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Lyng and Athelney by Miranda Richardson

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Lyng and Athelney report

A brief history of Lyng and Athelney

The island of Athelney is a spur of keuper marl which rises proud of the Somerset levels. As the marshy land is now drained the site is considerably less remote than it once was. Little is known of the prehistory of the site although the occasional find of prehistoric date and the as yet undated cropmarks show the possibility of prehistoric occupation deserves further investigation. Similarly little is known of this area in the Roman period although recent work to the south-west of Lyng is shedding new light on this period.

The place-name Athelney has been translated as ‘isle of the aethlings’ and is traditionally the place where Aethelwine (son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons 611-42, brother of Cenwealh, king of of the West Saxons 642-72) lived as a hermit in the mid-7th century, who later was to be venerated as a saint. It was also the used as a refuge by King Alfred the Great in 878, from Danish invasions according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. During the seven weeks he stayed at Athelney King Alfred is supposed to have built a fortress from which he launched his attack on the Danes. In May of that year he was able to defeat the Danish king Guthrum at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire, after which Guthrum was baptized at Aller with the name Athelstan. Other legends have grown up around the site such as Alfred taking shelter in a swineherds hut where he burnt the cakes. The Life of King Alfred states that Alfred founded a monastery at Athelney in 893, as a thanks-offering for the defeat of the Danish army and describes the site thus ‘...surrounded by, swampy impassable and extensive marshland and ground water on every side. It cannot be reached in any way except by punts or by a causeway which has been built by protracted labour between two fortresses. A formidable fortress of elegant workmanship was set up by the command of the king at the western end of the causeway’. This last probably refers to a burh built on the raised ground of East Lyng which was listed in the Burghal Hideage of the early 10th century. Whether the author of this work was indeed Alfred’s contemporary and friend Asser, is now doubted by some historians, the work may have been written c.1000 by an imposter using the late 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a historical framework. Detail included in this work and absent from the Chronicle (such as that quoted above) should therefore be treated with caution. If not a contemporary document written from first-hand experience, the Life’s sources may have been aural history, tradition and first-hand or related experience of the places mentioned in the text as they were at the turn of the millennium.

In the 12th century William of Malmesbury remarked on the unusual construction of what he took to be King Alfred’s abbey. In the 1530's Leland noted a wooden bridge used to enter the Abbey. However, the buildings were to crumble following the dissolution, the stone probably being quarried for the buildings of Athelney Farm in the 1670s. Antiquary excavations on the site in the 17th and 18th century apparently produced painted stone of some quality and a vault containing human remains.

By Domesday, Lyng is not recorded as having any special importance, although the monastic church of St. Peter at Athelney held other land, Lyng itself is described as a small rural settlement. In 1267 a charter for a market was granted, but this seems to have come to nothing by 1349. Despite this the settlement retained burh status and was recorded as such in 1498-9. A chapel, dependant on the church at Athelney, was founded at East Lyng prior to 1291, on the west edge of the medieval settlement. By the mid-16th century there were only 16 houses at East Lyng.

The site of Athelney is now deserted other than a monument erected in 1801 and Athelney Farm. The village of East Lyng remains a small rural settlement, although possibly retaining in its form a hint of its earlier history.