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Viking invasion of Reading
Norsemen overrun the Town, AD 871

The first time we hear anything concerning Reading is in the year 871. At that date England was not yet one kingdom under one king. The English had been settled in England for more than four centuries. Slowly and by hard fighting they had Avon the country from the Britons who had possessed it before them. They had become Christians; and churches and monasteries had been raised to the glory of God and for the service of man. They had produced poets and scholars. Still, however, the land was severed into different kingdoms, often at strife with one another. Of these kingdoms the biggest and strongest was now Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons. It stretched from Kent on the east to the river Tamar in the west, beyond which lay Cornwall or 'West Wales'; and from the shores of the English Channel to the banks of the Thames. Wessex therefore filled all the south and west of England. Winchester, once a Roman city, was its capital; and Reading, by the Thames, was one of its northern towns.

We do not know when people first began to live at Reading. We have no knowledge of Reading at all until the end of the year 871, when, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Danes came to Reading in Wessex, and built themselves a strong camp between the rivers Thames and Kennet, near the point where their waters mingle.

In your English histories you will have read of these Danes or Northmen, the fierce pirates whose home lay beyond the North Sea, in Denmark, and among the winding fiords and tall headlands of Norway. They loved fighting and adventure, and every year, when the cold and storms of winter were over, they used to draw their long black ships down to the waves and sail away in quest of what fortune might bring them. Band after band of these sea-rovers swept down upon the eastern coasts of England, and everywhere, even far inland, their passage was marked by tumult and butchery and the smoking ruins of house and home, church and monastery. They spoke no English. They were heathen, and haters of the English faith in Christ. Fighting was their stern joy and glory; they knew neither shame nor pity. They went into battle singing of war and tempest, carrying two-handed axes five feet long in the shaft and a foot long in the blade, with which at a blow skulls were cleft to the shoulder. Northern and eastern England had yielded to them, and now at last the conquerors turned to southern England, to the unvexed realm of the West Saxons, called Wessex. And they came to Reading first of all.

The Chronicle tells us that they came on horseback. Perhaps they rode along the ancient "Icknield Way," the old track of the early men, the lonely grassy road which still leads from eastern England along the foot of the Chiltern Hills, and enters Berkshire at Streatley, only a few miles from Heading. By whatever way they came, it is certain that they stayed in Reading for more than a year, and it is likely that the unhappy people of Reading were either slaughtered at once, or made captive, or driven forth to seek refuge in the villages around.

But the Berkshire men were staunch, and when the alarm was given that the Danes were at Heading, and were laying waste the land according to their wont, the Ealdorman of the Shire, whose duty it was, called the fighting men to his standard, and led them to battle. From many a wattled hamlet along the river valleys and among the forest tracts and windy downs, these sons of old England came forth to Avar. They had neither iron cap nor shirt of mail nor two-handed axe. Their best men carried only sword and spear, and there were many who fought with stone hammer, and even with scythe. They met the Danes at Englefield, which means "the Field of the English," five miles to the west of Reading, and there they fought so bravely that they beat the Danes, and chased them to their camp at Heading. Three days after their victory the Berkshire men were joined by Aethelred, King of the West Saxons. With the King was one greater than he, the prince, his brother, afterwards King of the West Saxons, renowned for ever as Alfred the Great. Cheered by their victory at Englefield, the King and Alfred and all their host pushed forward to the camp at Heading and tried to drive out the Danes. But the Danes had the shelter of their ditch and palisade, and the English could not break in upon them nor drive them out. Hushing forth at last, the Danes beat the English back in rout, and Aethelwulf, the brave Ealdorman of Berkshire, was left among the dead. Thus at Englefield and at Reading began what was called in after time the "year of battles," during which the Danes held to their camp at Reading. The most famous of these battles was at Ashdown, on the Berkshire Downs, near an ancient thorn-tree and not far from the town of Wantage, where Alfred was born. Here at Ashdown the valour and skill of Alfred shone forth, and on that day men first understood how stern a captain, how great a patriot he was. Aethelred, the King, was hearing prayers in his tent, and when the battle broke upon the English he still tarried upon his knees. Alfred sent him message after message, and at last could wait for him no longer. Like a wild boar, says the chronicler, he charged with his men up the hillside upon the Danes. Long and furious was that battle of long ago upon the grassy slopes now still and forsaken, but at nightfall the Danes broke their array, and fled across the hills to their refuge at Beading. One of their kings and five of their great nobles were left among the dead upon the field of battle.

Next year Aethelred, the King, died, and Alfred became King in his stead. A peace was made, and then at length the Danes left their camp at Beading and went away to London.

It is, then, in association with these deeds and men of old renown that the name of Reading is first written in the pages of the history of England. Should you go to Winchester, the famous old city where Alfred •was buried, you will see there a noble statue of the King who fought the Danes at Reading. The towering figure holds on high a great cross-hilted sword. By sword and cross Alfred lived and wrought for England, defender of his people, defender of their faith.

Edited from W.M. Childs' "The Story of the Town of Reading" (1905)
 

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