Saxons and Vikings

When the Romans left Britain in about 410 AD. successive waves of invaders and settlers arrived, mainly Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians from North Western Europe. Many of these had been displaced themselves by upheaval throughout Europe driven by the Huns.

Anglo Saxon refers to these Germanic tribes who came to dominate English life and give the country it’s name derived from : Angle-land. Another legacy is the English language which is a hybrid formed from many languages and can be traced to the language of the invaders.

As the invaders settled across England strong Kings began to dominate forming the Kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The native Britons were pushed further south and west and in 577 AD. the Saxons defeated the Britons in a battle at Deorham near Bath, advancing to the shores of the river Severn cutting of the Britons of Wales from those of the south west.

Life was very difficult for the ‘Sumorsaetas and Defnsaetas’ who held Somerset, Devon and Cornwall against the frequent attacks from the Saxons and it was in 682 AD. that they were pushed back further with Bridgwater and Watchet being taken and by about 700 AD. a fortress was established on the River Tone that became Taunton. Exmoor, Devon and Cornwall held out until 815 AD. when King Ecgberht finally took control.

By the time Alfred the Great (A.D 871-901) was the ruler of Wessex, Watchet had become an important Saxon port and the site of a Royal Mint, one of several in the region, Axbridge, Bath, Bruton. Taunton and Crewkerne among others. The first Saxon king to issue coinage from Watchet, the silver penny, was Ӕthelred II, in addition Canute, Harold, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor also issued coins from there which have been found in collections in Stockholm and Copenhagen some having come from Viking hoards found in Jutland and Zealand. The site of the mint has not been found but Dawes Castle just to the west of Watchet is one possibility. More information about the coinage can be found in the Market House Museum.

Alfred the Great statue

Statue of Alfred the Great

Roman and Saxon coins on display in the musuem

Roman coins found locally around Watchet.

The reason for this concentration of Anglo-Saxon money in Scandinavia is probably the levying of Danegeld or tribute money by Danish raiders. The raids on Watchet by the Vikings during these troubled times appears to substantiate this. The first recorded raid here was that of 918 AD. which is mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. and a more serious raid occurred in 977 AD. The Vikings didn’t have things their own way however and many attacks were met with fierce fighting whereby many were slain. Legend has it the Battlegore in nearby Williton is the burial site of Anglo Saxons slain during Viking encounters but this has not been proved.

The last recorded raid on Watchet was 997 AD. but it is probable that they lingered in the Bristol Channel for some years, holing up on Steepholm, Flatholm and Lundy island and one theory suggests that the Danes were actually allies of the Britons who were still battling against the Anglo Saxons.

It is certain however that the evidence points to Watchet being a place of importance during the Anglo Saxon conquest although little remains for the archaeologist to explore as the Saxons were poor builders, unlike the Romans before and the Normans who followed. Undoubtably the small harbour was actually up into the river, where small ships and boats would have been worked, loading and unloading goods onto pack animals for the journey through the wooded countryside and over the Quantocks to the villages and small towns of the interior. Conquered Britons would perhaps have been working as slaves on the land and harbourside while in the remote parts of Exmoor and Dartmoor remnants of those British tribes would have been eking out an existence by hunting and primitive agriculture. Strong Celtic influences still exist in the south west, particularly Cornwall where the Celtic language is still spoken.

References : A History of Watchet by A.L.Wedlake