What transpired at the Battle of Edington in 878? – History & Major Facts

The Battle of Edington, fought in 878, was a decisive confrontation between the Anglo-Saxon forces under King Alfred the Great and the Danish Viking army led by Guthrum. This battle was pivotal in the history of England as it effectively determined the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture in the southern part of the island, leading to the establishment of a relatively peaceful coexistence between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings under the Danelaw agreement.

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How did the Battle of Edington unfold? And what were the consequences of the battle?

In the article below, World History Edu essay explores the context, course, and consequences of the Battle of Edington.

Context Leading up to the Battle

The mid-9th century was marked by the ramping up of Viking invasions in England. The Vikings, originating from what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, had been raiding the English coasts since the late 8th century. By the 860s, these raids had evolved into full-scale invasions. In 865, the “Great Heathen Army” landed in East Anglia and proceeded to conquer Northumbria, East Anglia, and parts of Mercia in the following years.

By the time Alfred became king in 871, the situation was dire. Wessex stood as the last significant Anglo-Saxon kingdom resisting the Viking onslaught. Alfred himself faced a series of battles in the early years of his reign, with varying success. By 878, the situation reached a critical point when a surprise winter attack led by Guthrum forced Alfred to retreat to the Somerset Levels, a marshy area where he conducted a guerrilla war against the invaders.

The Guerrilla Phase and Preparations for Battle

During his time in the marshes of Somerset, Alfred engaged in guerrilla tactics, using the natural landscape as a defensive advantage and conducting swift raids against the Danes. It was during this period that Alfred famously burnt the cakes when he was given shelter by a peasant woman who did not recognize him. This anecdote, whether apocryphal or not, emphasizes the humility and adversity faced by Alfred during this low point.

By spring 878, Alfred emerged from his winter refuge to gather forces from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. His call to arms was answered by all those willing to resist Danish rule. The assembled force, though outnumbered, was highly motivated and better coordinated.

Before the Battle of Edington in 878, Alfred the Great sheltered in Athelney’s Somerset marshes, using natural defenses. In spring, he rallied West Saxon forces to confront Guthrum’s Danes at Edington. Image: An ancient depicting Alfred.

The Battle of Edington

The actual battle likely took place in May 878 near Edington, Wiltshire. The precise movements and tactics employed during the battle are not detailed in contemporary sources, but it is clear that it was a pitched battle, with both sides engaging in close combat. Alfred’s forces, determined to reclaim their lands and freedom from Danish control, fought with a desperate vigor.

The Anglo-Saxons managed to break the Danish lines, pushing them back to their fortified camp. Following the battle, Alfred laid siege to this stronghold, which lasted for fourteen days. The dire situation and the lack of supplies forced Guthrum to negotiate.

The Treaty of Wedmore

The aftermath of the battle led to the Treaty of Wedmore later that year, a pivotal moment in English history. Under the terms of the treaty, Guthrum agreed to be baptized as a Christian with Alfred becoming his godfather, which was both a political and spiritual commitment. This baptism was significant as it symbolized Guthrum’s acceptance of Christian rule and customs.

Furthermore, the treaty set the boundaries between Alfred and Guthrum’s territories, essentially formalizing the Danelaw — the area of England under Danish law. This treaty not only secured peace for a time but also acknowledged the coexistence of Anglo-Saxon and Danish cultures in England.

READ MORE: What was the Great Heathen Army?

Consequences and Legacy of the Battle

The victory at Edington had far-reaching consequences. It secured Alfred’s position as king and saved Wessex from Danish conquest, which likely preserved the continuity of Anglo-Saxon culture and the Christian religion in southern England. It also established Alfred as a shrewd and capable leader whose legacy would extend far beyond his military achievements.

Politically, the battle and subsequent treaty facilitated a period of relative peace and allowed Alfred to initiate reforms in military organization, law, and education. These reforms strengthened the defenses of Wessex and prepared the kingdom for future conflicts, as well as contributing to the administrative cohesion necessary for the eventual unification of England.

Culturally, the establishment of the Danelaw area contributed to the rich blend of Norse and Anglo-Saxon traditions, language, and law, which would characterize much of England in the centuries to follow. The Norse influence is still evident today in many place names and aspects of English law and governance.

Did you know…?

  • The Battle of Edington was historically referred to as the Battle of Ethandun.
  • After Guthrum’s defeat at Edington, Alfred the Great implemented military reforms in Wessex, bolstering defenses and making Viking raids less successful.
  • By 896, many Vikings had retreated to East Anglia or Northumbria. Alfred’s strategies effectively contained the Viking threat. Later, Edward the Elder’s introduction of the Burghal Hidage—a system organizing fortresses and military service—further strengthened these defenses, enabling Alfred’s successors to reclaim and control the northern English territories previously dominated by the Danes.

Location of the Battle

The location of the Battle of Edington, where Alfred the Great faced the Danes in 878, is commonly accepted by modern historians to be near Westbury in Wiltshire.

However, the exact site has been a topic of debate for centuries. Early in the 20th century, William Henry Stevenson expressed doubts about definitively identifying Edington as the battle site, though he also conceded there was little reason to question this identification.

Historical confusion about the location dates back to the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, who mistakenly placed the battle at Abingdon.

Interest in medieval history and Alfred’s heroic status in the 19th century spurred both archaeological interest and alternative theories about the battle’s location. Many suggestions were based on name similarities, and during this time, any site linked to Alfred attracted tourism, further fueling speculations.

Various alternative sites were proposed over the years, ranging from Eddington in Berkshire to “Woeful Danes” in Gloucestershire and multiple locations in Wiltshire and Somerset, each backed by different authors and antiquarians who were influenced by the burgeoning interest in Alfred’s legacy and the potential for tourist attraction. These debates highlight how historical interpretation can be influenced by both scholarly interest and commercial motives.

Conclusion

The Battle of Edington was more than just a military victory; it was a turning point that shaped the future trajectory of England. It not only preserved Anglo-Saxon heritage from Viking obliteration but also set the stage for the future unification of England under later kings such as Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan.

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FAQs

Where in modern-day England did the Battle of Edington take place?

The Battle of Edington was a significant confrontation between the Wessex forces led by King Alfred the Great and the Viking army led by Guthrum. It took place in 878 in what is now Edington, Wiltshire, England.

Wiltshire is a ceremonial county in South West England, known for its rich history and rural landscapes. It borders several counties including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. With an area of 3,485 km², it is largely rural, with the largest population center being Swindon.

The county is traversed by two rivers named Avon, distinguishing them by their directions of flow and the areas they traverse.

The county is also famous for two Neolithic sites – Stonehenge and Avebury.

The geography of Wiltshire features undulating chalk downlands, including the North Wessex Downs, Salisbury Plain, and Cranbourne Chase, with the Cotswolds covering its north-western area. Salisbury Plain stands out for its prehistoric sites like Stonehenge and Avebury, which are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Image: The Stonehenge at Salisbury Plain.

Why was the Battle of Edington important?

This battle was crucial because it marked a turning point in the Viking invasions of England. Alfred’s victory at Edington led to the Treaty of Wedmore, where Guthrum agreed to convert to Christianity and withdraw to East Anglia. This treaty effectively established a boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the south and west and the Danish-controlled territories in the north and east.

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The victory at Edington was crucial, halting the Danish advance and preserving the independence of Anglo-Saxon England at a critical moment. Image: A map showing England during 878. 

How did the battle unfold?

After a series of defeats and a strategic retreat into the Somerset Levels, Alfred rallied his forces and launched a surprise attack against the Danish encampment at Edington. The battle was fiercely contested, but Alfred’s forces eventually prevailed, forcing the Danes to retreat to their stronghold, where they were besieged until they surrendered.

What strategy did Guthrum use before the battle?

Guthrum’s Viking strategy involved occupying fortified towns and negotiating peace treaties, typically involving payments for promises to leave. This pattern began in 875 when Guthrum’s forces bypassed West Saxon defenses to enter Wareham, where they gave hostages and swore to exit the realm after receiving payment from Alfred.

However, the Danes deceitfully moved deeper into Alfred’s territory, reaching Exeter. By autumn of 877, they agreed to a “firm peace” with Alfred, pledging to leave his kingdom and not return. Despite these promises, they remained within the nearby Mercian kingdom, settling in Gloucester for the rest of 877.

Alfred, meanwhile, celebrated Christmas in Chippenham, Wessex, merely 50 kilometers from Gloucester. Shortly after the festivities, on the night of January 6-7, 878, the Danes launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. This forced Alfred into a strategic retreat to the marshes of Somerset, marking a critical phase in his resistance. It was during this challenging period that the anecdotal incident of Alfred burning the cakes is said to have occurred, symbolizing his intense focus on military matters amidst domestic chaos.

What strategies were used during the battle?

After losing Chippenham to the Danes, who were skilled at defending fortified positions, Alfred the Great, with only a small faction of his army, couldn’t retake the town. By Easter 878, he constructed a fortress at Athelney.

In early May, he summoned forces at Egbert’s Stone, drawing men from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Alfred’s assembled forces then moved to Iley Oak and subsequently to Edington (Eðandun), where between May 6 and 12, they engaged and fought the Danes, marking a critical point in his military campaign.

Following their victory at Edington, Alfred’s West Saxons besieged the Danes in their fortress, strategically cutting off any access to food. After two weeks of deprivation, the Danes, driven by hunger, negotiated for peace. They provided Alfred with hostages and sworn promises to exit his kingdom—typical terms that had been agreed upon previously.

However, this time, Guthrum also agreed to be baptized, marking a significant addition to the usual terms. The decisive defeat at Edington lent more weight to the agreement, increasing the likelihood of the Danes honoring their promises, unlike previous treaties at Exeter and Wareham where the outcomes were less conclusive.

What were some of the reasons why Alfred the Great won at Edington?

Alfred the Great’s victory at the Battle of Edington can largely be attributed to the relative size and preparedness of the opposing forces. Even a single shire’s men, as demonstrated by Devon’s fighters who defeated Ubba at the Battle of Cynwit that same year, could be a formidable force.

Moreover, by 875, the Viking leader Guthrum had lost the support of significant Danish allies like Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. Many Danish forces had previously settled in East Anglia and Mercia or were lost in a catastrophic storm off Swanage in 876-877, which wrecked 120 ships.

It’s been stated that Alfred the Great capitalized on this internal disunity and loss of manpower in the Danish camp. Considering the fact that the Danish position was significantly weakened, Guthrum had a chance to regroup but failed to use this time effectively, giving Wessex a crucial advantage.

Three weeks post-battle, Guthrum was baptized at Aller, Somerset, with Alfred as his sponsor. The Danish leader adopted the Christian name Athelstan. Image An artwork depicting the baptism of Guthrum.

Why was Guthrum baptized after the battle?

It’s been stated that Guthrum was baptized in order to bind Guthrum to Christian ethics, ensuring treaty compliance. Guthrum would go on to rule East Anglia until his death in 890. Though his reign wasn’t entirely peaceful, he no longer posed a significant threat.

How important was the Treaty of Wedmore?

In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum established clear boundaries between Alfred’s Wessex and Guthrum’s East Anglia, dividing Mercia between them. This treaty not only delineated territories but also aligned the social structures of Danish East Anglia with those of Wessex, aiming to reduce conflict and foster trade between the two regions.

While Guthrum’s sincerity in his Christian conversion remains uncertain, he notably adopted Alfredian practices, such as minting coins under his baptismal name, Athelstan. By the end of the 9th century, all Anglo-Danish rulers had adopted coin minting, and by the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon model of kingship was universally embraced by the Anglo-Danish elite.

How is King Alfred remembered in relation to the Battle of Edington?

King Alfred is often lauded as one of England’s greatest monarchs, partly due to his success at Edington. He is remembered not only for his military prowess but also for his intellectual and administrative achievements, including legal reforms and promoting education.

Are there any historical sites related to the Battle of Edington that can be visited today?

While specific battlefield markers are rare, the area around Edington in Wiltshire is associated with the battle. Visitors can explore the local church, believed to have been built to commemorate the victory, and the surrounding landscape where the battle may have taken place.

The Battle of Edington in 878 exemplifies the resilience and strategic acumen of Alfred the Great and is remembered as a key moment in the forging of English identity in the medieval era. Image: A silver coin of Alfred.

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