When the editor of this magazine starts rampaging, it’s best to duck below the parapet and wait it out.
When I popped into the magazine last week, I had no idea he was on a rampage. Why would I? I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks.
So cheerfully I led with my chin, then realised immediately my mistake.
‘Hayes.’ He was growling now. ‘. Hayes’. The second time was a snarl. “what the hell has got into your stories? ‘
This wasn’t a question; he was winding himself up like a baseball pitcher, ready to hurl missiles, albeit verbal, at a hundred miles an hour towards any living soul stupid enough to get in the firing line.
I was the stupid soul.
‘Hayes’. A third time and the time to duck. ‘There’s been no blood and guts, no stabbing and killing, no knees wobbling in terror for some time now,’ he yelled.
‘I told you at the start. Bloodshed.
I made it clear lots of slaughter.
Blood running in the streets.’
Thank the Lord that is what was upsetting him.
I pounced with the perfect response.
‘Well guv,’ I began. We keep the old Fleet Street term of endearment in the T&C office. We’re very traditional.
‘Well, Guv, I’m just bringing you a story called ‘Ancient Slaughter’.
If his expression can soften, for a moment it did.
Then the snarl. ‘Laughter. Will it make me laugh?’ That’s always the Guv’s second condition. Make me laugh.
‘Well it has a bit about royalty keeping an eye on dinner and letting it burn.’
Now there’s a gleam in his eye. ‘Tell me more’ at this point I have no idea how I’m going to make burning dinner amusing, so I have to shut down the conversation quickly.
‘It won’t surprise you if I tell you now,’ I blustered, expecting a flurry of further queries.
But his face had mellowed. I was safe, at least for the moment.
The story of Ancient Slaughter is largely unknown. In fact, it’s only archaeologists who poke around on the ground, who are slowly gathering firm evidence of a major English battle site from the time when Saxons ruled the roost in the ninth century.
The burned supper gives the game away, though. The tale is about King Alfred and his thoughts of fighting off Vikings, when he was supposed to be watching savory cakes for an old lady who had offered him shelter.
Ancient Slaughter is the old Saxon name for Halland, a small straggling village in the heart of East Sussex, about six miles from Lewes.
But it’s an apt name, because two fierce battles key to the destiny of England, were fought here. Four hundred years apart, according to legend, both battles spilled huge amounts of blood, both were fought to the death, both have dissolved into legend, leaving scant evidence that they ever took place.
But the evidence that does exist, leans strongly towards supporting unwritten history that these two battles were real enough and very fierce.
Alfred was a warrior scholar. His older siblings who should have become king, all died young, leaving a youthful Alfred to assume the throne, when Viking power was in the ascendant.
It was a tough introduction to leadership for the young royal. The Vikings were fierce fighters, ambitious colonists and shrewd tacticians.
Alfred fought these intrepid foes in eight separate battles. It was after one of these that he took refuge in a house run by an old woman. A defeated Alfred was in fact disguised and on the run. He was soundly berated by the old lady for burning her cakes as the King plotted his comeback.
Several villages have claimed they were the site of this famous scene, albeit non recorded moment in history.
The tale appeals to the English sense of fun. A busy and crabby old woman scolding and berating a king, not knowing who she was yelling at.
But does it have more significance than at first appears? One village that claims Alfred burned the cakes there, is Alfriston, another ancient settlement only about eleven miles from Halland.
The name given to the actual battlefield where Alfred took on the Vikings is called Terrible Down.
The verbal reports of this fight say that the slaughter was so horrific that the streams ran red with the blood of the slain.
Now I’m no historian, as critics of my tall tales in this magazine hasten to point out. But I’m also not a fake news aficionado, so seeing little pointers and drawing inconclusive conclusions, is often my trademark.
Alfred had a good win record against the Vikings. But history does suggest that he lost the odd encounter.
If he was retreating from a defeat when burning the cakes at Alfriston, then the Halland encounter might well have been one of those rare instances.
The name Terrible Down seems to indicate a negative outcome of the battle for the Saxons. Fierce it might have been, but did the moniker mean that Alfred lost this one, hence the name?
The Saxon name for Halland of Ancient Slaughter, along with some archaeological evidence is firm enough. Some huge battle took place here.
The historic mark of Alfred as a great King was that he was also a scholar, translating documents from Latin to English, collecting a library and developing teaching institutions. His biggest literary work was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a sort of annual report from the time of the Roman departure until the advent of the Norman Conquest.
So why no mention of this battle in official records?
Perhaps, as with the French sacking of Lewes in the 100 Years War, there is no English reference because Alfred lost. The defeated rarely talk about their losses and record mostly only triumphs. These tales generally come from the victor. No original Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exists, only rewrites mostly edited by monks. Scholars recognise that this tome, while an extremely important document, was altered considerably, so parts were erased, and other inaccuracies found their way into its pages. So its quite possible, even likely that Terrible Down was ignored for political reasons.
Perhaps Alfred’s musings as he let the cakes burn in Alfriston, were along the lines of, “Better forget this one, chaps. We’ll draw up a new team sheet for tomorrow.”
Incursions by the Vikings lasted for almost three centuries. Over this period, in England, at least 50 pitched battles took place with numerous other raids, sieges and naval encounters. Most have been forgotten over the centuries.
A description of a Viking Saxon battle tells of the “clashed shields, wielded swords, and shook greatly the spear in either hand”. When one side or the other broke and ran, they threw aside their shields and weapons in their desperation to get away; they would have slipped and fallen, trampled on the ground, drowning in mud and floundering through waterlogged bogs and fens to disaster. Almost all the lords of the home team were usually slain.
There is one major flaw in this scenario. 400 years later, another slaughter took place on exactly the same spot, as retreating royalist troops were caught and slaughtered to a man by the Barons in 1264.
That battle will have to wait for another time. There’s already blood spread across the newsroom floor. Hopefully, it will not mingle with mine.
I hope I’ve given The Guv enough blood and guts to last for at least this issue. Yes indeed. •