Hertford, Hertfordshire

This post is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.

Those of you who have read the previous post will know that in 895 the Vikings built a fortress on the River Lea about 20 miles north of London and that King Alfred arrived and set up camp nearby. King Alfred then rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed in order to block the Viking ships in. The river was indeed obstructed and King Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings then fled. Hertford and Ware are possible locations for these events and here I shall look a little closer at Hertford.

It is worth pointing out at the start that there is a risk of confusion with the two fortifications that were built at Hertford in 912-913 by King Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder. These two fortifications were north and south of the River Lea. However, the first one to be built by Edward the Elder was the northern one and it strikes me as intriguing that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describe it as þa norðran burg, which seems to me to translate as the more northerly burg. This in turn suggests that there was already a burg to the south when King Edward the Elder built his first fortification. It is possible that this could have been one of the fortifications that Alfred had built.

As is also the case with Ware, it is uncertain why the Vikings would have gone to Hertford. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 673 a synod took place at Hertford (Heorotford, or Herutford in Bede’s Latin). Indeed, there is a memorial stone associated with this event in Hertford Castle Gardens. There was also a royal mint here as early as the 920s. Although the mint dates to slightly after the time of Alfred, the record of both a synod and a mint suggests that Hertford was an important place in Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps more important than Ware, and it also indicates that Hertford might have been attractive to the Vikings because of its possessions. However, it is possible that the synod took place at the similarly named Hartford in Cambridgeshire instead.

Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there
Stone in the grounds of Hertford Castle commemorating the synod that may have taken place there

The River Lea divides just north-east of Mill Bridge to form Hertford’s Folly Island. However, the route of the river through Hertford may not have been the same in 895 and this bifurcation may not have been (as has been suggested) where King Alfred divided the river in order to trap the Viking boats. Nonetheless, the bifurcation can be easily observed near the road called Bull Plain. I have seen reference to the course of the river in Roman times lying to the north -west of its current course, although it may have been in its approximate current location in Alfred’s time because a Viking sword was found in modern times when the River Lea was dredged in the centre of Hertford. Although many Viking weapons are found submerged, it is also possible that the sword found its way into water as the river changed its course. I also saw a reference to remains of Viking ships being found near Hertford and Stanstead Abbots, although I have been unable to corroborate this.

The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.
The River Lea dividing near Bull Plain, Hertford.

It was interesting to find on the 1881 Ordnance Survey map an area in Hertford called “Englefield” lying to the east of Bengeo Street and to the north of Warren Park Road. Readers of my book may recall that there was a battle of Englefield near Reading in Berkshire in 871, with the name Englefield probably meaning the land of the Angles. The same map also shows an area called “Daneshill” lying to the south of Warren Park Road, with some nearby land to the north-east being called “Danesbury.” There has also been speculation that the former location of the cricket ground, which used to lie to the east of the pronounced curve of Warren Park Road, could have been a Viking camp. Was there a Viking fortification in this area and did Alfred set up his camp at Englefield? Although we must be cautious of the possibility that antiquarian speculation influenced the place names on the 1881 map, I find the juxtaposition of names potentially referring to Vikings and Anglo-Saxons intriguing. In the absence of definitely-established locations for any Saxon or Viking camps I feel this area must be worth considering. Just a short distance east of these locations lies the 12th century St Leonard’s church. I was told that the current building may have been built on an even older structure that might relate in some way to the Vikings or King Alfred, although I was unable to find any supporting evidence.

St Leonard's church, Hertford
St Leonard’s church, Hertford

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that the northerly fortress built by King Edward the Elder was on the other side of the River Beane to the aforementioned Hertford locations of Englefield, Daneshill and Danesbury. The fortress is described as being between the Mimram, the Beane and the Lea (which doesn’t entirely make sense based on current names and geography).

I would like to extend my thanks to the Salisbury Arms in Hertford for their hospitality.

895 AD. Twenty Miles North of London.

The River Lee

This post is adapted and condensed from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available through Amazon and bookshops. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing the book.

This matter turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. It will therefore be broken down into a few posts. This one is more-or-less introductory, to be followed by posts on Hertford and Ware.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that in 895 some Vikings left Mersea Island in Essex and built a fortress by the River Lea at a point about 20 miles north of London. They were then attacked by garrisons loyal to Alfred, which were in turn beaten back by the Vikings, with some loss of life. We are then told that later that year, at harvest-time, King Alfred himself arrived and camped in the vicinity of the Viking fortification in order to prevent the Vikings from stopping the locals from reaping their corn. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also tell us that after this, but still in the same year, Alfred rode up the River Lea to see where the river could be obstructed in order to block the Viking ships in. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record that the river was indeed obstructed and that Alfred started to build a fortification on either side of the river. The Vikings abandoned their ships because they realised that they were being trapped, and fled overland all the way to Bridgnorth (or possibly nearby Quatford) on the River Severn in what is now Shropshire. We do not know whether the ships were being physically hemmed in or whether they were being immobilised because of some sort of drainage of the river.

a stretch of the original River Lea, just north of Waltham Abbey
The author walking a stretch of the original River Lea, just north of Waltham Abbey (although I think it must have been wider)

The River Lee Navigation (the river is variably called “Lea” or “Lee”, whereas the man-made navigation is always called “Lee”), which runs the whole stretch of our area of interest from Hertford, in Hertfordshire, to London, was cut in 1770. However, before 1770 there were at least four streams, and there may have been as many as seven, so it seems difficult to establish with certainty the course of the River Lea in Alfred’s time. Back then, if the total volume of water was anything like it is today, feeding through different streams and large lakes, the river must have been much wider than the remnants of what today are said to be original course of the Lea.

The Lakes near Fishers Green, north of Waltham Abbey
The Lakes near Fishers Green, north of Waltham Abbey

So, we have four things that it would be nice to locate. The Viking fortification, Alfred’s camp, the point where the river had been obstructed, and Alfred’s pair of incomplete fortifications on the River Lea. Because we cannot be certain about the distance represented by a mile (with Saxon, Roman and modern miles being slightly different) , or how accurate measurement was at the time, I feel that it would be sensible to consider the distance for the Viking fortress of twenty miles north of London as approximate. Twenty miles takes us to somewhere just south of Hertford, and perhaps the stretch of the river near Hoddesdon and Broxbourne. Only slightly further on are the towns of Hertford and Ware and I think these deserve serious consideration because they are approximately twenty miles from London. I shall look at these places more closely in later posts.