10 times Essex played a pivotal role in England’s history

PUBLISHED: 11:06 28 February 2020 | UPDATED: 12:46 28 February 2020

Statue of Byrhtnoth (c) Sam, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Byrhtnoth (c) Sam, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


There are certain moments in our nation’s history when Essex has been at the epicentre, shaping England and its future. Stephen Roberts picks out ten of these moments of time when Essex has made history

1) Maldon (991 AD)

When was war ever gentlemanly? According to the 325 extant lines of the epic Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman Byrhtnoth allowed a Danish force to cross unmolested from Northey Island, via a causeway, to the mainland, in order that the two armies could lay into one another.

The battle, in August 991, would end in an Anglo-Saxon defeat and the death of the ealdorman, who is commemorated with a modern statue in Maldon. The poem, purportedly an eye-witness account of the fighting, commemorates the heroism of the English and their leader, and is, perhaps, an early example of that modern English trait, the veneration of the plucky loser.

The king of the time (Æthelred II, or 'the unready') had to buy off the Danes with 'Danegeld' (a tribute) and was replaced by a Danish king, Sweyn, in 1013.


2) Ashingdon (1016)

The fighting betwixt the English and Danes continued under Æthelred's son and successor, Edmund II (known as Ironside), who'd become king in April 1016, aged 22.

After inconclusive skirmishes, a major battle ensued, in October of that year at Ashingdon, where Edmund faced off against his Danish rival Cnut (or Canute), he of the turning back of the waves fame. At Ashingdon it was Edmund who felt a relentless force bearing down on him, as he was decisively defeated on the ridge between Ashingdon and Canewdon.

It seems that the brave Edmund was undone by a part of his army effectively betraying him by refusing to engage. Although Edmund would retain his kingdom of Wessex, Cnut gained everything else, a partition that was rendered academic by Edmund's sudden death (cause disputed) in the November. Cnut now reigned supreme.


3) Chelmsford (1215)

The origins of modern Chelmsford date from 1199, when it was granted a Royal Charter for a market. In 1215, the year of Magna Carta, Chelmsford became Essex's county town. Why it got the nod, rather than Colchester, is a moot point, although it had been an important thoroughfare since Roman times.

The impressive Shire Hall was constructed by John Johnson over 1789-91, as Chelmsford added the public buildings befitting its county town status.

The Parish Church of St Mary was raised to cathedral status in 1914 when the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford was created, which left the town in the incongruous position of having its cathedral and bishop, yet still being a humble 'town'. This particular anomaly was addressed in 2012 when Chelmsford finally became a city to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.


4) Brentwood (1381)

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was a major outbreak of dissent during the reign of the teenage king, Richard II. There were varied causes, but high taxation during the Hundred Years' War with France figured prominently, with the imposition of an unpopular poll tax proving the catalyst.

Brentwood earned its place in history when John Bampton (or Brampton), a royal official, tried to gather in unpaid taxes in the town. A violent bit of aggro ensued in which three of Bampton's clerks were slain. Bampton himself was more fortunate, escaping the maelstrom to London, where he was able to alert the authorities to this little spot of bother.

Where Brentwood had led, others would follow, and violence spread throughout the south-east. Two of the revolt's leaders, John Ball and Jack Straw, were said to have met in Brentwood, frequenting the town's inns, where no doubt they hatched their plans.


5) Tilbury (1588)

'I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.' So spoke Queen Elizabeth I, on August 8, 1588, as the threat of the Spanish Armada intensified and she sought to put resolve into her soldiery, who might shortly be tasked with repelling the Spanish invasion force.

Tilbury Fort had been constructed during the reign of her father, Henry VIII, and was strengthened at the time of the Armada. It was to Tilbury that Elizabeth came to make her impassioned speech, one of those 'Band of Brothers' utterances of English history.

In the event, neither the strengthening, nor the soldiers, would be needed, as a combination of English ships and inclement weather drove the would-be invaders away. Elizabeth's speech (real or imagined) is now famous for the way in which she pours scorn on those who would dare invade her realm.


6) Canvey (1622)

When we had problems with the sea and land reclamation in mind, it was often the Dutch we approached for advice. The Dutch, after all, had overcome more of these problems than you could shake a dyke at. In 1622, when James I was king, Sir Henry Appleton (who sounds like a Yes Minister civil servant's ancestor) began a scheme to reclaim land for Canvey and effectively 'wall' the island from the Thames.

Earlier attempts had come courtesy of one of Sir Henry's ancestors in the early 14th century. Sir Henry recruited a Dutchman, Joas Croppenburg, as go-between, with some 300 of the latter's countrymen involved in building the defences that reclaimed over 3,500 acres.

The Dutch legacy persists as many of the workers took land in payment and settled on the island, while around one-third of Canvey's road names have Netherland origins. Some of the c1622 defences can still be seen, plus a couple of octagonal 17th century Dutch cottages, one of which is a museum.

Canvey IslandCanvey Island

7) Colchester (1648)

Come 1648, the English Civil War had been raging for half-a-dozen years and King Charles I was a prisoner of Parliament. Opposing armies entered Essex, with the Royalists intent on raising a sufficiently large force to attack London and release the king.

The Royalists, numbering some 4,000, arrived in Colchester first, on June 12, with the enemy arriving a day later. When the Royalists refused to surrender, the Parliamentary army began the siege that would go down in history, with a series of forts or gun platforms built to surround the town.

As the bombardment proceeded conditions deteriorated within and an abortive attempt was made to break out and replenish supplies on July 6. By August 15, food was running short and some Royalists were deserting, but Colchester still held out until August 28, when the Roundheads finally entered the battered town. Around 3,500 were taken prisoner and the Royalist leaders, Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, were both shot at the castle.


8) Hempstead (1705)

He was one of the county's most notorious exports and synonymous with English history. Richard 'Dick' Turpin was the son of an innkeeper and butcher, born in a pub in Hempstead and baptised in the parish in September 1705.

He'd go on to become one of this nation's most infamous outlaws, taking firstly to gangland theft, followed by house breaking, poaching, horse thieving, highway robbery and even murder. To say that his story has been 'romanticised' would be a serious understatement: there was nothing remotely charming about Turpin.

His first foray into criminality seems to have been in the early 1730s, when he became a member of the so-called Essex Gang, which terrorised parts of the county, including Epping Forest. Turpin was masquerading as John Palmer in York, in 1737, when he attracted suspicion and was arrested for horse theft. His execution on two charges occurred in April 1739. He was 33.


9) Harwich (1720s)

Daniel Defoe was an author of repute, and a traveller, who was already in his early 60s when he was gadding around Essex, recording what he saw and experienced, as part of his A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain (published 1724 to 27). Of Harwich, he said it was so well-known and described, that he needed to say little (which didn't stop him saying quite a bit).

The fort, harbour, rivers, local spring water and clay/stone, and a lighthouse on Beacon Hill (Harwich had one of the earliest) are all minutely described, while the local people are business-like, rather than pleasure-seeking, and send two MPs to Parliament. I could have featured other places in Essex that Defoe visited, but I particularly liked what he said about Harwich.

As a port of departure, Harwich is often overlooked by those who arrive, only to leave. Defoe tarried a while and found much to admire. Also author of Robinson Crusoe he died in 1731, aged around 70.


10) Southend (1856)

Although Southend on Sea had made a few faltering steps toward resort status by the end of the 18th century, it was really the arrival of the railways in the 19th that enabled it to complete the job — that and a visit from George IV's queen, Caroline of Brunswick, helping to put the fledgling watering hole on the map.

Southend Central Station opened in March 1856, as the terminus of a London, Tilbury and Southend railway line from Fenchurch Street (it was extended to Shoeburyness in 1884).

Five years later, in October 1889, the Great Eastern Railway line from Liverpool Street into the terminus of Southend Victoria was also opened. These railways transformed Southend into the holiday destination for Londoners, and it remains popular with daytrippers from the capital to this day.



Follow Essex Life on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Latest from the Essex Life