Thursday 6 April 2017

The Battle Of Ashdown

The interest in writing about this battle was all started when I came across this mural in a tunnel under the A34 along the Ridgeway Path I had heard of the battle before and realised it must have taken place locally if they had painted the mural where it was.  After reading some of the history I realised I know were most of this took place and set out to show how the areas looked now. Some of the history in here comes from sources in books of on the internet and could be myth or fact, the places are real and are shown in the photos I took and the maps I have shown. The  words I have written are my thoughts on what happened using the history I have read. I welcome comments on your thoughts about it

The Battle of Ashdown took place on 8 January 871 in Berkshire. Alfred the Great (A local lad from Wantage), then a prince of only 21, led the army of his brother, King Ethelred of Wessex, in a victorious battle against the invading Danes.
Now there are various accounts as to where it all took place and you can read different history's but the one I am going to use is the Royal Berkshire History account of what happened.
As I said King Alfred was a local lad being brought up in the Royal Palace that was around Wantage  and by the time he was 22  his brother King Ethelred 1st who had been holding the country together against the Danes. By that time the Danes had been marching across the country from East Anglia and had sailed up the Thames to Reading where they had made a stronghold between the River Thames and Kennet. From there they had made a raiding party towards Aldermaston & Englefield only to be defeated by one of the local Earls Aethelwolf. The Saxons Aethelwolf was joined by Ethlered pushed them back to their stronghold in Reading were they tried to overcome the defences. In the fighting Aethelwolf was killed and the Saxons only escaped  across the twin fords at Tyford when the Danes got lost in the marshes.
A few days later flushed with the victory the Danes Marched out to attack the Saxons at Wallingford which is where we start. If you were in Wallingford now you would find Saxon defences which were built after Alfred was made King. There was a church in the town from that time which had been lost and many years ago a burial site was found that was thought to be from the church.
The Saxons had gathered outside Cholsey on Kingstanding Hill and must have watched the fires burning in the distance

 This is Kingstanding Hill you see in the Distance  which is part of the Cholsey Downs

This panoramic shot was taken like the last from by Lollingdon Hill and shows Kingstanding hill again with the downs extending right towards Astons. (The Astons are Aston Upthorp and Aston Tyrold) The account I read made me think the Saxons would have had a good view of the area from the hill. I used to play on the downs as a child but never took much notice of what was there.

So I went to the downs and found a spot along the hedge like I could get to the fence from and this is what I saw from Kingstanding Hill. Quite a view. The place I took the hill photo from is over to the left and Cholsey is in the distance with Wallingford just beyond so like I said the Saxon would have seen the smoke rising from the fires

This is a zoomed shot of Cholsey Church and Manor Farm. Parts of the Saxon Church survive and in Alfred's time most of the village would have been a lot smaller and the would not have been there

Here we look towards the Village now, to the left you can make out a spire which is St Peters in Wallingford. So as you can see you get a good view from the place. 
In the Account Alfred  had wanted to attack the Danes but his brother King Ethelred wanted to pray for guidance and went to a local church in the Astons

 The above map gives an idea to how the land lies now but the villages are around where they would have been in Alfred's time The Red is the Danes, Blue is Alfred and Black is King Ethelred

There are two churches in the villages but I would not be surprised if it was this one he went to, the reason is because the church dates back to Norman times & I have no doubt was built on the site of the old one. The track you see to the right will take you past Blewberton Hill and on to the Downs. The hill is an old Hillfort and gives a good view of the surrounding area and from the top you can see all the way to Cholsey and Wallingford. No doubt he and his entourage were camped there while he prayed.
 All this left Alfred with a dilemma about attacking the Danes. He rode back to  the Blowing Stone at Kingstone Lisle, the village taking its name from King's Stone from Kinstanding hill which is the best part of 20 miles

This is the Blowing Stone, it used to be at the top of Blowingstone Hill probably nearer Rams Hill and when blown gives a sound like a calf bellowing. Alfred was supposed to have blown it and and called the local Militia to arms. You can make it sound but you have to try hard. I wonder if  the Saxon Horns sounded to call the troops as he blew in the stone and  a legend was born.

Alfred amassed his men at a castle that now bares his name near  Ashbury while his brother  camped at Comptom Baeuchamp below Uffinton Castle where the Danes had amassed. Now if you look at the map you can see all these places are within a stones throw of each other so to speak. The Danes would have seen the Kings Camp and he would have been glaring back at them. Alfred on the other had was out of sight over a hill.

 The Kings camp would have been over to the left of the picture behind the woods on the left down the hill

Alfreds camp was over the other side of the line of trees you see  and well out of sight of the Danes

Uffington Castle where the Danes were camped

The map above shows the encampments Black the King, Red the Danes and Blue Alfred

According to the account 
  " On the morning of 8th January 871, the two sides met on the plain known as 'Aschendune' or Ashdown, where a single stunted thorn-tree grew: a tree worshipped by the ancient druids. They drew up their troops in two columns each. The Danish divisions were commanded by their Kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan, and five Earls; the English by Ethelred and Alfred. There they waited, jeering and shouting at one another. Alfred was keen to get to grips with the enemy, but Ethelred decided to spend the ensuing lull in prayer for victory. He left the battlefield for the little church at Aston, and, despite Alfred’s insistence, he would not return until the priest had finished!" 
This meant Ethelred had to ride nigh on twenty miles to say his prayers and he would have had to get past the Danes

 " So the young Prince had to make a decision: should he wait for his brother or fight the battle without him? He could not keep his troops on edge for long. The Danes had already deployed themselves on the higher ground, and to let them charge first would mean certain defeat. So despite his brother’s orders to the contrary, Alfred rode forth and gave the cry for his own men to attack first and the battle to begin. Never had Berkshire seen such carnage, and never would it again. The bravery of the English warriors overcame all disadvantages, and after a long and arduous conflict, the invaders were no longer able to withstand the Saxon attacks. They were chased from the field across Berkshire to Whistley Marsh where their previous conflict had ended. Thousands of bodies covered the plain, amongst them, King Bagsecg and the five Danish Earls. Victory was Alfred’s."

I think accounts get out of hand when told from one person to another and things get elaborated. I have no doubt Alfred & his Brother  King Ethelred did watch the Danes from Kingstanding Hill and Alfred raced back to gather the troops together. The King came after with his retinue and camped at Comptom Baeuchamp, the Danes would have seen them leaving and followed trying to finish what had started and the night the camped at Uffington could only see the Kings camp. If the King had left for Aston Alfred  would have had a real dilemma so in  the morning there was a lot of jeering and fist waving from both sides and when the King forces lined up to face with the Danes and started to move up hill the Danes would be ready to fight thinking they could just roll them back down again. Once the two forces met the Danes would have been to busy fightings the Kings force and  they would have been surprised to see Alfred's force coming along the ridgeway with his men and then realising they were outflanked retreated back along the Ridgeway to go back to Reading. It was probably a running fight with stragglers being picked off by Alfreds men who had more of an advantage being on the Ridgeway. Could the Danes have gotten lost when they got to Blewbury Down and turned right towards Compton?
In the meantime the King split off to go and pray at Aston. So come the morning the Danes found themselves in a boggy bottom at Compton and Alfred just dropped down on them from High with the King following along a little later to mop up. The bottom of Thorn Hill is where the river Pang flows and would have been most likely flooded and boggy from the winter rain & snow so would have been hard work trying to slog through there
"They were chased from the field across Berkshire to Whistley Marsh where their previous conflict had ended"
Whistley Green is by Twyford and right back in the Danes area which brings us back to it being a running battle, it's also another 20 odd miles

The ridgeway going towards Compton

The Ridgeway near Gore Hill looking towards Several Down, if you followed the track it leads straight to Compton

The map shows Thorn Hill ringed in Black is around where the battle is thought to have taken place.
All of the stories are legend  and in reality it is unsure where the battle took place

I have read an account which is more plausible. The Ashdown hills are what is know as the Berkshire downs and where the battle took place. For the life of me I cannot see the battle have happened at Whitehorse hill, it's too far away for the king to travel back & forth and logistics don't hold up,  why would the Danes want to hike 20 odd miles across the downs to fight. It would take at least a day to move all those men and their gear. The current thought and most likely is that the battle took place on Lowbury Hill about a couple of miles from Kingstanding Hill

This account is to me more believable  in  the battle took place round Lowbury Hill. If you look at the map above you can see what I am talking about. This time Black marks the Danes, Blue  King Ethlered , Red Alfred and Yellow  where the battle took place. The green circle I will come to in a bit. Much as in the first account I wrote you have the  Danes coming after the Kings forces along the Thames most likely. Now if the King & Alfred were local they would have had some one watching from Lough Down in the Green Circle as you can see all the way up the Goring Gap well on the way to Reading and the other way towards Wallingford.

The stitch photo above shows the Goring Gap from Streatley Hill, the Thames runs right to left  and is the view you get from where the green circle above is

So someone could have been watching the Danes go past. Alfred and the King were watching from Kingstanding  Hill (Red)  this meant it was all covered. The Danes would not had marched so far to go to meet up with the Saxons. The Account mentions the Planes of Ashendune or Ashdown. The ridge that is known as the Berkshire downs was know as Ashdown or

Ashendune and when you get to the top of them they are quite flat and will take you to White Horse hill 20 odd miles away

This is Lowbury hill as seen from the footpath coming from Blewbury, Aston Tyrold is over to the left of me a few miles away the Ridgeway over to the right over the hill

 What you see here is the Fair Mile looking towards Kingstanding Hill from where I'm stood on Lowbury Hill, as you can see quite easy going to come along here that direction is no doubt where Price Alfred came

Question is how did the Danes arrive?
One suggetion I read was the Danes came up along the Ridgeway by Thurl Down at Streatley

Thurl down is on the left and current Ridgeway splits the valley

This the other side with Lough Down  in the distance (green Circle) to the right

While the Danes trekked up to Streatley Warren at the top the Alfred's scouts could have been watching from the top

This looks back down

Once at the top they would have just walked around this way

and over to Lowbury Hill which is in the distance

My personal view is that  if they were in Cholsey one way was out of the village was along the old Roman road that is assuming the were unfamiliar with the area and took the quickest route which would have brought them to Moulsford where they could have gone along Mousford Bottom below

where a slight incline brought them to Unhill Bottom Below

If you walked on along here the valley bends past Starveall Farm

and turns into Deans Bottom Below

Now this is a good place to catch you enemy from up on the hillside and the Ridgeway is just over to the right of the picture

Arthur and the King only had to come from this direction to catch the Danes to where I'm stood on Lowbury Hill

The trig pillar on Lowbury Hill where we look in the direction of the vale of the White Horse and Wantage.
 Reading the  last account I found on the supposed location was backed up by the various archaeological finds of Dane origin like swords shields and such like, they have been few but nothing like that has been found around Whitehorse Hill. Were the battle was is only known to History but historians uncover more each year, who knows what they will find tomorrow. 

As an afterthought I realise the Danes would have needed to transport men and equipment after the Saxons, the easiest  way would be by boat along the Thames. the problems that would be encountered the are natural weirs and Goring would have been a problem if the current one is anything to go by. There is also the terrain to take into account. The Goring Gap has steep sides and any landfall would need to be on the opposite side of the river which brings you to needing a way back across. Which I think brings you back to Moulsford. This area is more likely where the Rigeway would cross rather than the current one at Goring, it's also nearer to where the Ridgeway carries on  at Mongewell.

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