The Battle of Benfleet
The Local perspective
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….