This battle against the Vikings took place in 871AD just four days after the battle at Reading, and while Alfred’s elder brother Æthelred was still king. This battle was an important victory for King Æthelred and Alfred, sandwiched between the two losses at Reading and Basing.
Potential locations for this battle can be divided into two areas. Firstly, the more western sites around White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, and secondly, about twenty miles to the east, sites on the Downs near Moulsford and Streatley, mainly in Oxfordshire but close to the modern boundary with Berkshire to the south.
This post looks at the first set of sites. I shall come clean and say that I think the evidence fits better with the second group, which will be the subject of another post. Look out for Ashdown Part 2! However, there has been a strong tradition that the battle took place at or near to White Horse Hill, and what better excuse is required to explore this lovely part of England?
I hadn’t been to White Horse Hill for many years. I certainly can’t recall the red kites and ravens that are present there now. It is a beautiful place, but viewing the white horse from the ground isn’t easy. I heard that the best view was from Dragon Hill, but it wasn’t clear from there either. I think our ancestors must have intended it to be best appreciated from the sky.
The presence of a white horse has been used to support the argument as to why this was the location of the Battle of Ashdown. Because there is a white horse near where the Battle of Ethandun is thought to have been fought, people seem to have assumed that this white horse in Oxfordshire denotes the Battle of Ashdown. There is no evidence that Alfred’s battle sites are connected to the presence of white horses.
The large Iron Age Uffington Fort is almost adjacent to the white horse, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been drawn into the tale of the Battle of Ashdown as being the possible Viking base.
The site is clearly significant because of the horse, the fort and the Ridgeway running alongside. A short distance west along the Ridgeway is Wayland’s Smithy, a famous Neolithic long barrow and tomb.
Heading in the other direction along the Ridgeway one comes to Blowingstone Hill.According to legend, Alfred rode up this hill and summoned his men by calling through aperforated sarsen stone that is now known as the Blowing Stone. Almost unbelievably, the reputed Blowing Stone is at the side of the road near a cottage as you drop down into Kingston Lisle. Leaflets were available, which had the following instruction: “The secret is simply to close the hole completely with the mouth and then blow”
This presented three problems. Firstly, which of the several available holes should I blow in to? Secondly, hygiene. And thirdly, all of the holes were filled with dead leaves. So I gave it a miss.
A location called Alfred’s Castle is a Bronze Age enclosure near Ashdown House, just south of Ashbury, and in Victorian times was considered a possible location for the Wessex troops prior to the Battle of Ashdown.
However, there is no evidence that the site called Alfred’s Castle was called this prior to the 19th century. I have read that it was previously called Ashbury, with that name apparently later transferred to the nearby village, although I have been unable to prove either of those points. It seems likely that a Latin charter issued in 840 at Southampton by King Alfred’s father Æthelwulf relates to Ashbury (as Aysheburi) and Ashdown (as Aysshedoune). We are not provided with any information as to where these places called Aysheburi and Aysshedoune were, but the Berkshire Ashbury seems likely, based on the details provided in the subsequent charter. There is a clear similarity to Æscesdun (how the site of the battle is named in both the Old English of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and the Latin of Asser, who also calls it Mons Fraxini, although it seems that this may have just been his direct translation of Æscesdun) but the differences will also be noted. However, that the Aysshe element was mutable to Aesce seems to be supported by a later charter, also issued by Aethelwulf at an unstated location, in 856, where a place named Æscesbyrig seems to be Ashbury, because geographical features are mentioned (actually of the adjacent settlement of Woolstone). This charter is slightly more challenged as to its authenticity, although the information relating to place-names may still be correct.
The granting by King Alfred’s father of land at a place called Aysshedoune certainly raises the prospect of the Battle of Ashdown having been fought in this area. However, places beginning with variants of “Ash” were and still are common. The evidence for the locations I describe in Part 2, where there was an area called Æscesdun, seems to me to be slightly stronger, although I can’t guarantee that I will maintain this position as I continue to look at and review new evidence. Ashdown House is 17th century. It is not possible for me to say whether Ashdown House has drawn its name from local legends (or the truth!) about the Battle of Ashdown or if it has preserved the name of Aysshedoune through some route (see above).
There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Click or tap on the image below to learn more about the book.