The Battle of Benfleet

Over the centuries the wild coasts of Essex have been so tamed and subdued, that I doubt the local inhabitants from even a hundred years ago would recognise where they were if they were to travel forward to the present day. Over the last few centuries, flood defences turned the old marshes to pasture, and in more recent times from pasture, to the scars of urban sprawl. It seems strange to think that thousands drive through the site of a Viking fort on their way on and off Canvey island every day, and whilst I'm sure most are aware of the memorials placed by the side of road, I suspect few really know how important the battle of Benfleet really was to our history.

The Context For Hæstan's Invasion


England in the ninth century had yet to be coalesced into a single kingdom, and was at that point still broken up into various sub-kingdoms known as the heptarchy. Essex for example had for a long time been an independent kingdom in its own right until it had been absorbed into Wessex in 825. Throughout the Saxon period, Wessex along with Mercia, rose to prominence and became one of the two most dominant territories within the heptarchy, and it is Wessex to whom we have to thank for King Alfred the Great, and perhaps the reason why we speak English (albeit with romantic influence) and not a form of Danish.

The Danes were a problem for Saxon England for hundreds of years, beginning with the first viking raids in 836. Comparatively, Essex saw very little of the conflicts compared with other parts of England like Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria inparticular, but even so there are still a number of significant Anglo-Danish battle sites spread around the county that have ultimately shaped the history of not only this country, but the world too.

It was Alfred the Great's leadership in 893 which ultimately ensured the English triumph over the Danish army led by Hæstan at the battle of Benfleet, but it would not do the men of either side justice to explain only the circumstances of the battle itself, for it was merely the end in a campaign that lasted many months of grueling fighting which had occurred haphazardly all over England.

In the year 878, the whole future of England had been in jeopardy. Wessex had been invaded by the Danes and they had reached the Wessex heartlands, forcing Alfred the Great to conduct a guerrilla war, retreating often and harrying the Danes in a war of attrition. After routing the enemy at Edington on the 6th of May, many of the remaining Danes fled back to the local fortress. Alfred's men were then able to encircle the fortress at Edington and get the Danish king Guthrum to seek terms as the besieged Danes had begun to starve. The result was the Treaty of Wedmore which split England more or less in half diagonally from Liverpool to London, with the Danes now occupying more or less the entire eastern half of the country and the city of London itself. In return, the Danes were asked if they would be Baptised, to which they agreed, and hostages were exchanged to seal the deal.

In 886 however, following a series of raids on Wessex from the Danelaw, the forces of Wessex went out and retook London, but it seems that these raids were not a military action sanctioned by Guthrum, and were merely the actions of a few Viking opportunists. Guthrum died soon after in 890, but the Viking threat remained unabated. Hæstan, the leader of a great army looked to England and wanted to carve an empire of his own. According to some sources, Hæstan was purportedly Ragnar Lothbrok's eldest Son and a notorious pirate of the Mediterranean sea; but given that by the 890s Lothbrok's son would have been over seventy years old, it seems most unlikely that it was the same man.

Hæstan's Invasion 


A great fleet of some two hundred and fifty ships landed Hæstan's army in Kent in the winter of 892, and quickly moved to occupy the fortified town of Appledore. Shortly after, a smaller force of some eighty ships landed more troops on the south bank of the Thames, capturing the town of Milton. Their plan was originally to join these two armies together in a pincer movement, capture the city of Canterbury and cut off England's trade routes to the continent in the process.

In the spring of 893, Alfred moved his army directly between these two Viking armies and once again turned to guerrilla warfare tactics to harass the larger Viking forces. The English cleverly used the topography of the area to their advantage, setting themselves near Ashford in a gap between the hills and the heavily wooded area of the Kent Downs. Communications between the two Danish armies were severed, and due to the ferocity of the English ambushes, the Danes eventually gave up on combining the two armies altogether.

The smaller army to the north left Milton and crossed the Thames estuary to Benfleet with Hæstan. Its possible that a small colony of Danes were living there already, and so could be called upon to repair ships and assist with the army that had now come to be stationed there. Multiple longboats would have been moored up in the East Haven Creek and in a coastal channel which before the building of flood defences flowed up behind where the Helmet and Hoy pub stands today. Soon after arrival, the Danes at Benfleet were ordered to make themselves ready to push west on a raid, a decision which ultimately would be his downfall.

The larger contingent at Appledore finally left after exhausting their supplies and headed west raiding towns and villages as they went. King Alfred's son Edward, commanding a sizeable Saxon force, pursued them and intercepted them at Farnham in Surrey. The Danes lost the battle and routed, with the survivors fleeing north and crossing the Thames at Staines with Edward's men in pursuit. Hæstan, unaware of the defeat of the larger army, left with the majority of the men stationed at Benfleet and also headed West to raid, leaving only a small detachment at the fort there to defend their plundered goods and Hæstan's wife and children.

Meanwhile as all this was going on, another fleet of Danes had embarked from Northumbria, traveled through the Strait of Dover, and were well on their way to Devon and Cornwall. Its unclear whether this was part of a united campaign among the various Danish warlords, or whether it was just an opportunistic excursion; but it certainly helped break up the English defenders. Alfred was forced to leave the campaign in the south east and head to the west country, leaving the ongoing campaign which so far was going well for the Saxons, to his son Edward and his son-in-law.

The Danes Retreat to Benfleet


Edward's forces continued to chase the remnants of the Danish army that they had defeated at Farnham, finally cornering them on an island at the river Colne near Iver in Buckinghamshire. It seemed as though the English were about to win an absolute victory, but bad timing got the better of them. As per the English legislation, after a period of six months military service English soldiers were given the choice to return home to their farmsteads. Given that most families were responsible for feeding themselves it was imperative for most that they should return home, particularly for harvest, or else their family risked starvation through the winter months. During the crossover between soldiers returning home and fresh ones arriving, the Danes saw their opportunity and broke the siege, fleeing east in small groups back to the stronghold at Benfleet.

Edward's army was unable to keep up with or predict the routes these multiple groups were taking independently and so retreated back to London to plan the next engagement. Although the Danish break through at Iver and their subsequent regrouping at Benfleet was a set back for the Saxons, it was offset by the fact that they now had a fresh fighting force that would be far more effective. Upon arriving at London, news of the largely successful campaign encouraged many Londoners to take up arms alongside Edward, increasing the size of the army further.

Although the English had the advantage for now, they couldn't afford to rest on their laurels. They needed a full-blown conclusion to the campaign before the arrival of winter or the Danes could potentially gather more troops - and had that have happened, they in all likelihood would have needed to fight the same campaign all over again the following year.

When the Danish groups that had broken free at Iver arrived at Benfleet I can't imagine they would have been too pleased. Having received heavy casualties, they arrived at Benfleet to find only a tiny defensive garrison. Hæston was still out raiding and the fleet of ships which had been moored at Benfleet had mostly left for Mersea island. All they could do was sit at the fort and hope that help would come. But it didn't.


The Assault on the Benfleet Fort


Although the distance to Benfleet from London was only some thirty-odd miles, the landscape in the Anglo-Saxon period was remarkably different to how it looks in present day. Along the Thames lay thick woodlands and riverside marshes. The only main road into the area in those days went through Ilford, Brentwood, Billericay and Wickford, but taking down a fortification needed an element of surprise, and so they couldn't afford to use roads. It seems likely Edward's army passed through occupied Essex unhindered, their advance likely held secret by locals as they edged their way closer to the Danish stronghold through the wild landscape of the Essex woodlands.

The fort at Benfleet was typical of the time period, using the creeks that almost encircled South Benfleet (modern sea defences have changed the geography of the area quite substantially) as part of the fort's defences. A ditch and rampart was likely dug on the eastern flank which was not protected by any water, likely following where the Grosvenor road lies today, and continuing all the way down to the Hadleigh Ray. The whole fort would have then been surrounded by high wooden palisade with a keep and tower constructed where the car park behind the Half Crown pub stands today. The battle site is verified as being accurate because when the train line was being constructed in the area in the mid-nineteenth century, the labourers found numerous skeletons and the remains of charred Viking longships embedded in the mud. Up until fairly recently there was also a visible bank behind St Mary's churchyard from the original fort perimeter, as mentioned in the local 1855 archælogical journal.

Its not clearly understood how the battle at Benfleet was conducted as the only written account we have comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written decades later after the event. What we can presume though is that the Danes would not have chosen to meet the Saxons outside of their fortified position and fight on level ground. It could be that the English forces nanaged to form up on the nearby hill at Thundersley and attack the unsuspecting Danes in one full on attack, but equally it could also have been a stealthy midnight infiltration. Perhaps being outnumbered and worn out they surrendered without too much resistance.Whatever the case, the Saxons won a flawless victory there, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account reporting;


A map of Benfleet Fort and how it
corresponds to modern Benfleet:
Red - Bank, ditch and barricade
Yellow - The inner keep
Blue - The old Benfleet creek
which no longer exists.
“The fortress at Beamfleote had ere this been constructed by Hæstan, and he was at the same time gone out to plunder and the Great Army was therein. Then they (the English) came thereto and put the Army to flight and stormed the fortress and took all that was within it as well as the women and children also, and brought the whole to London and Rochester, and they brought the wife of Hæstan and his two sons to the King."

Its possible that during the battle, a number of Danes fled eastward towards Shoebury at a site known as the Danish Camp to form a last stand, but excavations done in 1998 there only turned up a few pieces of pottery from the time period, so its impossible to verify these claims. The fort at Shoebury on the site of The Garrison estate is actually prehistoric, but its entirely possible that the Danes also used the earth banks there later on, and perhaps not just on this one occasion. 

Following the victory, King Alfred accepted Hæstan's family as friends, and offered an olive branch by releasing them back to the husband unharmed. It is said that Hæstan was so overwhelmed with Alfred's generosity and good will, that he swore an oath never to attack England again. It seems the defeat of the Danes at Benfleet created a period of relative stability for a hundred years in Wessex. King Alfred the Great's dream had been the unification of England into a single kingdom, and in the relative stability without Danish interference after the hard won English victory in 893, Alfred's grandson eventually saw his magnum opus fulfilled.

The battle of Benfleet was included in the 2009 novel entitled The Burning Land, written by Bernard Cornwell, (a part of the The Last Kingdom series which has recently been made into a TV drama by the BBC.) The battle also has a memorial in South Benfleet with a commemorative stone and ship monument visible from the main road near the railway bridge. Whilst culturally the battle is pretty unheard of, had the Saxons failed to take Benfleet when they did there is a possibility that England would have never existed as a unified nation at all.

Sources


(1.) A History of Benfleet (Early Days) Written by H.E Priestley, written in 1977.
(2.) Historic England - Defended prehistoric settlement at Shoeburyness, known as the Danish Camp: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017206

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