It was another bleak winter’s day as Ivar stood with his arm raised high above his head, signalling his men to wait. The early morning fog that had risen from the valley and drifted through the trees like cold grey smoke had turned to soft rain. Behind Ivar, his warriors waited impatiently, raising long blood-curdling war cries as they stood high on the hill overlooking the tents erected in the lowlands of Ashdown. In front of them, they held their brightly painted shields and banners, as their finery and golden bracelets glistened in the mist. Even though the rain had lessened to a drizzle, the dew still felt thick around them.
It had been almost thirty years since Ivar had begun his revenge on England for the death of his father, Ragnar Lodbrok, and he knew this next battle before him would be a hard fought one. King Ethelred’s military skills were legendary. His very name loosened bowels and tightened throats. It was spoken in whispers and many crossed their fingers while others knocked suspiciously on wood. Every breath must have been like shivers of ice in Ivar’s lungs as he remembered past raids and battles. But like Ethelred, Ivar knew that there were no rules on a battlefield. Watching the enemy gathering below him, he was counting on it.
He must have been feeling more than a little confident from his vantage point on top of the hill. He had the better position and more men and he would have believed it was going to be an easy defeat. With overwhelming confidence bursting from inside, he concentrated all of his force on the battle ahead. He was determined that beautiful Wessex was going to turn into a battleground.
While Ethelred prayed quietly in his tent, the two armies jeered and shouted at each other. It was his younger brother Alfred who was growing more anxious and impatient with his elder brother, who was refusing to leave his tent until mass was finished. Inexperienced as he was, twenty-one-year-old Alfred knew he had to act quickly before the Danes swept down the hill first, uprooting everything in their path, intent on destroying the Wessex army.
Despite his inexperience and the absence of his elder brother, Alfred did what he knew he had to do. Sitting high on his white horse as rain began to softly fall, Alfred sounded the horn, raised his sword in the air and gave the command to his men to charge. On the hill above him, Ivar lowered his arm at the same time.
With a roar, the line of warriors on the hill broke into a lurching run through the mud. The ones at the rear would have watched as their friends disappeared into the mist like ghosts. They would barely have been able to see twenty yards in front of them. In a great clash of swords and shields, the two sides collided violently and in the hissing rain, blood flowed and men screamed.
When Ethelred finished his prayers and walked out of his tent, he was alarmed to find that Alfred had already led the attack without him. He quickly gathered his few remaining men and charged into the fog to help his brother.
Ivar would have seen indistinct, shadowy figures moving towards him and he would have been struggling to make sense of them. By then it was too late. The soldiers suddenly burst out of the fog, coming straight for him. By the time he would have realised the size of the group charging at him there would have been little choice of what to do. In his confusion, he panicked and fled.
The legend of Alfred the Great was just beginning.