Alfred and the Vikings Part 4: The (almost) forgotten battle

Alfred and the Vikings

In 793, a surprise attack on an otherwise peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne marked the beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. In this series I hope to provide an overview of events to explain what happened and why. Whilst the facts I’ve cited are not all universally accepted, they are gleaned from the research I undertook for my books in The Shadow of the Raven Series

As I mentioned in an earlier blog in this series, The Battle of Ethandune in 878 was probably one of the most important ever fought on English soil because if King Alfred had not triumphed there, virtually the whole of England would have been under Viking rule. So, what do we know about it?

Well, the answer is not very much. We’re not even sure exactly where it took place – some say it was in Somerset but more likely it was close to a place called Edington near Chippenham and is therefore sometimes called ‘The Battle of Edington.’ My own interpretation of events is as follows, though I confess there is an element of speculation in some aspects of this as the facts are scarce. 

Memorial to the Battle of Ethandune erected in 2000
Trish Steel, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the humiliating defeat at his Vill in Chippenham, Alfred was determined to win back his kingdom – a seemingly impossible task. Yet he managed to rally his people and, according to reports, when they became aware that he was advancing towards them, the Vikings, still led by Guthrum, took up a position on the ridge at Edington thereby forcing the Saxons to charge uphill. I think this could well include an element of propaganda as, in my view, Alfred is likely to have arrived at Edington first and, as an experienced military commander, would surely have positioned himself on the high ground and thus held the advantage of the field. Remember that Guthrum was ensconced in Chippenham (probably in Alfred’s own Vill) and would not have expected Alfred to have had the ability to raise anything like an army after such a devastating defeat only a few months earlier. When he did become aware of Alfred’s army he would have had little option but to march out to meet it, no doubt confident of victory. It is also suggested that the Vikings outnumbered the Saxons by as much as two or three to one, though any numbers cited in battles at this time must be regarded as conjecture – more likely the men on each side could be counted in their hundreds rather than thousands. So I feel that the suggestion that the Saxons fought uphill was just a way of emphasising what a great victory they achieved and what a great leader they’d found in Alfred. Remember, history is written by the victor not by the vanquished and there are few unbiased contemporary accounts.

To my mind, the greatest mystery of all is how Alfred, having been virtually annihilated in the surprise attack on his Vill at Christmas, managed to raise anything resembling an army so quickly. My novel, Blood & Destiny, offers one possible explanation of how he achieved this but it remains a mystery. It would have helped that the battle was fought at Easter as this would have done much to rouse the deeply religious Saxons given that Alfred, having gone into hiding, was believed by many to have been slain or to have fled abroad. Thus his reappearance at such a critical time must have been seen as some sort of ‘resurrection’ in itself, something which would have helped to stir many loyal Saxons into action even though, after over 80 years of raids and war, many people would probably have craved peace above all else. Also, the Saxons may have felt they had nothing to lose – after all, they were fighting not just for themselves and their families, but for their freedom, their religion and for their whole way of life.

One important aspect of the battle is that Alfred claimed to have had a visitation from St Cuthbert who urged him to avenge the Christian church. St Cuthbert was an important and much revered saint. He had been a bishop at Lindisfarne and the support of such a holy and much loved saint would have encouraged many Saxons to follow Alfred. Bear in mind that the visitation would have seemed believable to many given that St Cuthbert had been disinterred from his grave at Lindisfarne and

Stained glass window at Gloucester Cathedral depicting St Cuthbert Weglinde via Wikimedia Commons

moved to Durham to keep his remains safe from Viking hands. If no longer at rest, it would have been easy and heartening for the deeply religious Saxons to think of the goodly saint supporting their cause.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to grasp is how Alfred managed to defeat the dreaded Vikings.
We know very little about the tactics employed that day or how the battle progressed – though my novel does include a detailed account of what I think may have happened. This is based on the fact that typical Saxon battle tactics would have involved a defensive shield wall, with their foes pressed up hard against them locked in desperate hand to hand combat – but on foot, not on horseback as is sometimes depicted, for at that time most warriors tended not to ride into battle. There is a story of Alfred leading the charge at the battle of Ashdown mounted on a white horse – I find this to be unlikely as commanders usually positioned themselves at the rear of the shield wall from where they could best direct their men using runners to ensure their orders were properly relayed to all. Ironically, a charge on horseback was first used against the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings to devastating effect – but that’s another story.

The outcome was a surprising victory for Alfred, forcing the Vikings to retreat to Chippenham where they held out for ten days before surrendering. Alfred actually showed compassion and wisdom in agreeing the terms of a peace treaty – The Treaty of Wedmore – which ceded control of lands (basically north of Watling Street) to the Vikings provided they left him and his realm in peace. 

ENGLAND AFTER 878
Hel-hama Via Wikimedia Commons

There is one postscript to the battle in that recent archaeological evidence suggests that Alfred may not have stood alone at Edington. Coins struck just after the battle depict Alfred and Ceolwulf II of Mercia sitting side by side, suggesting that he enlisted – or perhaps accepted – help from Ceolwulf to fight a common foe. Or did it reflect the alliance between them once victory had been achieved? Ceolwulf died soon afterwards so Alfred, for reasons of his own, may have chosen to ignore his part in such an important victory.

That concludes this series about Alfred and the vikings which I hope you’ve found of interest. I greatly appreciate all the feedback and comments I’ve received, for which many thanks
I will be posting more blogs on various topics throughout the year – and of course updates regarding my next book – the final reckoning – which should be published in the spring. If you would like to be advised regarding these please sign up to my mailing list.

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