WAREHAM’S PAST AS A SAXON STRONGHOLD
Some thoughts and observations based on the research undertaken for my latest novel, Bloodlines.
When writing historical fiction, I find it helps if you can mentally ‘transport’ yourself back to the era you are depicting so as to better understand how things might have looked at the time. I therefore like to visit the locations featured in my novels but, as development and expansion carried out by intervening generations often conceals the past, a certain amount of conjecture and supposition is called for. However, I was fortunate enough to choose Wareham as the principal location when writing the next book in my series, The Shadow of the Raven, which is set at the time of Alfred the Great. The choice was no accident as I needed a setting with quite specific characteristics in order for the plot to work. After a great deal of research, I found Wareham to be the ideal place, not least because there you are still able to get a very real impression of its Saxon heritage.
For one thing, it is quite liberally referenced in the wider context of Saxon history which helped a great deal in terms of assembling background material and filling some of the many ‘gaps’ which normally restrict our knowledge of this era. It also retains quite a lot of the infrastructure appertaining to Saxon occupation – certainly a good deal more than most places. The street pattern is probably little changed insofar as the principal roads are concerned and there are references to (or evidence of) the location of significant features such as churches, the Priory, the North Bridge etc. It also has a small but impressive local museum - Wareham Town Museum (www.wtm.org.uk) – where one of the temporary exhibits included a sword which was recovered from the River Frome whilst the South Bridge was being rebuilt in 1927. This alludes to the turbulent times in which my book is set and provided the inspiration for one important aspect of my story - though I admit to having shamelessly exploited it!
THE ‘SAXON’ SWORD FOUND IN THE RIVER FROME WHILST THE SOUTH BRIDGE WAS BEING REBUILT IN 1927 (Courtesy of Wareham Town Museum)
|THE RIVER FROME AT WAREHAM – JUST DOWNSTREAM FROM THE SOUTH BRIDGE WHERE THE SAXON SWORD WAS FOUND. THE PRIORY WHICH WAS OCCUPIED BY THE VIKINGS WAS PROBABLY SITED ON THE FAR BANK.|
MY IMPRESSION OF HOW WAREHAM MAY HAVE LOOKED AT THE TIME OF ALFRED THE GREAT (Courtesy of Joey Everett).
In reality, Wareham was probably not large in terms of the number of inhabitants residing within the fortifications, most of whom may well have lived quite near the existing crossroads and thus close to the quay which would have been the commercial heart of the settlement. There was probably no quay as such, ships being simply pulled up onto the muddy bank to be loaded and unloaded, trading goods with settlements all over Britain and even the continent. It seems to have been a thriving commercial centre and the area would have been a bustling and busy place with numerous storage sheds and warehouses and such like.
The remainder of the area enclosed within the fortifications would probably have comprised open space which could be used for grazing or to provide a site for temporary accommodation for those coming into the burh for their rostered duty or those seeking shelter in the event of trouble. The latter was certainly part of the function of a burh and doubtless they would have brought their families and possibly their livestock with them.
THE QUAY AT WAREHAM – IT WOULD HAVE LOOKED VERY DIFFERENT IN ALFRED’S TIME - THE SHIPS WERE PROBABLY JUST HAULED UP ONTO THE MUDDY BANK TO BE LOADED AN UNLOADED
So, although a prosperous and wealthy settlement, the people of Wareham would have lived under the constant threat of invasion and raids and I suspect they would have served in the fyrd willingly enough despite their already heavy workload and wider commitments.
All this makes Wareham the perfect backdrop to a story set at this turbulent time – I hope that in Bloodlines I have done justice to both it and to those inhabitants who lived there at that time.
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Chris Bishop is the author of the much acclaimed The Shadow of the Raven Series which is set at the time of Alfred the Great. All four books in the series have been awarded a Five-star Coffee Pot Book Club award. He is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association and The Historical Novel Society.
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