Saturday, 21 June 2014

Tales of Olde Somerset by Rob Bayliss

Think of Somerset and you probably think of Cheddar cheese, strong cider (scrumpy), straw munching yokels with broad unintelligible dialects, oh, and the Wurzels (for readers beyond these shores they can delightfully be described as a "scrumpy and western" band)… Now I’m not knocking any of these things; I love cheese (I  actually used to be a cheesemaker), I’m more than partial to a glass or three of cider, I even talk like a yokel if I’ve drunk enough of them and, if you ever happen to see them, you will have a good evening's entertainment watching the Wurzels. But there’s so much more to my home county….

Somerset is a rural county framed by rolling hills; the Brendons leading to the wilds of Exmoor to the West, the Blackdowns to the South, the Quantocks and Mendips to the North, while to the east, the land gradually climbs towards the high plateau of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. In between are the fertile  lowlands, known as the Levels, where a constant battle has been waged over the centuries to claim the land from its natural state of lazy waterways and swamp. In neolithic times lakeland villages were built on stilts to cope with the rising waters. The remains of  "roads" across the marshes have been found; one such example is called the Sweet Track. It is a 2km causeway made of planks of oak, ash and lime and is some 6,000 years old.

At the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, Somerset was split between three Celtic tribes; the Domnonii, Duroriges and Dubunni. After pacifying the southeast corner of Britain, Vespasian and the 2nd Augusta invaded the future county from the south east in 47AD, taking the great hillforts of Ham Hill and Cadbury Castle. Mass graves at Cadbury show the tell-tale injuries caused by ballista bolts and pila.
The Romans moved north ensuring that the Mendips were secured, due to the lead and silver mines that were already being worked there. Indeed the promise of Britannia's metal resources may have been one of the reasons for the invasion of Britain in the first place. Rome had an appetite for lead,  which it was used for aqueducts and plumbing. It wouldn't be until the 18th century that lead extraction matched the levels  of production achieved in the Roman Empire. By 70AD the new province of Britannia was the biggest producer of this metal in the Roman world. Production reached such a high level that the province of Hispania (also a lead supplier) appealed directly to the Emperor Claudius, complaining that they were losing business to the newly aquired province.

The mines at Charterhouse, on the Mendips, were kept under Roman military control in order to stave off corruption. During the Iceni revolt of 61AD, there is evidence that there may have been a slave rebellion at the mines, one of the many wild fires that broke out in the province as word of Boudicca's initial success spread. With Boudicca's eventual defeat rebellions such as those at Charterhouse were brutally crushed by the legions. Such events don't carry the fame and romance of Boudicca, yet they were equally desperate. Who were these slaves who dared to defy Rome? Unlike Boudicca their deeds and names are lost forever in the mists of time; perhaps on purpose, as Rome set about imposing its order on a rebellious province.

Such was the need for lead in the empire that in order to prevent future loss of production, due to slave unrest under the strict military regime, the mines were leased out to private companies. But even after this privatisation mining was still the work of criminals and slaves. It was dangerous work, with a loss of  up to 12% of the workforce each year.

A major Roman road, the Fosse Way was a major Roman military and commercial arterial route across the country. In its course, it linked Bath (Aqua Sulis) continuing to Ilchester and then on southwest to Isca (Exeter) in Devon. Around this road, villas were built as the population became increasingly Romanised. A beautiful mosaic was found in the remains of a villa at Low Ham, near Langport, on the southeastern edge of the Levels.

By 410AD the empire was in decline, under pressure from within and without. Emperor Honorius instructed Britain to "look to its own defence". This the Romano British did with some success. The southwest retained its independence from the advancing Saxons for many years. It appears that some of the old hill forts were reoccupied during this period. (Not to mention the legend of Arthur and Avalon - Glastonbury- which surely deserve a post of its own!) Eventually however the Angles and Saxons broke the land link between the southwest and Wales and they began to encroach onto the lands of the Romano-British successor kingdom of Dumnonia.
Unusually for a county in the southwest of England, Somerset does not derive its name from a Brythonic (Celtic) origin, unlike its neighbours to the west and south, which are named after the old Celtic tribes of the region: Dumnonii (Devon) and Durotiges (Dorset) respectively, and further west still in Cornwall ( a mixture of the tribe Cornovii and the old English for foreigner - Wealas). Instead Somerset’s name derives from the Anglo-Saxon Somersaete, meaning “land of the summer settlers”. The reason for this term became all too evident during last winter’s floods, when huge tracts of the Levels were underwater for weeks on end. As the winter floods receded, rich pasture became accessible to these “summer settlers” and their herds.

The name Somersaete was first recorded in the laws of King Ine, the Saxon king of Wessex 688-726AD, when its boundaries were first set as an administrative region. King Ine’s predecessor, Caedwalla, had gained overlordship over the south and east Saxons but these gains were lost during a sustained period of Mercian hegemony, with a continuous line of Mercian kings being recognised as Bretwalda (high king or Britain ruler). Under pressure from Mercia, Wessex looked westward and advanced towards Dumnonia. Avoiding the swamps of the Levels, Ine pushed through Dorset and along the Blackdown Hills. Around 700AD local legend has it that he fought a battle at Buckland Hill (a hill whose slopes I used to live on!), possibly against King Gerren of Dumnonia. Like all Dark Age battles it was savage; the blood flowed down the hillsides like water, according to legend. Although victorious Ine lost many warriors, including his brother, Noon, whose barrow was said to have once stood on the site.To secure these hard won lands he established my current home town of Taunton as a burh (a fortified settlement) around the same time. In 722AD the town was besieged and destroyed by King Ine's formidable wife, Queen Æthelburg, in a civil war against rebels led by Ealdbert (perhaps Ine's son from a previous marriage). Alas the facts of this internal strife in Wessex have been lost and only hints remain. Ine later brought Earlbert to battle in 725AD and the rebel lost his life. Ine, who was then in his sixties, had clearly suffered greatly through this struggle and abdicated the following year. He and Æthelburg left Wessex to live out their remaining years in Rome.
It appears that Ine had striven to absorb his new British subjects into his kingdom, he drew up laws that allowed for weregelds (financial compensation) to be paid for Wealas as well as Englisc families who had lost a member due to murder (although more was paid if the victim was Englisc!).

Place names in Somerset are usually English in origin, but geographical features usually carry a Celtic element showing a degree of mixture between the cultures. It is interesting to note that the Wessex royal house itself was said to have been founded by Cerdic, Cerdic being a Celtic name. Maybe this mix is reflected in the very Welsh looking county flag of a red dragon on a gold field? 

There was a Saxon royal palace at Cheddar on the Mendips that hosted various Witangemots, but arguably perhaps the most important place in Somerset (and English) history would prove to be an insignificant little hunting lodge set a few miles east of Taunton in the swamps of the Somerset Levels.
A new invader was abroad in England. The Great Heathen Army of Vikings had destroyed the Angle powers of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. During their campaigns they had slain the captured King Edmund of East Anglia with arrows and subjected King Aelle of Northumbria to the particularly gruesome death of the Blood Eagle. Not wishing to suffer a similar grisly fate, King Burgred of Mercia fled to exile in Rome. Only Wessex and the house of Cerdic remained. The future of England looked decidedly Danish.

That insignificant hunting lodge was located at Athelney (Isle of the Princes). It was here that Alfred found refuge from the Danish army of Guthrum, after the Vikings mounted a surprise winter attack in January 878AD on the royal stronghold at Chippenham. Amid the impenetrable marshes Alfred built a fort, licked his wounds and rebuilt his forces. Alfred must have been aware of Athelney to choose it as a base. (It would be here, or nearabouts, where he is famously supposed to have burnt some cakes!) Indeed there is some evidence that there had been an Iron Age fort there which Alfred rebuilt and strengthened. Only a simple memorial on a broad low hill marks this crucial place now.
Recent archaeological digs have shown that metal working was carried out here as Alfred rebuilt and equipped his army. Around Easter 878AD Alfred summoned the Fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and went on to defeat Guthrum at the Battle of Edington.
There is a reason why Alfred is the only English monarch to be called "the Great". Alfred had won the war but knew he had to win the peace as well. To that end the defeated Guthrum was forced to accept the Treaty of Wedmore (a village near Glastonbury on the eastern Levels) whereby England was split between the eastern Danelaw and Wessex and Western Mercia. As well as strengthening border defences, Alfred actively promoted an inclusive national identity of Englishness, whereas before there had been seperate kingdoms. His descendents went on to reconquer those lands lost to the Danelaw and thus, from near extinction, the kingdom of England was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now our English may sometimes sound unintelligible, but ‘tweren’t vur Zummzet, oi wuzn’t be talkin’ it to ‘ee now, young ‘un!

Rob is currently working on his Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow fantasy series. Part one, The Sun Shard is available at Amazon.


  1. What a great history post!! So detailed: the research or absorption of it into your knowledge bank, either is equally impressive, Rob. Well done!!!

  2. Thank you Rob for this insightful detailed account of this beautiful English county

  3. Thanks guys. The battle of Buckland Hill isn't well recorded at all, its memory has only been retained in local folklore, but I thought it was a tale that needed telling. Noon's barrow is recorded up until C18th and then it disappears. Interestingly the King of the South Saxons at the time (who owed Ine his allegiance) was called Nunna, who may have joined in Ine's Dumnonia campaign. Compiling this blog fired my imagination about the Roman mines on the Mendips (especially a possible slave revolt during the Iceni uprising). It deserves a book I reckon! ;-)

  4. Wow, fabulous Rob! An enjoyable and an extremely interesting read.

  5. Enjoyable reading. This is why I love living down this way :-)

  6. Love Somerset Rob, been there many times. I enjoyed this read very much