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Viking-Saxon Wars: Battle of Ashdown

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Battle of Ashdown - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Ashdown was fought January 8, 871, and was part of the Viking-Saxon Wars.

Armies & Commanders:

Saxons

Danes

  • King Bagsecg
  • King Halfdan Ragnarsson
  • approx. 800 men

Battle of Ashdown - Background:

In 870, the Danes embarked on an invasion of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Having conquered East Anglia in 865, they sailed up the Thames and came ashore at Maidenhead. Moving inland, they swiftly captured the Royal Villa at Reading and began fortifying the site as their base. As work progressed, the Danish commanders, Kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson, dispatched raiding parties towards Aldermaston. At Englefield, these raiders were met and defeated by Aethelwulf, the Ealdorman of Berkshire. Reinforced by King Ethelred and Prince Alfred, Aethelwulf and the Saxons were able to force the Danes back to Reading.

Battle of Ashdown - The Vikings Strike:

Seeking to follow up on Aethelwulf's victory, Ethelred planned an assault on the fortified camp at Reading. Attacking with his army, Ethelred was unable to break through the defenses and was driven from the field by the Danes. Falling back from Reading, the Saxon army escaped from their pursuers in the Whistley marshes and made camp across the Berkshire Downs. Seeing an opportunity to crush the Saxons, Bagsecg and Halfdan rode out from Reading with the bulk of their army and made for the downs. Spotting the Danish advance, 21-year old Prince Alfred, rushed to rally his brother's forces.

Riding to the top of Blowingstone Hill (Kingstone Lisle), Alfred made use of an ancient perforated sarsen stone. Known as the "Blowing Stone," it was capable of producing a loud, booming sound when blown into correctly. With the signal sent out across the downs, he rode to a hill-fort near Ashdown House to gather his men, while Ethelred's men rallied at nearby Hardwell Camp. Uniting their forces, Ethelred and Alfred learned that the Danes had encamped at nearby Uffington Castle. On the morning of January 8, 871, both forces marched out and formed for battle on the plain of Ashdown.

Battle of Ashdown - The Armies Collide:

Though both armies were in place, neither appeared eager to open the battle. It was during this lull that Ethelred, against Alfred's wishes, departed the field to attend church services at nearby Aston. Unwilling to return until the service was finished, he left Alfred in command. Assessing the situation, Alfred realized that the Danes had occupied a superior position on higher ground. Seeing that they would have to attack first or be defeated, Alfred ordered the Saxons forward. Charging, the Saxon shield wall collided with the Danes and battle commenced.

Clashing near a lone, gnarled thorn tree, the two sides inflicted heavy casualties in the melee that ensued. Among those struck down was Bagsecg as well as five of his earls. With their losses mounting and one of their kings dead, the Danes fled the field and returned to Reading.

Battle of Ashdown - Aftermath:

While the casualties for the Battle of Ashdown are not known, the chronicles of the day report them as being heavy on both sides. Though an enemy, the body of King Bagsecg was buried at Wayland's Smithy with full honors while the bodies of his earls were interred at Seven Barrows near Lambourn. While Ashdown was a triumph for Wessex, the victory proved pyrrhic as the Danes defeated Ethelred and Alfred two weeks later at Basing, then again at Merton. At the latter, Ethelred was mortally wounded and Alfred became king. In 872, after a string of defeats, Alfred made peace with the Danes.

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