|Earl Brithnoth||A Thames Barge||14th cent. Blue Boar Inn|
MALDON – how the town began
MALDON’S strategic position, on high ground at the head of the River Blackwater, must have been exploited by the very earliest settlers. Flint tool evidence of Prehistoric man has been found across the area – clues that suggest that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers knew the estuary long before 4000BC. Later Neolithic peoples were cultivating the land here and operated a primitive sort of fishing industry. Some remains of their activities have been found at the ‘Stumble’, near Osea Island.
The first organised occupation of Maldon’s hill probably began in the early Iron Age, around 700-400BC, when a simple fort was established using the natural geography. At the time of the Roman invasion, in 43AD, the people on the top of the hill would have been members of the region’s Trinovantes tribe. However, they appear to have abandoned their fort at this stage, perhaps even under force as slave chains have been discovered in excavations at Heybridge.
Important evidence has been revealed in what was the ‘civitas’, or Romano-British ‘small town’ of Heybridge. Extensive discoveries were made in the 19th century and during a recent major archaeological dig at Elms Farm. However, Roman material has also been unearthed in Maldon itself – under St. Mary’s church; in the grounds of St. Giles’ Leper Hospital; at St. Peter’s Hospital and in Lodge Road. Together these suggest the presence of buildings – with perhaps even a temple where St. Mary’s now stands? One can imagine mighty war and trade ships, or galleys, rocking alongside an adjacent harbour, where the later (Saxon) ‘Hythe’ would be established. Salt production also took place (as evidenced by the numerous ‘Red Hills’) and there was organised farming activity within aligned field boundaries in the surrounding countryside.
Following the end of the Roman occupation, the settlers again made more use of the place that they then called (from at least 912) ‘Maeldune’ – “the hill marked by a cross”. They developed an organised town plan with buildings fronting present-day High Street, as evidenced in excavations on the old Tesco and Chequers sites (now Iceland and Barclays) as well as others recently re-discovered on the Quests site and in Church Street. These people were the East Saxons and their eventual re-conversion to Christianity had taken place at the hands of their first Bishop – (Saint) Cedd (620-664) of Bradwell fame – in 653. According to Bed’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ (written in 731), as well as St. Peter’s-on-the-Wall, Cedd also built churches “in other places”. One of these may well have been within Roman ruins on the site of St. Mary’s, Maldon.
From 912 Maldon was a well established occupied settlement, albeit within the controlled zone of the so-called ‘Danelaw’, and we even know the names of some of the people – influential moneyers like Abonel, Wulfric, Aelfwine and Toga; warrior-retainers like AElfere, Aelfnoo and Eadwold; and powerful gentry landowners like Byrhtnoth, Engelric, Robert Fitzwymarc and Siward. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (first brought together in the 9th century and continued until the mid-12th) tell us that around the 24th June 912, the King (Edward the Elder, r.899-925) made a visit and camped here with his army whilst a fort was being built at nearby Witham. A good part of the people “who were under the control of the Danish men submitted to him”. He returned on the 24th June 916 and may have constructed a causeway across the marsh between Maldon and Heybridge. He also built a stronghold, or ‘Burh’, in the town, re-using the old fort on the hill – an area now intersected by London Road.
The ‘Burh’ must have been very well constructed, for during the following harvest-time (of 917) a great raiding-army of local Danes and Viking allies besieged it, but it held out until the eventual arrival or reinforcements who put the Danes to flight. The town was not so fortunate on the 10th or 11th August of 991 when an invasion fleet of ninety-three ships, under the command of Olaf Tryggvason (who would later become King of Norway) arrived here, having attacked Folkestone and Sandwich and after plundering Ipswich. The famous Battle of Maldon ensued and the tall and aging local Ealdorman – Byrhtnoth – was decapitated during the attack. The defending army was beaten and Olaf had “possession of the place of slaughter”. The enemy had to be paid off with ten-thousand pounds of ‘Danegeld’. An associated poem, commissioned by Byrhtnoth’s widow, AElflaed, was destroyed in a fire in 1731 but a surviving copy has been re-published and commented on by historians and literary scholars countless times since.
Following the battle, Maldon returned to some semblance of order. St. Mary’s church was endowed to St. Martin-le-Grand, London, by the Saxon Thane and Dean, Ingelric, in 1056 and we know that the town mint (started in about 925) continued to operate right up to (and beyond) the next invasion – this time by the Normans. Following the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066, the inventory that we now call the Domesday Book was compiled (in 1085/86). The Royal Borough of Maldon had a population of about 1000 and appears in ‘Little Domesday’ in seven separate entries under four key land owners – the King (William I, r.1066-1087); Count Eustace of Boulogne; Swein, Sheriff of Essex; and Ranulf Peverel. Amongst other things, mention is made of woodland, of a mill (probably at Beeleigh), the mint and of customary dues to “find a horse” and “build a ship” for the King’s service. Interestingly, 18 of the houses in town were “derelict” – possible evidence of Norman destruction as part of their ‘Blitzkrieg’ type campaign following Hastings.
The town’s earliest known charter dates from 1171. Issued under the seal of King Henry II (r.1154-1189) on the 7th October, it gives important information about the rights granted to the town, as well as details of the boundary and confirms the on-going duty to provide a ship for the monarch “when necessary” as was supplied “in the time of King Henry, my grandfather” (Henry II, r.1100-1135). So the charter is quite clearly a confirmation of a much earlier version that could pre-date 1171 by many years. It nevertheless marks the final foundation stone and the beginning of a new era in Maldon’s development. The years that followed saw the re-construction of the churches, the coming of the monastic movement, the establishment of organised local government, building and high street expansion, increased use of the port, further charters, religious upheaval, the opening of a public water supply, other benefactions, early industry and much more besides. Maldon really is a place that has “gained light, life and colour over the succeeding centuries” and we hope this introduction will encouraged you to visit and explore more of its heritage.
By Kind Permission of Stephen P. Nunn, ©
Maldon, January 2010