Alfred was in his winter quarters in Chippenham when on 6 January 878 Guthrum, King of the Danes, launched a surprise attack in the middle of the night and Alfred was forced to flee. Some versions say he fled with his family, others with a small band of men, perhaps soldiers, perhaps servants.
He made for the Somerset marshes (an area that was already familiar to him) and holed up in Athelney. How he reached the ‘island’ itself is unclear as Asser, in his Life of Alfred, said it was ‘surrounded on all sides by very great swampy and impassable marshes, so that no one can approach it by any means except in punts, or by a bridge which has been made with laborious skill between two fortresses’.
And writing in the early 12th c., William of Malmesbury described it as ‘a certain island called Athelney, which from its marshy situation was hardly accessible’ – etiam in insulam quandam palustri uligine vix accessibilem, vocabulo Adelingia, refugerit.
The map shows the Somerset coastline in 1000 AD, and the extent of the ‘vast salt marshes’. The light rectangle shows the position of Athelney. It was not much higher than the surrounding marsh and consisted of two low hills; on the more northern one Alfred founded his abbey, the one to the south had had an Iron Age fort which it seems Alfred rebuilt as a fortress of his own.
Somewhere on this island, alone, so the legend goes, Alfred found the swineherd’s hut, though it seems more likely that it was an illustrative story which shows Alfred’s humility (and links him with St Neot – to enhance the latter’s reputation). History says he stayed in this place for four months, though probably not alone. The Saxons eventually regrouped, and the following May they defeated Guthrum’s Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Ethandun.