The Welshman Asser, contemporary and friend of Alfred, and one of his bishops, is held to be the author of the Latin Life of Alfred. First attributed to him, then challenged, it is now generally accepted as his work, and not a forgery. It was written in the year 893, when Alfred was in his 45th year (born 849, in Wantage) and is divided into 106 chapters, beginning with a dedication to Alfred:
Domino meo venerabili piissimoque omnium Brittanniae insulae Christianorum rectori, Aelfred, Anglorum Saxonum regi, Asser, omnium servorum Dei ultimus, millemodam ad vota desideriorum utriusque vitae prosperitatem.
These are the two chapters which refer to his wanderings in Somerset after the rout at Chippenham in 878:
53. Eodem tempore Aelfred saepe supra memoratus rex, cum paucis suis nobilibus et etiam cum quibusdam militibus et fasellis(1), per sylvestria et gronnosa Summurtunensis pagae loca in magna tribulatione inquietam vitam ducebat. Nihil enim habebat quo uteretur, nisi quod a paganis et etiam a Christianis, qui se paganorum subdiderant dominio, frequentibus irruptionibus aut clam aut etiam palam subtraheret.
“At that time the frequently aforementioned King Alfred, with a few of his nobles, and with certain soldiers and servants [not on his own, then] was leading a restless life among the wooded lands and swamps of Somerset in great tribulation, for he was without resources other than what he could purloin by frequent incursions, openly or stealthily, from the heathens or from the Christians who had subjected themselves to the heathen power.”
(1) The word here fasellus is, in the Annals of St Neot, a 12th-c. work which has copied the passage from Asser, written as uasallis. Although ‘vassal’ seems anachronistic as a translation, the root is Celtic gwas, meaning a servant. Intriguingly, phaselus is a classical Latin word which can mean a light boat which would be appropriate if referring to making their way through the swamps. However, the following paragraph makes it clear that these are his men.
55. Eodem anno post Pascha Aelfred rex cum paucis fecit arcem in loco qui dicitur Aethelingaeg, et de ipsa arce semper cum fassellis Summurtunensis contra paganos infatigabiliter rebellavit. Iterumque in septima hebdomada post Pascha ad Petram Aegbryhta, quae est in orientali parte saltus qui dicitur Seluudu, Latine autem ‘sylva magna,’ Britannice ‘Coit Maur,’ equitavit; ibique obviaverunt illi omnes accolae Summurtunensis pagae et Wiltunensis, omnes accolae Hamtunensis pagae, qui non ultra mare pro metu paganorum navigaverant; visoque rege, sicut dignum erat, quasi redivivum post tantas tribulationes recipientes, immenso repleti sunt gaudio, et ibi castra metati sunt una nocte. Diluculo sequenti illucescente, rex inde castra commovens, venit ad locum qui dicitur Aecglea et ibi una nocte castra metatus est.
“In the same year , after Easter, King Alfred with a few men built a stronghold in a place that is called Aethelingaeg and from there, with his Somerset men, he ever fought back tirelessly against the heathen. And, in the seventh week after Easter, he rode out anew to Egbert’s Stone(1), which is in the eastern part of the wooded area called Selwood (2) (in Latin ‘sylva magna’ and in British ‘Coit Maur’). Here he was met by all the nearby people of Somerset and of Wiltshire, and those of Hampshire who had not sailed over the sea in fear of the heathens. And seeing the king as if restored to life after so many tribulations, they were (as was only proper) filled with immense joy, and there they set up camp for one night. As dawn broke the following day, the king struck camp, and came to the place called Aecglea (3), and there he made camp for one night.”
(1) Egbert’s Stone: unknown location. King Alfred’s Tower, an 18th-c. folly in the gardens of Stourhead, was built on a site supposed, authority unknown, to be near the place where Alfred had ‘set up his standard’ by Egbert’s Stone. Early translators suggested it was Brixton (Deverill), which is quite close to Stourhead; but this is now discounted: local legend has it that Alfred burned the cakes here too, which shows no shortage of imagination. Or wishful thinking.
(2) Probably Penselwood, north east of Wincanton. Selwood, now part of Frome, is an unlikely location if Egbert’s Stone was near Stourhead. Selwood seems to mean ‘Sallow Wood’. It’s not clear how either could mean ‘Great Wood’, but perhaps it stretched from Frome to Wincanton? Were they all willow trees?
(3) Unknown location. Alfred is on his way from Athelney to Edington/Ethandun, and as he had passed Selwood, Aecglea (or Iglea in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) must be between it and Edington. Now thought to be Iley Oak, near Warminster.