Posted by: kljolly | June 6, 2012

Oakley: the tent

Aldred says he wrote the Cuthbert collects for Bishop Ælfsige in his tent, at Oakley south of Woodyates, 10 August 970.  What is this tent (getelde) and what does it signify for their journey?  I have pictured it three ways.

First, I imagined they were camping with their entourage while traveling from one place to another.  That is, they pitched their tents for a night or two by the roadside (Ackling Dyke Roman road).  The problem with this explanation is that they are very close to several estate manors or villages where you think they could at least house the bishop.

GoogleEarth, Oakley Down, camp ground in center

Curiously, GoogleEarth has two images (below) posted by viewers showing a camp ground in a field at Oakley.  [It sort of reminds me of the Quidditch World Cup camping area.]

Second, suggested by Jane Roberts, is a pavilion set up for a special audience or occasion just for the day.  But what occasion and why would a Northumbrian bishop be celebrating something in the Wessex countryside, rather than in one of the religious institutions nearby?

Oakley Down camping bar (GoogleEarth Panoramio)

Third, propounded by Patrick Wormald, is that Woodyates was used as a royal meeting place of some kind, issuing charters or laws.  In this scenario, King Edgar and his entourage would have the manor house, while attending bishops, abbots, lay ministers, and thegns might end up in tents, depending on seniority and/or personal contacts in the area.   Alternatively, Wormald suggests that the itinerant king sometimes preferred lesser paths through prime hunting areas; certainly Oakley and nearby Cranborne Chase would provide woodland for a royal hunt.

Oakley camping ground (GoogleEarth Panoramio)

This third option has correlating evidence.  We know that Woodyates was a royal council site, albeit from a hundred years earlier:  King Æthelred’s  grant to Ealdorman Ælfstan (S334 and S342), a charter in Shaftesbury’s hands.  We also know that Bishop Ælfsige signed one charter in 970 (S781), but not any of the other surviving charters from 970.  S781 is one of several 970 grants to Ely, a major foundation in East Anglia; two other charters (S776 and S779) were issued  in 970 from Woolmer, in Hamptonshire, to the east of Woodyates beyond Winchester.  Kings can sign charters wherever they happen to be holding council. Perhaps in 970 Edgar’s itinerary crossed paths with Bishop Ælfsige’s at Woodyates, where he signed as a witness on S781.

This scenario places Bishop Ælfsige in the lower rungs of the episcopal hierarchy in relation to the Wessex monarch, only signing one charter, and stuck in a tent.  How does that affect Aldred’s view from the colophon?  Clearly he is celebrating the occasion of transmitting the Cuthbert prayers and finds the tent as important a marker as the date and time of day, but indicates nothing else about the presence of other bishops, abbots, or the king.  He and Bishop Ælfsige are simply there “among the West Saxons.”  Hmm.  Maybe options 1 and 2 are still viable, that the two Northumbrians had their own Cuthbert-centered purposes and itinerary apart from the Wessex royal events.


Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law:  King Alfred to the Twelfth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 437.


  1. […] Karen Jolly of Revealing Words has been scouting her sites for her novel around Oakley and interpreting what a note about an Anglo-Saxon tent means. […]

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