The Battle of Reading 871AD. See Reading in a new light!

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Reading has changed enormously over the centuries, and some of you will be surprised to learn that an important battle was fought here, right in what is now the centre.

The Vikings set up a base at Reading in 870. A local ealdorman named Æthelwulf (not to be confused with Alfred’s father, who had the same name, but who was dead by now) engaged a contingent of these Vikings at a place called Englefield, of which more in another post. Suffice to say that Æthelwulf won! However, this had not eradicated the root problem, which was the Viking camp at Reading. Troops led by King Æthelred and Alfred, his younger brother and future king, therefore turned up at Reading in 871. However, the Vikings won. King Alfred, although truly great, did not win everything.

This leaves us with a couple of things to puzzle over. Because Asser (King Alfred’s “biographer”) states that the Wessex troops went to the gate of the Viking fortress, finding the location of this would not only specify the location of the fortress, but also perhaps the location of the battle, which must have then been nearby.

It is important to appreciate that part of Reading lies on a peninsula between the River Thames and the River Kennet. Asser is helpful again in that he tells us that the Vikings were between the Thames and the Kennet, and that they built a rampart between the rivers to the south of the royal estate that was there. Wait a minute. That’s three things now: A Viking camp, a battle site and now a royal estate as well!

Reading, Berkshire. Standing right at the confluence of the Thames and the River Kennet (looking west up the Thames)
Reading, Berkshire. Standing right at the confluence of the Thames and the River Kennet (looking west up the Thames)
Reading, Berkshire. The end of the peninsula straight ahead. The Thames on the right, and the River Kennet coming off on the left.

We know that there used to be a ditch running across part of the peninsula, called the Plummery Ditch. This could be a red herring, or it could have been a ditch associated with ramparts that are now lost. There is no ditch to see now as it has been lost to development. Looking at old maps it seems that it ran north from the Kennet approximately where Oscar Wilde Road is, and then headed west to the south side of the railway line beneath what is now a retail park.

Reading, Berkshire. A retail park, beneath which may be the Plummery Ditch
Reading, Berkshire. A retail park, beneath which may be the Plummery Ditch

I believe that the royal estate and the Viking camp were at the same location. Effectively, the Vikings took over the royal estate. This may even have been what had attracted the Vikings in the first place. Asser also clearly states that it was on the south bank of the Thames. My opinion is therefore that the Viking camp (and the royal estate) was north of the current railway line at King’s meadow or perhaps even beneath the Tesco supermarket development.

The  Forbury Gardens in the centre of Reading, Berkshire, allowed me to take a welcome break from my explorations
The Forbury Gardens in the centre of Reading, Berkshire, allowed me to take a welcome break from my explorations

I think that the battle would have taken place to the west of the Viking camp, because the Vikings would have been holding and controlling the peninsula to the west towards the confluence between the Thames and the Kennet. 

I considered a location called Katesgrove for the Viking camp , but rejected this because it did not seem to be sufficiently between the two rivers.

It seems that the Viking camp at Reading persisted some time after the battle at Reading. It seems probable that Reading was the base when the later battles at Ashdown and Basing took place (both still in 871). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Vikings eventually left Reading after Wessex made peace with them (which usually seemed to mean paying them off) some time after the Battle of Wilton. Alfred had become king by the time of the battle of Wilton, so the peace, whatever this constituted, was made under his rule. At least he put a stop to the carnage…for a while.

The best way of exploring all this is on foot. You can walk around  the peninsula to the confluence of the two rivers and head back along the river that you did not approach by! Look out for deer and the odd egyptian goose. I think you’ll have fun wandering around thinking about where the Vikings were and where the battle was. You’ll certainly see Reading in an entirely different light.

Note: there is a Battle Place and a Battle Hospital building (there was a Battle Farm here before all this). However, this location does not fit with the 871 battle and may be named after the engagement that took place in 1688.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. To learn more about the book, tap or click on the image below.

4 Replies to “The Battle of Reading 871AD. See Reading in a new light!”

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for doing the blog. I’m currently reading a book called Viking Britain and I’m up to the year 875. Alfred has featured in several battles just prior to this. It appears the Vikings were trying to reach Winchester but were stopped and persuaded to turn around. I wonder what would have happened if they had reached Winchester.

    Good luck with the rest of the book, I hope to read it.

    1. Hi Leon. Sorry for the late reply. I am very pleased indeed that you are getting something out of the blog. I hope that the book will be out before Christmas. The Vikings would have wanted to take Winchester. It can be argued that they did in fact do this in 878 where the Anglo Saxon Chronicles tell us that Wessex fell to the Vikings (how much places like Winchester actually came under their control is not known – they probably didn’t have enough forces to hold every settlement, and we know that places in Devon were not under Viking control in 878 as they attacked there, and lost,later in 878. Clearly, Athelney wasn’t under Viking control either). The Viking armies in this period are quite a complex subject and I have written an Appendix to try and straighten it all out.

      Kind Regards

    1. The Vastern area is in the right place so it is very possible. I never got to the bottom of the meaning of Vastern. It seems either to indicate “Western” or something relating to a fastness, i.e. fortress.

      Best Wishes


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