subject to King Cynewulfs jurisdiction on the southern side [of the
Thames] from the town of Wallingford, and along the Icknield Street,
as far as Essebury [i. e. Ashbury], and on the northern side as far as
the river Thames itself^'
The district is clearly that to which reference has before been
made as the Abingdon and Wantage district, i.e. the low ground
between the Thames and the Berkshire hills. The accuracy of the
description will be seen readily by turning to the map, better still by
mounting up to Cwichelmshloewe, the mound covered by the clump
of trees, so well seen from the neighbourhood of Abingdon, lying as it
' Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno. Appendix A, Â§ 33.
^ Hist. Mon. Abmgdon, Rolls Series, ed. Stevenson. London, 1858, vol. i.
p. 14. Appendix A, Â§ 34.
no THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
does in the midst of the range of the Berkshire downs. It stands
about midway between Wallingford on the east and Ashbury on the
west. -Starting from Moulsford, which lies on the river a mile or so
below Wallingford, and mounting by the road on to the top of
the downs, the great long turf way, called the Icknield Street,
can be followed almost without intermission along the whole length
of the ridge passing beneath the foot of Cwichelmshloewe itself and
within bowshot of the great British fortress of Letcombe, and
closer still to that of Ufifington, and then to within a few yards of the
old cromlech called Wayland Smith's cave. This is immediately over
Ashbury, which lies down in the hollow beneath. The great road is
continued along the downs which extend into Wiltshire for miles
further, overlooking the Whitehorse vale beneath. But at this point,
namely above Ashbury, the line of Offa's conquest seems to have
ceased. All the way along, at almost every part of the road, the fertile
plain which was overrun by the Mercian king, can be seen lying
beneath. The line of the Thames cannot be easily traced by reason
of the high ground of Cumnor and Bagley Wood, which also hides
Oxford from the view. On the east, the limit of the conquered ter-
ritory is a natural one, since the Thames here makes its way through
a gap in what would otherwise be a continuous range of Berkshire and
Buckinghamshire downs. It will be observed in the Chronicle the
place of battle is called Bensington, the old name which is given
under 577, when the West Saxons drove out the Britons; while in the
Abingdon Chronicle, the boundary line starts from Wallingford. The
towns named, however, are scarce two miles apart, but Benson is on
the Mercian side, Wallingford on the West Saxon side of the river ; the
former representing access to the Chiltern of Buckinghamshire, the
latter that to the JEscesdun of Berkshire.
On the west, however, it does not appear why at this time the
particular spot, namely Ashbury, should have been chosen to mark
the limit of the conquest. But it is an interesting circumstance for
this reason : Ashbury is now the last village westward in the county
of Berkshire, along this range of hills, and if a line be drawn north-
ward from that point to the Thames at Lechlade, it will be found to
follow very nearly the line of demarcation between Berkshire and
Wiltshire. We have, therefore, here a foreshadowing of the county
boundary line, before we hear anything of counties. We have not
even yet heard of the Wilsaetas or of Bearrucscire ^, yet Offa's con-
1 The first mention of the Wilssetas is under the year 800. The first we obtain
of Bearrucscire is under the year 860.
OXFORD A BORDER TOWN. HI
quest was confined to Berkshire. It is perhaps the more remarkable
because the boundary between the counties at this point follows no
natural line of demarcation, except for a very short distance (i.e. a
small portion of a streamlet called the Coin).
Whether or not the village almost adjoining Ashbury, on the Berk-
shire side, spelt Offentune in the Domesday Survey, be Offantune, i. e.
the tun of Offa, and whether it derives its name from this conquest,
may be reasonably discussed, but cannot be affirmed ; and the further
question whether the White Horse cut on the hill, which has through
successive generations been preserved, was the mark then made on
the hill to denote the extent of the conquest, is a question rather for
antiquaries to discuss than to settle.
The result, however, of the battle was that Oxford was once again
not only a Mercian town but, further than that, as had been the case
once before, its inhabitants, looking from amidst their dwellings across
the river, gazed on Mercian territory as far as the eye could reach.
And Oxford seems to have remained Mercian for some time ; for
successive kings of Mercia extended rather than otherwise their king-
dom, which might now have absorbed the whole island, as it had
threatened once before to do. But Ecgbryht, who had succeeded to
Wessex in 800, was energetically extending that kingdom also, both
west and east. The battle at EUendun^ in 823 is thought to imply
that the IMercians meanwhile had already extended their kingdom
into Wiltshire but were now driven out, and at the same time the
West Saxon king while driving the Mercians out of Wessex, extended
his kingdom into Kent. All the country on the south side of the
Thames seemed to submit readily to his arms ; while the IMercians
had found another formidable enemy in the East Angles. Then, under
the year 827, the Chronicle records that Ecgbryht conquered the king-
dom of INIercia, and thus laid the foundation of the single kingdom
of England. The result, however, can scarcely be said to have made
Oxford again West Saxon ; rather it became what is best understood
by the comprehensive name English, because, though as yet by no
means all the kingdoms had become definitely united in one, yet so far
1 Usually ascribed to one of the Allingtons in Wiltshire. That to the south-
east of Amesbury may be put out of the question. That to the north-west of
Chippenham, and that to the east of Devizes might have each something to be said
for them : the first of the two looking forward to the Danish battle-ground of
878 ; the second looking, perhaps, back to the battles of 592 and 715, supposing
that Woddesborough is Woodborough, an outlying hill on the south of the
high range of the Marlborough Downs. Still there is little to support either view ;
it is more likely a battle fought on some ' dim ' of which the name has not been
handed do^v^ to us.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD,
as the special district of Oxford was concerned, there were no more
troubles in store for the place in consequence of its being a border
town. The ruler of INIercia continued, it is true, to bear the tide of
king for some little while after, but Buhred was an independent
king rather in name than in fact. Except, therefore, in the event of
internal rebellion it might have been supposed Oxford would have
been safe from all assault.
Oxford during the Danish Incursions in the
Ninth and Tenth Centuries.
Although Oxford was, as has been seen, no longer subject to the
danger consequent on being a border town, a new and unlooked-for peril
arose from it being situated on a navigable river. No sooner did in-
ternal struggles seem to have come to an end than a new and foreign foe
began harassing the country. The Danes, it may be presumed, having
heard of the prosperity of their old neighbours the Saxons and the
Angles in the new country, thought well to join them. But they were
met by difficulties, for the whole land had practically been partitioned out,
and therefore whatever they desired they would have to gain by conquest,
much in the same way as the former settlers had gained it, from the
British occupants : and the task of the Danes now was of course
much harder than that of the Saxons and their fellow-settlers some
four hundred years previously. The peculiarity of their warfare in the
earlier years of their invasion was by sailing up estuaries and rivers,
ravaging the country, seizing whatever towns lay on the banks, and
then returning to their ships. We must suppose they brought over
with them a fleet of boats of shallow draft suitable for the purpose.
Between the years 832 and 837 Wessex seems to have been attacked
on all sides, first at Sheppey on the east, at Charmouth on the south,
and then on the west by the enemy sailing up the Bristol Channel, where
they found ready allies in the still unconquered Welsh. Egbert lived
to see his great work of pacification neutralised, and during the twenty
years of his successor's reign (837-857) the raids were continued with
increased vigour. We find the Danes landing at Southampton, then
in the isle of Portland ; next as far north as Lindsey : then in East
Anglia ; then in Kent, then at Charmouth again, and then again at the
mouth of the Parret. In 851 they ventured up the Thames as far as
London, and their victories increasing, they began after this to carry
their ravages inland, e. g. into Surrey ; but still not far from the river, to
which they could retire and take refuge in their boats. These annual
voyages over the Northern Ocean occasioning them loss and delay, in
114 J^HE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
855 they began to winter here, so as to begin their work of depreda-
tion early in the spring, or perhaps earlier if the frost allowed : and the
result was that places far more inland began to suffer. And, what was
worst of all, they had found an asylum amongst the East Angles, who
appear to have bought their own peace and quietness at the expense
of the rest of the kingdom, as it gave the 'heathen army' (as the
Chronicles usually describe the Danes) an admirable base for their
operations. From this base they were in 868 enabled to seize upon
Nottingham and even take up their winter quarters there. The tribu-
tary king of Mercia attempted to drive them out, and called the West
Saxon king to his aid, but without success. York followed Nottingham
in 869, and Peterborough in 870, when they devastated the glorious
abbey, known then as Medeshampstead ; and in 871 they ventured
much further than they had ever done before up the Thames.
Had they succeeded in this more important raid than any which
perhaps they had as yet attempted, Oxford would no doubt have
fallen a prey, and we should most likely have found its name appear-
ing in the pages of history some forty years earlier than is the case.
But Reading bears the honour of saving, for the present at least, the
Upper Thames district from their ravages.
The circumstances were these. At Reading the Danes seem to have
left their boats and encamped on the bank of gravel in the angle
formed between the Kennet and the Thames, which, just 250 years
after, was chosen as the site of the great Reading Abbey^. The tem-
porary fortress which they made, or which they found to hand, was
suddenly threatened by iEthelred, king of Wessex, who in company
with his brother Alfred, having heard of their design, had marched
to meet them and prevent their further progress up the Thames.
Whatever might have been their first intention, it is clear that when
they saw the advantages of gaining the ridge of the Berkshire Hills, the
before-named jEscesdtm, a large portion of their number made for it
by the way of Englefield. At this village, however, they were met by
the ealdorman ^thelwulf, and driven back to their camp at Reading.
Here they for a time withstood the assault of ^thelred and Alfred,
who next day came up, most probably by the line of road skirting the
south bank of the Thames. The position of the Danes was a pre-
carious one, in this triangular space with the two sides surrounded by I
the rivers and a strong force assaulting the third side. Had there I
* The formdation of Reading Abbey dates from 1121, though the charters I
assigning them their property are not dated till 11 25. The great abbey church*
itself was not completed ready for consecration till 1163.
OXFORD DURING THE DANISH INCURSIONS. 115
been the few only who had been left behind in the first instance, they
might have taken to their boats and fled directly they found the
Wessex king was approaching, but as the whole of the army were
here, in consequence of the repulse at Englefield, and as they had
been rendered bold by previous victories, they gave fight to ^thelred,
and rushing out they broke through the West Saxon lines and made
for the hills. There was no ^thelwulf now to bar their way at Engle-
field. He had come up with his forces to join ^thelred, and had
unhappily been slain.
At night the Danes reached the ridge, by much the same road no
doubt as can still be traced on the map from Englefield up to
Lowbury, a spot where they found a camp to their hands, and which
from recent excavations is shown to have been previously occupied in
Roman times \ -^thelred and -^Elfred however lost no time. The
latter knew the country well. Born at Wantage, beneath the very range
now before him, it is not improbable that from his early years he was
acquainted with the roads and distances.
Returning along the road by which he had come, as far perhaps as
Moulsford, -S]thelred mounted the hill by a straight road, which seems
to have left behind it traces still to be seen on the map, and as we
gather from Asser's Chronicle, before sunset gained another part of the
rising ground ^ a little to the north-east of that occupied by the Danes.
In the early morning, since the Danes had not anticipated such vigour
on the part of the West Saxons, they were not prepared for battle,
and thus by the clever tactics of Alfred and the prowess of his
men, they met with a severe defeat; a king, several 'jarls,' and many
thousands of the enemy were slain. It is the first important defeat we
read of in the annals of their incursions: the battle of 871 not only
saved Oxford, but saved the whole of the Abingdon and Wantage district
from being pillaged by the Danes. No fortified towns then appear to
have existed to prevent their devastating the country wherever they went.
It was at this time that Alfred became king. Through all the
entries in the Chronicle during the twenty-nine years of his reign, there
is no statement which implies, directly or indirectly, that Alfred came
^ The camp, though small, must have been intended for a lengthened occupa-
tion, for at one comer remains of buildings have been discovered (1884) : Roman
coins (of late date), abundance of pottery, and the invariable oyster-shells, testify
sufficently to the square earthworks (still partially visible) having been once
a sojourning place of the Romans.
^ Curiously enough, on the map it is marked as the ' King's standing ground.'
The name unfortunately cannot be cormected with ^thelred's days, but is supposed
to be associated with the ' Fair mile ' on which racehorses were trained early in the
Il6 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
to Oxford, or indeed nearer to it than his marches along the line of
the Berkshire Hills would bring him. He is continually fighting the
Danes, and with more or less success, on the eastern and western ex-
tremities of the old kingdom of Wessex, and it is most probably as much
due to the fact of his having in previous years provided a fleet, as to the
treaty which he made with Guthrum after the fight at Ethandune in 878,
that the Danish incursions were much checked, and that they did not
again venture up the Thames so far as Oxford during his reign.
In the reign however of his successor, Eadward the Elder, they seem
to have burst over Mercia from the old district of the East Angles,
which, as has been already said, they were allowed to occupy. It
seems that in 905 they went westward, so as to reach Cricklade, probably
not by the Thames valley, but across Mercia. King Eadward pursued
them as far as he was able, and retaliated by overrunning East AngHa.
It is perhaps impossible to define exactly the position which the
kingdoms held towards one another, or to the chief kingdom of the
West Saxons at this particular time. It has been seen how the East
Angles had independently made peace with the Danes, and how the
latter had been using that territory as a base from which to make in-
cursions upon Mercia; and it will be noticed that at times Mercia made
peace also, as it were independently : and now, in 9 12, the year in which
we find Oxford first mentioned, the entry in the Chronicle stands as
follows : â€”
' This year died ^thered ealdorman of the Mercians, and king
Eadward took possession of London and of Oxford and of all the
lands which owed obedience thereto.'
' This year ^thelflaed, lady of the Mercians, came to Scaer-gate on
the holy eve, Invention of the Holy Cross, and there built the burh;
and the same year that at Bridge[north] ^'
As to what is implied politically by the phrase ' took possession of*
will be considered later on ; but there is little doubt it had an imme-
diate and practical effect on the town of Oxford : although the fact is
not here stated, the surrounding circumstances point very strongly to
this being the date when Oxford was fortified. It would appear that
in 9 1 1 Mercia had been again overrun by the Danes, who seem this
time to have made Northumbria the base of their operations ; and or
the death of iEthered the ealdorman of Mercia, his widow, the ladj
1 The first paragraph is found under this year in the five earliest of the Anglo
Saxon Chronicles. The sixth has the same paragraph under the year 910. Th(
second paragraph is only found in the second and third Chronicle in order of date
and these, as will be seen later, are referred to under the letters B and C. Ap
pendix A, Â§ 35.
OXFORD DURING THE DANISH INCURSIONS. 117
-SIthelflasd, seems to have erected fortifications on all the rivers likely
to be ascended by them. In 910 she had built the 'burh' at Bremesbury.
In 912, at Scargate and at Bridgnorth on the Severn. In 913, King
Eadward constructed the 'burh' at Hertford on the Lea, and the
Lady ^thelfloed that at Tamworth ; and in the next year that at Eddes-
bury and Warwick; and in the next at Cyricbury, Weardbury, and
Runcorn, and so on. The Chronicle for several years presents a record
of the Danes attacking places, and either Eadward or his sister ^Ethel-
flasd defending them, and building fortresses for their defence. Before
this time the mention of the ' burh ' or fortress is rare in regard to a
town, and no case is recorded of any being built.
This date then it is thought with some reason may be applied to the
fortification of Oxford, inasmuch as it seems to fit in with the series
which are spoken of as fortified for the first time.
And if it is asked what was the probable nature of the fortifications,
it may be replied that analogy leads us to attribute the castle hill, which
still exists, to this particular date. For comparing several places to-
gether mentioned in the above list the one common feature is a conical
mound of earth. Those nearest to Oxford, i. e. Tamworth and War-
wick, overlooking respectively the Avon and a tributary of the Trent
called the Tame, possess mounds remarkably similar to that at Oxford,
the former being somewhat more lofty and larger, the latter somewhat
smaller. But at Warwick the early mound has been subjected more to
the system of the fourteenth century fortification of the castle, and from
its position above a rapid slope has been incorporated so to speak in
the line of wall. At Tamworth it has been left more in its pristine
shape, and the ditches surrounding it remain much more perfect, and
in one part masonry which may be coeval with the original structure
remains against the inner edge.
The following description is given of the fortification of Rumcofa,
i. e. Runcorn in Cheshire, and one of the series : â€”
' Its situation was judiciously chosen by Ethelfleda queen of the
Mercians for the foundation of a town and castle, erected in 916; for
here, by a projection of a tongue of land from the Lancashire side, the
bed of the Mersey is suddenly contracted from a considerable breadth
to a narrow channel, easily commanded from the shore. It was just
opposite to this gap, as it is called, that Ethelfleda built the last of the
range of castles by which she protected the borders of her extensive
domain, and though no vestige of the building remain, its site is
marked by the name of the Castle given to a triangular piece of land
surrounded by a mound of earth, jutting out into the river, guarded on
the water-side by ledges of rocks and broken precipices, and cut off
Il8 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
from the land by a ditch at least six yards wide. This fortress, in its
entire state must have afforded an excellent defence against the naval
inroads of the Danes, who ran up the rivers with their fleets at this
period and committed the most cruel ravages ^.'
In the other places which have been identified, the mounds are
more or less a prominent feature ; some are natural and some arti-
ficial, but in the former case no doubt scarping and similar work was
resorted to in order to render them more efficacious '^.
One or two considerations suggest themselves respecting the general
character of the fortifications of the town of Oxford. Admirably
situated as it was in respect of repelling attacks from land forces,
with the Thames on the west and south, and the Cherwell on the
east, it was dangerously open towards the north. In all probability a
fosse of some kind was excavated separating the southern end from
the rest of the gravel promontory, and following no doubt generally
the line occupied afterwards by the northern wall of the city, but when
this was first done there is no means whatever for ascertaining. It
should also be borne in mind that, at this time, although in their
ravages the Danes freely used their boats, Oxford had still some pro-
tection on these three sides ; the main stream of the Thames does
not seem in any part to have washed the gravel bank on which
Oxford was built. Even up to Elizabeth's reign, as shown in Agas'
map, something more than ditches joined the Trill mill stream on the
west with the Cherwell on the east, on either side of the ground after-
wards occupied by the Broad Walk; and the excavation for the
construction of the new buildings at Christ Church facing the meadow
showed the presence of a stream, which must have washed close by
the enclosure of S. Frideswide's ^
In following the course of the Thames along the western side of
Oxford, though it may be doubted if ever the main stream was that
which is now known as the Shire-ditch, on the other hand, the proba-
bilities are that it was never the easternmost of the seven streams which
* Aikin's Forty Miles round Manchester, 1795, p. 417.
* There are difficulties in the identification of several of the names. Bremesbury
is assigned to Bramsbury in Lincolnshire. Scargate has been guessed to be Sarrat
in Hertfordshire, on the Chess, a tributary of the Colne ; but there is nothing to
recommend the identification. As to Hertford there can be no doubt as to the two
' burhs,' and this was specially important on account of the meeting of the three
streams. Cyricbury has been identified with Cherbury in Shropshire ; and Weard-
burh has been supposed to be Warborough in Oxfordshire, but this is very
improbable. ' Eadesbyrig ' is probably Eddisbury in Cheshire. All the burhs
which can be identified seem to be at or near the Mercian frontier, or readily '
accessible by the rivers.
' See paper by Mr. Conradi, Oxford Arch, and Hist. Proceedings, 1863, New
Series, vol. i. p. 217.
OXFORD DURING THE DANISH INCURSIONS. I I 9
the road to Botley crossed, and which gave it the name of the Seven-
Bridge Road. So again with respect to the Cherwell ; there probably
ran between the main stream and Oxford one or two smaller streams ;
and two of these may now be seen enclosing Magdalen Water-walks.
The result generally speaking, therefore, was that Oxford was sur-
rounded on the south and west and east by what was probably marsh
land, and which could readily be changed into a swamp by damming
up here and there a portion of the several streams which intersected
it. This of course would afford great natural protection to a place, as
besiegers would fight under great disadvantages.
But still, without a fortress Oxford would have been much at the
mercy of the Danes, and a spot therefore appears to have been chosen,
and the mound, with accompanying ditches, was constructed; the earth
thrown out from them provided material for the mound, there being
no natural rise of the ground of any consequence in this direction.