The Last Kingdom of Wessex Part 2 Wilton

What does the Kingdom of Wessex have to do with a walking holiday?

Posted by Mark Armstrong 21st March 2017

As stated in my last blog, we have a walking holiday that we call 'Wonders of Wessex' and I explain on our website a bit about where the region known as Wessex originated from and how the term became popularised. A new series of the Last Kingdom has started on the BBC, so I am taking the opportunity to show how the landscape of our walking holidays are featured in the story of the kingdom of Wessex.

Today the town of Wilton appears overshadowed by the neighbouring city of Salisbury. However, it was once an important part of the Kingdom of Wessex and it is Wilton that gives us the county name of Wiltshire.

Wilton was founded by the Anglo-Saxons where an east to west ridge, topped by the Great Ridgeway and a Roman road, drops to the area where the Wylye and Nadder rivers converge; the rivers and downland providing natural fortifications for a settlement. This settlement became the fortified place of the Wilsaetes tribe who took their name from the river Wylye. The shire based on Wilton is first mentioned in 802 as Wilsaete and later as Wiltunscir. The county boundaries were established by 900.

Wilton was established as a royal seat of the Kingdom of Wessex by the 9th century, but following the Danish wars of King Alfred this moved to Winchester, although Wilton did remain as the administrative centre of Wiltshire until the 11th century.

In 827 Egbert founded a benedictine priory at Wilton, later converted by King Alfred into an abbey. Two daughters of King Edward the Elder and Aelfflaed and Aethelhild, may have joined the community as a nun and lay sister respectively. They were buried at Wilton along with their mother. Their half-brother, King Aethelstan made two grants of land to a congregation at Wilton in the 930s. Wulfthryth, the wife of King Edgar was abbess of Wilton between the early 960s and about 1000. She brought with her Saint Edith, their daughter. Wulfthryth used her wealth to build up Wilton's relic collection. Her daughter died aged 23, and her mother promoted her cult as a saint. King Cnut erected a shrine to her and many pilgrims were attracted in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Before and after the Norman conquest, and until the founding of New Sarum (Salisbury) in the early 13th century, Wilton was a favoured place with Saxon Kings and nobles. Saxon documents suggest it served as a guest house for noble travellers and one particular route acquired the name Wilton Way.

At times during the 10th century Wilton was the seat of the Bishop of Wiltshire before moving to Old Sarum at the end of the 11th century. Strategically Wilton was important in the defensive loop around Wessex with the decisive battle against the Danes in 871 being fought at Wilton, after which Wessex and the Danes made peace. Unfortunately in 1003 Sweyn, King of Denmark destroyed the town after Ethelred the Unready had unwisely murdered many of the Danish settlers. Edith of Wessex, wife of Edward the Confessor, who had been educated at Wilton, rebuilt the formerly wooden abbey in stone.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries the site of Wilton Abbey was granted to Sir William Herbert, later Earl of Pembroke, who commenced the building of Wilton House still home to his descendants. There are no remains of the ancient buildings.

For anyone that watched the 1st series of The Last Kingdom, they may remember the battle at Wilton. In May 871 King Alfred had only been crowned King of Wessex for less than a month and he had to face the Danes on a hill at Wilton. At one point the Danes may have fallen back and King Alfred pushed after them with his army but the Danes launched their own counter attack. In less than six months the kings of Wessex had fought nine battles and numerous skirmishes. There were heavy losses and a truce was agreed. The Danes were bought off on the condition that they left Wessex to not return. The Danes agreed, going back to the River Thames and the Mercian city of London.

You can walk through Wilton as part of our Wonders of Wessex walking holiday, visit Wilton House, see some of the remaining medieval buildings in the town as well as walk on some ancient trackways and footpaths.

Wonders of Wessex Walking Holidays

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