Michael Wood on Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington

On the evening of Thursday 16 November 2017 the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre was delighted to welcome renowned historian and television presenter, Michael Wood, as our guest speaker. Michael travelled from London to present a special one-off lecture to help celebrate our 10th anniversary as a History Centre, and the 70th anniversary of the archive service. It was very well attended by almost 180 people. All the profit from the talk went to support the work of the History Centre thanks to Michael generously waiving his fee.

Principal Archivist Claire Skinner with Michael Wood

Michael brought out the importance of archives for society through assisting our collective memory and understanding of the past. His colourful slides and video clips brought the shadowy Anglo-Saxon era to life. (Michael did his postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history and still retains a passion for it – he is due to publish a book on King Athelstan in 2018.)

Michael laid out the background to the Battle of Edington, which took place the second week of May 878. He explained how after a surprise attack at Christmas by the Danes at Chippenham, King Alfred hid in the Somerset marshes at Athelney, building a fortress there. Alfred called a levy at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s stone) which Michael attributes to Penselwood in Somerset. Alfred was joined by men from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, and quite possibly Dorset as well. The next day they moved to Iley Oak, just south of Warminster, and thence to Ethandun or Edington, in Wiltshire, where they made a surprise attack on Guthrum and the Danes. Michael argued that the conventional belief that the battle took place on the hillside overlooking the settlement is incorrect, and that the archival sources would indicate instead that the battle took place actually within the royal settlement, possibly on the site of the old vicarage of Edington. (Edington was one of Alfred’s family estates and he left a manor called ‘Ethandune’ to his wife in his will.) This needs to be followed up with archaeological investigation such as geophysical surveys to see if evidence of the battle can be found.

After the Battle Guthrum became baptised as Athelstan, and agreed to a treaty with Alfred in which the Danes would leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. In 879 they left Chippenham and went to Cirencester, and the year after to East Anglia. In 886 Alfred and Guthrum made a treaty which defined the boundaries of their kingdoms, and tried to establish peaceful commerce between them.

Michael ended his talk by discussing Alfred’s legacy and the fact that he is the only monarch remembered today as ‘The Great’. There are many myths and legends associated with Alfred, such as the burning of the cakes, which can turn Alfred into a bit of a figure of fun, but Michael reminded us that behind these myths lay a shrewd and intelligent military leader who promoted a revival in learning using texts written in English as well as Latin.


This immensely enjoyable and fascinating lecture was followed by a Q & A session and a well-earned vote of thanks from Councillor Richard Gamble. After that one or two lucky people managed to get Michael to sign copies of his books, before he was whisked off to catch his train back to London!

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

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