A LOCAL BATTLE: The Battle of Ashdown
A LOCAL BATTLE: The Battle of Ashdown
8th January, 871 AD
This is a
tale of local history which is closely associated with the villages of
Aston Tirrold and Aston Upthorpe. Two other local villages also carry some of
the same tales about a ferocious battle being fought between the Saxon and
Danish armies, namely Compton and East Ilsley. But the story given below about
King Ethelred camping on the top of Blewburton Hill the night before the battle
has been passed down generation to generation and is unique to just these two
villages alone. If it is true (or even partly true) it provides fascinating
evidence of the existence of a very long lasting piece of oral testimony that
has survived in these two villages from 871 A.D up to this day.
The local story goes like this:
King Etheldred, (one of the three older brothers to Alfred the Great) was King of Wessex in the year 871. He spent the night before the Battle of Ashdown camped on Blewburton Hill with his troops. (Blewburton camp was a fortified iron age hill fort built on top of Blewburton Hill, protected by ditches and a large wooden defensive stockade. In times of threat the villagers would drive their stock up to the hill bringing their families too).
The Danish (Viking) Army had been spotted by Saxon scouts the day before making their way along the top of the Ridgeway (in 871, the Ridgeway was a well-defined and much used trackway). The Danish army had brought their boats up The Thames river from their camp near Reading to Goring and then marched west from there. Their goal was to take the strategic town of Wantage.
Alfred, King Ethelred’s younger brother was camped with his men consisting of about half the Saxon army, on the top of Kingstanding Hill. (At the start of what is now called The Fairmile near Cholsey. The name Kingstanding is nothing to do with royalty and is one of hundreds of such named hills in the UK. Locally it is thought to be associated with the sighting of a “King” stag with many antlers which was spotted on its summit and the name Kingstanding Hill is far younger than the date of this battle – probably 15th century)
The night before the battle, camped on top of Kingstanding Hill (which is about 1 mile east of Blewburton Hill), Alfred could see the fires of the Danish army to the south across the valley from his camp. He wanted to make sure that he cut the Danish army off from marching any further towards Wantage.
The day of the battle dawned and Alfred had broken camp before dawn and marched his troops along The Fairmile in a pincer movement to try and cut off the advancing Danish Army. King Ethelred was poised to bring the other half of his army up from Blewburton Hill to join Alfred’s troops and every man readied himself for a battle.
But, King Etheldred, being a highly pious man was at prayer and would not commence his march to join Alfred until he had finished hearing Mass, so he remained in prayer in the church in Aston Upthorpe .
(Here the story is fraught with some historical issues as the current All Saints Church was not built until a long time after 871. But what we do not know is whether an earlier, Saxon wooden, thatched church may have stood there and that the later stone chapel of All Saints was built upon its footprint).
Alfred could not wait for Ethelred to arrive, or he would have lost his advantage, so he started the battle without his brother. He led only half the Saxon army, fighting uphill against the Danish army who were massed above him on higher ground. The battle was not going well for Alfred as he was outnumbered, but then his brother King Ethelred arrived just in time and the battle carried on all day and the Danes were finally defeated.
The remnants of the Danish army scattered running back towards their stronghold just outside Reading and had to march through the night and some of the next day to get there. There was a huge loss of life on both sides and many men were slaughtered, their bodies littering the slopes of the Downs for miles around. One other local story is that the valley where many of the Danes fled down into is now called Deans Bottom which is said to be a possible corruption of the name Danes Bottom.
The recorded history and background
to the battle.
The historical accounts for this battle comes from the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and their writers (e:g sources such as Asser and The Peterborough Manuscript – some were written a good number of years after the battle and the writers had never been eye witnesses to the event).
This battle is sometimes referred to as The Battle of Ascendune (using the more ancient Saxon spelling of Ascendune meaning Ash Down. Exactly where Ash Down was has long been disputed. Some historians preferred the White Horse Hill as the battle site, but the Saxon Chronicles although written many years after the event, do say that the Danish army managed to flee back to their camp at Englefield, near Reading during the night and part of the day following the battle. That would not have been possible to achieve if the battle had taken place at the White Horse Hill. About 20 years ago, the majority of historians finally agreed that “Ashdown” was the ancient recorded name for a specific area of the Berkshire Downs that runs from the village of Streatley to the town of Wantage, and that the battle took place adjacent to the prehistoric Ridgeway path, on an area of land somewhere between Aldworth and Aston Upthorpe.
By late 870, the Vikings under Halfdan Ragnarsson spurred on by their success in Northumbria, prepared to attack the southern Kingdom of Wessex. The Saxons of Wessex retreated to the Berkshire Downs area to reassemble their forces after a short but bloody skirmish at the gates to the Danish stronghold at Englefield just outside Reading in the week before Christmas 870. The Saxon Army remained in the area around Wallingford for about 8 days after that skirmish. Wallingford in 871 being a Saxon fortified town where King Ethelred’s troops could rest and re-provision. By the 1st week of January 871, Saxon scouts were reporting that the Danish army was on the move again heading west towards Wantage and King Ethelred and Alfred marched out to meet them again, this time reinforced by the men of Wallingford and the surrounding lands. Maybe even with men from the villages of Estune (The Astons’). King Ethelred and Alfred marched their army to block the ancient road (The Ridgeway) across the Berkshire Downs at a spot known to the Saxons as Nachededorne or “the naked thorn”. Thorn Down at Compton, near East Ilsley is one of the contenders for the battle site. The Saxon Chronicles recount that the battle raged back and forward all day around a spot where just one ancient thorn tree stood. The Saxon name of Ilsley (as in the villages of West and East Ilsley) means “Place of Conflict”. East Ilsley, Compton and Aston Upthorpe local histories all record that somewhere very close to all three of the villages, a huge battle took place that had a profound effect on all 3 communities. So, the battle field itself can now with some certainty be placed in that area of the Berkshire Downs adjacent to the Ridgeway track where the 3 parishes of East Ilsley, Compton and Aston Upthorpe intersect. The majority of modern day historians now think the centre of the battle was probably not far from Lowbury Hill.
The Battle of Ashdown was fought on 8 January 871. The Saxon army consisted of around 800 to 1000 men and held a small advantage in numbers, but the Danes held the high ground.
The Battle of Ashdown was only one of a large number of battles and skirmishes between the Saxons and the Danes which lasted over several years. It gets recognised mainly as one of the few, decisive victories that the Saxons scored over the Danish invaders. The year 871 saw King Ethelred die (possibly of wounds sustained in battle) and Alfred become King around Easter that year 871 AD.
If you choose to walk The Fairmile up to join the Ridgeway path, or walk the Ridgeway from Aldworth towards Wantage, look out for a small plaque on a post along the way which gives some information about the Battle of Ashdown.
Judy Barradell-Smith. 2017.
This article is a precis of Judy's chapter on the battle in "A View from the Hill" published by the Blewbury Village Society, edited by Peter Cockrell and Shirley Kay. 2006.