The Scouring of the White Horse
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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 man’s 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 king’s 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 one’s 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 master’s 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.
[Çàêðûòü] 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 can’t 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 Alfred’s 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
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 Berne’s 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
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
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. Mary’s Church at the English School.77
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
And they were rare then as now, and then as now men went their own way, and not God’s 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 hermit’s life on only bread and water.”1212
And now the Pagan kings, “with a new army, very great, like a flowing river which carries all along with it,”1414
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
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
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 don’t 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 God’s 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
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