The critical Battle of Ethandun.

The author – climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington

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

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 ramparts at Bratton 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

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). 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 reminding us that the Battle of Ethandune (Edington) 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.

Please visit the site for the book.

The important Role of Chippenham

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

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.

Looking across the 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.

Looking across to the east bank of the 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. 

The Angel Hotel, Gladstone Road. On the site of the Royal estate?

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.

Looking south down St Mary’s Street, with the possibility of the royal site 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.