Battle of Ashdown

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Battle of Ashdown
Part of the Viking invasions of England
Date 8 January 871
Location Berkshire
Result West Saxon tactical victory
Belligerents
Wessex Vikings
Commanders and leaders
Alfred Bagsecg
Halfdan
Five Earls
Strength
800-1000 slightly weaker
Casualties and losses
heavy heavy

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.[1]

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.

Before the battle[edit]

The Danes, full of confidence after success at Reading, 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 defeat. The King’s troops had to be quickly mustered from the surrounding countryside. 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 was able to sound the alarm across the downs. All over the surrounding country, men were woken and gathered to defend their homes.

The Danish invasion[edit]

By the year 871 AD, most of England was no longer ruled by the English (that is Anglo-Saxons). For years, Danish Viking invaders had poured into the country, sweeping aside all resistance and taking control of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In 871, only the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex still offered resistance, but there had been a price to pay for holding the line. King Ethelred I (not to be confused with King Ethelred the Unready who would rule nearly a century later) had seen his three older brothers all die leading armies against the Danes. Now, only he and his younger brother Alfred were left.

The battle[edit]

In late 870, King Ethelred led the army of Wessex against the Danes in their stronghold at Reading. The attack failed, and the Anglo-Saxons were forced to retreat while the Danes pursued. The Danish armies caught up with the Anglo-Saxons on the field of Ashdown, located somewhere near the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire (the precise location is unknown). It was January 8, 871. The weather was cold and damp, and the Berkshire Downs were soaked and boggy. King Ethelred divided his army in two, positioning the halves on either side of a ridgeway. Ethelred commanded one side, Alfred the other. As the Danes approached, they also split their army.

Alfred watched as the Danes drew nearer, waiting for the order to charge. However, his brother Ethelred had decided that he must pray before the battle and refused to advance until his prayer service was complete. Seeing that the Danish movement would cost him the advantage of high ground, Alfred decided to attack without help from his brother. The Anglo-Saxons' charged on the Danes on their side of the ridgeway. Although nothing specific is known about the fighting, it is likely that both sides employed shieldwalls from which to push and batter against each other. Eventually the Danes broke and fled across the downs.

Only later did Ethelred launch his own troops into the attack. After more heavy fighting, his side was also victorious.

The West Saxons had a slight advantage in numbers (around 800 to 1,000 men), but the Danes held the high ground. The battle, little more than a great clash of shield walls, 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 battles after receiving reinforcements. Nevertheless, the hard fighting may have made the Danes more cautious in their raids into Wessex, preferring easier targets.

Location[edit]

'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. 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. 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 whether to 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.

Impacts of the battle[edit]

Ashdown was one of the few victories that Wessex had seen against the Danes, and it would be their only victory in the battles of that year. In terms of strategic situation, the battle had little meaning. However, later that year, King Ethelred would be struck down, and Alfred would take up the crown as the last hope for Wessex. The knowledge and respect he gained on the battlefield of Ashdown were likely instrumental in his ability to eventually turn the tide against the Danish invaders and slowly begin the reconquest of England.

Aftermath[edit]

The Saxons prevailed but losses on each side were considerable. The Danes were forced back eastward, across Berkshire. Many hundreds of bodies covered the battlefield. King Bagsecg and the five Danish earls perished during the battle.

Local tradition in Berkshire says that King Bagsecg was reputedly buried in Waylands Smithy, the earls and other noblemen near Lambourn, at Seven Barrows. These assertions cannot be verified as Seven Barrows appears to date from the Bronze Age and Waylands Smithy from Neolithic times, predating the battle itself.

20th century clash[edit]

Some years after the Boer War, manoeuvres were held at Ashdown Park. On the final day one year, in full view of a grandstand full of dignitaries and the general public, two large bodies of cavalry, including the Household Cavalry, came too close for comfort. The ensuing melee caused many injuries and was referred to as 'The Battle of Ashdown'.

The battle in fiction[edit]

There is a comprehensive account of the battle in The King of Atheleny by the prolific historical novelist Alfred Duggan. 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."

References and sources[edit]

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Coordinates: 51°32′06″N 1°13′48″W / 51.535°N 1.230°W / 51.535; -1.230