Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Battle of Maldon

View across to Northey Island from the south bank of the Blackwater at low tide with the causeway uncovered (author's photograph, August 1991).

The Battle of Maldon took place on 10 August 991 near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex, England, during the reign of Aethelred the Unready. Earl Byrhtnoth and his thegns led the English against a Viking invasion, which ended in defeat. After the battle Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and the aldermen of the south-western provinces advised King Aethelred to buy off the Vikings rather than continue the armed struggle. The result was a payment of 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver, the first example of Danegeld in England.
An account of the battle, embellished with many speeches attributed to the warriors and with other details, is related in an Old English poem which is usually named The Battle of Maldon. A modern embroidery created for the millennium celebration in 1991 and, in part, depicting the battle can be seen at the Maeldune Centre in Maldon.
One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said a Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason, led the Viking forces, estimated to have been between 2,000 and 4,000 fighting men. A source from the 12th century, Liber Eliensis, written by the monks at Ely, suggests that Byrhtnoth had only a few men to command: "he was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy". Not all sources indicate such a disparity in numbers

The poem The Battle of Maldon
'The Battle of Maldon' is the name conventionally given to an outstanding 325-line fragment of Old English poetry. Linguistic study has led to the conjecture that initially the complete poem was transmitted orally, then in a lost manuscript in the East Saxon dialect and now survives as a fragment in the West Saxon form, possibly that of a scribe active at the Monastery of Worcester late in the 11th century. [1] Fortuitously this was early attached to a very notable manuscript, Asser's Life of King Alfred, which undoubtedly assisted its survival. The manuscript, by now detached, was burned in the Cotton library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. John Elphinstone had transcribed the 325 lines of the poem in 1724, but the front and back pages were already missing from the manuscript (possibly around 50 lines each): an earlier catalog described it as fragmentum capite et calce mutilatum ("mutilated at head and heel"). As a result, vital clues about the purpose of the poem and perhaps its date have been lost.
At the time of battle, English royal policy of responding to Viking incursions was split. Some favoured paying off the Viking invaders with land and wealth, while others favoured fighting to the last man. Recent scholarship suggests that Byrhtnoth held this latter attitude, hence his moving speeches of patriotism in the poem.
The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater (then called the Panta), and Byrhtnoth called out his levy. The poem begins with him ordering his men to stand and how to hold weapons. His men, except for his household guard, were peasants and householders from the area. He ordered them to "send steed away and stride forwards": they arrived on horses but fought on foot. The Vikings sailed up to a small island in the river. At ebb, the river leaves a land bridge from this island to the shore; the description seems to have matched the Northey Island causeway at that time. This would place the site of the battle about two miles southeast of Maldon. Olaf addressed the Saxons, promising to sail away if he was paid with gold and armour from the lord. Byrhtnoth refused.
Olaf's forces could not make headway against the troops guarding the small land bridge, and he asked Byrhtnoth to allow his warriors onto the shore. Byrhtnoth, for his ofermōde (line 89b), let all the Vikings cross to the mainland. The Vikings overcame the Saxons after losing many men, killing Byrhtnoth. A Englishman called Godrīc fled riding Byrhtnoth's horse. Godrīc's brothers Godwine and Godwīg followed him. Then many English fled, recognizing the horse and thinking that its rider was Byrhtnoth fleeing. After the battle Byrhtnoth's body was found with its head missing, but his gold-hilted sword was still with his body.
There is some discussion about the meaning of "ofermōd." Although literally meaning "over-heart" or "having too much heart", it could mean either "pride" or "excess of courage" (cf. Swedish övermod or German Übermut, which mean both "hubris" and "recklessness"). One argument is that the poem was written to celebrate Byrhtnoth's actions and goad others into heroic action, and Byrhtnoth's action stands proudly in a long tradition of heroic literature. Another viewpoint, most notably held by J.R.R. Tolkien, is that the poem is an elegy on a terrible loss and that the monastic author pinpoints the cause of the defeat in the commander's sin of pride, a viewpoint bolstered by the fact that ofermōd is, in every other attested instance, used to describe Satan's pride.[2] There is a memorial window, representing Byrhtnoth's dying prayer, in St Mary's church at Maldon.
Norse invaders and Norse raiders differed in purpose. The forces engaged by the English were raiding, or (in Old Norse) "í víking", to gather loot, rather than to occupy land for settlement. Therefore, if Byrhtnoth's forces had kept the Vikings off by guarding the causeway or by paying them off, Olaf would likely have sailed farther up the river or along the coast, and raided elsewhere. As a man with troops and weapons, it might be that Byrhtnoth had to allow the Vikings ashore to protect others. The poem may, therefore, represent the work of what has been termed the "monastic party" in Ethelred's court, which advocated a military response, rather than tribute, to all Norse attacks.

A statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon
The main source of our knowledge of the Battle of Maldon is the independently preserved Old English heroic battle-poem, which appears to have been composed not long after the event. Its beginning and ending are lost, but the poem provides a detailed account of the battle from the English point of view. Its pace and vividness suggests that the poem might have been intended to accompany a tapestry depicting the deeds of Byrhtnoð. According to the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis, Byrhtnoð's wife, Ælflæd, bequeathed such a tapestry to Ely.
The poem as we have it begins with Byrhtnoð deploying his troops along the riverbank. Across the causeway the Viking herald then calls out the Danes' demands for tribute [ll.29-41]. The width of the river here is now beyond shouting distance, but geological research has shown that in 991 the river was narrower, with meadows along the banks where today there are salt-marshes (G.& S.Petty, "A Geological Reconstruction of the Site of the Battle of Maldon", The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, ed. J.Cooper [Hambledon 1993], pp.159-170).

Waving his ash-shafted spear, Byrhtnoð turns the herald's words around and hurls them back at him:

“Gehyrst þu sæliða, hwæt þis folc segeð?
“Hearest thou, seafarer, what this folk sayeth?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
They will to you [a] tribute of spears give,
ættrynne ord, ond ealde swurd,
deadly points, & time-tested swords,
þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah..."
such war-gear that you in battle [will] not profit from…." [ll.45-48].
Byrhtnoð's famous reply [ll.45-61] strikes what has come to be regarded as a characteristic note of English national defiance against foreign invaders, one that has sounded several times throughout our island history.
The battle would have begun then and there but by now the rising tide made it impossible for the combatants to engage [ll.62-64] except for those armed with bows [ll.70-71]. The poem refers to the effect of the intervening flood-tide between the two armies as lucon lagustreamas, 'locking tidal-streams' [l.66a]. This phrase provides a strikingly succinct description of the way that the waters still close over the causeway. The incoming tide of the Blackwater estuary is separated into two tidal streams by the north eastern edge of Northey Island, which then meet again on its south-western side exactly over the causeway.
When the tide ebbs enough to permit a crossing, the poem refers to the Vikings "yearning for battle" [ll.72-72]. Yet still they are frustrated, for they can only advance along the narrow causeway on which Byrhtnoð has stationed a "war-hardened warrior" named Wulfstan and two companions [ll. 74-83]. Like the Horatius on the bridge, Wulfstan stoutly blocks the causeway. The tactical stalemate is then resolved through negotiations, during which the Danes are said be guileful [l.86], which culminate in Byrhtnoð agreeing to allow the Vikings passage over the causeway for his ofermod, "because of his over-confidence" [l.89b]. Armchair generals have often been critical of Byrhtnoð's decision here, but they overlook his need to bring the dangerously mobile Danish fleet-army to battle while he had the chance, rather than allowing them to continue strike at will along the east coast.
Nevertheless, it was a fateful decision, emphasised in the poem by the dramatic advance of the Viking "slaughter-wolves" [l.96a] across the causeway as the hungry ravens wheel overhead [l.106]. Once the Danes are across, the battle begins. There is a blow-by-blow account of the fall of Byrhtnoð himself [ll.130-184], which precipitates the flight of some of the English army. The poem concludes by immortalising the heroic last stand of several named Englishmen who refuse to yield, even though all seems lost. Fighting over the body of their fallen lord, their supreme courage is realised through the words of Byrhtnoð's old comrade Byrhtwold:

"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
"Thought shall be harder, heart keener,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.... "
mood shall be more [resolved], as our main [strength] lessens! ..." [ll.312-313].
The poem concludes on so heroic a note that what is in fact a military defeat is turned into a kind of moral victory.
After the battle the Danes probably carried off Byrhtnoð's head as a battle-trophy, but his body was recovered by the monks of Ely and buried in their great abbey.
Byrhtnoð's last resting place in Bishop West's Chapel and the east end of Ely Cathedral
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Battle of Maldon, the first major defeat of an English army for generations, was the beginning of the end for line of Alfred. Further defeats ensued, including the battles of Ringmere near Thetford. This phase of Anglo-Danish warfare eventually culminated in the kingdom-winning victory of Sweyn's son Cnut at the battle of Assandun in 1016.

Further Reading
Cooper, Janet (ed.), The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (Hambledon 1991)
Hart, Cyril, The Danelaw (Hambledon 1992), pp.533-551
Scragg, Donald (ed.), The Battle of Maldon AD991 (Blackwell 1991)
Other sources
The death of Byrhtnoth, an ealdorman of Essex, was recorded in four versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Its Cotton Tiberius manuscript says for the year 991:-

Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, ⁊ æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune. ⁊ on þam geare man gerædde þæt man geald ærest gafol Deniscum mannum for þam myclan brogan þe hi worhton be þam særiman, þæt wæs ærest .x. þusend punda. Þæne ræd gerædde ærest Syric arcebisceop.

Here Ipswich was raided. Very soon after that, ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon. And on that year it was decided to pay tax to Danes for the great terror which they made by the sea coast; that first [payment] was 10,000 pounds. Archbishop Sigerīc decided first on the matter. The Life of Oswald, written in Ramsey, England around the same time as the battle, portrays Byrhtnoth as a nearly supernatural, prophetic figure.

In 1170, the Book of Ely retold and embroidered the story and made the battle two fights, with the second being a fortnight long against overwhelming odds. These texts show, to some degree, the growth of a local hero cultus.
Manuscript sources
In the Cotton library, the "Battle of Maldon" text had been in Otho A xii. The Elphinstone transcription is in the British Library.

In modern fiction
The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son is the title of a work by J. R. R. Tolkien that was originally published in 1953 in volume 6 of the scholarly journal Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association. It is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the Old English Maldon fragment. It is written in the form of an alliterative poem, but is also a play, being mainly a dialogue between two characters in the aftermath of The Battle of Maldon. The work was accompanied by two essays, also by Tolkien, one before and one after the main work. K.V. Johansen's short story "Anno Domini Nine Hundred and Ninety-One", in the collection The Storyteller and Other Tales is a retelling of the Battle of Maldon. In one episode of the science fiction novel Perelandra by C. S. Lewis, the protagonist (a philologist from Cambridge transported to the planet Venus) recites "The Battle of Maldon" in order to keep up his courage while wandering dark tunnels deep under the alien planet's surface. The Swedish bestselling historical novel "The Long Ships" ("Red Orm") includes a long fictionalised account of the Battle of Maldon, described from the Scandinavian side. In David Drake's short story As Our Strength Lessens in Keith Laumer's Bolo series, a sentient tank named after the battle of Maldon discusses the battle with a human officer. They consider whether Byrhtnoth and his men acted nobly or failed in their mission to protect the land and people from the Viking invaders.
The United Kingdom black metal band Winterfylleth has two songs in their album The Ghost of Heritage (2008) that remembers Maldon Battle (track 2: The March to Maldon (03:46) and track 3: Brithnoth: The Battle of Maldon (991 AD)) The Norwegian / German symphonic metal band Leaves' Eyes have a song called The Battle of Maldon on their 2009 EP, My Destiny.

1. E.V.Gordon, The Battle of Maldon (London, 1968) p 38
2. Tolkien's Heroic Criticism: A Developing Application Of Anglo- Saxon Ofermod To The Monsters Of Modernity. 2003. Rorabeck, Robert. Thesis, Florida State University.
Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems tr. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Dent, 1982 (translation into English prose).


  1. Excellent article, thanks. The Battle of Maldon is also seen as an influence in Tolkien's work "Lord of the Rings", especially in regard to the scene in the Caves of Moria when Gandalf challenges the Balrog. In fact, Alexander M. Bruce wrote a very interesting article for the journal, "Mythlore" in 2007, where he discusses this hypothesis.
    Maldon and Moria: on Byrhtnoth, Gandalf, and heroism in The Lord of the Rings

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