Alfred may be more famous in Britain for burning cakes than saving the country from the Danes, but few historians dispute his position as the only English king to be awarded the epithet of “Great.”
Alfred’s most famous victory came at Ethandun in 878, but the Battle of Ashdown, fought seven years earlier on 8 January 871 when Alfred was a 21-year old prince, was equally significant in stopping the momentum of the invading Danes.
The Danes had been raiding England’s coasts for decades, but in 866 their attacks reached a new and more dangerous phase when they seized the northern city of York.
A rapid assault on the English kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia followed, and by 871 Wessex, the southernmost kingdom, was the only one left independent. It was ruled by King Ethelred I, though the man tasked with defeating the oncoming Danish onslaught was the king’s pious and studious younger brother Alfred.
Alfred was not the archetypal burly and bearded Saxon warrior, but a man of keen intelligence who won battles through cunning rather than brute force. Despite suffering from a chronic illness believed to have been Crohn’s Disease, Alfred fought on the front line during this early stage of his life.
By the time the Viking armies reached the borders of Wessex their advance seemed unstoppable. They had met with no concerted resistance, and though Ethelred’s kingdom was the richest of the English dominions, its success against the invaders was certainly not guaranteed.
Alfred gives battle
Before Ashdown, Ethelred’s forces had already fought the Danes at Reading, but had been beaten back by the Viking assault. The Wessex forces were now retreating back into friendly territory under the command of Alfred. His troops moved into the Berkshire hills, where he hurriedly assembled some of the local levies to fight in a desperate attempt to halt the Danes.
Ethelred joined the force, and divided the army into two halves, one of which he would command. However, when the Danes arrived the King’s insistence on leading the army in prayer might have caused a dangerous delay. Alfred ignored his brother’s orders however, and launched an audacious attack down the hill against the enemy.
Seeing his brother join battle, Ethelred ordered his forces to engage, and after a bitterly contested melee the Saxons were victorious. Danish leader Bagsecg lay dead, and for the first time it had been proved that the Danish advance could be halted.
Header image credit: Alfred the Great’s statue at Winchester. Credit: Odejea / Commons.