The critical Battle of Ethandun.

Paul Kelly, the author of King Alfred: A Man on the Move - climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington, Wiltshire
Paul Kelly, the author of King Alfred: A Man on the Move – climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington, Wiltshire

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.

After Alfred left Athelney, he went via Egbert’s Stone and Iglea to Ethandun where he fought against the Vikings and won. The evidence suggests that after the Vikings had raided Chippenham Wessex had pretty much fallen into their hands. The events leading up to the Battle at Ethandun can therefore be viewed as a reconquest by Alfred for his Kingdom. If Alfred had lost at Ethandun, his loss of Wessex might have become permanent. The stakes were high. However, King Alfred did win this battle, leading to his successful recovery of Wessex.

The route that Alfred would have taken to get from Athelney is contested, largely because the locations of his en-route encampments, at Egbert’s Stone and Iglea, are disputed.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that this battle took place at Eþandun (þ is pronounced “th”), which I refer to as Ethandun. It seems generally accepted that Ethandun is today’s Edington in Wiltshire. Although the identification of Ethandun is most helpful, it still does not allow us to determine the precise location of the battle in that area. My favoured location is the village itself (it seems that there was a royal estate here, and I can’t imagine that the Vikings wouldn’t have taken this) but because there is no proof I explored other options.

Edington Priory church, Wiltshire. It is plausible that the Battle of Ethandun was fought in the vicinity. King Alfred the Great defeated Guthrum and the Vikings in this battle.
Edington Priory church, Wiltshire. It is plausible that the Battle of Ethandun was fought in the vicinity. King Alfred the Great defeated Guthrum and the Vikings in this battle.

It has been suggested that Bratton Camp, which is on Bratton Down, had been the Viking base for the Battle of Ethandun. Standing at this Iron-Age hillfort one can appreciate how, coming from the direction of Chippenham to the north (where this particular Viking army appears to have had its base), once the climb up to Bratton Camp had been achieved, they would have had easy access to Salisbury Plain, in order to confront King Alfred and his armies, if indeed they had come that way.

The iron age ramparts at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire. This has sometimes been put forward as the site of the Battle of Ethandun, or perhaps the site of the Viking camp.
The iron age ramparts at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire. This has sometimes been put forward as the site of the Battle of Ethandun, or perhaps the site of the Viking camp.

East of Westbury, and just a short distance south-west of Edington, Bratton Camp is marked on maps and is easy to find. There is i a figure of a white horse marked out on the hillside, sadly today made out of concrete.  I agree with another writer that it seems unusual that two important battles (the other being Ashdown) had been fought in areas with prominent white horses. However,  there is no evidence that a white horse would have been present at Bratton Down at or around Alfred’s time. Furthermore, the location of the Battle of Ashdown seems to me to have not been in the vicinity of the  white horse at Uffington in Oxfordshire. I decided to avoid the unreliable practice of divining battle sites via horse-led inquiry.

The White Horse above Westbury, Wiltshire.
The White Horse above Westbury, Wiltshire.

The parish of Edington extends a fair way south onto Salisbury plain, approximately level with, and just to the west of the deserted village of Imber. On some days the Ministry of Defence allows public access to Imber and some other parts of Salisbury Plain where access is restricted. I went on one of the special services run by Imberbus, where vintage buses go from Warminster train station to permitted locations, including Imber and New Zealand Camp Farm. This was a delightful way of getting around. However, there is much of Salisbury Plain where there is never public access, including south of the village of Edington, and it is perhaps possible that the site of the battle may be beneath an  area where access is restricted owing to unexploded ordnance. The best I could do was to explore the roads and paths to the north of the perimeter of the training area. I include the following suggestion because it seemed most interesting and informative in terms of views, and is also within the Edington parish boundary. Just as you approach Edington coming from Bratton there is a lay-by on the right, with a footpath leading north. This fairly steep path takes you up Picquet Hill and over the top of Luccombe Bottom. As you ascend you will pass ancient tumuli and pillow mounds, and the view will open up in a way that allows one to start to understand the landscape of the potential battle site.

Looking north to Picquet Hill (on the right), Wiltshire. Edington is down over the other side.
Looking north to Picquet Hill (on the right), Wiltshire. Edington is down over the other side.

After their defeat at the battle of Ethandun it is recorded that the Vikings were pursued as far as their fortification. This is generally thought to be Chippenham, but at least one writer has suggested that it could have been Bratton Camp. I can see the temptation to consider Bratton camp as the Viking base, but the evidence for a base at Chippenham is stronger. Of course, Bratton Camp could have been an additional forward base for the battle, but so could have many other places been used as such and it seems possible on Bratton Down to be seduced by the heady combination of a hill-fort, a horse, and wide-ranging views. There is also the matter of maintaining provisions for troops and animals at an elevated position away from water.

A stone and plaque at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, reminding us that the Battle of Ethandun had taken place in the vicinity.
A stone and plaque at Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, reminding us that the Battle of Ethandun had taken place in the vicinity.

It has been claimed that that the battle took place at Edington in Somerset. I examine this in my book and find that this is not likely.

You can view my short video on the Battle of Ethandun below:

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

Around Athelney: Lyng and Burrow Mump

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.

Burrow Mump, which looks a bit like a smaller version of Glastonbury Tor, is a literally unmissable natural hill close by the settlement of Burrowbridge in the Somerset Levels.

Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels.
Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels.

The location is close to where the River Tone flows into the River Parrett , and it  is important to note that the River Tone runs past Athelney, where King Alfred was hiding out in 878. The location would therefore have been strategic for defending Athelney. It is possible to see Burrow Mump from Athelney and, of course, vice-versa. The location is also close to where the  River Cary once joined the Parrett, although the Cary now runs into King’s Sedgemoor Drain to the north. There is a half built 18th century church atop Burrow Mump, which is incomplete because funding ran out, and the structure is now a war memorial. However, there is evidence of earlier building going back to the 12th century. There is a car park, and those who walk up the steep incline are rewarded with great views.

The unfinished church atop Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels
The unfinished church atop Burrow Mump, Somerset Levels

An interesting story was toldto me regarding the King Alfred pub in Burrowbridge. This related to a three-legged so-called “Alfred Table.” Although I was told that it was eventually dated to be much more recent, it still apparently sold for a handsome sum to an American.

Asser tells us that  the fortress on the western summit of Athelney Hill was connected to another fortress by a causeway. This second fortress appears to have been at the settlement of East Lyng which, like Athelney, was on higher ground. However, it is important to note that Asser tells us about the causeway and the second fortress in relation to the later founding of a monastery at Athelney by Alfred. There appears to be no evidence that the fortress at Lyng or the causeway were present in 878. The monastic foundation was developed around 893, and the causeway may have been built to facilitate access to and from this. The second fort may have been built as part of Alfred’s defence programme, which he started after 878.

St. Bartholomew's Church, East Lyng, Somerset Levels
St. Bartholomew’s Church, East Lyng, Somerset Levels

I wondered whether it was possible to see any remains of this second fortification.  Whilst not being able to specifically find the fortification it was possible to find evidence of the burgh’s perimeter. Lyng is named in the Burghal Hidage, and a bank and ditch to the west of East Lyng may be the remains of the western perimeter of the burgh defences. I saw it suggested that this ditch and bank was in line with the east wall of St Bartholomew’s church. So, after struggling to find a parking place for the church, that is where I went, and I could indeed see what looked like possible earthworks in the field to the south of the church. I could not explore further because the field appeared to be private land. Fortunately, the presenters in the first ever episode of Time Team (here) appear to have gained access and their programme confirmed that I had indeed been looking across at the correct spot, although the alignment appeared to be more with the  the west wall of the church! The bank and ditch would have extended north on the other side of the A361, but there appears to be nothing left to see there. It seems likely that the eastern boundary would be near Cuts Road, and the causeway itself, although the causeway could have taken a different line in Alfred’s time. Therefore it seems that most of the settlement of East Lyng might be sited within the burgh developed by Alfred. 

The Balt Moor Wall, between Athelney and East Lyng on the Somerset Levels.
The Balt Moor Wall, between Athelney and East Lyng on the Somerset Levels.

I also wanted to investigate the causeway between Athelney and East Lyng recorded by Asser. There is a structure which can still be seen that goes right up to Athelney Hill. Coming from East Lyng one drives over the first section, and it then passes onto private land (with the route of the causeway remaining visible). This structure is now called the Balt Moor Wall. I have not seen any reference that dates this to before the 12th century, so we cannot be sure that the causeway that we see today follows precisely the same route as it did in King Alfred’s time.

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

Athelney. Alfred’s Refuge on the Somerset Levels.

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.

Athelney is where King Alfred developed a fortification at Easter 878, at a time when Wessex had fallen to the Vikings, and it was from here that Alfred set out on the successful reconquest of his kingdom.  You will rarely find anyone else here at this important location.

The route up to the King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels. Just me and the sheep.
The route up to the King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels. Just me and the sheep.

When you are at the site it is apparent that Athelney has two small summits, which was enough to make this location an island in the watery Somerset levels. It is suspected that Alfred’s 878 fortification was on the western summit, while the abbey, founded later by Alfred in 893, was on the eastern summit, where a monument to King Alfred now stands. This abbey was later replaced by a medieval monastery, although there is nothing visible above ground today.

The King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels.
The King Alfred the Great monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels.

I got to this location by taking Cut Road from East Lyng and parking near Athelney Farm. The site is on private land but there is a signpost indicating a route  to the monument. Athelney Hill can also be observed from the lay-by on the nearby A361. It’s elevation above the surrounding area is immediately obvious, and one can see the elevation of Burrow Mump not too far away to the north east, which suggests to me the possibility that this other site may have been used for advance defence and signalling back to Athelney. There is other high ground in the area, such as Windmill Hill to the south west, Oath Hill to the south east, and, slightly further and east of Aller village, the high ridge of Aller Hill. Any high ground could have had strategic importance for protecting Athelney. Asser records that Alfred struck out at Vikings from Athelney, which indicates that Vikings had  been in the vicinity.

The bust of King Alfred the Great on the monument at Athelney, Somerset Levels

There is evidence that Athelney had previously been an iron age fortification and therefore Alfred was bringing this defended site back into use. Evidence of metalworking at the western summit suggests that weaponry may have been manufactured here to be used in Alfred’s reconquest of Wessex.

There is also a record of a hermit called Æthelwine living at Athelney in the 7th century. Perhaps importantly, this Æthelwine is said to have been the son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, and the brother of the next king, Cenwealh. Athelney may therefore have been a royal site known to Alfred, and this may parhaps help explain why he chose this particular location.

Athelney, called æþelingaegge in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is derived from Old English Æðelinga eg with the first word indicating a royal connection (and  eg meaning an isle). The impression gained from both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser is that this site was already called this when Alfred arrived, rather than it having been given this name retrospectively because Alfred had been there. This is consistent with the hermit Æthelwine being very closely related to the kings of the West Saxons. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles at 658 that King Cenwealh, the brother of the hermit Æthelwine, fought against the Britons (Walas) at Penselwood (peonnum), in Somerset, and that he drove them as far as the Parret. With Athelney not far from the Parret, it might have been about this time that Athelney developed it’s West Saxon royal associations.

If Alfred had been at Chippenham when the Vikings attacked at Twelfth Night in January 878dc, the most obvious escape route would perhaps have been to get to Bath and then go down the Fosse Way. However, he could have  taken a Bath to Badbury Rings route and diverted into Selwood Forest. From there he could have made his way across to Athelney by Easter. This route would satisfy Asser’s description of Alfred being in woods as well as defensive positions in swamps or moors. Alternatively, he could have headed straight for the marshes of the levels, only to build the fortress later at Easter. There is also the possibility that he initially went further west into Devon. Ultimately, we do not know where Alfred was between January 878 and Easter 878.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Alfred left for Egbert’s Stone in the seventh week after Easter. Alfred was therefore at the fortress at Athelney for about seven weeks, although of course he could have been at Athelney prior to the fortress being built.

Even with the Somerset Levels drained it doesn't take much for the water around Athelney hill to appear again.
Even with the Somerset Levels drained it doesn’t take much for the water around Athelney hill to appear again.

The legend of Alfred burning the cakes when he was put in charge of them by a peasant woman has become associated with his time at Athelney. However, there is no evidence that this baking mishap ever occurred. The earliest known version of the story of the cakes is in the anonymous Vita S Neoti (Life of St Neot), which appears to have been put together in the late tenth century.

Athelney was connected to nearby East Lyng by a causeway. East Lyng, the causeway, and Burrow Mump will be the subject of a different blog post.

Time Team visited the site on two occasions and the videos (first and second) are well worth watching.

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

The important Role of Chippenham

Chippenham, Wiltshire

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.

Alfred had seen to it that the Vikings would leave Exeter and the whole of Wessex in 877. However, they would return to Wessex and take Chippenham early in 878. This set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the important Wessex victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun.

The arrival of the Vikings at Chippenham was an important turning point because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings then over-ran Wessex, and It was at this point that Alfred went into hiding. It is worth pausing to reflect on what the Chronicle tells us, which is that the Vikings did not just over-run the area around Chippenham, but probably at least most of Wessex, and all of Wessex if we take it literally. There were clearly parts of Wessex that were beyond their control, such as the area in north Devon where the Battle of Cynuit took place, and Athelney, where Alfred found a safe haven for a while. But the implication is still that, for a short while in 878dc, Wessex had been lost to the Vikings. As Wessex was the last kingdom in what we now call England still independent of Viking rule, this also means that for a short while in 878, between Twelfth Night and some time after Easter, the Vikings had control over the whole of England. With King Alfred on the run they must have seen a permanent victory as a plausible outcome. 

It is important to appreciate that Alfred decided to stay and did not flee to, for example, Rome. When Mercia had collapsed under the Vikings in 874, the ruler, King Burghred, fled to Rome. Circumstances would not have been precisely the same, they never are, but I believe things would have turned out very differently had Alfred fled. But he did not. From a position that must have seemed irrecoverable to many he fought and won back his kingdom and, eventually, during the reign of his grandson, Athelstan, all of England would be recovered from Viking rule.

It has been suggested that King Alfred had spent Twelfth Night, in January of 878 at Chippenham. However, I can find no evidence that this was the case. However, it is undoubtedly possible as Chippenham was a royal estate, and it would have provided a reason for the Vikings to arrive there at this particular time.  Chippenham seems to have been important as Asser recorded that this had been the location of Alfred’s sister’s marriage to Burghred, King of Mercia in 853. However, Alfred may not have been present at his sister’s wedding as Asser also records that in the same year the young Alfred had gone to Rome, with no indication as to when he returned, although it must have been before 855, as Asser says that Alfred went with his father a second time to Rome in that year (but with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  only mentioning his father going).  

The Market Place, Chippenham, Wiltshire.
The Market Place, Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Chippenham enters the story again, still in 878, immediately after Alfred won the Battle of Ethandun (Edington), for it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that when Alfred put the Vikings to flight, he pursued them as far as an unnamed fortification (geweorc). It has been suggested that this location was perhaps Chippenham. This seems plausible in relation to the most likely sites for the battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also tells us that the Vikings moved from Chippenham to Cirencester after Guthrum’s baptism. Chippenham seems to have served as a Viking base. It is unlikely that the unnamed fortification was Bratton Camp, on the north-west edge of Salisbury Plain, as provisions for troops and animals would have been difficult to provide on this elevated landscape over an extended period.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that after the Battle of Ethandun Alfred put this fortification under siege for fourteen days, after which the Vikings surrendered.  Asser provides further detail and identifies the location of Alfred’s besieging camp as being in front of the gates of the Viking fortification.

Asser indicates that the location that the Vikings took at Chippenham prior to the Battle of Ethandun as being on the eastern bank of the Avon. It seems likely that any fortification at Chippenham that the Vikings retreated to after Ethandun would be at this same location.  Examination of a map shows that there is a bend in the Avon that would allow the Vikings to defend a peninsula, similar to their tactic at Reading. This is where the old town is located. I parked in the Sadler’s Mead car park and walked down to the River Avon, being the same river that flows through Bath and emerges at Avonmouth near Bristol. I walked along the path that heads west and then south along the outer bank, allowing me to appreciate what may have constituted Asser’s east bank of the Avon.

Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking across the River Avon from the west bank.
Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking across the River Avon from the west bank.

It is important to note that the river today is not the same as it appears on old maps, and It would have been even more different in the time of Alfred. But even going back to the Ordnance Survey map of 1886, one can see an Isle of Rea, which no longer exists as such, just south of the town bridge (High Street). My impression is that this island is where much of the deeply unaesthetic Borough Parade shopping centre now stands. This area can therefore be excluded from being Asser’s east of the Avon. Just south of here the river once divided again into a main stream and a Hardenhuish Brook, forming yet another island called The Ham. However, it seems like it is the brook rather than the main stream that has disappeared so that when we look across the river at this point today we are looking at the east bank of the Avon as opposed to the eastern edge of a former island. So I proceeded to walk all the way down the western bank looking across at the eastern bank. Nowadays, perhaps unsurprisingly, this area has been developed, except at the point where one reaches some playing fields.

Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking across to the east bank of the River Avon (the bridge is Gladstone Road)
Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking across to the east bank of the River Avon (the bridge is Gladstone Road)

So does this help locate the Viking fortress? It could have been anywhere along this stretch of the east bank as it runs through Chippenham, whilst allowing for the disappearance of the Isle of Rea. However, another option arises. Because the Avon bends sharply, there is a second eastern bank a little further east. A Monkton House is located here, and this is on the location of an older manor house. However, I feel that this is a less likely location because of the pattern of the Vikings usage of water to defend themselves on three sides, which the latter site could not provide. But there is also a third option. Neither Asser nor the Chronicle states whether the Vikings set up their own fortress or took over what was already there instead. Asser records that Chippenham was a royal estate and I believe it would therefore have had some defences, particularly bearing in mind its northerly location compared to the rest of Wessex. It seems to me inconceivable that the Vikings would drive the Saxons out of Chippenham and not use the Saxon site as a base. Establishing the location of the royal estate may therefore also be helpful, as this could be the same location as the Viking fortress. St Andrew’s church is near the Market Place (the main focus of the Saxon town) and St Andrew’s has been described as probably the site of the Saxon church. Ordnance Survey maps from 1900 to 1967 indicate a “site of King Arthur’s Palace” between the Market Place and Gladstone Road. Although it is named after King Arthur, who we cannot prove existed, one wonders how this royal connotation came about. The area indicated is to the rear of the current Museum and Heritage Centre and also appears to be at the northern end of a restricted parking area accessed off Timber Street. The access is opposite a very good Caribbean restaurant where I enjoyed the best jerk chicken I have ever tasted. 

Chippenham, Wiltshire. The Angel Hotel, Gladstone Road. On the site of the Royal estate and the Viking camp?
Chippenham, Wiltshire. The Angel Hotel, Gladstone Road. On the site of the Royal estate and the Viking camp?

Anybody who walks down St Mary’s Street will sense it’s age and indeed it is considered to be part of the Saxon settlement, with the area to the north of St Andrew’s chuch considered to be a possibility for the location of the royal estate. Therefore we have two potential sites for a royal palace, one to the west of The Causeway and one to the east. Both of these of course meet Asser’s description of being east of the Avon. However, the latter site would probably be better described as being west of the Avon as it is closer to the other side of the peninsula. It is also possible that the royal site ranged across both of these locations and perhaps we should not always consider them as separate.

Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking south down St Mary's Street, with the possibility of the former location of the royal site at the time of King Alfred the Great being to the right.
Chippenham, Wiltshire. Looking south down St Mary’s Street, with the possibility of the former location of the royal site at the time of King Alfred the Great being to the right.

For me, therefore, the most likely location for both the Royal Estate and the Viking fortification extends between Borough Parade shopping centre car park in the north, Timber Street in the south, and St Mary’s Street to the east. This would be east of the Avon, yet far enough up the peninsula to make that a defensive feature.

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

King Alfred and the Vikings at Wareham

 

Wareham Quay, the Purbecks, Dorset, viewed from the south bank of the River Frome. The Vikings may have disembarked here.
Wareham Quay, the Purbecks, Dorset, viewed from the south bank of the River Frome. The Vikings may have disembarked here.

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.

Wareham and nearby Poole harbour are lovelyplaces to visit. However, not everybody will be aware of the dramatic events that took place here in the 9th century.

Wareham had been occupied by the Vikings in 875, but Alfred  made piece with them in 876 when the Vikings swore on the halgan beage (holy ring) that they would leave Wessex. However, they left under the cover of darkness and went instead to Exeter, in Devonshire but also part of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the Vikings had  given hostages to Alfred as part of the deal, and that these men had been the worthiest in the Viking army. We cannot be sure if this ring was presented in the negotiations by Alfred or by the Vikings, or who it was “holy” to, if not to both parties. It is possible that either the Vikings or Alfred had access to a holy ring as they travelled from place to place. If it was a Viking ring, then Alfred clearly must have had the upper hand to make them swear on it, which would fit with the fact that Alfred was also given important hostages, which could be killed if the Vikings reneged on the deal. The Vikings must have seen Exeter as a great prize if it meant sacrificing  their worthiest men. One can imagine how the Vikings might have viewed the subsequent loss of 120 ships near Swanage in a storm as they fled to Exeter as divine retribution for breaking an oath sworn on a holy ring.

On balance it seems to me that this ring was presented by Alfred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to it as “holy” and it seems unlikely to me that something un-Christian would be referred to in this way.

Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. A view of Lady St Mary's church from the south bank of the River Frome. Was this the heart of early to middle Saxon Wareham?
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. A view of Lady St Mary’s church from the south bank of the River Frome. Was this the heart of early to middle Saxon Wareham?

But, what was at Wareham when the Vikings attacked? Asser describes Wareham as a castellum (fortification) and the location of a convent for nuns. We know that Alfred embarked on a programme of defending settlements after 878 and it is thought that the origins of the walls that we see today were built then, although we know that they were modified over subsequent centuries. The fortification referred to by Asser is therefore probably not the same as the walls we see today. Castellum could also relate to an ancient or Roman construction, for which there is no remaining evidence, or even Saxon pre-878 defences developed because of a specific risk of Viking attack.

Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. The north stretch of the Saxon wall, with the River Piddle disappearing off to the west.
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. The north stretch of the Saxon wall, with the River Piddle disappearing off to the west.
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. The west section of the town's Saxon wall
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. The west section of the town’s Saxon wall

However, things become even more complicated when we look at Æthelweard’s chronicle. He describes the Vikings moving down from Cambridge to near  (iuxta) Wareham and occupying a location alongside (coniecit statum communem cum) a Western Army. There appears to be a significant difference between Æthelweard and Asser as the latter states that the Viking army enterred (intravit) the castellum of Wareham. However these two sources may just be providing two snapshots of a sequence. Taking it all together it appears that the Vikings camped outside of the settlement of Wareham and then took it over, perhaps after besieging it.

But where did the Vikings camp and how did they get there? We know that there must have been a combined land and sea force because that is what left Wareham when they fled to Exeter. We also know that the seaborne force must have been considerable because the Vikings lost 120 ships in a storm near Swanage when fleeing. The ships must have come in to Poole harbour, and perhaps they would have taken some ships up the Frome in order to get closer to Wareham. Presumably, with that many ships, they would have defended their rear by perhaps occupying Brownsea Island and the harbour entrance. This would have been a most serious situation. Try to imagine today over 120 Viking ships in Poole harbour. In fact there would have been more than this as 120, the only figure that we have, is the number that sunk in the storm of Swanage. It is unlikely that all Viking boats had sunk. And on top of this was the  land-basedViking army. It is difficult to see that the native settlement at Wareham would have had a chance. The Vikings broke their oath when they fled to Exeter, but Alfred’s intervention had saved Wareham, and we must remember that when the Vikings got to Exeter they had to deal with Alfred again, and this time they did leave Wessex.

How the Viking land-based forces got to Wareham must be very speculative. There may have been a Roman road from Wareham to Woodbury Hill, near Bere Regis. This may have been in use in Alfred’s time because there is still today a straight road that heads in that direction. However, this seems to be in the wrong place (being north-west instead of north-east) if they had come from Cambridge. There is nothing to indicate where Alfred had travelled from.

The nearby church of Lady St Mary, although subject to much rebuilding, has an important history going back to at least the 8th century. Inside the church are several pieces of masonry that are dated to Anglo-Saxon times.

Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. Lady St Mary's church. There would have been a church here at the time of King Alfred the Great.
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. Lady St Mary’s church. There would have been a church here at the time of King Alfred the Great.

Another important location in Wareham is the very old St Martin’s church, . This church is generally locked outside of the main tourist season, but there is usually an indication of where to get the key in normal trading hours (it is kept in a shop). It is thought that the current building dates to about 1030. The church also contains important 12th century wall paintings.

Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. St Martin's church
Wareham, the Purbecks, Dorset. St Martin’s church

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) tells us that King Edward the Martyr was initially buried at Wareham after he had been murdered at nearby Corfe in 978. Although he was later transferred to Shaftesbury, his initial burial would probably have been at or near the site of St Mary’s church. I have seen it written that King Beorhtric of Wessex had been buried at Wareham in 802, but I have not found any evidence to support this. Had I done so, this would have made Wareham a more important place prior to the Viking attack in 875.

This was not the last that Wareham would see of the Vikings. They attacked Dorset again via the Frome, which then runs past Wareham, in 998 and 1015.

You can view my short video on Wareham here:

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.

Battle of Ashdown. Part 2.

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.

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, Oxfordshire, viewed from the north. Did the Battle of Ashdown take place here?
Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire (from the north). Did the Battle of Ashdown take place here?

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, a candidate for the site of the Battle of Ashdown, looking north over Starveall Farm and Moulsford Bottom, across to Moulsford Downs.
On Kingstanding Hill, a candidate for the site of the Battle of Ashdown, 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, Oxfordshire. Moulsford Bottom is on the left and Kingstanding Hill is ahead.
On a footpath heading west from Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Moulsford Bottom is on the left and Kingstanding Hill is 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 beautiful Lardons Chase. Great views to be had across the Thames Valley, Streatley and Goring.

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

The Battle at Wilton 871AD

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

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.

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.

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.

 

The Battle of Basing 871AD

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.

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, Hampshire The Street, looking north to the railway bridge
Old Basing, Hampshire 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!

Hackwood Park, near Old Basing in Hampshire.  I am near the north-east corner of the estate. Was this the site of the 871 Battle of Basing?
Hackwood Park, near Old Basing in Hampshire. I am near the north-east corner of the estate. Was this the site of the 871 Battle of Basing?

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, Hampshire Was the Battle of Basing between the Saxons and the Vikings fought near here?
St Mary’s church, Old Basing, Hampshire Was the Battle of Basing between the Saxons and the Vikings 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.

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.

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

Uffington Hill Fort

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.

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 White Horse of Uffington, Oxfordshire, with the flat-topped Dragon Hill in the distance. Some claim that the Battle of Ashdown was fought here.
The head of the White Horse of Uffington, Oxfordshire, with the flat-topped Dragon Hill in the distance. Some claim that the Battle of Ashdown was fought here.

The best view of the Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire, that I could obtain from ground level
The best view of the Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire, 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 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 southern perimeter of the Iron Age Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, with the Ridgeway following the line of the fence to the left
The southern perimeter of the Iron Age Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, with the Ridgeway following the line of the fence to the left

Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, looking south
Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, 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
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, near Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire.
The Blowing Stone, near Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire.

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, near Ashdown House, Oxfordshire.
“Alfred’s Castle” Bronze Age enclosure, near Ashdown House, Oxfordshire.

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.

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.

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.