Soon after our arrival, Herstan sent a messenger to Dorchester to learn at what hour the king was expected; and the answer was returned, that they expected him in time for the banquet at the episcopal palace this evening. So Edmund and Alfgar consented to pass the day quietly at Cliffton.
Dorchester was at this period the most important city of the Midland counties, for it was the seat of the great bishopric which extended its sway over nearly the whole of Mercia.
Here the apostle of Wessex, Birinus, had converted and baptized Cynegils, king of that country, Oswald, the saintly king of Northumbria, being present, and receiving him fresh from the regenerating waters as his adopted son. Here, the next year, Cuichelm, his brother, was baptized, and from this centre Christianity was widely diffused. The good bishop died in the year 650, and was buried amongst the people he loved, but many years later his relics were translated to Winchester. But the tale went forth that the cunning canons of Dorchester had given them another body than that of the saint, and their shrine was the object of veneration equally with the rival shrine at Winchester.
Dorchester became successively the seat of two great bishoprics—the one West Saxon, the other Mercian. The first, founded by Birinus, when Wessex extended far north of the Thames, was divided seventy years later into two sees—Winchester and Sherburne. For some years the city was without bishops, owing to its insecure position during the strife between Wessex and Mercia, but later it appears as the seat of the great Mercian bishopric, retaining its jurisdiction until after the Norman conquest, when the see was transferred to Lincoln. Therefore Dorchester long enjoyed a wide celebrity and greater influence, than the city, Oxenford, which, lying at a distance of ten miles, was destined to supersede it eventually.
The day was closing on an evening of November 1006, and the sun was sinking across the level country beyond the walls, when the people of Dorchester might have been seen crowding the roads which led from the eastern gate towards Bensington and Wallingford; the wooden bridge by which the road crossed the Tame was covered with human beings, and every eye was eagerly directed along the great high road. The huge cathedral church towered above the masses, rude in architecture, yet still impressive in its proportions, while another church, scarcely smaller in its dimensions, rose from the banks lower down the stream, below the bridge, and the wooden steeple of a third was visible above the roofs of the houses in the western part of the city.
But, as in every other city which had once been Roman, the relics of departed greatness contrasted painfully (at least we should think so) with the humbler architecture around. The majesty of the churches was indeed (as a contemporary wrote) great, but thatched roofs consorted ill with the remains of shattered column and pedestal, and with the fragmentary ruins of the grand amphitheatre, which were yet partly visible, although the stones which had been brought from Bath to build it had been employed largely in church architecture.