The Anglo-Saxon Settlement

Royal Chippenham

The origin of the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Chippenham’ is contested, with two possible derivations considered likely by local historians; It may be based on the personal name ‘Cyppa’, or on the Old English ‘Cēap’ (market), as in ‘Cheapside’, ‘Chipping Norton’ etc. Given the prevalence of the ‘Cēp’ place-name element, however, the latter seems much more likely. Chippenham is a town strongly associated with the kings of Wessex in the era of Alfred the Great, and is quite well-attested in the documentary record from the middle of the ninth century on. The first record of the town dates from 853, when Ethelwitha, daughter of King Aethelwulf of Wessex was given in marriage to King Burgred of Mercia at the ‘royal estate (villa regia) called Chippenham, and the marriage was conducted in royal style’.

Chippenham soon found itself again at the centre of events. Though King Alfred had concluded a supposedly ‘firm peace’ with the Viking leader Guthrum at Exeter in 877 which required the Danes to remove themselves from the king’s lands, it was clear that they were intent on permanent conquest and settlement, and their withdrawal took them no further than Mercia. Alfred was at Chippenham by Christmas. It has been plausibly suggested that the king had followed Guthrum north and made Chippenham his forward base of operations, from which he could shadow his enemies and both prevent looting in Wiltshire, as well as deter the Vikings from returning. If so, it was a disastrous mistake, for Guthrum’s forces attacked Chippenham on Twelfth Night, inflicting such a major defeat on the king that they were able to begin settlement of Wessex itself, while Alfred was forced to undertake a guerrilla campaign from the Somerset marshes. Nevertheless, by May 878, Alfred had restored his position sufficiently to win a substantial victory at the Battle of Edington, as a result of which, Guthrum’s forces were compelled to withdraw from Chippenham to Cirencester.

Development of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement

Despite the noteworthy impact of Chippenham on the documentary record, and its clear royal connections, it is difficult to establish the origins and development of the Anglo-Saxon settlement. Three quite different views have emerged:

1) Blair (1988). In this view, religious activity at Chippenham may substantially predate the town itself, with a minster constructed on the site in the seventh or eight century as part of efforts to Christianise the region. The town itself was developed around the Minster in the Alfredian period.

2) Ford (1976). In this view, Anglo-Saxon Chippenham was a planned burh, with streets arranged on a grid pattern and a minster constructed as part of the deliberate development of the town. The absence of the town from the tenth century list of burhs (the Burghal hidage) is explained by the fact that the settlement was attached to a rural manor.

3) Haslam (1984). The most elaborate explanation of Chippenham’s Anglo-Saxon origin and development was provided by Jeremy Haslam, who proposed a chronology beginning in the post-Roman period. In this scheme, the abandonment of Roman villa estates centred on Verlucio and the subsequent regeneration of waste and woodland in the area south of Chippenham allowed the emergence of both Chippenham and Calne as estate and administrative centres. The Domesday manor (which consists mostly of land to the west of the town) and the manors of Kingston St Michael and Kingston Langley (both to the north) probably all formed part of the ancient royal estate. The entire area (known as Lang-Leah in Domesday) coincided with an area of lighter soils on the Kellaway sands. The similarity of the topography of the site to settlements like Bradford, Calne and Wilton suggests a planted town with, at its core, a marketplace, minster and royal palace, the latter of which was ‘certainly’ in existence by the mid ninth century. Around this core area would have been the streets of the town. In this model, there were probably no substantial public fortifications, meaning that Chippenham was not a burh in the usual sense, but the presence of an Emery lane immediately to the north, and a thirteenth century deed of Stanley Abbey, which calls this region of the town Ymbri (perhaps ‘King’s burh’) may indicate that an enclosed royal palace compound (rather than municipal defences) stood immediately to the north of what is now St Andrew’s Church. The brief Danish occupation of the site probably had little effect on the long-term development of the town, and the acquisition of the town fields to the south (Westmead and Englands) reflected the growth of the community from a specialised royal settlement.

At the heart of scholarly disagreements concerning the nature and development of Anglo-Saxon Chippenham is the question of the type and extent of any Anglo-Saxon fortifications, with Ford favouring true urban defences, and Haslam suggesting a more modest enclosed royal precinct. McMahon expanded on Ford’s scheme to suggest that perhaps the town was defended by the Avon to the East, and by fortifications to the west at approximately the rear of buildings now facing onto the Marketplace, and Causeway. In this scheme, ‘Imbyri’/’Ymbri’ may not indicate the presence of the walls, but of the perimeter track or walkway that serviced them, while the line of Joseph’s Lane and the rear of properties on Cook Street might represent the other walls. Perhaps the most striking fact of Anglo-Saxon Chippenham, however, is that a relatively extensive documentary record for the period is not supported by any substantial archaeological finds. It has been reported that a well-stratified clay bank was visible during earthmoving at the Emerygate centre. If so, this may have represented an element of the Anglo-Saxon fortifications, but this was not subjected to close inspection. A decisive resolution of these questions is unlikely unless archaeological traces of a minster, palace and fortifications can be found (none have been so far) and accurately dated.