Towards a Definitive History

In early 2010, we set about establishing a definitive history of Stanton St. Gabriel. There seemed to be nothing especially Quixotic about this venture. Surely the records would be few enough to read quite quickly and easy enough to find in this networked age. Amateur genealogists would certainly have done much of the work already and the local history society would point us towards sources for the rest. It was even a slight pleasure that there was no formal history of the place. Rather like approaching a dimpled field over which no metal detector has ever passed.

We were clear: this was to be a proper history – and any proper history needs to refer to the very best sources. Tittle-tattle would not serve us well in a venture such as this. Where better, then, to start than with Historic Environment of the Dorset Coast: Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey Phase I – Dorset Coast Historic Environment Research Framework?

Copperas : Pain de campagne
Published in June 2004, the report makes serious reading. According to its authors, some way along the Dorset coast at Kimmeridge and Brownsea Island, a mineral called copperas was mined at least as early as the 16th century. The authors note, in a rather matter-of-fact way, that, “the principal use of copperas was as a textile dye mordant and saddening agent”. It looks like an old French loaf.

No further reference will be made to the copperas industry in this account of Stanton St. Gabriel. As far as records show, it was never mined in these parts. But the notion of a saddening agent… well, there may be occasion for us to revisit that idea.

In Historic Environment of the Dorset Coast we learn three things of particular interest about Stanton St. Gabriel. They are as follows:
  1. “The Domesday Book provides a basis for understanding the organisational and administrative structure of the landscape immediately following the Norman Conquest. Settlements such as Lyme Regis, recorded in Domesday as Lym/Lime, lie in contrast to the deserted villages of Radipole and Stanton St. Gabriel, which, among others, serve to illustrate discontinuity of occupation.”
  2. “…the simplest method of capturing and retaining fish on the foreshore comprises the construction of wooden fishtraps. Only two are recorded for Dorset: at Stanton St Gabriel and Studland.”
  3. “In the Roman period, the fort at Hamworthy may have dominated the military landscape, facilitating the establishment of the area as the foremost settlement of the time. However, the coast of Dorset has a long history of being invaded and attacked after the end of Roman rule provoking a wide range of civic and military responses. For example, in AD 833 AD, Viking raiders landed at Charmouth in 35 ships and were met in battle by King Egbert.”
To recap: the village of Stanton St. Gabriel is deserted; fish used to be caught on the foreshore in a wooden fishtrap; and the Vikings landed a mile or two along the coast in Charmouth in the year 833. (Note how we say “the year 833” rather than just “833”: it’s because 3-digit numbers don’t really look like years. They’re more like sofa prices or cricket scores from the heyday of Don Bradman.)

Vikings in Charmouth

Let’s start with the Viking invasion, which was met by King Egbert. Now you may already be asking what King Egbert was doing in Charmouth. Had he had a tip-off or was he on his holidays in the village and found himself called to the scene by an eagle-eyed young urchin who had spotted longships on the horizon? Surely the Vikings hadn't phoned ahead asking him to meet them for a fight?

Some research shows that there’s more to this tale than meets the eye. According to the village history, there were “two great confrontations on the banks of the River Cerne (Char) between Viking raiders and local forces led by King Egbert and later by his son King Aethelwulf of the West Saxons. On both occasions, after a great slaughter the Vikings withdrew.”

So Aethelwulf was down here as well, ready to repel the Vikings. perhaps he'd been on holiday with his dad and kept up the tradition once he became king. At least the Vikings were repelled on both occasions. But hang on, from The Life of King Egbert, we learn more about the fight in the year 833:
“…confusion spread among the Anglo-Saxons enabling the Danes to decisively defeat Egbert and his men, so that they ended by fleeing under cover of darkness. Though “there was a great slaughter made,” yet “the Danes maintained possession of the battle-spot.” The bloody losses Egbert suffered in this his first military defeat, included Herefrith, bishop of Winchester, and Sigelm, bishop of Sherborne…”
So he didn’t win after all, and he sent two of his bishops into the fray. Surely that’s a bit off. You wouldn't send Robert Runcie (or whoever it is now) to fight in Iraq.

Anyway, a bit more research reveals an oft-repeated legend that St Wite (whose remains are buried in the Church at Whtchurch Canonicorum in a box marked “+HIC. REQUESCT. RELIQE. SCE. WITE”) was killed by the Vikings in that same raid.

And then a little more research [we're scampering on now because it can all get a bit dull in an age of shortened attention spans] reveals that the Vikings actually invaded not at Charmouth but at Carhampton on the North Devon/Somerset coast (hence the Battle of Carhampton at which, you guessed it, Egbert was defeated by the Vikings). Which presumably means that St Wite died a quite different death.

Fishtraps at Stanton St. Gabriel

Everything seems in order here. Perhaps we can breathe out and assume that the Viking thing was an aberration and most history is reliable.

Stanton St. Gabriel – a deserted village

Now this is a complicated one. One way and another it provoked the performance of Absence in July 2010. If you haven't already seen them, go here for the soundtrack and here for the programme.

Or continue with the proper history here.