So I finally got around to reading this book, which I had been avoiding in order not to confuse my mind whilst conducting my research on King Alfred. First off, let me say that it is beautifully written – I wish I could write like this. It is obviously thoroughly based on research and I find myself un-enthusiastic in pointing out things that I disagree with, because I know that there will be things that people disagree with in my writings (available on Amazon). But I hope to stick my neck out a little.
It seems that Bernard Cornwell moved the Battle of Cynuit forward by a year or so (his Historical Note tells us that he moved the Viking leader Ubba’s death forward, which amounts to the same thing, as he died at Cynuit). I found this difficult because whilst reading I had to constantly remind myself that it had not happened yet. I also found it confusing because it moved the battle of Cynuit to the same time as the Viking attack on Exeter in 876 instead of in 878 when Alfred was on the run and ended up at Athelney, an entirely different context.
Bernard Cornwell tells us in the Historical Note at the back of the book that he placed (following an argument put forward in a book by John Peddie) Cynuit at Cannington in Somerset. To me this does not seem possible as, although the precise location is not known, all of the early sources tell us that the battle took place in Devon.
There are other little things, like Alfred’s elder brother King Æthelred’s death in 871 being moved to after the Battle of Wilton instead of after the Battle of Meretun.
None of this should stop you reading this superbly written book. I fully intend to read the rest of the series. Although I had not read the book, I had seen season 1 of the TV series, shortly before I started my research. For those of you who are wondering whether they should read the book having watched the TV series, I would say “yes”, because for me it really did add something.
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.
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.
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.