From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn, Volume II.; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 75-82.
White Horse Hill, a bold eminence of the chalk-hills of Berkshire, about ten miles north of Hungerford, and over twenty miles west north-west of Reading, rises to the height of nine hundred feet above sea-level. It is the highest point of the hill district, which extends right across this county from Lambourne and Ashdown on the west to Streatley on the east. Its summit is a magnificent Roman camp, with gates, and ditch, and mound all as complete as it was after the strong old legions left it. This summit, from which it is said eleven counties can be seen, is a table-land of from twelve to fourteen acres in extent. This table-land the Romans deeply trenched, and on its surface they planted their camp. On either side of White Horse Hill the Romans built a great road called the “Ridgeway” (the Rudge it is called by the country folk) straight along the highest back of the hills to east and west. Leaving the camp and descending westward the visitor finds himself on sacred ground — on the field of the battle of Ashdown (the Œscendun of the chroniclers) where Alfred broke the Danish power and made England a Christian land. There is a curious story told of why the Danes came over here: the following is the version of it given pretty much as it is told by the Chronicler John Brompton : —
“There was a man of royal birth, in the kingdom of Denmark, named Lodbroc, who had two sons, Hungnar and Hubba. This man embarked one day with his hawk in a small boat to catch ducks and other wild fowl on the adjoining sea-coast and islands. A terrible storm arose by which Lodbroc was carried away and tossed for several days on every part of the ocean. After numberless perils he was cast ashore on the coast of Norfolk, where he was found with his hawk, and presented to King Edmund. That king, struck with the manliness of his form, kept him at his court and heard from his own mouth the history of his adventures. He was there associated with Berne, the king’s huntsman, and indulged in all the pleasures of the chase — for in the exercise of both hunting and hawking he was remarkably skilful, and succeeded in capturing both birds and beasts according as he had a mind. In fact Lodbroc was the sort of man to please King Edmund; for the art of capturing birds and beasts was next to the art of fighting for one’s home 76 and country, the art most esteemed by the Anglo-Saxons, who acknowledged that skill and good fortune in this art as in all others are among the gifts of God. The skill of Lodbroc bred jealousy in the heart of Berne, the huntsman, who, one day, as they were out together hunting, set upon Lodbroc, and having foully slain him, buried his body in the thickets of the forest. But Lodbroc had a small harrier dog, which he had bred up from its birth, and which loved him much. While Berne, the huntsmen, went home with the other hounds, this little dog remained alone with his master’s body. In the morning the king asked what had become of Lodbroc, to which Berne answered, that he had parted from him yesterday in the woods and had not seen him since. At that moment the harrier came into the hall and went round wagging its tail, and fawning on the whole company, but especially on the king; when he had eaten his fill he again left the hall. This happened often; until some one at last followed the dog to see where he went, and having found the body of the murdered Lodbroc, came and told the story to the king. The affair was now carefully inquired into, and when the truth was found out, the huntsman was exposed on the sea without oars, in the boat which had belonged to Lodbroc. In some days he was cast ashore in Denmark and brought before the sons of Lodbroc, who, putting him to the torture, inquired of him what had become of their father, to whom they knew the boat belonged. To this Berne answered, like the false man he was, that their father Lodbroc had fallen into the hands of Edmund, King of East Anglia, by whose orders he had been put to death.
When Hungnar and Hubba heard the tale of Berne the huntsman, they, like good and true sons, according to the notions of piety then current among the Danes, hastened to fit out a fleet to invade England and avenge their father, and their twin sisters wove for them the standard, called the Raven, in one day — which flag waved over many a bloody field from Northumbria to Devonshire, until it was taken by King Alfred’s men. It was said that when the Danes were about to gain a battle, a live crow would fly before the middle of the standard; but if they were to be beaten it would hang motionless.
So Hungnar and Hubba landed in the country of the East Angles, and wintered there; but in the spring of the year 867 they crossed the Humber, marched hastily upon York, and took it. The kingdom of Northumbria was just the place for the army of Pagans and 77 the Standard Raven at this time; for it was divided against itself. The Northumbrians marched to York to avenge the insult, and a most bloody battle took place within the walls of the ancient city.
In the winter of 869, large reinforcements from Denmark, under King Bœgseeg and King Halfdane, came over the sea to the Danes, and these having now stripped Northumbria of all its spoils rose up and marched fearlessly down upon King Edmund’s country of East Anglia. King Edmund was not the man to see the desolation of any part of his people, or to shut himself up in fenced cities, while the Pagan cavalry rode through East Anglia; so he gathered his men together, and in the words of the old chronicler, “fought fiercely and manfully against the army. But because the merciful God foreknew that he was to arrive at the crown of martyrdom, he there fell gloriously.” Hungnar and Hubba took the wounded King on the field of battle, and tied him to a tree, because he chose to die sooner than give over his people to them, and there shot him through the body with their arrows. But his people got his body, and buried it at a place named after him, St. Edmund’s Bury.
And now the Pagan kings, with a new army, very great, like a flowing river which carries all along with it, having doubtless been reinforced again from over the sea when the story of their victories had spread far and wide, were looking about for some new field for plunder and murder. The whole north and east of England was a desolate waste behind them, London was in ruins, and Kent had been harried over and over again by their brethren the sea-kings. But some thirty miles up the Thames was a fine kingdom, stretching far away west, down to the distant sea. This was Wessex, the kingdom of the West Angles, over which Ethelred, the brother of Alfred, was now ruling.
It was just a thousand and one years ago that the Danes (in an early month of the year 871) marched up the Thames with their usual swiftness, and seized on Reading, then the easternmost city of Wessex. A day or two after they had taken the town they began scouring the country for plunder.
But the men of Wessex were numerous and valiant, and their leader, Ethelwolf, Alderman of Berkshire, was a man “who raged as a lion in battle.” So Ethelwolf, with as many men as he could assemble, fought the Pagans at Englefield and defeated them with great loss.
Within the next three days King Ethelred and his brother Alfred came up from the west, each leading a strong band of West Saxon 78 warriors, and joined Ethelwolf. On the fourth day they attacked the Pagans at Reading. But after a terrific combat in which their was great slaughter on both sides, the Pagans succeeded in retaining their position, while the Wessexmen were obliged to fall back with their king along the line of chalk hills to the neighbourhood of White Horse Hill.
But every mile of retreat strengthened the forces of Ethelred and Alfred, for fresh bands of men were continually coming up from the rear. At length, deeming themselves strong enough, Ethelred and Alfred turned to bay at Ashdown, and drew up their men in order of battle.
It was about four days after the battle of Reading that king Ethelred and his brother Alfred, afterwards known as the Great King, fought against the whole army of Pagans at Ashdown, under the shadow of White Horse Hill. It was determined that king Ethelred with his men should attack the two Pagan kings, but that Alfred with his men should take the chance of war against the Danish earls, who were second in command after the kings. Things being so settled Ethelred remained a long time in prayer, hearing mass, and said he would not leave it till the priest had done, nor abandon the protection of God for that of man. But the Pagans came up quickly to the fight. “Then Alfred,” continues the chronicler, “though holding a lower authority, as I have been told by those who were there, and would not lie, could no longer support the troops of the enemy unless he retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother: so he marched out promptly with his men and gave battle. The pagans occupied the higher ground, and the Christians came up from below. There was also in that place a single stunted thorn-tree, which I myself have seen with my own eyes. Around this tree the opposing hosts came together with loud shouts from all sides. In the midst of the fight, and when Alfred was hard pressed, the king came up with his fresh forces. And when both hosts had fought long and bravely, at last the Pagans, by God’s judgment, could no longer bear the attack of the Christians, and having lost great part of their men took to a disgraceful flight, and continued that flight not only through all the dead hours of the night, but during the following day, until they reached the stronghold which they had left on such a fruitless mission. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark. The flower of the Pagan youth were there slain, so that neither before nor since was ever such destruction known since the Saxons first gained Britain by their arms.”79
“This year, 871,” says T. Hughes, himself a Berkshire man, and the well-known describer of the “Scouring of the White Horse,” “is a year for Berkshire men to be proud of, for on them fall the brunt of that fiery trial; and their gallant stand probably saved England a hundred years of Paganism. For had they given way at Ashdown, and the reinforcements from over the sea come to a conquering instead of a beaten army in the summer-time, there was nothing to stop the Pagans between Reading and Exeter. Alfred fought eight other battles in this year against the Danes. But they were mere skirmishes compared with the deadly struggle at Ashdown. Alfred felt that this great victory was the crowning mercy of his life, and in memory of it he caused his army (tradition says on the day after the battle) to carve the White Horse, the standard of Hingist, on the hill-side just under the castle, where it stands as you see until this day.”
“Right down below the White Horse,” says Mr. Hughes in his “Tom Brown’s School Days,” “is a curious broad and deep gulley called ‘The Manger,’ into one side of which the hills fall with a series of the most lovely sweeping curves, known as the ‘Giant’s Stairs;’ they are not a bit like stairs, but I never saw anything like them anywhere else, with their short green turf and tender bluebells and gossamer and thistle-down gleaming in the sun, and the sheep paths running along their sides like ruled lines.”
The other side of the “Manger” is formed by the Dragon’s Hill, a curious little, round, self-asserting projection, thrown forward from the main range of the hills, and having no similar natural feature in its vicinity. On this hill some deliverer of his country, St. George, or King George, the country people say, slew a dragon. The essential meaning of the legend has long ago been lost. The track where the blood of the monster ran down is still pointed out, and the clenching statement is added that from that day to this no grass has ever grown where the blood of the enemy of mankind ran. It remains a puzzle, however, that the track taken by the blood in coming down the hill is the way which visitors find easiest in ascending it.
The famous figure of the White Horse, cut out of the turf of White Horse Hill, can be seen from a great distance, but is not always seen to the same advantage. After a lapse of bad weather the horse gets out of condition, and is only brought into proper form by being “scoured.” Wise, one of the old topographical writers, thus speaks of it after having suffered from exceptional weather: — “When I saw the head had suffered a little and wanted reparation, and the extremities 80 of his hinder legs, from their unavoidable situation, have by the fall of rains been filled up in some measure with the washings from the upper parts; so that, in the nearest view of him, the tail, which does not suffer from the same inconvenience, and has continued entire from the beginning, seems longer than the legs. The supplies which nature is continually offering occasion the turf to crumble and fall off into the white trench and not a little obscures the brightness of the horse; though there is no danger from hence of the whole figure being obliterated, for the inhabitants have a custom of ‘scouring the horse’ as they called it; at which time a solemn festival is celebrated, and manlike games, with prizes, exhibited, which no doubt had their original in Saxon times in memory of the victory.”
The ceremony of scouring the horse, from time immemorial, has been solemnized by a numerous concourse of people from all the villages round about. The White Horse is in the manor of Uffington, yet other towns claim, by ancient custom, a share of the duty upon this occasion.
The figure of the White Horse is 374 feet long. It has been said that lands in the neighbourhood were held formerly by the tenure of cleaning the White Horse by cutting away the turf so as to render the figure more visible; but what is certain is, that the neighbouring inhabitants had an ancient custom of assembling for this purpose. On these occasions they are entertained (while with pick and shovel and broom they render more distinct the form of the thousand-year-old horse) at the expense of the lord of the manor. The custom of scouring was formerly an annual one; but it was suspended in 1780, only, however, to be renewed with great pomp and much rejoicing, as well as with a good chance of being continued periodically, on the 17th and 18th September, 1857.
Passing along the Ridgeway to the west for about a mile from the hill, an old “cromlech” — a huge flat stone raised on seven or eight others — is seen. A path leads up to it, and large single stones are set up on each side of it. This is traditionally known as Wayland Smith’s Cave. It stands on ground slightly raised, and at certain seasons has a weird look, from the mysterious character of the structure itself, from the loneliness of its situation, and from the wind-stricken trees near it, which heighten the effect of desolation and devastation. The origin of the cave is wrapped in mystery. It is supposed by some to be Danish, and that it was the burial-place of King Bœgseeg, slain at the battle of Œscendun. 81 Lysons suggests that the origin is British. In the Earl of Carnarvon’s “Archæology of Berkshire,” the following on this topic occurs: — “What shall we say of the wild legends of Wayland Smith, which it will be our duty to examine and discuss? And first, by what name shall we know him? Shall it be Weland, who, in Scandinavian lore, plays the part which is assigned to the old fire-god, Ἡφαιστος, in the classic tales of Greece, who learnt the art of working metal from the dwarfs, the supernatural indwellers of the mountain — the same, perhaps, as they who, in another northern tale, wrought the famous sword of Tirfing, which was doomed to accomplish three of the most disgraceful acts — who forges the breastplates and the arms of the heroes? Or shall we call him by his French and Mediæval name of Ealand? — Ealand, who enters into every talk of love and war and adventure, who tempered the blade of Sir Gawaine of the Round Table, and who wrought the famous blade with which Charlemagne hewed his way through the ranks of paynimry? . . . . Or shall we view him by the light of Anglo-Saxon legend, as Wayland Smith, the cunning goldsmith, the magical farrier, whose name still lives in the stories of the White Horse Hills, and whose cave has been consecrated by the genius of Sir Walter Scott?” In a note to “Kenilworth,” Sir Walter Scott says the popular belief still retains memory of this wild legend, which, connected as it is with the site of a Danish sepulchre, may have arisen from some legend concerning the northern Duergar, who resided in the rocks and were cunning workers in steel and iron. It was believed that Wayland Smith’s fee was sixpence, and that, unlike other workmen, he was offended if more was offered. Of late his offices have been again called to memory; but fiction has in this, as in other cases, taken the liberty to pillage the stores of oral tradition. This monument must be very ancient, for it has been pointed out that it is referred to in an ancient Saxon charter as a landmark. The monument has been of late cleared out and made considerably more conspicuous.”
BALLAD OF THE SCOURING OF THE WHITE HORSE.
“ The owld White Horse wants zettin to rights ;
And the Squire hev promised good cheer,
Zo we’ll gee un a scrape to kip un in zhape,
And a’ll last for many a year.
“A was made a long, long time ago,
Wi’ a good dale o’ labour and pains,
By King Alfred the Great when he spwiled their consate,
And caddled (worried) thay wosberds (birds of woe) the Danes.
“The Bleawin Stwun, in days gone by,
Wur King Alfred’s bugle harn,
And the tharnin tree you med plainly zee
As is called King Alfred’s Tharn.
“Ther’ll be backsword play and climmin’ the powl,
And a race for a peg and a cheese ;
And us thinks as hisn’s a dummed (dull) zowl
As dwoant care for zich spwoarts as these. ”