Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 1: Farthing Downs

Why head south of the river?

Forgive me for sounding like a London cabbie, but the above question is one worth asking giving the recorded build-up to the battle of Acleah. I was pretty adamant about the implication of the historical testimony at the first time of asking, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced the statements in the chronicles and histories can only be read as indicating the Vikings quit London (presumably Lundenwic in its twilight years) to cross the Thames immediately. Whether they headed true south or “Alfredian” south (see Jones 2012), they left Middlesex there and then to reach Surrey, not after a lengthy journey upstream to the river crossing at Staines.

The considerable incentives for pushing south into Surrey have gone unrecognised for too long. The central zone of north-east Surrey, from Merton south to the dip-slope of the North Downs, was the cultural (and, to judge from soil maps, agricultural) core of the county area in the Early Anglo-Saxon period as has been brought into sharper relief by Harrington and Welch (2014, 101). Farthing Downs’ barrows can be seen as a peripheral yet potent index of this in the decades either side of the year 600. There is limited artefactual evidence for this pre-eminence having persisted into the eighth century.

Subsequently, a series of mostly heavily abridged charters shows royal interest in the same area in the late-eighth and ninth century. For a start there is the old chestnut of Freoricburna, thrice a promulgation place according to charters of varying merits (in chronological order, S 144, 280, 330). A paper by Jill Bourne (2012, 277-79) restates the case for it representing Kingston, but in a confusing way that ends up giving Ewell a fair shout of being the site of the lost royal vill. (Bourne’s work on Kingston-type place-names interests me greatly, and I harbour intentions of writing about it at length at some point – just don’t make me say when!) Coenwulf of Mercia, as well as attending an assembly at Croydon in 809, also appears in connection to Merton (S 1690 – I don’t buy the idea of it being an earlier charter of Cynewulf of Wessex since there is no evidence for West Saxon overlordship of Surrey after Ine’s reign in the eighth century).

Meanwhile, Beddington is asserted to have been a gift of King Egbert of Wessex to the Old Minster, Winchester, logically in the period 825 x 39. The relevant testimony, from the annal for the year 828 in the Annales Monasteriii de Wintonia believed to be of later twelfth-century composition, is as follows:

‘[Egbirtus] dedit Deo et Wintonensi ecclesiam in Vecta insula apud Cawelburnam triginta hidas, apud Scaldeflotam xliii. hidas, et quattor villas, scilicet Drokenesford, Wordiam, Aweltonam, et Beddintonam.’ (Luard 1865, 8) ‘[Egbert] gave to God and the church of Winchester thirty hides on the Isle of Wight at Calborne, 43 hides at Shalfleet, and four vills, namely Droxford, Worthy, Alton, and Beddington.’

Heather Edwards has made an excellent analysis of this less than satisfactory source. She concluded it might stem from a lost charter, thereby explaining Beddington being a Wintonian possession at the start of the tenth century (S 1444), while cautioning that ‘the evidence is far from sufficient to establish such a grant’ (Edwards 1988, 162). I see no reason to doubt this judgement. Although Aweltonam precedes Beddington in a way that might suggest it could represent Carshalton, Edwards is probably right to identify it as Alton Priors in Wiltshire (hence S 272). A more credible early attestation of Carshalton comes towards the end of the century, when Aweltune appears as one of the many estates bequeathed by King Alfred (S 1507 – again, there is scope for disagreement over the identification but in my opinion the circumstantial evidence best fits somewhere in Surrey).

Finally, Alfred issued at least one charter at Hebbeshamm, an assembly place which is most likely to have been Epsom (S 345). Those well-versed in the Work pages of Surrey Medieval may note this goes against a lot of what I’ve said previously on the identity of Hebbeshamm, and to everyone I say expect some clarification and back-tracking on this front at some point in the next few months. In terms of the matter in hand, the above evidence demonstrates that, while Surrey wasn’t the most affluent region in this period (or frankly at any point before very recent times), in its north-east was a tempting – and presumably widely-known – cluster of centres of elite power and by extension concentrations of material wealth (hence the Croydon Old Palace coin hoard of circa 857 found hard by the probable site of the recorded monasterium).

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Barrows, Charters, History, Landscape, London, Old English, Phenomenology, Place-Names, Surrey, Viking, WPLongform and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 1: Farthing Downs

  1. Pingback: Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 2: Ockley Wood and environs | Surrey Medieval

  2. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #8 | Doug's Archaeology

  3. UPDATE: I have become aware of an article which makes a far more convincing case for an Early Anglo-Saxon routeway along Farthing Downs than the sum of my own afternoon’s worth of observations. The article is Brian Hope Taylor, ‘Celtic agriculture in Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 50 (1949), 47-72, which is freely available at The gist of his analysis – which is presented in a separate appendix (pages 62-64) – is that all of the barrows, and in particular the northern cluster (which he describes as the largest grouping), show significant affinities in their siting with the probable line of a contemporary track. Track and barrows both occupied the crest of the ridge, aside from the northernmost barrows, which sit adjacent to a “bivallate fieldway” of probable Roman date or operation. It’s not especially easy to follow Hope Taylor’s argument (or maybe I’m being dense) but careful plotting of his suggestions on a map could then be retraced on the ground with an eye – or two – on the viewshed and how prominently the barrows feature.

  4. That is a pretty disturbing artist’s reconstruction, I’m having waking nightmares now… Enjoyed the article very much!

  5. Pingback: Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah? | Surrey Medieval

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