The Scouring of the White Horse
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To finish briefly the history of the rest of the year 871, fourteen days after the battle of Ashdown, ?thelred and Alfred fought another battle with the Pagans (probably with that part which had remained in garrison at Reading, with Hinguar and Hubba, and the relics of Halfdene’s army), at Basing, which seems to have been undecided; and two months afterwards another at Merton. After which, in the summer, reinforcements came from beyond sea, and joined the Pagans; King ?thelred died, and Alfred fought before the winter four more pitched battles. So, as the Saxon Chronicle sums up, “in this year nine general battles were fought against the army in the kingdom south of the Thames; besides which, Alfred, the king’s brother, and single aldermen and king’s thanes, oftentimes made attacks on them which were not numbered, and slew of them within the year one king and nine earls.” This was not what the Pagans reckoned on; they liked fighting very much in reason, as an accompaniment of spoiling a country, and did it well; but to be fighting nine pitched battles in a year, hemmed in in one corner of a rich kingdom (for they never got farther than a few miles into Wiltshire), and getting no spoil even there, was not to their taste; so in the winter they made truce with Alfred, and took themselves off to their old haunts in Mercia and Northumbria, and did not return for five years.
This year, A.D. 871, is a year for Berkshire men to be proud of, for on them fell the brunt of that fiery trial; and their gallant stand probably saved England a hundred years of Paganism. For had they given way at Ashdown, and the reinforcements from over the sea come to a conquering, instead of to a beaten army in the summer, there was nothing to stop the Pagans between Reading and Exeter. The other eight battles were skirmishes in comparison with this one; they scarcely occupy five lines each in the chroniclers, and out of the king and nine Pagan earls who were slain within the year, six fell at Ashdown. It was Alfred’s crowning mercy; and so he felt it to be, and in memory of it he caused his army (tradition says, on the day after the battle) to carve the White Horse, the standard of Hengist, on the hill-side just under the Castle, where it stands as you see until this day.
“Thank you, Sir,” said I, when he paused, “what a grand story it makes! And are those the real words of the old chroniclers, as you call them, Sir, which you used?”
“Yes,” said he, “almost every word is simply a translation from one or other of them, but the greater part is taken from the Chronicle of Asser, who was a contemporary and intimate friend of Alfred, and a very learned and pious ecclesiastic.”
“I suppose they were; mostly priests and monks who wrote the Chronicles then, Sir, for they don’t read at all like our modern histories. They seem a much more religious sort of books.”
“Don’t call them religious books,” said he, “it puts one in mind of religious newspapers, – the greatest curse of our times.Yes, people sneer at the old English chroniclers now-a-days, and prefer the Edda, and all sorts of heathen stuff, to them; but they are great books, Sir, for those who have eyes for them; godly books is the name for them, written by God-fearing men, who were not ashamed of the faith which was in them; – men who believed, Sir, that a living God was ruling in England, and that in his name one of them might defy a thousand. Your historians, now-a-days, Sir, believe that Providence (for they dare not talk of God) is on the side of the strongest battalion. There’s some difference, when you come to think of it, between the two creeds, Sir.”
The old gentleman looked at me quite fierce, so I made all the haste I could to change the subject.
“Don’t you think it very curious, Sir, that the figure should have lasted all this time?” said I; “because you see, Sir, if you or I were to cut a trench, two feet or so deep, up here, on the side of the hill, and stamp down the chalk ever so hard, it would be all filled up and grown over in a few years.”
“You are not the first person who has made that remark,” said he. “In the year 1738, an antiquary, of the name of Francis Wise, who lived at Oxford, visited the hill, and wrote a letter on the subject to Dr. Mead, the most learned antiquary of that day. First he speaks of the figure of the horse as ‘being described in so masterly a manner that it may defy the painter’s skill to give a more exact description of the animal.’”
“How could he talk like that, Sir?” said I; “why the figure isn’t a bit like – ”
“You are as bad as Camden,” said he, “who talks of I know not what shape of a horse fancied on the side of a whitish hill; but the truth is, it is a copy of the Saxon standard, which, of course, was a rude affair. However, Wise, whom I was telling you of, goes on: —
“When I saw it, the head had suffered a little and wanted reparation; and the extremities of his hinder legs, from their unavoidable situation, have by the fall of rains been filled up in some measure with the washings from the upper parts; so that, in the nearest view of him, the tail, which does not suffer the same inconvenience, and has continued entire from the beginning, seems longer than his legs. The supplies, which nature is continually affording, occasion the turf to crumble and fall off into the white trench, which in many years’ time produces small specks of turf, and not a little obscures the brightness of the Horse; though there is no danger from hence of the whole figure being obliterated, for the inhabitants have a custom of ‘scouring the Horse,’ as they call it; at which time a solemn festival is celebrated, and manlike games with prizes exhibited, which no doubt had their original in Saxon times in memory of the victory.”1919
“Scouring the Horse! yes, of course,” said I, “that is what they are doing now, and the games are to come off to-morrow.”
“Exactly so,” said he, “but you will like to hear how Wise goes on: —
“If ever the genius of King Alfred exerted itself (and it never failed him in his greatest exigencies), it did remarkably so upon account of this trophy. The situation of his affairs would not permit him to expend much time, nor his circumstances much cost, in effecting one,” (truly, for he had six more pitched battles to fight between April and November.) “His troops, though victorious, were harassed and diminished by continual duty; nor did the country afford, to any man’s thinking, materials proper for a work of this kind. Though he had not therefore the opportunity of raising, like other conquerors, a stupendous monument of brass or marble, yet he has shown an admirable contrivance, in erecting one magnificent enough, though simple in its design – executed, too, with little labour and no expense – that may hereafter vie with the Pyramids in duration, and perhaps exist when these shall be no more.”
“But, dear me, Sir,” said I, “how can the White Horse vie with the Pyramids in duration? Why, the Pyramids were built – ”
“Never mind when they were built,” said he; “don’t you see the old antiquary is an enthusiast? I had hoped you were one also.”
“Indeed, Sir, I am very anxious to hear all you can tell me,” said I, “and I won’t interrupt again.”
“Well, as to the scouring, Wise says: —
“The ceremony of scouring the Horse, from time immemorial, has been solemnized by a numerous concourse of people from all the villages round about. I am informed, though the Horse stands in the parish of Uffington, yet other towns claim, by ancient custom, a share of the duty upon this occasion. Since, therefore, this noble antiquity is now explained, and consequently the reason of the festival, it were to be wished that, in order to prevent for the future its falling into oblivion, some care was taken of the regulation of the games, and that they were restored to their ancient splendour, of which, without question, they are fallen much short. I know that these rites are cavilled at and maligned by the more supercilious part of mankind; but the dislike to them seems to be founded merely upon the abuse of them to riot and debauchery, which I intend by no means to justify or excuse. The practice of the best and wisest states, whose maxims we approve and profess to follow, is sufficient authority for their use. The liberty we so justly boast, and which ought to be a common blessing to all, pleads loudly for them. The common people, from their daily labour, stands at least in as much need of proper intervals of recreation as their superiors, who are exempt from it, and therefore in all free states have been indulged in sports most suited to their genius and capacity. And if manlike games contribute any thing towards the support of the natural bravery of these, who are to be our bulwark and defence in times of danger, they cannot be more seasonably revived than at this juncture, when, through the general luxury and dissoluteness of the age, there was never more likelihood of its being extinguished. Besides all this, from hence a superior influence diffuseth itself through the better sort, who are supposed to enter further into the intention of these solemnities; for which reason it is, that to perpetuate to posterity the remembrance of great men, and of great actions, has been always recommended, as a proper incentive to virtue. Customs of very trifling import, some ridiculous in themselves, others owing to causes equally ridiculous, are oftentimes kept up by Englishmen with much zeal and tenacity; and shall the greatest prince that this isle was ever blessed with, and the greatest action of that prince’s life, be in danger of being forgot, through the neglect of a solemnity, the only one, perhaps, that was ever instituted, at least, that is now preserved, to his honour?”2020
I didn’t say a word now, though he seemed to have finished.
“Well,” said he, after a minute, “have you nothing to say? You’re very glad that it’s over, I suppose?”
“No, Sir, indeed I am not,” said I; “but I am very much obliged to you for your kindness in telling me all that you have.”
“You are a very intelligent young man, Sir,” said he; “most young fellows of your age would have been bored to death half-an-hour ago, even if they hadn’t managed to run off altogether, and so they would have lost a good lesson in English history – not that they would have cared much for that though. But now, I dare say you are getting hungry. Let us go up and see what they are doing in the Castle, and I shall be very glad if you will do me the honour of lunching with me.”
“Well,” thought I, as we got up from the turf, “there are not many better things for getting a man on than being a good listener. Here is a very learned old gentleman who doesn’t know my name, and I have got the length of his foot, and he has asked me to luncheon, just because I have been listening to his old stories. I wonder where the lunch is to be though? he spoke of a Castle, perhaps he lives in it – who knows?”
So we strolled away together up over the brow of the hill.
“Well, here’s the Castle, you see,” said he, when we had walked a few hundred yards, and were come quite to the top of the hill.
“Where, Sir?” said I, staring about. I had half expected to see an old stone building with a moat, and round towers and battlements, and a great flag flying; and that the old gentleman would have walked across the drawbridge, and cried out, “What ho! warder!” and that we should have been waited upon at lunch by an old white-headed man in black velvet, with a silver chain, and keys round his waist. Somehow, the story of the battle, and all the talk about Pendragon and Arthur, coming upon the back of the farm-house, and the out of the way country life, which was so strange to me, had carried me into a sort of new world; and I shouldn’t have been much surprised to see a dragon running about the hill, though I should have been horribly frightened.
“I can’t make up my mind about this Castle,” he went on, without noticing me; “on two sides it looks like a regular Roman castrum, and Roman remains are found scattered about; but then the other sides are clearly not Roman. The best antiquaries who have noticed it call it Danish. On the whole, I think it must have been seized and occupied in succession by the lords of the country for the time being; and each successive occupier has left his mark more or less plainly. But, at any rate, you see it is a magnificent work.”
“Yes, Sir,” said I, “no doubt;” though I own I was a good deal disappointed. For what do you think the Castle is? Up at the very top of the hill, above the White Horse, there is a great flat space, about as big as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, only not the same shape, because it is only square on two sides. All round this space, there is a bank of earth, eight or ten feet high in some places, but lower at others. Then, outside, there is a great, broad, deep ditch; it must be twenty-five feet from the top of the inner bank to the bottom of the ditch; and outside that again, is another large bank of earth, from the foot of which the downs slope away on every side. But the banks and ditch are all grown over with turf, just like the rest of the downs, and there isn’t even a single stone, much less a tower, to be seen. There are three entrances cut through the double banks, one on the west, one on the southeast, and the third at the northeast side, which was the one through which we entered.
But if there were no warders and seneschals and drawbridges, there was plenty of life in the Castle. The whole place seemed full of men and women, and booths and beasts, and carts and long poles; and amongst them all were the Squire and Joe, and two or three farmers, who I afterwards found out were Committee-men, trying to get things into some sort of order. And a troublesome job they were having of it. All the ground was parcelled out for different purposes by the Committee, and such parts as were not wanted for the sports, were let at small rents to any one who wanted them. But nobody seemed to be satisfied with his lot. Here a big gypsy, who wouldn’t pay any rent at all, was settling his cart and family, and swinging his kettle, on a bit of ground, which the man who owned the pink-eyed lady had paid for. There a cheap-Jack was hustling a toyman from Wantage, and getting all his frontage towards the streets, (as they called the broad spaces which were to be kept clear for the people to walk along.) In another place, a licensed publican was taking the lot of a travelling showman into his skittle-alley. Then there were old women who had lost their donkeys and carts, and their tins of nuts and sacks of apples; and donkeys who had lost their old women, standing obstinately in the middle of the streets, and getting in everybody’s way; and all round, saws and axes and hammers were going, and booths and stalls were rising up.
I shouldn’t have liked to have had much to do with setting them all straight, and so I told Joe, when he came up to us, after we had been looking on at all the confusion for a minute or two. For most of the men were very rough-looking customers, like the costermongers about Covent Garden and Clare Market, and I know that those huckstering, loafing blades are mostly terrible fellows to fight; and there wasn’t a single policeman to look like keeping order. But Joe made light enough of it – he was always such a resolute boy, and that’s what made me admire him so – and said, “For the matter of that, if they were ten times as rough a lot, and twice as many, the Squire and the farmers and their men would tackle them pretty quick, without any blue-coated chaps to help! Aye, and nobody knows it better than they, and you’ll see they’ll be all in nice order before sundown, without a blow struck; except amongst themselves, perhaps, and that’s no matter, and what they’re used to. But now, you come in,” said Joe, turning towards one of the large publicans’ booths, which was already finished, “the Committee have got a table here, and we must dine, for we shan’t be home these four hours yet, I can see.”
“Sir,” said my new friend to Joe, drawing himself up a bit, but very politely; “this gentleman is my guest. He has done me the honour of accepting my invitation to luncheon.”
“Oh! beg pardon, Sir, I’m sure,” said Joe, staring; “I didn’t know that Dick had any acquaintance down in these parts. Then,” said he to me, “I shall take my snack with the rest presently; you’ll see me about somewhere, when it’s time to get back.” Joe went back into the crowd, and I followed the old gentleman.
We went into the booth, which was a very big one, made of strong, double sail-cloth, stretched over three rows of fir poles, the middle row being, I should say, sixteen or eighteen feet high. Just on our right, as we entered from the street, was the bar, which was made with a double row of eighteen-gallon casks, full of ale, along the top of which boards were laid, so as to make a counter. Behind the bar the landlord and landlady, and a barmaid, were working away, and getting every thing into order. There were more rows of large casks, marked XX and XXX, ranged upon one another against the side of the booth, and small casks of spirits hooped with bright copper, and cigar boxes, and a table covered with great joints of beef and pork, and crockery and knives and forks, and baskets full of loaves of bread, and lettuces and potatoes. It must have cost a deal of money to get it all up the hill, and set the booth up. Beyond the bar was a sort of inner room, partly screened from the rest of the booth by a piece of sail-cloth, where a long table was laid out for luncheon, or “nunching,” as the boots, who was doing waiter for the occasion, called it. The rest of the booth, except a space before the bar which was kept clear for casual customers to stand about in, was set about with rough tables and forms. We got a capital dinner; for the landlord knew my entertainer, and was very civil, and brought us our ale himself and poured it out, making an apology because it hadn’t had quite time to fine down, but it would be as clear as a diamond, he said, if we would please to call in to-morrow.
After we had done, we went round behind the booth, where some rough planking had been put up to serve for stalls, and the boots, in his waiter’s jacket, brought out the old gentleman’s cob.
“Peter,” said he, when he had mounted, “here is sixpence for you; and now mind what you are at, and don’t get drunk and disgrace yourself up on the hill.”
Peter, who seemed to be very much afraid of the old gentleman, kept pulling away at his forelock, and hunching up his shoulders, till we turned the corner of the booth.
“Now I must be riding home,” said my friend, “but if you like just to walk round with me, I will show you the site of the battle.”
So I thanked him, and walked along by the side of his cob, and he rode out of the entrance we had come in by, and then round the outer earthwork of the castle. As we passed along, the inner bank rose high up on our right hand, and we could just see the tops of the highest booths above it.
“You see what a strong place it must have been before gunpowder was invented,” said the old gentleman; “and here, you see, is the second entrance; and this road which we are upon is the Ridgeway, one of the oldest roads in England. How far it once extended, or who made it, no man knows; but you may trace it away there along the ridge of the downs as far as you can see, and, in fact, there are still some sixty miles of it left. But they won’t be left long, I fear, Sir, in this age which venerates nothing.”
“I don’t see much fear of that, Sir,” said I, “after it has lasted so long already.”
“No fear, Sir!” said he, “why miles of it have been ploughed up within my memory. God meant these downs, Sir, for sheep-walks, and so our fathers left them; but within the last twenty years would-be wise men have found that they will grow decent turnips and not very bad oats. Well, they plough them up, find two inches of soil only, get one crop out of them, and spoil them for sheep. Next year, no crops. Then comes manure, manure, manure, nothing but expense; not a turnip will trouble himself to grow bigger than a reddish under a pennyworth of guano or bones. The wise men grumble and swear, but the downs are spoiled.”
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