The Scouring of the White Horse
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Medeshamstede, however, was restored with great splendour in the year 963. The account in the Saxon Chronicle is so illustrative of what was going on in England at the time, that I think I may be allowed to give it, especially as the restoration was the work of a Vale of White Horse man, Ethelwold, Abbot of Abingdon, who was in this year made Bishop of Winchester.
Edgar was king, and Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury – Ethelwold, after strong measures at Winchester, (where “he drove the clerks out of the bishopric because they would not observe any rule, and he set the monks there,”) “went to the king and begged of him that he would give him all the minsters which heathen men had of old time broken down, because he would restore them; and the king joyfully granted it.” Then he restored Ely, and “after that came Bishop Ethelwold to the minster which was called Medeshamstede, which of old time had been destroyed by heathen men. He found nothing there but old walls and wild woods. There found he hidden in the old walls writings that Abbot Hudda had erewhile written, how king Wulfhere and Ethelred his brother had built it, and how they had freed it against king and against bishop, and against all secular service, and how the pope Agatho had confirmed the same by his rescript, and the archbishop ‘deo dedit.’ Then caused he the minster to be built, and set there an abbot who was called Adulf, and caused monks to be there where before was nothing. Then came he to the king and caused him to look at the writings which before were found, and the king answered then and said, I, Edgar, grant and give to-day before God and before the Archbishop Dunstan, freedom to St. Peter’s minster, from king and from bishop, and all the villages that lie thereto, that is to say, Eastfield, and Dodthorp, and Eye, and Paxton. And thus I free it, that no bishop have there any command without the abbot of the minster. And I give the town which is called Oundle, with all which thereto lieth, that is to say, that which is called ‘the eight hundreds,’ and market and toll so freely that neither king, nor bishop, nor earl, nor sheriff have there any command, nor any man except the Abbot alone and him whom he thereto appointeth” – and after giving other lands to Christ and St. Peter through the prayer of Bishop Ethelwold, “with sack and sock, toll and team, and infangthief,” and willing “that a market be in the same town, and no other be between Stamford and Huntingdon,” the king ends: “And I will that all liberties and all the remissions that my predecessors have given, that they stand, and I sign and confirm it with Christ’s rood token. ?” “Then Dunstan the Archbishop of Canterbury answered and said, I grant that all the things which are here given and spoken of, and all the things which thy predecessors and mine have conceded, those will I that they stand; and whosoever this breaketh, then give I him the curse of God, and of all saints, and of all ordained heads, and of myself, unless he come to repentance.And I give in acknowledgment to St. Peter my mass-hackel, and my stole, and my reef, for the service of Christ.” “I, Oswald, Archbishop of York, assent to all these words, by the holy rood which Christ suffered on. ?” “I, Ethelwold, bless all who shall observe this, and I excommunicate all who shall break this, unless he come to repentance.” So the minster at Medeshamstede was set up again under Adulf, who bought lands and greatly enriched it, till Oswald died, and he was chosen Archbishop of York, and was succeeded as abbot by Kenulph, who “first made the wall about the minster; then gave he that to name Peterborough which was before called Medeshamstede.” —Saxon Chronicle A.D. 963.
SITE OF THE BATTLE OF ASHDOWN
There are four spots in Berkshire which claim the honour of being the ?scendun of the chroniclers, where ?thelred and Alfred gained their great victory; they are Ilsley, Ashamstead, Aston in the parish of Bluberry, and Ashdown, close to White Horse Hill. Now it seems clear that Ashdown was, in Saxon times, the name of a district stretching over a considerable portion of the Berkshire chalk range, and it is quite possible that all of the above sites may have been included in that district; therefore, I do not insist much upon the name, though whatever weight is to be attached to it, must tell in favour of the latter site, that of Ashdown. Let us, however, consider the other qualifications of the rival sites.
That of Ilsley is supported, so far as I know, only by Hewitt in his antiquities of the Hundred of Compton (1844); and his argument rests chiefly on the fitness of the ground for the scene of a great battle. He tells us that the detachments of three Waterloo regiments, marching through Ilsley in 1816, when they came to the spot, stopped and called out, “Waterloo! Waterloo!” to one another. He also states that the name Ilsley is, in fact, “Hilde l?g,” the field of battle; but as he has no tradition in his favour, and cannot, so far as I know, point to any remains in the neighbourhood in support of his theory, I think his case must fail, and only mention it to show that I have not overlooked the claim.
Ashamstead, situate five miles to the southeast of Ilsley, is named by the Lysons in their topographical account of Berkshire as the probable site of the battle, but they give no reasons, and are unsupported by tradition or remains.
Aston has a stronger case. It is situate between Wallingford and Ilsley. The range of chalk hills rises just above it, and one detached hill is here thrown out into the vale, on which are still visible considerable earthworks. There is a chapel called Thorn Chapel on the eastern slope of this hill, and I am told there is a tradition that this chapel was built on the spot where some Saxon king heard mass on the morning of a battle. It is suggested by Mr. Lousley and others, that the Saxons occupied this outlying hill, the Danes the opposite range; and that the battle was fought in the valley between, where, when the road was recently altered, a number of bones were found, apparently thrown in together without care, as would be the case after a battle. There are, however, no regular barrows or other remains. Bishop Gibson is in favour of this spot, on account, as it would seem, of a passage in the Saxon Chronicle for the year 1006, which runs as follows: “They” (the Danes) “destroyed Wallingford, and passed a night at Cholsey.” Then they “turned along Ashdown to Cwichelmes Low.”
The bishop says, that Cwichelmes Low (the low or hill of King Cwichelm, who reigned in these parts, and died in the year 636 A.D.) is Cuckhamsley Hill, or Scuchamore Knob, as it is generally called; a high hill in the same chalk range, about ten miles east of White Horse Hill; and he argues that, as the Danes went from Wallingford, by Ashdown, to Cwichelmes Low, we must look for Ashdown between Wallingford and Cuckhamsley Hill. Now Aston lies directly between the two, therefore Aston is Ashdown, and the site of the battle. But the place now called Ashdown is on the further side of Cuckhamsley Hill from Wallingford – therefore the Danes could not have passed it in getting from Wallingford to Cuckhamsley Hill – therefore the modern Ashdown cannot be the site of the battle.
To this I answer, First, the Bishop assumes that Cwichelmes Low is Cuckhamsley Hill, without giving any reason.
Secondly, assuming Cwichelmes Low and Cuckhamsley Hill to be identical; yet, as Ashdown was clearly a large tract of country, the Danes might go from Wallingford, along a part of it, to Cwichelmes Low without passing the battle-field.
Thirdly, the name Aston is written “Estone” in Domesday Book; meaning “East town,” or enclosure, and not “Mons fraxini,” the “Hill of the Ash-tree.”
Fourthly, ?thelred and Alfred would have kept to the hills in their retreat, and never have allowed the Danes to push them out into the Thames-valley, where the Pagan cavalry would have been invaluable; but this must have been the case, if we suppose Aston to be the site of the battle. Lastly, all the above sites are too near to Reading, the farthest being only sixteen miles from that town. But ?thelred and Alfred had been retreating three days, and would therefore much more probably be found at Ashdown by White Horse Hill, which is ten miles farther along the range of hills.
Ashdown, the remaining site, and the one which I believe to be the true one, is the down which surrounds White Horse Hill, in the parish of Uffington. On the highest point of the hill, which is 893 feet above the level of the sea, stands Uffington Castle, a plain of more than eight acres in extent, surrounded by earthworks, and a single deep ditch, which Camden, and other high authorities, say are Danish.
There is another camp, with earthworks, called Hardwell Camp, about a mile W.N.W. of Uffington Castle, and a third smaller circular camp, called King Alfred’s camp, about a mile to the S.W., which may still be made out, close to the wall of Ashdown Park, Lord Craven’s seat, although Aubrey says, that in his time the works were “almost quite defaced, by digging for the Sarsden stones to build my Lord Craven’s house in the Park.” Wise suggests that the Danes held Uffington Castle; that ?thelred was in Hardwell-camp, and Alfred in Alfred’s camp. A mile and a half to the eastward, in which direction the battle must have rolled, as the Saxons slowly gained the day, is a place called the Seven Barrows, where are seven circular burial-mounds, and several other large irregularly-shaped mounds, full of bones; the light soil which covers the chalk is actually black around them. The site agrees in all points with the description in the chroniclers; it is the proper distance from Reading; the name is the one used by the chroniclers, – “Ash-down,” “Mons Fraxini,” “?scendun;” it is likely that ?thelred would have fought somewhere hereabouts to protect Wantage, a royal burg, and his birthplace, which would have been otherwise at the mercy of the enemy; and lastly, there – and not at Cuckhamsley Hill, or elsewhere – is carved the White Horse, which has been from time immemorial held to be a monument of the great victory of Ashdown. For the above reasons, I think we are justified in claiming this as the site of the battle.
WAYLAND SMITH’S CAVE
Wise (see p. 35) says he thinks he has discovered the place of burial of King Basreg, Bagseeg (or whatever his name might be, for it is given in seven or eight different ways in the chroniclers), in Wayland Smith’s cave, which place he describes as follows: —
“The place is distinguished by a parcel of stones set on edge, and enclosing a piece of ground raised a few feet above the common level, which every one knows was the custom of the Danes, as well as of some other northern nations. And Wormius observes, that if any Danish chief was slain in a foreign country, they took care to bury him as pompously as if he had died in his own. Mr. Aubrey’s account of it is this: ‘About a mile [or less] from the Hill [White Horse Hill] there are a great many large stones, which, though very confused, must yet be laid there on purpose. Some of them are placed edgewise, but the rest are so disorderly that one would imagine they were tumbled out of a cart.’ The disorder which Mr. Aubrey speaks of is occasioned by the people having thrown down some of the stones (for they all seem originally to have been set on edge), and broken them to pieces to mend their highways. Those that are left enclose a piece of ground of an irregular figure at present, but which formerly might have been an oblong square, extending only north and south.
“On the east side of the southern extremity stand three squarish flat stones of about four or five feet over each way, set on edge, and supporting a fourth of much larger dimensions, lying flat upon them. These altogether form a cavern or sheltering-place, resembling pretty exactly those described by Wormius, Bartholine, and others, except in the dimensions of the stones; for whereas this may shelter only ten or a dozen sheep from a storm, Wormius mentions one in Denmark that would shelter a hundred.
“I know of no other monument of this sort in England; but in Wales and the Isle of Anglesey there are several not unlike it, called by the natives Cromlechs. The Isle of Anglesey having been the chief seat of the Druids, induced its learned antiquary to ascribe them to the ancient Britons; an assertion that I will not take upon me to contradict, but shall only at this time observe, that I find sufficient authorities to convince me that ours must be Danish.
“Whether this remarkable piece of antiquity ever bore the name of the person here buried is not now to be learned, the true meaning of it being long since lost in ignorance and fable. All the account which the country people are able to give of it is, ‘At this place lived formerly an invisible smith; and if a traveller’s horse had lost a shoe upon the road, he had no more to do than to bring the horse to this place, with a piece of money, and leaving both there for some little time, he might come again and find the money gone, but the horse new shod.’ The stones standing upon the Rudgeway, as it is called (which was the situation that they chose for burial monuments), I suppose gave occasion to the whole being called Wayland Smith, which is the name it was always known by to the country people.
“An English antiquary might find business enough who should attempt to unriddle all the fabulous traditions of the vulgar, which ascribe these works of unknown antiquity to demons and invisible powers.
“Leaving, therefore, the story of the invisible smith to be discussed by those who have more leisure, I only remark, that these stones are, according to the best Danish antiquaries, a burial altar; that their being raised in the midst of a plain field, near the great road, seems to indicate some person there slain and buried, and that this person was probably a chief or king; there being no monument of this sort near that place, perhaps not in England, beside.” (See pp. 35, 36, 37.)
I have given Wise’s statement of his own case, but the better opinion amongst antiquaries seems to be that he is wrong, and that the cromlech, called Wayland Smith’s Cave, is of much earlier date than 871 A.D.
I insert here the note from Kenilworth (note B, p. 218) in which Sir Walter Scott mentions Wayland Smith’s Cave: —
“The great defeat given by Alfred to the Danish invaders, is said by Mr. Gough to have taken place near Ashdown in Berkshire. The burial-place of B?reg, the Danish chief who was slain in this fight, is distinguished by a parcel of stones, less than a mile from the hill, set on edge, enclosing a piece of ground somewhat raised. On the east side of the southern extremity, stand three squarish flat stones, of about four or five feet over either way, supporting a fourth, and now called by the vulgar Wayland Smith, from an idle tradition about an invisible smith replacing lost horseshoes there.” (Gough’s edition of Camden’s Britannica. Vol. I. p. 221.)
“The popular belief still retains memory of this wild legend, which, connected as it is with the site of a Danish sepulchre, may have arisen from some legend concerning the northern Duergar, who resided in the rocks, and were cunning workers in steel and iron. It was believed that Wayland Smith’s fee was sixpence, and that, unlike other workmen, he was offended if more was offered. Of late his offices have been again called to memory; but fiction has in this, as in other cases, taken the liberty to pillage the stores of oral tradition. This monument must be very ancient, for it has been kindly pointed out to me that it is referred to in an ancient Saxon charter as a landmark. The monument has been of late cleared out, and made considerably more conspicuous.”
It will be seen from this that Sir Walter assumes the view of Wise to be correct, but he never saw the place.
As an illustration of one of the methods by which traditions are kept up in the country, I insert some verses written by Job Cork, an Uffington man of two generations back, who was a shepherd on White Horse Hill for fifty years.
There is no merit in the lines beyond quaintness; but they are written in the sort of jingle which the poor remember; they have lived for fifty years and more, and will probably, in quiet corners of the Vale, outlive the productions of much more celebrated versemakers than Job Cork, though probably they were never reduced into writing until written out at my request.
Job Cork was a village humorist, and stories are still told of his sayings, some of which have a good deal of fun in them; I give one example in the exact words in which it was told to me: —
“One night as Job Cork came off the downs, drough-wet to his very skin, it happened his wife had been a baking. So, when he went to bed, his wife took his leather breeches, and put ’em in the oven to dry ’em. When he woke in the morning he began to feel about for his thengs, and he called out, and zed, ‘Betty, where be mee thengs?’ ‘In the oven,’ zed his wife. Zo he looked in the oven and found his leather breeches all cockled up together like a piece of parchment, and he bawled out, ‘O Lard! O Lard! what be I to do? Was ever man plagued as I be?’ ‘Patience, Job, patience, Job,’ zed his wife; ‘remember thy old namesake, how he was plagued.’ ‘Ah!’ zed the old man, ‘’a was plagued surely; but his wife never baked his breeches.’”
Other shepherds of the Hill have been poets in a rough sort of way. I add one of their home-made songs, as I am anxious to uphold the credit of my countrymen as a tuneful race.
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