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Battle of Ashdown, c.8 Jan 871

Battle of Ashdown, c.8 Jan 871


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Battle of Ashdown, c.8 Jan 871

Victory by a West Saxon army led by Alfred the Great over the Danes. This was not a decisive victory, and the Saxons suffered subsequent defeats.

Battle of Ashdown

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The Battle of Ashdown, in Berkshire (possibly the part now in Oxfordshire), took place on 8 January 871. Alfred the Great, then a prince of only 21, led the army of his brother, King Ethelred of Wessex, in a victorious battle against the invading Danes. Ώ] Accounts of the battle are based to a large extent on Asser's "Life of Alfred", however there is some dispute about whether this is an authentic account.


Battle of Ashdown. Part 2.

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 Æscesdune, 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.

Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire (from the north). Did the Battle of Ashdown take place here?

I find the most tempting loca tion 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.

On Kingstanding Hill, a candidate for the site of the Battle of Ashdown, looking north over Starveall Farm and Moulsford Bottom, across to Moulsford Downs.

The other location is Moulsford Bottom. I found the best way of viewing this to be by following the footpath th at runs from near Moulsford Pavilion.

On a footpath heading west from Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Moulsford Bottom is on the left and Kingstanding Hill is ahead.

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.

The beautiful Lardons Chase. Great views to be had across the Thames Valley, Streatley and Goring.

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.


Commemorating the Battle of Ashdown

The Battle of Ashdown between the West Saxon army and the Danes, took place on 8th January 871 AD. It happened a couple of months before Alfred became King of Wessex. I've blogged about the site of the battle previously and the work local historian Peter Knott did to locate it at Ashbury. You can read the post here. Today on the anniversary of the battle I'd like to quote from Asser's description of what happened:

"In 871 the Viking army came to Reading. On the third day two of their earls rode out for plunder. Aethelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire, confronted them at Englefield. The Christians won the victory.

Four days after these things happened, King Aethelred and Alfred assembled an army and went to Reading. They reached the gate of the stronghold. The Vikings burst out. Both sides fought fiercely but the Christians eventually turned their backs and the Vikings won the victory. Aethelwulf fell there. The Vikings, after a short rest, started to advance westwards from Reading.

The Christians, four days later, advanced against the Viking army at Ashdown. The Vikings, splitting into two divisions, organised shield walls. The Christians too split up into two divisions. But Alfred and his men reached the battlefield sooner (than King Ethelred who) was still hearing Mass.

Since the king was lingering still longer in prayer, and the Vikings had reached the battlefield more quickly, Alfred could not oppose the enemy battle-lines any longer without either retreating or attacking, and he moved his army against the enemy.

But the Vikings had taken the higher position, and the Christians were deploying from a lower position. A rather small and solitary thorn tree grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently. The Vikings took to ignominious flight and many thousands were slain over the whole broad expanse of Ashdown."

We will never know for certain the exact location of the Battle of Ashdown unless some incontrovertible proof comes to light, which seems unlikely. Here on the Ashdown House blog we are celebrating Alfred's victory and feel Ashbury has as strong an historical claim to be the location as any other site. It's also a wonderful opportunity to post up some of our gorgeous landscape photographs of the surrounding countryside!


The Saxons are Repulsed at The Battle of Reading – 4 January 871

A hammered silver penny minted during the reign of Æthelred, a participant in the Battle of Reading.

England in 871 was still a fractured land of kingdoms often in conflict with one another. Wessex had emerged as the most powerful kingdom and its location in the island’s southwest had protected it from the brunt of the Danish invasions. The Danes had repeatedly assaulted Britain’s eastern coast since 789, but had intensified their invasion forces by 865 and expanded into western Britain by 870.

In 871 the Great Summer Army of the Danes, led by a Viking king known as Bagsec, landed in Britain. They joined forces with the Great Heathen Army, a Viking army that had overrun much of eastern and central England. Together the Viking forces turned their attention to Wessex. They managed to entrench themselves and build an encampment at Reading, an ideal location. They were protected on two sides by the Thames and Kennet rivers. A rampart was constructed to shield them from the west.

From their encampment at Reading the Danes began a campaign to overtake Wessex. In their first venture, they sought to overtake Englefield, a nearby village. A Saxon force under the command of Æthelwulf, the Ealdorman of the shire, met the Danes and soundly defeated them, driving them back to the camp at Reading. Four days later, Æthelwulf and his Saxon contingent were joined by the main West Saxon army, led by King Æthelred and his brother, Alfred the Great.

A page from the [C] Abingdon II text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This entry is for 871, the year of the Battle of Reading.

The combined Saxon army marched against the Danish encampment at Reading on 4 January 871, as is recounted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Interestingly, the Chronicle’s account is the first historical evidence of a settlement at Reading, and it is thought that the name ‘Reading’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon tribe known as the Readingas, which means Reada’s People in Old English. Unfortunately for the Saxons, they were repulsed at the Battle of Reading. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it this way: “and there was much slaughter on either hand, Ealdorman Æthelwulf being among the slain but the Danes kept possession of the field.”

Though the Saxons were repulsed at the Battle of Reading, they continued to battle the Danes throughout the winter of 871. They won a famous victory at the Battle of Ashdown, but when King Æthelred died, his brother Alfred took the throne. He would eventually be known as Alfred the Great, and much of his reign was consumed by conflict with the invading Danes.


Battle

In the mist and gloom of a mid-winter's morning, the most decisive battle yet of the war was fought. Aethelred divided his army in two, deploying them on either side of a ridgeway he shared command of the army with his younger brother, Prince Alfred. As the Danes approached, they also split their army between Halfdan and Bagsecg. Alfred and his contingent formed a shield wall as the Danes grew closer, while Aethelred decided to pray before the battle, refusing to advance until his prayer service was complete. Seeing that the Danish movement would cost him the high ground, Alfred charged uphill without the support of the second contingent, heading into the heart of the Danish lines. Not realizing that Alfred's force was only a half of the West Saxon army, the second force of the Danes also moved against them. The battle turned into an hours-long, brutal hand-to-hand slog between shield walls. After heavy fighting and significant losses on both sides, Aethelred's force, obscured in the mist, surprised the Danes and turned the tide. Bagsecg and five of his earls (including Sidroc the Elder and Sidroc the Young, Osbern, Fraena, and Harold) were killed in the fighting, while Halfdan called on his men to fall back. After six years of defeat, the Anglo-Saxons had finally emerged victorious against the Great Heathen Army, which lost many of its greatest warriors.


Battle of Ashdown – Part 1. A white horse, a fort, and an unlikely musical instrument.

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 first set of sites. I shall come clean and say that I think the evidence fits better with the second group, which will be the subject of another post. Look out for Ashdown Part 2! However, there has been a strong tradition that the battle took place at or near to White Horse Hill, and what better excuse is required to explore this lovely part of England?

I hadn’t been to White Horse Hill for many years. I certainly can’t recall the red kites and ravens that are present there now. It is a beautiful place, but viewing the white horse from the ground isn’t easy. I heard that the best view was from Dragon Hill, but it wasn’t clear from there either. I think our ancestors must have intended it to be best appreciated from the sky.

The head of the White Horse of Uffington, Oxfordshire, with the flat-topped Dragon Hill in the distance. Some claim that the Battle of Ashdown was fought here.
The best view of the Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire, that I could obtain from ground level

The presence of a white horse has been used to support the argument as to why this was the location of the Battle of Ashdown. Because there is a white horse near where the Battle of Ethandun is thought to have been fought, people seem to have assumed that this white horse in Oxfordshire denotes the Battle of Ashdown. There is no evidence that Alfred’s battle sites are connected to the presence of white horses.

The large Iron Age Uffington Fort is almost adjacent to the white horse, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been drawn into the tale of the Battle of Ashdown as being the possible Viking base.

The southern perimeter of the Iron Age Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, with the Ridgeway following the line of the fence to the left
Uffington Fort, Oxfordshire, looking south

The site is clearly significant because of the horse, the fort and the Ridgeway running alongside. A short distance west along the Ridgeway is Wayland’s Smithy, a famous Neolithic long barrow and tomb.

It’s always a joy to be on the ancient Ridgeway

Heading in the other directio n along the Ridgeway one comes to Blowingstone Hill. According to legend, Alfred rode up this hill and summoned his men by calling through a perforated sarsen stone that is now known as the Blowing Stone. Almost unbelievably, the reputed Blowing Stone is at the side of the road near a cottage as you drop down into Kingston Lisle. Leaflets were available, which had the following instruction: “The secret is simply to close the hole completely with the mouth and then blow”

This presented three problems. Firstly, which of the several available holes should I blow in to? Secondly, hygiene. And thirdly, all of the holes were filled with dead leaves. So I gave it a miss.

The Blowing Stone, near Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire.

A location called Alfred’s Castle is a Bronze Age enclosure near Ashdown House, just south of Ashbury, and in Victorian times was considered a possible location for the Wessex troops prior to the Battle of Ashdown.

However, the site has only been called Alfred’s Castle since 1828, and it was previously called Ashbury, with that name apparently later transferred to the nearby village . In my opinion, there is insufficient evidence to connect this site with King Alfred. Ashdown House is 17th century, and perhaps drew it’s name from the local legends.

“Alfred’s Castle” Bronze Age enclosure, near Ashdown House, Oxfordshire.

There is much more about the travels of King Alfred in my book, including maps and references. Click or tap on the image below to learn more about the book.


English Historical Fiction Authors

Thus begins G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the tale of King Alfred’s struggle against the Danish invaders. The poem begins in the middle of things, with the Danes having nearly conquered all of England and Alfred in hiding on the island of Athelney. The bulk of the poem deals with the Battle of Ethandun (more commonly known now as the Battle of Edington), where Alfred defeated the Danish king Guthrum and swore the Vikings to a treaty that would keep them out of the land of Wessex.

The victory at the Battle of Edington is probably the most famous moment of Alfred’s career, the story most retold in the histories of ninth century England. But seven years before Edington there was another battle, the Battle of Ashdown, that also resulted in a victory. It was the battle where Alfred won his spurs, so to speak. It was the battle where an untried leader, the youngest of five brothers, gave glimpses of the greatness that was to come. And coincidentally, it took place on January 8, one thousand one hundred forty-three years ago today.

The backstory to the Battle of Ashdown begins as any incident involving the Vikings must. Bishop Asser records that:

The Danes, or “pagan army” as Bishop Asser terms them, surprised and captured the town of Reading. From there, they began to send out raiding parties to loot the surrounding farms. The locals did an admirable job fending off the Danes until their king, Æthelred, arrived four days later, accompanied by his younger brother Alfred and the hastily gathered military of Wessex.

In his book The White Horse King, Benjamin Merkle notes that:

What followed was a disaster—as assaults on well-fortified towns held by skilled opponents often are. After much blood had been spilled, and after Æthelred, Alfred, and the men of Wessex had failed to breach the Danish defenses, their enemies poured through the gate and the attackers fled in a panicked retreat.

It was an inauspicious introduction to the world of warfare. But rather than giving up all hope, Æthelred, and Alfred managed to regroup the army for another attempt. The Danes sallied forth out of Reading to find more cities to pillage, and a few days later the army of Wessex “encountered the pagan army at a place called Ashdune, which,” as Bishop Asser tells us, “means the ‘Hill of the Ash.’” The exact location of the Battle of Ashdown is debated by historians, but popular tradition places it at Whitehorse Hill—where the famous stylized horse is carved into the grassy hillside, the white chalk horse that G. K. Chesterton refers to in his epic poem.

But whether or not it was on the slopes of Whitehorse Hill, it is certain that the Danes held the higher ground at Ashdown, looking down from the hill onto the West Saxons ranged below. Bishop Asser wrote:

Æthelred, being the king, was to engage the Danish kings. Alfred would engage the part of the Danish army led by the earls. Merkle notes that with Alfred’s lack of military experience and with the disaster at Reading fresh on everyone’s minds, “he had little to commend himself to the men of Wessex who were now expected to follow him up the soon-to-be-bloodied slope of Ashdown.”

The Danish warriors started to yell their usual taunts from the top of the hill, insulting the West Saxons’ parentage and manhood to the best of their abilities. Merkle writes:

Where was Æthelred? Bishop Asser tells us that he was in his tent praying and hearing mass. And despite the fact that the battle was ready to be joined, he refused to put on his armor until the priest was done. His actions—or rather, his inaction—can either be seen as very pious or very cowardly. It certainly placed Alfred in a difficult position.

Returning to Bishop Asser, we read that “Alfred, though possessing a subordinate authority, could no longer support the troops of the enemy, unless he retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother.” Inexperienced as he was, Alfred discerned that he needed to act now, before the Danes swept down the hill like a tidal wave uprooting everything in their path. And so, despite the absence of his brother the king and despite the lack of a full half of the Saxon army, Alfred did what he had to. He charged up the hill—where the Vikings possessed both better ground and superior numbers.

The results were markedly better than the assault on Reading that the Saxons had made four days ago.

In the above description of the battle, Bishop Asser does not mention the turning point of the battle which sent the “pagans” into “disgraceful flight.” When Alfred’s men charged up the hill, the Danes supposed that they were facing the whole of the Wessex army. They formed a shield wall and concentrated all their forces on Alfred.

When Æthelred finally finished his prayers and led the second half of the army against the enemy flank, the Danes were taken completely by surprise. In stark contrast to the battle at Reading, it was now the invaders’ turn to panic. Their shield wall crumbled and they fled pursued all day and all night till they reached the cover of the defenses they had erected at Reading.

In terms of significance, the Battle of Ashdown was not a great turning point militarily. The men of Wessex had lost a great deal of their number, just as the Danes had, and the weakened Wessex army was still unable to drive the Danes out of their stronghold. The Saxons suffered two more crushing defeats in the succeeding months, and Æthelred , receiving a serious wound, died not long afterward from infection.

The significance of the Battle of Ashdown lies in this—that it was a great turning point in the life of Alfred and in the confidence of the Saxons. Up until this point, Alfred had never led an army to victory. And up until this point, the Saxons had never defeated this large a company of Danes in pitched battle.

The Battle of Ashdown, on January 8, 871, showed the people of West Sussex that there was hope—that their enemies were not as invincible as they had feared, and that their soon-to-be king Alfred had the intelligence and the courage to overcome them.


The Battle of Ashdown, January 8th, 871

Of no great battle in English history is there so much dispute as to its site as of Alfred the Great’s first victory. It was the only clear victory of the six battles fought in ‘Alfred’s Year of Battles’, so it holds a prominent place in our military history. It is unique in another respect, namely that it is the only battle prior to Stamford Bridge and Hastings of which we have a good second-hand account. I say ‘good’ advisedly, for Bishop Asser, its chronicler, was the friend, confidant and companion of King Alfred, and his description of the battle no doubt derived from Alfred himself. Further, though not present at the actual battle, Asser passed over the battlefield at a later date, probably in company with the King, and so was able to describe it with fidelity. Thus, if we can make sure of the spot it should be comparatively easy to reconstruct the battle.

The story starts in the year A.D. 868, when Ethelred was King of Wessex and overlord of the ‘Heptarchy’, or loose confederation of the states composing England. Ethelred’s position as suzerain had, however, been shaken by the invasion of the Eastern Counties by the Danes, who laid siege to Nottingham. King Burgred of Mercia applied to Ethelred for help. Ethelred acceded to this request, and, accompanied by his younger brother Alfred as second-in-command, marched to meet the Danes at Nottingham where he engaged them, though without great success. Two years later these Danes, under their King Bagsac, invaded Wessex, probably sailing up the Thames. Disembarking at Reading, they threw up a defensive line between the Thames and Kennet, on December 28th, 870.

Three days later they sent out a force westwards, with the object of obtaining food and hay for their horses. This detachment was engaged at Englefield, six miles to the west, by the Elderman of Berkshire, Ethelwulf by name, and put to flight. On January 4th, Ethelred, with the main army, advancing along the Ridgeway from his base at Wantage or Swindon, joined his lieutenant, and together they attacked the Danish outposts and drove them back into Reading. Following up too rashly, the Saxons were themselves surprised by a sudden charge of Danes emerging from inside their fieldworks. The Saxons fell back, Elderman Ethelwulf being slain. The Saxon army retreated by the way it had come, through Englefield and northwestwards up the Ridgeway. It may safely be assumed that the King sent orders for reinforcements to come forward along the Ridgeway to join him, and that he also sent requests to his vassal, Burgred, to come to his aid, fixing the meeting-point at Lowbury Hill, 16 miles north-west of Reading. This is the highest point on the eastern Berkshire Downs—crowned with an ancient earthwork, and would be a well-known spot, a track junction. It would be easy to find—an important point before the advent of Ordnance maps.

The Danes did not immediately follow up their success. It was not their practice to do so, or had not been so far. Their main design was to swoop down on a tract of rich country and settle there for as long as it would support them. They therefore returned to their camp and (in the words of Walter Morrison) ‘sat down to a steady drink’.

Meanwhile Ethelred and Alfred reached Lowbury Hill, probably late on January 5th and halted there to await their reinforcements and allies, making their camp round the track junction on the Ridgeway, half a mile south-west of the hill. King Bagsac, learning this, considered that the Wessex army was too near to be pleasant, and, puffed up with an easy victory (no doubt also with mead), he resolved to finish off his opponents for good and all. Moving out as soon as possible—which would probably be early on the 7th—he came in sight of the Saxon camp at dusk that day. Here he halted for the night, in the slight hollow where now Starveall Farm stands, with scouts on the ridge immediately in front.

From the top of the ridge the Saxon camp could be easily seen on the lower ridge, astride the Ridgeway, and just 1,000 yards distant.

Ethelred can hardly have expected to be followed up like this, else he would doubtless have occupied the higher ridge in front that was now in the hands of the enemy. That ridge, called by the gipsies (and hereinafter) Louse Hill, ‘the Hill of Destruction’, would have covered more effectually the track junction, on which Ethelred was now encamped, and along which his friends from Merck might be expected to come—if they answered the call in time. But whether they should do so or not, the Saxon host was in good heart, for the reinforcements had now arrived, the army was concentrated, rested and refreshed.

We cannot even guess at respective numbers. But in view of the fact that the morale of the Saxons was so high, and that, as will be seen, they took the offensive, they evidently considered themselves superior in numbers (though no contingent had arrived from the Mercians).

As soon as it got light on that eventful 8th of January, A.D. 871, the Danish army drew up in battle array, in full view of their opponents. In those times there was little finesse or manoeuvring about battles either one accepted battle or one did not. If one accepted it, the two armies drew up in obligingly parallel lines. The Saxons narrowly watched their opponents slowly and clumsily marshalling their line of battle in two big columns as it became light they could descry the Royal banners of Kings Bagsac and Halfden waving over one column, that of the Danish earls over the other. The Ridgeway presumably divided the two columns. A council of war was then held in the Saxon camp, and a plan of action drawn up. By this plan the Saxon army conformed to the lay-out of their opponents that is to say, they also formed up in two columns, that of the King opposite the Danish King, that of Alfred opposite the earls’ column.

A pause seems now to have ensued, each side waiting for the other to make the first move. At this moment of tension the King decided to hear mass in his tent! The explanation no doubt is that, seeing no forward movement on the part of the enemy, Ethelred assumed they would await attack. There was no hurry. Much better obtain the Divine blessing before venturing on the attack. But the Danes were pagans, and whether they were aware that their rival was at his devotions or not, they seized this moment to make their first forward move.

Ethelred no doubt was apprised of this, but with the magnificent nonchalance that was not matched again till Drake refused to abandon his game of bowls over 700 years later, King Ethelred refused to budge he would see the service through. Drake knew what he was doing probably the tide was foul and nothing could be done for the nonce but Ethelred had not such an excuse for inaction. Our sympathy goes out to the youthful Alfred (only in his twenty-third year). No entrenchments had been thrown up the Danes had not been expected and in any case it was not traditional for the Saxons to sit behind entrenchments and await attack by the Danes. The morale of the army was high and Alfred reckoned that in order to keep it high it was essential to assume the offensive. Could he take it upon himself to order an advance? The enemy—the hated invaders—were by now half-way down the hill, only 600 yards away their jeering battle cries could be heard the men around the second-in-command looked towards him inquiringly, if not apprehensively, for had it not been planned that the Saxon army was to take the offensive? There was no time to dally, or to send back a messenger to the Royal tent with a fresh message and a request for orders. Long before the reply arrived the Danes would be on them and it would be too late to do anything except just fight it out where they stood. Alfred’s mind was made up. Giving the pre-arranged signal for the assault, he led his own column at a double (‘like a wild boar’, says Asser), down the slight slope into the shallow valley that separated the rival armies. The King’s column followed suit, whether spontaneously, or in response to a definite order it is impossible to say, and needless to speculate.

We can picture the two armies meeting head-on in an awful clash at the bottom of the valley (it is still called ‘Awful Bottom’ by the gipsies). The weight of the Saxon onset forced the Danes to fall back slightly up the hill down which they had just come. Nearly half-way up this hill is a road junction where five ancient tracks meet. It was the old meeting-point of the Hundred, and the spot was marked by a single stunted thorn-tree. It is conjectured that this tree had formed the scene of Druidic rites, and in Saxon times became the centre of the Hundred. Though the Wessex men were not Druids it might very well be a spot venerated by them. Whatever the reason, Asser assures us that the fighting was most severe round about this venerable tree. When riding past the spot in later years, probably with the King himself, this thorn bush had been pointed out to him. There is still a thorn bush at the spot. The name of this hundred in Domesday is Nachededorn, that is, the Naked Thorn.

Of course we do not know the details of the fight that ensued. In the nature of things that would be impossible. Like most battles, it doubtless swayed backwards and forwards for some time, and it is asserted by one chronicler that when King Ethelred arose from his knees and joined in the fight, he brought some fresh troops with him these would be his own Household troops, the pick of the army, such as the House-carls that accompanied Harold at Hastings. They would correspond approximately with Napoleon’s Old Guard.

What at any rate is certain is that long before the early winter evening the Danes had taken to flight, and a relentless pursuit was put in hand. ‘Their dead bodies were strewn all over the plain of Ash-down,’ declares Asser, and we need not doubt it. The continuation of the valley to the east is known to the gipsies as Dead Man’s Hollow to this day.

Right up till nightfall the pursuit was continued, and in the course of it, or of the battle itself, King Bagsac was killed. Halfden managed to get away. The higher ranks in the earls’ column suffered heavily too the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the names of the five earls who were killed.

Though Ethelred called off the pursuit at nightfall, the Danes continued their flight. With so many of their leaders out of action, few or no fresh orders probably reached the routed invaders. It became a ‘Sauve qui peut’, and right through the night the flight went on. Indeed, it did not stop till the Danes were safely behind their earthwork defences at Reading. The victory was complete.


Commemorating the Battle of Ashdown

The Battle of Ashdown between the West Saxon army and the Danes, took place on 8th January 871 AD. It happened a couple of months before Alfred became King of Wessex. I've blogged about the site of the battle previously and the work local historian Peter Knott did to locate it at Ashbury. You can read the post here. Today on the anniversary of the battle I'd like to quote from Asser's description of what happened:

"In 871 the Viking army came to Reading. On the third day two of their earls rode out for plunder. Aethelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire, confronted them at Englefield. The Christians won the victory.

Four days after these things happened, King Aethelred and Alfred assembled an army and went to Reading. They reached the gate of the stronghold. The Vikings burst out. Both sides fought fiercely but the Christians eventually turned their backs and the Vikings won the victory. Aethelwulf fell there. The Vikings, after a short rest, started to advance westwards from Reading.

The Christians, four days later, advanced against the Viking army at Ashdown. The Vikings, splitting into two divisions, organised shield walls. The Christians too split up into two divisions. But Alfred and his men reached the battlefield sooner (than King Ethelred who) was still hearing Mass.

Since the king was lingering still longer in prayer, and the Vikings had reached the battlefield more quickly, Alfred could not oppose the enemy battle-lines any longer without either retreating or attacking, and he moved his army against the enemy.

But the Vikings had taken the higher position, and the Christians were deploying from a lower position. A rather small and solitary thorn tree grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently. The Vikings took to ignominious flight and many thousands were slain over the whole broad expanse of Ashdown."

We will never know for certain the exact location of the Battle of Ashdown unless some incontrovertible proof comes to light, which seems unlikely. Here on the Ashdown House blog we are celebrating Alfred's victory and feel Ashbury has as strong an historical claim to be the location as any other site. It's also a wonderful opportunity to post up some of our gorgeous landscape photographs of the surrounding countryside!


Battle of Ashdown 871AD

I've just returned from a pressing work commitment and I thought I'd ease myself back into gaming with a quick DBA battle. This one, the Battle of Ashdown 871AD, was based on a scenario published in Miniature Wargames 005, written by Ian Greenwood. The terrain and the forces are simple: the Vikings defending a hill with a tree on it from an Anglo-Saxon army. As is typical for this era and region, the forces present are a matter of speculation. I followed the suggestions in the article and made the Anglo-Saxons a little stronger, choosing a 12-base Anglo-Saxon army and a 10-base Viking army from the appropriate army lists in DBAv3. I don't have a specifically Viking army. I could have used Anglo-Saxons for both sides, but to differentiate the armies more easily, I used Ancient Britons. This is heretical gaming, after all. I used DBA v3, although with some misgivings: I wasn't sure that the mechanisms would give an appropriate flavour for "Dark Age" combat.

Anglo-Saxon Army (III/24b):
1 x General (Blades), 2 x Hird (Blades), 8 x Fyrd (Spearmen), 1 x Archers (Psiloi)

Viking Army (III/40b):
1 General & Huscarls (Blades), 8 x Hird (Blades), 1 x Archers (Psiloi)

The key tactical factors in the real battle were the hill which the Vikings defended and the surprise that Alfred achieved by attacking early. For each scenario I gave Alfred's troops (but not Ethelred's) a free move. For the second scenario, I gave Alfred's troops an extra +1 in their first round of close combat.


Watch the video: Элитный Танк - Объект 780 (May 2022).