England and the Danes

out of Devizes towards Trowbridge, we pass through several pretty, prosperous villages - like Seend, for instance.

I stopped there on a warm summer's afternoon, to watch the delightful pastime of village cricket - only to discover that things had changed remarkably since I last looked. Fielders were actually diving for the ball! Strewth!

Mind you, they were still missing it - so some traditions remain unsullied.

Continuing on our way, a mass of high ground looms on the Southern horizon (to our left). This is Salisbury Plain, a plateau which sometimes seems like one big war game. Many parts of it are extremely dangerous, with live shells lying around (and flying around). It's the Army's favourite playground.

Salisbury Plain, as a whole, is a bit too far off our track to spend much time on - which is a pity, since it is also one of England's UFO ranges - but just on this Northern edge, there is a place which deserves mention.

Edington is the site of one of the key battles of English history. Here, effectively, King Alfred of Wessex became King Alfred the Great - of England.

Alfred was the grandson of King Egbert, victor of Ellendun, and the fourth son of King Aethelwulf.

At a time when even the first son of a king could not rely on succeeding his father, Alfred must have felt that his future held nothing more prestigious than the management of some minor royal estate (if he was lucky enough to live that long).

But each of his brothers held the Wessex throne for a time (Aethelbald (858-60), Aethelbert (860-65) and Aethelred I (865-71)), and then died - until Alfred was the only son of Aethelwulf left. Even though he had living nephews, there seems to have been little delay in crowning Alfred - not least because there was urgent need of a strong leader.

The problems came from those people variously called Vikings, Danes, Norsemen - Scandinavian warriors who arrived on longships. They'd been raiding the shores of Britain for a hundred years or more. (In fact, their raids were probably nothing more than a continuation of the Saxon raids which had brought Alfred's ancestors to these shores).

Because of its position, Wessex was relatively safe from Norse raiding, while her neighbours in Mercia, East Anglia and Nurthumbria were in dire straits. Occasionally, Wessex armies would try to help their fellow Anglo-Saxons, but with little effect.

In 865, the Danes had changed their tactics. No longer simply raiding and running, they set up a winter base on the Isle of Thanet (in Kent) and stayed, ready to resume their campaign in the Spring. They were already forcing local authorities to pay "protection" money to keep their towns and homesteads intact.

In subsequent years, the Danes swept across most of England with little opposition. By the time Alfred took the Wessex throne, most of the other kingdoms of England were under Danish control. And Wessex was next.

Caen Hill Climbing on Water Athelney Athelney
© David Craig Send me a message