The Battle of Maldon, 11th August 991 AD

When asked to write a post for the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop on Momentous Events, the obvious subject for me was the Battle of Maldon. It was certainly momentous for my character, Byrhtnoth. It was the day he died, or to put it bluntly, the day he was killed. It was not a gentle end, but I like to think, the kind of death he would have wanted.

He would have been in his sixties. He was an Ealdorman, ruling Essex for his king; several kings in fact, for 35 years. The fact that one of these kings, Edgar was known as “The Peaceable” gives some idea of the state of England at that time. By 991 though, Edgar’s son Ethelred, (better known as Ethelred the Unready) was on the throne and the Vikings were getting restless.

After the earlier invasions by the Great Heathen Army in the ninth century, things had calmed down. The invaders had settled in the Eastern part of the country, the Danelaw. In fact Essex lay within that area, but by then most of the population probably thought of themselves as English.

In 980 new attacks started. Perhaps the Scandinavians sensed the country was weak, Ethelred, only two years on the throne, was only twelve. The raids must have been successful and in summer 991 a fleet of over ninety ships raided Folkestone. They were probably led by Olaf Trygvasson, who a few years later became King of Norway. The fleet moved on to raid Sandwich and then up the East coast, where Ipswich was overrun. Finally they arrived at Maldon.

Maldon was an important place, a royal burgh with it’s own mint. It was also in the county of Essex and therefore Byrhtnoth’s responsibility. The Liber Eliensis suggests that the Ealdorman was in the the north at the time, mistakenly naming him as Duke of Northumberland. Nevertheless Byrhtnoth rushed south, like King Harold was to do in 1066, nearly one hundred years later. He spent the night at Ely Abbey, an event that they were to use to demonstrate their generosity long afterwards. Originally he sought hospitality at Ramsey Abbey, but they only offered enough for him and seven of his men. He rejected the offer saying “Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them” and continued to Ely, which fed the whole army and received his grateful thanks.

Memorial for ancient burials at Ely Cathedral – Byrhtnoth is in the right hand niche

On or around 10th August 991, Byrhtnoth arrived in Maldon. The Viking ships were beached at Northey Island, just downriver from Maldon. Protected by mudflats and salt marshes and with the island connected to land by a causeway accessible only at low tide, they were safe from attack, but also unable to escape, except by ship when the causeway was blocked. Byrhtnoth sent away his horses, formed a shieldwall and waited.

Causeway to Northey Island. Picture taken exactly 1,000 years after the battle.

Threats were exchanged; the invaders demanded money to go away. Byrhtnoth rejected the suggestion saying:
Hearest ‘ou, seaman, what this folk sayeth?
Spears shall be all the tribute they send you,
viper-stained spears and the swords of forebears,
such a haul of harness as shall hardly profit you.
Spokesman for scavengers, go speak this back again,
bear your tribe a bitterer tale:
that there stands here ‘mid his men not the meanest of Earls,
pledged to fight in this land’s defence,
the land of Æthelred, my liege lord,
its soil, its folk.

When the causeway opened the Vikings tried to attack. Brave men from the English Army went forward to defend the crossing. The invaders could not cross. Stalemate. What happened next has been argued about by historians for hundreds of years. Why did Byrhtnoth then allow them to cross? Why not let them sail away on their ships?

Was it because he was proud and thought he could defeat them face to face? Some form of British fair play? Or was because he knew he had to destroy them there, or they would move elsewhere, causing more death and destruction?

Whatever the reason, the enemy were allowed to cross and battle was joined. Many men died and eventually Byrhtnoth was killed, but was that the end? No, the fight continued, as Byrhtnoth’s men laid down their lives to avenge their lord, as all great warriors must do.

The Vikings won the fight, but then they left, so I suppose, in the end the victory was Byrhtnoth’s; although he was hacked to death and his head chopped off, taken by the enemy. I wonder what happened to it?

Why is this small indecisive battle, such a momentous event? Because later someone wrote a famous poem about it, The Battle of Maldon. Only 327 lines of the poem survived; the beginning and end are missing. In 1731 the only known manuscript was destroyed by fire, but luckily a transcription had been made a few years earlier.

I don’t suppose the words quoted above were really what Byrhtnoth said at the time (it’s a modern translation anyway). We will never know that, but the poet brings the event to life. Byrhtnoth has time for a lengthy death speech before his head is hacked off. Each of his supporters is named and his lineage given, before making an inspiring speech , then dying; the best know is this:

“Then Byrhtwold spoke, shook ash-spear,
raised shield-board. In the bravest words
this hoar companion handed on the charge:
‘Courage shall grow keener, clearer the will,
The heart fiercer, as our force faileth.
Here our lord lies, levelled in the dust,
The man all marred: he shall mourn to the end
who thinks to wend off from this war-play now.
Though I am white with winters I will not away,
For I think to lodge me alongside my dear one,
Lay me down by my lord’s right hand.’”

When was the poem written? The most likely opinion is that it was written not long after the battle, perhaps commissioned by Byrhtnoth’s wife Aelfflaed. The careful naming and identification of the men involved indicates that it would be heard by their relatives, or friends.

And why was it written? Well, even the payment of ten thousand pounds by King Ethelred; the first time Danegeld was paid since King Alfred’s time (but not the last), was not enough to stop them returning, and later Swegn, King of Denmark invaded. He was killed before he became king, but his son Cnut did, in 1016 Was the poem written to encourage the English defenders, or was it intended to demonstrate to Cnut, how a great leader, and his supporters, should behave?

After the battle Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely Abbey. It is still there, having been moved several times as the building was rebuilt and became a Cathedral. In 1769, during one of these moves, his bones were inspected, and measured. It was calculated that they belonged to a man of 6ft 9in. There was no skull found and “It was observed that the collar-bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle-axe, or two handed sword.”

Modern statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon. He faces towards Northey Island, still defending England from invasion.

If you have enjoyed this post, you can find more by other members of the group on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop page here It has been running during June and July 2020, so why not check out some more “Momentous Events”