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 Æscesdun, 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.
I find the most tempting location in this area to be Lowbury Hill. Asser 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.
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.
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.
It is interesting to note that an Æscesdun is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles at 661, although we are not provided with a location.
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.