Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: Essex Battles

The very historic county of Essex provided the sites for two important battles, fought within a few miles of each other at Maldon and Ashingdon, and within 25 years.

On 10th August 991, a Viking force under Olaf Trygvasson, which had been ravaging the East coast, including Ipswich and Sandwich, was encamped at Northey Island in the River Blackwater, just outside Maldon.

The Ealdorman of Essex, an elderly giant of a man named Britnoth, took an army to confront the Vikings. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and the Vikings asked Britnoth for safe passage across, so that a battle could be fought on equal terms.

Britnoth, who after all was English and concerned with fair play, allowed the Vikings across. This was followed by a defeat for Britnoth, during which he was beheaded.

He is buried at Ely, but with a big ball of wax where his head should have been. It was never recovered.

The battle is commemorated in a famous poem entitled “The Battle of Maldon”, which is the earliest known narrative poem in the English language.

Britnoth has, of course, been vilified over the centuries for his foolishness in allowing the Vikings to come across the causeway safely. But it should be remembered that, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the only credible general was Britnoth himself. If he had not allowed safe passage, the Vikings would probably have sailed away to attack another part of England, and nobody stood such a good chance of defeating them as Britnoth.

So Britnoth, far from being foolish, was giving his country the best option of victory.

The Battlefield is visited on my Coach Trip “Maldon and the Dengie Hundred”.

On 18th October 1016, during the campaign to conquer all England by Cnut (better known today as Canute), he and Edmund Ironside reached the culmination of a series of battles in which Edmund had had the upper hand.

Cnut’s forces were encamped at Canewdon, overlooking the River Crouch, while those of Edmund were a short distance away at Ashingdon.

The battle took place in the plain between these two hills. Cnut was victorious, largely through the treachery of the notorious Edric Streona, who made a habit of switching sides.

A little later, Cnut and Edmund met at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, where they agreed to split the country. Edmund, however, died shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances, and Cnut became king of all England – it turns out, a great king.

Cnut founded a church at Ashingdon, in honour of the dead from both sides. In the Middle Ages this was demolished, and the church we see today erected on the site.