Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Battle of Ashdown



The Battle of Ashdown, in Berkshire (possibly the part now in Oxfordshire), took place on 8 January 871.



Alfred the Great








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.



King Ethelred




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.




Reading Minster




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.



Blowing Stone Hill



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.

Ashbury Oxfordshire





'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.


East Ilsley





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.



Alfred's Castle



Victorian theory states that Alfred’s men gathered at the valley-fort now called Alfred's Castle near Ashdown House at Ashbury.


Hardwell Camp




Ethelred’s troops had taken up position nearby, at Hardwell Camp, near Compton Beauchamp.





Uffington Castle Ditch



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.




Wayland Smithy





King Bagsecg was reputedly buried in Waylands Smithy; the Earls and other noblemen near Lambourn, at Seven Barrows.



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.


The battle in fiction
There is a detailed account of the battle in The Namesake, a juvenile historical novel by C. Walter Hodges.
There is also an account of a visit to the battlefield in Tom Brown's Schooldays:-
"And now we leave the camp, and descend towards the west, and are on the Ashdown. We are treading on heroes. It is sacred ground for Englishmen—more sacred than all but one or two fields where their bones lie whitening. For this is the actual place where our Alfred won his great battle, the battle of Ashdown ('Aescendum' in the chroniclers), which broke the Danish power, and made England a Christian land. The Danes held the camp and the slope where we are standing—the whole crown of the hill, in fact. 'The heathen had beforehand seized the higher ground,' as old Asser says, having wasted everything behind them from London, and being just ready to burst down on the fair Vale, Alfred's own birthplace and heritage. And up the heights came the Saxons, as they did at the Alma. 'The Christians led up their line from the lower ground. There stood also on that same spot a single thorn-tree, marvellous stumpy (which we ourselves with our very own eyes have seen).' Bless the old chronicler! Does he think nobody ever saw the 'single thorn-tree' but himself? Why, there it stands to this very day, just on the edge of the slope, and I saw it not three weeks since—an old single thorn-tree, 'marvellous stumpy.' At least, if it isn't the same tree it ought to have been, for it's just in the place where the battle must have been won or lost—'around which, as I was saying, the two lines of foemen came together in battle with a huge shout. And in this place one of the two kings of the heathen and five of his earls fell down and died, and many thousands of the heathen side in the same place. After which crowning mercy, the pious king, that there might never be wanting a sign and a memorial to the country-side, carved out on the northern side of the chalk hill, under the camp, where it is almost precipitous, the great Saxon White Horse, which he who will may see from the railway, and which gives its name to the Vale, over which it has looked these thousand years and more."
(Gutenberg Project)



The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


Annals from A.D. 851 to A.D. 880A.D. 851.
This year Alderman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought the heathen army at Wemburg, and after making great slaughter obtained the victory. The same year King Athelstan and Alderman Elchere fought in their ships, and slew a large army at Sandwich in Kent, taking nine ships and dispersing the rest. The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet. The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London; putting to flight Bertulf, king of the Mercians, with his army; and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey. Here Ethelwulf and his son Ethelbald, at the head of the West-Saxon army, fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.
A.D. 852.About this time Abbot Ceolred of Medhamsted, with the concurrence of the monks, let to hand the land of Sempringham to Wulfred, with the provision, that after his demise the said land should revert to the monastery; that Wulfred should give the land of Sleaford to Meohamsted, and should send each year into the monastery sixty loads of wood, twelve loads of coal, six loads of peat, two tuns full of fine ale, two neats' carcases, six hundred loaves, and ten kilderkins of Welsh ale; one horse also each year, and thirty shillings, and one night's entertainment. This agreement was made in the presence of King Burhred. Archbishop Ceolnoth, Bishops Tunbert, Kenred, Aldhun, and Bertred; Abbots Witred and Weftherd, Aldermen Ethelherd and Hunbert, and many others.
A.D. 853.This year Burhred, King of Mercia, with his council, besought King Ethelwulf to assist him to subdue North-Wales. He did so; and with an army marched over Mercia into North-Wales, and made all the inhabitants subject to him. The same year King Ethelwulf sent his son Alfred to Rome; and Leo, who was then pope, consecrated him king, and adopted him as his spiritual son. The same year also Elchere with the men of Kent, and Huda with the men of Surrey, fought in the Isle of Thanet with the heathen army, and soon obtained the victory; but there were many men slain and drowned on either hand, and both the aldermen killed. Burhred, the Mercian king, about this time received in marriage the daughter of Ethelwulf, king of the West-Saxons.
A.D. 854.This year the heathen men33 for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Shepey. The same year King Ethelwulf registered a tenth of his land over all his kingdom for the honour of God and for his own everlasting salvation. The same year also he went to Rome with great pomp, and was resident there a twelvemonth. Then he returned homeward; and Charles, king of the Franks, gave him his daughter, whose name was Judith, to be his queen. After this he came to his people, and they were fain to receive him; but about two years after his residence among the Franks he died; and his body lies at Winchester. He reigned eighteen years and a half. And Ethelwulf was the son of Egbert, Egbert of Ealhmund, Ealhmund of Eafa, Eafa of Eoppa, Eoppa of Ingild; Ingild was the brother of Ina, king of the West-Saxons, who held that kingdom thirty-seven winters, and afterwards went to St. Peter, where he died. And they were the sons of Cenred, Cenred of Ceolwald, Ceolwald of Cutha, Cutha of Cuthwin, Cuthwin of Ceawlin, Ceawlin of Cynric, Cynric of Creoda, Creoda of Cerdic, Cerdic of Elesa, Elesa of Esla, Esla of Gewis, Gewis of Wig, Wig of Freawine, Freawine of Frithugar, Frithugar of Brond, Brond of Balday, Balday of Woden, Woden of Frithuwald, Frithuwald of Freawine, Freawine of Frithuwualf, Frithuwulf of Finn, Finn of Godwulf, Godwulf of Great, Great of Taetwa, Taetwa of Beaw, Beaw of Sceldwa, Sceldwa of Heremod, Heremod of Itermon, Itermon of Hathra, Hathra of Hwala, Hwala of Bedwig, Bedwig of Sceaf; that is, the son of Noah, who was born in Noah's ark: Laznech, Methusalem, Enoh, Jared, Malalahel, Cainion, Enos, Seth, Adam the first man, and our Father, that is, Christ. Amen. Then two sons of Ethelwulf succeeded to the kingdom; Ethelbald to Wessex, and Ethelbert to Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex. Ethelbald reigned five years. Alfred, his third son, Ethelwulf had sent to Rome; and when the pope heard say that he was dead, he consecrated Alfred king, and held him under spiritual hands, as his father Ethelwulf had desired, and for which purpose he had sent him thither.
A.D. 855.And on his return homewards he took to (wife) the daughter of Charles, king of the French, whose name was Judith, and he came home safe. And then in about two years he died, and his body lies at Winchester: and he reigned eighteen years and a half, and he was the son of Egbert. And then his two sons succeeded to the kingdom; Ethelbald to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, and Ethelbert to the kingdom of the Kentish-men, and of the East-Saxons, and of Surrey, and of the South-Saxons. And he reigned five years.A.D. 860.This year died King Ethelbald, and his body lies at Sherborn. Ethelbert his brother then succeeded to the whole kingdom, and held it in good order and great tranquillity. In his days came a large naval force up into the country, and stormed Winchester. But Alderman Osric, with the command of Hampshire, and Alderman Ethelwulf, with the command of Berkshire, fought against the enemy, and putting them to flight, made themselves masters of the field of battle. The said Ethelbert reigned five years, and his body lies at Sherborn.
A.D. 861.This year died St. Swithun, bishop.
A.D. 865.This year sat the heathen army in the isle of Thanet, and made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money therewith; but under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the army in the night stole up the country, and overran all Kent eastward.
A.D. 866.This year Ethered,34 brother of Ethelbert, took to the West-Saxon government; and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East- Anglia, where they were soon horsed; and the inhabitants made peace with them.
A.D. 867.This year the army went from the East-Angles over the mouth of the Humber to the Northumbrians, as far as York. And there was much dissension in that nation among themselves; they had deposed their king Osbert, and had admitted Aella, who had no natural claim. Late in the year, however, they returned to their allegiance, and they were now fighting against the common enemy; having collected a vast force, with which they fought the army at York; and breaking open the town, some of them entered in. Then was there an immense slaughter of the Northumbrians, some within and some without; and both the kings were slain on the spot. The survivors made peace with the army. The same year died Bishop Ealstan, who had the bishopric of Sherborn fifty winters, and his body lies in the town.
A.D. 868.This year the same army went into Mercia to Nottingham, and there fixed their winter-quarters; and Burhred, king of the Mercians, with his council, besought Ethered, king of the West-Saxons, and Alfred, his brother; that they would assist them in fighting against the army. And they went with the West- Saxon army into Mercia as far as Nottingham, and there meeting the army on the works, they beset them within. But there was no heavy fight; for the Mercians made peace with the army.
A.D. 869.This year the army went back to York, and sat there a year.
A.D. 870.This year the army rode over Mercia into East-Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And in the winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king; whereupon they overran all that land, and destroyed all the monasteries to which they came. The names of the leaders who slew the king were Hingwar and Hubba. At the same time came they to Medhamsted, burning and breaking, and slaying abbot and monks, and all that they there found. They made such havoc there, that a monastery, which was before full rich, was now reduced to nothing. The same year died Archbishop Ceolnoth; and Ethered, Bishop of Witshire, was chosen Archbishop of Canterbury.
A.D. 871.This year came the army to Reading in Wessex; and in the course of three nights after rode two earls up, who were met by Alderman Ethelwulf at Englefield; where he fought with them, and obtained the victory. There one of them was slain, whose name was Sidrac. About four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother led their main army to Reading, where they fought with the enemy; and there was much slaughter on either hand, Alderman Ethelwulf being among the skain; but the Danes kept possession of the field. And about four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with all the army on Ashdown, and the Danes were overcome. They had two heathen kings, Bagsac and Healfden, and many earls; and they were in two divisions; in one of which were Bagsac and Healfden, the heathen kings, and in the other were the earls. King Ethered therefore fought with the troops of the kings, and there was King Bagsac slain; and Alfred his brother fought with the troops of the earls, and there were slain Earl Sidrac the elder, Earl Sidrac the younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Frene, and Earl Harold. They put both the troops to flight; there were many thousands of the slain, and they continued fighting till night. Within a fortnight of this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with the army at Basing; and there the Danes had the victory. About two months after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with the army at Marden. They were in two divisions; and they put them both to flight, enjoying the victory for some time during the day; and there was much slaughter on either hand; but the Danes became masters of the field; and there was slain Bishop Heahmund, with many other good men. After this fight came a vast army in the summer to Reading. And after the Easter of this year died King Ethered. He reigned five years, and his body lies at Winburn-minster. Then Alfred, his brother, the son of Ethelwulf, took to the kingdom of Wessex. And within a month of this, King Alfred fought against all the Army with a small force at Wilton, and long pursued them during the day; but the Danes got possession of the field. This year were nine general battles fought with the army in the kingdom south of the Thames; besides those skirmishes, in which Alfred the king's brother, and every single alderman, and the thanes of the king, oft rode against them; which were accounted nothing. This year also were slain nine earls, and one king; and the same year the West-Saxons made peace with the army.
A.D. 871.And the Danish-men were overcome; and they had two heathen kings, Bagsac and Halfdene, and many earls; and there was King Bagsac slain, and these earls; Sidrac the elder, and also Sidrac the younger, Osbern, Frene, and Harold; and the army was put to flight.

A.D. 872.This year went the army to London from Reading, and there chose their winter-quarters. Then the Mercians made peace with the army.
A.D. 873.This year went the army against the Northumbrians, and fixed their winter-quarters at Torksey in Lindsey. And the Mercians again made peace with the army.
A.D. 874.This year went the army from Lindsey to Repton, and there took up their winter-quarters, drove the king, Burhred, over sea, when he had reigned about two and twenty winters, and subdued all that land. He then went to Rome, and there remained to the end of his life. And his body lies in the church of Sancta Maria, in the school of the English nation. And the same year they gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king's thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.
A.D. 875.This year went the army from Repton; and Healfden advanced with some of the army against the Northumbrians, and fixed his winter-quarters by the river Tine. The army then subdued that land, and oft invaded the Picts and the Strathclydwallians. Meanwhile the three kings, Guthrum, Oskytel, and Anwind, went from Repton to Cambridge with a vast army, and sat there one year. This summer King Alfred went out to sea with an armed fleet, and fought with seven ship-rovers, one of whom he took, and dispersed the others.
A.D. 876.This year Rolla penetrated Normandy with his army; and he reigned fifty winters. And this year the army stole into Wareham, a fort of the West-Saxons. The king afterwards made peace with them; and they gave him as hostages those who were worthiest in the army; and swore with oaths on the holy bracelet, which they would not before to any nation, that they would readily go out of his kingdom. Then, under colour of this, their cavalry stole by night into Exeter. The same year Healfden divided the land of the Northumbrians; so that they became afterwards their harrowers and plowers.
A.D. 876.And in this same year the army of the Danes in England swore oaths to King Alfred upon the holy ring, which before they would not do to any nation; and they delivered to the king hostages from among the most distinguished men of the army, that they would speedily depart from his kingdom; and that by night they broke.A.D. 877.This year came the Danish army into Exeter from Wareham; whilst the navy sailed west about, until they met with a great mist at sea, and there perished one hundred and twenty ships at Swanwich.35 Meanwhile King Alfred with his army rode after the cavalry as far as Exeter; but he could not overtake them before their arrival in the fortress, where they could not be come at. There they gave him as many hostages as he required, swearing with solemn oaths to observe the strictest amity. In the harvest the army entered Mercia; some of which they divided among them, and some they gave to Ceolwulf.
A.D. 878.This year about mid-winter, after twelfth-night, the Danish army stole out to Chippenham, and rode over the land of the West-Saxons; where they settled, and drove many of the people over sea; and of the rest the greatest part they rode down, and subdued to their will; -- all but Alfred the King. He, with a little band, uneasily sought the woods and fastnesses of the moors. And in the winter of this same year the brother of Ingwar and Healfden landed in Wessex, in Devonshire, with three and twenty ships, and there was he slain, and eight hundred men with him, and forty of his army. There also was taken the war- flag, which they called the raven. In the Easter of this year King Alfred with his little force raised a work at Athelney; from which he assailed the army, assisted by that part of Somersetshire which was nighest to it. Then, in the seventh week after Easter, he rode to Brixton by the eastern side of Selwood; and there came out to meet him all the people of Somersersetshire, and Wiltshire, and that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea; and they rejoiced to see him. Then within one night he went from this retreat to Hey; and within one night after he proceeded to Heddington; and there fought with all the army, and put them to flight, riding after them as far as the fortress, where he remained a fortnight. Then the army gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom. They told him also, that their king would receive baptism. And they acted accordingly; for in the course of three weeks after, King Guthrum, attended by some thirty of the worthiest men that were in the army, came to him at Aller, which is near Athelney, and there the king became his sponsor in baptism; and his crisom-leasing was at Wedmor. He was there twelve nights with the king, who honoured him and his attendants with many presents.
A.D. 879.This year went the army from Chippenham to Cirencester, and sat there a year. The same year assembled a band of pirates, and sat at Fulham by the Thames. The same year also the sun was eclipsed one hour of the day.
A.D. 880.This year went the army from Cirencester into East- Anglia, where they settled, and divided the land. The same year went the army over sea, that before sat at Fulham, to Ghent in Frankland, and sat there a year.

Notes
33 i.e. the Danes; or, as they are sometimes called, Northmen, which is a general term including all those numerous tribes that issued at different times from the north of Europe, whether Danes, Norwegians, Sweons, Jutes, or Goths, etc.; who were all in a state of paganism at this time.
34. Aetheredus, -- Asser, Ethelwerd, etc. We have therefore adopted this orthography.
35. It is now generally written, as pronounced, "Swanage"

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