Part II – Battle of Ethandun
Today in Military History: May 9, AD 878
One modern estimate of the size of the forces gives Alfred's army a total of 2900 men, while Guthrum commanded 3500. Surely, even at a distance of 1100+ years, these numbers are pure speculation. In fact, considering the importance of this battle to the rest of Alfred's reign, the actual description of the fight is...well, rather meager. In the Chronicle, it states simply:
And one day later he went from those camps [near Ecgbert's Stone?] to Iley Oak, and one day later to Ethandun; and there he fought against the entire host [the Danes], and put it to flight...
Alfred's biographer Asser adds only a little more, saying:
When the next day dawned Alfred moved his forces and came to a place called Ethandune, and fighting fiercely in close order [one translation says "dense shieldwall"] against the entire pagan army, he persevered resolutely for a long time; at length he gained the victory by God's will. He destroyed the pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].
...and there you have it! Rather thin gruel, wouldn't you say? There is not even hard evidence for the actual site of the battle, as no topographical information at all is given by any account. Historians have proposed four possible sites, which include:
+ Bratton Camp, an old Iron Age hill-fort near Edington (see photo below). The Vikings often liked to use such places as secure fall-back positions;
+ Edington Hill, also near the village. At its southward end the hill forms a neck of land with a steep slope guarding its western flank and making a strong defensible position;
+ An ancient ditch on a plain three miles south of Edington, which sits athwart the likely route of Alfred's approach to Chippenham, offers a very good defensive position. A local landmark, suggestively named Battlebury Hill, sits nearby. However, this site lies rather far from where the Ethandun estate was located. Finally;
+ There is the possibility that Alfred caught the Danes completely unawares, attacking them in or around the village of Edington itself.
It is tantalizing to imagine Alfred's forces, arrayed in a single, long shieldwall, confronting the Vikings, who probably also drew up in a similar long line of interlocking shields, perhaps on Edington Hill or behind the ditch mentioned above. Perhaps both sides eyeballed each other for a while. Then, the Vikings, realizing they were facing a determined, vengeful foe, launched an all-out attack on the Saxon shieldwall, with frenzied desperation. Javelins and arrows flew, the shouts of the Danes, the smashing of battleaxes on wooden shields, the resolute courage of the men of Wessex. Finally, the Vikings having spent their energy against a seemingly-unbreakable wall of shields and spears, begin their retreat back to their stronghold at Chippenham, with the West Saxon fyrd in hot pursuit like hounds after a boar. But, that is just my view...
Bratton Camp, Wiltshire today
Modern historians speculate that the Danes lost nearly one-third of their men. The Saxons pursued the fleeing Vikings, slaughtering any enemy they caught. The losers fled back to Chippenham, which Alfred blockaded. He took the further precaution of capturing the Vikings' cattle herds and their horses. He also stripped the countryside bare of any provisions which raiding parties might find. After two weeks, the Norsemen "thoroughly terrified by hunger, cold and fear and in the end by despair, sought peace."
Alfred received hostages from Guthrum, but gave none in return – a huge break with past practices. Instead, Guthrum and his chief men "swore great oaths" to leave Wessex immediately. Finally, they were compelled to receive Christian baptism. This ceremony took place about three weeks later, sometime in the second week of June, at the town of Aller. Guthrum and 30 of his chief men were baptised, and Alfred stood as Guthrum's godfather, giving the Danish leader the Christian name of Athelstan. Then, according to Asser, "Alfred bestowed many excellent treasures on him and his men."
The baptism of Guthrum and his men at Aller, with Alfred as Guthrum's sponsor, gave Alfred some moral sway over the warriors of the Danelaw. The spiritual parenthood established by Alfred over Guthrum must inevitably have implied some level of cultural and political superiority, and Guthrum, as the spiritual son of Alfred, was in turn supposed by the Saxons to have acknowledged the future on-going superiority of the king whose religion he had been forced to adopt. However, the Danes disputed this. Most Vikings still held the "White Christ" as just one of a number of gods which they worshipped when they saw fit.
Guthrum apparently kept his promise not to attack Wessex. He concentrated on governing that portion of England over which he held sway. As part of his rulership, Guthrum also minted coins which bore his Christianized name of Athelstan. He ruled East Anglia as a Christian king until his death in 890.
One of Guthrum's (Athelstan's) coins
With the immediate threat of Guthrum neutralized, Alfred now concentrated on his rule of Wessex. Alfred reorganized the taxation system, update the system used to call up the fyrd, reformed the legal system, and expanded centers for learning and religion. King Alfred the Great – the only English monarch to receive that sobriquet – lived until October 26, 899, probably dying of Crohn's disease, which had dogged him most of his adult life.
Footnote #1: Alfred's remains were eventually interred at Hyde Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Winchester. However, when King Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries in 1539, Hyde Abbey was torn down and Alfred's grave left intact. Then in about 1788 a prison was being constructed on the old abbey site by convicts. Three stone coffins were found, which were opened, stripped of lead linings, and the bones scattered.
Footnote #2: A monument to the battle was dedicated in the year 2000 close to the Bratton Camp site (see below). A plaque with the monument states:
To commemorate the battle of Ethandun fought in this vicinity May 878 AD when King Alfred the Great defeated the Viking army, giving birth to the English nationhood. Unveiled by the 7th Marquess of Bath 5th November 2000.
Footnote #3: Besides the usual Internet sources, I owe some of the background of this battle to the book "Battle of the Dark Ages: British Battlefields AD 410 to 1065" by Peter Marren (Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2006).