Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Wallingford in Oxfordshire or should that be Berkshire?

A typical Anglo-Saxon Burgh similar to Wallingford - David Hobbs
On the last day of our weekend to Oxford we enjoyed a fabulous English cooked breakfast at the Fleur de Lys in Dorchester before setting off on our walk to the Wittenham Clumps as covered in my previous post.

However we couldn't extend the walk onto the Iron Age hill fort as I was keen to explore another site close by, namely the ancient town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire since the county boundary reorganisation of 1974 when it had historically been in the county of Berkshire, and I should think, to many of the locals still is.

Wallingford, close to the River Thames and a short drive from Dorchester, where we were staying.
On doing a bit of research on the area before our visit I remembered that Wallingford was one of King Alfred the Great's defensive burghs built to resist Viking incursions in the Kingdom of Wessex.

I pictured the remains of one of these walled towns down in Devon when Carolyn and I visited Lydford as part of my series looking at Battlefields in Devon and where the Vikings attempted an assault on the town. The remains of the ditch and ramparts are still visible today and make an interesting comparison to those pictured here at Wallingford.

The remains of the burgh at Lydford in Devon
As you can see the remains of the ditch and rampart that can still be seen on the northern perimeter of the extent of the original Anglo-Saxon town are in much better shape still giving a good impression of the formidable obstacle they once were when you remember there would have been a wooden palisade along the top of the rampart.

Sadly not everyone feels the same way about protecting our historical sites for future generations, and the battle between conservation and development is a consistent one but I can't help thinking that the town planner who signed off on these houses backing into the last remaining part of the ninth century defences should be facing a charge for criminal vandalism.

Surely they could have built these houses away from the rampart and ditch!
The view below gives you the impression that Ragnar would have got after tying up his boat in the Thames.

There was something so familiar about the names of Dorchester and Wallingford, and I couldn't work out why until I remembered the game of Alfred the Great 'Mr Steve' and I played, recorded here on JJ's as we played out the landing of the Great Heathen Army with Wallingford and Dorchester falling to the pagan horde.

A case of the hobby informing about the history and really bringing our game alive. Just follow the link below to follow the game we played.

Dorchester and Wallingford, centre top , in our game played out in 2015

It wasn't just Alfred and Guthrum who realised the importance of the position of Wallingford on the River Thames and its bridge and the Normans were, as at Lydford, quick to incorporate their own motte and bailey defences within the previous Anglo-Saxon works.

Wallingford Castle at its height of power in the late medieval period. The red circle marks the position of the remains of the Queen's Tower seen in the next picture

Established in the eleventh century Wallingford castle was further developed from the original motte and bailey into, by the thirteenth century, one of the most powerful Royal castles, surviving multiple sieges and never being taken by storming.

The castle was held for the Empress Matilda during the war with Stephen, however it fell out of Royal favour when King Henry VIII described it as being too drafty for his liking.

The remains of the once mighty Queen's Tower, see the illustration above
The defensive properties of Wallingford castle came back into prominence during the English Civil War with the town being very much a Royalist centre of support and forming part of the outer defences for Oxford.

The garrison of the town was centred around Colonel Thomas Blagge's Foot Regiment and Lord Digby's horse regiment with about one thousand infantry and two hundred cavalry detailed to defend the castle and town.

View of the bridge over the Thames from the Queen's Tower
In 1646 when Fairfax's troops moved against Oxford, the old Royal capital soon fell with King Charles escaping, disguised as a footman. However Colonel Blagge was not inclined to so quickly surrender his defences and he and his men held out for sixteen weeks, under siege for sixty-five days.

A little piece of the great wall of Walliingford Castle

The original and earliest part of the castle is marked by the motte
The terms and conditions of Blagge's surrender were pretty much his own as he defied Parliament when they at first refused his conditions.

The curve of the moat that can be seen in the illustration placed around the back of the motte
When Fairfax and Cromwell finally took possession of the place on the 29th July 1646 it was converted into a state prison as Cromwell determined that the fortress should never again act as a point of resistance to Parliamentary rule and had the place dismantled almost stone by stone.

When Cromwell decided to slight a castle, he certainly made sure it couldn't be used in future

Colonel Thomas Blagge defended Wallingford and its castle for the King. He was described as
"an officer of great courage and military talents"

Wallingford in the English Civil War
Colonel Thomas Blagge

Like the other towns explored in the local area, Wallingford is blessed with some gloriously old pubs and coaching inns and the George Hotel in Wallingford certainly falls into that category; dating back to the 16th century, it lays claim to a room above the courtyard said to be a favourite of the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin and from where he made several close escapes from the law officers.

There is also the legend of the Teardrop room where the fiancee of murdered Royalist, John Robson, stabbed in a bar room brawl is said to have dabbed her tears with soot from the fireplace and painted the walls with her tears, still visible three hundred years later.

So with tales of Alfred the Great, Thomas Blagge and Dick Turpin covered off in a Sunday afternoon walk it was time to find the car and set off for home having had a great three days exploring the delights of Edgehill, Cropredy Bridge, Dorchester, Oxford and Wallingford. A lovely part of the world, well worth visiting.

Next up, it's back to the Spanish with the 1st battalion, Reina Regiment.


  1. Fascinating history, Jonathan. Your recent travel series has been quite enjoyable!

    1. Thanks Jonathan, I certainly came away with loads of inspiration for future collections and games.

  2. JJ, have you read Anglo Saxons at War by Paul Hill? It covers the period of 800 to 1066. I'm only part way through but it goes into some depth on the structure of the Anglo Saxon war machine. How, why and when it functioned including how it supplied logistics in the field and routes of march. There is more but I haven't covered it all yet. Its quite interesting and a pretty fluid read based upon how it is written.

    Your piece above on the burgh was really interesting. It brought to life a part in the book that is covered regarding fortifications. Always great to see a visual aid. A real shame where they built those houses, but at least they didn't destroy the old ramparts or fill in the ditch.

    Thanks for sharing this post, really great stuff.


    1. Hi Adam, thanks for the recommendation, ordered a copy today.

      I am in the mind of putting together a big battle collection of Anglo-Saxon - Viking figures and am looking at Augustus to Aurelian as the rules to try out.

      I have to get the Napoleonic project brought to a conclusion this year, then on to the Dacian collection, so this walking about Dark Age battlefields and fortifications is all about getting into what is a fascinating history.

      We are really enjoying watching "The Last Kingdom" here on BBC at the moment which is only adding to the 'itch'.

      I have said it before on the blog , but there is nothing quite like walking a battlefield or fortification for getting a sense of scale and firing up the creative juices. The Wallingford ditch, given all the centuries of erosion, is still a formidable obstacle today and will be a constant memory when I get around to staging a Viking assault on an Alfredian burgh with scaling ladders and axes all over the place.

      Thanks for your comment