THE CHALK DOWNLAND OF WILTSHIRE has numerous fabulous historical sites and on Boxing Day we visited the Westbury White Horse on what is thought to have been the site of one of the most important battles in English history, Ethandun. In early May AD878 Alfred’s force of maybe as many as 4000 Saxons of the Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire fyrds defeated the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Danes (or Vikings depending on the author) led by Guthrum the Old. This was the last major conflict in a long series between the Danes and The Kingdom of Wessex and after their defeat a treaty resulted in the Danes more or less ceasing large scale raiding and saw them settle in East Anglia. Meanwhile much of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia was absorbed into Wessex and Alfred became the first king of most of modern day England. The presumed site of the battle is a formidable Iron Age hill fort (Bratton Camp) between the villages of Eddington (Ethandun) and Westbury, although other historians have suggested alternative sites. Bishop Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ written in AD893 included the following account of the battle:
‘Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress’.
The Battle of Ethandun took place outside the fortress and afterwards, the surviving Danes took refuge inside it, from where they were eventually starved out by Alfred and forced to surrender. The terms included leaving Wessex and the Danes' leader, Guthrum had to agree to be baptized. He ruled as King of East Anglia until his death in AD890. I wonder if the result may have been very different had the three sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ivar, Ubbe and Halfdan) not parted company with the Great Heathen Army and depleted their numbers in the process. The history of the Vikings in England has been in fashion lately with TV Series like ‘Vikings’ and Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ and the Lothbrok brothers feature in both of them. It was interesting to have a closer look at one of the sites of the action and imagine the Viking shield wall lined up on Bratton Camp.
The 55 metres tall Westbury White Horse was constructed in the late 1600s to commemorate the battle, as was a trend at the time in the south of England and it was maintained until the 1950s when it was preserved as white-painted concrete. More recently its surface was restored in 2007. It is a shame they couldn’t get rid of the unsightly joints in its surface. Even though I left my binos at home today it was hard not to notice a Peregine that cruised effortlessly past over the white horse at eye level, followed closely by a raven. Fantastic stuff! Just to the north at Avebury, we also had a walk in the late afternoon sunshine around part of the Neolithic henge monument belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes Stonehenge. Amazing that somewhere like this should only be in the ‘also’ category!