From hence he little Chawsey seeth, and hastneth for to see
Faire Reading towne, a place of name, where Cloths ywoven be.
This shewes our Aelfrids victorie, what time Begsceg was slaine
With other Danes, whose carcasses lay trampled on the plaine …
WILLIAM CAMDEN, Britannia (1607)1
We are treading on heroes. It is sacred ground for Englishmen, more sacred than all but one or two fields where their bones lie whitening. For this is the actual place where our Alfred won his great battle, the battle of Ashdown (‘Æscendum’ in the chroniclers), which broke the Danish power and made England a Christian land.
THOMAS HUGHES, Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)2
‘Probe with bayonets,’ Lenin is famously supposed to have advised. ‘If you encounter steel, withdraw. If you encounter mush, continue.’3 If the Vikings in England had a strategy in the years that followed the death of King Edmund, this may have been it. Northumbria and East Anglia had fallen, Mercia revealed as decidedly soft. Only Wessex was yet to be properly tested, and the micel here was preparing to thrust the bayonet.
In 870, a Viking army struck suddenly up the Thames valley and seized the settlement known as Readingum (Reading) at the confluence of the Thames and Kennet rivers. It was mid-winter, and Reading may have been a tempting target, a depot, perhaps, for provisions gathered against the season. Local resistance, however, did not collapse entirely. Soon after the Vikings had captured Reading, a Viking raiding party – presumably foraging for supplies – managed to fall foul of the Berkshire levy, led by their ealdorman, Æthelwulf. A Viking jarl, Sidroc, was killed in the fighting. The engagement was fought just west of Reading, at a place called Englafeld (somewhere near the small village of Englefield, Berkshire, about a mile south of the M4). It was, in all likelihood, a minor skirmish, fought between a provincial militia and a small band of raiders (who had probably expected little resistance from the terrified peasantry). Nevertheless, it was the first time – so far as we are aware – that the micel here had suffered any sort of reverse in England since its arrival in 866. It was the first time that the bayonet had struck anything like steel.
The Vikings withdrew to their foothold in Reading, and began to prepare for the inevitable West Saxon counter-offensive. They constructed a rampart to join the two rivers, creating a fortress assailable only from the west, and waited for the Anglo-Saxon army to arrive.4
The West Saxon king, Æthelred, and his brother, Alfred, had already had experience of facing a dug-in Viking army when they had failed to dislodge the force that had captured Nottingham in 868. This time, however, they were defending their own kingdom. Arriving at Reading, they once again decided to pursue the direct approach, ‘hacking and cutting down all the Vikings whom they had found outside’ until they reached the gates of the stronghold. The assault on Wessex might have turned out rather differently if the Vikings had trusted to their ramparts, sitting it out until the West Saxons had been forced – as at Nottingham – to cut some sort of deal. However, for whatever reason, the Vikings chose not to wait it out. Perhaps they did not have sufficient supplies to endure a siege (Æthelwulf’s victory at Englefield may have undermined efforts to acquire adequate provisions) or perhaps the fortifications – which must have been constructed at speed – were insufficient to inspire any feelings of security. Whatever the reason, the Vikings, trapped and with no means of retreat, decided to go on the offensive: ‘like wolves they burst out of all the gates and joined battle with all their might’.5 Fighting was fierce, and ‘a great slaughter was made on both sides’,6 but in the end, ‘alas, the Christians eventually turned their backs, and the Vikings won the victory’.7
The battle at Reading, from a West Saxon perspective, was a fiasco. Ealdorman Æthelwulf, the hero of Englefield, died in the fighting, and the royal house had been defeated and humiliated. There were, however, three feeble rays of light that broke through the dark cloud that was now hanging over Wessex – though it is doubtful whether anyone could perceive them at the time. Firstly, the king and his brother had survived the debacle. Had they not, it is likely that the kingdom would have collapsed as quickly as East Anglia and Northumbria had. Secondly, Æthelwulf had proven that the Vikings of the micel here could be beaten, a reminder that West Saxon armies – as recently as the 850s – had punished Viking intruders in the past. Finally, the micel here was no longer quite so micel as it had been.
The juggernaut that had rolled over Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia with such contemptuous ease in the 860s was now, almost certainly, beginning to fragment. It is likely that sizeable contingents remained in Northumbria and East Anglia to retain their grip over the local populations, even as their more entrepreneurial comrades turned west – after all, supply lines needed to be established and maintained, ships guarded and provisions gathered, new recruits absorbed, equipment repaired, camps and fortifications constructed. Although the written sources reveal very little of these processes, archaeology is beginning to provide enormous quantities of new data regarding the way in which these armies operated in England; nevertheless, we are still largely in the dark about the personnel and make-up of the army that invaded Wessex. It appears, however, that of the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók only Halfdan accompanied the army that advanced from Reading. He was one of two ‘kings’, along with another chieftain named Bacsecg, whom the English sources refer to by name.
None of this would have provided much comfort to King Æthelred as he led his beaten and demoralized army away from the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames. They travelled along the river, the Viking army in close pursuit, into the marshlands that sprawled along the river banks. The Anglo-Norman poet-chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar, writing in Norman French in the 1130s, provides considerable – if slightly confusing – detail about the direction of the West Saxon army’s flight. According to Geoffrey, they went (somewhat counter-intuitively) east – away from the West Saxon heartlands. ‘Æthelred and Alfred were driven back to Whistley [Wiscelet],’ Gaimar explains, ‘a ford in the direction of Windsor [Windesoures] across an expanse of water in a marsh. This is where one of the Danish armies turned back to, but they were not aware of the ford over the river here. The ford to which the Danes withdrew was Twyford [Thuiforde], as it has always been called, and this is how the English escaped, but not without suffering many casualties and mortalities.’8
It was deep winter. Forced to take the most difficult way, armoured men would have struggled through the sucking mud of frigid swollen bogs, their shields and weapons discarded as freezing mist and brackish water saturated woollen clothes and leather shoes. The weakest would have come quickly to grief – those who dropped behind, wounded or exhausted, left to drown in the mud or be speared like eels, wriggling in the shallows. For the battered survivors, although the northward crossing of the river would have meant a brief respite from the threat of imminent death, there would have been little opportunity to catch their breath. Only four days after the flight from Reading, Alfred and Æthelred would be forced to fight the Viking army again, at a place called Ashdown (Æscesdun).
The main source for the battle – and for Alfred’s career in general – is the Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum (the ‘Life of Alfred king of the Anglo-Saxons’), written by Asser, bishop of Sherborne, a Welsh monk, originally from the community of St David’s in Dyfed (Wales), who was invited to join the learned circle that surrounded King Alfred in the 880s. The life was written in 893, and shares much of its detail with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest version of which (the A recension, or ‘Winchester Chronicle’) was also written in the 890s in the court of King Alfred. They were, therefore, products of the same time and place and written under the patronage of the same individual: Alfred (King Alfred, as he was by the time they were written). We should then expect them to have been based on first-hand knowledge when dealing with events from Alfred’s life, to be accurate and specific when making reference to named places, to share the same West Saxon biases and positive attitude towards their patron, and to agree on most fundamental details. In general these expectations are met. Both sources identify the location of the battle as a place called Ashdown. The fighting took place ‘on Æscesdune’ according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser gives the same English name, adding helpfully, ‘quod Latine “mons fraxini” interpretatur’ (‘which in Latin means “hill of the ash-tree”’). The good bishop was in this, as in much else, exceptionally well informed.9
His description of the conflict itself is remarkable – the fullest contemporary description of an early medieval battle before 1066:
the Vikings, splitting up into two divisions, organized shield-walls of equal size (for they then had two kings and a large number of earls), assigning the core of the army to the two kings and the rest to all the earls. When the Christians saw this, they too split up the army into two divisions in exactly the same way, and established shield-walls no less keenly. But as I have heard from truthful authorities who saw it, Alfred and his men reached the battlefield sooner and in better order: for his brother, King Æthelred, was still in his tent at prayer, hearing Mass and declaring firmly that he would not leave that place alive before the priest had finished Mass, and that he would not forsake divine service for that of men; and he did what he said. The faith of the Christian king counted for much with the Lord, as shall be shown more clearly in what follows.
But Alfred could only wait so long, and eventually – while Æthelred ‘was lingering still longer in prayer’ – Alfred was forced to take matters into his own hands: ‘acting courageously, like a wild boar, supported by divine counsel and strengthened by divine help, when he had closed up the shield-wall in proper order, he moved his army without delay against the enemy.’
The fighting took place around a ‘small and solitary thorn-tree’ (which Asser noted, ‘I have seen for myself with my own eyes’):
the opposing armies clashed violently, with loud shouting from all, one side acting wrongfully and the other side set to fight for life, loved ones and country. When both sides had been fighting to and fro, resolutely and exceedingly ferociously, for quite a long time, the Vikings (by divine judgement) were unable to withstand the Christian onslaught any longer; and when a great part of their forces had fallen, they took to ignominious flight. One of the two Viking kings and five earls were cut down in that place, and many thousands on the Viking side were slain there too – or rather, over the whole broad expanse of Ashdown, scattered everywhere, far and wide: so King Bacsecg was killed, and Earl Sidroc the Old, Earl Sidroc the Younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Fræna and Earl Harold; and the entire Viking army was put to flight, right on until nightfall and into the following day, until such time as they reached the stronghold from which they had come. The Christians followed them till nightfall, cutting them down on all sides.10
These were the first links to be forged in the armour of Alfred’s formidable later reputation, and they were cunningly wrought. But despite the length and apparent detail of the account, Asser’s narrative differs markedly from other key sources in one critical area – the role of the king.
Reading Asser’s account, one would be forgiven for thinking that Æthelred did not show up for the fight at all, spending the whole battle mumbling his paternosters in pious ineffectitude. And yet the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is clear: ‘Æthelred fought against the kings’ force, and there the king Bagsecg was killed.’ Later historians of the twelfth century supplied even more detail. William of Malmesbury (d. 1143) gives the firm impression that it was Æthelred’s late intervention that saved the day for the West Saxons. By downplaying Æthelred’s military role, Asser was deliberately emphasizing Alfred’s exceptional martial skill, fortitude and porcine courage at Æthelred’s expense; he had, however, managed to do so while still emphasizing the former king’s laudable piety – this, Asser asserts, was also key to victory (‘it counted for much with the Lord’), by ensuring that Alfred was able to act with holy sanction, direction and support – a conduit for the stern judgement of the Lord on a pagan people. Getting this balance right was difficult, and politically sensitive.
By the time Asser was writing his account, in the 890s, Alfred had become king of Wessex. He had succeeded after Æthelred’s death in 871, a few months after the battle of Ashdown. Alfred, like his brother, derived his claim on the West Saxon throne from his father – King Æthelwulf – reinforced by the important role he had played as right-hand man to his brother, King Æthelred. Alfred, therefore, had an interest in upholding the legitimacy of the West Saxon dynasty and the previous incumbents of its throne. So Asser was careful to stress King Æthelred’s efficacious religiosity and the divine aura this conferred on the West Saxon crown. The ‘solitary thorn-tree’ around which the battle was fought was also probably intended to make the same point. Trees symbolized the cross in Anglo-Saxon thought, and the thorn tree – in providing the material from which Christ’s mocking ‘crown of thorns’ was made – had particular significance; whether or not there really was such a tree at Ashdown, Asser’s reference to it was clearly intended to double down on the idea that the appropriate divine powers had been invested in the battle.
Bothering God, however, was only part of the job description for an early medieval king, albeit an important part. Kings also needed, perhaps more than anything else, to be effective war-leaders: virile protectors of their lands, treasures and people. The subtext of Asser’s narrative, therefore, carried a subtle but clear message: Æthelred may have had the ear of the Lord, but Alfred was his strong right arm; and that, ultimately, was what counted.
No one knows for certain where the battle of Ashdown was fought. It is known roughly where – somewhere on the high chalk uplands of the Berkshire downs – but the specific place is supposedly lost.11
Until the early twentieth century, it was generally believed that the battle was fought near a village called Ashbury, now in Oxfordshire but formerly in Berkshire (prior to the 1974 county boundary changes). An earthwork near the village was already known as ‘Alfred’s Castle’ in 1738, and the association could conceivably be older.12 The connection between this part of the downs and Alfred’s battles against the Vikings was fixed in the imagination by a belief that the White Horse of Uffington, the massive equine figure carved into the chalk roughly 2 miles to the east of Ashbury, probably Iron Age, was originally fashioned as an Anglo-Saxon monument to victory.13 Despite being utterly fallacious, this notion was popularized by Thomas Hughes in his wildly successful novel of 1857, Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes imagined that after his victory ‘the pious king [Alfred, Æthelred having been quietly ejected from the story], that there might never be wanting a sign and a memorial to the countryside, carved out on the northern side of the chalk hill, under the camp, where it is almost precipitous, the great Saxon white horse which he who will may see from the railway, and which gives its name to the vale over which it has looked these thousand years and more’.14
You can still see the White Horse from the railway today, galloping along the southern rim of the vale that takes its name. Those who have frequently ‘travelled down the Great Western Railway as far as Swindon’ (as I have done and Thomas Hughes evidently also did) will, if they ‘did so with their eyes open, have been aware, soon after leaving the Didcot station, of a fine range of chalk hills running parallel with the railway on the left-hand side as you go down and distant some two or three miles, more or less, from the line’.15 The White Horse has galloped across those chalk hills since long before any Viking or Anglo-Saxon pondered its perplexing outline against the upland grasses.
Ashbury’s fall from favour as the location of the battle of Ashdown is largely attributable to the work of the renowned place-name scholar Margaret Gelling and her demonstration that Æscesdun (Ashdown) could not convincingly be associated with any single place. She drew attention to the indisputable fact that, from at least the tenth century, the term ‘Ashdown’ was used to refer to the whole of the Berkshire downs.16 This is highly unusual: as Gelling admitted, no other tree-hill compound place-name is used to describe such a wide area. Nonetheless, the evidence that the term was used in this way is entirely sound. However, it seems to me likely, in the context of descriptions of the battle of Ashdown, that Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle intended the place-name to have a specific geographical meaning.
One reason for this is that in no other instance does Asser or the anonymous Anglo-Saxon chronicler fail to identify with precision the location of a battle fought by Alfred. Moreover, on each occasion they associate Alfred’s battles with royal estate-centres. There are many reasons why this might be so: for example, royal halls may well have served as muster-points and supply depots for West Saxon armies, and the practical exigencies of campaigning meant that battles were often fought at or close by them.17 But Alfred’s interest in promoting flattering accounts of his reign, alongside his promotion of literacy (it was, after all, no good commissioning biographies and chronicles if nobody could read), is suggestive of the king’s concern with shaping his own legacy – a desire to propagate his legend through the work of Asser and the chronicler. It may be that, faced with a largely illiterate populace, Alfred’s circle set about deliberately linking the king’s most memorable achievements with well-known places – particularly those which already had royal associations. In that way, Alfred’s legend could be insinuated into the very fabric of his kingdom, the list of place-names a mnemonic tally of his martial exploits, stitched into the landscape.
It should follow that if a specific place known as Æscesdun, particularly one known to have been in royal hands around the time of the battle, could be located within four days’ march from Reading, it would have a sound prima facie claim to being close to the site of the famous battle. Judged against these criteria, Ashbury – the traditional location of the battle – has a compelling claim.
The village is referred to in a charter of 840 which describes the grant of land at Ashdown (Asshedoune) from King Æthelwulf (Alfred’s and Æthelred’s father) to a man named Duda. The charter is headed with the place-name ‘Aysheburi’ (Ashbury), implying that Ashbury was known to be the centre of an estate in which land at Ashdown was located.18 Over a hundred years later, in 947, the West Saxon crown was again giving away land at Ashdown (Aysshedun); in this charter, land was given by King Eadred to a chap called Edric which this time included a manor ‘quod nunc vocatur Aysshebury’ (‘which is now called Ashbury’). This charter also contains an Old English boundary clause, which described the perimeter of the parish of Ashbury, or at least its western half.19 Taken together, these two documents tell us that, when used in a legal sense, the term Ashdown was understood to refer to a specific area of the Berkshire countryside surrounding the manor of Ashbury (which later gave its name to the modern parish); and that Ashbury was an estate in West Saxon royal ownership by 840, and remained so until 947 when the manor was transferred to a nobleman called Edric. Given their knowledge of West Saxon toponomy, tendency towards specificity, and interest in crafting Alfred’s legend in explicable, geographical terms, it seems more than likely that, when Alfred’s writers used the term Ashdown, it was Ashbury in particular that they meant.
Early medieval battle-sites frequently have a number of other characteristics in common. Established meeting places are one, and Ashbury is close to the meeting place of the defunct Hildeslaw hundred.20 Proximity to major roads is another, and many battles were fought along the Wessex Ridgeway that passes to the south-east of the village.21 But the most evocative feature of the places where men came to fight and die in early medieval Britain, in Wessex at any rate, was the presence of prehistoric monuments. Alfred’s Castle, the Bronze Age univallate hill-fort that lies to the north-west of the Ridgeway, has been mentioned already. But there are other, older monuments in this landscape, and one in particular – brooding on the high chalk – that would have worked a dark spell on the West Saxon imagination.
My wife and I came to Ashbury in late afternoon, the sun already beginning to signal its long retreat. We sat for a few minutes in our defiantly out-of-place Nissan Micra, eating cheese rolls and sipping coffee. If you were to ask Google about Ashbury, you would be presented with images of the quintessential English village: the Christmas-card-perfect Norman church, sixteenth-century public house and half-timbered buildings, thatched cottages surrounding the village green. It is the sort of place where it’s all too easy to imagine John Nettles bimbling about, investigating the death of a parson in the vicarage potting shed. English rural settlements aren’t really like that, of course, not entirely – except, perhaps, here and there in the swamp of affluence that pools along the Thames valley corridor, from Richmond in the east to Cirencester in the west. In this attractive stripe of southern Britain, the combination of influential Tory constituencies, a convenient commuter route to Paddington, coachloads of Japanese tourists and a surfeit of substantial pensions combine to provide the conditions and incentives that make places like Witney and Bibury so improbably manicured and photogenic. Most English villages, however, away from their village greens, are not so neat and tidy: plastic bus shelters with their small rusty waste-bins and resolutely brutalist lamp-posts, rusting corrugated-iron lean-tos and discarded tarpaulins, unlovely post-war architecture spilling into the surrounding countryside – most villages and small towns in the UK boast their own tatty hinterlands, miniature frontiers where human habitation gives out untidily into the woods and farmland beyond. It’s always been that way, the lived-in contingency that blurs the boundaries between private, public and wild space.
The lay-by where we sat with our Thermos was at the edge of the village: a yellow grit silo, a bollard, gardens and concrete houses stuttering out into farmland. We got out of the car and began to walk, up a footpath towards the east, climbing the chalk ridge. I can’t remember what we were arguing about – we were both tired; a misunderstanding about a buzzard I think, or something to do with sheep … maybe both. I know that I broke my umbrella in a fit of pique – the spike was stuck in the earth when I kicked it, and it bent beyond repair. I had to carry the useless thing around with me for the next hour as a badge of shame. It was forgotten though, when we got to the top of the chalk and started along the Ridgeway. The afternoon was beginning to thicken. Darkness was a way off yet, but the atmosphere was changing, deepening; the shadows between the trees were blacker, distances subtly distorted. We arrived at the monument suddenly, and silence fell like a heavy shutter; the dark bulk of the orthostats caught the low oblique sunlight that spilled in ribbons through the beech trees. A mist was rising in the valley behind us.
The Neolithic chambered tomb, constructed around 5,500 years ago, wouldn’t have looked to Alfred as it appears to us now. Its modern arrangement is a restoration of something approximating its original (or, rather, final) appearance. The four huge sarsen stones that dominate the southern end of the long-barrow were set upright after excavations carried out in the early 1960s by the archaeologists Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson; there were originally six of them, silent guardians flanking the dark burrow of an entrance – a portal, unmistakably, to another world.22Photographs taken in the early twentieth century show the monument as it looked before any restoration had taken place: a tumble of overgrown stones, wilder and weirder – if a little less grandiose – than it appears now. This, or something close to it, would have been how the people of early medieval Britain encountered the monument.23 What the Romano-British called it, we do not know. Speakers of English, however, had called it welandes smiððan – Wayland’s Smithy – from the middle of the tenth century, and probably long before.24
The association between this tomb and the work of a legendary smith endured for a staggeringly long time. In an eccentric letter of 1738 to one Dr Mead, Francis Wise, keeper of the Oxford University archives, repeated the legend of Wayland’s Smithy that he had heard from ‘the country people’: ‘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.’25 If Wise’s account does genuinely preserve a folk tradition attached to the long-barrow (rather than a flight of Francis’ admittedly over-stimulated imagination), it would suggest that stories of Wayland had continued to circulate in the Berkshire hills for at least eight centuries.26
Alfred knew who Wayland was. In the Old English translation of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae – usually attributed to Alfred’s court, and perhaps to Alfred himself – the phrase ‘Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent?’ (‘Where now lie the bones of faithful Fabricius?’) is translated as ‘Hwaet synt nu þæs foremeran [‘and’] þæs wisan goldsmiðes ban Welondes?’ (‘Where now are the bones of the wise and famous goldsmith Weland [Wayland]?’).27 They weren’t in Ashbury, that’s for sure, although archaeologists did find plenty of bones in the barrow when they excavated it.28But the Anglo-Saxons hadn’t called it welandes beorg or welandes hlaæwe (Wayland’s Barrow) – they had called it a smithy, and such – in their imaginations – it presumably was, the workshop of a craftsman both famous and wise: ‘Wise, I said, because the craftsman can never lose his craft nor can it be taken easily from him – no more than the sun may be shifted from its place. Where are the bones of Weland now, or who knows now where they were?’
It is interesting that the Boethius translator should pause and digress on the value of craft at this point in De consolatione. The passage into which Wayland was inserted is a meditation on the transience of mortal life and the futility of earthly fame in the face of death and the passing of generations – topics which, as we have seen, appear to have weighed heavily on the Anglo-Saxon imagination. But Alfred seems also to have been uncommonly fixated by his own legacy, with crafting a kingdom that would outlive him. Indeed, the word ‘craft’ (OE cræft) has been recognized as one of the most important in Alfredian literature, invested with connotations not merely of skill but also of virtue, and other works attributed to Alfred are replete with the imagery of construction and labour: his version of St Augustine’s soliloquies, for example, frames the gathering of knowledge as a great building project, detailing the collection of timbers and materials to construct a new and better world and the skill involved in their assembly.29 The metaphor was matched in the physical construction of towns and ships that would occupy his later reign and those of his children and grandchildren. Alfred, in other words, seems to have been determined to challenge – through craft, fame and wisdom – the fatalistic pessimism of Boethius.
Wayland, however – the craftsman whose skill was as everlasting as the sun – was an uncomfortable avatar to invoke. Old English poetry makes a few references to him. Beowulf refers approvingly to a Wayland-forged mail-shirt, and the poem Deor – one of the oldest in the canon – gives voice to the tale of Wayland in a highly abridged and allusive, but relatively complete, form.30 The most complete account of the myth, however, is found in Old Norse verse – a poem called Völundarkvida (‘the song of Völund [Wayland]’) – demonstrating that Wayland was an entity whose tale, like so much else, was shared across the North Sea. It is a thoroughly unpleasant story, which culminates in the eponymous hero – who had been captured and hamstrung by the wicked King Nídud (OE Nithhad) – raping and impregnating the king’s daughter, murdering his sons, fashioning cups from their skulls, jewels from their eyes and brooches from their teeth (which he presents to their oblivious parents), and then escaping on the wing like some vengeful Nordic Daedalus. At least one scene from the legend decorates the Frankish casket: a bearded figure holds out a cup he has forged, a mysterious object gripped in a pair of tongs in his other hand. Below the work-bench a headless body lies. As Völundarkvida has Wayland explain to the horrified Nídud:
‘Go to the smithy that you set up:
there you’ll find bellows spattered with blood;
I cut off the heads of those small cubs,
and in the mud beneath the anvil I laid their limbs.’31
This is not the workshop of the benevolent, elvish tinker imagined by the folk of eighteenth-century Berkshire. Perhaps it was the sight of Neolithic bones protruding from the earth that suggested to the Anglo-Saxon mind the association of the long-barrow with Wayland. It was a dark place, a bloody place – sown with corpses, seeded with bones.
The story of Wayland hints at a tension in the Anglo-Saxon psyche. It reminds us that while Asser paints the Viking wars as a binary struggle between godless heathen and the Christian warriors of Wessex, older and darker things yet lurked in the Anglo-Saxon mind – skeletons in the closet. Alfred and his circle wanted to leave the impression that they were building a new world, a world of craft and learning and Christian enlightenment. But somewhere, down in the mud beneath the anvil, down among the roots of Alfred’s new England, the bones of Wayland still lay – a pagan past that the English had never properly come to terms with: a past with its roots in the old North, in stories of rape and mutilation, transmutation and supernatural flight, of vengeance and violence.
The archaeologist Neil Price has suggested that the Anglo-Saxons reacted in such a visceral way to the heathen Vikings appearing suddenly in their midst not only because of their violence and their paganism, but also because of a dreadful familiarity – a familiarity born of an ancient kinship and a shared web of stories and ways of seeing:
The Anglo-Saxons […] knew that this Viking world-view was not so far removed from what theirs had been not so long before, and maybe, under the surface, still was […] The Vikings were not only conventionally terrifying, they were a dark mirror held up to the image of what the English needed to believe themselves to be.32
The Anglo-Saxons, looking into that mirror, saw things that they preferred not to confront – felt as though they stood unsteadily on the brink of the howling abyss of pagan savagery from which they had lately hauled themselves. The Vikings were, therefore, in Freudian terms, unheimlich(‘uncanny’). They were that which ‘ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’, a manifestation of ‘something which is familiar and old established in the mind and which has become alienated from it’.33 Freud’s concept of the unheimlich has been productively employed to explain the potency in supernatural horror of the dislocation of the familiar and the mundane – the chair that moves in the empty room, the child that begins speaking in tongues … It has also been invoked to explain the frisson of archaeology, the uncovering of that which should remain hidden. The frequent recourse to archaeological themes by the writers of weird literature – M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood – stands testament to the thrill and horror of uncovering unspeakable hidden knowledge, places and things. But, for the Anglo-Saxons, the ‘uncanny’ had a horrible and malevolent reality, marauding across the countryside with axe and flame. The lost English homeland – ‘emptied of its people’, as Bede had believed, at the time of the fabled Anglo-Saxon migrations – had shown itself to be far from depleted. This lost world, romanticized in fireside tales where the monsters were remote and the heathen gods glossed with Christian ethics, was spewing forth a revenant nation, reaching out a rotting hand to drag the English screaming back into the mire.
The Anglo-Saxons may have thought they had escaped their past. But now their sundered kinsmen, their gods and their beliefs were rising up out of the darkness, borne on black tides from a world beyond the pale.
Ashdown may have been a major victory for the West Saxons, but it was hardly a decisive one – the exception rather than the rule. Probably this is why Asser made such a big deal of it: the years that followed marked a pretty desperate start to Alfred’s reign as king.
In 871, Æthelred and Alfred fought the Viking army at Basengum (probably Old Basing in Hampshire). They were defeated. Later in the year they fought again at the unidentified Meretun; despite putting up a stiff fight, they were defeated again with serious casualties (including Heahmund, bishop of Sherborne). After Æthelred’s death later that year, Alfred fought the Vikings again at Wilton (Wiltshire). The Vikings, once again, ‘had possession of the place of slaughter’.34 Exhausted by the fighting (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that there had been nine folcgefeoht – literally, ‘folk-fights’, probably battles involving shire levies from across Wessex, rather than single local militias – as well as innumerable raids and skirmishes), and presumably demoralized by the succession of losses, the West Saxons agreed terms in 871. The Viking army, led by Halfdan, retreated – first to Reading and then to London.35
Once again, the Vikings had been bought off by their victims.