Of no great battle in English history is there so much dispute as to its site as of Alfred the Great’s first victory. It was the only clear victory of the six battles fought in ‘Alfred’s Year of Battles’, so it holds a prominent place in our military history. It is unique in another respect, namely that it is the only battle prior to Stamford Bridge and Hastings of which we have a good second-hand account. I say ‘good’ advisedly, for Bishop Asser, its chronicler, was the friend, confidant and companion of King Alfred, and his description of the battle no doubt derived from Alfred himself. Further, though not present at the actual battle, Asser passed over the battlefield at a later date, probably in company with the King, and so was able to describe it with fidelity. Thus, if we can make sure of the spot it should be comparatively easy to reconstruct the battle.
The story starts in the year A.D. 868, when Ethelred was King of Wessex and overlord of the ‘Heptarchy’, or loose confederation of the states composing England. Ethelred’s position as suzerain had, however, been shaken by the invasion of the Eastern Counties by the Danes, who laid siege to Nottingham. King Burgred of Mercia applied to Ethelred for help. Ethelred acceded to this request, and, accompanied by his younger brother Alfred as second-in-command, marched to meet the Danes at Nottingham where he engaged them, though without great success. Two years later these Danes, under their King Bagsac, invaded Wessex, probably sailing up the Thames. Disembarking at Reading, they threw up a defensive line between the Thames and Kennet, on December 28th, 870.
Three days later they sent out a force westwards, with the object of obtaining food and hay for their horses. This detachment was engaged at Englefield, six miles to the west, by the Elderman of Berkshire, Ethelwulf by name, and put to flight. On January 4th, Ethelred, with the main army, advancing along the Ridgeway from his base at Wantage or Swindon, joined his lieutenant, and together they attacked the Danish outposts and drove them back into Reading. Following up too rashly, the Saxons were themselves surprised by a sudden charge of Danes emerging from inside their fieldworks. The Saxons fell back, Elderman Ethelwulf being slain. The Saxon army retreated by the way it had come, through Englefield and northwestwards up the Ridgeway. It may safely be assumed that the King sent orders for reinforcements to come forward along the Ridgeway to join him, and that he also sent requests to his vassal, Burgred, to come to his aid, fixing the meeting-point at Lowbury Hill, 16 miles north-west of Reading. This is the highest point on the eastern Berkshire Downs—crowned with an ancient earthwork, and would be a well-known spot, a track junction. It would be easy to find—an important point before the advent of Ordnance maps.
The Danes did not immediately follow up their success. It was not their practice to do so, or had not been so far. Their main design was to swoop down on a tract of rich country and settle there for as long as it would support them. They therefore returned to their camp and (in the words of Walter Morrison) ‘sat down to a steady drink’.
Meanwhile Ethelred and Alfred reached Lowbury Hill, probably late on January 5th and halted there to await their reinforcements and allies, making their camp round the track junction on the Ridgeway, half a mile south-west of the hill. King Bagsac, learning this, considered that the Wessex army was too near to be pleasant, and, puffed up with an easy victory (no doubt also with mead), he resolved to finish off his opponents for good and all. Moving out as soon as possible—which would probably be early on the 7th—he came in sight of the Saxon camp at dusk that day. Here he halted for the night, in the slight hollow where now Starveall Farm stands, with scouts on the ridge immediately in front.
From the top of the ridge the Saxon camp could be easily seen on the lower ridge, astride the Ridgeway, and just 1,000 yards distant.
Ethelred can hardly have expected to be followed up like this, else he would doubtless have occupied the higher ridge in front that was now in the hands of the enemy. That ridge, called by the gipsies (and hereinafter) Louse Hill, ‘the Hill of Destruction’, would have covered more effectually the track junction, on which Ethelred was now encamped, and along which his friends from Merck might be expected to come—if they answered the call in time. But whether they should do so or not, the Saxon host was in good heart, for the reinforcements had now arrived, the army was concentrated, rested and refreshed.
We cannot even guess at respective numbers. But in view of the fact that the morale of the Saxons was so high, and that, as will be seen, they took the offensive, they evidently considered themselves superior in numbers (though no contingent had arrived from the Mercians).
As soon as it got light on that eventful 8th of January, A.D. 871, the Danish army drew up in battle array, in full view of their opponents. In those times there was little finesse or manoeuvring about battles; either one accepted battle or one did not. If one accepted it, the two armies drew up in obligingly parallel lines. The Saxons narrowly watched their opponents slowly and clumsily marshalling their line of battle in two big columns; as it became light they could descry the Royal banners of Kings Bagsac and Halfden waving over one column, that of the Danish earls over the other. The Ridgeway presumably divided the two columns. A council of war was then held in the Saxon camp, and a plan of action drawn up. By this plan the Saxon army conformed to the lay-out of their opponents; that is to say, they also formed up in two columns, that of the King opposite the Danish King, that of Alfred opposite the earls’ column.
A pause seems now to have ensued, each side waiting for the other to make the first move. At this moment of tension the King decided to hear mass in his tent! The explanation no doubt is that, seeing no forward movement on the part of the enemy, Ethelred assumed they would await attack. There was no hurry. Much better obtain the Divine blessing before venturing on the attack. But the Danes were pagans, and whether they were aware that their rival was at his devotions or not, they seized this moment to make their first forward move.
Ethelred no doubt was apprised of this, but with the magnificent nonchalance that was not matched again till Drake refused to abandon his game of bowls over 700 years later, King Ethelred refused to budge; he would see the service through. Drake knew what he was doing; probably the tide was foul and nothing could be done for the nonce; but Ethelred had not such an excuse for inaction. Our sympathy goes out to the youthful Alfred (only in his twenty-third year). No entrenchments had been thrown up; the Danes had not been expected; and in any case it was not traditional for the Saxons to sit behind entrenchments and await attack by the Danes. The morale of the army was high and Alfred reckoned that in order to keep it high it was essential to assume the offensive. Could he take it upon himself to order an advance? The enemy—the hated invaders—were by now half-way down the hill, only 600 yards away; their jeering battle cries could be heard; the men around the second-in-command looked towards him inquiringly, if not apprehensively, for had it not been planned that the Saxon army was to take the offensive? There was no time to dally, or to send back a messenger to the Royal tent with a fresh message and a request for orders. Long before the reply arrived the Danes would be on them and it would be too late to do anything except just fight it out where they stood. Alfred’s mind was made up. Giving the pre-arranged signal for the assault, he led his own column at a double (‘like a wild boar’, says Asser), down the slight slope into the shallow valley that separated the rival armies. The King’s column followed suit, whether spontaneously, or in response to a definite order it is impossible to say, and needless to speculate.
We can picture the two armies meeting head-on in an awful clash at the bottom of the valley (it is still called ‘Awful Bottom’ by the gipsies). The weight of the Saxon onset forced the Danes to fall back slightly up the hill down which they had just come. Nearly half-way up this hill is a road junction where five ancient tracks meet. It was the old meeting-point of the Hundred, and the spot was marked by a single stunted thorn-tree. It is conjectured that this tree had formed the scene of Druidic rites, and in Saxon times became the centre of the Hundred. Though the Wessex men were not Druids it might very well be a spot venerated by them. Whatever the reason, Asser assures us that the fighting was most severe round about this venerable tree. When riding past the spot in later years, probably with the King himself, this thorn bush had been pointed out to him. There is still a thorn bush at the spot. The name of this hundred in Domesday is Nachededorn, that is, the Naked Thorn.
Of course we do not know the details of the fight that ensued. In the nature of things that would be impossible. Like most battles, it doubtless swayed backwards and forwards for some time, and it is asserted by one chronicler that when King Ethelred arose from his knees and joined in the fight, he brought some fresh troops with him; these would be his own Household troops, the pick of the army, such as the House-carls that accompanied Harold at Hastings. They would correspond approximately with Napoleon’s Old Guard.
What at any rate is certain is that long before the early winter evening the Danes had taken to flight, and a relentless pursuit was put in hand. ‘Their dead bodies were strewn all over the plain of Ash-down,’ declares Asser, and we need not doubt it. The continuation of the valley to the east is known to the gipsies as Dead Man’s Hollow to this day.
Right up till nightfall the pursuit was continued, and in the course of it, or of the battle itself, King Bagsac was killed. Halfden managed to get away. The higher ranks in the earls’ column suffered heavily too; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the names of the five earls who were killed.
Though Ethelred called off the pursuit at nightfall, the Danes continued their flight. With so many of their leaders out of action, few or no fresh orders probably reached the routed invaders. It became a ‘Sauve qui peut’, and right through the night the flight went on. Indeed, it did not stop till the Danes were safely behind their earthwork defences at Reading. The victory was complete.