The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about King Alfred to help us create a community Top 50!

It seems certain that King Alfred the Great (848AD – 899AD) walked or rode on horseback along parts of The Ridgeway, having been born in the royal estate at Wantage and fought the Vikings around a ‘lone thorn tree’ at ‘Ashdown’. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image credit Padre Del El Toro, Wikicommons.

Holding an axe and a scroll, King Alfred’s statue stands proudly in the market square of Wantage, his birthplace. Alfred has been called a ‘great’ king for defending the kingdom against ‘barbarians’, establishing the rule of law and valuing education.

King Alfred was born in 848AD in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex at a time when Vikings – people from the areas known today as Norway, Sweden and Denmark – were coming across the sea to raid the eastern coastline and ultimately settle with their families. Once the eastern kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia were overcome, the Vikings looked further west and south to the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. In their shallow boats, the Vikings pushed inland along rivers, including the River Thames, as well as exploring along the south coast.

It was when the Vikings were forcing their way upstream along the Thames that Alfred, aged around 22 years old, fought alongside his older brother King Æthelred at the Battle of Ashdown in 871AD. Anglo-Saxon documents provide a record of the battle but there are also legends in the local area around The Ridgeway, apparently passed on through the generations. One legend begins with news from a scout that Vikings had been seen on the advance near Goring-on-Thames. Then, according to another legend, Alfred called men to arms by blowing through a hole in a large sarsen stone so that it made a bellowing sound booming across the hills. One legend says that King Æthelred and his men were camped on Blewburton Hill near Blewbury in Oxfordshire, and Alfred was nearby with more men at Kingstanding Hill near Moulsford in Oxfordshire. Another legend places them, respectively, at the hillforts of Hardwell Camp near Kingston Lisle and Alfred’s Castle near Ashdown House. They marched out to meet the Vikings, perhaps along The Ridgeway, and fought back and forth all day around a lone thorn tree – the ‘Nachededorne’ or ‘the naked thorn’. Various locations have been proposed as the battlefield, from White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire to an area of downland called ‘Thorn Down’ near East Ilsley in Berkshire (Ilsley is the Saxon word for ‘place of conflict’). The Vikings were forced to retreat and one local legend points to Deans Bottom – or Dane’s Bottom – near Lowbury Hill in Berkshire as the valley they fled from, leaving bodies scattered across the ground.

The Viking threat persisted into Alfred’s reign and this prompted him to strengthen the defences of strategic towns, including Wallingford and Oxford to control the Thames. Bank and ditch defences can be seen around Wallingford, for example (see image gallery above). He established 33 ‘burhs’ with permanent garrisons about 19 miles apart and they were connected by roads which, maintained for military use, were called ‘herepaths’. Green Street near Avebury in Wiltshire is said to be a herepath and it crosses The Ridgeway. This network of fortified towns and roads enabled an army to quickly assemble and fend off attacks across the kingdom.

After years of attrition, Alfred finally succeeded in compelling the Vikings out of his kingdom with the Battle of Edington in 878AD, and The Ridgeway plays a part in this story too through a fungus and a Viking hoard. Commonly growing on Beech and Elder trees, the black fungus called King Alfred’s Cakes refers to the time Alfred was forced into hiding in the Somerset marshes after a surprise Viking attack upon Chippenham in Wiltshire. A peasant woman, not realising he was the King, left him in charge of cakes cooking on the fire – he let the cakes burn so she told him off! He left the marshes once he had troops gathered from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and met the Vikings led by Guthrum near Edington. The defeated Vikings retreated to Mercia and then, in 879AD, returned to East Anglia possibly by the Icknield Way which runs along the Chiltern Hills northwards and then beyond into East Anglia as far as the Wash in Norfolk. Watlington in Oxfordshire lies on the Icknield Way and it is possible that the Viking army buried the hoard now known as the Watlington Hoard. The hoard is a mixture of Viking and Saxon coins and other valuable items. Alfred was known to have made deals with the Vikings to secure their departure and so this hoard may have been part of such a deal between the two forces.

Notes: More information about the Blowingstone and Watlington Hoard is available in other Top 50 entries.

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