Martin Down and the Battle of Meretun, 871 AD.

This post on Martin Down and the Battle of Meretun is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon and book shops.

The Battle of Meretun took place two months after the battle at Basing. Alfred and his brother were fighting against the Vikings, but lost, which is what also happened at Basing. There appear to be two main candidates for the location of this battle, one being Martin in Hampshire and the other being Marden in Wiltshire. However, we have very little to go on and other places with similar names are possible. Merdon Castle, in Hampshire, is another possibility, although I have been unable to discover whether this name was acquired after the Norman Conquest. The place that seems to make the most sense to me is Martin in Hampshire, which is a village just south of the A354 main road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum.

King Æthelred (Alfred’s elder brother) died after the Battle of Meretun and he was buried at Wimborne in Dorset. It is therefore possible that he died from wounds sustained in battle but it is also possible that he lived a little longer and died of something else. If he had died of his wounds then it may be relevant to point out that Wimborne is not very far from Martin (about 14 miles). Indeed, the Roman road known as Ackling Dyke runs past Martin on its way to Badbury Rings, which is only four miles from Wimborne.

Bokerley Ditch, Martin Down, Hampshire.
Bokerley Ditch, Martin Down, Hampshire.

The geographic feature called Martin Down lies a short distance to the west of Martin and there one can explore the famous Bokerley Ditch, which pre-dates the time of Alfred, but perhaps could have been used strategically in battle. Bokerley Ditch also cuts across a Roman road so it could have been used for either side to attack the other coming up that route. To the north this Roman road is still a bridleway and to the south it is now under the A354, so it seems likely that it would have been in use in Anglo-Saxon times. Interestingly, the county boundary between Dorset and Hampshire in this area still follows Bokerley Ditch. One can speculate as to why the Vikings might have been at Martin, and it occurs to me that a contingent from the base at Reading may have been trying to get west, perhaps to Exeter. The Vikings would indeed attack Exeter in 876 and 893, and it therefore seems plausible that they would have liked to have done so in 871.

Marden, Wiltshire

It may be impossible to disprove that the battle took place at Marden (Wiltshire) instead, but the place-name of Marden seems to have derived from Mercdene, quite dissimilar to Meretun. A charter issued by King Edmund between 944 and 946 shows Martin in Hampshire being referred to as Mertone, which is not much different from the Meretun of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. I therefore think Marden is a less likely location than Martin for the battle of Meretun.

Marten, Wiltshire

I was also tempted by Marten in Wiltshire (yes, this does get confusing), largely because of its proximity to the Inkpen Ridgeway, connecting it to Basing, the location of the previous battle. I have written much more about Alfred’s travels in my book, which also contains maps and references. Tap or click the image.

4 Replies to “Martin Down and the Battle of Meretun, 871 AD.”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Firstly great website, I am getting into Alfred the Great at present and just found your website. I am considering/planning a long distance walk of the battles from Englefield, Reading, Ashdown, Basing, Meretun and then onto Wimbourne as the final end of a series of battles and King Ethelred’s death/burial. So finding a route and possible routes they might have taken is fairly important.

    Martin in Hampshire as you mention does fit and if I wanted to go west as a Viking I would have taken the Roman Portway which is not far from Basing, through Andover to Sarum. If I wanted to go to Wareham, then pass Martin to Blandford. Wareham; the Viking have history too from 875, could they have been going to Wareham instead ? I don’t know. Guess we will never know ????

    I walk long distance paths and designing your own, quite appeals to me. I have done the Great Stones Way, Ridgeway, Hadrian’s Wall, 1/2 Wessex Ridgeway – the rest this summer and more are planned this year. I live in Salisbury, so fully Wessex 🙂

    Does your book give any greater detail on possible routes they took between the battles ? i am looking for as much information on routes as possible to mimic the route Alfred took during the battles.

    Any help would be much appreciated.

    Kind regards

    Caroline Light

    PS. my gran was born in the house next to Lyng field when Alfred burnt the Cakes.

    1. Dear Caroline.
      Congratulations on all your waking! My book does include quite a bit more with maps and grid references for tricky places to find. I do write a bit about routes but I can’t be certain that it would be enough to put together your walk. Perhaps, if you are unsure, you might wish to source my book through your library.One problem you will have with the events of 870-871 (Englefield to Wilton) is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that there were nine battles in 871, although we only have a record of five (six if we include Englefield, which was, however, in 870). It seems therefore that there are at least three missing battle locations and it does not seem possible to know where to insert these among the sites that we do know about.

      I got to know Lyng a bit when I investigated Athelney and East Lyng, where King Alfred founded a burgh – the outline of which is still visible from the rear of the church.

      I think that you can still make a great walk, but there might be quite a few “ifs” and “buts” because of the gaps in our knowledge.

      Nonetheless, have a great time researching and eventually walking.

      Kind Regards

      Paul

  2. I love the thought that it could have been Martin Down! I’ve loved it for many years, and always found it a most exciting place to be, without really knowing why. The Bokerley Ditch, the Roman agger, the massively extensive earthworks, the Nature Reserve site as a whole, all make it a wonderful place to be, but I’m now going to be looking at it from a whole new angle. Thank you so much for this.

    1. Although it is impossible to prove, the site makes sense. As you know, it is a great place to go anyway. I am pleased that you appreciated my post.

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