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!

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.

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

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.

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 Ethandun. 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.

Sutton Courtenay

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.

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.

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 the dig 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.

George Orwell’s grave
All Saints’ church

Wantage

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.

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!

About the Book

July 2019 update: the book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, is now published and available from Amazon.

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.