Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Alfred and the Battle of Ashdown

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Before the gods that made the gods 

Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale 
Was cut out of the grass. 
Before the gods that made the gods 
Had drunk at dawn their fill, 
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale 
Was hoary on the hill. 
Age beyond age on British land, 
Aeons on aeons gone, 
Was peace and war in western hills, 
And the White Horse looked on….

Thus begins G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the tale of King Alfred’s struggle against the Danish invaders. The poem begins in the middle of things, with the Danes having nearly conquered all of England and Alfred in hiding on the island of Athelney. The bulk of the poem deals with the Battle of Ethandun (more commonly known now as the Battle of Edington), where Alfred defeated the Danish king Guthrum and swore the Vikings to a treaty that would keep them out of the land of Wessex.

The victory at the Battle of Edington is probably the most famous moment of Alfred’s career, the story most retold in the histories of ninth century England. But seven years before Edington there was another battle, the Battle of Ashdown, that also resulted in a victory. It was the battle where Alfred won his spurs, so to speak. It was the battle where an untried leader, the youngest of five brothers, gave glimpses of the greatness that was to come. And coincidentally, it took place on January 8, one thousand one hundred forty-three years ago today.

The backstory to the Battle of Ashdown begins as any incident involving the Vikings must. Bishop Asser records that:
In the year of our Lord's incarnation 871, which was the twenty-third of king Alfred's life [i.e. he was twenty-two], the pagan army, of hateful memory, left the East-Angles, and entering the kingdom of the West- Saxons…scoured the country for plunder….
The Danes, or “pagan army” as Bishop Asser terms them, surprised and captured the town of Reading. From there, they began to send out raiding parties to loot the surrounding farms. The locals did an admirable job fending off the Danes until their king, Æthelred, arrived four days later, accompanied by his younger brother Alfred and the hastily gathered military of Wessex.

In his book The White Horse King, Benjamin Merkle notes that:
This would be the first actual combat that either Æthelred or Alfred had ever faced. The closest the two brothers had come to real fighting had been during the siege of Nottingham—a siege that had been resolved with the payment of the danegeld rather than with the sword point. Now Æthelred, twenty-five, and Alfred, twenty-two, arranged the might of Wessex for an assault on the Viking defenses, a daunting task. 
What followed was a disaster—as assaults on well-fortified towns held by skilled opponents often are. After much blood had been spilled, and after Æthelred, Alfred, and the men of Wessex had failed to breach the Danish defenses, their enemies poured through the gate and the attackers fled in a panicked retreat.

It was an inauspicious introduction to the world of warfare. But rather than giving up all hope, Æthelred, and Alfred managed to regroup the army for another attempt. The Danes sallied forth out of Reading to find more cities to pillage, and a few days later the army of Wessex “encountered the pagan army at a place called Ashdune, which,” as Bishop Asser tells us, “means the ‘Hill of the Ash.’” The exact location of the Battle of Ashdown is debated by historians, but popular tradition places it at Whitehorse Hill—where the famous stylized horse is carved into the grassy hillside, the white chalk horse that G. K. Chesterton refers to in his epic poem.



But whether or not it was on the slopes of Whitehorse Hill, it is certain that the Danes held the higher ground at Ashdown, looking down from the hill onto the West Saxons ranged below. Bishop Asser wrote:
The pagans had divided themselves into two bodies, and began to prepare defences, for they had two kings and many earls, so they gave the middle part of the army to the two kings, and the other part to all their earls. Which the Christians perceiving, divided their army also into two troops, and also began to construct defences.
Æthelred, being the king, was to engage the Danish kings. Alfred would engage the part of the Danish army led by the earls. Merkle notes that with Alfred’s lack of military experience and with the disaster at Reading fresh on everyone’s minds, “he had little to commend himself to the men of Wessex who were now expected to follow him up the soon-to-be-bloodied slope of Ashdown.”

The Danish warriors started to yell their usual taunts from the top of the hill, insulting the West Saxons’ parentage and manhood to the best of their abilities. Merkle writes:
But far more dismaying to Alfred than the taunting force on the hillside ahead was the absence on either flank of his brother and the second half of the Wessex army. The plan had been for both Alfred and Æthelred to immediately muster their forces and march to face the Danes. But Æthelred was nowhere in sight.
Where was Æthelred? Bishop Asser tells us that he was in his tent praying and hearing mass. And despite the fact that the battle was ready to be joined, he refused to put on his armor until the priest was done. His actions—or rather, his inaction—can either be seen as very pious or very cowardly. It certainly placed Alfred in a difficult position.

Returning to Bishop Asser, we read that “Alfred, though possessing a subordinate authority, could no longer support the troops of the enemy, unless he retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother.” Inexperienced as he was, Alfred discerned that he needed to act now, before the Danes swept down the hill like a tidal wave uprooting everything in their path. And so, despite the absence of his brother the king and despite the lack of a full half of the Saxon army, Alfred did what he had to. He charged up the hill—where the Vikings possessed both better ground and superior numbers.

The results were markedly better than the assault on Reading that the Saxons had made four days ago.
And when both armies had fought long and bravely, at last the pagans, by the divine judgment, were no longer able to bear the attacks of the Christians, and having lost a great part of their army, took to a disgraceful flight. One of their two kings, and five earls were there slain, together with many thousand pagans, who fell on all sides, covering with their bodies the whole plain of Ashdune.
In the above description of the battle, Bishop Asser does not mention the turning point of the battle which sent the “pagans” into “disgraceful flight.” When Alfred’s men charged up the hill, the Danes supposed that they were facing the whole of the Wessex army. They formed a shield wall and concentrated all their forces on Alfred.

When Æthelred finally finished his prayers and led the second half of the army against the enemy flank, the Danes were taken completely by surprise. In stark contrast to the battle at Reading, it was now the invaders’ turn to panic. Their shield wall crumbled and they fled pursued all day and all night till they reached the cover of the defenses they had erected at Reading.

In terms of significance, the Battle of Ashdown was not a great turning point militarily. The men of Wessex had lost a great deal of their number, just as the Danes had, and the weakened Wessex army was still unable to drive the Danes out of their stronghold. The Saxons suffered two more crushing defeats in the succeeding months, and Æthelred , receiving a serious wound, died not long afterward from infection.

The significance of the Battle of Ashdown lies in this—that it was a great turning point in the life of Alfred and in the confidence of the Saxons. Up until this point, Alfred had never led an army to victory. And up until this point, the Saxons had never defeated this large a company of Danes in pitched battle.

The Battle of Ashdown, on January 8, 871, showed the people of West Sussex that there was hope—that their enemies were not as invincible as they had feared, and that their soon-to-be king Alfred had the intelligence and the courage to overcome them.
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Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Asser. The Life of King Alfred. Trans. J.A. Giles. http://omacl.org/KingAlfred/ (accessed January 6, 2014).

Chesterton, G. K. The Ballad of the White Horse.  http://www.archive.org/stream/theballadofthewh01719gut/botwh10.txt (accessed January 6, 2014)

Merkle, Benjamin. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

5 comments:

  1. G. K. Chesterton was an amazing Christian thinker of his time. Thank you for the thoughtful post!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Regan! Chesterton's book Orthodoxy is one of my top ten favorite books.

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    2. Yes, I have that one. A bit difficult to get through in places, it is still a classic.

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  2. An absolutely terrific post. I live near Winchester UK where there is a magnificent statue of King Alfred to be seen.

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    1. Thanks, Louise! I'd love to visit Winchester someday.

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