The Battle of Maldon is an Old English poem which records a contemporary event. The battle itself was fought in 991 CE on the mainland opposite the island of Northey betweent he English levy and Viking raiders, probably including Olaf Tryggvason. This is close to Maldon in Essex and the island was accessible at low tide by a causeway but isolated at high tide (a bit like Lindisfarne still is today). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the defeat.
The poem deliberately copies the older heroic style of verse such as Beowulf. It is not complete, starting mid-line “…brocen wurde” so the beginning is not known and could affect the theme of the poem. It is often suggested that the battle was lost because of the leader Byrhtnoð’s pride – he allowed the invading Vikings onto the mainland to fight when they were isolated on the island at high tide. However, other interpretations are possible: the poem may be emphasising the effects of disloyalty among his men. It has also been suggested that it was a piece of propaganda against the rule of the king, Æðelred the “Unready”, whose reign suffered badly from Viking raids and the effects of disloyalty and internal fighting.
Furthermore Byrhtnoð was in a difficult postion in real life. If he had refused to allow teh Vikings ashore they could have sailed further along the coast and ravaged areas where there was no levy at all to oppose them.
Leofwin2010‘s version of Battle of Maldon – Byrhtnoth’s Challenge (ll. 42-61)
Byrhtnōð maþelode, bord hafenode,
wand wācne æsc, wordum mǣlde,
yrre and ānræd āġeaf him andsware:
“Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida, hwæt þis folc seġeð?
Hī willað ēow tō gafole gāras syllan
ǣttrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þā hereġeatu þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.
Brimmanna boda, ābēod eft onġēan:
seġe þīnum lēodum miċċle lāþre spell,
þæt hēr stynt unforcūð eorl mid his werode
þe wile ġealgean ēþel þysne,
Æþelrēdes eard ealdres mīnes
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hǣþene æt hilde! Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð
þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum tō scype gangon
unbefohtene, nū ġē þus feor hider
on ūrne eard in becōmon.
Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte sinc ġegangan;
ūs sceal ord and ecg ǣr ġesēman
grim gūðplega ǣr wē gofol syllon.”
Byrhtnoth spoke back, raising up his shield,
waving his slender spear, speaking in words,
angry and resolute, giving them answer:
“Have you heard, sailor, what these people say?
They wish to give you spears as tribute,
the poisonous points and ancient swords,
this tackle of war that will do you no good in battle.
Herald of the brim-men, deliver this again,
say unto your people a more unpleasant report:
here stands with his troops a renowned earl
who wishes to defend this homeland,
the country of Æthelred, my own lord,
and his citizens and territory. The heathens
shall perish in battle. It seems a humiliation
to let you go to your ships with our treasures
unfought—now you have come thus far
into our country. You must not get our gold
so softly. Points and edges must reconcile us first,
a grim war-playing, before we give you any tribute.”