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The Battle of Ashdown.

n the space of twenty years, the country had changed from one of Christian virtue and enlightenment to one of barbarity. Surely it would only be time before Wessex would suffer the same fate as all the others. It would have done if it wasn't for a young man named Alfred, later to become known as Alfred the Great. The Vikings last obstacle to complete domination of England was next on their list. They amassed on the Berkshire hills at a place now known as Reading. Aethelred I was probably quite sick at this time and may not of been involved. He was a religious man and preferred praying to fighting. On the 8th January 871 the battle commenced under the generalship of Alfred. It was a bloody affair with heavy casualties on both sides. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Saxons but a victory never the less. its effect was to push the Vikings back to their own lines. Following the death of his brother and king, Aethelred I in 871, Alfred assumed power of Wessex. Aethelred had younger sons who should have become kings in their own right, but Alfred was the only man who could save them. He was highly thought of and respected as a leader and king. It is said that a Viking king and five of his earls were among the dead that day. Alfred's victory at Ashdown was important, for if he had lost this battle, it would have been the end of the Saxon people in England. That year he fought at least another seven or eight battles against them. His army was slowly being worn down to such a level that it was becoming impossible to go on. He decided therefore to do what the men of Kent did some years before. He would buy peace. He arranged a meeting with them, where the amount was agreed. The Vikings finally retreated back to London. Peace reigned for the next five years. Why the Vikings retreated when they had total domination within their site is unclear. We can only assume their intelligence was bad and that they thought the forces of Alfred were much stronger than they actually were. Another reason is that they would rather threaten than carry out the deed. The original tactics were hit and run, take what you can, when you can, and return home. Following Ashdown and the other battles, a significant change came over the Vikings. Tired of war, and now wintering in England, started to plough, plant and raise cattle in preference to pillaging. Many returned to Northumbria and East Anglia to follow an agricultural lifestyle. If Alfred could be criticised for anything, it would be that he allowed this important period to go to waste. His belief in human nature, seemed at times to have clouded his judgement. Not all the Vikings were happy to settle down however. A new leader was appointed by the name of Guthrum. The truce was over.

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The Battle of Edington

uthrum planned his attack on Wessex. It was to be an assault by land and sea. In 877 he marched his men to Dorsetshire where he joined up with his ships at Poole. Here he entrenched himself and attacked Wessex from within. Again, Alfred offered danegeld, which the Vikings accepted. Swearing to keep the peace, they withdrew, and "true to their word", promptly invaded Exeter. Again, Alfred made the mistake of trusting them. Alfred, despite his lack of men and resources rode to their assistance but arrived too late. The normal Viking tactic of fortifying your gains had already been completed. The Viking fleet which was now at sea was due to join Guthrum at Exeter. Unfortunately for the Vikings, it was caught in a massive storm. Five thousand men and one hundred and twenty ships were lost. The supply line to Exeter was cut off. Surrounding Exeter, Alfred knew it would only be a matter of time before starvation would force them to surrender. The Vikings sued for peace, which was accepted by Alfred. It would seem that Alfred would never learn. Endless broken promises did not seem to affect Alfred's decisions. He would again rue the day he let them off so lightly.


Edington



The location of Edington in Wiltshire. Alfred's court - which was located at Chippenham - can be seen at the top of the map.


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welfth night, January 878, Alfred was in his court in Chippenham when Guthrum returned. A daring attack in the middle of winter. It was totally unexpected and decimated what was left of the army. Many of Alfred's court fled to France. He, with a small band of followers, retreated to Athelney in Somerset. Here he planned his counter attack and where the legend of him burning the cakes originated. For some time, his fortune was not known. By using messengers, he made his people aware that he was still alive and what he would be expecting of them. I am sure he had no idea how he was ever going to regain his power with what he had available until another stroke of good luck came his way. Around Easter time 878, another flotilla of about 23 longboats and their men landed on the rocky Devon coast. They were met by the Saxons and routed. Only a few managed to escape. 800 to 1000 Vikings died that day. When Alfred heard the news he became determined to break out of his retreat and regain his kingdom. Alfred sent his messengers to his people who were suffering under the Viking subjugation to rally to the cause. A meeting place known as Egbert's stone was chosen, as it was a well known place that would be familiar only to them. The fyrd assembled in force and prepared. Alfred knew, via his spies, that the main Viking force were still at his own centre of administration, Chippenham. Alfred and the fyrd advanced to Ethandun, which is now known as Edington, and challenged Guthrum to battle. Guthrum had no choice but to accept. This was a all or nothing conflict that Alfred had to win. Alfred used a tactic which was used successfully by the Romans known as the shield wall. It consisted of enclosing your troops in an wall of shields ( see photographs). This has the effect of creating a mobile fortress that is very difficult to penetrate. If the shield men are wounded or killed, they would be removed and the wall closed ranks. Through the wall would be placed spears to halt head on charges. The wall however would be difficult to maintain indefinitely. When it was broken down, traditional fighting would take place. The fyrd fought for their freedom and were motivated to fever pitch. The battle continued all day until eventually, Alfred and his men were victorious. It was at this point, Alfred became the Great. It was within his power to totally destroy Guthrum and his men. Instead he offered peace with the proviso that Guthrum and his men were baptized. This, they readily accepted. Not only did he allow Guthrum to escape with his life, but offered to split England in two, Wessex and the south to the Saxons and the area already populated by Viking settlers in the north, to them. This time, Alfred seemed to come to his senses and prepared for the eventual treachery of the Vikings. ( His preparations and more of his life are included in the kings section ). For the next fourteen years, there was an uneasy peace. In France, the story was different. In 885 a massive Viking invasion force attempted to take Paris and northern France. King Charles the Fat, managed to fight off the attack on Paris until starvation and other hardships halted the Norse progression.



Viking


Vikings Part 1

Vikings Part 2

Vikings Part 4

Vikings Part 5

Viking Photographs

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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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