Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Repton - Royal Mausoleum and Viking Stronghold

Repton: the name has always been familiar to me. The first pages of To Be A Queen describe how the royal Mercian family is forced to flee because the Vikings have occupied Repton. The rival king, Ceolwulf II, has their support, and King Burgred and his wife must go overseas.
But Repton had been an important place long before the invasions of the ninth century.

And here I was, at last, standing outside the Church of St Wystan, about to see for myself the Anglo-Saxon crypt, and much more besides. Local historians, Andy and Margaret Austen, were my guides.

If you know me at all, through my novels or my blog posts, you'll know how exciting and emotional it all was. It's not often that one can stand in a place and know for certain that the Anglo-Saxons once stood in the same spot, even on the same stone floor.

Mercia – an ancient kingdom indeed. By the eighth century the Mercian kings were known as the Iclingas, and their dynastic centres lay at Lichfield, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Tamworth, and Repton.

The most famous early association with Repton is that of Saint Guthlac who was a warrior of noble, perhaps royal, Mercian stock, but who, according to his biographer, the monk Felix, entered the monastery at Repton when he was twenty-four years old. In around the year 669 he began a solitary life at Crowland Abbey, in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire.

Guthlac had a frequent visitor there, who at the time was in exile: subsequently one of the longest reigning kings of Mercia, Æthelbald, who was killed in 757 at Seckington (North Warwickshire) and buried at Repton. 

The ‘Repton Stone’, which is now housed in nearby Derby Museum, is thought to have been part of a great cross raised – possibly by King Offa – in memory of Æthelbald.

A later story about the Mercian kings is given to us by Roger of Wendover, writing in the thirteenth century. He tells us that at Pentecost, ‘Bertferth, son of Berthwulf, wickedly slew his kinsman St Wulstan [Wigstan], who was the grandson of two kings of the Mercians. The body of the deceased was carried to the monastery of Rependun [Repton], and is said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandsire Wilaf [Wiglaf].’ Roger then describes heavenly miracles, but gives no reason for the murder.

According to the earliest version of his Passio, Wigstan was indeed the grandson of two kings, his father Wigmund being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd being the daughter of King Ceolwulf I. 

The story goes that upon the death of his father, Wigstan was offered the crown but wouldn’t take it, being then a young boy and with intentions to lead a religious life. His killer, Bertferth [Beorhtfrith] asked to marry Wigstan’s widowed mother (presumably with the intention of ruling as king) and Wigstan refused because of the kinship and the fact that Bertferth was his godfather. Thwarted, Bertferth slew Wigstan, whose body was taken to Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather. 

So it seems conclusive that Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan were all buried at Repton, but these are not the only significant burials there.

As I said, the first few pages of To Be A Queen are concerned with the Viking occupation of Repton. They were working in alliance with a king from a rival family to that of the ousted Burgred, and who may have been related to Wigstan. 

Having arrived in 873 and overwintered at Repton, the Vikings left in 874/5. 

The site was excavated between 1974 and 1993, and archaeologists Martin Biddle and Berthe Kjølbye-Biddle discovered the grave of a Viking warrior on the site. He had died a brutal death, and a copy of his battered skull, complete with the most piercing blue eyes, is on display in Derby Museum, along with his sword. 

The Dig Site

The Biddles then uncovered the remains of at least 249 other people. Work on the site, which is now part of the rectory garden, is ongoing and Cat Jarman and Mark Horton have been digging recently, and I’m told they will return in 2018.

So, what of the building itself? The crypt was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. It’s thought that it might originally have been a baptistry, and that it was partially underground, built over a spring which was drained by a deep stone-built channel. Andy explained that when Martin Biddle was on site, he thought he might have found evidence of the channel, but as neither myself nor Andy are archaeologists, we found it difficult to see what Mr Biddle had seen!

Later, the crypt was converted into a mausoleum, possibly for Æthelbald and certainly for King Wiglaf, and for Wiglaf’s grandson, Wigstan/Wystan.

It’s thought that rather than the bodies, it was the bones which were housed here, as the recesses are quite small. Wiglaf is believed to have made changes to the crypt, adding the four central columns which support the ceiling. Intriguingly, there are traces of what look like paint on these pillars.

Having recently visited St Mary’s at Houghton on the Hill,  I couldn’t help wondering if, once upon a time, this church was similarly decorated.

Decorated plaster at Houghton on the Hill

Only the westernmost recess is in its original ninth-century condition, and, in later centuries, the crypt was hidden from view with the stairs being covered over and the windows blocked with outbuildings. Ironically, it is this very concealment which helped to preserve it. Exposure to the elements has meant that it has begun to suffer water and frost damage.

Writing as much as I do about the Mercian kings, I was naturally a little emotional to be standing on this spot, but Andy had something else to show me and I followed him and Margaret back up the stairs and into the church. High up in the wall there is an Anglo-Saxon doorway which gives a clue to the nature of the original Anglo-Saxon church building.

Whilst we have historical evidence for a monastery before 700, and that tantalising doorway, there is no other surviving Anglo-Saxon building apart from the crypt. (For more reading on the fabric of the church, see Dr HM Taylors booklet St Wystan’s Church, Repton.)

Standing in the churchyard that quiet autumn afternoon, staring into the vicarage garden, it was eerie to imagine the place as once having been a Danish encampment.

The Vikings did some damage to the church, destroying a stone cross and using its fragments to cover the graves of their warriors, and damaging the upper walls of the building.

Frequently during my research for my forthcoming book I’ve had cause to wonder how much more Mercian historical evidence would be available to us had it not been for the Vikings. But I’ll be following developments with interest as the digs continue, and evidence comes to light about what those Vikings did while they were at Repton, how they lived, and how they died. 

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

My new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is available for pre-order on 
Amazon and from the publishers, Amberley Books


  1. A fascinating read, as always, Annie. Repton gets a mention in my third book, too, as does Torksey in Lincolnshire - which is close to where I live. I haven't been to Repton, but after reading your post, I think I'll simply have to!

    1. Do go, if you get a chance. I don't know whether they'll do another dig in the vicarage gardens now, as they seem to have published all their conclusions - which I've talked about in my Mercia book, but the crypt alone is worth a visit. So is Derby museum, which is only a short drive away and contains some of the artefacts from the dig.