King Alfred & Ashdown
Folklore or Fact?
We know much of the life of King Alfred the Great, for he is the first Englishman for whom a contemporary biography survives. This is the imaginatively named "Life of King Alfred" written in AD 893-4 by his close friend Asser, Bishop of St. Davids, and later Sherborne. Asser conversed with Alfred regularly, and obtained most of his information straight from the horse’s mouth.
Alfred was indeed born in Wantage, apparently in AD 849, though Asser claims he was twenty-three at the time of his accession, so 847 or 8 may, in fact, be more accurate. Whether he really used to bathe at the spring named after him is unknown, but the story about his learning to read in order to win his mother’s book, at the age of twelve, is, apparently, perfectly true.
The Danish movements in Wessex are all clearly recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, though their landing at Maidenhead seems to be little more than a Victorian suggestion. The Danish march to Reading in AD 870 and their establishment of the town as their base, is recorded here though. This was Reading’s first ever mention in historical documents. Evidence for the Danish occupation has been forthcoming in the form of two Viking burials in the area: one in Reading and one in Sonning. These are most unusual in Southern England. The ramparts they built were probably around the area where Reading Abbey later stood.
The Battle of Englefield is recorded in the name of the place, '(Battle)field of the English'. Although it is just possible that it means 'Fire Beacon Field', again referring to the battle and its warning beacons. The opposing armies may actually have clashed in the adjoining parish of Sulham, as suggested by at least two field names, 'Breaches' and 'Deanfield' (or Danefield). The Saxon flight to Whistley was recorded by the chronicler, Geoffrey Gaimer, two hundred and fifty years after the event.
The Blowing Stone, made famous in 'Tom Brown’s School Days', did once stand high up on the hill that bears its name. However, sometime in the last century an enterprising innkeeper moved it to a spot adjoining his pub in the valley below. He used to make a small charge for people to have a go at recreating King Alfred’s rallying signal. The legend of the King having summoned his troops by blowing the stone, may well have been invented by the Innkeeper. Many of Alfred’s Berkshire tales appear to be very late Victorian, created to explain the elusive details of Alfred’s life.
No-one knows if the three armies really took up positions in the three camps described in the legend. It is highly unlikely. The idea appears to stem from the supposition that the Battle of Ashdown took place in the Uffington/Ashbury area. Some think it took place on the hill above the White Horse, others that it occurred on Swinley Plain just behind Ashdown House. Of course somewhere in the region of Ashdown Park would seem the perfectly natural choice for the site of a battle with the same name, however it appears that in Saxon times, Ashdown may have referred to the ridge running right across the whole of the Berkshire Downs. The name of Alfred’s Castle, itself near Ashdown House, might still indicate, however, that this is the correct area. Though there is, in fact, Archaeological evidence for Saxon occupation of the site at some time, unfortunately the name does not appear to be very ancient. It was originally the 'Ash Borough' or 'Bury' after which the parish was named.
The fact that King Ethelred is said to have returned to Aston to pray before the battle shows that there is at least one other area of the Downs which claims the battle for its own. Aston Tirrold and Aston Upthorpe are some miles distant from the Camps of Ashbury, Hardwell and Uffington. Aston Upthorpe is the village which claims the honour of having the King pray in their church. Strangely, however, none of its present fabric shows any evidence of a Saxon building, whereas the church at Aston Tirrold does. Ethelred may have only prayed in his tent, but nevertheless the fact that he deserted the battlefield to do so is indisputable as the event was recorded by Asser soon afterwards. Aston’s claims go hand in hand with the idea that the battle took place in the area of Lowbury Hill in the parish. This is the view which finds favour today, for the Uffington/Ashbury claim is now invariably discounted. Saxon and Viking weapons have been discovered around Lowbury Hill over the years (though some finds appear rather dubious), and there are indications that a stone building stood there at one time. It is possible this was Canute’s memorial church, recorded not only in legend but by Robert of Gloucester. Aston was then in the hundred of Nachethorne, ie 'Naked Thorn'. Thus a bare thorn tree would have been the meeting place of the hundred courts, but not just any thorn tree. It had to be known to all, and what better than that which marked the site of Alfred’s great victory. Further place-name evidence suggests that (East/West) Ilsley may be derived from 'Hilde-Laege' meaning 'Place of Conflict'. Thorn Down still exists in this parish, and a lost medieval village from nearby means 'Acre of Slaughter'. Deans (or Danes) Bottom just east of Lowbury Hill itself, may show close links, and is known to the gypsies as Deadman’s Bottom. The hill adjoining Lowbury is, likewise, called Louse Hill, that is the 'Hill of Destruction', and the valley above it, Deadman’s Hollow. Small red flowers growing on these hills are known locally as 'Danes’ Blood'.
The details of the battle are correct, as related by Asser, though many of the ensuing events are pure fable. The Danish King, Bagsecg, was certainly killed during the battle, while his fellow, Halfdan, a son of the infamous invader, Ragnarr Lothbrok, went on to become ruler of the Viking Kingdom of York. However, the story of Bagsecg being buried at the neolithic Wayland’s Smithy is the least likely of many tales surrounding this mystic burial chamber (See "The Smithy on the Downs"). It was excavated in the 1920s, but of course no Viking burials were ever found. Similarly, the Lambourn Seven Barrows (a group which, despite its name, contains some twenty plus tumuli) are Bronze Age burial mounds with no signs of re-use. The sarsen stones below Kingstone Down are glacial deposits, brought to the area thousands of years ago, though an alternative legend suggests they were sheep turned to stone by Merlin the Magician (See "Royal St. George in Royal Berkshire"). The Down derives its name from the King’s Ton (ie Farm).
The origins of the Uffington White Horse are discussed in full under Royal St. George in Royal Berkshire. Suffice to say that it appears to be much older than Saxon. It is a pre-Celtic totem of some kind, probably worshipped from Dragon Hill. It is possible, however, that King Alfred’s carving was in fact a cleaning, for the horse is traditionally "scoured" every seven years. There is no evidence that Dragon Hill was ever the site of a Saxon stronghold, and again there are several alternative stories associated with the spot (See "Royal St. George in Royal Berkshire").
The Letcombe story, though appealing, is of course fiction. The name actually derives from either Ledge Valley, or is named after a person, Leoda’s Valley. Ambarrow and Edgebarrow are natural formations, and there is no evidence for their use as early medieval burial grounds. Battlingmead in Maidenhead is more interesting. The field appears to have been the site of a Civil War skirmish, however this is mere coincidence, for the name is much older. It may have been the site of a battle with the Danes, though there is a theory that it derives from "St. Bartholomew’s Meadow".
Abingdon’s role during the period of Danish invasions is recorded in one of the medieval Abingdon Chronicles (See "Holy Abingdon") kept at the Abbey. The Danes do appear to have pillaged the town and to have burnt the Abbey Church. The scene in the refectory was, no doubt, invented by the monks to show God’s disapproval of the Danish and their actions. "Serpen Hill" is the village of Shippon, north-east of Abingdon. Trenches seen by Leland were supposed to be those of the Danish army.
After the attack at Chippenham in AD 877, King Alfred and his men were forced into hiding within their own kingdom. They fought their guerilla war against the Danes from a small fort built at Athelney in the Somerset Marshes. The area was a lot more aqueous than it is today, and Athelney would have been an island stronghold. The name literally means "Island of the Princes". Though stories persist that the well known legendary events from this period occurred in Berkshire, there is no evidence that any of Alfred’s men even fled here. It is usually accepted that if the King did indeed burn the cakes as related by the monks of Athelney Abbey two hundred years later, though not by Asser at the time, it probably took place in their parish. Brixton Deverill (Wilts) in the same area also claims this honour for its own though. The minstrel story is also claimed by the Athelney area of Somerset. There was, however, a Royal Palace at Faringdon. Some believe this was where King Edward the Elder died, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 924 (others favour Farndon-on-Dee (Ches)). An unsubstantiated legend also has King Alfred dying there. He actually passed away in Winchester (Hants). Tradition says the Faringdon Palace site was where the Salutation Inn now stands, and there are reasons for thinking this could indeed have been so. The name Salutation is not a friendly innkeeper’s greeting, but the annunciation to the Virgin Mary. This shows the site’s connection with the old Abbey which had a home in Faringdon for three years before being removed to Beaulieau (Hants) in 1205. The monks later retained the site as a farming Grange until the dissolution. There has, for many years, been a theory that the Grange/Abbey could have used old Saxon foundations on which to erect some of their buildings. Recent aerial photography has shown, however, that the Grange stood just north of the town near Grove Wood. It is still possible that there were outlying buildings within the town though. The Salutation Inn is on prominent and well drained land, and stands right next to the parish church which could originally have been the chapel of the Saxon palace. Similar traditions from Winchester (Hants) are entirely based on fact.
The Danish connections with Cherbury Camp are extremely persistent. If not the home of King Alfred’s enemies, then King Canute is said to have had a palace here three hundred years later. This may indicate the Danish story has some basis in fact. The Camp was built early in the first century AD, and though there is evidence for re-occupation, it was not by the Danes, but by the Saxons. There have only been two finds and unfortunately both pre-date Alfred’s era. King Canute legends proliferate in the area. The Pusey family of nearby Pusey claimed their lands were held of the King by right of a grant from King Canute. He had given them the land and his drinking horn as proof of the gift in return for being warned, by a Pusey forebear, of an impending Saxon ambush. The Hydes of Denchworth made similar claims. So perhaps the Danes did use Cherbury as their camp once, but in which century seems unclear. The name of the parish in which Cherbury lies, Charney Bassett, is interesting for it means 'Island in the River Cerne'. The island part is the same as in Athelney, and shows that some areas of the Berkshire Downs were water-logged enough for there to have been the possibility, at least, that Saxons hid there.
The Battle of Ethandun is generally accepted as having taken place at Edington near Westbury in Wiltshire. The movements of both armies are known from Asser’s writings, and the Wiltshire location fits the known facts best. Very occasionally, though, the Berkshire claimant is still put forward. The ford over the Kennet at Hungerford is actually at the border with Eddington, and so King Hingwar’s story seems to have a truthful ring to it. The tale was first recorded in the 'Book of Hyde' in about 1400, so it is certainly very old. Hingwar, or Ivarr the Boneless as he is usually known, was another of the sons of Ragnarr Lothbrok. As our story tells, he was best known for overrunning the Kingdoms of Deira (Yorkshire) and East Anglia. After he had used St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, as target practice in 869, Hingwar/Ivarr is generally accepted as having retired to Dublin. He died there as King of All the Scandinavians in Ireland and Britain in 873, and not in Berkshire, just prior to the Battle of Ethandun in 878. By this time, Guthrum was leading the Danish incursions into Wessex. Anyway, most modern historians believe that Hungerford is derived from the 'Hanging Wood by the Ford', though the name is problematical.
The annual Hocktide Festivities were once widespread all over the country but are now confined to Hungerford. Their origins are obscure. The Danish departure celebrations are but one theory, and even these have been alternatively ascribed to the death of the last Danish King of England, Harthicanute in 1042. The festival was traditionally associated with the payment of rents, which could stem from the paying of the 'Danegeld', the money given to the Danes to encourage them to leave English shores. Similarly, the traditional binding of men and their release in return for a forfeit is said to symbolise the capture of the Danes. The Hocktide plays once enacted in Coventry (Warks) certainly featured bound Danes and their final destruction in King Ethelred’s time. The Hungerford festivities, however, are supposed to stem from the patronage bestowed on the town by John of Gaunt in the fourteenth century. This link is unique to the town though and must be a later addition, for Hocktide celebrations are known elsewhere two hundred years before John’s time. They probably even predate the Danes.
The memorial stone at Bourton is little more than the shaft of a market or church cross. Alfred’s defensive 'burghs' are by far the best reminder of those far off times. He built them all over the south of England to help his people defend themselves. They are believed to have been set up in the period following Ethandun, though it could have been earlier. They were basically huge earthen banks enclosing an area where people could hide-out in times of trouble: not only with their families, but their livestock too. Many developed into large towns, like Wallingford, others, like Sashes, remain deserted even today.
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