The Battle of Maldon

Northey Island
terry joyce / Northey Island / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Battle of Maldon was on or about 10th or 11th August 991 AD. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of East Anglia was defeated by invading Vikings and a commemorative poem was written soon after. Intriguingly, in describing Byrhtnoth´s actions it has raised the question: did he lose due to pride or was he being pragmatic?

The Vikings had sailed their longships up the River Pante (now Blackwater) and beached them on Northey Island separated from the mainland by high tide. Byrhtnoth raised the English fyrd, or levy, and went to meet them and ultimately died. The poem portrays nobility in defeat, and the men as glorious and honourable at a time when the army was generally demoralised by the ongoing Viking invasions. This year was also the year when the Danegeld was first paid to persuade the raiders to attack elsewhere:

“AD. 991. In this year the Danes, under the command of Justin and Guthmund, the son of Stercan, laid waste Ipswich. Byrhtnoth, the bold ealdorman of the West Saxons, shortly afterwards fought a battle against them near Maldon; but, after great slaughter on both sides, the ealdorman fell, so the Danish fortune prevailed. Moreover in this year, first of all, and that by the advice of Siric, archbishop of Canterbury, and the ealdormen Aethelward and Alfric, a tribute of ten thousand pounds was paid to the Danes, as the price of their cessation from the frequent plunderings, burnings, and slaughters, which they used to make on the sea coast, and their concluding a lasting peace.”

Initially the Vikings and the English could not reach one another across the water. As the tide went out, a narrow causeway was exposed. The Vikings began to come across in narrow file but the English were easily able to prevent them. It was at this point that the Vikings asked Byrhtnoth to allow them to cross, which he agreed to do and after they had all reached the mainland the fighting began.

Byrhtnoth’s decision was described in the poem as “ofermod” or “pride” but realistically if the Vikings had turned around and sailed away they could have ravaged the coast further north with impunity. This is why Byrhtnoth’s decision is a matter for some lively debate.

After the battle, Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely and buried in the abbey. His widow, Athelflaed, presented the abbey with estates, a golden torque and “a hanging woven upon and embroidered with the deeds of her husband in memory of his probity.” This hanging was probably similar in concept to the later Bayeux Tapestry but has unfortunately been lost.

Byrhtnoth is mentioned a number of times in the Liber Eliensis (History of the Isle of Ely) as a generous benefactor. Book II.62 describes him in detail as an

“outstanding and famous man whose righteous life and deeds English histories commend with no small praises”.

It goes on to say:

“This most notable man was indeed a very valiant leader of the Northumbrians [sic] who, on account of the marvellous wisdom and physical fortitude with which he manfully defended himself and his people, was given by everyone the title of Ealdorman, in the English language, that is “elder” or “leader”. He was fluent in speech, robust in strength, of huge physical stature, indefatigable in soldiering and warfare against the enemies of the kingdom, and courageous beyond all measure, being without respect for, or fear of, death.”

He is also remembered as a protector and benefactor of the church. It goes on, rather at odds with the poem:

“As long as he lived, moreover, he devoted his life to defending the freedom of his native land, so totally committed to this desire that he would rather die than tolerate an unavenged injury to his country. At that time, indeed, frequent raids were being made by the Danes upon England, and they wreaked serious devastation upon it, arriving as they did in various places by ship. And all the foremost men of the provinces loyally bound themselves to Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, as to an invincible protector, because of his great worth and reliability, so that under his protection they might defend themselves against the enemy nation more confidently.

Accordingly, on one occasion, when the Danes had come ashore at Maldon, on hearing report of this, he confronted them with an armed force and slaughtered nearly all of them on a causeway above the water, It was only with difficulty that a few of them escaped and sailed to their own country to tell the tale.”

According to the Liber Eliensis, the Danes later returned to seek revenge on Byrhtnoth, who again came to meet them and fought them for fourteen days.

“On the last of days, few of his men being still alive, Byrhtnoth realised that he was going to die. He was not fighting any the less energetically against the enemy, but in the end, after he had inflicted great slaughter on his adversaries and almost put them to flight, they were encouraged by the small number of Byrhtnoth´s supporters, made a wedge-formation, and, grouping together, rushed with one resolve upon him and with a great effort, only just successful, cut off his head as he fought. They took it with them, fleeing from the place to their native land. But the abbot, on hearing the outcome of the fighting, went with some monks to the battle-ground and found Byrhtnoth´s body. He brought it back t the church and buried it with honour. And in place of the head he put a round lump of wax.”

Byrhtnoth was indeed buried at the abbey as one of the Seven Confessors of Christ, the other six being bishops, and all benefactors of Ely. The remains of all these men were reburied in the mid-12th century in the Norman church, and again moved in the 14th century following the collapse of the central tower. The shrines were lost during the Reformation but rediscovered in 1769. The bodies were examined and it was claimed that Byrhtnoth’s bones showed that he stood at 6´ 9” (2.06 m); he was headless. Elsewhere Byrhtnoth was described as very tall, and by the time of the battle, quite mature in years. He was first made Ealdorman in 956 AD.

The original manuscript of the poem was lost in the fire at Ashburnham House (see 23rd October) which destroyed so many Old English manuscripts in the Cotton collection. However, a copy of the text had been made a few years before and so we have most of the poem (the beginning and end are both missing) in transcription.

The poem names many of the English warriors and at least some of these have been traced in other documentation from the period. They would have been known to the poem´s audience. Although the Vikings are not named, it is probable they were led by Olaf Tryggvason. Manuscript A of the Chronicle is specific about Olaf:

“Here in this year Olaf came with 93 ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter.”

In the poem Byrhtnoth is a generous and war-hardy leader with a noble and loyal warband. They have all made vows to their lord and these are described in the poem. After his death “they all intended to do one of two things, to lose their lives or to avenge their friend”.

The ideal of devotion described, somewhat nostalgically and even ironically in the time of Athelred Unrede, was that of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus in his “Germania” of the 1st century AD. Nine hundred years later it was still seen as the honourable and proper way for nobles to behave – in theory if not always in practice. Such ideals were seen as sadly lacking in the reign of the unfortunate Athelred. However, while Byrhtnoth determines to keep his oath to his king, his men are only motivated by loyalty to Byrhtnoth himself and not to the wider nation.

Some of the most well-known lines are those declaimed at the end of the poem by the elderly retainer, Byrhtwold:

Byrhtwold mathelode     bord hafenode

(se waes eald geneat),     aesc acwehte;

he ful baldlice     beornas laerde:

“Hige sceal the heardra,     heorte the cenre,

mod sceal the mare,     the ure maegen lytlath.

Her lith ure ealdor     eall forheawen,

god on greote.     A maeg gnornian

se the nu fram this wigplegan     wendan thenceth.

Ic eom frod feores;     fram ic ne wille,

ac ic me be healfe     minum hlaforde,

be swa leofan men,     licgan thence.”

“Byrhtwold spoke, raised his shield –
he was an old retainer – shook his ash-spear;
full boldly he taught warriors:
“Resolve must be the harder, heart the keener,
determination the greater, although our might lessens.
Here lies our lord all cut down,
a good man on the ground. May he always mourn
who from this war-play thinks now to make way.
I am old: I do not wish to go from here;
but I myself beside my lord,
by so beloved a man, think to lie.””

Listen to Byrhtnoth’s Challenge to the Vikings also from the poem.