Thomas Hughes.

The Scouring of the White Horse


Nearly a thousand years ago, in the year of our Lord 871, the great battle of Ashdown was fought; but, in order to give you a true idea of its importance, I must begin my story some years earlier; that is to say, in the year of our Lord 866. In this year ?thelbert, king of the West Saxons, died, having ruled his kingdom for five years in peace, with the love of his subjects; and ?thelred, his next brother, who succeeded him, buried his body in Sherborne Minster. In this year Alfred, the younger brother, who afterwards succeeded ?thelred, and was called Alfred the Great, reached his seventeenth year. In the autumn a great army of pagan Danes came over to Britain, and landed in that part of the island which was then called East Anglia, but now Norfolk. These were not the first Danes who had come over to vex England, but none of them ever stayed so long, fought so many battles, or did so much harm (as we should say, speaking according to mans judgment) as these.

A very curious story is told of why they came over here; and as it goes at first sight against a good many of our notions of how the world is governed, and so ought to make us think a little more about the matter, I shall give it you pretty much as it is told by the old chronicler, John Brompton.

There was a man of royal birth in the kingdom of Denmark, named Lodbroc, who had two sons, Hinguar and Hubba. This man embarked one day with his hawk in a small boat to catch ducks, and other wild-fowl on the adjoining sea-coasts and islands. A terrible storm arose, by which Lodbroc was carried away and tossed for several days on every part of the ocean. After numberless perils, he was cast ashore on the coast of Norfolk, near the village of Redham, (at least that must be the name, as I read it in Brompton, though I have not been able to hear of a village of that name on the coast of Norfolk,) where he was found having his hawk alone for his companion, and presented to King Edmund. That king, struck with the manliness of his form, kept him at his court, and heard from his own mouth the history of his adventures. He was then associated with Berne, the kings huntsman, and indulged in all the pleasures of the chase, for in the exercise of both hunting and hawking he was remarkably skilful, and succeeded in capturing both birds and beasts according as he had a mind. In fact, Lodbroc was the sort of man to please King Edmund, for the art of capturing birds and beasts was, next to the art of fighting for ones home and country, the art most esteemed amongst the Anglo-Saxons; who acknowledged that skill and good fortune in this art, as in all others, are among the gifts of God, as we also have often witnessed. But to go on with our story. The skill of Lodbroc bred jealousy in the heart of Berne the huntsman, who one day, as they went out together hunting, unawares set upon Lodbroc, and having foully slain him, buried his body in the thickets of the forest. But Lodbroc had a small harrier dog, which he had bred up from its birth, and which loved him much.

While Berne the huntsman went home with the other hounds, this little dog remained alone with his masters body. In the morning, the king asked what had become of Lodbroc, to which Berne answered that he had parted from him yesterday in the woods, and had not seen him since. At that moment the harrier came into the hall and went round wagging its tail, and fawning on the whole company, but especially on the king; when he had eaten his fill, he again left the hall. This happened often; until some one at last followed the dog to see where he went, and having found the body of the murdered Lodbroc, came and told the story to the king. The affair was now carefully inquired into, and when the truth was at last found out, the huntsman was exposed on the sea, without oars, in the boat which had belonged to Lodbroc. In some days, he was cast ashore in Denmark, and brought before the sons of Lodbroc; who, putting him to the torture, inquired of him what had become of their father, to whom they knew the boat belonged. To this Berne answered, as one might have guessed he would answer, he being a liar and cowardly murderer, that their father Lodbroc had fallen into the hands of Edmund, King of East Anglia, by whose orders he had been put to death. Now, King Edmund was a wise and righteous man, who devoutly undertook the government of the East Angles, and held it with the right hand of power, always adoring and glorifying God for all the good things which he enjoyed;33
See Simeon, A.D. 870.

and it is a pity he did not on this occasion remember, that having safely caught a great scoundrel, the best thing to do with him was to see him hung out of the way himself; for, by letting him go, you see, he gave a chance to the devil, who cant afford to lose such gentlemen as Berne the huntsman out of the world, and has considerable grudges against kings like Edmund.

Well, when Hinguar and Hubba heard the tale of Berne the huntsman, they, like good and true sons, according to the notions of piety then current amongst the Danes, hastened to fit out a fleet to invade England, and avenge their father. And their three sisters wove for them the standard, called the Raven, in one day which flag waved over many a bloody field, from Northumbria to Devonshire, until it was taken by King Alfreds men, under Odda, the Alderman of Devon, before a certain castle in that county, which is called Cynuit by Asser, and Kenuith elsewhere, (the situation of which castle I cannot identify, or the name,) where were slain King Halfdene, a brother of Hinguar and Hubba, and 840 Danish warriors. It was said, that when the Danes were about to gain a battle, a live crow would fly before the middle of the standard; but if they were to be beaten, it would hang motionless.44
See Chronicle of St. Neot, A.D. 878.


So Hinguar and Hubba, as has been said, landed in the country of the East Angles, in the late autumn, bent on vengeance. King Edmund knew nothing of the blood-feud between him and these Danish leaders, by reason of Bernes lying story, so took no more than the usual measures for preparing to attack them; but whether it was that they found King Edmund too strong for them at the time, or for some other reason, they seem to have wintered there quietly, and to have bought horses, and made some sort of truce with the East Angles.55
See Saxon Chron. and Asser, A.D. 866.

But in the spring of the year 867, they crossed the Humber, marched hastily upon York, and took it.

The kingdom of Northumbria was just the place for the army of Pagans and the standard Raven at this time; for it was divided against itself. Osbert, the rightful king, had been playing Tarquin in the house of Bruern Brocard, one of his chief earls; so his people had cast him out, and had taken to themselves a king ?lla, of unkingly blood, and the two were warring against one another when the Danes took York. Late in the autumn, however, a peace was made between Osbert and ?lla, and they marched to York; where within the very walls of the city into which the Northumbrians penetrated, was fought a most bloody battle. In that fight fell almost all the Northumbrian warriors, and both the kings, and a multitude of noble men; and the remainder who escaped made peace with the Pagans.66
See Asser, A.D. 867.

By this time, no doubt, there was small spoil left for Hinguar and Hubba north of the Humber.

Accordingly, in the year 868, the pagan army, leaving Northumbria, marched into Mercia, and surprised and took Nottingham. Then Burhred, King of Mercia, and his witan sent to ?thelred, king of the West Saxons, to come and help them. And ?thelred and Alfred marched to Nottingham with the West Saxon power, and with Burhred besieged the Pagans, there; but they could not force the wall, and there was no great battle, and ?thelred and Alfred went home with their troops. But the Pagans, after wintering at Nottingham, made peace with Burhred and the Mercians; that is to say, such a peace as they loved to make I mean a peace till it was worth their while to come again; for in 874 they came back, drove King Burhred over the sea, and subdued the whole country and Burhred went to Rome and died there, and his body lies in St. Marys Church at the English School.77
See Saxon Chron. and Huntingdon, A.D. 874.


In the year 869, the aforesaid army of Pagans, galloping back to Northumbria, went to York, and there passed the winter; or, in the words of Huntingdon, remained there cruelly for one year. And what sort of a winter was it for the poor Yorkshiremen? There was again a great famine, a mortality among men, and a pest among cattle. Such is the fate of a divided people which can only make truces with its oppressors.

In this winter, Hinguar and Hubba seem to have got large reinforcements from over the sea, headed by two other kings, B?gseeg and Halfdene their brother, for in the year 870 we find them no longer surprising a city, and from thence defying their enemies and oppressing the neighbourhood. Now they march openly and fearlessly across Mercia; and, the day of vengeance having come, burst upon East Anglia, and take up their head-quarters at Thetford. And then comes the saddest part of a sad story. King Edmund, being a king like Josiah, who believed in God and ruled in righteousness, was not the man to see the desolation of any part of his people, or to shut himself up in fenced cities while the pagan cavalry rode through East Anglia so the aforesaid King Edmund gathered his men, and fought fiercely and manfully against the army. But because the merciful God foreknew that he was to arrive at the crown of martyrdom, he there fell gloriously. Of his passion I would fain insert some particulars into our history, that the sons of men may know and perceive how terrible is Christ the Son of God in the counsels of men, and with what glorious triumph he adorns those whom he tries here under the name of suffering, that the saying may be fulfilled, He is not crowned except he strive lawfully. (2 Tim. ii. 5.)88
See Simeon, A.D. 870.

Such is the lesson which the old monk Simeon, pr?centor of the Church of Durham, gets out of the death and martyrdom of King Edmund, and I know not where we are to look for a better. Perhaps it may help us when we think of India99
N.B. This was written in October, 1857.

to remember with Simeon, how terrible is Christ the Son of God in the counsels of men, and with what glorious triumph he adorns those whom he tries here under the name of suffering. For Hinguar and Hubba took the wounded king on the field of battle, and tied him to a tree, because he chose to die sooner than give over his people to them, and there shot him through the body with their arrows.1010
Here is Robert of Glosters account of the martyrdom:
So that atte laste to Estangle agen hym come:
Ther hii barned and robbede and that fole to grounde slowe;
And as wolves among ssep reulych hem to drowe,
Seynt Edmond was tho her kyng, and tho he sey that delvol cas
That me morthred so that fole, and non amendement nas,
He ches levere to deye hym-sulf, that such soreve to ysey
He dude hym vorth among ys ton, nolde he nothyng fle.
Hii nome hym and scourged hym, and suthe naked hym bounde
To a tre, and to hym ssote, and made hym mony a wounde,
That the arewe were on hym tho thycke, that no stede nas byleved.
Atte laste hii martred hym, and smyte of ys heved.
Robert of Glosters Chronicle, p. 263, apud Thomas Hearne. Ed. 1724.

But his people got the body and buried it at Bradoriesunyrthe, now called St. Edmunds Bury, or Bury St. Edmunds;1111
See Saxon Chronicle, and Huntingdon, A.D. 870.

and many miracles were wrought at his tomb, and he was canonized at which honour let all Englishmen rejoice, the earth having as much need as ever of many such kings and saints.

And they were rare then as now, and then as now men went their own way, and not Gods way, and cut out their own work instead of taking his. For when King Edmund was slain, his brother Edwold, dreading the pleasures of the world, and seeing that a hard lot had fallen on himself and his brother, retired to the monastery of Carnelia in Dorsetshire, near a clear well which St. Augustine had formerly brought out of the earth by prayer, to baptize the people in, and there he led a hermits life on only bread and water.1212
See Brompton, A.D. 870.

Yes! and no doubt thought himself righteous and despised others and left the kingdom which God had given him to the Pagans, who subdued all the land and destroyed all the ministers they came to, which Edmund his brother had built and that same time they came to Medeshamstede, and burned and beat it down, slew abbot and monks, and all that place which before was full rich, they reduced to nothing,1313
See Sax Chron., A.D. 870.

while Edwold, who should have been there with the remnant of the East Angles, to make his last stand, like a true shepherd of his people, was eating his bread and drinking his water in peace, by a clear well near the monastery of Carnelia in Dorsetshire.

And now the Pagan kings, with a new army, very great, like a flowing river which carries all along with it,1414
See Huntingdon, A.D. 871.

having doubtless been reinforced again from over the sea, where the story of their victories had spread far and wide, were looking about for some new field for plunder and murder. The whole north and east of England was a desolate wilderness behind them; London was in ruins, and Kent had been harried over and over again by their brethren the sea-kings. But some thirty miles up the Thames was a fair kingdom, stretching far away west, down to the distant sea. This was Wessex, the kingdom of the West Angles, over which ?thelred, the brother of Alfred, was now ruling, and entering on the sixth year of his reign. The kingdom had had peace for ten years, and was full of royal burgs, and rich pastures, with cattle and horses, and sheep. Perhaps Hinguar and Hubba remembered the leaguer of Nottingham three years before, and how the West Angles, with their king and his brother, had hemmed them in and watched them there through a long summer.

In the early years of their inroad, the Pagans would not have dared to brave a united people with ?thelred for king; but they had now grown bold from success, and were in numbers so great that by reason thereof they could not advance together, but went by different roads. So in an early month of the year 871, with their usual swiftness, they marched up the Thames valley and seized on Reading, a royal burg, and the then easternmost city of note in Wessex. Reading is situate on the south bank of the Thames and on the north bank of the Kennet, at the confluence of the two rivers; and, while part of the Pagan host made a rampart between the rivers, to protect their camp and the town which they had taken, a large force, on the third day after their arrival, began scouring the country for plunder, under two of their earls.

But the men of Wessex had increased and multiplied as well as their cattle, and ?thelwulf, Alderman of Berkshire, was a man who raged as a lion in battle. So ?thelwulf, with what men he could get together, fought with the two earls at Englefield, though he had but a small band of Christians with him. But he cheered his men, saying to them, though they attack us with the advantage of more men we may despise them, for our commander Christ, is braver than they.1515
See Simeon, A.D. 871.

Whereupon the men of Wessex buckled to their work under the oaks of Englefield Chase (afterwards beloved by the great Queen Bess), and there discomfited the pagans very sore, and slew one of the two earls. In one of the old chroniclers, there are a few lines which may partly account for ?thelwulfs victory; their two consuls, says ?thelwerd, forgetting that they were not on board their fleet, rode proudly through fields and meadows on horseback, which nature had denied them; possibly therefore these were the new comers, who had just joined the Pagan army and were not used to horses or landfighting.

Within the next three days King ?thelred and his brother Alfred came up from the west, each leading a strong band of West Saxon warriors, and joined ?thelwulf; and on the fourth day they attacked the Pagans at Reading. Those who were outside the rampart they cut to pieces, and at first had the vantage; but the Pagans came out with all their forces, and after great slaughter had been made on either hand, and the brave ?thelwulf had been slain, the Pagans had possession of the place of death.1616
See Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 871.

Thus the chronicle states it; probably the men of Wessex were grievously beaten, and went back with their king, in confusion, along the chalk hills to the other end of Berkshire, pursued by B?gseeg and Halfdene, the two lately arrived Danish kings, with the strength of the Pagan host. I suppose that Hinguar and Hubba stayed at Reading, to hold the place of safety; for neither of them were at Ashdown.

But every mile as they fell back added strength to ?thelred and Alfred, as bands of men came up from the rear; from the broad Wiltshire plains over the Kennet at Hungerford, and along the chalk hills from Swindon and Ashbury; from the vales of the Kennet and the Thames on either flank; and a few perhaps already from Glostershire and Oxfordshire, where the news was doubtless spreading like the wind. So ?thelred and his host turned to bay at Ashdown, and set the battle in array against the pagan kings.

There is some question between antiquaries as to where the exact site of this battle is. It must however, it seems to me, be somewhere in the western part of Berkshire; for it is quite impossible that ?thelred and Alfred could have fought at Reading, at Ashdown, and at Basing, as they unquestionably did, within three weeks, if we are to look for Ashdown battle-field either at Ashdown forest, in Essex, or at Ashendon, in the hundred of Bernwood in Buckinghamshire, which are the only sites out of Berkshire claiming this honour, and supported by a tittle of authority. Besides, even supposing these three battles could have been fought in the time, yet the battle of Reading, having gone against the Saxons, (as to which every chronicler agrees,) is it likely that they should have retired past the town and stronghold of the Danes, either northeast into Buckinghamshire, or southeast into Sussex, leaving the whole of Wessex open to the enemy, instead of falling back westward into Wessex, and so covering their own homes? It is perfectly absurd to suppose this, Alfred being one of their generals; and how such ancient and venerable persons as Bishops Kennet and Leland can have talked such nonsense, is hard to say; unless, indeed, they were born, the one in Sussex, the other in Buckinghamshire, in which case it is of course excusable, nay, justifiable in them; but of this I know nothing.

As to the Berkshire sites, I dont see any reason for troubling you with their several titles. I am myself satisfied that the battle was fought here; but all the sites are somewhere on this range of chalk hills, of which the old White Horse is king. So now we will turn to the account of the great battle in the old chroniclers.

About four days after the battle at Reading, King ?thelred and Alfred, his brother, fought against the whole army of the Pagans at Ashdown. And they were in two bodies; in the one were B?gseeg and Halfdene the Pagan kings, and in the other were the earls. Now the Christians had determined that King ?thelred with his men should attack the two Pagan kings, but that Alfred his brother with his men, should take the chance of war against the earls. Things being so settled, the king remained a long time in prayer, hearing the mass, and said he would not leave it till the priest had done, nor abandon the protection of God for that of men. And so he did, which afterwards availed him much with the Almighty, as we shall declare more fully in the sequel. But the Pagans came up quickly to the fight. Then Alfred, though holding a lower authority, as I have been told by those who were there and would not lie, could no longer support the troops of the enemy unless he retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother; so he marched out promptly with his men in a close column and gave battle. He too, as Simeon says, knowing without a doubt that victory would not lie with a multitude of men, but in the pity and mercy of God, and seeing also that, mass or no mass, the Pagans must not be allowed to get between him and his brother. But here I must inform those who are ignorant of the fact, that the field of battle was not equal for both armies. The Pagans occupied the higher ground, and the Christians came up from below. There was also in that place a single stunted thorn-tree, which I myself have seen with my own eyes. Around this tree the opposing hosts came together with loud shouts from all sides, the one to pursue their wicked course, the other to fight for their lives, their dearest ties, and their country. In the midst of the fight, and when Alfred was hard pressed, according to Brompton, for the older chroniclers do not mention this, the king came up with his fresh forces. And when both hosts had fought long and bravely, at last the Pagans, by Gods judgment, could no longer bear the attack of the Christians, and having lost great part of their men, took to a disgraceful flight, and all the Pagan host pursued its flight not only until night, but the next day, even until they reached the stronghold from which they had come out. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach until it became dark.1717
See Asser, A.D. 871.

And the flower of the Pagan youth were there slain, so that neither before nor since was ever such destruction known since the Saxons first gained Britain by their arms. There fell in that battle King B?gseeg and these earls with him; that old Earl Sidroc, to whom may be applied that saying the ancient of evil days, and Earl Sidroc the younger, and Earl Osbern, and Earl Fr?na, and Earl Harold; who, with their men, choosing the broad and spacious way, went down into the depths of the lake; or, let us perhaps hope not, old monk Simeon, seeing that they died gallantly in harness, and that, as you yourself add in the next sentence, they knew not the way of teaching nor understood its paths; it was kept far away from their faces. It is fair to add that Brompton states that ?thelred slew B?gseeg with his spear, and another Pagan of note with his sword, after, he got up to the fight; but the older chroniclers do not mention this.1818
This is Robert of Glosters account of the Battle:
The Kyng and Alfred ys brother nome men ynowe,
Mette hem, and a batayle smyte up Assesdowne
Ther was mony moder chyld, that sone lay ther doune
The batayle ylaste vorte-nygt, and ther were aslawe
Vyf dukes of Dene-march, ar hii wolde wyth drawe,
And mony thousende of other men, and tho gonne hii to fle;
Ac hii adde alle ybe assend, gyf the nyght nadde y bee.
Robert of Gloster, p. 263, apud Thomas Hearne. Ed. 1724.


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