On a clear day I stood on the shore of the Blackwater estuary in Essex. Across a tidal causeway was Northey Island, and sheltered in the inner estuary was the town of Maldon. It was here, on the 11th August 991, that Maldon earned its place in history. The Battle of Maldon saw the destruction of the East Anglian fyrd (local levies raised in time of need) and the death of its leader, Earl Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of East Anglia, at the hands of a Viking army. That we know the battle so well is thanks largely to a poem written to commemorate the battle by an anonymous English poet. It tells the emotional and violent story of the battle, and assured Byrhtnoth’s place in history. As a work, The Battle of Maldon is a valuable window into England in the late 10th century, and I will use the text as a vehicle to explore the background of the battle, the course of events, and the aftermath of the loss. I will finish by showing how the beautiful, striking language demonstrates the bond between a lord and his retainers, valour in the face of death, as well as being an elegy for a world that was changing, and ultimately a fitting tribute to Byrhtnoth himself.
This period of history in England is called the Anglo-Saxon period, but I will often use the term Anglo-Scandinavian to talk about the nation, as generations of settlement had resulted in a mixed population by the late 10th century, particularly in East Anglia, Northern Mercia and Northumbria, which had formed the Danelaw settlement of Alfred’s time.
In 991, the unified kingdom of England was barely fifty years old. Alfred the Great had laid the foundations, and his heirs had realized his vision, culminating in King Athelstan’s victory amidst the vast carnage of the Battle of Brunaburh in 937. Crowned King of England, his step-brothers and nephews consolidated the kingdom. However, following a murky and contested succession in 978, Ethelred ascended to the throne. This great-great-grandson of Alfred would achieve notoriety as Ethelred Unraed, ‘the Unready’. The sobriquet translates as ‘ill-counselled’, a contemporary derision of his name, which meant ‘Noble counsel’.
The timing could not have been worse. Viking raids escalated steadily, for England was supremely wealthy, cultured, and possessed a sophisticated civil service, military and tax network. Through Ethelred’s long reign, things went from bad to worse. By a combination of bad judgement, incompetence, bad faith, corruption, treachery and sheer bad luck, Ethelred eventually lost his throne to Danish invaders. But at the time of the Battle of Maldon, he was aged only 25, 13 years into a 35-year reign. A large Viking force had appeared off the coast of Kent and East Anglia; Ealdorman Byrhtnoth raised his fyrd levies, mustered his household guard, and tracked the enemy along the coast. The Viking army disembarked on Northey Island, in Essex. Byrhtnoth and his army approached. His determination was that these raiders would pay in blood for the rapine and slaughter they had unleashed upon the populations of Kent and Essex. Beneath the blazing summer sun, the armies prepared for battle. The Battle of Maldon would prove to be a pivot on which the history of England would turn, but not for the reasons Byrhtnoth would have wished. But we will turn now to the account of the battle; the poem itself.
As a manuscript, The Battle of Maldon survives only thanks to a copy made in the 18th century, as the original was tragically destroyed in a fire. The version we have is also tantalizingly incomplete, lacking approximately the first fifty lines and the last hundred. As such, we lack the anonymous poet’s opening and conclusion, which may have explained much. The author’s skill is self-evident, and the style is ultra-typical of Germanic heroic poetry. It is very self-consciously a recreation of the heroic mode, in keeping with its subject matter. Its praise of the heroic-elegiac warrior culture is matched only by an astonishing level of tactical detail. It is unusual for the phases of a battle to be so minutely described in early medieval sources, which has led historians to suppose that the poet had access to first-hand information, perhaps even being a survivor of the battle. The poet’s masterful control of the metre and rhythm of Old English indicates a trained storyteller. It is my unverifiable belief that the poet was a member of Byrhtnoth’s household, for he shows an intimate knowledge of not only Byrhtnoth, but the soldiers who fought with him.
This brings us to the man at the heart of the drama. Byrhtnoth was 68 when he fell in battle, which was a remarkable age for the 10th century. Kings Alfred, Edward and Athelstan all died on or around their 50th year, so for Byrhtnoth to be hale and hearty enough to lead his men into battle was unusual. He was aged 14 at the time of King Athelstan’s victory at Brunaburh, well old enough to remember it. Byrhtnoth had been Ealdorman for decades: he was related by marriage to a previous king, and his family were old and respected. In the Anglo-Scandinavian England of the 10th century, the Ealdormen were the next rank down from the king, governing large areas of England on the king’s behalf. They all sat on the King’s witan, or ruling council, but Ethelred’s court was becoming truly medieval, steeped in intrigue, plotting and factional division. Ambitious and unscrupulous men like Eadric Streona took advantage of chaotic conditions and a weak king to line their pockets and build empires of influence. By contrast, with his sincere Christian faith and long service, Byrhtnoth appears as a member of the ‘old guard’. He likely longed for the England of his youth: strong, God-fearing, and maintained by the Anglo-Saxon martial code of honour, courage and loyalty. It is arguable that he felt more at home in the shield-wall, amongst men he had known all his life, than in the gossip and intrigue of a foolish court. I am taking a historical liberty, but it is natural to think of Byrhtnoth putting on mail, helm and sword, thinking that an Ealdorman’s proper place was to stand between his people and their enemy, surrounded by men loyal to him and the values he represented.
From his remains and tomb, we know that he was a physically imposing man, well over 6 feet (maybe even as tall as 6’9”) and broad across the shoulders. We know that he was a lifelong defender of religious communities and a generous patron of the Church. His men fought for East Anglia, England and God, and they clearly had a great amount of trust in their lord. Indeed, loyalty to one’s lord was the over-riding virtue in Anglo-Scandinavian society. The lord gave gifts and the follower gave oaths of service. It was a reciprocal relationship that bound all levels of society together, from the lowest ceorl (freeman) all the way to the king.
Ofermod: The Battle
Now we come to the poem’s account of the battle itself. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle infers that the Viking army was led by Anlaf, who is probably synonymous with Olaf Tryggvason. The Vikings demanded tribute, after which they would leave. Byrhtnoth treats this offer with scorn; ‘He grasped his shield and brandished his slender ashen spear, resentful and resolute, he shouted his reply: ‘Can you hear, you pirate, what these people say? They will pay you a tribute of whistling spears, of deadly darts and proven swords!’ Rebuffed by this defiance, the Norsemen try to rush across the tidal causeway, but become easy prey for javelins and arrows. Byrhtnoth sends forward Wulfstan, ‘the bravest of brave kin’, to guard the narrow crossing with two followers and, ‘with his spear he pierced the first seafarer […] nothing could have forced them to take flight’. The Vikings then resort to guile. With their vanguard lying dead in the shallow water, Olaf sends a messenger across the causeway to ask that they be allowed to cross, and engage in a pitched battle.
Byrhtnoth’s next decision proved to be decisive. He chose to allow them across. He sends the fateful message; ‘Now the way is clear for you. Come over to us quickly, warriors to the slaughter. God alone can say who will control the field of battle’. We find here the poet deliberately referencing the words of Beowulf before his fight with Grendel: ‘The Father in his wisdom shall apportion the honours then, the All-holy Lord, to whichever side shall seem to him fit’. Both Byrhtnoth and the poet would have been aware of this poem, and the poet deliberately frames Byrhtnoth in the mode of the legendary monster-slayer. This underlines his embodiment of Byrhtnoth as the personification of the warrior-ideal.
The word for Byrhtnoth’s attitude is the Old English word ofermod, and it has troubled translators for centuries. It is an obscure word, and can be variously translated as ‘pride’ or ‘foolhardiness’, or even ‘stubborness’. My own translation is something like, ‘in the grip of unshakeable willpower’. His decision to allow them across, and thus facilitate defeat, has been heavily criticized by generations of scholars, but there is more than a touch of the armchair general to their analysis. Unlike a 21st-century audience, Byrhtnoth did not know he was going to lose, and a key consideration is often overlooked. As an experienced soldier and earl, he knew how the Vikings fought. If they could not win an easy battle, then they would likely withdraw to their ships, and use their superior mobility to further inflict plunder and misery on undefended communities. Byrhtnoth had this opportunity to destroy their tormentors shield-to-shield, and he took it.
Regardless of his motives, battle was soon joined. At this time, there were no cavalry to speak of, nor were the arts of siege engines and artillery much developed; the battlefield was still primarily the preserve of the infantryman with spear and round shield. The shield-walls form, the javelins and axes flew, and the armies advance; the shields crash together. For a time, the battle rages without a clear winner, and the poet describes a desperate struggle: ‘They sent their spears, hard as files, and darts, ground sharp, flying from their hands. Bow strings were busy, shield parried point, bitter was the battle. Brave men fell on both sides, choking in the dust’. The death of Byrhtnoth’s nephew in the fighting, ‘Was avenged, the Vikings were repaid in kind’. Byrhtnoth shouts encouragement to his warriors, and leads a charge into the heart of the enemy formation. He deflects spear and sword with his shield, his spear pierces many. He pushes forward, shouting encouragement, using his skill and size to hue down Vikings in his path. His men charge with him, believing that victory is within their grasp. But instead, tragedy strikes. ‘One of the seafarers sent a sharp javelin speeding from his hand; it pierced the body of earl Byrhtnoth, Ethelred’s brave thane’. In this moment the English warrior Wulfmaer pulls the spear from his stricken lord, and hurls it back, killing the assailant.
Staggering to his feet, the wounded Byrhtnoth pulls his ornate sword from its broad scabbard, and prepares to defend himself, but it seems destiny has turned against him. A Viking hacks at his arm, and the sword drops to the earth. Surrounded by his foes and mortally wounded, Byrhtnoth offers a last resounding word; he entreats his soul to God, and then, ‘the heathens hewed him down and the two men supporting him; Alfnoth and Wulfmaer fell to the dust, both gave their lives in defence of their lord’.
It is at this junction that elements of the English army flee, and their leaders commit the most heinous offence in the Germanic heroic code; they abandon their lord. The poet tells us that, ‘Godric fled from the battle, forsaking Byrhtnoth. Forgetting how often his lord had given him the gift of a horse, he leaped into the saddle of his own lord’s horse, most unlawfully, and both his brothers […] galloped beside him’. It is telling that the poet uses the image of a generous lord (horses were an expensive commodity) to contrast with a faithless follower, who uses the horse of his own lord to escape. With the wings of the English army collapsing, the shield-wall gives way, and the Vikings close in. The poet contrasts the cowardice of those that ran, with the devotion and love of those that stayed. ‘The brave men hastened eagerly; they all wished, then, for one of two things – to avenge their lord or to leave this world’. The last section of the poem is a stirring account of their magnificent last stand, and many of the warriors are mentioned by name. They form a cordon around Byrhtnoth’s body, and fight until the last of them are cut down. Young and old, veterans and levy alike expend their own lives to honour him. One warrior, Eadward the Tall, ‘Eager and ready, did not stray from the line of battle. He boasted that, he would not shrink so much as a footstep, or seek safety by flight, now that his lord lay dead. He smashed the shield-wall, and attacked the seafarers until he worthily avenged his ring-giver’s death. He sold his life dearly in the storm of battle’. This ferocious onslaught drives the raiders back for a time, but in the end, it is simply a numbers game. One by one the men fall to the bloody earth beside their lord until, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘The Vikings had possession of the place of slaughter’. Night falls. The battle is over.
The Aftermath of Battle & Poem
The battle’s significance was bittersweet. Following the defeat at Maldon, Ethelred and his council became fatally hesitant to engage Viking armies in open battle. It marks the beginning of danegeld on a vast national scale; the infamous policy of paying the raiders to leave. Ten thousand pounds of silver and gold was paid to the Viking army to leave England’s shores and never return, and for a brief period, there was respite. However, to the Vikings, the policy demonstrated one thing; England could not fight them, but was wealthy enough to pay them. In the two decades following Maldon, the situation escalated wildly out of control, as larger and larger payments were given to ward off larger and larger incursions. English and Scandinavian armies, as well as hosts of mercenaries, marched across England’s shires, burning and stealing as they went as the country collapsed into a kind of civil war, and alliances were made and broken as Ethelred desperately tried to control the situation. This chaos culminated, some 25 years after Byrhtnoth’s death, in the complete invasion of the country by Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut.
Poetry as Commentary
Internal and external evidence shows that the poem was composed very soon after the battle, and its ultra-typical style and veneration of the traditional heroic values is obvious. Though hyperbolic, it seems authentic. The theme of loyalty to one’s lord is woven throughout the poem, typified by a warrior who states that, ‘Mind must be the firmer, heart the more fierce, courage the greater, as our strength diminishes. Here lies our leader, hewn down, a heroic man to the dust. […] I will not go from here, but I mean to lie in the dust with the man I loved so dearly’. It says much of Byrhtnoth that he inspired such unwavering loyalty in his men; they would rather be hacked and battered into the sand of the East Saexe shoreline than save their own lives. Amidst such powerful poetic language, it is also easy to forget that these were real people. An aged and senior Ealdorman like Byrhtnoth would have known his household and soldiers for many years. He would know their families, their farms and their lives. They would have served alongside each other in the shield-wall, feasted together, and as Ealdorman, Byrhtnoth would have protected and dispensed justice for the communities under his care. The poet counts on this knowledge on the part of his audience to make the poem’s emotional impact fully felt.
The poem is also an exemplar of a key difference between cultures. Broadly speaking, the Norse thought it fitting to laugh at death. However, for the Anglo-Saxons, the most lauded martial values were loyalty to one’s lord, and stern resolve in the face of death. The poet is at pains to highlight this, and many of his phrases typify the bond between lord and retainer. It has been theorized that this poem’s deliberately heroic style was meant as a stinging rebuke to the confused, politically-charged court of the king and his cronies, who would rather let brave Ealdormen die, and pay raiders to leave, than take to the field themselves. The form of the poem, in the mode of a heroic last stand, allows the poet to demonstrate the martial values in an unalloyed setting, as the heroic defender has no wider strategic or political concerns.
To judge historical events is nearly always difficult, especially when confronted with them through the lens of poetry, but The Battle of Maldon is a unique literary work. It marks the first recorded battle site in English history, and the poet’s skill has created both a stirring, brutal and detailed recreation of the battle, and an elegy for a world that was ending. Within a lifetime, the world of Byrhtnoth would be replaced first by the reign of Cnut, then by the continental court of Edward the Confessor, and finally by the coming of Duke William and the Norman feudal monarchy.
To conclude, the best way to experience the poem is to stand at the causeway at Maldon, and see the longship masts massed across the water, to hear the beat of weapons on shields, and the cries of men doomed to die to protect their families and homes. See Byrhtnoth’s statue, and stare out over the river. The poem’s legacy is so powerful that Byrhtnoth is commemorated as a warrior without peer, a lord for whom his people would willingly die, while his own lord is condemned to be remembered forever as ‘The Unready’.
- The Anglo-Saxon World, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland. There are many fine translations of The Battle of Maldon, but Crossley-Holland’s is my preferred option, for its scope, grandeur, and linguistic force
- Beowulf, A Verse Translation, trans. Michael Alexander. This is one of many excellent translations, and preference depends largely on the reader, but I find the verse translations to more fully convey the force and feeling of the original.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G. N. Garmonsway
- Anglo-Saxon England, by Sir Frank Stenton. This is a cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon scholarship, and is an excellent introduction for anyone looking for a history of the period.
- The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a fictional piece by Tolkien set in the aftermath of the battle, and contains his notes on the original poem.