Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Battling Ghosts of Castle Combe, Wiltshire

Castle Combe is probably the most photographed village in Wiltshire. It has featured on more greetings cards and chocolate boxes than perhaps any in England. The old market cross, with its vaulted stone roof, and ancient stone houses serve as a perfect backdrop for the babbling By Brook as it tumbles down the narrow valley and under the three arched bridge at the lower end of the village.

Castle Combe owes its charm and beauty to a burst of prosperity in the 16th century when a group of Flemish weavers came here. They established a local industry, weaving the local woollen thread into quality cloth and so brought enough money to this little village to build the bridge, houses and market cross that make it so attractive.

But it is the narrow valley itself that explains the ghosts that lurk here. The steeply wooded slopes that flank the twisting road would make a deadly site for an ambush in any war. And it is the sounds of fighting men hacking at each other with swords, spears and axes that sometimes shatters the quiet calm of the woodlands. There are no guns going off in this phantom battle, nor are there horses’ hooves to be heard. Just the clash of metal on metal and the screams and cries of men shouting in a guttural language.

This startling manifestation is the faint echo of a small skirmish fought here centuries ago that saved England as a nation. In the 860s England was invaded by a large army of Vikings led by the mighty warrior Guthrum. These men did not come to raid, but to stay, conquer and settle. They crushed the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia in short order and in 871 turned on Wessex, which then covered most of southern England including Wiltshire. A long series of battles followed, but by 875 King Alfred of Wessex had fought the Vikings to a standstill. Guthrum took oaths to his pagan gods promising peace and led his army back to the parts of England they had already conquered.

Alfred set about rebuilding his kingdom after the ravages of war. By Christmas 877 he was well on his way to success and went to the sumptuous royal residence at Chippenham to celebrate the festive season. But Guthrum was biding his time and was  determined to crush the last English king so that the Viking conquest of England would be complete. Believing, correctly, that the Christian feast of Christmas would be a good time to strike, Guthrum led his army on a secret march to Chippenham.

On Twelfth Night the Vikings struck. Most of Alfred’s men were at home on their estates across Wessex and he had only his personal body guard with him. The Viking onrush came at night when many men were drunk, sleeping or both. A determined rearguard held up the pagans just long enough for Alfred to get away and send messengers to those living nearby asking them to meet him urgently.

Soon after Alfred and the few men who had answered his summons met up somewhere near Chippenham. A force of Vikings had tracked Alfred and were hard on his heels. The English ambushed the Vikings, driving them off and giving Alfred time to slip away to hide in the Somerset marshes. In time Alfred would muster an army to crush Guthrum’s Vikings once and for all. He would then set about rebuilding Wessex as a powerful state, reconquer much of Mercia and lay the foundations for the united kingdom of England that we all know.

Where the ambush of the Vikings was carried out was not recorded. Given the ghosts of Castle Combe, however, the site would seem to be established. Not only is the narrow valley a perfect place for this type of an ambush, but it is just four miles from Chippenham. A fleeing king could cover such a distance at night, and the valley is as good a place to muster a force in secret as it is to launch an ambush.

If the fighting ghosts of Castle Combe are Alfred’s English driving off the Vikings then these are most significant ghosts. If this battle had ended differently and Alfred had died, Wiltshire would now be a Scandinavian county, not an English one.

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