The search for Alfred the Great

Travelling from Winchester to Rome, archaeologist Neil Oliver tells the extraordinary story of Alfred's life and death. In the 9th century, Alfred became one of England's most important kings by fighting off the Vikings, uniting the people of southern England and launching a cultural renaissance. This was the man who forged a united language and identity and laid the foundations of the English nation.

The Search For Alfred The Great investigates the equally extraordinary story of what happened to Alfred's remains after his death in 899. They have been exhumed and re-buried on a number of occasions since his original brief burial in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster in Winchester. The Saxons, the Normans, Henry VIII's religious reformers, 18th-century convicts, Victorian romantics and 20th-century archaeologists have all played a part in the story of Alfred's grave.

Find out more here.

Liddington Castle - is this 'Mons Badonicus', site of Arthur's last stand?

Liddington 102Liddington Castle is a prehistoric hill-fort perched on some of the highest ground on the Ridgeway - the path that runs like a backbone along the ridge of the Berkshire Downs. The Ridgeway is an ancient trackway and it is dotted with hill-forts and other archaeological sites as it runs from Avebury in Wiltshire to the Goring gap by the Thames in Oxfordshire.

Liddington Castle probably dates from the late Bronze Age. Little known and inaccessible, it has far fewer visitors than more popular sites along the Ridgeway like the White Horse of Uffington. However, the climb to visit it is worth it. Once on top, the views in all directions are spectacular - a truly panoramic vision.Liddington 106

Mons Badonicus - or the hill of Badon - is a legendary location, cited by Gildas, the sixth century historian of the collapse of Roman rule in Britain, as the place where Aurelius Ambrosius won his decisive battle against the Saxons. In later texts, notably in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain written in the twelfth century, Aurelius Ambrosius has become King Arthur, and Mons Badonicus the site of Arthur's heroic last stand.

What evidence is there to suggest Liddington Castle may be Mount Badon? First, consider its proximity to Baydon, a village a few miles down the road. Baydon is an ancient settlement and Badon's hill would be an apt description of a high hill that overlooks the village - and may explain why it was so-called by Gildas.

Liddington 124Second, consider this road itself: a Roman road - the Ermin Way (not to be confused with Ermine Street). The Ermin Way ran between the Roman towns of Silchester and Gloucester. The road cuts straight through Baydon and past Liddington, and carries on through Swindon and Cirencester before reaching Gloucester.

Aurelius Ambrosius is reputed to have been based in Silchester and could have taken this road as he restored order in the region. He is said to have fought a series of battles at the Wallops near Andover, before meeting the enemy at Mons Badonicus and securing his famous victory. 

Silchester was the capital of the celtic Atrebates tribe. We know from other evidence that celtic tribal identities were quick to re-assert themselves as Roman rule collapsed. The Ridgeway was a critical political boundary marking three celtic tribal territories: the Atrebates, Catuvellauni and Belgae. Liddington 126

It would be logical to assume therefore that Aurelius Ambrosius was trying to impose order on a resurgent tribal polity that was also in deep chaos as the Romano-British structures that had held sway for centuries were collapsing. If so, Liddington Castle, and the Ridgeway more generally, would have been a critical strategic territory to conquer.

According to Gildas, Aurelius Ambrosius' triumph stemmed the onward march of the Saxons. Its not hard to see how holding a high point like Liddington Castle, with its position on the intersection of the territories of competing tribes, with their leaders hungry for the coveted title of High King of Britain (Bretwalda in Old English), and with views over these territories, would have been a political as well as symbolic triumph.

Many centuries later, Alfred's chronicles tell the story of the founding of the kingdom of Wessex by Cerdic - a Briton, or at least a man with a British name. Could Aurelius Ambrosius' victory and the foundation of Wessex  in Alfred's genealogy be linked? Geoffrey's yet later invocation of this very 'British' of acts, also has a deep resonance in these ancient trackways and hilltops as the mystical activity of a mythological king, guarding and protecting these precious territories, and their peoples, from the onslaught of 'foreign'  incursions - or perhaps more accurately, from their hostile neighbours.