In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 2: King Alfred’s Tower

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandune where the Vikings were defeated.

King Alfred’s Tower is frequently suggested as being at or near the site of Egbert’s Stone, and I read some material dating from 1901 that there had been a local tradition that a beacon had been lit here as a signal for the gathering of Alfred’s forces.

 

King Alfred’s Tower at sunset

 

This building is a folly, built from 1762 onwards, and is in a lovely location surrounded by woodland on Kingsettle Hill in Somerset. The first thing that struck me about this monument is it’s size. It is huge. Indeed, an aeroplane crashed into it in 1944. The second thing that struck me was it’s unusual three-sided shape. I understand the views from the top are excellent but it was closed when I visited. But is this the site of Egbert’s stone?  The road that goes past the tower is again the ancient Hard Way (also known as the Harrow Way), with the ancient name surviving at the nearby Hardway Farm. This is the same Hard Way / Harrow Way that crops up in relation to Willoughby Hedge (in a future post) and the Battle of Basing.

 

The statue of King Alfred on the tower

 

From the evidence available, it also seems difficult to define this as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood, which is required to fit the description given by Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The location is adjacent to an important ancient route (the Hard Way), but this does not seem enough to determine this to be the spot, or even a favourite.

 

King Alfred’s Tower. An unusual three-sided building

 

Kilmington Common

Kilmington Common was put forward by a Dr Williams-Freeman in the 1950s . Kilmington Common is the name of the village and it lies about a mile east of Alfred’s Tower. The west-east road and track, named Tower Road and Long Lane respectively, lie on the route of the ancient track called the Hard Way, which is  the same Hard Way that goes past King Alfred’s Tower. I parked near where Tower Road meets the village and walked a short distance down the track called Long Lane, partly to appreciate that this was a potential site for Egbert’s Stone and partly for the simple enjoyment of walking on the ancient Hard Way. I looked over to where “the common” is marked on the OS map, but there was little to see apart from crops. Although the case for this location is supported by evidence that tracks ran in other directions near here, it seems difficult to define this location as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood. I therefore consider this to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone.

On the Hard Way near Kilmington Common

 

Part three will appear later, and this will include the Deverills in Wiltshire.

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In search of Egbert’s Stone. Part 1: The meeting point of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to Egbert’s Stone (Ecgbryhtes stane) as the place where the armies from Somerset, Wiltshire and  part of Hampshire came together to fight alongside Alfred  after he had left Athelney in the seventh week after Easter in 878, en route for the important and decisive battle at Ethandune where the Vikings were defeated. It is notable that  Dorset is not mentioned. However, Dorset may be an omission because Gaimar indicates that this county was involved.

Tradition has it that King Egbert, Alfred’s grandfather,  marked the point where Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire met with a large stone on the bank of the River Stour. However, it may be unreliable to assume that the counties met at the same location in Egbert’s or Alfred’s time. The woodland then would have extended further south ( as indicated in this book) into today’s Dorset, and because there is some evidence that the edges of the wood were used as boundaries, it is possible that the border could have been further south than it is today. However, I have not seen anything to indicate where any older of boundary might have been.

I drew upon John Peddie’s reference (in this book) to Coombe Street, which is west of Zeals and north of Bourton, as a claimed location. Travelling west, the road crossesthe river where a sign indicates that you have arrived at Pen Selwood. The Stour is narrow at this point, which is unsurprising as its source is at nearby Stourhead. However, I saw no evidence of a significant stone.

 

The Stour at Coombe Street near Pen Selwood. No Egbert’s Stone to be seen.

 

There seems to be an impression locally that a stone at Bullpits Golf Course is Egbert’s Stone. However, I have been told that this is not the case. Nearby Factory Hill crosses the Stour at a point where there was once a mill. When I visited this area it was in the process of being developed for housing. There is a footpath that comes off Kite’s Nest Lane that takes you close to where the three counties meet and water can be seen to your right as you walk up. However, maps show that the exact point at which the three counties meet is very close by but on private land, so I was unable to establish whether there was a stone there. However, the quest was not necessarily to find the stone but to find where Alfred brought his troops together, and if this indeed took place where the three counties now meet, then I was satisfied that I had found the spot. 

 

The White Lion at Bourton. A lovely place to take a break from explorations, and the food was superb.

 

However, it seems logical that Alfred would have used a meeting point that was strategic in terms of routeways and other factors rather than an obscure location where three administrative boundaries now meet.  From the evidence available, it also seems difficult to define this as east of or in the eastern part of Selwood, which is required in order to fit Asser‘s and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ descriptions of the location. For these reasons I consider this site to be a less likely location for Egbert’s Stone. It is possible that somebody wished to mark the junction of the three counties with a stone and that this has somehow become tangled up with the record of Alfred’s assembling of troops from different counties. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not include Dorset as a county providing forces (although Gaimar does), which further weakens the case for Egbert’s Stone being located here.

Michael Wood, the historian and television presenter, attributes the location of Egbert’s Stone to Penselwood, which is very close to the junction between the three counties, although I don’t know whether that was the reason why he chose it. Pen Selwood is also the supposed location of the Battle of Peonnum, which had been an important victory for the Saxons in 658. However, this was before the time of King Egbert so I cannot see how his name would have become associated with this.

 

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The critical Battle of Ethandune at Edington.

The author – climbing Picquet Hill, just south of Edington

 

After Alfred left Athelney, he went via Egbert’s Stone and Iglea to Ethandune 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 Ethandune can therefore be viewed as a reconquest by Alfred for his Kingdom. If Alfred had lost he might not have been able to come back. The stakes were high.

The route taken from Athelney is contested, and I hope to blog on this at some point. It certainly takes up some space in the book!

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that this battle took place at Eþandune (þ is pronounced “th”), which we shall refer to as  Ethandune. It seems generally accepted that Ethandune is today’s Edington in Wiltshire. Although the identification of Ethandune 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, but because there is no proof we should explore other options. This was a critical battle, and Alfred’s victory led to his successful reconquest of Wessex.

 

Edington Priory

 

It has been suggested that Bratton Camp, which is on Bratton Down, had been the Viking base for the Battle of Ethandune. Standing at this iron-age hillfort one can appreciate how, coming from the direction of Chippenham to the north (where theseVikings appear to have had their base), once the climb up to Bratton Camp had been achieved then there was relatively easy access to Salisbury Plain, to meet the approaching 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, although it might be referred to as “White Horse.” There is indeed 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. We need 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 Ethandune 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 we seem to be potentially mis-led by the presence of a hill-fort, a horse, and the good visibility. 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.

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