THE beautiful and ancient Milton Abbey is the setting for a free summer exhibition, Athelstan’s Dream – A Saxon Tale, in the Abbey and St Catherine’s Chapel from 4th July to 31st August.
The exhibition at the Abbey, which is set in a glorious Capability Brown landscape near Blandford, focuses on the Anglo-Saxons and the fulfilment of one man’s dream: a united kingdom of Britain.
In a story that resonates today, King Athelstan dreamed and then achieved the unification of mainland Britain. The exhibition traces Athelstan’s dream and the journey of this unification and shows how much of the Abbey’s heritage answers some of the questions and mysteries that surround Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred the Great.
One tradition tells how Athelstan camped with his followers on the hill east of the Abbey and while sleeping dreamed that he would prevail in a forthcoming battle against the Vikings and their allies who were seeking to conquer Mercia and Wessex. According to the legend, on his return from the battle, he remembered his dream and founded a minster church in thanks for his victory.
The Anglo-Saxons are part of the school curriculum for pupils aged between seven and 11 years (KS2) and the exhibition will covers many relevant topics including: Anglo-Saxon Life, Weapons of War, Landscape and Farming, Language, House and Home, Food and Drink, Clothing, Art and Jewellery, Transport, Trade, Marriage, Children, Health and Hygiene, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxons on literature – such as Tolkein”s Lord of the Rings, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones.
St Catherine’s Chapel sits on land thought to be the location of Athelstan’s camp more than 1,000 years ago, before the warriors moved on to fight the battle of Brunanburh which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles decided the fate of Britain.
Athelstan founded the original minster in 934AD. Thirty years later, in 964, King Edgar, impressed by the revival of monasticism in England, established a community of Benedictine monks at Milton, under Abbot Cyneward. This monastic community continued its work of prayer and service for 575 years, until the Dissolution in 1539.
Athelstan appointed bishops, gave grants to monasteries and breathed new life into the church after its depredations under the Vikings. He tried to give all his people safety, shelter and a Christian outlook – his charters stipulate that no-one should starve, and that charity was a key responsibility of the church. He also set about reforming the administration of justice, control of the coinage, and the development of burhs.
Athelstan died in died in Gloucester in 939AD at the age of 47. He is buried at Malmesbury which is also home to the Athelstan Museum.
Pictured: Milton Abbey sits in a valley landscaped by Capability Brown in the 18th century.