Danelaw and The Vikings
In AD 899 Alfred died and the Chronicle reported: ‘He was king over the whole English people except for that part which was under Danish rule …’ There was a determined attempt to evict the Danes. In the spring of AD 912 King Edward headed a strong force which went into Essex and camped at Maldon while the ‘borough’ or fortification was being made at Witham – ‘and a good number of the people who had been under the rule of the Danish men submitted to him.’ Four years later. ‘King Edward went to Maldon and built and established the borough before he went away.’ With Essex under Danish control it was an obvious target for English raids. In AD 917 a great army of English coming up from Surrey and Kent joined the Essex men in an attack on Colchester. ‘Until they took it and killed all the people and seized everything that was inside – except the men who fled … over the wall.’ Later that same year King Edward took an army of West Saxons to Colchester and had the fortifications repaired. Crowds of people who had suffered terrible privation for 30 years under the Danelaw came to pledge their loyalty to the king. The whole army of East Anglia submitted to him as their rightful commander. There were more than a few Danes who joined in this declaration of fealty.
By the end of October AD 940 Edmond, son of Edward, had been consecrated as king and continued the campaign against the Danish occupation of East Anglia, but he was dead by AD 946, stabbed by a traitor. Eventually, in AD 959 Edgar became king – ‘… in his day things improved greatly, and God granted him that he lived in peace as long as he lived’ as the Chronicle puts it. He died in AD 975. Essex comes into the picture again when the Chronicle informs us in AD 991. ‘In this year Olaf came with 93 ships to Folkestone, and ravaged round about it, and from there went to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran it all, and so to Maldon. And ealdorman Brihtnoth came against him there with his army and fought against him: and they killed the ealdorman there and had control of the field. And afterwards peace was made with them and the king stood sponsor to him afterwards at his confirmation.’ Another version of the Chronicle informs us that ‘in that year it was determined tribute should be paid to the Danish men because of the great terror they were causing along the coast. The first payment was 10,000 pounds.’ In August 1991 a modern ‘Chronicle’, the Essex Chronicle, reported: ‘History repeated itself in Maldon at the weekend with a spectacular battle re-enactment of that fateful event 1,000 years ago when sword clashed sword and the bloodied bodies of brave warriors fell … . It was the same day – August 11, 991 AD when Anglo Saxon warriors gathered to defend their country against Viking invaders.’ The real battle was a disaster for the Saxons, or the English as they might be called by then.
The reason for their terrible defeat was this: the Danes had camped on Northey Island in the Blackwater estuary where there has always been a tidal causeway across to the mainland. Instead of picking off the Danes individually as they streamed across the causeway, the English let them come across and form up in battle array. They decimated the English, collected their booty and sailed away triumphantly. This was but a minor incident in Essex history. We would not have known about it had not a Saxon minstrel survived to compose a long song about it which he sang in the halls of Saxon chiefs all around the county of the East Saxons. His song is treasured as one of the oldest English poems, though its Anglo-Saxon words make it incomprehensible. Luckily, it has been translated and can be enjoyed in modern English.
In AD 994 Essex was once again subjected to ‘burning, ravaging, and slaving’ as Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, blackmailed the English for a further tribute of £16,000. Hostages were exchanged during a peace treaty, then Olaf was confirmed, his sponsor King Ethelred showered gifts on him, and be promised he would never come back to in hostility.’ But other Danes continued their very profitable raids. Forkbeard prominent among them. The only thing that stopped their ravaging of East Anglia in 1005 was the great famine affecting the whole of England. So scarce was food that the Danish raiders actually went home and let a little time elapse’ before they came back. In 1009 the Danes raided in the south all summer then took up their winter quarters on the Thames and lived off Essex and the adjacent shires. Two years later the Chronicle recorded that they had overrun Essex again. It actually named 14 other counties in the south and east which had suffered the frightful pillaging and cruelty of the Danes. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury was captured and martyred.
In 1014, when that fearsome Forkbeard died. Ethelred felt it wise to re-confirm his kingship of all England, though the men who manned the fleet had elected Cnut the Dane, whose army was then centred on Gainsborough. Ethelred made a surprise attack on it, but Cnut escaped aboard one of his ships. In this year there was a great tide, and Essex would certainly have felt the brunt of it. ‘… the sea flooded widely over this country, coming tip higher than it had ever done before, and submerging many villages and a countless number of people’ as the chronicler of the day puts it. Ethelred died on St George’s Day (23rd April) 1016 and Edmund was declared king. He tackled Cnut and drove off his marauders. As they retreated they laid waste to Essex once again, heading for Mercia. The treachery endemic in those times is shown in the Chronicle’s account. ‘When the king learnt that the army had gone inland, for the fifth time he collected all the English nation; and pursued them and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Ashingdon, and they stoutly joined battle there. Then Ealdorman Eadric did as he had often done before; he was the first to start the flight … and thus betrayed his liege lord and all the people of England. There Cnut had the victory and won for himself all the English people.’
Peace was arranged and ransom was paid after a meeting of the kings. Edmund died shortly afterwards and Cnut was the obvious choice to succeed him. To strengthen his position Cnut married Ethelred’s widow. In 1020 he and his archbishops, bishops, earls and courtiers came to Ashingdon in a great crowd and consecrated the minster he had ordered to be built in celebration of that victory which brought him the throne. He made a lasting peace with his fellow Danes, which held to his death in 1035. A C Edwards is cautious about the identification of the site of this battle: ‘… some historians think it was fought at Ashingdon; others favour Ashdon in north-west Essex, with Hadstock church nearby as the minster which Canute built to commemorate his victory.’
After much skulduggery Harold was chosen as king and he was followed quickly by his half brother Hardacnut, who died in 1042, When Edward the Confessor came to the throne. He married Edith, daughter of Earl Godwine, a powerful man who had Cnut to thank for his advancement. 1046 was remembered in Essex, as elsewhere, for a terrible winter, so hard a winter as that was, both for pestilence and murrain, and birds and fish perished through the great cold and through hunger.’ We know also from this same source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that Walton-on-the-Naze was the scene of a minor naval invasion by the outlawed Danish pirate Osgood Clapa.
In one of many struggles for power, Earl Godwine and all his sons were driven out of England in 1051. Some went to Bruges, Harold to Ireland, and from these bases they made raids on the English and Welsh coasts. The quarrel was soon patched up, the family forgiven and restored to their positions and possessions and Harold succeeded to the earldom in 1053. The expanding influence and power of the Church is reflected in the constant reference to the journeyings of archbishops and bishops in the Chronicle. Harold showed his fitness for kingship by subduing the Welsh in a series of battles. His reward came when Edward died on 5th January 1066, and he was chosen as king. His connection with Essex had begun when he was appointed its ‘governor and continued with his founding of the Abbey at Waltham on the directions of Edward the Confessor, as a condition attached to the gift of Waltham as a manor to Harold. In 1062 a college for a dean and 11 secular canons was founded and richly endowed by Harold with land from the manor and from others in Essex and beyond. It stayed in this form, though deprived of much of its property by William the Conqueror, until 1177 when Henry II translated it into an abbey, with an abbot and 16 monks replacing the secular canons, as an act of expiation for the murder at Canterbury of Thomas Becket. It flourished right up to its closure at the Reformation as a body answerable only to the King and the Pope, with 27 abbots covering a span of 362 years. Harold is said to have prayed here on his way south to the Battle of Hastings, and after interment near the field of battle his body was dug up and taken reverently to Waltham for burial in his abbey.
The original foundation of the Abbey predating Harold’s ‘College’ had been credited to Tovi, Cnut’S brave standard bearer, about whom there is a local legend. A blacksmith at Montacute in Somerset was told in a dream to get the priest and the villagers to dig a great hole in the hill above the village, where they would find treasure. They dug, and they found a huge rock cleft in twain; inside it was an image of Christ on the cross in glittering black flint. The local Lord, Tovi le Prude, knew this was a sign from God. He had the heavy cross hoisted on to a huge waggon harnessed to 12 red oxen and 12 white cows.
He said they would go wherever God willed and prayed for guidance. To the beasts he called out one holy place of pilgrimage after another, from Glastonbury to Winchester, but the animals did not move. He then mentioned the little settlement in the forest of Essex called Waltham, where he was building a country retreat, and the waggon moved as if it was pushing the beasts. Off they set and every day the oxen and the cows were eager to press on with the pilgrimage until they came at last to Waltham, where they could not be urged on further. A wondering crowd helped to unload the precious cross and when it was erected they saw blood flow from the side of the image of Christ. Tovi was so overcome by all that had happened that he gave all his property to the founding of communities of the Holy Cross in Waltham, Kelvedon, Loughton and Alverton, which last is probably today’s Alderton Hall, Loughton. Eventually the Waltham property passed into Harold’s hands and the building of a magnificent church was put in hand. What we see today is the rebuilding of 1242, with later repairs and additions.
Harold then was King; and hearing that Count William of Normandy, King Edward’s kinsman, was intending to invade England and take power, he amassed the greatest land and sea forces yet seen in this country. When this threat of invasion diminished, Harold stood down this very expensive army. The threat then came from the north with a huge invasion force under King Harold of Norway landing in the Ouse to do battle with the English at Stamford Bridge – two pitched battles within five days after a forced march north. William saw his chance and made a landing at Pevensey Bay, advanced to Hastings and forced the inhabitants to help his army build fortifications. At the Battle of Hastings Harold was killed. William became king and a new era began.
Before passing from Saxon to Norman Essex, let us consider the reminder of our Saxon heritage embodied in the County Council’s coat of Arms. Permission to bear these arms, a red shield on which three seaxes are shown one above the other, with their points to the right, was granted by the College of Arms in 1932. A facsimile of the grant can be seen in the Grand Jury Room of the Shire Hall. The seax was the Saxon short sword – in use as early as the 6th century. Its symbolic use as representing the county goes back to 1770. The notch in the blades on the shield has no significance; it was introduced by the artist so that the weapon would not be confused with the scimitar. However much the seax may be considered a genuine Saxon accoutrement, a complete example has not yet been found in Essex.
Essex was soon honoured by a visit from William. It happened in this way: at his coronation at Westminster on Christmas Day in 1066 when the people gave a great shout of acclamation, the Norman guards thought this was the beginning of an insurrection and they set fire to all the buildings round the abbey to flush out the rebels. The congregation rushed out of the church and King and clergy were left wondering what was happening. William immediately set out for the safety of the nunnery at Barking Abbey and put in hand work to defend London if there was such an insurrection. So it was at Barking that he received in submission the Saxon earls like Edwin, Morcar and others who had come down from the north. Here he also drew up London’s charter.
This famous Benedictine Abbey had been founded in the 7th century. Apart from the parish churches which had risen rapidly in the county, the only religious foundations preceding the Conqueror’s reign were St Cedd’s missionary centre at Ythancestir, Bradwell-on-Sea, where the evangelising bishop gathered round him Essex men to train as priests and laity in the new churches established from the 7th century onwards; at Tilburv where he founded one of the first monasteries; Harold’s notable College of Canons at Waltham; and the legendary nunnery of St Osyth.
By William’s time the Church was highly organised. The Victoria County History of Essex puts it neatly: ‘… the incidental and indirect evidence of the presence of pre-Conquest churches all over the area of this populous and busy kingdom of the East Saxons is abundant.’ In Colchester there were six churches, although only two are mentioned in the Domesday survey. The dedications of a dozen or more churches indicate their pre-Conquest origin. The lands in Essex which by then had been ceded to the mother church of St Paul’s in London were widespread. Imagine the discomfort suffered by the Dean of St Paul’s in the winter of 1181 when he had to travel on a week-long circuit of inspection of churches at Belchamp. Wickham, Kirby-le-Soken. Heybridge. Tilling-ham, Runwell, Barling, Norton, Navestock and Chingford.
At Barking, the Abbey was founded in AD 666, as a Benedictine nunnery. Erkenwald, son of Offa, is thought to have been the founder, prior to his elevation to the Bishopric of London. The money for the endowment was given by the princes of the East Saxon kingdom. There are large gaps in the history of this foundation, some of them due to the ravaging of the Danes. In AD 870 these pagan raiders came up the Thames and burned to death all the nuns in their own church. It was this gross act which caused the Abbey to be vacated and neglected for over a hundred years, until returned by King Edgar to its former degree of importance. William the Conqueror confirmed its charter in 1066.
In 1279 the Bishop of London held an inquiry into the daily running of the Convent and tightened up on its discipline: ‘No man, under pain of excommunication, shall ever go into the nuns’ rooms .., and except at confession no nun shall speak alone to a man. . . .’ When a disastrous flood ruined its Thames-side properties, necessitating expensive repairs, the Abbey never seemed to recover its former prosperity. Its dissolution on 14th November 1539 was uneventful and it was demolished in 1541. The only evidence of that great foundation left is the Fire Bell, or Curfew Tower, which was not built until 1370. It was originally a gate-tower with a rood loft over the arch. Three holy figures can still be seen, though they are very worn. The outline of the abbey church foundations is indicated by lines of stone set in the turf adjacent to the parish church.
To return to our narrative: in 1077 it was reported that the summer was so dry that ‘wildfire came upon many shires and burned down many villages; and also many towns were burned down.’ As Essex is on the dryest side of the country, and as most houses and churches at that time were built of timber straight from the forest it can be imagined how hard the county was hit. It is quite likely that the coastal regions of the county were laid waste in 1085 as William followed a ‘scorched earth’ policy against a projected invasion by Cnut, King of Denmark. The threatened incursion gave William food for thought about just what this country of England meant to him, how much it was worth fighting for and to what extent losses in men and materials would be justified. ‘Then he sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had in the country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire.’ So we come to the Domesday survey – the first detailed account of Essex as a separate county.