Alfred The Great's Victory at the Battle of Edington

The Battle of Edington was a defining moment in England’s history, marking a crucial victory for King Alfred and his army of the kingdom of Wessex against the Great Heathen Army, which was led by the powerful Dane Guthrum. The battle took place between May 6th and May 12th, 878 and was fought in the area known as “Eandun”. However, until a scholarly consensus was reached, the battle site was widely referred to as the Battle of Ethandun. This all changed when experts agreed that the site was actually located in the present-day village of Edington in Wiltshire.

The victory at the Battle of Edington led to the signing of the Treaty of Wedmore later that year, which signaled the beginning of a new era for the kingdom of Wessex. The treaty was seen as a significant step towards ending the conflict between the Saxons and the Danes and it helped establish the power of King Alfred and his kingdom.

Today, the name of the Battle of Edington continues to be used and is remembered as one of the most important events in England’s history. It is a reminder of King Alfred’s bravery, leadership, and strategic prowess, and it serves as a symbol of the strength and resilience of the kingdom of Wessex.

 

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The Anglo-Saxons A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris
The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris

Increasing Viking Attacks on England in the 830s

It is widely believed that the first Viking attack on Anglo-Saxon England took place between 786 and 802 in the Kingdom of Wessex, specifically at Portland, where three Norse ships arrived and their crew killed the King Beorhtric’s reeve. Later in 793, the holy island of Lindisfarne in the Kingdom of Northumbria was also targeted by the Vikings.

Viking raids on the coast of England became more frequent and intense in the 830s. One of the most notable attacks was the raid on Sheppey in 835. The Wessex army, led by King Ecgberht, fought against the Viking fleet in two battles, Carhampton in 836 and Hingston Down in 838.

The arrival of the “Great Heathen Army” in 865-866 marked a significant change in the pattern of raids, with the focus shifting from sporadic raids to organized conquest and settlement. The army was estimated to have consisted of between 500 and 1,000 men and was led by the Ragnarsson brothers – Ivar, Ubba, and Halfdan. By 870, the Northmen had conquered Northumbria and East Anglia, and launched an attack on Wessex. Mercia had dissolved by 874 and Halfdan left to protect his northern kingdom.

Starting in 875, Guthrum launched multiple attacks on Wessex, coming close to capturing King Alfred at his winter base in Chippenham. After the defeat at the Battle of Ashdown, the Danes controlled the east and northeast of England. In 878, Alfred the Great gathered his West Saxon soldiers and engaged in battle with the Danes, led by Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington.

Before the Battle

Guthrum and his army followed the typical Danish approach of capturing a fortified town and negotiating for money in exchange for their departure from the country. Alfred attempted to minimize the damage by following their movements. In 875, Guthrum’s army entered Wareham and eventually agreed to leave in return for compensation from Alfred. However, in the autumn of 877, the Danes broke their “solid peace” with Alfred by moving to Exeter, even deeper into his kingdom. In January 878, they launched an attack on Chippenham, causing Alfred to retreat with a small group of troops. Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tries to present Alfred as being in control, the evidence suggests otherwise. Despite his efforts, Alfred was unable to effectively combat the Danish threat between 875 and 877 and had to resort to buying them off to maintain peace.

 

The Battle of Eddington

The Memorial to the Battle of Ethandun is a sarsen stone standing in a corner of the public recreation area adjacent to Bratton Castle

The Memorial to the Battle of Ethandun is a sarsen stone standing in a corner of the public recreation area adjacent to Bratton Castle

After the unfortunate events of Twelfth Night, King Alfred was faced with a significant challenge. Despite having a small army, he was unable to reclaim the town of Chippenham from the Danes, who had proven their ability to defend fortified positions in previous battles, such as the Battle of Reading in 871. In order to prepare for another battle, Alfred retreated to the south and worked to fortify his forces. 

Around Easter, Alfred began construction of the Athelney castle, which is the earliest known mention of him after the defeat at Chippenham. To gather troops, he called a levy at Ecgbryhtesstan, where many men from the surrounding counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire who had not yet evacuated joined him. In the following days, he relocated his army to Iley Oak and then to Eandun, where the Battle of Edington took place between May 6 and 12.

Alfred’s army used a tactical approach that was comparable to the tactics used by the Roman infantry. This strategy was known as a “shield wall.” In this formation, the soldiers would place their shields side by side, creating a strong barrier. The purpose of this wall was to protect themselves from enemy attacks and to provide an obstacle for the enemy to overcome. The soldiers would then stick their spears through the small openings in the wall, allowing them to attack the enemy without exposing themselves to danger.

During a grueling battle that lasted for a full day, Alfred’s army exhausted the Danes. Despite their best efforts, the Danes failed to penetrate the impenetrable shield wall of Alfred’s fyrd. Eventually, Alfred’s forces overpowered the Danes and chased them back to the town of Chippenham. There, Alfred enclosed the Danes within his fortress, depriving them of food and supplies. As a result, the famished Danes eventually begged Alfred for peace and agreed to surrender hostages and leave the country.

This treaty was different from previous ones as Alfred had defeated the Danes decisively at Edington, increasing the likelihood that they would comply with the terms of the agreement. This success was largely due to the superiority of Wessex as a military power and the loss of support from other Danish lords for Guthrum. The Danes were also facing internal strife and needed time to reorganize, but they were unable to make the most of the opportunity.

This battle was a significant moment in the history of England, as it marked the beginning of Alfred’s reign as the King of Wessex. His use of the shield wall tactic was an important factor in his victory, and it showcased his strategic thinking and military prowess. Alfred’s success in this battle established him as a strong leader and set the stage for the expansion of the Wessex kingdom.

 

Primary Sources on the location of the Battle

Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are the main sources that provide information on the location of the Battle of Edington. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written during Alfred the Great’s reign and is considered a reliable source, while Asser’s Life was written a few years after the battle, but there is controversy over its authenticity. Despite these controversies, most modern historians believe that the battle took place at Edington, near Westbury in Wiltshire. This conclusion is based on evidence from old manuscripts and the fact that Edington was part of Alfred’s family estate and later became part of Romsey Abbey in Wiltshire.

Since ancient times, various alternative locations for the Battle of Edington have been proposed. One of the earliest examples was Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, who mistakenly placed the battle site in Abingdon instead of Edington. The revival of interest in medieval history during the 19th century led many antiquarians to search for alternate locations for the battle based on name connections to King Alfred.

In an article in a publication called ‘The Athenaeum’ dated 1906, Mr. Greswell, following Bishop Clifford, tries to prove that the decisive battle won by Alfred the Great in 878 was fought at Edington in Somerset. However, his evidence is largely based on the geography of the area and how it aligns with the Danish plan of attack. Bishop Clifford’s theories have failed to convince critical students, and Mr. Greswell has not been successful in strengthening them. He argues that the location of Edington, near Westbury in Wiltshire, is too far inland and does not have a seaboard, but this argument is flawed as it would also mean that Cippanham, which played a significant role in the campaign, would also have to be in Somerset. The author has previously identified Ethandun with Edington in Wiltshire and refutes Mr. Greswell’s arguments point by point. The idea that Dene Forest was named after the Danes is not a credible argument, and Mr. Greswell’s identification of Cynuit with Combwich is based on Bishop Clifford’s questionable methods.

The popularity of King Alfred fueled tourist interest in places associated with him, leading to further exploration and investigation of potential alternative sites for the Battle of Edington. Despite these efforts, the battle is still widely believed to have taken place in the Edington region of Wiltshire.

The Treaty

Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde

Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde

After the decisive victory against the Great Heathen Army led by Guthrum at the Battle of Edington, King Alfred took the opportunity to have Guthrum baptized in Aller, Somerset, with himself as the sponsor. This act was believed to be a strategic move by Alfred to ensure the adherence of the Danes to any future treaties they signed. The Treaty of Wedmore, signed later that year, required Guthrum to return to East Anglia, where he ruled until he died in 890. The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum established the borders between their two kingdoms, Wessex and East Anglia, and aimed to minimize friction and control trade between the two nations.

According to F. L. Attenborough, the terms of peace agreed upon between King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the English nation and East Anglia, included the following provisions:

  1. The boundaries between the two nations shall run along the Thames, Lea, Bedford, and the Ouse to Watling Street.

  2. The value placed on human life, regardless of nationality, is 8 half-marks of pure gold, with exceptions for commoners and Danish freedmen, who are valued at 200 shillings.

  3. In the case of a homicide accusation, the accused must clear themselves with the oaths of 12 king’s thegns if they are a king’s thegn, or with the oaths of 11 peers and 1 king’s thegn if they belong to a lower order. This law applies to any case involving an amount greater than 4 mancuses. If the accused cannot clear themselves, they must pay 3 times the value of the stolen property.

  4. This passage outlines the regulations surrounding the purchase and trade of slaves, horses, and oxen. It requires that buyers know the warrantor when purchasing these goods.

  5. Additionally, the passage states that the movement of slaves and freemen between the Danish host and the speaker’s group is prohibited without permission. However, if individuals wish to trade goods and cattle, it may be allowed, but only with the exchange of hostages as a guarantee for peaceful behavior and as proof against any intention of treachery.

The Treaty of Wedmore has caused some controversy among historians and is often associated with the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that the treaty was executed in Wiltshire, where Jarl Guthrum agreed to surrender to Alfred’s terms and released hostages. This treaty marked the end of the Battle of Edington and the siege of Chippenham, with the stipulation that all Danish forces leave Wessex and Jarl Guthrum convert to Christianity. Three weeks after the treaty, Alfred invited Jarl Guthrum and thirty of his warriors to his camp at Athelney, where Jarl was eventually baptized and given the Christian name Athelstan. King Alfred even made King Athelstan of East Anglia his godson, signaling the final stage of the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

Despite Guthrum’s baptism, it is unclear how seriously he took his conversion to Christianity. However, by the 10th century, the Anglo-Danish leadership had adopted the Anglo-Saxon model of kingship. Alfred’s revisions to Wessex’s military commitments made it more difficult for the Vikings to raid, and by 896, the Vikings had surrendered. The system of military reforms and the Burghal Hidage created by Edward the Elder allowed for the reclaiming of the Northern English lands that were seized by the Danes. This marked the end of the Viking threat to England and paved the way for a period of peace and stability.

Documentary

Source: (History Medieval, 2024)

Sources

  • King Alfred and the Danes | Art UK. (2019). Artuk.org. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/king-alfred-and-the-danes-24027

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, October 20). Battle of Edington. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Edington

  • The Athenaeum : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2014). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/p2athenaeum1906lond/page/302/mode/2up?view=theater

  • Asser’s life of King Alfred : together with the Annals of Saint Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser : Asser, John, -909 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2014). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/asserslifekinga00stevgoog/page/272/mode/2up?view=theater

  • The laws of the earliest English kings : Great Britain : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2014). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/lawsofearliesten00grea/page/96/mode/2up?view=theater‌

  • Alfred the Great and The Battle of Edington – StMU Research Scholars. (2020). Stmuscholars.org. https://stmuscholars.org/alfred-the-great-and-the-battle-of-edington/

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