by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF
In the year 2000, the publishing house, Tempus released a book by the geologist Jill Eddison titled – Romney Marsh – Survival on a Frontier.
The book contained, in chapter 4, a description of an attack in the year 892 AD in the Marsh area, by a large Viking fleet. These Vikings procured between 230 and 280 ships from Boulogne, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says. They sailed up an estuary in the Romney Marsh area and raided ‘a half-built fortress’, containing, ‘a few peasants’.
In her book, Jill Eddison makes a strange statement. She says, ‘It only remains very difficult to identify any possible credible location for the half-built fort.‘ This article explains that the only credible location for this fort is Castle Toll.
It is a mystery why Jill, a scientist living in the Marsh area as the Secretary of the Romney Marsh Research Group, did not know of its existence in the year 2000. It had already been listed as ancient monument and excavated as far back as 1971 and its history specified in detail by Historic England.
A further and far more complex mystery connects Castle Toll to King Alfred who fought the Vikings. Here’s the background to this mystery.
Castle Toll and the Vikings
The River Rother drains a large part of East Sussex and the Kent border. Its headstreams originate as far away as Crowborough and Wadhurst and it now flows into the sea at Rye Harbour. Before the 13th Century’s great storms, the river complex was much larger and the coast we know now was more of an inland sea, called the Limen, with the Brede Valley tributary flooded to Sedlescombe and Whatlington (King Harold’s manor), near Battle, with a long history of trading with early Europe. There was a ferry across the flood at Newenden.
Back before 890 AD, in the middle of the flood, a developing island burh (fortified settlement), now called Castle Toll, stood proud. It was farmed land and a bastion for the Saxons.
In the winter of 892 AD, the horizon darkened as 280 ships of the Viking fleet left Boulogne and sailed to Castle Toll. On board were 5,000 heavily-armed Danish Vikings, led by their chieftain Haesten, who quickly killed the farmers on the island, then moved on to Appledore, (known then as ‘Apuldre’), where they captured the population and settled in their Isle of Oxney encampment for the winter, raiding and plundering the nearby farmers and Anglo-Saxon nobles of booty.
King Alfred spent much of his life fighting the Vikings. He sent his army to Appledore and after some desperate fighting managed to chase the Viking army into Surrey, where they were defeated at the Battle of Farnham in 893 by Edward the Elder, the king’s son, who recovered the stolen goods. The harried remainder fled to Benfleet in Essex and lost another battle in 894. Haesten’s wife and children were captured with the help of Earl Aethelred of Mercia (Alfred’s son-in-law), but it is said they were ‘returned because they had been baptised as Christians’.
Many Vikings perished, and the rest took what ships they could to flee back to Scandinavian ports. From then on, the coast of England was constantly harried by repeated invasions of large Viking fleets including those of the notorious Jomsviking Thorkill Havi (The Tall), father of Edith Swanneshals (Swan Neck). Eventually England became a Viking kingdom under Canute, in 1016 AD.
Yet there is even more to Castle Toll than this. It seems possible, though controversial, that Castle Toll is actually Eorpeburnan, the first Saxon fortified settlement in the long list of Burghal Hidage forts set up by King Alfred. His defensive principle being that each fort would be no more than twenty miles from another, so the local population could flee with their families to a protected encampment and help defend it against the Vikings.
By the mid-10th Century, Rollo and his Vikings had been granted land outside Paris (911 AD), and formed the Dukedom of Normandy. As Viking culture evolved into militaristic Norman Christianity, then Norsemen captured England once more at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. So, in a way England had become a Viking kingdom once again.
The small raised island of rich farming soil at Castle Toll became a real Norman castle then, sitting as it does near the Hexden Channel – ideal for shallow draught shipping to the continent. In 2019 – now in ruins and heavily predated by agriculture, it still consists of a Norman ‘motte and bailey’ but with sparse evidence of former Roman, Saxon and Viking times. Burghal Hidage forts often had the right to strike Saxon coinage, though when the Vikings struck, there was no mint yet formed here.
Much heritage history remains to be discovered at this legally protected and listed ancient monument. It may even have been formed as a raised encampment on the Celtic Regnenses (Regnoi)/Cantiaci tribal border before the Romans arrived in strength at the direction of the Emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.
Those of you who loved to delve into early English history will enjoy reading the many written ‘battles’ as academics try to prove, one way or another, if Castle Toll really is Eorpeburnan. It is said by some, that Kent had its own defensive system and was not part of the Wessex of King Alfred. Certainly, the border between Kent and Sussex once ran down the centre of Pevensey Marshes. Later there are documents which suggest that Sussex was much larger and that what is now part of east Kent is where the county border was. Now in 2019 – the border is further east beyond Rye, so it may well be that Castle Toll was really in Sussex in King Alfred’s time, not Kent for a while, when tribal and administrative border ‘perceptions’ moved back and forth over time. If this could be proved, then Castle Toll probably is Alfred’s Eorpeburnan.
Newenden itself has fascinating history. In 791 AD, King Offa of Mercia gave the Saxon manor of Newenden to the Prior and Monks of Canterbury. Then in 1242, came the Carmelite monks who settled here. Possibly building St Peter’s Church and installing a very old Norman font from elsewhere – and shortly after this may have invented the game of cricket, first mentioned in 1300 AD. In later days there was a two-room Toll Cottage at Newenden opposite the site of the old fortified encampment – hence the current name – Castle Toll. This cottage was knocked down in 1963.
I hope that one day archaeologists can really study the whole of Castle Toll in much greater detail – including the surrounding land which was once the sea. Who knows what might be buried there?!
Heritage at Risk: Castle Toll:
The Eorpeburnan Controversy:
(1) “Normannenfahrt. Nach dem Gemälde von O. Wergeland.”
(2) David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF – the author – copyright 2021
(4) Wikimedia Commons
(5) Slaget fandt sted i 1184. (Christian Blache 1838 – 1920)
(8) By Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13593699