The Battle of Ethandun, A.D. 878 I


Three months after the battle of Ashdown (A.D. 871) Alfred succeeded to the throne, on the death of his brother Ethelred. The history of the next seven years is one of gradual expansion by the Danish army in all directions. In the south Alfred was driven further and further west, till by the beginning of 878 most of Wessex had been overrun, many of its inhabitants had fled overseas to Gaul and the remainder were incapable of offering a concerted resistance. Alfred himself, with a small band of followers, took refuge in the almost inaccessible island of Athelney at Easter, 878. His fortunes were at so low an ebb that according to popular legend, he was reduced to living disguised in the cottage of a swineherd.

Then came one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in our history. In the short space of seven weeks the military situation had been so transformed that the King with a powerful army was able to defeat in pitched battle the hitherto victorious army of the Danish King Guthrum, who submitted to baptism and by the treaty of Wedmore promised to retreat from Wessex. How this sudden reversal of fortune came about and where the decisive battle was fought.

The story of ‘Alfred and the cakes’ is largely responsible for the false picture that is usually conjured up of a fugitive king, hunted from pillar to post, with no army and no resources. But the contemporary records do not support this. What the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does state is that the King ‘with his little force raised a work at Athelney from which he assailed the (Danish) army’. Moreover, a Danish landing in North Devon was defeated by a force under one of his thegns at Countisbury Hill. All this does not sound compatible with the swineherd story; yet there is generally a grain of truth embodied in folk-tales such as this. Here the explanation may be that in the course of one of his raids some local setback overtook his force, and for the time being he had to fly for his life, and to live for a day or two in disguise and concealment. At this time the Danish army of Guthrum (the Danish leader who had ravaged Wareham in 875) was based on Chippenham, 50 miles away.

Even if, as I think likely, the clashes usually occurred in the region of the Mendips it would be a long day’s march back to Athelney. As for the inaccessibility of the island, all prudent generals establish a firm and if possible impregnable base before undertaking operations, especially when they are so fluid and mobile as were those of the year 878. An inaccessible base does not therefore necessarily indicate weakness.

The natural inference is that during the spring of 878 Alfred was busy reorganizing the army that had recently met with a severe reverse, hardening and training it by a series of raids, exactly as the British army was hardened and trained after its reverse in the spring of 1918.

And what was happening in the rest of Wessex during those fateful months? We do not know; but there is no record of any Danish operations in Hampshire, southern Wiltshire or Dorset. That army could not be everywhere, and we know that it had settled down at Chippenham a few months previously. The inference is that during that period Alfred was in communication with what remained of the Wessex forces in those counties, encouraging, instructing, and preparing them for the great day, whether by ‘underground’ methods or not. No other inference is possible when we consider the upshot.

Let us now examine Alfred’s problem. Let us assume that the nuclei of his army-to-be were forming at Winchester, Old Sarum, Dorchester (accepting Oman’s surmise that a Dorset contingent was included), and Athelney. Taking the hostile base at Chippenham as centre of a circle, the Wessex contingents were spread out on one-third of the circumference of this circle. In other words, they were spread over a front of 100 miles, while their opponent was only 50 miles distant from each contingent. This gave a great advantage to an enterprising enemy, operating on ‘interior lines’, whilst presenting a difficult problem to the English King. Under modern conditions, with modern means of communication and transport, the Wessex army would profit by its position on ‘exterior lines’ to attack the enemy simultaneously from two or more directions. But such an operation was clearly beyond the power of Alfred’s troops; his policy was that of Napoleon—to concentrate off, not on, the field of battle.

Where, then, should that point of concentration be? Obviously it should be out of sight of the enemy, yet not so far off that the individual contingents would have a long march round the perimeter before reaching the rendezvous. The sooner they were assembled after starting on their marches the better the chance of surprising the enemy. The two most distant contingents were based on Athelney and Winchester respectively. If Alfred had a primitive map in his possession at Athelney we can imagine him drawing a straight line on it joining up these two places. Midway on this line would theoretically be the best place for the rendezvous (provided there was no fear of molestation on the part of the enemy), for this would involve the shortest possible marches by the various contingents. Unfortunately we do not know Guthrum’s dispositions nor how far from Chippenham he had pushed forward his forces. The further forward they went, the thinner on the ground they would be, and it does not seem to have been the military policy of the Danes to disperse their forces. On the other hand, there was a natural disposition on the part of all armies in those days to go for the high ground. All the Wessex battles that can be located were fought on high ground. There is such a line of high ground about 20 miles to the south of Chippenham, extending from the Mendips to Salisbury Plain, and we may accept as a working hypothesis that this line was occupied, though not in strength, by the Danes during the spring of 878, Chippenham being the base and the site of the army reserves.

We can now return to our imaginary line connecting Athelney with Winchester. Midway along it, on a lofty plateau overlooking East Knoyle, several ancient trackways converge at the place now known as Willoughby Hedge. I believe it also to be the site of Egbert’s Stone. The spot is 8 to 10 miles from the Salisbury Plain massif, where, according to our hypothesis we have placed Guthrum’s advanced line or temporary boundary. Alfred, working it out on his primitive map, or in his mind’s eye, could hardly wish or expect to find a more suitable place for a rendezvous for his scattered forces. Strategically it was the best site, tactically it was sound—near, but not too near, the hostile border, convenient roads led to it from the required directions, and finally it was a place that could be easily indicated to distant contingents who had no maps, and it could be as easily found by them for it was the place where the great King Egbert had erected his Stone of victory after his campaigns in the far west.

Orders were, accordingly sent out indicating Egbert’s Stone as the rendezvous, and fixing a day by which all contingents must be concentrated there. I compute that May Day was selected.

If Alfred himself took the direct route he travelled by Langport, Castle Cary and along the old Hardway by Kingsettle Hill (on which Alfred’s Tower now stands) and thence by the primeval Long Lane to Willoughby Hedge. On the King’s arrival at the rendezvous the assembled hosts, in the simple words of the Chronicle, ‘were fain [glad] of him’.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that on the very day after his arrival at the rendezvous Alfred set out with his newly formed army, marching that day straight towards his enemy, and attacking the Danish main army under its king on the following day.

There are two puzzling points about this narrative: First, how did Alfred manage to march and fight a victorious battle only a few hours after the assembly of this army in contingents from all over the south of England? Second, how came it that the Danish main army was concentrated in position about 20 miles to the south of his base camp of Chippenham, before the Saxon army had concentrated? (For it must have been in position before Alfred set out, else he would not have advanced with such precision and speed in exactly the right direction.)

I suggest that there is a common explanation to these two puzzles, and it is that the Saxon army did not concentrate only the day before the advance commenced, but quite a number of days earlier. The Chronicle does not say that the army arrived at Egbert’s Stone two days before the battle, but that Alfred in person arrived on that day. It is inconceivable that the Saxon contingents would all arrive on the same day, or that this conglomeration could be organized and welded into a fighting machine in a few hours. The practical difficulties were more than usually great on this occasion, but there is no space in which to enumerate them.

On the morning after the arrival of the King the army set out on its march, and halted for the night at Iglea, which is now held to be Eastleigh Wood, two miles south-east of Warminster and seven miles due north of the rendezvous. Near here (one mile west of Sutton Veny) there is an ancient earthwork which would provide security for the army that night. This was highly desirable for they were now nearing the hostile position. Where was this position situated? It is time to enquire.

Assuming that the Saxon host began to assemble a week or more before Alfred’s arrival, news of the concentration would be brought to Guthrum by his scouts. When the size of the concentration became evident the Danish king would set out from his base camp with his reserves, calling in at the same time his outlying parties and concentrating his army in a defensive position somewhere on a line between Chippenham and Egbert’s Stone, on the massif to the south of Edington or Bratton. Having arrived here he would select the strongest possible position supplied by nature, reinforcing it artificially if time admitted (i.e. digging a protective ditch).

In the direct line of approach from Egbert’s Stone one of three ancient tracks might be used by the Saxons, the right-hand one passing to the left of Scratchbury Camp, and the other two to the right and left of Batdesbury Camp. Guthrum would therefore look out for a position astride these three tracks, on the forward slope of some cross ridge, but only just over the crest, after the manner of the time. Such a position leaps to the eye if the contoured map, one-inch, or preferably 1/25000 O.S. be used. This ridge is 6,000 yards due south of Edington village; it runs from north-east to south-west and is in fact the ridge already referred to, three miles north-east of Warminster. The ideal position would be on the forward slope of this ridge, covering a front of about 2,500 yards, and curving with the contours in order to attain the greatest possible field of view, about 150 yards below the crest line. That would, in my opinion, be the ideal position for the purpose. The fact that Alfred marched so directly and promptly towards it would seem to imply that he was aware of its situation before he set out, and that therefore the Danes had at least two days in which to dig. We might therefore expect to find faint traces of such a ditch as I have suggested and in the place that I have suggested. And we do find it, precisely where I have suggested. It is marked on both the one-inch and 1/25000 maps as ‘Ancient Ditch’. (In the case of the 1/25000 an extension to the east is shown that I believe is in reality a separate work.)

It may of course be a mere coincidence that the ditch is just where we should expect it to be; it may be that it was dug previously and perhaps made use of by the Danes. We cannot be sure. But what we can be sure about is that it is a military work (closely resembling Wansdyke in its siting) and that it was dug for a specific purpose, a defence by a northern army of the Edington position against an expected attack from the south. There may be some other occasion in our history which would fit into this position but I fancy there is none in recorded history. So it seems the most reasonable course to associate it with a piece of recorded history into which it does fit.

Assuming that this was the position taken up in the first instance by the Danes, it would be visible to the Saxon scouts from Battlesbury Camp, only 2,500 yards away, and the first clash would take place on the intervening ground. Hence perhaps the name Battlesbury, just as we have a Battlebury on the site of what I hold to be Mount Badon.

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