19 November 2009

878: Alfred - burning cakes and battle-victory!

Rout at Chippenham January- Having taken 5mths to reinforce, strengthen and marshall his reduced army after the fleet-part’s disaster off Swanage, Guthrum now acted fast- whilst the English celebrated the Christian ‘twelfth night’.

It being a Christian feast day the Saxons were presumably taken by surprise - indeed it is possible that Wulfhere, Ealdorman of Wiltshire, allowed the attack either through negligence or intent, for on Alfred's return to power later in 878 Wulfhere was stripped of his role as Ealdorman.

Wulfhere was guilty of deserting an army under the personal command of the king. But more importantly, he had contravened his oath to king and country(the opening chapter of “Alfred’s Code”)- in extreme cases this could result in forfeiture of lands and titles.

According to the Code, an oath-breaker who refused to submit to punishment could be physically forced to lose his arms and lands.

Curiously, acc to a charter, Wulfhere and his wife were forfeited of their lands due to his desertion, though her role in this is unclear and she is not even named in the Charter, as laws limited a married woman’s liability.

She must have played some role to even be jointly ousted from their estate, as laws were clearly defined about joint involvement. Has Wulfhere acted alone without her, he alone would have been exiled.

Guthrum, attempting to capture Alfred alive- and knowing that he would be leaving one well-stocked burh to seize another- to put him through the horrific ordeal of the ‘blood eagle’, Guthrum rode over the snowy Wiltshire landscape and seized Chippenham- maybe many English were drunk (off-duty) and the guards etc too few and unready to hold the attack (without the disbanded fyrd)?

Many nobles submitted, but Alfred and many men escaped. For the next 4mths Guthrum held this fortified burh.

Desperate Alfred Pursued by Guthrum’s men on horseback from a chaotic Chippenham, and rebuffed by many of even his own unsympathetic and fearful kinsmen in towns when asking for/ demanding shelter/food (whom he surely punished later or raided and attacked from Athelney?), and who may have informed the enemy of his whereabouts(?) Alfred fled for the safety of Athelney- a series of marshy and lethal waterways and islets. He finally reached there three weeks later.

Athelney marshes The levels comprised of both woodland and fenland in which stags, wild goats and other beats grazed (wild boars?), and it was criss-crossed with timer trackways, some submerged, leading to settlements in the extensive and impassable low-lying marshes, therefore perfect for guerrilla warfare, and v.difficult to penetrate.

Rising out of the fenland, and often flooded by the inflowing sea-waters from the Bristol Channel, were scattered islets of high ground.

One of these had been inhabited by a an order of holy men in the 4thC, seeking solitude for the practices of their devotions. The church which grew up around them was rebuilt in the 8thC and was the early religious life fabric of Glastonbury Abbey, which quickly became known as a centre for learning and Celtic Christiantity.

There existed the constant danger that Guthrum might weave his fleet up the river Parret and locate Alfred’s stronghold there, who already led aggressive raids upon the Danes and also to gather supplies (whether his own people agreed to or not?).

As a youth, Alfred would have hunted, fished and hawked there, knowing the marshes well. The king, some nobles, retainers, family (Edward?) and the men of Somerset with their earl, Aethelnoth – maybe 200 men in all- built a fortified base in the murky, dangerous and swampy islets of the isle of Athelney. Even today floods can make this region inaccessible. To survive, the desperate Alfred had to steal, borrow and raid in order to eat, moving quietly through swamps and secret trackways.

All the while keeping in touch with his underground resistance network with the men of Wiltshire and Hampshire (and others from Somerset?), Alfred also sent out/led guerrilla raids against probing/lost Vikings.

If Alfred had given up and sailed off into exile, the English language would have died out, and we would be speaking Danish/Norse. But he his out with his retainers and heavily-armed thegns etc.

Ubba having survived the battle off Ireland (West?) which killed his brother Halfdan, he had regrouped at Anglesey and sailed to Guthrum for orders from his waiting base in S.Wales, and his orders were to seek out Alfred from behind from his base there with ’23 ships’ of 1200 men- part of a pincer attack.

Battle at Countisbury Hill The Devonshire fyrd, under earldorman Odda, was aware that the Danes were probing the north Devon coastline to try to sneak into Alfred’s hideaway, and he knew he was the last hope of stopping them- he entrenched his Devon men in a disused ancient fort here.

But because they had hurried there (to avoid Ubba’s approaching men), it’s defences were poor and the walls and meagre provisions could not withstand a major siege/attack.

Likewise, Ubba knew he had to defeat the entrenched Devonshire army blocking his path if he were to commence with Halfdan’s plan to pincer-attack Alfred and, caring not to lose precious casualties in a frontal assault, besieged it.

Instead of delaying until they were suffering from extreme thirst and hunger and couldn’t fight, Odda’s men sallied out against the Danes- crashing into them with all the ferocity and of defending homesteaders, eventually massacring the Vikings so badly that they were routed back to their ships.

Out of the 1200 Danes, over 800 were slain, including Ubba himself- Guthrum’s plan had suffered a major reverse, but the English also captured the Raven banner called Hrefn or the Raven.

While the Anglo-Saxon chronicle only briefly mentions the battle, it does draw attention to the capture of the banner, which is interesting considering that it does not single out any other trophy captured by the English in the many other victories they had against the Danes.

What made this banner so special? Sources tell us that out of the three commanding brothers of the Vikings – Halfdan, Ivar, and Ubba – Ubba was the most superstitious and prone to consultation of pagan seers to dictate his course of action in battle.

As Ubba’s battle flag, the Raven banner therefore held specific ritual meaning amongst the Danes, and is even described as being as ritually important to the Danes as the ‘holy ring’ that the Danes used to declare their peace with Alfred after the battle of Edington some months later.

Alfred’s loyal earls After hearing about Odda’s great victory, the king summoned all those earldormen and thegns to him (ie; Athelnoth of Somerset) and the earl of Hampshire, those who had not already either fled overseas or submitted to the Danes. Earldorman Odda meanwhile guarded the Devon coast.

No mention of Dorset nobles/fyrd is recorded as being at Athelney or Ethandun- had their chiefs submitted to Guthrum? Tellingly, this was the stemland of Alfred’s nephew Aethelwold, who would side with the Danes after Alfrd’s death. Earldormen Wulfhere of Wiltshire was ousted from office and fled to Mercia.

In Athelney Alfred secured the loyalty of these nobles and senior commanders with oaths, for the upcoming battle against Guthrum which he was planning. He had also stepped up his guerrilla attacks on the Danes and any disloyal locals. Thus armed with good reconnaissance and preparation, Alfred acted.

By this time Guthrum had moved his army north of Salisbury plain- and when Alfred heard this he decided now was the time to ride his small but warband of leaders, heavily-armed thegns and retainers out of Athelney marshes after six long weeks and -using a probably complex but sadly unrecorded underground network- to unite with the gathered fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire and “they were overjoyed to see him” (Chronicler Athelweard recorded)

Guthrum’s scouts must have reported Saxon burhs emptying of men and, himself warily watching his own back for an un-tamed Alfred, but not yet knowing for sure that the king had ridden out of his secret base, let alone organised a huge army to fight, prepared his (5000?) men on high ground near an old hillfort called Bratton- with a commanding view.

Battle of Ethandun (Edington) May Appearing in view were Alfred’s army (4000 men?). They had no option but to climb the steep hill to the level ridgeway, dispersing the Viking skirmishers (berserkers??) and press forward in a tight, spear-pricked shieldwall against Guthrum’s similar but statis formation- all the while both forces yelled war cries and insults. Weapons beating shields.

The air would have also filled with hand throwing weapons (spears, axes, clubs, bow??)

Alfred’s army clashed with Guthrum’s waiting army and, after a ferocious and grim day-long struggle when the Danes looked like breaking, Alfred ordered his line forward- routing the Danes in a dreadful slaughter- even mounted units pursuing them in a merciless rout as far as Chippenham 15m away.

Outside the now-besieged Danes at Alfred’s former base of Chippenham, the Saxons vengefully slew every Dane they could. Did Guthrum deliberately fight a rearguard action in order to halt casualties? Maybe unlikely given the following…

The Saxons arrived at Chippenham, encircling it and slaughtered any enemy they could find, seizing cattle, weapons and booty. Here the victorious Alfred’s army camped and surrounded the hungry, fearful Danes for two weeks. Guthrum maybe hoped that the Saxons would grow impatient and disperse as at Nottingham, but Alfred held his army firm and ready- despite their poor reputation against Danish strongholds. But it is said that they even reverted to eating their own horses to stay alive.

Guthrum was forced to negotiate with Alfred, who maybe was relieved that, despite his crushing victory, he knew this lethal cat-and-mouse could not go on indefinitely. But, remembering Guthrum’s betrayal at Wareham, Alfred maybe kept his troops on alert.

“The Peace of Wedmore”

To save face for both commanders, Alfred and Guthrum start to talk via envoys. Guthrum –wearing a symbolic white robe and forced to ‘tour’ Wessex to show the English Alfred’s victory- swore an oath to leave Wessex forever and agreed to become Christian (and 30 of his senior leaders). The Danelaw was formed.

Three weeks later at Aller (nr. Athelney), there is a baptismal ceremony and 12days of feasting at Wedmore. They were allowed to stay in Wessex until Autumn - watched closely by Alfred, the Danes moved to Cirencester for a year, then into into distant E.Anglia where they settled and farmed.

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