January 4, 871. A day fundamental to the long history of the nations of the British Isles, one where the future course is determined by the slimmest of margins.
However, since the details of this day were skimmed over by contemporary chroniclers it is understandable that its importance has largely been forgotten. For those who have since tried to make sense of the patchy and politically-loaded sources of pre-Norman history, its significance has been absorbed into Wessex’s struggle for survival.
It is not a day of glorious victory, nor is it a day of heroic defeat. Instead it is the day of a narrow encounter with death and an improvised escape across an otherwise historically insignificant tributary of the River Thames.
On this day a battle was fought between a force of West Saxons and Danish Vikings who had recently occupied the royal villa in Berkshire: The first Battle of Reading. Part of the ‘Mycel Here’ – that loose collection of raiders better known as the Great Heathen Army – who after taking control of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia had turned their attentions towards the Wessex areas of southern and south-western England.
The royal villa was located in a theoretically strong position, being protected on two sides as it was by the Thames and the River Kennet. Any attack by land would have to approach across a narrow, easily defensible area of land close to where the modern railway station, a Tesco supermarket and the intriguingly-named King’s Meadow playing fields are now located.
Taking advantage of both the River Thames and the horses acquired from the East Anglians as part of the deals struck to limit the death and destruction in the corner of the land, the Danes appear to have had little difficulty in taking control of this villa, thereby establishing a forward position at Reading for future forays into Wessex.
Four days prior to the battle, a scavenging/raiding party of Vikings had been ambushed near the village of Englefield, a few miles west of Reading. A local force of West Saxons, headed by Æthelwulf, the Ealdorman of Berkshire and a veteran of a decade of violent encounters with Scandinavian raiders, had routed the small group, harrying the survivors back to their new defensive position nestled between the two rivers.
The arrival of a larger force under King Æthelred and his brother, Alfred, the victory at Englefield, and the knowledge that the Vikings were all concentrated in one small location, almost made a battle inevitable. Determined to prevent the invaders penetrating any further into Wessex territory, Æthelred led his forces to the gates of the royal villa.
Although the Vikings would have been able to use their boats to escape, they were as equally determined to maintain their position. Holding their nerve, they waited until the West Saxons were also contained within the narrow strip of land, turning the enclosed space to their advantage before launching their own attack.
In the fierce fighting that ensued, Ealdorman Æthelwulf was killed and the West Saxons were forced to flee, a victory being claimed by the Viking leaders, Bagsecg and Halfdan (the latter styled as a son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok).
Æthelred and Alfred’s forces were defeated but not destroyed, since four days after Reading they engaged the Vikings in the Battle of Ashdown, a location probably somewhere in the Berkshire Downs, west of Reading. That neither side could inflict a decisive blow is shown that two more battles were fought in the coming months, at Basing and Meretun.
However, the details of the events at Reading are scant. Asser, the chronicler employed by Alfred, makes light of the defeat, preferring to focus on Ashdown. According to Asser, Alfred could not wait for his brother to finish prayers and led his forces up the hill to attack the Vikings.
The lack of description is, I believe, a recognition of just how close both Æthelred and Alfred came to losing their lives in Reading and during their subsequent escape from the battlefield. The consequences of which would have been catastrophic for Wessex, since Æthelred’s sons were still too young to become king in their own right. Whilst some of the nobles would surely have wanted to continue the fighting on the young boys’ behalf, the subsequent take over of Wessex by the Vikings, led by Guthrum, in 878 indicate that many West Saxons were willing to deal with the invaders where it was expedient to do so.
With Æthelred and Alfred both dead there would have been no one to rally around, no one to organise the resistance in Wessex, which would then expand Anglo-Saxon control over Mercia, providing a balance to the Viking-held north and east.
So, how close was the House of Wessex to being extinguished on the 4th of January 871? Neither Asser nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shed any light on the day apart from the fact that “the Danes kept possession of the field”. Yet it is clear that the West Saxon forces narrowly escaped complete destruction, the death of such a battle-hardened warrior and leader of men as Æthelwulf indicates as much.
A later retelling of the story gives some fascinating insights into the subsequent events of that day. Whilst non-contemporary accounts should always be viewed with caution, there appears to be no obvious reason why Geoffrey Gaimar, an Anglo-Norman chronicler writing in the mid-Twelfth Century, should add particular details to his rhyming couplet retelling of the history of the English without there being an element of fact behind them.
Gaimar tells of the West Saxons being chased or driven towards a ford at Whistley, near Twyford, in the direction of Windsor (ie. east of Reading). There are reports that some of the Vikings had previously disembarked from their ships at Maidenhead and ridden their East Anglian horses to Reading. If this was the case then they would have been aware of the two fords across the River Loddon that give Twyford its name. However, in Gaimar’s account the Vikings were not aware of this other ford hidden nearby at Whistley, and this gap in their knowledge allows Æthelred and Alfred to escape.
That Gaimar was reportedly using other, now-lost, sources for his retelling is plausible but can obviously not be proved. Perhaps he is making a comparison to the lucky escape of Empress Matilda across the frozen river at Oxford during the Anarchy in 1142 (an event contemporary with the time in which Gaimar was writing), or perhaps he was wanting to make the West Saxons appear weak and fortunate, and the Vikings, whilst warlike, were over-confident in their reconnaissance abilities. We cannot be sure, but I believe it entirely possible that the details were accurate. After all, if the Vikings had ridden from Maidenhead to Reading, the same route could be used as a means of escape. The River Loddon and the low-lying land, which at this time of year is invariably waterlogged, would be a useful barrier against any pursuing Vikings, something the local West Saxons in the army would have been aware of. Beyond the Loddon, the forests of Windsor could have also provided means of avoiding detection.
King Æthelred and Alfred, who would succeed his brother in a matter of months, and their dynasty that stretched back more than three centuries, were a couple of slashing blades from death within the confines of the Thames and Kennet. A fraught and improvised escape across another river, the Loddon, allowed them to fight another day and in doing so, enabled the history of Wessex – and then England – to take the shape it did.