Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Smashing the Vikings

Alfred from hiding to triumph

King Alfred the Great (849-899) was King of Wessex - never quite King of England - and though the Victorians glorified him with almost saintly qualities - it's become fashionable with our society of sceptics to not quite bash the fellow - but to try and belittle his achievements.  Churchill himself said that Alfred was the greatest ever Englishman - yet some modern publications have even gone as far as saying he was a lucky old so and so in his dealings with the Vikings.

This is how I was brought up to see Alfred.  His statue at Winchester was resplendent on my ladybird book: the christian king with his sword held as a cross: flowing blonde hair.  A military Jesus of sorts - who could do no wrong.  Yet Alfred was necessarily a ruthless man. He had to be - and in order to gather together a massive army of supporters from a tiny hideout - without texts, emails, mobile phones and even a postal system - well that signifies instant genius in my eyes, even if he did have a stroke of luck in the Vikings losing some of their troops at sea.  Going to seek out Alfred's refuge in the field makes his task seem even more remarkable.  Let's go and have a peep ...

On twelfth night, 878, 1136 years ago - the Vikings happily dropped in on an Anglo Saxon Christmas at Chippenham when they knew their enemy would be off guard.  Wessex was the only kingdom left to conquer.  Kings of previous kingdoms had been butchered 'like eagles' - their guts spread in ghoulish fashion on the floor like a pair of wings.  it was Alfred's turn next - and he knew it.  Taking to his heels he came here.  Doesn't look much does it?  But that 'hump' in the fields of Somerset was once an island surrounded by huge swamps with ways through known only to the locals.  This place is Athelney - and on this very strip of land the English nation as we know it was effectively saved by meticulous planning ...

Where the gates are on this photograph, water would once have ebbed.  The marshes of Somerset were drained gradually in the middle ages - but that hump of green grass has legendary qualities.  It was here that the fugitive king built a fort - probably a wooden stockade enclosing circular huts - and later where he built an abbey in thanksgiving for what this piece of land - the 'isle of the princes' did for him when he needed it.

Here I am at the western tip of the 'island' looking up to the position of the fort, which stood on the skyline. When wandering in this area before finding a place to build, the thoughtful king, according to legend, met a peasant woman who gave him refuge so long as he watched the cakes while she nipped out to Tesco (not quite but it sounds better).  This is more than likely a story made up by the middle age romantics to show the humble qualities of a christian king - but we all like to believe it, don't we?

This is how the island looked: the green area being a treacherous marsh.  Notice how the island was joined to the fortified village of Lyng by a causeway which was later added to in the 13th century.

Henry VIII wrecked a lot of history - including the monastery that stood here - built on the site of Alfred's original chuch on Athelney island.  Now all that remains is this early 19th century monument to the christian warrior king.

And on it, a bust of the great man himself - looking forever wise -  encrusted with mosses and lichens: somewhat eternal.

These raised areas of land may be the only visible traces of Alfred's fort.

The island was popular as a place of refuge and fortification long before Alfred - used in both the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Here's Athelney from the air today - a place of importance largely forgotten and driven past without a second glance.  Perhaps it's best left as place of peace and reflection.

Just 8 miles from Athelney, in fields at North Petherton, Somerset - a peat cutting farmer made a momentous discovery in 1693 with perhaps the most famous archaeological object in England - the stunning Alfred Jewel.  It may well have been dropped by the king or one of his colleagues on the journey to or from the fort and was probably the head of a book marker for reading large manuscripts.  Inscribed in gold around the rock crystal and enamel plaque: 'Aelfred mec heht gewrycan' or 'Alfred ordered me to be made.' If you ever get chance to see just one musuem piece in your life - it has to be this one.  I took the picture in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. I spent two hours looking at it!

After miraculous guerilla warfare - probably raiding small Danish parties and spying to gather information about the Viking leader, Guthrum's whereabouts - Alfred emerged to meet the men of Somerset and what fighting soldiers he had left at a place called Egbert's Stone - (we'll visit its supposed site another time) and then he marched into Wiltshire to meet the Viking army at Ethandun (Edington) just four months after being routed at Chippenham.  No emails or texts from this man ... just sheer skill and daring.

Guthrum was playing  a watching and waiting game ... knowing Alfred was on the way - and it is believed he chose the high ground of Bratton Hill Fort just behind where the Westbury White Horse now lies.  Here. he could see everything that moved in the valleys below ... you can just see the banking of the fort above the horse.

Nobody knows for certain exactly where Ethandun was fought, but after reading all the sources and studying the landscape - this is my educated guess at the battlefield.  The red flag (left skyline) is a danger flag for the army firing range.  The hill fort lies just off the picture to the left.  It's likely that Guthrum's Vikings were lined up on the high ground across the line of trees on the hill top - and this picure is taken from an approaching Saxon army viewpoint.  The view of the Viking shields glistening on the hilltop must have struck fear into the Saxons - but they were determined men .. knowing that what was left of England was hanging by a thread.. 

Alfred's army most likely approached from the south-west.  The landscape means there is logically only one place where Guthrum could have arranged his shield wall with a full view of, and access to, the valley below, as the other sides are too steep to run down.  

Guthrum's view of the Saxon approach.  Alfred's shield wall would have appeared suddenly on the hill top -  the men hurling abuse at the Danish army.  The Saxons had no cavalry and no archers - just relying on spears, axes, and the occasional sword - with the fighting members of the fryd (farmers who paid military duty to the king) even using pitchforks in battle - bless them!

This was by first view of the battle, as a kid, in my ladybird history book - with Alfred himself stealing the raven banner from the Vikings on the left.  Bishop Asser, Alfred's biographer - tells us that there was 'great slaughter' and that the Danes fled the battlefield and were effectively chased all the way back to Chippenham.

A stone has recently been placed on the hilltop above the Westbury Horse to commemorate the great battle - which effectively saved the English nation.  Defeat - and there would never have been an England.

Alfred's greatness, of course, was seen in the way he had his enemies baptised and allowed them to have a section of England to settle in .  He was realistic enough to know exactly how to deal with the Vikings ... and visiting these sites gets you much closer to the great man - even though he was around such a long, long time ago.  

Stephen x

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