King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-899) struggled to survive against the powerful Viking threats to his kingdom in the 870s, and these scares prompted Alfred to impose sweeping military reforms on his realm. In the 880s, Alfred apparently began to divide his manpower into three categories—warriors on active duty with the kingdom’s field army, warriors on leave at home, and troops serving as regional garrisons. The latter group, the garrisoned warriors, were spread throughout the kingdom in a system of fortified burhs, which could act both defensively and offensively. In addition to bogging down invaders and Vikings until the field army arrived, the forces from the burhs could also band together and strike out at foes whenever the king’s main army was occupied elsewhere. This scenario is exactly what happened at the Battle of Buttington in 893.
The 880s, the time in which Alfred imposed his military reforms, was a decade of relative peace. In 892, however, Alfred’s domain was once more thrown into turmoil when two large Viking forces returned to England, landing in the region of Kent after a long period of pillaging in France. Hastein (or Hæsten), the most famous leader of the new arrivals, camped at Milton. The rest of the newly-arrived Vikings camped to the south of Hastein’s position, setting up their headquarters at Appledore. In response to this threat, King Alfred positioned his field army in-between the two Viking armies by 893, and worked with the burhs in the area to contain the raiders. Alfred had some success, and eventually caught a portion of the Vikings off guard near the Thames, at the Battle of Farnham. Yet, King Alfred was soon called away from the eastern front when he learned that a Viking fleet had appeared on the coast of Devon, in the southwest of England.
While King Alfred was focused defending the southwest, the Vikings in the east (the Appledore and Milton armies) combined together at Shoebury, in Essex. From there, they trekked far across the country, following the Thames and then the Severn, eventually setting up camp in the Welsh region of Buttington. They had made good time, for when the new headquarters on the Severn was completed, King Alfred was still occupied with the Viking fleet and army in the region of Devon.
Unfortunately for the Vikings at Buttington, Alfred’s network of garrisoned burhs allowed the kingdom to defend itself, even if the king was not present with the official field army. As Alfred was not present, Ealdormen Æthelred, Æthelhelm and Æthelnoth took control of the situation and mobilized the nearby burhs, and also called in the support of Alfred’s Welsh vassals and allies. This army of Anglo-Saxons and Welshmen successfully surprised the Vikings at Buttington and besieged the camp from all sides. The Vikings on the Severn were quarantined in the siege for many weeks, which no doubt put King Alfred at ease as he continued his campaign against the separate Viking fleet and army in Devon. The besieged forces at Buttington held out until they had to start slaughtering their own horses for food. Yet, once the horse meat ran out, the Vikings decided to make a desperate charge against the besiegers.
At an unknown time in 893, the starving Vikings poured out of their camp and attacked the army of the Ealdormen. It is unknown whether the goal of the Viking charge was to simply escape or, more ambitiously, to defeat the besiegers in battle, but, whatever the case, the Vikings became bogged down during the combat, resulting in a “mighty slaughter of the Danes there” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 893). Many Vikings, however, did punch through the Anglo-Saxon lines and these survivors fled all the way back to Essex, on the eastern side of England. The Battle of Buttington, in addition to showcasing the effectiveness of the garrisoned burh system, was also said to have convinced any remaining Viking-aligned Welsh leaders to defect to King Alfred’s side.
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Stamford Bridge painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.