So we’ve all had Somerset Day and lots of celebrating all that is good about our county. But what is this Somerset Day we are celebrating?
This year more than any I was struck by the way the anniversary was being interpreted in two very different ways. Some say it is the celebration of Alfred being acclaimed by the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire as their leader against the Danes. Elsewhere it is referred to as the anniversary of the Battle of Adington where Alfred crushed the Danish army.
So are we celebrating acclamation of our king – or annihilation of our enemies?
What in fact is 11th May the anniversary of?
All the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us is “in the seventh week after Easter, he (Alfred) rode to Brixton by the eastern side of Selwood; and there came out to meet him all the people of Somersetshire, and Wiltshire, and that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea; and they rejoiced to see him” Easter fell In 878AD Easter fell on 23rd March. So the 7th week after Easter covers any time from the 5th to the 11th May. And whatever date it was that Alfred was acclaimed by his army, we also know (or at least the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us) that within 24 hours he was at Hey, a day later at Edington (probably the village just north of Westbury although those living in the Polden Hills probably have a different point of view!) where he finally set to destroying the Viking army of King Guthrum. So by the 11th May the Vikings may have been routed, or the King may only just have met his army. It all depends….
Asser who wrote a more or less contemporary biography of Alfred, does not help here as his account is so close to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as to make it likely that one originates from the other.
Needless to day in the short history of Somerset Day, both the defeat of the Vikings and the acclamation of Alfred by the men of the shires have been identified as the point of the celebration. Maybe we should decide which it is and stick to it?
Anglo Saxon Chronicle – extract from the entry for 878AD
In the Easter of this year King Alfred with his little force raised a work at Athelney; from which he assailed the army, assisted by that part of Somersetshire which was nighest to it. Then, in the seventh week after Easter, he rode to Brixton by the eastern side of Selwood; and there came out to meet him all the people of Somersetshire, and Wiltshire, and that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea; and they rejoiced to see him. Then within one night he went from this retreat to Hey; and within one night after he proceeded to Heddington; and there fought with all the army, and put them to flight, riding after them as far as the fortress, where he remained a fortnight. Then the army gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom. They told him also, that their king would receive baptism. And they acted accordingly; for in the course of three weeks after, King Guthrum, attended by some thirty of the worthiest men that were in the army, came to him at Aller, which is near Athelney, and there the king became his sponsor in baptism; and his crisom-leasing was at Wedmor. He was there twelve nights with the king, who honoured him and his attendants with many presents.