Alfred the Great’s first battle and victory against the pagans at Ashdown

December 26, 2013

Christmas 870-71 must have been a time of intense anxiety to the whole Christian people of Wessex. The young King [Ethelred] had indeed shown himself already a prompt and energetic leader in his march to Nottingham at the call of his brother-in-law. But, unless perhaps in the skirmishes outside that beleaguered town in the autumn of 869, he had never seen blows struck in earnest; had never led and rallied men under the tremendous onset of the Bersirkir. Alfred, though already the darling of the people, had even less experience than Ethelred, who was at least five years older. He was still a very young man, skilled in the chase, and inured to danger and hardship, so far as hunting and manly exercises of all kinds could make him so, but as much a novice in actual battle as David when he stood before Saul, ruddy and of a fair complexion, but ready in the strength of his God, who had delivered him from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, to go up with his sling and stone and fight with the Bersirkir of his day. And this generation of the West Saxons, who were now to meet in supreme life-and-death conflict such kings as Guthrum and Bagsac, such jarls as Hinguar and Sidroc, “the ancient one of evil days,” and their followers—tried warriors from their youth up—were much in the same case as their young leaders….

Drawing of Alfred The Great by Adolf Friedrich Erdmann Von Menzel.

Drawing of Alfred The Great by Adolf Friedrich Erdmann Von Menzel.

The Christians were not kept long in suspense. As soon as the frost had broken up, Danish galleys were beating up the Thames and Danish horsemen stealing their way across Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The kings Bagsac, Halfdene, and Gunthrum, jarls Osbern, Frene, Harald, the two Sidrocs, and probably Hinguar, led the pagan host in this their greatest enterprise on British soil.  Swiftly, as was their wont, they struck at a vital point, and seizing the delta which is formed by the junction of the Thames and Kennet, close to the royal burgh of Reading, threw up earthworks, and entrenched themselves there….

King Æthelred of Wessex 865 - 871

King Æthelred of Wessex 865 – 871

Two days sufficed for rest and the firs necessary works, and on the third a large part of the army started on a plundering and exploring expedition under two of their jarls. At Englefield, a village still bearing the same name, some six miles due west of Reading, in the vale of Kennet…they came across Alderman Ethelwulf, with such of the Berkshire men as he had been able hastily to gather in these few days. The Christians were much fewer in number, but the brave Ethelwulf led them straight to the attack with the words, “They be more than we, but fear them not. Our Captain, Christ, is braver than they.” The news of that first encounter must have cheered the King [Ethelred] and Alfrred, who were busy gathering their forces further west, for Ethelwulf slew one of the jarls and drove the plunderers back to their entrenchments with a great slaughter…. Four days afterwards Ethelred and Alfred march suddenly to Reading with a large force, and surprise and cut to pieces a number of the Pagans who were outside their entrenchments. Then, while the Saxons were preparing to encamp, kings and jarls rushed out on them with their whole power, and the tide of battle rolled backwards and forwards over the low meadows outside the royal burgh, victory inclining now to one side, now to the other. In the end, after great slaughter on both sides, the Saxons gave way, and the young king and his brother fell back from Reading, leaving the body of the brave and faithful Ethelwulf among the dead. It is said that the Pagans dragged it to Derby. What matter! The strong soul had done its work, and gone to its reward. Small need of tombs for the bodies of the brave and faithful—of such men the whole land and the hearts of its people is the tomb….

King Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown

King Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown

Ethelred and Alfred then fell back with their broken bands along the south bank of the Thames westward, until they struck the hills, and then still back along the ancient track known as the Ridgeway, past Ilsley and past the royal burgh of Wantage, Alfred’s birthplace, from they probably drew reinforcements which justified them in turning to bay on the fourth day after the disaster at Reading. The Pagans were on their track with their whole host (except King Gunthrum and his men), in two divisions; one commanded by the two kings Bagsac and Halfdene, the other by the jarls. Ethelred, on perceiving this disposition of the enemy, divided his forces, taking command himself of the division which was to act against the kings, and giving the other to Alfred. Each side threw up hasty earthworks, the remains of which may be seen to this day on at least three spots of the downs, the highest point of which is White Horse Hill; and all of which, according to old maps, are included in the district known as Ashdown. That highest point had been seized by the Pagans, and here the opposing hosts rested by their watchfires through the cold March night. We may fancy from the one camp the song of Regner Lodbrog beguiling the night watches:— “We fought with swords! Young men should march up to the conflict of arms. Man should meet man and never give ground. In this hath ever stood the nobleness of the warrior. He who aspires to the love of his mistress should be dauntless in the clash of arms.” In the other camp we know that by one fire lay a youth who carried in his bosom the Psalms of David written out in a fair hand, which he was wont to read in all intervals of rest. Here too is a son of Odin of the pure royal lineage, who will come to the clash of arms on the morrow in the strength of “the Lord of Hosts, who teacheth his hands to war and his fingers to fight.”

Alfred the Great

At early dawn the hosts are on foot. Let Alfred’s old friend tell the tale in his own words:— “Alfred, we have been told by some who were there and would not lie, marched up promptly with his men to give battle. But King Ethelred stayed long time in his tent at prayer, hearing the mass, and sent word that he would not leave it till the priest had done, or abandon God’s help for that of man. And he did so too, which afterwards availed him much, as we shall declare more fully. Now the Christians had determined that King Ethelred with his men should fight the two pagan kings, and that Alfred his brother with his men should take the chance of war against the earls. Things being so arranged, the King remained long time in prayer, while the Pagans pressed on swiftly to the fight. Then Alfred, though holding the lower command, could no longer support the onslaught of the enemy without retreating, or charging upon them without waiting for his brother.” A moment of fearful anxiety this, we may note, for the young prince. But he has a strong heart for such a crisis; and, dreading the effect on his men of one step backwards, puts himself at their head and leads them up the slope against the whole pagan host “with the rush of a wild boar” (aprino more). “For he too relied on the help of God,” Asser goes on, and also we see had already learnt something from the Reading disaster, for “he formed his men in a dense phalanx to meet the foe,” which was never broken in that long fight. Subscription Mass being over, Ethelred comes up to the help of his brother, and the battle raged along the whole hillside. “But here I must inform those who are ignorant of the fact, that the field of battle was not equal for both sides. The Pagans occupied the higher ground, and the Christians came up from below. There was also in that place a single stunted thorn tree, which we have seen with our own eyes. Round this tree the opposing hosts came together with loud shouts from all sides, the one party to pursue their wicked course, the other to fight for their lives, their wives and children, and their country. And, when both sides had fought long and bravely, at last the Pagans by God’s judgment gave way, being no longer able to abide the Christian onslaught, and after losing great part of their army broke in shameful flight. One of their two kings and five jarls were there slain, together with many thousand Pagans, who covered with their bodies the whole plain of Ashdown. There fell in that fight King Bagsac (by the hand, as some say, of Ethelred); Earl Sidroc the elder and Earl Sidroc the younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Frene, and Earl Harald. And all the pagan host pursued its flight, not only until night, but through the next day, even until they reached the stronghold from which they had come forth. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach until dark.” Ethelward the chronicler, the great-grandson of Ethelred, adds, “Neither before or since was ever such slaughter known since the Saxons first gained England by their arms.”

 

Thomas Hughes, Alfred the Great (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1891), 68-9, 71-77.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 346

 

 

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