I have just returned from a trip to England, checking out locations for Book 2 of the Kith and Kin trilogy.
Part of the action takes place in Dorchester on Thames in 635, when King Cynegils of the West Saxons, King Oswald of Northumbria and the missionary Bishop Birinus were all in the area.
Cynegils agreed to be baptised by Birinus at least partly because he wanted an alliance with the Christian King Oswald against Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. The alliance was further sealed when Oswald married Cynegils’ daughter.
Bede, as always the standard text on the subject, states that ‘the two kings gave Bishop Birinus the city of Dorcic (Dorchester) for his episcopal see,’ although how Oswald had any control over land so far from Northumbria has never been clear to me. Was Bede exaggerating Oswald’s influence? Oswald was, after all, one of Bede’s great heroes.
Birinus’ cathedral no longer exists, but the rather small village of Dorchester (which is on the River Thame, not the River Thames half a mile away) does have a rather large church – Dorchester Abbey. This survived Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries by being given as a parish church to the locals, although they only used a part of the cathedral-sized edifice. According to information supplied in the Abbey, it was built on the site of Birinus’ cathedral, but we should perhaps not envisage the full hustle and bustle of a Saxon cathedral town. Dorchester was not in a stable part of Wessex and passed under Mercian control later in the 7th century. It was for a while the seat of Bishops of Wessex, but under the control of Mercian bishops, the centre of the diocese was moved all the way north-east to Lincoln. When Lincoln fell under Danish control, Dorchester once more became the seat of a bishop and the town may well have enjoyed some prosperity and growth in the late saxon era. But it was always a small town and never a fortified Saxon burgh. Wallingford, a few miles down the Thames, was more important.
The current church building dates from the 12th century when the church was re-founded at the centre of an Augustinian Abbey and significant parts of the nave date from that period.
After the dissolution in 1536, the church passed into private hands and according to a leaflet in the Abbey, it was given to the locals as a parish church by Richard Beauforest in 1554.
Since the mid-19th century, Dorchester has also had a delightful little catholic church, dedicated to St Birinus, a Victorian re-imagining of a medieval gem, complete with painted ceiling.
For a detailed discussion of the history and archaeology of Dorchester and its abbey see: Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire by Warwick Rodwell, Oxbow Books, 2009.