THE REAL SCEAFTESEGE
Discovering the Real Sceaftesige
When we set up the local branch of Regia Anglorum we wanted to tie it to a local settlement rather than
just a county title. At the time we were practising in the paddock of an 8th century church
in Cookham, but rather than take it from the town we used the island fort of Sceaftesige.
This article sets out not only to describe what the group knows about the original Sceaftesege Garrison,
but also how the information was found out. Hopefully this will provide ideas to others who are looking
for information on local historical sites. (It will also confirm with referees of the Cthulhu game why
the library use roll takes so long and what it means!)
Our total knowledge of Sceaftesige at the time of setting up the group was a single entry in "Britain Before
the Norman Conquest" by the Office of Ordinance survey. This was:
First port of call was the local library, checking the local history books there and then using the library
computer to search for references in any of the counties books. This drew a blank. Next stage
was to follow up the reference in the Ordinance Survey: Unidentified Forts of the Burghal Hildage,
Medieval Archaeology 1964 Vol VIII
(pp74-90). Back copies of this journal where not available at local
or county libraries, nor did any of the local 'antique' book shops in Windsor Eton stock it. Most
archaeologists I knew did not go back that far.
Eventually I found that the British Library holds copies of all major (and not so major) journals published
in Britain. They do not loan out these journals, you have to request to study them on site.
However if you can quote journal reference and page numbers they will photostat and send you extracts for a
small fee. This paper gave me a date the site was believed to exist from and some information why it
may have been built.
Next stage was to try and establish how long the fort was around for. I started by checking the Domesday
references for Berkshire & Buckinghamshire (old maps show Cookham or Cockham to be part of the hundred of
Beynhurst). This showed no reference to the fort, so it probably did not exist by 1086. The
Domesday entry reads:
In Beynhurst hundred Cookham. King Eadweard held it.
Then 20 hides, but it never paid tax.
Land for 25 ploughs. 32 villagers and 21 cottagers with 20 ploughs 4 slaves; 2 mills at 22s 6d; 2
fisheries at 13s 4d; meadow, 50 acres; woodland at 100 pigs; the other half is in Windsor forest; from the
new market which is now there 20s.
Value of the whole before 1066 £50; later £? 50s; now £36; however it pays £45
Of these 20 hydes, Reinbald the priest has 1. 5 hydes from the king in alms, and the church of this
manor with 8 cottagers and 1 plough; meadow, 15 acres; value 50s. Two other clerics have 0. 5
hyde of it and 2 cottagers with 2 ploughs; meadow, 8 acres; value 5s.
References from other sources gave that Æthelred II held a witan at Cookham in AD997, but no mention was found
of a fort being there.
Next step was to try another resource that had come to light while checking out the local college library,
the Berkshire CC Heritage Group. Berkshire County Council has a Heritage Group under the responsibility
of the Highways and Planning Dept. Part of their role is to see what you could be burying when you seek
planning permission. The Historic Structures Records database and the Sites and Monuments Record are
available by prior arrangement. Mr David Hopkins of this dept was most responsive to my letters, providing
the results from a database search and other information they knew of. They viewed Sceaftesege as a
temporary fort set up to guard the Thames, Cookham becoming the main development for the area. A lot of
the evidence for the site was covered in silt when the Thames Conservancy board dug a new lock in 1830.
The victorian view of conservation obviously differed to ours. The database search provided the following
- A find in Sashes field, 1830, =a number of skeletons, roman swords and javelin heads. Now in possession
of Lord Boston.
- "An interesting but dubious report" on the proximity of a road from Silchester to Verulamium and that a settlement
would be expected at Cookhams location. I've since found other texts describing a roman road from Sante
Albanestoe to Cookham with its course lost just after Cookham.
- Nicholas Brooks work on the Unidentified Forts of the Burghal Hildage
- Dredging of lock cut in 1856 uncovered a number of iron weapons dating to the period of the viking attacks and
in 1860 spear heads were found in another dredging exercise. Another in 1896 brought up a danish winged axe
head and in 1958 a barbed spearhead was found while working on the island banks. These were now in the
possession of Reading Museum.
The next obvious move was for a few of us to make a trip to Reading Museum, sketch books and cameras in hand.
It was shut. For the next 2 years. Eventually from the council information office I found it was closed
for renovation, all the exhibits were packed away, it wouldn't be opened for 2 years, no there was no else I could
see, write to this address. I wrote to Mr Cram at the museum, who did contact me, only to say they knew
nothing of these finds, but that the new Dark Age section would have area finds when it opened in a few years time.
(Regia was invited to attend the re-opening parade a few years later, there was a few from Regia but only Kevin &
Liz made it from our group). I've since seen sketches of spear heads from the Thames, but not the barbed spear
It was at this time Martin Trepte a member of ours working for the Maidenhead Advertiser, came into contact with Luke
Over, a local historian of note. Luke was making a video of Cookham and its history and was keen to have us as
living demonstration of the past. We also lead off a sponsored walk from Sceaftesege island in full kit (okay
we ditched shields & spears after two miles but the rest of the ten miles was done in kit, some members wearing mail).
Luke was able to pass on much information about the surrounding the area including the digging of the lock covering
visible evidence of earth works and finds of spear heads and also a hammer head. Some of these were with Reading
Museum, others were with the British Museum. Later there was an excavation of Sashes island but we couldn't
wangle a way into it. A lot of this information was then published in Lukes books "The Royal Hundred of Cookham"
and "The Royal County of Berkshire". In some ways this was useful and some ways disappointing as it included
most of what had taken us time to find over the years, yet it added a lot more to our knowledge.
So what was found out of all this digging?
The Real Sceaftesege
The work below is mostly taken from existing sources with some suppositions of my own. Sceaftesiege is very much
linked to Cookham and its history and there is a wealth of information and finds concerning this town and the area.
The details below are a summary and I hope to expand on them with time.
The name Sceaftesige (shaftsey) or Sceaftesege is thought to derive from "Sceaftes", a personal name and "ege", a common
name ending for small islands on the Thames, also for nearby water meadows. The current name for the area is Sashes
Island, through the years there has been many variations on the spelling and form.
There have been buildings found preserved in peat from the Maidenhead area dating back to around AD620. The local place
names of Cookham, Waltham, Bisham, Hurley, Taplow and Holyport are all Saxon in origin. At this point the Thames was
a barrier between Mercia and Wessex, so Cookham was very much a frontier town. That the site was important is shown by
the evidence of a monastery being passed between the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury throughout the 700s; sometimes
passed on, sometimes bequeathed and sometimes stolen!
Æthelred II (the Unready) held a Witan at Cookham in 997. The palace used for this witan is thought to be under the paddock
next to the old church (a former Sceaftesige practice site). The information on this Witan comes from a will whose
adjudication was part of the Witan. Attending the Witan were 1 arch bishop, 3 bishops, 2 aldermen, 3 abbots and numerous
lords from West Saxons, Mercians, Danes and English. As such there is plenty of evidence for Sceafesege portraying a
mixture of backgrounds in the group. A number of burial mounds of individual people have been found in the area as well
as the famous burial site of Tæppa in Taplow Court.
Sceaftesige came about in the late 800s, how long it remained for is unknown. It is first mentioned in the Burghal hildage
documents of 914-8 so it must have been built by this point. If the Witan of 997 stayed at Cookham it was unlikely to
be chosen in preference to a nearby fort, so Cookham had superseded Sceaftesige by this point. It was the only island
fort of the Burghal hildage covering a roman road and the Thames. Not many years before its creation, the vikings had
rowed up the Thames, past Sceaftesige and on to Reading, holding it from AD870 to 871.
I've not been able to find a translation of the Burghal Hildage document, but sources say the fort had a palisade of 1,375
yards, enough to cover half of the 54 acres of the current island. As it was protected by water on most sides it already
had good natural defences. I've frequently seen figures of one man per ten feet of wall used for defences which would
make the garrison around 400 strong. This was a large army for the time so it was probably a lot smaller than this with
many being vilagers called to the walls as needed. Cookham from Domesday was 20 hydes, about 2,400 acres.
The earliest owner I've found is the Shire Reeve (Scirefas) Ælpheah, who passed on his lands to the king between 965 and
975. From here it was a royal manor held. The Domesday book states the area was owned held by the King still.
Sources of Information on Sceaftesege
As a lot the information was in single lines here and there over the years, I'm missing a lot of the sources used. To
those people who's work I've missed, apologies and thanks. Listed here are the principle texts used.
- The Unidentified Forts of the Burghal Hidage By Nicholas Brooks Medieval Archaeology 1964 Vol VIII pp74-90
- The Royal Hundred of Cookham — Luke Over. Published by Cliveden Press
- Domesday book — Berkshire. Phillimore edition
- Domesday book — Buckinghamshire. Phillimore edition
- Anglo Saxon Chronicles — Anne Savage translation Published by Coombe books.
- Anglo Saxon England — Sir Frank Stenton Published by Claredon Press
- The Story of Maidenhead
- The Royal County of Berkshire — Luke Over Published by Cliveden Press
- Middle Thames in Antiquity — R.F.Denington, S. Morgan Editors. Published Slough & Eton Branch of the Workers Educational