Battles with the Danes

Since taking control of Essex on the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century the Anglo Saxons and Britons had co-existed.

In AD 839 the peace of Essex was again threatened this time from the north with raiding parties of Viking Warriors from Denmark making raids.

The Essex Kings were strong enough to beat off attacks although the Kingdoms in the north were less successful.

Once they had established a base the Danes were able to land more men and supplied and their armies advanced overland.

The Anglo Saxon Kings negotiated with the Danes and bought a short period of peace by paying tribute money and ceding land.

 By AD9  Colchester and Mersea were controlled by the Danes, whilst Maldon and the Dengie Peninsula were in the hands of the Anglo Saxons.

King Edward visited Maldon in AD 912 and ordered fortification in the area as he feared that the Danes were preparing an attack on London.

Once the defences were improved King Edward raised an army and seized Colchester killing all of the Danes within the Town.

The Danes launched a counter attack on Maldon but they were repulsed by the defenders.

Several skirmishes followed before a fragile peace again ensued between the Danes and Anglo Saxons.

Battle of Northey Island

In Ad 991 the Danes started a campaign of raids on the coast of England including the Dengie 100 making use of their superior sea power.

The success of these raids led to larger and larger forces being gathered by the Danes.

Following a successful sacking of Ipswich the Viking fleet sailed into the River Blackwater to attack the plum target of Maldon.

Byrhthnoth was the Anglo Saxon in charge of the defences.

He was a very large charismatic man was issued a call to arms from the Saxons and formed an army to defend Essex

Rather than risk a land on defended territory or risk the narrow channel to Maldon the Viking Fleet  landed the soldiers at Northey Island.

Britnoth lined his men at the Maldon end of the  Causeway which linked Northey Island to the mainland at low tide while the sides taunted each other across the narrow waterway.

The Vikings sent a small party forward and after a short fight the Vikings were all killed.

The Vikings parleyed and asked that the Anglo Saxons retreat from the causeway to allow the Vikings to cross in order that fair battle could be joined.

Byrhthnoth made the fateful decision to agree to this request. Had he have stayed in position the Danes would have been forced to sail away.

Historians have made several guesses as to his motif but as the documentation of this event is limited we will never know his reason.

Battle was joined and the battle hardened Vikings quickly began to get the upper hand.

Byrhthnoth was cut down and fell from his horse. At this point an Anglo Saxon mounted his horse and rode from the battlefield.

Seeing this some of the Anglo Saxon troops broke and run although the battle was still there to win had they have remained disciplined.

The battle continued but despite resistance the Vikings were victorious.

The victory had a high cost if that the Vikings lost so many men in the battle that they had barely enough to sail their ships and had to return home with no more raids.

Battle of Assandun

The Viking raids continued to Harass the Anglo Saxons but a crisis arose in AD 1016 when a large Danish army led by Canute made several raids on the south coast and then laid siege to London

The siege was broken when King Edmund escaped and the Danish forces were split by the need to pursue Edmund and maintain the siege.

The lack of supplied forced the Vikings back to their boats and disembarked in Essex.

The British army gave pursuit and the two armies faced each other at Assandun which is believed to be at Ashingdon which is a small village near the banks of the River Crouch.

The Danes attacks and won a decisive victory totally breaking the Anglo Saxon army and wounding King Edmund.

Later peace talks reached agreement that Canute would rule all of England north of the River Thames while King Edmund would rule the land south of the Thames.

The second key agreement was that on the death of one the other would rule all of England.

King Edmund died shortly afterwards and so Canute was crowned King of England and the Anglo Saxon control of Essex gave way to Danish Rule.

This rule would only last for 50 years before the Normans would make the last successful invasion of England and Eastern Essex would have yet another ruler.

The Historical Truth

The records left by the Anglo-Saxons are very limited and the records left by the Vikings are practically none.

This means that many written historical facts from this period are in fact historical assessments and in some cases guesses by historians.

The facts about the Battle of Northey Island are mainly drawn from a poem written well after the battle by an Anglo-Saxon monk.

Despite telling the tale from the Anglo-Saxon viewpoint it does cover the basics of the battle and firmly puts the battle near to the causeway from Northey Island to Maldon.

As Byrhthnoth withdrew and took the higher ground he is likely to have gone inland a short distance so the battle will probably have occurred somewhere between the current Mundon Road and the River near to Maldon's boundary with Mundon.

The poem stops at the end of the battle so we can't be sure if Maldon and the surrounding area was plundered while it was comparatively defenceless or whether the Vikings were content to strip the dead on the battlefield and go home with their depleted numbers.

We also are not sure who led the Vikings as only a few warriors are named.

The Battle of Assandun is the cause of far more arguments with historians split over the location of Assandun.

The most likely location is Ashingdon as given but a sizeable percentage of historians opt for the village of Ashdon in north west Essex and of course there is the hamlet of Asheldham in the Dengie Hundred.

It is likely that at one stage the Danes were camped at nearby Canewdon and the British at Ashingdon itself but that is not enough evidence to specifically site the battle at Ashingdon as in those days armies were quite mobile and the old roman roads provided good vehicles for movement.

There are only two references to this decisive battle in contemporary literature both quite short providing few details of the battle.

There is no doubt about the consequences of the battle but the details will remain subject of speculation.

Further debate takes place over the legend of Canute attempting to defy the waves.

This legend is drawn from a paragraph in an 12th century manuscript and is not mentioned in other material at the time.

Not only is there much argument about the possible location but there is also a considerable question mark as to whether the event actually took place.

One local story is that the event took place after the battle of Assandun on the River Crouch near to Creeksea Cliffs but whilst it is quite possible that Canute and his men may have been at this location there is no evidence at all to verify the story or the location.