When writing historical fiction, I find it helps if you can mentally ‘transport’ yourself back to the era you are depicting so as to better understand how things might have looked at the time. I therefore like to visit the locations featured in my novels but, as development and expansion carried out by intervening generations often conceals the past, a certain amount of conjecture and supposition is called for. However, I was fortunate enough to choose Wareham as the principal location when writingthe next book in my series, The Shadow of the Raven, which isset at the time of Alfred the Great. The choice was no accident as I needed a setting with quite specific characteristics in order for the plot to work. After a great deal of research, I found Wareham to be the ideal place, not least because there you are still able to get a very real impression of its Saxon heritage.
For one thing, it is quite liberally referenced in the wider context of Saxon history which helped a great deal in terms of assembling background material and filling some of the many ‘gaps’ which normally restrict our knowledge of this era. It also retains quite a lot of the infrastructure appertaining to Saxon occupation – certainly a good deal more than most places. The street pattern is probably little changed insofar as the principal roads are concerned and there are references to (or evidence of) the location of significant features such as churches, the Priory, the North Bridge etc. It also has a small but impressive local museum – Wareham Town Museum (www.wtm.org.uk) – where one of the temporary exhibits included a sword which was recovered from the River Frome whilst the South Bridge was being rebuilt in 1927. This alludes to the turbulent times in which my book is set and provided the inspiration for one important aspect of my story – though I admit to having shamelessly exploited it!
Wareham came to prominence in 876 when it was taken and held by a sizeable Viking force who presumably intended to use it as a bridgehead from which to invade Wessex. They occupied the Priory, probably a nunnery at that time, and ransacked the settlement itself until Alfred paid tribute for them to leave. However, treacherous as ever, the Vikings reneged on their deal to leave Wessex and their land army moved on to occupy Exeter instead. They were eventually forced to leave after losing 120 ships in a fierce storm at Swanage.
Given these events, it’s hardly surprising that when he began instigating his system of strongholds to protect his realm against further Viking attacks, Alfred included Wareham as one of them. These ‘burhs’ as they were called comprised a series of about thirty fortified settlements spaced approximately twenty miles apart (equivalent to a full day’s march) and therefore close enough to support each other if one of them was attacked. Whilst not the largest burh, Wareham was probably one of the most important as it was of strategic significance, being located on the fringes of a large expanse of water known today as Poole Harbour. It would thus have made a tempting and viable target for an invasion fleet who could moor their ships in the harbour then use the tracks, roads and the rivers to strike deep inland. Like others, the burh would have been manned by the fyrd – a sort of local militia – with the able-bodied men serving in rotation so that half were always available to continue work on the land and carry on with other essential trades etc. According to the Burghal Hidage, Wareham could muster a not insignificant force of 1600 men. Whilst the administration of the fyrd system appears to have been well thought out and developed, it seemed to me that there was a problem when it came to Wareham insofar as much of the surrounding land would have been marsh or forest, meaning that the men serving in the fyrd and living outside the settlement would have to travel a considerable distance in order to complete their duties and obligations. In Bloodlines I have therefore suggested that things in Wareham may have been organised differently to other burhs, but this is pure conjecture on my part.
However, there is nothing conjectural about the fortifications themselves. Wareham is one of the few places where even today you can actually see and walk around the impressive earthworks which formed the backbone of the defences. It’s not clear whether these were constructed specifically as part of the burh or were based on previously established fortifications which were simply extended and improved by the Saxons but, either way, when ‘topped off’ by a tall stockade, they would have presented a formidable defensive barrier. This ran along three sides of the settlement, the fourth – the southern boundary – being formed by the river Frome which it seems was considered deterrent enough and was, in any event, an important waterway for trade on which the settlement depended so needed to be kept ‘open’. There is also a river to the northern boundary, the River Piddle, but this was presumably not considered to offer sufficient protection in itself.
Building the earthworks would have been a huge undertaking. Given that there were no mechanical diggers at that time, all the earth would have been dug by hand using picks and shovels etc then transported by cart or carried in baskets to where it was needed. But the Saxons were nothing if not resourceful and you can just imagine the hive of industry as they dug the defensive ditch, piling up the spoil to raise the earthworks to the desired level before grubbing out tree stumps and generally clearing away any foliage which might be used to conceal any would-be attackers. In fact, just constructing the stockade on top of the earthworks would have required a huge effort as the timber needed would have had to be felled and brought in, then sawn and erected using nails and brackets forged on site. Even having completed the work, the members of the fyrd would have been regularly rostered to help maintain these fortifications as well as the roads and the bridge whilst continuing to somehow scratch out a meagre living as farmers or tradesmen, and of course, providing military service when needed.
In reality, Wareham was probably not large in terms of the number of inhabitants residing within the fortifications, most of whom may well have lived quite near the existing crossroads and thus close to the quay which would have been the commercial heart of the settlement. There was probably no quay as such, ships being simply pulled up onto the muddy bank to be loaded and unloaded, trading goods with settlements all over Britain and even the continent. It seems to have been a thriving commercial centre and the area would have been a bustling and busy place with numerous storage sheds and warehouses and such like.
The remainder of the area enclosed within the fortifications would probably have comprised open space which could be used for grazing or to provide a site for temporary accommodation for those coming into the burh for their rostered duty or those seeking shelter in the event of trouble. The latter was certainly part of the function of a burh and doubtless they would have brought their families and possibly their livestock with them.
So, although a prosperous and wealthy settlement, the people of Wareham would have lived under the constant threat of invasion and raids and I suspect they would have served in the fyrd willingly enough despite their already heavy workload and wider commitments.
All this makes Wareham the perfect backdrop to a story set at this turbulent time – I hope that in Bloodlines I have done justice to both it and to those inhabitants who lived there at that time.