Members of Castle Point Council brought this project to our attention. They wanted to know, fact or fiction, whether there had been a Viking fort or fortification in Benfleet and whether a battle took place there. Essex County Council has sold/given land to Castle Point stating that it might be part of the battle site. Our task – could we prove any of this?
In 2003/4 members of AGES AHA undertook an investigation by way of examining historic records, documents and literature of the period. To understand the project better, a brief history of the Vikings may be helpful.
The Vikings appear to have first raided England in 789. Then, on 8th June 793, as stated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Canterbury manuscript): “The raiding of the heathen miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne Island by looting and slaughter”.
In the following years, more major raids took place along most of the southern and eastern coasts of England culminating in 865/866 with ‘The Great Army’, which arrived in force in East Anglia. It wintered and rested before embarking on a twelve year invasion. The East Anglian king, Edmund was killed in 870.
The first major British monarchs, the house of Wessex, also began its rise to fame during the 800s, commencing with Egbert, who defeated the Mercians in 825. His son, Aethelwulf, was the first king of Wessex to inherit the throne from his father since the seventh century. His other four sons succeeded him in turn: Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred I and, finally, the youngest and most famous, Alfred the Great.
Alfred fought the Viking ‘Great Army’ and eventually brought them to a standstill at Edington, which produced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. Signed by Alfred the Great of Wessex and Guthrum of Denmark, this led to an uneasy peace. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles put it: Guthrum’s Viking army proceeded to ‘share out’ the land, which remained part of the Danelaw for the next 40 years.
The treaty did list the boundary between England and Danelaw as being up the Thames towards London, and then up the Lea to its source, then straight to Bedford and then up the Ouse to Watling Street. This reference clearly shows that “Castle Point” fell under the influence and control of the Danelaw.
There was a whole history of Viking movements in and around this area for the next 15 years but Castle Point’s interest begins again in AD 892. In that year, Haeston makes a move into the Thames with 80 fighting ships and 250 support vessels, which appear to have been settlers rather than raiders. Having come from starving France, he winters and makes a first settlement – building a fortification at Milton (Isle of Sheppey). Then, in 893, he moves over to “Beamflote”(meaning wood and water) a fortification is then made or so the chronicles tell us.
History is very vague about when Benfleet was first settled but it is certain that a Danish community was living and working as shipwrights with repair yards some years prior to 892. By Viking standards, Benfleet was perfect it had water and timber in abundance. It was also hidden from the main stream. This was a perfect place to refresh, hide and repair. The tidal marsh area also offered a daily degree of protection from attack by water. Vikings preferred to have easy access to their ships – this was always there preferred method of retreat should they need to withdraw. They also liked, whenever possible, to have a fortification surrounded by water.
So Haeston made a strong fortification, deposited his wife and treasures with a garrison guard, and then departed, assumably, to rape and pillage further away.
Whilst Alfred the Great was fighting and pursuing remnants of the Danish Great Army, we know that remnants escaped and came to Benfleet. It was Alfred’s son, Edward, and son-in-law, Ethelflaed, who, with the help of merchants in London, raised a substantial fighting force and under cover of the forests arrived at Hadleigh and Thundersley.
It was from an advantage of high ground that they fell upon the Benfleet fort – how long the battle lasted, we do not know. However, the result was a Danish defeat and those Vikings that escaped fled overland to another Viking fort at Shoeburyness.
Haesten’s wife and two children were captured but eventually Alfred returned them to Haeston. It is said that he vowed never to attack England again.
Once the Benfleet fort had been overcome, all the Viking ships were either destroyed, fired or taken up river to London and Rochester – or so the Saxon Chronicles tell us. The account, having been written some 70 years later, is accepted as being true and accurate.
We now jump forward to 1855 when navvies building the London, Tilbury and Southend Line were driving piles for the railway bridge and came upon burnt timber partial ships and bones.
An archaeological journal of 1885 stated that fragments of ships timbers, charred black with fire, which had lain buried for almost a thousand years, had been discovered in 1855. The same Journal stated that part of the Viking defences were still noticeable in and around the churchyard at St. Mary’s, being one corner of the Danish fortress.
Armed with this information, and maps and diagrams of the area, we attempted to narrow the search area down. By early 2004, we had pinpointed an area that was probably the site of burnt remains of “Viking ships”. The encampment or fort being on the opposite bank was not so easy to identify. St Mary’s Church Yard gave us some clues but to proceed further with this project a detailed survey would need to be carried out, including geophysical soundings.
It is the Association’s view, based on data obtained and investigations made, that the main compound of Haesten’s Fort covered a considerable area. It appears that, inside the main compound, the fort or barracks was built or located somewhere inside the car park at School Lane.
The land from the railway bridge (Canvey side) through to the drainage streams behind St. Mary’s Church and coming up behind the Anchor Public House to the back of the “The Moorings” Hall would have all been river or flood marsh. It is this area that would have been the Viking ships’ anchorage.
Our initial investigations lead us to believe that the land from the railway bridge to Clark’s shellfish stall may well have seen many of the Viking ships burnt and destroyed. It is certain that it was on that side of the bridge that the Navvies uncovered the burnt remains in 1885.