The Battle of Benfleet

The Local perspective

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Benfleet Fort
Dr H. E. Priestley

The outcome of the battle of Benfleet was an utter and complete defeat for the Danes. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is short but its tone is triumphant :

“The fortress at Beamfleote had ere this been constructed by Haesten, and he was at the same time gone out to plunder and the Great Army was therein. Then they came thereto and put the army to flight and stormed the fortress and all that was within and brought the whole to London and Rochester, and they brought the wife of Haesten and his two sons to the king…..”

Clearly a decisive victory for the Saxons , but as Dr Priestley, the local historian  asks….. “How was it planned , how was it won ? Where in Benfleet was the Danish camp ?  And why was this one of the most decisive battlesof the age ?”

We have little information to go on except the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so ” we have to rely on what  historians  call intelligent conjecture, that is, on deduction based on what we know about the state of affairs at the time.  We do, however, know enough to enable us to draw conclusions which may not be far from the truth.  Those Danes who made it to Benfleet were probably a fraction of their army which set out from Kent. Opposing them would be Saxons  buoyed by victory at Farnham, locals and Londoners,

London to Benfleet,  however was a distance of little more than 30 miles.  Apart from the well-trodden road through Ilford , Brentwood, Billericay,and Wickford the country was difficult to cross….because of thick forest and riverside marshland. This would have slowed them down but also given them cover.

They would have been crossing enemy territory (Danelaw divided the country up, with East Anglia nominally in Danish hands.) However it was peopled by Saxons , who could be relied on  to at least turn a blind eye….  It is likely that the Saxons travelled in bands which came together in the Hadleigh /Thundersley area  followed almost immediately by a assault on the landward side, which proved successful probably because of superior numbers and/or surprise.  I suspect it was all over very quickly as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention any stubborn resistance.

As for the fort itself, there is  evidence that the fort was there before the 892 invasion and that it featured in Haesten’s long term plans. If there was a fort then it is likely that it had a small garrison and acted as a “retreat and repair depot ” in the words of Dr Priestley.

Access to their boats was vital to the Danes, so Benfleet offered an ideal location.  The creek was much wider than it is now and the waterway would have extended well up the valley beyond the church Even as late as the last century there were ponds in this valley. The exact location and extent of the fort is still a matter of debate.  Priestley in his book A History of Benfleet  –  Early Days  believed that there was a small inner fort inside a fairly extensive defended area and that the Eastern rampart, stockade and ditch followed the line of what is now Grovesnor Road  from beyond Essex Way down to the creek.

More than one nineteenth century writer claimed to have identified various features as belonging to the fortress.  As for signs of a battle we are doomed to disappointment. Apart from charred timbers and human bones uncovered  during the building of the railway in the 1850s, and the conservation area plaque there is little sign of when Benfleet was on the national stage.

Not a huge battle then, but when added to the whole campaign it signified a change of fortune for the Saxons, who went on to reclaim the whole country by 917A.D. Fifty years of peace ensued before the Danes reappeared, but that’s another story….


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  • I read a book a few years ago which was a historic story about the Vikings at Hadleigh and their defeat (sorry I forget the title and author). It says that following the Viking longboats arrival below Hadleigh Castle via the large creeks they captured Hadleigh Castle quickly. They decided it was not defendable against the King’s army and constructed a large wooden fort in the valley below. They used the creeks as a moat surrounding the fort. This provided deep water or soft sticky mud at low tide.

    When the king’s army arrived the king could see that crossing the mud moat would cost him a lot of lives as the men would get bogged down in heavy armour under constant arrow fire from the Vikings. He then recalled on his journey from London where they passed through a village with extensive bee hives. He sent out troops to gather up all those hives. On they returned he catapulted the hives into the fort. Whilst the Vikings were maddened and distracted by thousands of angry bees the kings army crossed the moat and took the fort.

    I don’t know high accurate this story is but I would be interested in your views.

    By Richard Peter Cripps (05/05/2022)
  • Wonderful stories to share with us. Thank you Robert and Richard

    By Chris (22/07/2021)
  • When I was at school in the Limehouse area in the sixties my friend John and I played truant and played in the bombsite near Blackwall tunnel. We found a jawbone and other bones. We took them to Poplar nick. The police had them examined and were found to be done bones dating to the late 9th century. It was mentioned in school assembly. Our truancy did not get punished.

    By Richarrd waller (04/02/2021)
  • I can remember during the 1960’s when developing the housing in what is now Karen close, a sword was discovered in the remains of a pond at the bottom of Essex Way. The sword was sent to the British Museum and pronounced as a Saxon artefact. Where the sword is now I have no idea.

    By Robert Scott (28/12/2019)

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