Which route did Alfred take when he left Athelney for Eþandune? Two factors that he would have borne in mind:
1. He would have had to have kept as far as possible to the uplands where the ground provided firm going, and where there would have been existing trackways which would have made travel faster.
2. Since each hundred maintained its ‘fyrd’ – its defence force or militia – Alfred would roughly have taken a route past the meeting places and villages where he could gather his Somerset ‘people’ as he progressed. He must have left Athelney with his small band of retainers, on horseback (equitavit, ‘he gerad’), over the causeway to East Lyng – rather than struggling across the marshes, hiphopping over a succession of islands until he reached the higher land to the east.
Langport (600 hides) was the next burh en route to Selwood; so crossing the river Tone from Lyng, Alfred would then have followed the southern bank of the Parrett to Langport (Somerton hundred), where he could cross to the other side of the river. From there he would surely have made for Somerton itself, chief town of the Somerton hundred and of Somerset, where the Somerton fyrd could join him and he could gather supplies and equipment .
What then? Would he have zig-zagged his way along, passing through the key towns, or made a fairly straight journey sending messengers to nearby towns summoning the fyrds? I think there would have been no need for the entire troop to visit each place. If the rallying point for the Wiltshire and Hampshire fyrds was to be Ecgbryht’s Stane (as Asser said), it would have made sense to send swifter messengers to the various towns and get the fyrds with supplies and equipment to follow him.
If Penselwood is taken as the site of Ecgbryht’s Stane, as scholars think, that would suggest a southerly route, perhaps through Ilchester, Queen Camel, South Cadbury and Wincanton. But, in reality, there is little significance in the fact that Penselwood is at the tripoint between Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset since Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle make no mention of the men of Dorset joining at this point, but of Hampshire.
If a line from Athelney to Penselwood is extended, most of Hampshire, centred on Andover, Basingstoke and Farnborough, lies to the north of that line and Edington is well to the north. Why go down to Penselwood?
I would suggest that Alfred proceeded, from Somerton, to Keinton Mandeville (Blachathorna hundred) and crossed the Fosse Way at Lydford on Fosse, to Castle Cary (Blachathorna hundred) which was a large settlement: it had 58 households to Somerton’s 52.7 – though this may have provided fewer able-bodied men. Thence to Bruton (Bruton hundred), another meeting place. Then to the small village of Redlynch where … and here there are three interesting clues – coincidences, even. (To be continued)