I used to commute to London every day for work and would always travel from Southend East to Fenchurch. My train would always pass through Benfleet train station where it would at times stop. When it did I would usually (when my head was not stuck in a book) stare aimlessly out the window at the marshes and beyond. After a time I noticed a stone mural in the grassy area and always wondered what it was for. The joy of the internet with so much information at your fingertips! The mural is to commemorate a battle which took place near the area where the station actually sits now. A battle which took place over 1000 years ago during the time of Alfred the Great.
It was the year 892, Alfred the great was attempting to unify the kingdoms of England into one country and his dream was beginning to come together. However he still had the problems in parts of the country being ruled by Danes – also known as Vikings, who were the complete opposite of Alfred. He was a Christian, obedient to the one God, they were seen as Pagans. No sense of dignity or honour. The parts of the country which were ruled by the Vikings were known as Dane law and what is now South East Essex was under such rule.
Two of these Viking warriors, two brothers, had recently attacked Alfred’s forces but were soon knocked back and were in retreat. Some had retreated from London to a fort in Beamfleote (Benfleet) which was a Dane land settlement. The word itself means wood and water and it was located in a stretch place for the Vikings. It was surrounded by fresh water on one side and forest on the other. The Vikings were seamen and relied a lot upon their ships and had many fleets (at this time they had a fleet of 250 ships in South Kent which they were unable to get too).
Beamfloet was looked after by a Viking named Heasten ‘the black’. He had been forced by Alfred back to his fortress. On the day of the Battle, Heasten who was unaware of the coming army which had been sent by a concern Alfred, lead by his son Edward and son in law Etheflead, had gone out raiding and foraging. The Army was not a large one but was enough. It was believed the army attacked from the upper hills of Hadleigh down into the fort where they were able to capture many, including Heasten wife and children. Those Vikings that were able to escape fled towards Shoeburyness and could have settled in a fortress there for a small time.
The Battle was not a huge one, with no large death toll and heroics but it was prominent enough to ensure the beginning n of the end of the Vikings in England. The Anglos Saxon chronicle states:
“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…..”
Heasten wife and children were later returned to Heasten by the merciful Alfred (who was also godfather to the two boys) with a promise that Heasten was never to attack England again.
There is not much archaeological evidence or accounts on the battle itself so we can only guess at the precise details and location. What evidence we do have is parse. Evidence shows that the fort may have been around or near Benfleet station car park. The ships would have been anchored in the marsh around the Canvey side of the railway bridge and up by St Marys church and behind the Anchor n pub. (The Marshes would have been a lot larger than what they are now and the long Viking ships would have had better access than what is there today.). When developing the area to make way for the station some garments of charred Viking ships were found, either from the battle itself or just from some discard Viking ships from the time.
After the battle Alfred requested that a church be built near the site in thanksgiving to the decisive victory. The current church of St Marys nearby is believed to be built on the site of that earlier church.
Hinguar and Shoeburyness
It is believed that some of the Vikings fled to Shoeburyness after the battle. For a time it was thought that they had a for, located in what is now Gunners park but archaeological evidence points to it being an Iron age fort. There was possible a Viking fort nearer to East Beach but has been lost in time by the tide, washed away.
There is a school on the Garrison estate called Hinguar Primary School, this school was previously on another site nearer to east beach. Hinguar is named after a Viking who legend has it after hearing about the death of his father at the hand of the Saxons sat down in the fens, near to where the old Hinguar School now is and gnawed his fingers to the bone in grief. Of course this could just be a story that has just been passed down through the ages.
Final Note – Shoeburyness – Ness is a Scandinavian word meaning a ‘nose’ of land. There is even a Dane Street.