The Westbury White Horse: Legends of King Alfred and the Battle of Ethandun


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Just how much history can you pack onto one hilltop?

In Wiltshire, the answer is usually ‘all of it’, inasmuch as the area is absolutely covered in prehistoric archaeology, which is by definition pre-history, so you can go back from the present day until history literally runs out, and find stories of human occupation.

This particular hill, Bratton Down, is a pretty good case in point. The site contains neolithic and bronze age barrows, an iron age hillfort, a 9th century battle that was a critical turning point in the formation of England, and a white horse carved into the chalk most likely in the early modern period.

Whether it ties those things together with anything more than geographical coincidence is rather debatable. There is a narrative which connects them more meaningfully, as strands of a single epic story spanning several thousand years.

In a nutshell, it goes like this: Iron age people build a hillfort here to surround and protect the sacred burial sites of their stone age ancestors. About a millennium and a half later, the fort is occupied by a Great Heathen Army, rampaging Vikings who have conquered every Anglo-Saxon kingdom except Wessex. But King Alfred of Wessex raises an army, overruns the Vikings in this fortress, crushes them and in so doing assures the continuity of glorious Christian Anglo-Saxon independence. In celebration of this magnificent victory, a series of monumental white horses are dug into the chalk uplands of Wessex and beyond, white horses being a symbol of said glorious Christian Anglo-Saxon culture. Some of these horses, like this one, are still here today, having been continually maintained and occasionally redesigned over the centuries.

But, if you’ve seen any of my previous videos, you’ll know I tend towards being that “well, actually” nitpicking kind of guy, and said narrative is extremely ripe for that sort of treatment, because while there are some elements of fact to it, overall it’s massively flimsy at best, and, well, massively wrong if you really want to be blunt about it.

But let’s start at the beginning. This is a neolithic long barrow. Neolithic as in stone age - most long barrows are from about 6 or 7000 years ago, although I couldn’t find any estimate whatsoever for this specific one. Barrow as in burial mound, and long, because, well, that part is fairly self-explanatory. This one is 73m long and up to 17m wide. 19th century excavations found three human skeletons, animal bones, pottery and a bead, as well as a cremation platform.

There are also bronze age round barrows on this site, and I think this is one of them, but I really can’t be sure. At any rate, it’s apparent this site had been occupied, if only by the dead, for thousands of years before the iron age fort was built. I also couldn’t find a single estimate of this hillfort’s age, however vague or cautious, but most hill forts of this type in this region were built about 2 to 2-and-a-half thousand years ago.

Earthwork hill forts like this one tend to be very impressive in person, but much less so on camera. They’re also so big that it’s impossible to grasp their overall shape and structure without aerial footage, and I don’t have a drone. Somewhat cheekily, therefore, I will resort to showing you this photo of the aerial photo on the information board at the site.

You can see this fort consists of two huge earthen ramparts enclosing a fairly enormous area (about 9 hectares or 23 acres). This 3D model from Wikipedia also illustrates the way these earthworks are less on the scale of a building, as the name fort might suggest, and more on the scale of city walls: big enough to enclose a whole settlement, perhaps containing many houses, religious sites, market places, pasture for animals, and so on.

This is one of the reasons I personally find the term hill fort a bit problematic. The other being the implication that their purpose was primarily military. While early conceptions of these hillforts tended to assume they arose from a constantly war-torn tribal society, later archaeologists have tended to question this. Although the huge banks and ditches like this undeniably have some defensive value, many of these structures aren’t actually as defensible or generally militarily sensible as they easily could be. Plus, if the pre-Roman tribes who built these were in a constant state of open warfare with each other, routinely massacring each other en masse on these ramparts, you’d expect that to be pretty apparent in the archaeological record… and it just really isn’t. So many now conclude these structures were as much about projecting power and prestige in peacetime as they were battlements to die on. As such, some have suggested alternative, more neutral names like “enclosed places” would be more accurate than “hillfort”, and to be honest I’d be inclined to agree - but hillfort is pretty embedded in the language by now, so I’m just going to stick with that.

Some suggest the iron age fort was built to surround the neolithic and bronze age barrows as a means of venerating their ancestors and protecting their burial grounds, which were considered sacred. Frankly, I am a bit of a sceptic. I mean, sure, it could be that, but without any evidence, it seems just as likely to me that Iron Age peoples settled here not due to some religious-ancestor-worship of the people who preceded them here - but simply for the exact same reasons that those people had preceded them here. A good place to live is a good place to live. I see no reason to necessarily invoke sacred motivations when profane ones like a defensible position, access to fresh water, timber, stone, good soil or grazing, or other such resources, are equally reasonable.

Still, I’m no archaeologist, so perhaps before I embarrass myself with my uneducated takes, we should fast forward to that 9th century clash between the Anglo-Saxon forces of Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army. That is at least history, although if I’m honest, I’m no more in my element with this period of history, than I am with prehistory.

The battle in question took place in May 878, and is called the Battle of Ethandun, or Edington. Ethandun is the name used in the Life of King Alfred, written by Asser, a Welsh monk in Alfred’s Court. The other major primary source is the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, which uses Eðandun, that curly crossed d being a th sound.

Edington is the modern name of the Wiltshire village nestled at the foot of this ridge, here. People have argued for centuries as to the location of the battle, and lest you think the similarity of name makes it an obvious slam dunk, there’s also an Edington in Somerset, very much part of Alfred’s territory, and an Eddington not far away in Berkshire as well, so we can’t rely on linguistic coincidence. Still, to cut a long story short, most historians seem to agree these days that the Wiltshire Edington is the Ethandun of Anglo-Saxon sources, and in the year 2000 a monument to the battle was unveiled here. Hell, even if this wasn’t the actual place of the battle, it’s a very fine place for a monument.

The battle saw King Alfred of Wessex defeat Guthrum, a Danish leader of what the Anglo-Saxon chronicle called the Great Heathen Army. Such a name is so hilariously biased I feel sheepish to use it, and clarifying that they were Vikings is scarcely better, such is the ridiculous pop culture image of Vikings. At any rate, this Scandinavian force had invaded Britain in 865, and by 878 had come to control essentially most of what is now England, except Wessex

Alfred had already paid off the Vikings to leave Wessex alone, but it seems they weren’t terribly good at sticking to those sort of agreements, and in 875 Guthrum had resumed attacks on Wessex, eventually capturing Chippenham and very nearly capturing Alfred with it.

Alfred fled to the Somerset levels, where he camped out over winter, raised an army, and in spring 878 comprehensively defeated Guthrum’s forces at Ethandun, from where he pursued the Danes back to their “fortress”. Here, it apparently took weeks to starve them into suing for peace.

I bought this vintage pamphlet, which is frustratingly undated as a whole, although part of the text is dated to 1892, so the other part must be later than that at least. It presents the classic opinions of its time, whenever that may be: that this battle was “really one of the most decisive battles ever fought on English soil”; that “we have no doubt that the … stronghold to which the Danes fled on their defeat, was the large entrenched camp called Bratton Castle”; and that a white horse “cut to commemorate the victory gained by Alfred the Great over the Danish Invaders of his Country” had stood there “from time immemorial”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the part where I disagree with all three of those claims.

It was an emphatic victory, but I’m not sure I can really agree it was a decisive one. The resultant treaties confirmed Wessex’s independence, but also confirmed the Danelaw’s dominion over most of the rest of what would become England, and established legal frameworks for the two polities to coexist, trade and resolve judicial disputes peacefully.

But as it turned out, the Vikings resumed hostilities with Wessex in the early 890s, and even after the Great Heathen Army faded altogether, it took several more decades, and several generations after Alfred, to unify England. Secondly, modern scholars now tend to believe that when Anglo-Saxon sources referred to Alfred’s army chasing the Vikings back to their “fortress” and starving them out until they sued for peace, they referred to Chippenham, rather than the Iron Age hillfort here.

It’s disappointingly unromantic I know, but it seems that while we might be 95% sure the Battle was somewhere near Edington, there’s actually nothing to suggest that it was up here on Bratton Down, specifically.

Well... I say nothing, but, of course, there is this massive white horse. But that seems to be rather problematic as well.

It was cut in its current shape in 1778, although we do know there was a horse here at least a little bit earlier than that. Exactly how much earlier is unclear though. The first pictorial evidence of the horse is from 1772, in which it notably faces the opposite direction. Because of this, many sources state the horse used to face the other way, but actually it’s more likely the picture was accidentally reversed during printing. Because in 1773 this absolutely glorious topographical map of Wiltshire was published, and if we zoom in on it, here’s our horsey, facing to the left already.

The first written reference to the horse is from 1742, in which a Reverend Wise asserts it to have been created within living memory, suggesting it could date back to the late 1600s. Still, that’s a healthy 800 years after the Battle of Ethandun.

It was once suggested that the overall Wessex white horse tradition spanned this 800 year period, and the main basis for this belief was the Uffington White Horse, which is England’s oldest. With literary sources from as far back as the 11th or 12th centuries confirming its existence back then, it was once believed that the West Saxons themselves cut the Uffington horse to celebrate their victory. Horses were long seen as a Saxon symbol; the brothers Hengist and Horsa who supposedly led the Germanic invasion of Britain in the 5th century, being a case in point. Hengist is actually Old English for ‘stallion’, whereas Horsa, believe it or not, is Old English for horse. If you trace the Hengist and Horsa stuff far enough back, you end up with versions of the mythology where the brothers were not just great leaders, but gods or demigods, and not just horses by name, but actually, well... horses...

So needless to say, there’s no serious evidence Hengist and Horsa actually existed. And as far as Uffington goes, there’s also the small problem that we don’t even actually know it’s supposed to be a horse. Even assuming it was, assuming it was Saxon because horses held an extremely important place in Saxon culture, doesn’t make much sense, because horses have held an extremely important place in just about every proto-Indo-European culture before and since. Hell, in basically every culture that has horses, full stop.

Sure enough, modern dating techniques completely kaiboshed that theory by dating the Uffington horse to the late Bronze age or early Iron Age, one or two thousand years before Alfred. Meanwhile, there’s simply no firm evidence for any of the Wiltshire horses before the 17th century. So folklore claims of continuity from the time of Ethandun don’t seem to stand up. This, not to mention the fact there are 8 white horses in Wiltshire alone, and were previously at least 5 more, makes it impossible for any one of them to credibly indicate the battle’s exact location.

But it also raises the question, what prompted this extremely belated outpouring of Alfred-celebration? It didn’t only manifest in the horses - King Alfred’s Tower, about 20km away, is another major example, replete with inscription hailing him as the ‘Light of a Benighted Age’.. Completed in 1772 as part of the Stourhead estate, it supposedly marks the location where Alfred rallied his troops before marching to Ethandun, although I should stress this is just as historically dodgy as location of the battle, if not more so.

It seems Alfred’s high status in the 18th century ties into the English Reformation. Part of his treaty with Guthrum involved the Dane personally converting to Christianity, so he was an appealing role model to the Church as a bastion of English Christianity. Indeed, there were unsuccessful attempts to have him declared a saint. He was also renowned for encouraging education in English rather than Latin, and was even personally credited with translating several Latin texts into his native tongue. For a Protestant movement at odds with the Vatican, this also… resonated.

In 1574 a new translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred was published by an Archbishop, and it was around this time that people began calling him ‘the Great’, an epithet not used in his own era. This wave of Alfred-fandom continued through the 18th century, with the creation of the horses and Tower, and into the 19th, with many epic poems written about him, and Queen Victoria naming her second son Alfred.

To briefly bring the story of the horse up-to-date, it was covered with turf during WW2 to prevent German bombers from using it as a reference landmark. It was uncovered and re-cut once the war ended, but by 1957 the local council decided the erosion of the steep chalk slope was too much to maintain, and decided to concrete it over and paint it white instead of using the natural chalk. I have to admit this does seem a bit of a shame, but other white horses are still cut into the chalk if you’re a purist about it, like these ones at Broad Town, Hackpen and Cherhill, which I’ve previously visited over the years.

Maybe in future I’ll revisit one or more of these, or the ones I haven’t seen yet, and build up a mini-series about them on this channel. On the other hand, knowing me, I might very well never get around to it. For now at least, that’s all for this video. If you’ve made it this far you’re obviously somewhat interested in the folk culture of 18th century Wessex, so allow me to recommend this video on Somerset’s fives walls. I realise 40 minutes about walls might not sound too thrilling, but it’s more interesting than it sounds, honest.

Otherwise, thanks to everyone whose work I built on in making this, thanks to you for watching, and if you enjoyed it, why not give it a like and subscribe in case I make any more. Cheers.