In the footsteps of King Alfred

Last week I had the chance to visit Winchester, capital of the Dark Age realm of Wessex. This is a city that virtually screams history as you walk around it and its association with two famous dark Age Kings – King Arthur and Alfred the Great – as well as a host of less famous ones, is well known. However although the city appears very ancient to our modern eyes, I realise that to King Alfred and to the Wessex Kings and Queens who will feature in my next book, the city of today would seem highly futuristic.

The first site we visited was the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester Castle. This was built for William the Conqueror and so would be unfamiliar to Alfred and his family. As for the Round Table that hangs on the wall, I’m not sure even King Arthur would recognise that!

The city walls would be much more familiar, with some parts dating back to Roman times. They would find a bridge over the river in the place they would expect, although the one that is there today is presumably very different from the one said to have been built by Saint Swithun back in the ninth century. The Cathedral too would be roughly where they expected it. The site of the Old Minster that Alfred’s family would have known so well lies next to the more modern (Norman!) cathedral.

Inside the cathedral they would have found some familiar names on the mortuary chests which house the remains of some of the West Saxon kings. Unfortunately they were not on display on the day I visited, but even so I found it a slightly unsettling experience to know that one of my characters was lying just a few feet away from me.

I wonder what they would have made of seeing Saint Swithun as the cathedral’s patron saint. They would have known him well. He was bishop of Winchester in the ninth century and had been the teacher of Alfred’s father and possibly Alfred himself. To Alfred’s family he was a teacher, an advisor and a bishop. Would they be surprised to see him venerated as a saint or consider it an honour well deserved?

But most of all I wonder what they would have thought of that statue that is placed at the end of the high street. A noble looking Dark Age king gazes out over the city, his sword raised like a cross in his hand. He appears how the Victorians considered Alfred to look. It is unlikely that Alfred’s family would possibly recognise him.

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