Battle of Ashdown. Part 2.

 

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 second set of sites (click here for part 1). Over the past couple of centuries people have come up with various ideas and because there is no hard evidence it is difficult for anybody to be wrong. However, I think it is still possible to speculate on which sites are perhaps more probable.

A major consideration is the identification of the location of Ashdown itself. In the old english of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  the location of the battle is called æscesdun. This Chronicle also tells us that in 1006, after the time of King Alfred, the Vikings proceeded from Cholsey, now in Oxfordshire, along Æscesdune, to a location known today as Scutchamer Knob, which is about 10 miles west of Cholsey. The general area between these sites may therefore be the æscesdun of 871. In fact, one can wonder whether all of the downs that straddle the current Oxfordshire-Berkshire border were once known as  Æscesdun.

A further consideration is the accessibility of the location for both the Vikings, who appear to have still been based at Reading, and for Alfred and King Æthelred who, four days earlier and after the battle at Reading, had been fleeing east across the river Loddon in the direction of Windsor. Perhaps importantly, the Thames would have allowed easy access by water from Reading to various locations, and an important ancient track called the Ridgeway would have facilitated east-west movements through this area. We also have preserved in the name Moulsford a possible fording point for crossing the Thames.

All this leads me to think that the battle possibly took place west of the Thames on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire downs. If you consult an Ordnance Survey map you will see the area that I am suggesting, which extends from Lowbury Hill in the west to Moulsford Bottom in the east. I feel that it is important to point out that other writers have come to similar conclusions.

Lowbury Hill (from the north)

 

I find the most tempting location in this area to be Lowbury HillAsser records that the Vikings held the higher position, and if you go up Lowbury Hill you will see that it is a site you would want to use. There is good visibility in all directions and it is close to the Ridgeway. One can envisage the Vikings being on this hill and the Saxons coming west along the Ridgeway, having perhaps forded the Thames at Moulsford, and encountering the Vikings who were at the top of the hill. A line drawn between Cholsey and Cuckhamsley Knob lies just north of here (and also Kingstanding Hill), so it seems to be in the general area of Ashdown. There are footpaths and bridleways that cross the downs, the main one of course being the Ridgeway, which will take you close to the hill.

There are two other locations in this area that have been put forward, and both seem plausible. One is Kingstanding Hill. On the Ordnance Survey map you will see a track heading south west near the hill that eventually becomes called The Fair Mile. It was possible to park at the litter-strewn beginning of this track. Views from the track as it ascends are limited by hedgerows, but there are one or two good views north and south.

 

On Kingstanding Hill, looking north over Starveall Farm and Moulsford Bottom, across to Moulsford Downs.

 

The other location is Moulsford Bottom. I found the best way of viewing this to be by following the footpath that runs from near Moulsford Pavilion. 

 

On a footpath heading west from Moulsford. Moulsford Bottom on the left and Kingstanding Hill ahead.

 

While at Moulsford you may wish to appreciate a particularly lovely stretch of the nearby Thames Path. This is the section south of Moulsford, accessed by going down Ferry Lane.  I sat down there on a warm late spring afternoon and watched three hobbys feeding over the water whilst red kites were circling overhead. A lovely spot.

Wherever the battle took place, it is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that it was almost two simultaneous battles at the same location, because the Vikings had split into two forces. King Æthelred took on the forces of the Viking kings and Alfred took on the forces of the Viking earls. 

The beautiful Lardons Chase. Great views to be had across the Thames Valley , Streatley and Goring.

 

the battle at Wilton 871AD

St Mary’s Wilton. Probably built on the site of the Saxon parish church.

Alfred had been king for just one month after his elder brother, King Æthelred had died a short time after the battle at Meretun. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that at Wilton Alfred had been fighting with a small troop against the entire raiding Viking army. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Alfred lost.

The fact that the Vikings won must have been hugely significant. They were already holding Reading, and possibly Basing as well, and later in 871 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that they had left what appears to have been their main base at Reading and were in London with the Mercians after having “made peace” with them. This Viking army then moved to Northumbria and then to Torksey in Lincolnshire and eventually drove out Burhred, the King of Mercia. If King Alfred could have defeated the Vikings at Wilton, the path of history would surely have been very different.

Wilton, west of Salisbury,  has been described as a royal seat and the main town of the shire of Wiltunscir. Indeed, Wilton has been stated to be “the royal seat” of Wessex, before Winchester took over that role . However, there is no mention of Wilton in Alfred’s will, and neither the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle nor Asser mention this to be a royal site. It is possible that it was a royal site before or after the time of King Alfred.

It has been suggested that the royal location could be under what is now Kingsbury Square, with the place name being a clue, and it has also been considered likely that Wilton House is on the site of a Benedictine nunnery founded by King Alfred. Indeed, the 1880 Ordnance Survey map states that Wilton House is on the site of Wilton Abbey.

Kingsbury Square. Site of a Saxon Royal residence?

 

How many people suspect that they might be driving through a Saxon royal residence ofn their way to the centre of Wilton?

 

Wilton had the potential to be a strategic location because it is close to where the Rivers Wylye and Nadder meet, whilst also being close to various trackways and a Roman road that led to Dorchester or Badbury Rings (near Wimborne), in Dorset.

Asser describes the battle as having taken place at a hill called Wilton on the south bank of the Wylye. This points primarily the area around Wilton House and the former abbey, or possibly the site of the current town centre. It is unclear from the evidencewhether the Vikings had already taken Wilton by the time that the battle took place. If this was the case Alfred may have had to approach from the north west because of the confluence of the rivers Nadder and Wylye. The approach from the north west would also have been an option for the initial Viking occupation of this site if it was they who had got there first but, because we know that they used waterways, they could have come up the Avon and then the Nadder. Alternatively, they could have occupied the site using a combination of land and water-based forces. However, Gaimar indicates that the Vikings found Alfred at Wilton ( a Wiltone l’unt trove.) i.e. that Alfred was there first. If this was the case then Alfred was perhaps lucky to escape as there was the potential for his small troop to be hemmed in between the Wylye and the Nadder by the entire raiding army.

 

The River Nadder as it flows through the grounds of Wilton House

 

The gardens at Wilton House. Are they a battle site?

 

This was the last recorded battle in a very busy year. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that nine battles were fought in 870 – 871. However, only six are named (Englefield, Reading, Ashdown, Basing, Meretun and Wilton) and no additional locations are mentioned in other sources. It is therefore of note that there are three battles missing from the written record.

Wilton is a pretty place to wander round and the grounds of Wilton House are regularly open to the public. You can explore a stretch of the Nadder and also a branch of the Wylye.

 

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The Battle of Basing 871AD

Many of you will be aware of Basingstoke in Hampshire, but perhaps unaware of nearby Old Basing. In Saxon times Old Basing would have been Basing (the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls it Basengum) and Basingstoke would have been just an outpost of Old Basing. Alfred fought here with his elder brother King Æthelred against the Vikings. The Vikings won. This was one of a series of battles in 871 and  took place between the Battle of Ashdown and the battle at Meretun.

 

Old Basing. The Street, looking north to the railway bridge

 

So, now we know where Basing was, where did the battle take place. There is not a great deal written on this, but there are perhaps three main contenders.

Firstly, the north-east corner of Hackwood Park. This is south of the M3 as it passes Basingstoke. An important negative point is that it is not at Old Basing, although it is close. A plus for this location is that it is argued (and it seems to be correct) that a stretch of an ancient trackway called the Hard Way (sometimes called the Harrow Way) runs immediately to the north of this site. This is now a road called Dickens Lane. You can drive down here, perhaps to the evocatively named Polecat Corner, imagining that you are on one of Britain’s oldest roads! The argument goes that the Vikings were actually on their way to Winchester and they were travelling on this track in order to connect them with the Roman road that would take them to Winchester. However, this is all just speculation.

There are public footpaths that run through Hackwood Park, and you can work your way round towards the north-east. It is a lovely walk that I am sure you would enjoy irrespective of whether a battle site lies at the end of it!

 

Hackford Park. Near the north-east corner. Looking over a battle site?

 

Another possibility is that the Battle of Basing took place in Old Basing itself. It is tempting to think this because the location in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is Basing, and Old Basing was Basing. The archaeological evidence suggests that there could have been something here worth raiding, and I have even seen a report go so far as to say that it could have been a royal site.

 

St Mary’s church, Old Basing. Was the Battle of Basing fought near here?

Finally we come to Lychpit. This is now the residential area to the north-east of Basingstoke, separated from Old Basing by the River Loddon. If you are looking at an Ordnance Survey map, then Little Basing provides a better location. Before the houses were built there was a Lickpit Farm. In Old English lic means corpse and it appears that a legend has developed that the corpses from the Battle of Basing were buried here, and therefore that the battle must have been nearby. However, I have also seen it suggested that bodies from the Civil War were  buried here. It is easy to initially view the legend as the product of fertile imaginations. However, digging deeper I found out more.

We can discount the origin of the name being from the Civil War as there is a charter dating to 945AD in which King Edmund grants to a certain Æthelnoth a monastery at Basing and land at Lickpit (named Licepyt in the Latin of the document). Clearly, King Edmund had this to give away, which is also perhaps relevant. It seems that Æthelnoth then granted what King Edmund had given him (including Lickpit) to Hyde Abbey, and it remained in their possession until the dissolution of the monasteries. Hyde Abbey was at Winchester, so it was not far from Basing, but perhaps relevant is that it was were King Alfred was then interred.

With no overwhelming evidence for any site, Lychpit for me seems to have the edge.

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Battle of Ashdown – Part 1. A white horse, a fort, and an unlikely musical instrument.

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 head of the horse, with flat-topped Dragon Hill in the distance

 

The best view of the horse that I could obtain from ground level

 

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 the site of the Battle of Edington, 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 southern perimeter of Uffington Fort, with the Ridgeway following the line of the fence to the left

 

Uffington Fort, looking south

 

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.

 

It’s always a joy to be on the ancient Ridgeway

 

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.

 

The Blowing Stone

 

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, the site has only been called Alfred’s Castle since 1828, and it was previously called Ashbury, with that name apparently later transferred to the nearby village . In my opinion, there is insufficient evidence to connect this site with King Alfred. Ashdown House is 17th century, and perhaps drew it’s name from the local legends.

 

“Alfred’s Castle” Bronze Age enclosure

 

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

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!

 

Standing right at the confluence of the Thames and the Kennet (looking west up the Thames)

 

The end of the peninsula straight ahead. The Thames on the right, and the 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.

 

The 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 very welcome Forbury Gardens in the centre of Reading.

 

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.

 

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King Alfred in Cornwall. A tale of four saints and two kings

 

It may come as a surprise to some that Alfred was in Cornwall. However, Asser tells us that at some time prior to his marriage in 868, and therefore also before he became king, Alfred came to Cornwall on a hunting trip. The story goes that he made a detour to the resting place of a St Gueriir where he prayed to be cured of an ailment (thought to be piles) and to have this replaced with something less debilitating. According to Asser’s record, Alfred was cured of the first ailment, but he didn’t get everything that he wanted because it turned out that the second ailment was worse than the one it had replaced (although it didn’t strike until his wedding day).

The location is almost certainly in the village of St Neot in Cornwall, at the site of the church of the same name. We know this because an entry  in Asser’s record (made perhaps by another hand and after Alfred’s death) states that the place Alfred went to had also been the resting place of St Neot. This is the same St Neot that is associated with St Neots in Cambridgeshire, as he was later moved there. There must surely have been some local resistance when this happened!

 

The church of St Neot, at St Neot, Cornwall, on a very rainy day!

 

I have seen it mentioned that King Alfred and St Neot had been contemporaries and knew each other. I have even seen it claimed that they were brothers! It can’t be ruled out that they were alive at the same time, but I could find no evidence that they knew each other or were related. However, to take the record literally, they may have met in a very different sense – there is a legend that St Neot came to Alfred twice  in an apparition in the run-up to the Battle of Edington (Ethandune). However, it has also been written that Alfred had a vision from St Cuthbert.

 

Remembering St Neot inside the church

 

There also seems to be confusion between the similarly sounding St Neot and a St Anietus, and whether the church was originally dedicated to the latter, with the name shifting to the former over time. It has been said that St Anietus was a Celtic saint and that St Neot was a Saxon saint, but I have not been able to tell whether they were in fact the same person.

Alfred would have needed lodgings, and presumably protection, in what was then a far-flung location. We know from his will that he had an estate at Stratton, near Bude. Also, it is possible that he stayed with a local ruler, and it is  worth considering the possibility that he stayed with King Dungarth, perhaps at Liskeard. It has been suggested that Dungarth and Doniert might be the same person, and there is a King Doniert’s stone not far from St Cleer.

 

KIng Doniert’s Stone (the one on the left). Taken in heavy rain. I’m surprised that the picture came out as well as this!

Unfortunately, we only have Asser’s account to go on for this visit to Cornwall. I hope to write on the reliability of Asser as a source in a future post. This will be a complicated subject and a contentious one too. The current weight of academic opinion appears to be behind Asser’s work not having been written by somebody else after Alfred’s death.

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Sutton Courtenay

There are numerous lovely villages in Oxfordshire, and this is certainly one of them. It has been speculated that this is where Alfred married Ealhswith in 868, around the time of the engagement with the Vikings at Nottingham. The only source that I have for this is Richard Abel’s book on King Alfred.

One problem is that Asser tells us that the marriage took place in Mercia. Sutton Courtenay is close to the Thames, which acted as a border between Wessex and Mercia. But Sutton Courtenay is on the Wessex side! However, digging deeper, one discovers that parts of what was then Berkshire (and now Oxfordshire) were under Mercian control. So, on that criterion, Sutton Courtenay is possible as the location of the marriage.

Also of note are the significant archaeological findings. The popular archaeology television programme Time Team conducted a dig (video here) to the west of the village and they found the largest Anglo-Saxon hall in England and suggested that it was royal. However, one problem is that it seemed to be from an earlier period than the time of King Alfred, although we don’t know whether it’s size and significance persisted in some way. For those who like detail, the analysis of thedig is here.

Imagine a huge Anglo-Saxon great hall in these fields! Didcot power station in the distance.

 

There is also speculation that Sutton Abbey may be on the site of a former Anglo-Saxon royal vill.

The entrance to the Abbey at Sutton Courtenay

 

Because the site of Alfred’s marriage to Eahlswith is not certain, other sites are available for speculation.  In particular, Gainsborough in Lincolnshire has been put forward. This is on the basis that Ealhswith was the daughter of a chief of a people called the Gaini. However, the place-name may instead be based on an individual called Gegn and we can’t be certain that the Gaini were in this area anyway. Gainsborough is, however, in Mercia and only 40 miles or so from Nottingham, where we know Alfred was in 868. However, many, many places were in Mercia and there is nothing to say that he was anywhere near Nottingham in the year that he married.

Back to Sutton Courtenay, and leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind for a moment, I visited All Saints’ church and found it to be more significant than I had anticipated. Amongst other things, one can visit the graves of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) and the former British prime-minister, Asquith.

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George Orwell’s grave
All Saints’ church

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wantage

King Alfred was born in 849 and, according to Asser, Wantage was the place. This leads us directly into the argument about whether the “Life of Alfred” was written by Asser, or somebody later pretending to be Asser. I’ll perhaps write more on this in another post. Suffice to say for the moment that the main consensus is that Asser  did write the “Life of Alfred”, and therefore King Alfred was born at Wantage.

In the first half of the 9th century Berkshire (Wantage was in Berkshire then), or at least parts of it, appears to have been changing hands between Mercia and Wessex. An argument has been made that Alfred would not have been born in a potentially hostile Mercia. However, we cannot tell how hostile Mercia was in  849, and it also seems possible that this part of Berkshire was under Wessex control by then.

There has been much speculation about where the royal palace would have been. I explored these locations but my conclusion was that it is not possible to know for sure where it was.

I like Wantage. It has an old centre based around the market square, and in the middle of this you will see the famous statue of King Alfred, usually surrounded by parked cars. Largely on the back of successful regeneration, Wantage won the Best Town Centre in Britain competition in 2014. These efforts seem to have left a legacy and I am very pleased for Wantage to see this. Wantage also crops up in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure under the guise of “Alfredston”!

 

 

KIng Alfred in the Market Square

 

 

 

 

 

The plaque on the King Alfred statue

 

Outside of the centre there is a King Alfred’s Well (or Spring.)” However, it doesn’t seem possible to connect this to King Alfred and, in any case, it appears to be named after an Alfred Hazel, a 17th century cloth manufacturer!

The unassuming Alfred’s Well

 

It’s difficult to avoid King Alfred in Wantage!

 

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About the Book

It all started one spring day in Winchester. I tagged along with my partner who had to go there to work for a day. I was at a loose end and had been to Winchester many times. I had seen the cathedral, the round table and so on. So, what should I do? I remembered reading that there had been an abbey at Hyde, just north of the centre, and that it was connected with King Alfred. So I worked out where it was and paid a visit to the location. In contrast to the cathedral, and the city centre generally, there was nobody else there but me. Yet this was  the site where perhaps the greatest king in the history of England had been buried. Surely this could not be correct. Where was everybody? A few weeks later I visited Athelney, the site where Alfred hid out before striking out to defeat the Vikings. There was nobody there either. Then I went to the little church at Aller, where the path of English history was sealed when Alfred baptised the Viking leader Guthrum, leading to a period of peace. You’ve got it – Nobody there either. The strong interest in history that I had always had became re-awakened as I found the experience of finding these places deeply involving and I felt that just being in these locations gave me a direct engagement with 9th century history. I am certain that people are interested in the Anglo-Saxons, and King Alfred in particular; everybody I speak to is genuinely interested.

It seemed to me that the problem was partly down to information on relevant sites not being readily available. Additionally, accurate locations for some historical events have not been established (e.g. the Battle of Ashdown) so it is easy to sink in a sea of alternative ideas or theories. A further problem that I came across was what today we might call mis-information (or even fake news?) Perhaps often well-intentioned, but over the past few centuries it appears that many places have wanted a slice of King Alfred, even if it means being over-optimistic with regard to the evidence.

I have tried to cut through all of this to produce something that facilitates better engagement with arguably our most important king by visiting locations that are associated with him. Where the location cannot be established, I put forward alternatives and invite the reader to engage in balancing the evidence.

So, join me on a romp from Wantage, Reading, Basing, London, the Somerset Levels and the Berkshire Downs, Kent, Wiltshire, Dorset, Exeter and other places besides. I truly hope that you benefit a connection and engagement with perhaps our greatest King, just like I have.

For the book’s website, please visit www.king-alfred.com