King Alfred & Ashdown
The Great Man on the Downs
Berkshire has been known as the Royal County for some eight hundred years. The most obvious reason for such an epithet would of course be the town of Windsor’s Royal connections. The Castle there has been the home of the Monarch ever since it was first built soon after the Norman Conquest, and no less than eleven kings and seven queens have been buried in the parish. There were Royals at Reading too, for the once great Abbey was built as a private mausoleum for Henry I and his family. There are, however, further Royal associations which spread much farther back into history, for in Saxon times there were at least seven Royal estates in Berkshire: Old Windsor, Cookham, Reading, Sutton (Courtenay), Abingdon, Faringdon and Wantage. It was at Wantage that King Alfred the Great was born in 849.
The town did not exist as such at the time, but the site of today’s Wantage was occupied by one of these Royal Palaces of Wessex. Alfred grew up there and King Alfred’s Spring, west of the town, was where he supposedly used to bathe. It was said to have been at Wantage that Alfred started the education for which he became famous. When he was twelve his mother, Queen Osburga, showed Alfred and his three elder brothers a beautifully illuminated book of Saxon poetry. She promised it to the first of the Royal Princes who could learn to read it. Of course Alfred won the book, and thenceforth his appetite for knowledge was unstoppable.
Most of the Berkshire stories about King Alfred date from this time before he took the throne. All three of Alfred’s brothers ruled before him, and though the youngest of the family, there had always been a belief that he would one day wear the Crown. He was not inactive during this period of waiting though. Alfred was a staunch supporter of his brothers, especially the last, King Ethelred I, who faced the task of holding his country together against the marauding Danes. The Danes had been harassing the English Coast for thirty years before Ethelred came to the throne; but it was in his coronation year of 865 that they embarked on a major invasion and overran the Kingdom of East Anglia. By 870 they had arrived in Wessex determined to take as much from the Kingdom as they could. They sailed up the Thames and disembarked at Maidenhead. Marching across Berkshire they captured the Royal Villa at Reading. Here they decided to build their base and so raised great earthen ramparts between the Thames and the Kennet to protect themselves within. They were said to have also had a look-out camp at Sulhamstead. From their new stronghold two Danish Earls rode out towards Aldermaston with a raiding party. At Englefield they were halted by Aethelwulf, the Ealdorman of Berkshire, and his men, and it was here that the first clash in the Kingdom between the old enemies took place. The invaders were thoroughly defeated: one of the Earls was amongst the dead, and those left alive were sent packing back to Reading. Ethelred and Alfred joined Aethelwulf four days later, and together they drove the Danish from their outposts. From places like Sulhamstead, the Danes were pushed back to Reading, and the English marched on the town, bent on regaining the Royal lands. The ensuing battle was fierce, especially around the gate to the Danish stronghold, but the Saxons could not penetrate within. Aethelwulf was killed in the fighting and his army repulsed. They were pursued into the marshes at Whistley; but the Danes lost their way and the Saxons were able to flee across the twin ford of the River Loddon (Twyford). The Danish victory was short-lived however.
It was but a few days later that the Danes, flush with confidence at their holding Reading, marched out to attack the Saxons who had retreated up onto the Berkshire Downs to reassemble their armies on King’s Standing Hill (Cholsey). Though only twenty-two, Alfred was a seasoned warrior and knew that he must act quickly to avoid disaster. He had to amass the King’s troops from the surrounding countryside without delay. So he took his favourite white mare and rode up onto Blowingstone Hill (Kingstone Lisle) where there stood an ancient perforated sarsen stone. Those that had the skill could blow into this stone and make it emit a great roar-cum-moaning sound. Hence its name, 'The Blowing Stone'. Alfred took a deep breath and blew hard into one of the holes. He caught the place at just the right angle, and a great boom blew out across the Downs. From all over the county men were stirred from their beds and they knew it was time to defend their homes.
Alfred’s men gathered at the castle that now bears his name in the parish of Ashbury. Ethelred’s troops had taken up position not far away at Hardwell Camp (Compton Beauchamp), while the Danes had reached Uffington Castle where they settled down for the night. On the morning of 8th January 871, the two sides met on the plain known as 'Aschendune' or Ashdown, where a single stunted thorn-tree grew: a tree worshipped by the ancient druids. They drew up their troops in two columns each. The Danish divisions were commanded by their Kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan, and five Earls; the English by Ethelred and Alfred. 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, and, despite Alfred’s insistence, he would not return until the priest had finished!
So the young Prince had to make a decision: should he wait for his brother or fight the battle without him? He could not keep his troops on edge for long. The Danes had already deployed themselves on the higher ground, and to let them charge first would mean certain defeat. So despite his brother’s orders to the contrary, Alfred rode forth and gave the cry for his own men to attack first and the battle to begin. Never had Berkshire seen such carnage, and never would it again. The bravery of the English warriors overcame all disadvantages, and after a long and arduous conflict, the invaders were no longer able to withstand the Saxon attacks. They were chased from the field across Berkshire to Whistley Marsh where their previous conflict had ended. Thousands of bodies covered the plain, amongst them, King Bagsecg and the five Danish Earls. Victory was Alfred’s.
The bodies of the defeated Danish were buried with due reverence: King Bagsecg was interred in Wayland’s Smithy (Ashbury), the Earls and other nobles were buried at Lambourn, in seven huge barrows, and the rest, in the valley below Kingstone Hill, so named because the King had sarsen stones erected to mark each of their graves. Centuries later, King Canute also had a memorial church erected nearby. To celebrate, Alfred had his men climb up onto the hillside by the Danish stronghold at Uffington and cut a huge great carving of his horse out of the chalk. There it would shine in the sunlight and remind people for evermore of this great day.
Unfortunately, though the Battle of Ashdown was a resounding victory for the English, their success against the Danes was not to last. Only two weeks later they were defeated at Basing (Hants) and then at Martin (Dors). Here King Ethelred received a fatal wound. Alfred himself carried his brother from the field to nearby Wimborne (Dors) where he died in April 871. Alfred became King of Wessex at last. He continued to try and rid his country of the invaders, but luck was not on his side. Substantially reinforced, the Danes at Reading scattered all opponents. There were many hundreds of minor clashes in Berkshire alone. At Uffington the English set up a stronghold on Dragon Hill to protect their victory banner, the White Horse hill figure. The Danes attacked them, and the fighting was so fierce that the Danish blood drowned the grass on the knoll and to this day no vegetation will grow there. Similarly, a battle up on the ridge above the valley between Wantage and Childrey produced so much blood that it poured down the hillside and into the river. "Let it come!" shouted the onlookers, "Let it come!". Hence the area became known as Letcombe. At Sandhurst two great burial mounds, Ambarrow & Edgebarrow, show where Saxons and Danes were buried after an encounter in the area; and the field Battlingmead above Maidenhead reminds us of another battle from this time.
The Danish army had a long reach. Even Abingdon, many miles from Reading was not safe. They marched up to the ancient town and after a short skirmish on "Serpen Hill", destroyed it in one foul swoop. The monks at Abingdon Abbey had heard the enemy coming and fled to the hills with their religious valuables. The Danes took up residence at their monastery and spent many days revelling in the refectory. Eventually though they were driven out. They had ignored a crucifix hanging on the wall above them, and while they were feasting one day, its figure of Christ stretched out its hand and threw a large stone into their midst. The Danes were terrified and quit the place as fast as they could; but revenge was theirs first. They burnt the Abbey Church to the ground before they returned southwards.
Alfred himself was again defeated at Wilton (Wilts). So, believing the pen to be stronger than the sword, he at last signed a peace treaty with his enemy. He bought off the Danes, and they retreated to London.
Peace endured for the next three years as the Danes concentrated their efforts on their newly acquired lands in Northumbria. Here they began to settle. However in 875, the Danes returned to Wessex, and despite a year of fighting Alfred was again forced to pay them to leave. Unfortunately they only withdrew to the edge of Wessex, wintering in Exeter, and it was not until further money was forthcoming in 877 that they left for good.
It seemed that peace had returned once more. Relieved at the great weight that had been lifted from the shoulders of his people, the King disbanded his weary army. The English could at last sleep soundly in their beds again. There was no need to be afraid. The invaders had left their shores. But at Christmas disaster struck!
The King was spending yuletide at his Palace in Chippenham (Wilts) when the Danes made a surprise attack. Alfred had little effective means of defence and his men were scattered. Forced to flee, the King and many of his men made their way up onto the lonely Berkshire Downs. Others retreated into the marshes in Somerset. On the Downs Alfred became separated from his men. The afternoon was drawing on, and realising he should find somewhere to spend the night, the King made for his Palace of Faringdon.
Alfred reached Faringdon by late afternoon. The clustered little cottages surrounding his own great hall were a warming sight, but as he rode closer it became clear that this was not the place to seek shelter. The Danes had reached the Palace ahead of him! He was in great danger. Alfred thought quickly. None of the Danes would know him, though they would as easily kill any Saxon warrior as they would their King. If he could reach one of the peasant’s huts though he might well be able to find a bed for the night.
Alfred dismounted his horse and led her gingerly down the hill and into the village. Smoke was emanating from the nearest cottage, so he gently knocked on the door. A rounded middle-aged woman answered. She was shocked to see one of King Alfred’s brave Saxon knights in this den of invaders, but acted quickly to avoid discovery. While ushering the young man inside, she took his horse’s reins and hastily hid the beast in an outhouse with her pigs. Then she returned to tend to her guest. She obviously had no idea that this was the King she had beneath her roof. The woman was very brusque with Alfred and told him that if he was in need of a bed, he could spend the night in front of her fire, but she was a busy woman and could not afford to wait on fugitives. "Watch the cakes on the fire, while I go and find my husband," she snapped at him.
The King was more than grateful for the woman’s hospitality, such as it was, but his mind was not on cakes. He had lost his Kingdom in a matter of hours. He must plan how he was going to get it back. Never would King Alfred be caught off guard again. He must group together his men who had escaped and recall the armies from the shires. If he could . . . "What on earth do you think you’re doing," came a scream from behind him. His hostess had returned, only to find Alfred sitting in the middle of a smoke filled house. The woman picked up a broom and gave the King a great whack around the head. "Get out, you lazy good-for-nothing. Get out of my house," she cried. The lady’s cakes were burnt to a cinder, and Alfred had to spend the night with his horse!
Over the next few months King Alfred and his men were able to wage a guerrilla war against the Danes from their hiding places on the Berkshire Downs and in the Somerset Marshes. They attained an unexpected victory over the enemy at Countisbury Hill (Devon) and the Danish King Guthrum was unable to prevent Alfred from mustering men from the neighbouring counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire. In May, the King was ready to face the Danes with his new army, but he needed to be sure of victory in the battle to come. So in a great feet of daring, and much against the advice of his men, he conceived a cunning plan. He crept out of the Saxon camp on the Downs one evening, and, dressed as a minstrel, he made his way to the Danish stronghold at Cherbury Camp (Charney Bassett). The Danes at the gateway took him at face value: a player and story-teller walking the Downs looking for an audience to entertain. They called to their commanding officer, and Alfred was allowed to enter.
In the main hall of the Danish commander Alfred put on his best performance. He sang for the Danes, and told them stories from their common mythology, for though a Christian, the King knew the old tales well; and while he mingled with the enemy, he listened. The invaders were self satisfied and complacent. They knew that Alfred would soon attack, and with beer in their bellies they discussed openly their battle tactics, even with the stranger amongst them. By the end of the evening, Alfred was able to return to his army with all the information he needed to defeat the Danish in the battle to come.
The next morning Alfred and his army set out. The Danish were converging at a place called "Ethandun" or Eddington in Western Berkshire, and the Saxons were eager to meet them. Even before the two were in sight of each other though the Danish army had a major setback. Two of their kings, the infamous Ubba and Hingwar, murderers of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, were fording the River Kennet when Hingwar got into trouble. His horse stumbled, he fell into the river and was drowned. The place where the disaster occurred has ever since been known as Hingwar’s Ford, or Hungerford. Despite the ensuing low moral of the Danes they put up a strong fight when the English arrived; but using a wall of shields to gain the upper hand, Alfred and his men were able to overcome them. The enemy were pushed back to Chippenham, where a two week siege eventually brought peace. King Guthrum embraced Christianity and his army left Wessex to settle in East Anglia. They were sad to leave for, though they were invaders, the Danes had grown to love Berkshire above all their lands.
The people set up a stone in Bourton to commemorate the defeat of their Danish enemies; and every year thenceforward they took to the streets to celebrate the event in their Hocktide festivities. Alfred, meanwhile, was as good as his word. To prevent the Danes ever taking him by surprise again, he set about building forts, or burghs, around the country where his people could run to in time of invasion. He did not forget Berkshire, for here he built two: at Wallingford and on the island of Sashes in the Thames at Cookham. But Peace was triumphant this time. The Danes never returned.
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