Battle of Ashdown circa 12th January 871
Nobody really knows exactly where this battle took place and there are almost as many theories as there are accounts of it. They are all based on two ancient references, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originating from about this time, and a biography of King Alfred by a contemporary of his, Asser, Bishop of Sherborne. This particular battle was both the first major defeat the Vikings experienced in their eventual domination of England and the battle that set Alfred on the path which made him a great king.
North Wessex Downs looking SSW from Lowbury Hill towards Aldworth
In 865 a significant Viking army started a campaign which in 20 years led to the Danelaw boundary treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum. They invaded on such a scale and with such discipline, organisation, and intent that it signalled a major change from any previous pattern of raids. They came well prepared with plans based on good intelligence.
They landed at Thanet which at this time was separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel which provided a safe sea route from the channel to the Thames estuary. They could sail up the channel from Sandwich on a rising tide and then down into the estuary on an ebbing tide. The island was easy to defend and big enough to accommodate the Viking forces as they arrived from their territories in France and Frisia. A Danish earl, Ivar the Boneless, crossed from Ireland to join them and he is subsequently credited with being their leader. In the years that followed they plundered Kent, invaded East Anglia, massacred the armies of Northumbria at York, made peace with the Mercians in Nottingham and then moved to Reading by 871. Command had passed to Ivar’s brother, Halfdan and he established a base by the Thames/Kennet junction, now covered by Reading’s railway station and a supermarket. It is likely that elements of his force arrived there by foot via the Icknield Way and by longboats up the natural River Thames. The site was well chosen for launching assaults into Wessex.
The West Saxon forces were mustering in the area by now with King Ethelred, Alfred’s elder brother, possible based at the Saxon palace in Wantage, the Saxon stronghold of Wallingford or even Abingdon. There was a successful morale boosting confrontation at Englefield (near Theale at Junction 12 on the M4) when a Viking force from Reading, which may have been a foraging party and armed escort, a reconnaissance patrol or even a fighting patrol, were seen off fairly firmly by the Saxons. This encouraged the Saxons to attack the Reading base but they were beaten off by some vicious Viking forays; siege warfare would appear to have been unknown to the Saxons.
Englefield today - and this is another story
Halfdan decided to move quickly, probably because he knew the Saxon army was growing every day and watching his movements. Any advance into Wessex would have to be cautious given his long supply chain and he may well have felt the need to seize the crossings and the Saxon stronghold at Wallingford in order to ensure control of both the river and the land routes. He also knew that he had to defeat the Wessex army as soon as possible.
The armies met at Ashdown where the Saxons defeated Halfdan’s army resoundingly, Alfred was the hero of the day and the Viking threat to the northwest frontier of Wessex was stymied. Unfortunately the only two records of the battle are extremely economical with their descriptions and most probably exaggerated the numbers involved. It is likely to have been hundreds rather than thousands, but we will probably never know. The big question is where did this battle actually take place?
Lowbury Hill with Didcot beyond, now in South Oxfordshire - known to some as Occupied Berkshire
There are four conjectures of varying credibility and although the exact spot is not known they are all on the Berkshire Downs, now part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The legendary tale has the site between the Uffington White Horse and Ashbury, 8 – 10 miles west of Wantage but this is largely discredited as a Victorian myth. An equally unlikely area is somewhere near West Ilsley and East Ilsley, based on the derivation of Ilsley meaning “place of conflict”, and this is also discounted. The modern popular belief is the area of Lowbury Hill at Grid Reference SU540823 and a yet more recent suggestion is Kingstanding Hill at Grid Reference SU573838. Both ideas are by Army officers, Burne and Peddle, and there is detailed reasoning behind their theories but the assumptions they make are just that and it still remains anyone’s guess as to where the battle was actually fought. However the overall conclusions are that it took place on the high ground of the Berkshire Downs somewhere above and east of the River Thames in the oblong formed by Moulsford, Streatley, Compton and Lowbury Hill.
The ancient Ridgeway - and centre of the battlefield according to A H Burne
In 871 the Windsor forest stretched much further north than it does today and may have presented something of an obstacle to manoeuvres south of Reading. The ancient routes of the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway bisected the downs and provided easy going for transiting these hills. Wallingford and Abingdon were both Saxon towns north of Reading on the Thames able to provide Ethelred’s army with supplies and strongholds for defence. Any Viking movement north along the old Roman road from Reading to Wallingford would be funnelled through the Goring Gap where Saxon troops on the high ground would have a devastating advantage for an attack.
It is not known where the Saxons assembled and both Burne and Peddle make assumptions. Neither mentions an Iron Age hill fort near Compton, Perborough Castle, which may have been used as it was probably as well known locally as other suggestions.
Perborough Castle - an Iron Age hill fort
Thorn Hill from forward of Perborough Castle - Aldworth and the Ridgeway are beyond
By now Halfdan would most likely have concluded that he had to defeat the Saxon forces in the field before he could conquer Wessex, he needed to secure his base and lines of communications in depth by seizing Wallingford and possibly Abingdon, that to advance to Wallingford he would have to control the high ground, that he had about 9 hours of daylight and the distance from Reading to Wallingford is about a day’s march of 16 miles.
The known facts from the Chronicle and Asser amount to the following:
· The Vikings split their forces into two divisions with shield walls and the Saxons reacted by doing the same.
· King Ethelred took command of one division and Alfred the other.
· A solitary thorn tree grew in the centre of the area where the forces met.
· The Saxons deployed from a lower position which implies that they attacked uphill.
To defeat the Saxons Halfdan would need to secure the high ground either with his main force using a vanguard or with a strong flank guard up on the high ground whilst his main force and baggage train took the low road. If he knew the main Saxon army was on the high ground he would have taken the first course. If he believed they were in Wallingford, which may have been the Saxon base for their operations in this region, he would probably have taken the second course. He may also have deduced that they had or would deploy to the high ground from their assembly area. Either way we know that a battle took place on the high ground but the exact ground remains a mystery. A further spanner in Burne’s and Peddle’s works is that from Perborough Castle to the Viking’s likely line of march the route would be directly over the enigmatically named Thorn Hill. Could this have been where Asser's 'solitary thorn tree' grew.
Burne, Alfred H (1996) The Battlefields of England, Greenhill Books.
Peddle, John (1999) Alfred Warrior King, Sutton Publishing Ltd.
Warner, Philip (2002) British Battlefields, Cassell.
Ordnance Survey Explorer maps Sheets 158 and 170.
Philip Warner includes Asser's account of the battle which is a little fuller than the relevant extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
A.D. 871 . This year came the army to Reading in Wessex; and in the course of three nights after rode two earls up, who were met by Alderman Ethelwulf at Englefield; where he fought with them, and obtained the victory. There one of them was slain, whose name was Sidrac. About four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother led their main army to Reading, where they fought with the enemy; and there was much slaughter on either hand, Alderman Ethelwulf being among the skain; but the Danes kept possession of the field. And about four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with all the army on Ashdown, and the Danes were overcome. They had two heathen kings, Bagsac and Healfden, and many earls; and they were in two divisions; in one of which were Bagsac and Healfden, the heathen kings, and in the other were the earls. King Ethered therefore fought with the troops of the kings, and there was King Bagsac slain; and Alfred his brother fought with the troops of the earls, and there were slain Earl Sidrac the elder, Earl Sidrac the younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Frene, and Earl Harold. They put both the troops to flight; there were many thousands of the slain, and they continued fighting till night.
The photographs were taken over a couple of years in January when the weather can be distinctly chilly on top of the downs. Nevertheless there is a good walk from Aldworth where there are two good public houses. Take the lane from the canopied well northwest to Starveall from where a byway leads to the Ridgeway. Between 1 October to 30 April vehicles should be parked near the blue sign shown below.
A network of tracks provide a good walk in a circuit to take in Lowbury Hill. Deans Bottom just east of the hill should be noted as it is described as a precipice which the defeated Vikings were driven over.
An alternative is to drive to Kingstanding Hill and explore Peddle's version of events.