Monday, February 28, 2011

The Lost Battle

Today for your pleasure a historical mystery... It's not unusual for the site of an ancient battle to be disputed, unknown for certain in the present day, and the location of the Battle of Ashdown, which took place in January 871AD, has long given rise to discussion. From Compton, near Streatley on the River Thames, to Uffington Castle and various other points east, the Battle of Ashdown has been mooted to have taken place in several places that fit the somwhat vague geographical description given is Asser's life of King Alfred: that of a place where the Danes held the high ground and there was a lone thorn tree. Sadly this doesn't really narrow the field a great deal.

As a brief background: In 870, the Danes embarked on an invasion of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. They sailed up the Thames and came ashore at Maidenhead in Berkshire. Moving inland, they captured Reading and began fortifying the site as their base. The Danish commanders, Kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson, were supported by five Earls. They met considerable resistance from Aethelwulf the Earl of Berkshire, who was backed up by King Ethelred of Wessex and his younger brother, Alfred. After initial successes Ethelred planned an assault on the Danes' camp at Reading but was unable to break through the defences and was driven back to the Berkshire Downs. The Danes, seeing an opportunity now to crush the Saxons and take Wessex, rode out from Reading with the bulk of their army to take on the Saxons on the Berkshire Downs. Where did this encounter occur?

Local legend tells of Alfred riding to Blowingstone Hill near Kingston Lisle to use the ancient sarsen blowing stone to call all men to battle. He then mustered his forces at "Alfred's Castle" the Iron Age hill fort west of Ashdown House, joined with his brother's troops who had been encamped at Hardwell Camp, and rode to do battle with the Danes at nearby Uffington Castle. All well and good, but other sources place the site of the battle elsewhere on the Berkshire Downs, at Compton, near East Ilsley, and in other places to the east, along the Ridgeway, closer to the Thames and to Reading. No one knows for certain... One could say that the clue is in the name but during the Saxon period the word "Ashdown" referred to the entire expanse of the Berkshire Downs.

Recently I read a fascinating and cogently argued article by the late local historian Peter Knott that drew on field names and other local evidence to place the Battle of Ashdown to the south west of Ashbury village, along the escarpment that borders the Ridgeway. Up until the mid-eighteenth century this escarpment was too steep to cultivate for crops; even now the steepest inclines are covered in trees. Ancient records identify this area of land as called "The Wayte," a name that can be traced back to usage in the 13th century. Margaret Gelling, in "The Place Names of Berkshire" gives the meaning of the wayte as a look out place, but an alternative is given in the Oxford English Dictionary: an ambush. This meaning is still in use today in the form of "lying in wait." Could this be a record in a place name, a piece of land where the Saxon lookouts patrolled and Alfred's army lay in wait for the Danes as they marched out of Reading?

One of the most intriguing aspects of the case is the reference in a charter of 947AD to a place near Ashbury called Rammesburi or The Ravens' Fort. This raven is the familiar of Woden, the Teutonic god of war and death. It also has sinister connections in literature as a bird that haunts battlefields. Today the location of the Ravens' Fort is lost, but we know from the charter that it lay on the boundary of Ashbury lands. Could the Ravens' Fort have been named in memory of the Battle of Ashdown? As a final twist, ravens are birds that habitually nest in the same places that they have inhabited for centuries. Today there are ravens on Weathercock Hill, to the east of Ashdown...

"Alfred moved his army against the enemy... The opposing armies clashed violently... The Vikings took ignominious flight, and many thousands were slain over the whole broad expanse of Ashdown..." Asser.

10 comments:

margaret blake said...

Good King Alfred. Great to read about this, Nicola.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Margaret! I love the intrigue of disputed battle sites. Often I walk up to "The Wayte" and wonder whether Alfred was there before me. The whole detail of the Battle of Ashdown is fascinating, especially the bit where King Ethelred was still at mass and Alfred knew he had to attack or lose the advantage... You can imagine what he might have been thinking!

Louisa Cornell said...

I love a good ancient detective story! I find it endlessly fascinating to try and unravel where events took place so long ago. I would love to stand on The Wayte and listen for the echoes of history. Lovely post, Nicola!

Nicola Cornick said...

I love the idea of listening for the echoes of history, Louisa. Yes, a good historical mystery always makes me want to time travel so I can answer those questions, but maybe history would be less interesting without them.

No Name said...

ravens accompanied valkyries to the battlefield after the end of the fighting- if the raven's beak was open, it was a portent of victory, indicating many corpses to feed upon

Nicola Cornick said...

That's fascinating - thank you!

whitehorsepilgrim said...

This is interesting. I would start with the knowledge that both sides were militarily astute. However the Vikings may have been rash through provocation. The Saxons might have waited until the Vikings were tired and unsure of their surroundings. A potential battle site needs to conform to a suitable topography. I recall reading that the two sides had a stand off which was broken by the Saxons charging, which would mitigate against an ambush site and in favour of a more open place. Likewise I would expect the Vikings to have sent out skirmishers (perhaps mounted) in order to reconnoitre and guard against ambush. It would be fascinating to examine potential battle sites with an experienced military guide.

The Vikings carried raven banners, their superstition saying that if the bird appeared animated then vistory would be theirs. Should the raven be still, defeat would follow. Perhaps the fort was associated with a raven banner? Maybe the Vikings even introduced Ravens to the site which continued to nest there?

Nicola Cornick said...

Many thanks for such an interesting comment, Whitehorsepilgrim. I didn't know about the Vikings carrying raven banners. This certainly adds more intriguing layers to the idea of the Ravens' fort. The original article by Peter Knott is in Berkshire Old and New 1990, No 7. Peter did a great deal of detailed research into Alfred and the site of the Battle of Ashdown and the Ashbury historical society has his papers.

I visited Alfred's Castle with a military guide and that was a fascinating exercise.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

Nicola, you have prompted me to do a little more reading. Alfred was defeated at Reading four days before the battle of Ashdown. The Vikings decided to pursue Alfred, and would not have been long in the decision first because on foot they needed to catch others on foot, second because they may not have wanted to extend far beyond their camp. I think that they sent out only part of their forces for speed and mobility, and this is supported by the fact that they defeated Alfred again (presumably with other men) just a few weeks later. So where would three days on foot have taken the Vikings from Reading? I'm guessing that they were in a hurry, in which case three days walk would have taken them easily to the land above Ashbury. East Ilsley is perhaps a little close to Reading on this basis. The Ridgeway is a logical route to use to pursue a defeated enemy. Only the Vikings overstretched themselves. I would tend to agree that the battle was up on the Ridgeway somewhere not far from Ashbury. It doesn't make as much sense that they fought in a valley a few miles from the Ridgeway, and I do wonder whether Alfred's Castle is much more than a fortified agricultural store from the pre-Roman era. By the time that Alfred and the Vikings passed the great hill forts, they would have been ancient, pointless and abandoned for a millennium.

I have ridden on the hills around Ashdown House, and this is a good way to appreciate the area as a Saxon (or Celt or Roman) might have seen it. Now if you ride we could make a thoughtful exploration of the area.

Nicola Cornick said...

It would be fun to explore the area around Ashdown on horseback. I am not much of a rider, though!

Very interesting that three days march out of Reading might take the Vikings to somewhere in this area. Using the Ridgeway would give them the higher ground (which they had) above Ashbury. I was interested to read in the reports of the battle that the Saxons attacked uphill. This could well have been up the coombe. For what it is worth, I don't think the battle took place at Alfred's Castle (or Ashbury Camp as it was known before the 18th century) but my military consultant suggested that it would have been a perfect supply base back from the front line. Anglo Saxon weapons have been found there too which is intriguing.