If, like me, you love sweeping, epic adventure, then you’ve probably been glued to The Last Kingdom on Netflix.
Last night, a crucial scene took place in the little town where I grew up. There I was, jumping up and down on the sofa, pointing to the TV and shouting: ‘Look, you can see my house from here!’
The occasion was Uhtred of Bebbanburg attacking the Viking fort at Beamfleot– or Benfleet, as I always knew it. For me, growing up, it was just this dull little stop on the commuter line to London. I couldn’t wait to get away from there. But back in Uhtred’s day, it was the scene of a decisive battle between the Saxons and the Danes.
In fact, Benfleet is the reason the English don’t speak Danish.
I really should have known more about this; after all, the street where I grew up was called, simply, Danesfield. There was a stone set in the wall of our local church commemorating the battle, even though hardly anyone locally knew much about it.
There is still much debate about what actually happened and where, although most agree the clash took place close to the site of a great little pub called the Hoy and Helmet. The only undisputed fact is that I was carried out of the back bar after ten Guinesses when I was 18.
But in 893, long before me or Guinness were invented, Alfred the Great was still trying to unify the kingdoms of England into one country. To do that, he had to get rid of the Danes.
The fort at Beamfleot – it’s a Nordic word meaning ‘wood’ and ‘water’ – had been built ten years before by a Danish earl called Haesten ‘the Black’. It had been used as a staging post for many raids into Saxon territory. So Alfred wanted it destroyed.
The attack on the fort was led by Alfred’s son, Edward, as Alfred was still in Wessex dealing with yet another Danish invasion near Exeter in Devonshire. The assault caught Haesten by surprise. He and his army had left the fort to go raiding leaving his wife and children behind with just a handful of guards.
How the Saxon attackers got inside the fort, history doesn’t say. Did they storm the walls by weight of numbers or creep in during the night? All we know is the battle itself was not a large one, there were few casualties and not much in the way of heroics.
But although the battle remains obscure, its importance to British history is crucial. Strategically, it ensured the end of the Norse threat in England; if the Saxons had failed to take Benfleet that day, the Danes could have received reinforcements along the English Channel and defeated the dynasty that gave rise to a place called England.
Not only did they take the fort, the Saxons took Haesten’s wife and children hostage. They also burned most of the Danes’ longships; some charred timbers were found in Benfleet creek a few years ago which are thought to be part of that fleet.
What happened to Haesten’s family? This is where it gets strange. Alfred returned Haesten’s wife and children to him unharmed – it seems they were his godchildren, baptised as part of an earlier treaty.
It is said that Hæstan was so overwhelmed with Alfred’s generosity and good will that he swore an oath never to attack England again.
The Battle of Benfleet heralded a period of relative stability for almost a century. Without the constant fears of Danish invasions, Alfred’s grandson eventually saw Alfred’s dream fulfilled. England became England and not Daneland.
A church was consecrated near the site of the battle in thanksgiving for the victory. It was good of Alfred to think of this, it meant my brother had a handy place down the road to get married.
But what about Uhtred – son of Uhtred – was he really there at the battle?
Well, there really was an Uhtred, called ‘The Bold’, who was ealdorman of Bamburgh on the Northumbrian coast, but he wasn’t born until a hundred years after Beamfleot.
So, is the televised version the real history? Not quite. But like all great historical fiction, it brings the past to vivid life, and makes our hearts race for these long ago people, turning their stories into epic adventure.
And even Benfleet becomes thrilling, if only for an hour.
Destiny, as they say, is all.
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