KEVIN GORDON - Did our greatest King live in Sussex?

West Dean Church
West Dean Church

I was in West Dean last weekend, that delightful village snuggled away within a fold of the downs and surround by the evergreens of Friston Forest.

I was visiting Julian Martyr who, with other members of the Cuckmere Archaeological (CA) was excavating some trenches to discover the footings of ancient buildings.

I was fascinated to see the careful excavations and delighted to watch as a metal buckle was recovered from one of the trenches. Nearby West Dean House dates from 1597. The buckle was probably discarded or fell from an item of clothing over 400 years ago and has been hidden away under the turf ever since , how wonderful to witness its recovery.

A visit to West Dean village is always worthwhile as it is well off the tourist track. In many villages you have to escape to the church to avoid the noise of traffic but here, the whole village is an enclave of peace and quiet.

It is said that King Alfred once stayed here in the days when it would have been possible to sail into the village from the Cuckmere Valley. We know that the great King had an estate at Dean in Sussex in the ninth century although it could be that this refers to West Dean in West Sussex. His biographer, a Welsh monk called Asser, first met the King at West Dean in about 887AD. The meeting with the went well and Asser said that he was ‘received with kindness’.

The King asking him to be his friend and to assist him with is studies. He agreed to take on the role of recording his life as long as he could return to Wales once a year (which must have been quite a trek).

Asser indeed became the Kings friend, teaching him Latin and later assisting him in translating a book originally written by Pope Gregory the Great.

He was rewarded by being made the Bishop of Sherbourne.

Much of our knowledge of the only ‘great’ English monarch comes from Asser’s book “The Life of King Alfred” which was published in 893AD (It is in Chapter 79 that West Dean is mentioned) Only one copy of the book survived.

It was stored in Ashburnham House, Westminster along with other priceless documents collected after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire in 1731 when the librarian jumped from a window with valuable medieval documents under his arm. Luckily copies of Alfred’s Biography had been made.

Alfred was a wise King who fought to make the country safe against Viking attacks. He consolidated tribal lands becoming the first King of England. He introduced standard coinage, improved literacy and his laws were fair and respected.

Alfred died in 899AD and his will mentions that his estate at ‘Dean’ was left to his youngest son Aethelweard (circa 880-922AD)

Will Cuckmere Archaeology discover the foundations of King Alfred’s palace? I think not, but there are still ancient buildings to be seen in the village.

The church is a mixture of ancient Saxon and Norman stonework, although, as David Worsfold, one of the founder members of the archaeological group, told me there is a bit of a conundrum as the Saxon walls appear to be over the later Norman work.

The nearby rectory faces the church and is believed to the oldest occupied rectory in England. This beautiful timber-framed building with greensand windows dates from the 13th century, only a few hundred years after Alfred could have stood on the same spot.

I would like to write more about Alfred and his connections with Sussex … but I think I can smell some cakes burning!

If you would like to join Cuckmere Archaeology on one of their excavations please contact the membership Co-ordinator, Julian Martyr at the Old Coach House, West Dean, Seaford BN25 4DL. Annual membership is £15 (students under 26 £5) They are a really friendly group and provide opportunities for both experienced and novice archaeologists. Membership provides insurance for fieldwork and a regular newsletter.