19 November 2009

871 - Alfred's "year of nine battles"

In early January Halfdan marched his still-large army to the Saxon royal estate at Reading on the s.bank of the Thames, during early new Year, subduing the locality and ensconsing his army there.

This town was strategic- the confluence of two rivers Thames and Kennet, providing excellent land and waterway access, and the Danes lost no time in building a wooden rampart 800m long linking the two rivers.

Englefield 6th(?) January. Whilst this rampart was being built, Halfdan sent out a raiding party “two jarls with a great part of their force”. They marched westwards, compelled that direction by the great Windsor forest to the south.

As they marched along the north bank of the Kennet reaching here (12m from their base) they were ambushed by the fyrd of Berkshire under Mercian earldorman Athelwulf (maybe sent by King Ethelred as a screen to locate the Danes whilst he prepared his own army for the onslaught?)

A fierce battle raged at first, but the Danes were broken and one of their jarls killed. Or maybe they fought a rearguard action and weren’t killed?

Reading 10th(?) Wanting to exploit Athelwulf’s success quickly, King Athelred and brother atheling Alfred joined the buoyant earldorman’s army with their own 4days later.

Hacking down every Dane they could overtake outside the walls of the Danish base at Reading, then besieged them. But the Danes sallied out and a ferocious battle ensued, in the carnage Athelwulf was slain and the allies later broke. The royals fled eastwards with the core of their beaten army, then regrouped.

ASHDOWN 14th(?) Having taken 4days to bury his dead and regroup- also scout to make sure the English weren’t lurking, Halfdan seized the initiative and and, presuming the English beaten, marched out to bring them to battle if his men were to recover lost loot unimpinged.

He had to choose a target that would provide his army with food and one that he knew the English were bound to defend. He chose Wallingford- it had granaries, a rich old abbey, fishponds and farms.

However, the king’s scouts alerted him to the Danish movements, and he moved his army onto high ground along the ancient Icknield Way ridge, near an old Roman fort. Just to the south is a slightly lower hollow which drops away sharply.

Alfred was to set a trap, a part of the Saxon army would act as a decoy- luring the Vikings after them, and the rest of the army would trap them against a sharp and sudden steep drop where they would not be able to fight effectively.

The Danes split their army into two divisions as they moved uphill, and the English did likewise (presumably in a shieldwall). Halfdan spotted what he thought was the whole Saxon army (actually the decoy party deliberately trying to be seen, then feinting uphill to the ridge) and moved his entire army after them.

Alfred, urgently tired of waiting for his brother’s wing of the army (but the king was still in prayer), charged his own division uphill against the deceived Danes “like a wild boar” and a fierce battle raged.

The Danes realised too late that this was a trap and were too cramped to swing weapons. As Alfred’s army crashed into them with a ferocity they had little known, they slowly pulled back/ were pushed back to the ridge drop. Also, the ‘decoy’ party was now blocking their escape and driving the Danish flanks uphill, and some Danes began to be driven over the edge- some even killed their own men accidentally in the desperation to swing at Alfred’s determined men.

Finally, Ethelred’s wing charged into the battle, the Danes’ uneven shieldwall with fierce impact, and a lengthy and fierce struggle rang out. Battle-lines turned out of kilter and casualties were heavy on both sides- as the day wore on “the fiercest fighting was around a single thorn tree”

But eventually the Danes broke and a savage rout ensued. The Danes may have lost half of their army, including one of their two kings, five jarls. Many were viciously hunted down in the fading light by vengeful Saxons, all the way back to Reading..

It was soon after this that a Danish “Summer army” landed, led by Kings Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend, swelling the enemy horde, effecting Saxon morale despite this great victory.

Basing January 22nd After receiving re-inforcements, Halfdan faced the depleted Saxons in battle here (seeking battle, or raiding in force?). In a brutal but long battle, the Danes eventually ‘held the field’ of battle. Both armies withdrew to regroup and rest, and Halfdan saw his chance to seize Wallingford, then moved south against the King’s army.

Meretun March (unknown site- maybe Marten on the Inkpen ridgeway, 20m north of Wilton?)

Once again fighting in two divisions each, another brutal and closely-fought battle where “there was great slaughter on both sides”. But the Danes again had the edge.

Was Ethelred severely wounded at this battle? It is not recorded anywhere, or was it an illness (the ‘family’ illness?) brought on by the constant worries and strains of kingship? He died on April 15th and was buried at Wimborne minster (later destroyed by Viking raids), with Alfred present.

Despite having two young sons, Ethelred’s proven brother, Alfred, was elected king by the witan and he succeeded to a desperate kingdom.

Wilton King Alfred and his depleted army- here the men of Berkshire and maybe Hampshire- had been driven back across the eastern borders of Wiltshire and Dorset. Here they and Halfdan –

“fought with a small force against the whole [Viking] army and put it to flight far into the day”

But again, despite great losses on both sides, the Danes held the field.

Three more unnamed battles were also fought, but as they are unrecorded by the Chroniclers, maybe they were also English defeats?

After Wilton, a victorious sea battle against the Danes in which he captured one of “seven crews of ships” and routed the rest.

Alfred, having fought the Danes to a standstill, now offered the Danes terms that they should leave Wessex in peace –and payments by heavy taxation of his people, of Danegeld (unknown amount, but likely huge).

They accepted- Alfred needed a breathing space to regroup; Halfdan had overstretched his lines of supply and communication, and his casualties had cost him dear (he moved on to Reading, despite the military advantage he hald), both sides knowing they would be back.