Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 871
This year came the army to Reading in Wessex; and in the course of three nights after rode two earls up, who were met by Alderman Ethelwulf at Englefield; where he fought with them, and obtained the victory. There one of them was slain, whose name was Sidrac. About four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother led their main army to Reading, where they fought with the enemy; and there was much slaughter on either hand, Alderman Ethelwulf being among the slain; but the Danes kept possession of the field. And about four nights after this, King Ethered and Alfred his brother fought with all the army on Ashdown, and the Danes were overcome.
This day in the year 871 was the date of a early victory in the military career of the man who would one day be called Alfred the Great. The Battle of Ashdown, in Berkshire took place on 8 January 871. Alfred the Great, then merely a prince of 21 years age, led King Ethelred of Wessex’s army in a victorious battle against the invading Danes.
Build up to a battle:
In 870 the Danes were rampant. They had already swept through the Kingdom of Northumbria away then in 869 East Anglia fell. Now they sailed up the Thames and captured Reading. Advancing to Englefield they were halted and given a bloody nose by Aethelwulf, the Ealdorman of Berkshire. King Ethelred and Prince Alfred, arrived with their army and the Saxons were able to force the Danes back to Reading. At Reading however the tide of war turned once more in favour of the Danes. The Saxons were unable to break through the defenses of the city and they were was driven back across Whistley marshes and the Berkshire Downs. The Danes advanced out of the city looking to finish the Saxons.
Alfred Takes action
Prince Alfred now acted with considerable vigour in an attempt to rally his brother’s forces. On the downs is a hill called Blowingstone Hill. At its peak is an ancient sarsen stone – “Blowing Stone,” which he used to send out a rallying call across the downs. Then uniting the Saxons he and Ethelred marched out and prepared for battle on the plain of Ashdown. Bizarely at this precise moment, with the Vikings approaching, King Ethelred decided to go to church near by leaving Alfred in command.
Under Prince Alfred -1000 men.
Under Kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson
- approx. 800 men
These figures may not seem large when we think that Waterloo saw 210,000 men engaged BUT in the Dark Ages forces of this size decided the fates of nations.
Battle of Ashdown:
Initially neither army appeared eager to open the battle. The Danes had actually deployed on higher ground and so naturally did not want to leave it. Alfred realized that he must take the initiative and ordered the Saxon shield wall to advance. What followed a brutal battle of attrition with bloody casualties on both sides. King Bagsecg was killed as well as five earls. With their losses heavy teh Danes fled back to Reading.
The chronicles report loses as being heavy on both sides, but while Ashdown was a triumph for Alfred, the victory was short lived as the Danes defeated the Saxons again at Basing and at Merton within a few weeks. At Merton, Ethelred was mortally wounded and Alfred became king. The following year after further defeats Alfred made peace with the Danes. For Alfred there would be many more battles and many more victories and defeats but Ashdown at least stalled the Danes advance through Wessex for a while and kept that kingdom alive.
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