The sight of a Saxon warship raising sail in Swanage Bay in Dorset could become reality if the dream of Dark Ages expert Joe Roberts gets to see the light of day.
A £100,000 Go Fund Me page has now been launched for the ambitious project which could see a replica Saxon longboat built in Purbeck and sailing the Jurassic Coast, perhaps as early as 2025.
Harald Finehair’s reconstruction of a longship could be similar to the proposed Saxon vessel
Inspired by the Vikings in Swanage Bay
Joe, who set up reenactment group Saexia five years ago to celebrate the Saxons who farmed and fished Purbeck a thousand years ago, has long been fascinated by the story surrounding the battle between King Alfred the Great and the Vikings in Swanage Bay in 877 AD.
While it’s historically disputed whether King Alfred the Great and his men actually defeated the Vikings at sea in the bay, or whether the Viking longboats were sunk in a storm or lost in a mist, it is known that Alfred later realised how important sea power was to an island nation.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, likely written in the 9th or early 10th century, describes how Alfred defeated the Vikings on land in 878 AD and then built a navy of longships to continue the defence of Wessex around its coastline – the first beginnings of the British Navy.
Whether the battle in Swanage Bay actually happened or not, the town’s Victorian benefactor John Mowlem, never one to miss an opportunity, built a granite column on the seafront in Shore Road to commemorate the event. The King Alfred Memorial erected in 1862, is topped with cannonballs from the Crimean War.
The King Alfred Memorial on Shore Road commemorates the Battle of Swanage Bay although it’s a mystery whether the Vikings were actually defeated by King Alfred or the weather
King Alfred as portrayed in BBC Two’s historic drama The Last Kingdom
“We want to shine light on the Dark Ages”
“The Dane and Viking longships were already infamous for their speed and the raids they made on towns along the coast and rivers, and are instantly familiar through pop culture such as the TV shows Vikings and The Last Kingdom.
“But we don’t know what Alfred’s Saxon longships looked like. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle said simply that they were not in the same style as the Dane or Frisian ships, but were built as King Alfred saw fit, to be able to successfully defend against Viking pirates and take the fight to them.
“Did this mean King Alfred’s warships were bigger with higher sides to be able to fight down on the invaders when they came alongside? Or smaller and sleeker to be able to outrun and out manoeuvre the classic Viking drakkars?
“We want to design, build and sail a well researched hypothetical Saxon warship based on what evidence there is, and the technology they had at the time, then take it to sea and see if we can shed that little bit more light on the dark ages.”
Members of the Saexia reenactment group at a living history fair
Battle training in Methodist church hall
Joe had been a member of Viking reenactment groups in Poole, but tired of the 50-mile round trips for weekly meetings and quickly realised that while Vikings were well represented in former Wessex, their Anglo Saxon foes were not.
A group was set up in the Red Lion pub in Swanage, a local field was offered for battle training and the new group began to recruit members and acquire historically accurate clothing and weapons before Covid put a stop to their meetings.
But once restrictions were fully lifted in 2021, Saexia rented Swanage Methodist Church hall for combat training sessions and then began to take part in living history festivals, adding archery and axe throwing to their skill set.
Dark Ages hog roast
Plans are underway for a Purbeck Saxon Festival at the Halfway Inn near Norden on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd July 2023.
It will include a Dark Ages hog roast, living history displays of Saxon cooking and crafts, have a go archery and axe throwing and some basic training in the Purbeck Saxon militia.
There will also be displays from Saexia and guest Mercian reenactment group Swords of Penda, as well as a chance to learn more about the Saxon Longship project.
Colin Gill, official War Artist during World War One, chose to imagine Alfred’s victory at Swanage on canvas, to show the importance of England’s Navy
Viking fleet destroyed on Peveril Ledge
“Living in Swanage, I was inspired by the memorial on the seafront to King Alfred and over the years did some research into that story.
“When I read the Anglo Saxon Chronicles I realised there were references to a couple of different sea battles during that time which seem to have been merged together in the monument.
“It seems to be saying that there was simultaneously a sea battle and also that the Danes had ransacked Wareham over the winter of 877 AD but when their fleet left Poole Harbour there was either a storm or sea mists and they sailed over Peveril ledges destroying a hundred ships.
“If they left in the early spring and were caught by the easterly winds, they would have been rowing for their lives but the winds would be blowing them ashore.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were wrecked all the way from Old Harry to Durlston Head, it is incredibly treacherous terrain for ships like that.”
Guarding the Purbeck hills, a member of the local ‘fyrd’ or militia
Wareham was sacked many times by the Danes
“After Alfred’s victory at Edington he started to look to the defence of Wessex and began to construct a properly organised navy.
“The Chronicle hints at this in a tantalising passage and we know he had quite a bit of success with them when they were deployed, perhaps darting out of Poole Harbour or the Solent when a pirate ship was sighted, but we don’t know how they differed from the Viking longships.
“Depending on the support we get, we can either build a prototype small and sleek longship or a bigger vessel like the reconstruction of Harald Finehair’s ship – what we really need is a wealthy local businessman or woman who would like to get involved with a unique project!
“I could imagine a solid effort and good support could see the ship built in 18 months to two years.
“There would be a lovely poetic ring if we were able to build it in the Wareham area, as Wareham was ransacked many times by the Danes and Vikings and benefited hugely once Alfred had built his navy.”
A Saexia Living History event at Durlston showcased Saxon crafts, cookery and battle skills
Hold the line! Saexia warriors prepare to take on the Viking heathens