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The core area of the Kingdom of Wessex includes Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire (with Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in south-east England). Despite pressures from Mercia to the north in the 7th and 8th centuries, and invasions from the Vikings in the 9th and 10th, Wessex grew to encompass much of southern England (Yorke 1995), extending its influence into Devon and Cornwall in the 8th century. Old English place-names are associated with settlement in Devon from around AD 700 and also appear in north-east and south-east Cornwall, and on Bodmin Moor. To this period of English overlordship belongs the formal reorganisation of Cornwall into six hundreds, along Anglo-Saxon lines (Todd 1987, 275).

The degree of Anglo-Saxon cultural influence on Devon and Cornwall is, however, debateable. As one moves further south-west there is less evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement. Yorke (1995, fig. 4) shows the distribution of Early Saxon burials in central Wessex (from Oxfordshire to Hampshire, and west as far as eastern Devon). The core area is essentially in Wiltshire, north of Salisbury and along the tributaries of the Thames.

Nucleated villages are also found mainly in the east of the region – in eastern Somerset, north and south Dorset, south Wiltshire and parts of Hampshire. Other parts are characterised by more dispersed settlement patterns. Cornwall, Devon and west Somerset are characterised by hamlet settlement with occasional villages and many isolated farms. Pre-8th-century memorial stones in south-west Devon and Cornwall are mostly sited on or near the coast and along some of the river valleys. Much of this area was poor agricultural land that never supported large populations, although some had coastal resources, including salt production. The Mendips and Dartmoor were exploited for lead, silver and tin.

In Wiltshire dispersed settlement is common in areas of former royal forest or with high levels of recorded woodland (Lewis 1994, 185). In Somerset and Wiltshire a good case can be made for considerable continuity of settlement organisation from the Roman to the medieval period (Aston 1994, 229) with persistence of dispersed settlement the norm. However, at Shapwick in Somerset there is evidence for the transformation to nucleated villages with common fields, as seen elsewhere in the country.

Large areas of south-west England were aceramic and the absence of pottery makes dating difficult. Unlike other parts of England, pottery production seems to have remained a rural activity: no production sites have been found in Dorset; Domesday Book refers to potters at Westbury in Wiltshire. There has also been a relative dearth of Middle and Late Saxon rural settlement excavation.

The level of urbanism also declines the further west one goes. The south-west lacks Middle Saxon coastal trading sites such as Hamwic, although there may have been beach-market sites as at Mothecombe in Devon (Turner 2004). During the Late Saxon period Exeter became an important port, eclipsing Southampton. There may also have been estate centres but evidence from sites such as Trowbridge in Wiltshire is more ambiguous than that from Cowdery's Down in Hampshire. Iron smelting has been discovered at Ramsbury in Wiltshire, and Gillingham and Worgret in Dorset. Each of these sites may have had royal or ecclesiastical associations, suggesting the involvement of major landowners in developing the profitability of their estates (Hinton 1994, 35). By the 10th century the Saxon kings spent much of their time at places such as Cheddar and Winchester and the region was dominated by rich ecclesiastical establishments, such as the monasteries at Glastonbury, Athelney, Milton, and Cranborne. There was a network of British monasteries and churches and an ordered system of ecclesiastical parishes in place in Devon and Cornwall long before the 10th century. Turner (2006) has identified that Wessex played a key role in the development of the Saxon church in the south-west. There was also a similar process of estate break-up, as in the east. A series of 10th-century grants reveals the break-up of a monastic estate on the Lizard peninsula, granting it into secular ownership (Hooke 1994, 83).

Yorke (1995, fig. 28) shows the location of burhs mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, which lessen to the west. Just four – Exeter, Lydford, Pilton and Halwell – lie within Devon. The Domesday population (Yorke 1995, fig. 72) is relatively even, although it generally decreases towards the west. Sites such as Ilchester and Taunton do not appear to have been urban but attracted a mint because of their role in turning food renders into cash for tax purposes (Hinton 1994, 41-2). This suggests the deliberate location of small markets close to royal residences. Minster churches may again have been a part of the general set of activities that were concentrated within such places. However, the number of coins issued by the Somerset and Wiltshire mints is relatively small.

By the 9th century the extreme south-west suffered coastal raiding, although there was little inland penetration. On the other hand the Wessex heartland was vulnerable from two directions – the south coast and the Bristol Channel. Hamwic suffered repeated raids, although archaeological evidence for a Viking presence in 9th-century Wessex is hard to find.


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Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009