed the Vikings to settle peacably so as to avoid a conflict on two fronts she would be well advised to ensure that she had some kind of fortification in the area, especially protecting the estuary of the River Dee. and the border with Wales.

A further element may be that the actions of Æthelflæd sometimes do not align completely with those of her brother Edward. In 916, when she sent an expedition to avenge the murder of the otherwise unknown Mercian abbot Ecbryht and his companions; her men destroyed the royal crannog of Brycheiniog (Brecon) on Llangorse Lake and captured the queen and thirty-three of her companions. Crannogs were unknown at this time outside Pictland (modern Scotland) or Ireland, and this is the only one of its kind in all of Wales. The crannog is a small artificial island about 40 metres (130 ft) from the north shore. It is constructed of massive planks of oak behind which was built a dwelling platform formed from layers of stone, soil and brushwood. Luxury goods from around the world were imported here, and the kingdom's treasure was discovered in the waters around the crannog as recently as the 1970s. King Tewdr escaped, but later submitted to Æthelflæd. According to a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle strongly sympathetic to Edward the Elder, after Æthelflæd's death:

  • "the kings among the Welsh, Hywel and Clydog and Idwal, and all the Welsh people sought to have [Edward] as their lord".

Hywel Dda was king of Dyfed in south-west Wales, Clydog ap Cadell probably king of Powys in the north-east, and Idwal ab Anarawd king of Gwynedd in the north-west. Gwent in south-east Wales was already under West Saxon lordship but, in the view of Charles-Edwards, this passage shows that the other Welsh kingdoms were again under Mercian lordship.

A further explanation, but rather unlikely, is that the choniclers simply got their dates wrong, or that there were in fact significant Mercian military forces based at sites, for example, at significant crossing-points along the navigable Severn (Gloucester, Worcester, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury) before the dates given for the establishment of the Burhs south of Chester.

Was there an attack on Chester by Ingimund, and when?

Ingimund's supposed attack on Chester is not mentioned in the ASC. The only sources are Irish records. The reason for this may be that the city was successfully defended by Æthelflæd and it would not be in the political interests of Wessex to mention this "Mercian" victory, despite the fact that she was Alfred's daughter. Fragmentary Irish Annal 429 begins on 907 and ends in 914 and concerns the Norwegians in Britain and their encounter with Æthelflæd.

  • "What resulted was that when he saw the wealthy city, and the choice lands around it, he yearned to possess them. Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that. Ingimund returned home after that, having arranged for a hosting to follow him. Although they held that council secretly, the Queen learned of it. The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops. The armies of the Danes and the Norwegians mustered to attack Chester, and since they did not get their terms accepted through request or entreaty, they proclaimed battle on a certain day. They came to attack the city on that day, and there was a great army with many freemen in the city to meet them. When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. Everything was done accordingly, and the Danes and Norwegians were frightfully slaughtered in that way. Great as that massacre was, however, the Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them. This was not delayed; the hurdles were made, and the hosts were under them making a hole in the wall, because they wanted to take the city, and avenge their people. It was then that the King (who was on the verge of death) and the Queen sent messengers to the Irish who were among the pagans (for the pagans had many Irish fosterlings), to say to the Irishmen, ‘Life and health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.’ This was the same as saying to them, ‘Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.’ All was done accordingly, and they set aside their arms. And the reason why those Irish acted against the Danes was because they were less friends to them than the Norwegians. Then many of them were killed in that way, for huge rocks and beams were hurled onto their heads. Another great number were killed by spears and by arrows, and by every means of killing men. However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. Not long afterwards there was fighting again ..."

Some elements of the story (boiling beer and beehives) might suggest that it is at least in part a fiction created for entertainment. There is even no certainty as to the date of the battle, with sources providing dates of 905 and 912. Clearly, these variations on the date would relate to quite different circumstances. In 905 Chester had not been "restored" (unless restoration refers to a victory rather than refortification) and a date of 912 would place the battle after that at Tettenhall (910). The reference to "not long after there was fighting again" would appear to support the view that Tettenhall came after the conflict at Chester.


The history of Chester around the year 900 is far more complex than can be expressed in a few words. Over a period of from 876 to 907 Chester saw an immense change with the arrival of Werburgh, the Vikings and possibly both dereliction and restoration. The actual roles of Plegmund, Hastein, Æthelflæd, Ingimund and Edward the Elder at Chester during this period appear to have been significant, but are clouded by both a lack of historical documents and a certain distrust of the version that the chroniclers of Wessex wrote down.


This cannot be seen as a final view, but is presented a rough guide to the sequence of events:

  • 867: Alfred (later ‘the Great’) marries Ealhswith of Mercia. This was possibly a political marriage made in response to the Danish conquest of Northumbria the same year;
  • 868: Alfred and his brother King Æthelred I go to the aid of Burgred of Mercian against a great Danish army that had invaded East Anglia;
  • 870: Birth of Æthelflæd, eldest child of Alfred and his wife Ealhswith of Mercia;
  • 871: Danes invade Wessex. In January, a force led by Alfred and his older brother Æthelred were defeated by the Vikings at the Battle of Reading. At the Battle of Ashdown a few days later, Alfred and Aethelred led their army to victory over the Vikings. Towards the end of January Alfred and Aethelred suffered another defeat by the Vikings at the Battle of Basing. In March, after a long and bloody battle, Alfred and King Aethelred are defeated by a Viking force at the Battle of Meretun (Marton). Æthelred died and Alfred succeeded him as Æthelred’s two sons, Aethelwold and Aethelhelm, were too young at the time to effectively rule. After the Battle of Wilton in May, the Danes were finally bought off by Alfred on the condition that they immediately left Wessex and didn’t return;

Alfred the Great(23 April 871 — 26 October 899)

  • 874: The Danes force King Burgred of Mercia into exile and take control of Mercia by installing a "puppet" king Ceolwulf.
  • 876: Vikings at Repton (possibly with plague). Remains of St Werburgh translated to Chester;
  • 877: The Danes enforce the partition of Mercia and occupy Gloucester for some months;
  • 878: In mid winter the Danes leave Gloucester and carry out a surprise attack, capturing Chippenham. Alfred is staying at Chippenham at the time and is forced to flee. In May the West Saxons defeat the Danes at the battle of Edington – they surrendered and their king, Guthrum, was forced to accept baptism and peace terms;
  • 879: Death of Ceolwulf of Mercia. Aethelred of Mercia becomes ruler of ‘English’ Mercia – the south and the west;
  • 881: Battle of the Conwy. Anarawd and his brothers of the northern Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd defeat a Mercian army almost certainly led by Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
  • 886: Alfred captures London from the Danes. However, as London is technically Mercian territory Alfred puts the city in the control of Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia;
  • 887: Æthelflæd marries Aethelred at some point between 885 and 887 – she would have been 15 - 17. Aethelred’s age is not known – but he is likely to have been notably older;
  • 889: Worcester is fortified as a burh, likely on the orders of Aethelred and Æthelflæd;
  • 892: Hastein arrives with new wave of Vikings;
  • 894: Æþelstān born, Vikings raid Chester;

Edward the Elder

  • 900: Alfred the Great dies, Edward the Elder becomes king of Wessex, Constantine II becomes king of Alba;
  • 902902: Æthelwold persuades the East Anglian Danes to attack Edward the Elder's territory in Wessex and Mercia. Irish Norsemen, under Ingimund expelled from Dublin, establish colonies on The Wirral, at around this time Æthelred's health collapsed and Æthelflæd became the effective ruler of Mercia;
  • 907: Chester refortified by Æthelflæd;
  • 910: Battle of Tettenhall: Edward the Elder, allied with the forces of Mercia, defeats a Northumbrian Viking army; Eowils and Halfdan and Ingwær, kings of Northumbria, are killed;
  • 911: Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, dies and his wife Æthelflæd takes over rule as Lady of the Mercians. Æthelflæd surrenders London and Oxford and all the lands between them, frontier territory at the time, to her brother Edward of Wessex;
  • 912: Chester attacked by Vikings under Ingimund; "A monastery, dedicated to St. Barnabas, was likewise founded by the 'Lady of Mercia', at Brunnesburgh, [In Cheshire.] that year, which shortly after fell to decay". Mercia under Æthelflæd captures and fortified Scargeat (location unknown) and Bridgnorth;
  • 913: Edward is unable to take any offensive action during this period as he is attacked by Danish forces based at Northampton and Leicester. Æthelflæd captures and fortifies Tamworth, the historical capital of Mercia, and Stafford.
  • 914: Æthelflæd fortifies Eddisbury and Warwick;
  • 915: Æthelflæd fortifies Runcorn and built three further burhs on the Welsh border, including Chirbury, and likely Hereford and Shrewsbury;;
  • 916: Æthelflæd sent an army against Tewdr, King of Brycheiniog (in south Wales) to avenge against the murder of a Mercian abbot and his companions. Her men destroyed the Royal crannog and captured the queen and court. Tewdr survived and made his submission soon afterwards. Aethelflaed probably held the overlordship of at least three of the Welsh Kingdoms;
  • 917: Vikings retake Dublin. Æthelflæd captured Derby, a major Danish base;
  • 918: The Danes of Leicester – now surrounded and isolated - surrender. Æthelflæd of Mercia enters negotiations with the Danes of York (who were threatened by the unpopular Norwegian pagan Ragnall, but dies at Tamworth; Edward the Elder takes control of her kingdom;
  • 919: Ragnall ua Ímair seizes control of the Kingdom of York, Edward the Elder fortifies Thelwall and Manchester;;
  • 920: Norse Vikings under Sitric Cáech attack Cheshire. Constantine II of Scotland, and the kings of Strathclyde, York, and Northumbria meet with Edward the Elder the Elder at Bakewell;
  • 921: Edward the Elder fortifies Cledematha (Rhuddlan) at the mouth of the River Clwyd, Edmund born;
  • 924: Chester joins a Welsh revolt against English rule, Edward the Elder dies at Farndon and is succeeded by Æþelstān, Ælfweard dies;

Sources and Links

Related Pages

An old postcard of Chester, as seen from the North. This shows the walls as extended by Æthelflæd. The cross-shapped set of streets mark the layout of Roman Chester.


N.B. Richard of Cirencester's De Situ Britanniae was faked by Charles Bertram prior to publication in 1747 although it was revealed to be a fake in 1845, it had by then provided misinformation which turned up in many other works.


  • Twenty One Welsh Princes: Roger Turvey;
  • Ingimund's Saga: Steve Harding;

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