The published and forthcoming publications of the Landscapes of Governance project at UCL will shed new light on the place-name, topopgraphical, archaeological and historical evidence for assembly practices and places in Anglo-Saxon England. As well as a systematic record of individual sites involving new field investigations, they will be digitally mapping these sites. The project will explore the emergence and variety of assembly places using case study regions focusing on southern and eastern England.
Swanborough, Wiltshire, is one of their case studies and was subject to a survey in 1999 and report, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine by Sarah Semple and Alex Langlands.
Recorded as a place for meetings as late as the 18th century, the monument is situated on a slight rise in woodland in the parish of Manningford Abbots. The ‘Tump’ is a long low mound with two summits which might either relate to the spoil from an antiquarian dig into either a long barrow of Neolithic date or else two adjacent round barrows of Early Bronze Age type. Alternatively, this could be a fraction of a larger mound of prehistoric or Anglo-Saxon construction, partly bisected by the W-E road to give it a ‘long’ appearance (and then subject to antiquarian disturbance). Without exavation, the date and character of this mound, clearly heavily disturbed by tree action, will remain uncertain. There is a monolith situated on top of the easternmost, adjacent to which is a modern memorial concrete plinth.
The reuse of prehistoric monuments as assembly places is demonstrated/suggested for a series of hundred meeting places elsewhere, and by Semple’s investigations of the Berkshire shire moot of Scutchamer Knob.
The site enters history for one particular instance: a meeting between Alfred and Aethelred before battling the Danes to agree that should each of them die, the other’s sprogs would inherit the kingdom.
The Tump’s position is strategic, located close to the western boundary of the hundred of Swanborough (Swandeberga) at a junction of N-S and E-W routes through the Vale of Pewsey, leading to the significant Anglo-Saxon centre of Pewsey itself. The place-name has been interpreted as the ‘mound/hill/barrow of the common men or peasants’. This basic, seemingly descriptive name has been postulated as the meeting place of the hundred since the 9th century, and perhaps far earlier.
Visiting last year, it is a rather unwhelming feature in itself, but it may have been simply one locus of a wider zone of assembly. The relationship with the striking hills to the north of Woodborough and Picked Hill, by which they are connected by ‘Dragon Lane’ is a striking feature. Certainly anyone meeting in safety at Swanborough Tump would need lookouts on this location, which in turn is overlooked by Adam’s Grave long barrow – the site of multiple battles recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – in Alton Barnes parish. Hence, I wonder whether this situation, prominent in a valley, needs to be understood in relation to a series of lookout points guarding key approaches.
A further point relates to the stone. Semple and Langlands do not mention the stone at all, so it is unclear whether it is an original or modern feature marking the ‘Tump’.
The ash trees (with obvious potential but not demonstrable pre-Christian significance perhaps) that mark the spot are also of unknown antiquity – there were 3 until the storm of 1986. Is the species and the antiquity of significance to the proposed early medieval hundredal meeting place function of the tump?
I was particularly intrigued by the concrete plinth with paving to approach it. There are 3 plaques, showing the biography of the 20th/early 21st century commemoration of the site. The original one, which I would guess is mid-20th century, states:
SWINBEORG. C. 850
MEETING PLACE OF THE HUNDRED OF SWANBOROUGH
HERE IN THE YEAR 871
THE FUTURE KING ALFRED THE GREAT
MET HIS ELDER BROTHER KING AETHELRED I
ON THEIR WAY TO FIGHT THE
INVADING DANES AND EACH SWORE THAT
IF THE OTHER DIED IN BATTLE
THE DEAD MAN’S CHILDREN WOULD
INHERIT THE LANDS OF THEIR FATHER
Finally, there is a third plaque balanced on the top and linked to the millennium:
29TH JULY 2000
A GATHERING WAS HELD AT THIS SITE
OF FAMILIES WHO BEAR THE
SWANBOROUGH NAME AND WHOSE
ORIGINS CAN BE TRACED TO THIS HUNDRED
So it seems we have a biography of memorialisation through these plaques, linking name, place and Anglo-Saxon origins.