The Battle of Ashdown, in Berkshire (possibly the part now in Oxfordshire), took place on 8 January 871. Alfred the Great, then a mere prince of twenty-one, led the West Saxon army of his brother, King Ethelred, in a victorious battle against the invading Danes.
The West Saxons had a slight advantage in numbers (around 800 to 1000 men) and held the high ground. The battle was little more than a great clash of shield walls and resulted in a victory for Alfred. The battle, however, was not decisive. This was a pyrrhic victory, for a great many lives were lost on each side and the Danes were subsequently able to win several victories after receiving reinforcements.
The Danes, full of confidence after successes at Reading and nearby, marched west to attack the Saxons who had retreated up onto the Berkshire Downs to reassemble their armies. Alfred had to act quickly to avoid disaster. The King’s troops had to be mustered from the surrounding countryside without delay. Alfred reputedly took his favourite white mare and rode up onto Blowingstone Hill (near Kingston Lisle), where stood an ancient perforated sarsen stone, called the 'Blowing Stone'. Anyone with the appropriate skill could generate a booming sound from this stone, by blowing into one of its holes. Alfred took a deep breath and blew hard. He did it exactly correctly and a great boom blew out across the Downs. From all over the surrounding country, men were stirred from their beds and they knew it was time to gather and defend their homes.
'Æscesdūn' or Ashdown is generally thought to be an ancient name for the whole of the Berkshire Downs. It is not known exactly where the two armies met, though it was around a lone thorn tree. Thorn Down at Compton, near East Ilsley — meaning Place of Conflict — is therefore a popular contender. Modern investigation suggests a site on the Ridgeway between Aldworth and the Astons.
Victorian theory states that Alfred’s men gathered at the valley-fort now called Alfred's Castle near Ashdown House at Ashbury. Ethelred’s troops had taken up position nearby, at Hardwell Camp, near Compton Beauchamp. The Danes had meanwhile reached Uffington Castle, where they had made their camp. On the morning of 8 January 871, the two sides met where the lone gnarled thorn tree stood; a tree that may earlier have been worshipped by the druids. The armies were drawn up in two columns each. The Danes were commanded by their Kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson and five Earls. Ethelred and Alfred led the Saxons. There they waited, jeering and shouting at one another. Alfred was keen to get to grips with the enemy, but Ethelred decided to spend the ensuing lull in prayer for victory. He left the battlefield for the little church at Aston (Tirrold or Upthorpe) and, despite Alfred’s insistence, he would not return until the priest had finished! The young Prince had to make a decision: should he wait for his brother or commence the fight alone? The troops were on edge and impatient. The Danes had already deployed in an advantageous position, on the higher ground and to let them take the initiative would be to court disaster. Despite his brother’s absence, Alfred gave the command for his own men to charge.
The Saxons prevailed but not without great carnage on each side. The Danes were chased back eastward, across Berkshire. Thousands of bodies covered the chalky slopes. King Bagsecg and the five Danish Earls perished.
King Bagsecg was reputedly buried in Waylands Smithy; the Earls and other noblemen near Lambourn, at Seven Barrows. These are misguided assertions however and, in fact, Seven Barrows appears to date from the Bronze Age and Waylands Smithy from Neolithic times.