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.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ashdown House - The Ultimate Romantic Gesture!


It is the ultimate in romantic gestures. Ashdown House is a Valentine’s Day gift in bricks and mortar (or chalk, actually), a house built by the Earl of Craven for the love of a woman who never lived to see it – Elizabeth of Bohemia, The Winter Queen. On Elizabeth’s return to England from exile in 1661 the Earl of Craven, knowing of her desire to live quietly in the country, commissioned not one but two houses for her pleasure. The first, Hamstead Marshall, was designed to mirror Elizabeth’s palace in Heidelberg. The second, Ashdown, was a hunting lodge so that Elizabeth could continue to pursue her lifelong passion for hunting.

In honour of the approach of St Valentine’s Day, the fascinating blog lostpastremembered, which marries food and history, has posted a piece about William, Elizabeth and Ashdown. As well as detailing the Earl of Craven’s devotion to his lady over the course of forty years, the blog piece gives a wonderful insight into all things culinary from the period, from the way the table would be laid for a banquet at Elizabeth and Frederick of Bohemia’s castle in Heidelberg, to a stunning recipe for Raspberry Sauce with Port to complement the romance of the story. You can read the whole post here - and make the dessert as well if you wish!