This time last year we were preparing for our annual Twelfth Night event. With the help of local author Geoff Hill and some inspiring re-enactors we were getting ready to celebrate all things Saxon and share the story of Chippenham’s Royal connections and its role in the events of 878AD.
Things are different this year and we are not able to gather as we did, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tell one of our favourite stories about our wonderful town and its role in making King Alfred Great.
Therefore, for your enjoyment, we bring you ….
The Story of Twelfth Night 878AD
For many years the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain had been under attack from the advances of the Vikings, fierce warriors from Denmark, Sweden and Norway. By 877AD only the kingdom of Wessex remained independent, but the year saw the Wessex King Alfred and the Viking King Guthrum involved in intense battles around Exeter.
When Guthrum moved his army to Gloucester for the winter, it was probably with relief that Alfred travelled to his royal settlement at Chippenham, where he could celebrate Christmas. However, just after Twelfth night 878AD, as the Christmas festivities were coming to an end, Guthrum and his army made a surprise attack on Chippenham, driving Alfred out of the town and into hiding in the marshes of the Somerset Levels.
From Chippenham the Vikings began to take over the rest of the Wessex kingdom. All seemed lost for Alfred, he had been forced into hiding and was dependent on local people for food and shelter. However, despite everything, Alfred was able to establish himself at Athelney, a small island in the marshes. From this fortified base he gathered a force and led them in an attack on Guthrum and his army at Edington in May 878AD. The battle was bloody, but Alfred was victorious.
From the writings of the time (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Assers, Life of King Alfred) we are told that Guthrum and his surviving Viking force retreated to their fortifications pursued by Alfred and his army. Although the location isn’t mentioned it is believed that it was to Chippenham that Guthrum fled, and it was from here that he finally surrendered to Alfred bringing peace to the area.
The events of 878AD which began and most probably ended in Chippenham, stopped the Viking advance, and led to Alfred becoming the first King of Britain, gaining the title of King Alfred the Great.
One of the most engaging and well-known stories in this period of history is that of Alfred and the cakes. While sheltering in the home of a peasant woman. He is asked by her to watch the ‘ke-aks’ (small loaves of bread) baking by the fire, but distracted by his problems, he lets them burn. The woman is not pleased and, not knowing who Alfred is, makes her anger known. She tells him that he could at least help cook them as he would be quick enough to eat them!
The moral of the story is that at his lowest, Alfred, through the burning of the cakes, learns to rise from his despair and fight back.
We could draw parallels with today and our fight against Covid 19 but instead we are just going to invite you to join us on Saturday 8th January 2022 when we will be celebrating this story and Chippenham’s Saxon links, in a grand style.
History at home
For more information and some fun Saxon activities visit our website https://www.chippenham.gov.uk/chippenham-museum/learning-and-outreach
Young fiction readers may also enjoy the The Gunnhild Lashtongue series of four Viking ghost stories written by Chippenham author Geoff Hill. The books follow Gunnhild Lashtongue and the mysterious creatures he encounters on his adventures. Available as a bundle of four books (£15) from museum online shop here.
You will also find on our Online Shop a King Alfred wooden spoon figure kit (£3) made exclusively for Chippenham Museum by Wiltshire Scrapstore.