By Stephen P. Nunn

Regular readers of my historical features in the Standard will know how passionately I feel about the fact and fiction surrounding our town’s most famous event – the Battle of Maldon of 991. In particular, I have long been convinced that the officially recognised site of that important Dark Age encounter is just not right. But then Northey Island was only identified as such as late as 1925, some 934 years after the battle took place. The instigator was a professor, and so most academics have accepted his interpretation ever since. Before 1925 local and national historians believed it took place somewhere quite different – in the area between Heybridge church and Maldon’s hill, along the stretch of road that we still call ‘The Causeway’. All of the topographical evidence for that area fits the documentary descriptions – it is the western limit to the then navigable River Blackwater (the Pant); there was a strand (or beach) at Heybridge; The Causeway was tidal; there was a defended bridge (where Fullbridge now stands); distant woodland (at Beeleigh); and a defended fort (or Burh) on the top of the hill, in today’s London Road area. It’s all a far cry from a remote island and the logistical nightmare that the invading Vikings would have created for themselves there. 

Despite all of this, the authorities, not least English Heritage and the National Trust, still refuse to budge and seem desperate to prove the Northey theory. They run battlefield tours of the site, commissioned another academic to confirm the 1925 assessment and have even undertaken field walking surveys to try and find some sort of archaeological evidence. Needless to say those surveys have revealed absolutely nothing. A remarkable find has, however, been made in another location. It turned up many years ago but has, until recently, gone unreported. My friend, Richard Wooldridge, who owns Maldon’s award winning Combined Military Services Museum in Station Road, has acquired a sword for his ever growing collection. It is clearly very old and looks like it has been dug up from somewhere. The experts have now analysed it and have concluded it to be late-10th century Viking. If that wasn’t exciting enough, it is the circumstances of its original discovery that is the game changer. 

It would be wrong of me to go into great detail about this publicly, but let’s just say it was uncovered by some local contractors back in the 1960s. In fact, if the reports are to be believed, the sword was one of a larger number, along with what were described as shield bosses. The owner of the company concerned was allegedly worried about the delay that the discovery might have had on their work and so ordered the cache to be re-buried. So that duly happened, but not before at least one of the swords was removed, only to be sold many years later to Richard. The vendor explained where the sword was found and, guess what, it wasn’t on Northey. Again, it would be wrong of me to reveal the exact position, but suffice to say it supports the Heybridge/Causeway/Fullbridge theory perfectly. I mentioned all of this to the National Trust and English Heritage, but neither seemed interested. This is particularly disappointing from publicly funded bodies, responsible for promoting our heritage in an objective and accurate way. And so Northey continues to be listed as the site of the Battle of Maldon. Even Maldon District Council’s consultants have recently parroted this in their so-called master plan, suggesting that you can walk to Northey to view the site, or even spy it in the distance from their proposed “iconic bridge”. Why do we allow people to do this to our history? Surely we owe it to future generations to provide them with the best interpretation of the past that we possibly can. If you feel as strongly as I do, then why not write to the officials and tell them so. Maybe, just maybe, we can then have the Northey myth finally filed under “fiction”, to allow a different, more measured, story to be told.

If you want to see the sword, it is now on permanent display in the ground floor galley of the Combined Military Services Museum.