Danish raids (4, 5& 6) – Watchet and Porlock

Now into the post-Alfredian era: in the reign of his son, Edward the Elder, in the year 918 [917] the Danes attacked the north Somerset coastal region to the east of Watchet and again at Porlock. They had some connection with the Danes based in Ireland. At this time they made quick raids – the king had set up a chain of defences along the Severn estuary to the west as far as Cornwall and to the mouth of the Avon in the east which deterred attacks:

Ms C: Þa bestælon hi hi þeah nihtes upp æt sumum twam cirrum, æt oþrum cyrre be eastan Weced, æt oðrum cyrre æt Portlocan. Þa sloh hi mon æt ægþrum cyrre, þæt hyra feawa on weg comon buton þa ane þe ðær ut ætswymman mihton to þam scypum. 7 þa sæton hi ute on ðam iglande æt Steapan Reolice oþ þone ferst þe hi wurdon swiðe metelease, 7 monige menn hungre acwolen, forðon hine mihton nanne mete geræcan, foron ða þanon to Deomedum 7 þanon to Yrlande, 7 þis wæs on hærfest.

‘But they stole up by night on two occasions, once to the east of Watchet and once at Porlock. Each time they were attacked so that just a few escaped by swimming to their ships. And they lingered on the island of Steep Holm [some versions say it was Flat Holm – Bradan Reolice, less likely because further away] until they they were very short of provisions and many men died of hunger as they could obtain no food. They left for Dyfed and from there went to Ireland. And this was in the autumn.’

Watchet was not only a port but it was also a burh – mentioned in the Burghal Hidage.

Towns mentioned in the 10th-c. Burghal Hidage                                           Map of the burhs included in the 10-th c. Burghal Hidage

The actual fortification is thought to have been on the Iron Age encampment now known as Daw’s Castle, overlooking the coast. Watchet is right at the mouth of the Washford river – no cliffs at this point. Being little more than 2 miles from Williton, it was virtually the port for the royal estate there. Carhampton, also a royal estate, was less than 10 miles away. The raid took place to the ‘east of Watchet’ which could mean anywhere along this stretch of coast.

Porlock is about half way between Watchet and Countisbury, with Minehead, Dunster and Carhampton between Watchet and Porlock. Porlock Bay also stretches along a flat area of land, with the harbour at Porlock Weir just a mile or so to the west. It’s about 15 miles to the west of Watchet.

Porlock BayPorlock Bay

Both locations were very accessible to the Danish fleet having natural harbours. In fact in 988 also, the Chronicle records:

Her wæs Wecedport geheregod, 7 Goda se Defenisca þegen ofslagen 7 mycel wæl mid him. .

‘In this year Watchet was sacked, and Goda, thane of Devonshire, was killed and many with him.’

The mention of Goda is Interesting: was Watchet at that time in Devonshire, rather than Somerset? For the year 997:

Her on ðissum geare ferde se here abutan Defenanscire into Sæfern muðan 7 þær heregodon ægðer ge on Cornwealum 7 on Norðwealum 7 on Defenum, 7 eodon him þa up æt Wecedport 7 þær micel yfel worhton on bærnette 7 on mannslihtum

‘In this year year the enemy host went round Devonshire into the mouth of the Severn and there harried in Cornwall, Wales and Devon, and they went to Watchet and there they wrought great burning and slaying…’

Again, no mention of Somerset, even though they landed at Watchet.

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