The Battle of Assandun

Last year on the 18th October it was the 1000th anniversary of a relatively obscure battle that occurred somewhere in Essex during the twilight years of the Anglo-Saxon period. Almost everybody has heard of the disastrous consequences that the Norman invasion had in 1066 for the Anglo-Saxons, but it is probably safe to say that the existence of, or implications of the lesser known battles at both Maldon in 991 and Assandun in 1016 are unheard of. The invasion of England by the Normans in 1066 was not some random event, and can be seen in many ways as the culmination of decades of political upheaval caused by the fact that nobody could quite agree on who was the rightful King of England.

Politics In The Lead Up


In real terms it could be said that the lead up to the battle of Assandun really began with the strife that emerged from the original Danelaw. The first Danish invasion of England in the mid-ninth century established a huge Danelaw territory until King Aethelstan successfully re-captured the lost territory between the years of 924 to 939. Peace had existed for a short while within the rule of English King Edgar from 959 to 978 before once again relations between the Saxons and the Northmen soured during a period of Viking expansionism which saw their colonies set up as far away as Greenland.

From 978 to 1016, King Ethelred the Unready,  left a lot to be desired in terms of leadership. Taking the throne aged just ten years old, he never seemed to possess the qualities necessary to lead a nation. During his reign there was no national army or contingency to be called upon in the event of Viking raids or invasions, and all defensive measures were organised on a local basis under the control of the county Aldermen. Each Alderman had his own force of personal body guards, Thanes and local “Fyrd” militias who were far from professional soldiers and very often armed with nothing more than farming tools! Whilst these local defence groups may have proven adequate for defending against small raiding parties, it proved totally inadequate when the Danes began launching larger campaigns with huge fleets of up to ninety or more longboats, of which were capable of carrying up to perhaps a hundred or so fighting men each.

It was exactly this situation that occurred in the battle of Maldon, on the 10th of August 991. Forces led by the Alderman Brithnoth arrived in Maldon, a coastal Essex town surrounded by tidal marshes on the river Blackwater, to find that a Viking force of some forty longships had been repelled back to a island in the bay (most likely Northey Island) by the courageous actions of some townsmen in a local burgh. With the tide in and covering the only way on and off of the island, the two sides shouted demands at one another for hours whilst they wait for the waters to finally subside. The invading Danes reportedly shouted their demands of a large tribute to be paid in order to have them leave, a demand that Brithnoth reportedly refused by replying “the only tribute you will get will be of spears and arrows!"

When the tides finally receded, the Viking forces led by Olaf Tryggvason began their advance across what would be presumably very difficult wet clay river bank. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tell of three Saxon heroes; Wulfstan, Aldere and Caccus, who held back the Danes until the Danes finally demanded that the Saxons withdraw and allow them to cross the treacherous causeway unimpeded so that they might fight fairly on dry land. In that true self-destructive fair play nature that the English are well known for, the Saxons agreed to the detriment to their own tactical situation to allow them safe passage so that the massacre could occur on equal terms. After a few volleys of arrows, the two sides closed and did battle leading to what was effectively a stalemate. The Viking forces were too depleted and too worn out to continue fighting and sailed off, returning to a camp near the Isle of Sheppey. Ironically, after the battle King Ethelred still paid them off with a huge amount of silver and gold anyway, effectively making the loss of life on both sides of the battle absolutely meaningless!

With the English showing weakness and a willingness to pay their ransoms, Maldon marked the beginning of a twenty-five year period of successful Danish raids on the English which got so bad that the English populace were forced to endure a specific tax known at the Danegeld, which was to used to pay off the raiders. As the years went by, the raids penetrated England further inland with little meaningful Saxon resistance. Presumably frustrated by these frequent raids, the English finally snapped, executing a number of peaceful Danish settlers who were living in London. This led to the Danish justification for a full scale invasion of England which culminated with Swegn Forkbeard being Crowned King of England by 1013. King Ethelred, the English king at the time and his family fled to Normandy with their lives to wait out the crisis and plot their next move. Swegn Forkbeard died in 1014, but his heir King Canute was required to return home to deal with the courts in Denmark, giving Ethelred the opportunity to return from Normandy to London where he was once again pronounced King of England.

Soon after retaking the throne, King Ethelred also died, leaving his Son Edmund Ironside as heir. It's quite clear that Ironside learned a lot from his Father's shortcomings though as within just seven months his charismatic leadership had led to a reasonably well trained national army which, with perhaps more time or more reliable support, could eventually have led a successful campaign against the Danish forces. Unfortunately though, history was not on his side as the events of the Battle of Assandun show.

The Run Up To The Battle


Canute's forces returned to England in early 1016 with a fleet of some one-hundred an
d sixty ships, first stationed on the south coast of England. In early May the fleet moved up along the Thames to Greenwich where they remained until after midsummer, after which they moved their ships again to the river Orwell and landed there.

It is a possibility that when the Danes arrived at the river Orwell (or Stour) that they may have constructed a defended harbour there, similar to the one I have recently discussed with the Battle of Benfleet. Its most likely construction site would be at Harwich, which in Old English means Military Settlement(2) which is ironic given that between the Roman era until the end of the second world war the site was used extensively for military purposes.

Harwich would have served as a great site with its command both the Orwell and Stour, offering a few tactical options, and was also beneficial in being the farthest point away from London in Essex at some eighty or so miles. Evidence of a camp had existed in Harwich up until quite recently, with an earthwork running through the eastern part of the Dovercourt parish containing the chapelry of Harwich.(3) This site was originally investigated by the Morant Society and suggested as possibly been of Viking origin, although there is no guarantee as, already stated, the area had been in use since before the Saxon period.
An early attempt of mine to commemorate the battle
back in 2014.

Eventually, the Danes walked inland towards Mercia where, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, they went destroying and burning everything in their path.

The most likely land route taken to Mercia from the Orwell estuary would be along the Stour valley which divides Essex and East Anglia, raiding what is now Cambridgeshire via Manningtree, Sudbury and Clare and through Haverhill, travelling on through the valley of Granta at Barlow and into the Cam valley and then onto Cambridge itself. The total journey would have been around sixty-two miles. Having procured supplies and livestock, they returned to their ships in the Orwell and sailed south to the Medway, the estuary adjacent to the Isle of Grain off the Thames.

After the Danes had attacked Mercia and returned to Kent, the English had finally mounted a response and were slowly making their way forward to engage the enemy. It is likely they had been heading north east from London when news of their departure to the Medway reached them, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states “Then for the fourth time Edmund called up all the people of England, and crossed the Thames at Brentford, and went into Kent."

When the English finally met the Danes there was a mass rout by the Danish forces. They departed the Medway quickly, and whilst at first it may have seemed as though the English had successfully evicted the enemy, they had in fact simply headed north again and moored themselves on the Essex coastline to expedite yet another raid on Mercia.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle states “The host went back up into Essex, and made their way to Mercia, destroying everything before them. When the King learned that the host had appeared on the scene, then for the fifth time he called up all the people of England and followed them up, over taking them in Essex at the hill called Assandun, and there a fierce battle was fought".


Ashdon or Ashingdon?


To this day there still exists the question of where the battle of Assandun actually was, or is. In north Essex there is a case for Ashdon, whereas in south Essex there is also a case for Ashingdon. When I had originally written about the battle of Assandun last year for the one-thousandth anniversary, I had assumed perhaps out of local pride (given that I lived no more than a few miles from the  “battle site" for most of my childhood) that the site had always taken place at modern day Ashingdon in the Rochford Hundred near Southend. However after reading an unbiased essay in the book The Battle of Maldon - Fiction and Fact written by historian Warwick Rodwell, I am willing to concede that the evidence for my local area's claim is hardly compelling.

The possible location considered for the battle were limited to these two villages as early as 1586, as found in William Camden's Britannica in 1567 who wrote in favour of Ashingdon's claim. He was soon backed up by Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle written in 1587, but these old antiquarians were hardly proficient archæologists by today's standards. In 1867, Edward Augustus Freeman discussed the topography of the area in his book The History of the Norman Conquest of England and again came to the conclusion that Ashingdon was the most likely candidate of the two sites. However the rector of Ashdon in 1889 wrote a well received paper to the Essex Archæological Society in favour of his parish, and again in 1925, Essex historian Miller Christy also weighed in on the argument in favour of Ashdon.(4)

Following a long running debate on the subject during the nineteen-twenties, a silver penny was discovered at Ashingdon churchyard by grave diggers in 1928.(5) Being a coin stamped in Canute's reign it was taken by some to be a confirmation of the battle site, but one coin doesn't necessarily prove anything, and as Warrick Rodwell states in his essay, these coins are found all over the South East of England. The timing of this coin's discovery was also somewhat suspicious, although its easy to be overly cynical. Other artifacts allegedly found at Ashingdon churchyard are also quite tantalising, as they allegedly include fragments of a shield, a spear head and two coats of chainmail armour - but the claims are unsubstantiated and again may have come to rest there for reasons other than this particular battle.(6)
Conversely, a large number of Saxon era graves were found near Ashdon, buried alongside pottery and weapons, but their bodies were laid north to south rather than west to east as you would expect, leading the archæologists to presume that they were earlier pagan burials.(8) That said, although I'm probably not qualified to argue either way, I would seriously consider the possibility that not all of of Canute's men were fully Christianised in 1016, and that maybe some of the old ways of doing things were still being used. Either way, on its own the physical evidence at both sites is underwhelming.

Dr Cyril Hart in 1968 was one of the more recent scholars who began looking at the evidence of the battle from an unbiased point of view, and unveiled a lot of fresh evidence which rather supported Ashdon's claim, writing “it cannot be said that the evidence here put forward allows of a certain identification of the site of Assandun. The most that can be claimed is that the balance of probability is on the side of Ashdon."(7)

It seems early archæologists and antiquarians assumed the battle site was Ashingdon mainly due to the similarities between Assandun and Ashingdon in their modern pronunciations, but this has led to an entrenchment of thought as many later researchers have relied on much older material which fails to deliver an unbiased opinion. Modern etymological study has created the most agreed upon meanings of Assandun as being either;
  • The hill of the ash trees
  • The hill of the asses
  • Or Assa's Hill
The Ecomium Emmæ more or less proves the connection with the battle to ash trees as it states “n Æsceneduno loco quod no Latini montem fraxinorum possumus interpretari" or if your Latin is a bit rusty; “In the place called Ascenedun which we Latinists can explain as the hill of the ash trees."

Cyril Hart through his own research also realised that whilst the modern day town names of both Ashingdon and Ashdon could both theoretically be derived from hill of the ash trees, for geological reasons one site is favoured over the other. Ashingdon sits on very clay soil which whilst perfect for Oak and Birch would prove troublesome for Ash trees, Ashdon on the other hand with its chalky substrate proves favourable for Ash to propagate themselves. In other words, its hard to have the hill of the ash trees without any ash trees.

Another issue for Ashingdon's claim when we consider the local geography is that mooring over a hundred longboats in the river Crouch a millennia ago would have been incredibly difficult. The river before flood defences would be narrower, but the marshes on both banks of the river would have at that time extended much further than they currently do. One only has to look at the landscape of nearby Wallasea island that is flanked by the river Crouch to its north, to see the kind of natural coastline that would be present a thousand years ago. Not only would the marsh prove hazardous for ships and men alike, but its cramped location and the narrow nature of the river itself would prove a strategic nightmare as the ships would be nigh on impossible to defend. Indeed a similar situation of ships being burned in an attack happened in Benfleet in 893, as I discussed not too long ago.

The rivers of Essex, with the Medway on the south
bank of the Thames Estuary.
Part of the local folklore at Ashingdon surrounding the battle is that the village of Canewdon was Canute's camp, but it seems neither the hill at Canewdon or Ashingdon would be large enough to house either army. My guess would be that Canewdon (which allegedly gets its name from “The hill of the Canas People") actually has nothing to do with the battle, and that it has been long associated because Canewdon is not hard to stretch to Canutes Hill. I certainly believed this was the case for many years. Additionally, if the Danes had been interested in setting off again towards Mercia, why would they choose to have their camp on the southern bank of the Crouch, and not the north in the Dengie peninsula?

The problem with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is that when it mentions the final battle it fails to
clarify whether the English forces intercepted them as the Danes were leaving or as they were returning to their fleet after raiding Mercia for the second time. This, along with the other conflicting facts and theories surrounding the location makes ascertaining anything with absolute certainty very difficult. That said, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to imply that there was some period of time between the Danish rout in Kent and and the Dane's second raid into Mercia. Regardless the most accepted view is that the Danes had finished their raid and were returning to their ships when the English finally caught up to them.

Here, once again, we get another issue with the locations. If the Danes had been keen to do another raid on Mercia, why would they have chosen the south east Essex at all, instead of returning to the Harwich area? Heading to Mercia from Canewdon would have meant a long and arduous journey across some of the worst terrain for a marching army, along the Crouch, up on to old Roman road into Chelmsford and north through Saffron Walden and onto Cambridge. A distance travelled of some sixty miles with no discernible targets for raiders to pillage along the way.

If the Danes hadn't been attacked as they left Canewdon at Ashingdon before they began their raid on Mercia, then the English who by this point were only in London, were certainly very slow to react - and if they were too late to intercept them when the Danes set out, then they were even more foolish not to destroy their vulnerable crowded fleet sitting helplessly in a tidal marsh. A possibility remains that the English lay in wait for the Danes to return at Ashingdon, but it begs the question of why the Viking fleet was allowed to survive.

Tactically, it would make more sense for the Danes to make the English think that they had left altogether, and this seems to have been the case as immediately after the rout in Kent, King Edmund disbanded the local fyrd. Considering the Viking ships could sail from the Medway to the Crouch in a few hours, it seems unlikely that news would not have quickly reached the armies as they marched back to London. In all fairness though, the fact that Edmund had disbanded a good portion of his forces may explain why they were tentative about intercepting the Danes straight away if they had immediately traveled to the Crouch valley.

If Ashdon is the battle site, as evidence suggests, its most likely the Danes would have chosen Harwich (or the Orwell/Stour estuaries in general) for their encampment, and travelled along the Stour valley inland towards Mercia. The Orwell has very wide, well drained gravel banks and could comfortably provide shelter for the numerous Viking ships. In terms of mileage by foot to the Cambridge area, there isn't a great deal of difference between either Canewdon or the outer reaches of the Stour estuary, but the latter has two distinct advantages. Firstly, its an easy to follow route along the Stour valley without treacherous river crossings or marshes, and secondly its some eighty miles or so from London, giving the Danes at least some time to maneuver and prepare themselves. Ashdon in this scenario would be practically half way along the route taken, and also of similar distance from Harwich to Ashdon as it is from London. Therefore its just as likely that the English intercepted them there straight away or as the Vikings were returning to their ships.

The Battle Itself


Upon arriving at Assandun on the 17th of October, Edmund Ironside must have been feeling pretty confident. The last time the two armies had met one another, the Danes had been routed, but the events of this battle seemed to play out more like an episode of a bad period drama.

Little is known about the events of this battle save that the English were totally annihilated because of treacherous characters in Edmund's midst's. As the two armies closed, Eadric Stroena, who is mentioned in Saxon literature as being a traitor to the English nation, pulled out the large number of troops belonging to him from the battle, causing Edmund Ironside to suffer a crippling defeat. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle mentions Stroena as having “Betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England." Whilst it may seem unfair to trust the writings of a clearly biased manuscript written decades after the event, the reality is that Eadric likely did betray England for the expected exchange for political favour or estates from Canute, but he would get his just rewards as just a year later, Canute himself had Stroena executed at his royal palace for not fighting for his rightful King. Allegedly Canute said to his men “pay this man what we owe him" before Stroena's head was severed with an axe.

Despite winning a clear victory, Canute was still wary of thinning his ranks further, and the English who were once again feeling under immense pressure, also sought to end hostilities as soon as possible. With both sides favouring at least temporary peace, Ironside and Canute met on Alney Island near Gloucester to speak terms, the result of which effectively split England in two between the Danish east and Saxon west once again. Unfortunately in what might have been either a case of poisoning or from understandable exhaustion, Ironside died only a few weeks later, leaving Canute the sole leader of the English nation.

The Aftermath


The defeat of the Saxons at Assandun began decades of political instability which inevitably led to the invasion of England in 1066 by the Norwegian King Hardrada and William the Conqueror a month later. There was no real rightful Saxon monarch left in England, at least by birth right, and the various treaties, marriages and agreements between the various houses of nobility in Normandy and Scandinavia had led to a situation where various factions felt they had a legitimate claim to the throne of England.

Whilst we will never know what might have happened in history had Ironside won at Assandun, there is a distinct possibility that the entire character of England would be totally different today. Had the Saxon's not endured decades of instability, the entire Norman or French Latin influence on England (and the rest of the British Isles for that matter) might not have existed at all. Had England kept it's more Scandinavian or Germanic cultural attributes, perhaps the entire World would be a different place today.

In 1020 Canute commissioned the construction of a church at the battle site to commemorate the fallen, perhaps as a sign of respect to the English, but as is the theme on this subject, neither the main church at Ashingdon or Ashdon or indeed any church still standing in either area - fits the bill. In the book The Battle of Maldon - Fiction and Fact, the author Warwick Rodwell supposes that the church constructed by Canute may not even exist any longer, and quotes R. Morris' Churches in the Landscape written in 1989 - which mentions that many Anglo-Scandinavian churches never even survived into the later Medieval period.

There is, as Warwick suggests, one final clue that the battle took place near Ashdon, because of the number of place names in the immediate vicinity which have relevant names. There exists Danes Wood, and fields with the titles Long Dane and Short Dane. Interestingly, there is also a possible reference to a church which may longer exist as one of the fields which lies quite a distance from the local parish church is called "old church field". Perhaps archæological surveys will find Canute's missing church there hidden in the ground.

Ashingdon Today


In recent times it seems both sites have a vested interest to keep the battle their own with the Rochford county council planning to use their claim for local tourism whilst groups in Ashdon await funding for a full archælogical survey. Last year on the evening of the 1000th anniversary, both local parish churches held their own services, both fairly convinced of their rightful claim to Canute's minster - but the sad truth is neither church can really lay claim to it, and that we might never know where exactly this seriously understated battle took place.

Neither site today has a statue or monument, in fact not even local maps have a symbol marking a battle site and it does seems a bit of a shame that so little attention is paid to our countries history. Back in 2014 when I was in ignorance of all the facts, I began trying to mark the occasion. I wrote to and called the vicar of the church and got no reply and called the local paper who sent a photographer on the 998th anniversary, except the paper never bothered to publish it. I do unfortunately feel as though its a losing battle (pun not intended) to try and get such a big historical event recognised.

The fact that there is this looming question of whether or not the battle really did take place at either site may be the reason as to why nobody has taken a stand at really getting it recognised, at least locally. Personally I don't think it matters. Yes of course it would be better if we knew categorically where the site was, but I think the prospect of marking the incorrect site is far less of a crime than simply not marking such a major historical event at all.

The Ashingdon Commemoration


Ashingdon church on the night
of the 1000th commemoration service.
Last October I was still fairly confident that the battle had taken place on my own doorstep and so when I saw that Ashingdon church was holding a 1000th anniversary, I decided to head up there. Unfortunately I arrived rather late, which was made worse by the fact that I got talking to a few people stood outside the church door who were administering first aid to someone who had fallen over.

With it being past seven in the evening and in the middle of the working week, I rather naively thought that this would be some non-religious historical event inside the church, but as I walked in I had a hymn book shoved in my face, and considering the rest of the congregation were all looking at me, I felt just a little compelled to go along with it, so rather reluctantly plunked myself down on a pew at the back of the church.

Thoughout the service I was reminded as to why I don't do Christianity. There were comments galore about how the Danes were immigrants, and the rather convoluted idea that Anglo-Scandinavian relations are some how relatable to the current unfettered migration that the church of England seems to cherish so much. As I looked about the church I felt a little depressed if I'm honest, as with the exception of handful of kids I was the youngest one there. As the vicar said, in jest of course, that they would meet again for the 2000th anniversary I couldn't help but think that by that point in the future, should things not improve (due to the immigration policies the Church itself seems to promote) that no one will even remember the English by that point in time, let alone their history. There was however something rather comical about seeing Odin's raven banner sat behind a church altar though.

After the service was over I managed to wash some of the Christian taint off myself by raising a glass of mead in the church yard to the fallen as a friendly Robin sat beside me on the bench in the moonlight. As I watched the moon rising over the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of forlorn for the future of our people.

(The image below is a 360 image, and you can use your phone or mouse to scroll around. It shows the inside of the church on the night of the 1000th anniversary.)



Sources


*The details in this article, or blog post, or whatever you want to call it, would not have been possible were it not for the writings of Warwick Rodwell in the book “The Battle of Maldon - Fiction and Fact" published by The Hambledon Press in 1993. I have done little else but attempt to compress his rather comprehensive essay into something the average casual reader might be able to stomach.

(1) The main source of facts comes from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Ecomium Emmæ.
(2) Placenames of the World by Adrian Room, 2003
(3) P. Morant History of Essex (1768) i, 499; V.C.H. Essex, i (1903), 285
(4) M. Christy, The Battle of “Assandun": Where was it Fought?' Journal of the British Archæological Association [Hereafter J.B.A.A. new series, xxxii (1925) 168-90.
(5) F.W. Steer, The Site of the Battle of Assandun, or Assingdon, Essex Review, xlvi (1937), 80-4.
(6) Steer, Essex Review, xlvi, 80-4; F.C. Ewing, A History and guide of Ashingdon Minster (priv. print., n.d., [1970s]).
(7) Cyril Hart, The Site of Assandun, history studies, i - 1968, 1-12p.
(8) Swete “On the Identification of Assanduna" Pg.7

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