Oh, but if Alfred was in the Somerset Levels, and Guthrum was somewhere near the Polden Hills, why would the king ride all the way over to Selwood Forest in Wiltshire?
The answer is … he gerade over to Ecgbryhtesstane to show himself to his people of Wiltshire and Hampshire. He had last been heard of fleeing from Chippenham after the Viking raid and his people had known nothing of him since. So, according to Asser §55, ‘when they saw the king restored alive, as it were, after such great tribulation, they were filled, as was meet, with immeasurable joy… ‘ [visoque rege, sicut dignum erat, quasi redivivum post tantas tribulationes recipientes, immenso repleti sunt gaudio – ‘ond his gefægenen wærun’].
So, the next day, they all set off to Oakley (in Somerset) in excellent spirits at finding their king still alive. Oakley was just south of Ilchester; the A37 led to a river crossing, a Roman ford across the River Yeo leading to the Fosse Way which then met up with another Roman Road at Cary Fitzpaine. This followed the Poldens ridge through Ashcott, Shapwick, Edington …
But Guthrum in the Poldens? Wasn’t he last seen at Chippenham where his sudden raid caused Alfred to flee to the soggy Somerset Levels?
Well … when Alfred was hiding out in the Levels, Asser says this, §53:
Eodem tempore Aelfred saepe supra memoratus rex, cum paucis suis nobilibus et etiam cum quibusdam militibus et fasellis, 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.
He and his small band of followers were in dire want in the woods and marshes of Somerset, but made frequent raids, foraging a paganis. So there were pagans close by. They had massed in great numbers above the Levels in the Polden Hills. (Well, perhaps they had.) The Saxons being so few, a desperate ride across the breadth of Somerset was necessary to raise the fyrds from the neighbouring shires in sufficient numbers to take on the Viking army.
At a stroke, this disposes of the objection that Kingston Deverell was too close to Iley Oak to be the location of Ecgbryhtesstane. Aecglea was not Iley Oak at all, but Achelai/Oakley near Ilchester, almost 20 miles away – and that’s where Alfred pitched his camp for the night.
But Oakley? Oakley? A non-place if ever there was one. Not entirely true – as we shall see.
[To be continued]