Battle of Reading
Somewhat against the usual timetable for waging war, in the winter of 871 the Danes surprised the people of Wessex by arriving on horseback in a lightning raid that swiftly took the town of Reading. There the invaders, who had already conquered vast swathes of land in the North and East of England, made a fortified camp, using the Thames and Kennet rivers to protect their flanks, and throwing up a rampart on the Western edge of the town.
Aethelwulf, the Saxon leader in the region including Reading, mustered an army mainly comprised of ill-armed peasants to face the Danes. At best he can have hoped only to hold them for a time while better trained and more effective fighters were called up. In the event, however, the Danes were foolish enough to send a relatively weak party out to scout the land, running straight into the waiting forces of Aethelwulf at a spot known as Englefield – the field of the English: most of the Danes perished; any captured can have expected little mercy given the recent slaughter in Reading.
The defeat for the raiders gave the larger Saxon force headed by Alfred (though nominally led by his brother King Ethelred) time to arm and provision, and to reach Aethelwulf. Together they won a further skirmish and then on January 8 the far more important Battle of Ashdown . The long campaign to keep Wessex from falling to the Norsemen had begun.
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