In 934 Frome was already a place of significance in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. As a religious missionary centre with church and monastery it had been established more than two centuries before by Aldhelm, a close contact of King Ine.
Its position in the forest of Selwood made it one of the central communities of the expanded Wessex which stretched from the present-day county of Kent to Devon. Cornwall and the last of the British kingdom of Dumnonia fell to the Saxons in the early part of the 10th century, making the whole of southern England a vast power base for the kings of Alfred’s dynasty, Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edmund and Eadred.
We know that Athelstan attended a witan (parliament) in what would have been a palace building in Frome at the Christmas court of 934, after a campaign in Scotland which attempted to unite all Saxon and British kingdoms under his rule. The king of Scotland (Alba as it was called then) was brought back south to Frome to be made to accept his new position as a sub-king, like the Welsh kings.
The palace and monastery buildings are long gone and the only trace of Saxon influence to be seen in Frome today is the two Saxon cross shaft sculptures which have been incorporated into the wall of the restored church. The town has been built up over the thousand years since Athelstan’s time and there is a great depth of accumulated debris from building and rebuilding in the church area, likely to have been the site of the monastery and palace. It is thought that the original Saxon occupation would have been in the area between the river and Christchurch Street West (formerly called Behind Town). A medieval tythe barn stood on the site of St John’s school, which may have been a successor to earlier monastic buildings.
The town was, with Amesbury and Cheddar, one of the favourite places of Athelstan, who relished hunting in Selwood. It no doubt benefited from regular visits by the King and all the associated archbishops, bishops and courtiers who would have been present, together with their retinues. King Eadred died here in 955, perhaps in a hospital run by the monks. By the early 11th century Frome was important enough to have its own mint and was still owned by the Saxon kings at Domesday.
We think of the 10th century as being a backward time, the early Middle Ages or Dark Ages, in the period just after the Viking incursions of the late 9th century and before their second onslaught at the end of the 10th century, but there is a great deal of evidence of court life in documentary sources which when synthesised with archaeology can provide a flavour of what this area of Wessex might have been like. Add the secondary sources of near contemporary historians and later academics and a picture begins to emerge.
In central Wessex in 934 and the earlier centuries of the lost kingdom of the Britons, Dumnonia, there is a hidden history which remains in the landscape, the stories of the British locked into place-names. They reveal a relationship with the landscape which the Saxons conquerors could only guess at.
Drawing of the Saxon cross shaft sculpture which is built into the Victorian reconstruction of St John’s church, Frome.
Annette Burkitt, October 2017