May 878

King Alfred sits in the shepherd’s cottage in Somerset where he is scolded for allowing the cakes to burn while he contemplates his Danish enemy. This illustration by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–92) appeared in the Chronicle of England published in 1864.

Anyone travelling along the railway line that links Exeter to London will notice shortly after Westbury a large white horse laid out in the chalk of a shallow hillside. It is said to commemorate the site of the Battle of Edington fought between the West Saxon King Alfred and the forces of the Danish leader Guthrum, though the truth of the story is elusive. The Saxon victory has always been seen as a defining moment in English history, when the future of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom was finally saved from the apparently irresistible encroachment of the Vikings. Little is known in detail about the battle itself (or if it even took place at Edington) but it came to symbolize the end of this stage of Viking conquest, a time when all the dice had seemed loaded in their favour.

The Viking Danes arrived with the so-called ‘Great Army’ of pagan warriors in 865, not to raid, as they had done repeatedly, but to seize a kingdom. A decade later the Danes had conquered Northumbria, East Anglia and the central English kingdom of Mercia. They had been blocked only by the English kingdom of Wessex in southern and southwestern England. The King of the West Saxons from 871 was Alfred, who had become king shortly after defeating the Danes in a major battle at Ashdown in January of that year. But Danish infiltration was difficult to resist. Alfred was forced to raise money to pay off the Danish leaders, an extortion characteristic of Viking warfare and a way of achieving wealth without having to conquer it. In 874, the Great Army divided, some to go north, some to maintain their rule in Mercia, and one part, under Guthrum, to move south. In 875, this Danish army set out from Cambridge to Wareham in Dorset, supported by a Danish fleet sailing along the coast. The fleet was lost in a storm and with it a potentially large Danish army. Guthrum occupied Exeter, where Alfred surrounded him and forced him to agree to leave the West Saxon kingdom. Hostages were exchanged as a sign of good faith, but almost all the chronicles from the time indicate that the good faith of pagans was not to be trusted.

The best accounts of what followed – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun later in Alfred’s reign, and a short account of Alfred’s life written in 893 by the monk Asser – have clearly been embroidered in order to demonstrate that what followed was Alfred’s noble triumph over adversity. It is evident that Guthrum moved away to the Mercian city of Gloucester, but unlikely that he felt bound by any oaths he had made. In the early weeks of 878, the Danes co-ordinated a strike against Wessex, which was designed to bring the kingdom finally into the Danish sphere.

The first coup was against Alfred, who was spending Christmas at his estates in Chippenham. Guthrum led a surprise attack and Alfred was fortunate enough to flee without being caught. It was following this flight to the Isle of Athelney in the marshy Somerset Levels that Alfred is supposed to have taken refuge in a shepherd’s hut, where he famously allowed the cakes to burn which he had been told to watch. The story was added later to Alfred’s biography, perhaps to embroider his flight and isolation with an added sense of pathos. Reading behind the near contemporary accounts, it is evident that Alfred’s position was less dangerous than the texts suggest.


Further west, the Viking leader Ubba Ragnarsson led a fleet across the channel from Wales to north Devon to try to encircle the Saxons. His force was defeated by Ealdorman Odda of Devon and Ubba killed. At Athelney, Alfred could rely on his liegeman, Ealdorman EEthelnoth of Somerset, and the levies of Somerset soldiers. In the spring of 878, Alfred sent a summons to the men of Hampshire and Wiltshire and Dorset to assemble at a large rock known as Ecgberht’s Stone in order to do battle with the threatening Danes. The sources are short in detail on what followed. Alfred’s army moved to an old hill fort near the royal estate at Edington and at some point, estimated between 6 and 12 May 878, engaged what seems likely to have been just a portion of Guthrum’s army, sent south from Chippenham. No source records the presence of the Danish king, nor is there any solid evidence of the numbers involved or the tactics employed.

The Saxon warriors were armed with a variety of spears and swords, including the aesc, a long pike made of tough ash with a heavy metal blade; the Danes were armed with Viking swords, axes and spears. Whether most of the Danish army was present or only a large warband, it was smashed by the Saxons and driven back to Chippenham, suffering heavy casualties as the Saxons pursued them on horseback and cut them down.

Guthrum and an unknown fraction of his army took refuge in Chippenham. Alfred invested the town and, running short of food and water, the Danes asked for a truce after two weeks. What followed indicated that, however limited the battle itself might have been, the political aftermath was of real historical significance. The Vikings, who had seemed poised to complete their conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, had been halted, and one of the conditions insisted on by Alfred was that Guthrum accompany him to Somerset, there to be baptized into the Christian church. At Aller, a sumptuous ceremony was performed where the Danish leaders were formally admitted to the church, while a treaty later negotiated at the nearby town of Wedmore confirmed that Guthrum would settle as king in Mercia, respecting Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex. By 927, the whole of England was united under an Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred’s grandson Ethelstan. Ferocious, cruel and deceitful warriors, according to all the ancient accounts, the Vikings had met their match at Edington.