Yes, speaking of that snag …

Asser said that in 878 Alfred withdrew to Athelney and established a fortress there. Seven weeks later (in May) he ‘rode (equitavit) to Egbert’s Stone in the eastern part of Selwood Forest’, where the people of Somerset and Wiltshire, and those of Hampshire who had not sailed abroad, fleeing the Vikings, met with him there. They stayed one night at Ecgbryhtesstane. [NB Kingston Deverill and Penselwood are, give or take, both 30 miles from Athelney).

At first light, striking camp, he came (venit) to Aecglea. This is identified as a place called Iley Oak, no longer existing but supposedly in Eastleigh Wood to the west of Sutton Veny. He pitched camp there for one night. And this is the difference: Kingston Deverill is about 5 miles (as the crow flies) from Eastleigh Wood, and Penselwood is about 10 miles. But – snag – would Alfred have struck camp at Ecgbryhtesstane, marched his army five miles, and then stopped again for a further night? (But would he have marched ten miles and then stopped, if it comes to that?)

Well. He left Athelney on horseback, but Asser describes how, when he left Aecglea he came to Ethandun and joined battle with the pagans cum densa testudine atrociter belligerans (fighting fiercely with a tightly-packed shield-wall). The key question is: where were the horses?

Normans on horseback charge the Saxon infantry at Hastings

Normans on horseback charge the Saxon infantry at Hastings

I think there is expert consensus that the Saxons didn’t use horses in battle except for lighter duties, like transport or carrying. The armies were infantry. So might one assume that the 30 miles from Athelney were swiftly covered on horseback in one day? And did the shire fyrds arrive promptly at Egbert’s Stone, so that after that single night they were able to move off promptly, if more slowly, at daybreak? Let’s say, Yes, more or less.

In the first place, the massed army will move much more slowly than smaller companies. I think the entire force, numbered in thousands rather than hundreds, will take at least two hours to cover five miles. But studying the maps, the most efficient route for a large army will be an established trackway. If Alfred left Kingston Deverill at dawn, he would not simply march north up the B3095: he would continue eastwards on the Harrow Way where it would meet the Great Ridgeway (roughly corresponding to Lord’s Hill, the A350) and then up to Sutton Veny. That would be nearer 8 miles, and with heavy equipment a large force could take at least four hours. If they left Kingston Deverill at 5am they would arrive at about 9am BUT…

A straight march over Salisbury Plain is a good 6 miles

A straight march over Salisbury Plain is a good 6 miles. Imber in the centre

… Eastleigh Wood is right on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain, which – as far as I can work out – would have been much the open wilderness it is now with very few settlements (Imemerie was one – Imber). They would then have to cross the Plain where Edington stands on the escarpment on the northern edge.

I think it quite possible that Alfred would stay in Iley Oak for the day, waiting for any late arrivals and getting his equipment ready in the shelter of the thick woodland (still part of Selwood Forest). Most of all he would be resting the army ready for the final march across the plain on the following morning – a distance of about 6 miles. Snag? What snag? Kingston Deverill is still in with a chance.


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