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”

End of the Year Review

A new year – time to look forward. But everyone is looking back. We cannot plan the way forward unless we know where we are coming from.

2018 has been a landmark year for me. There can’t be a much bigger event than publishing your first novel. That was back in January. It seems like a long time ago: the excitement of seeing copies of my book for the first time, practicing my signature for the first signing and that freezing day of the launch. I have learned a lot and done a lot more writing, and rewriting, and editing. I will publish my second book this year, perhaps my third as well. More about all that another time.

For this post I thought about writing about the books I have read in 2018 – put together a top five, or ten. But I couldn’t remember what I read last year. Was that book last year, or the one before? The ones I remember are the ones I have written about here – or planned to write about, but never got around to it.
So I have made a resolution – I will make a list of every book I read in 2019, together with notes and a rating. I hope it will result in more reviews here and elsewhere.

So no top ten books this year. What else can I review? What about this blog? Behind these pages, WordPress provides me with a whole load of statistics. What was my most successful post? Since I am planning on a little light housekeeping, it seems like a good idea to find out what works and what doesn’t.

This blog started on the 9th August 2015, just before the anniversary of the death of Byrhtnoth. This enabled me to introduce my character and write about the Battle of Maldon. I have written 119 posts since then, an average of just under three a month – better than I expected! I have had 5,430 views and my most successful post was on the 25th September a review of King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. It got retweeted by the Dorothy Dunnett Society (@DunnettCentral) which produced 190 views.

But this is a review of 2018. What have been the most popular posts this year?

Coming top, with 98 views is “How do you pronounce that?” Published on 22nd Jan 2018, it is about my problems with finding the correct pronunciation of Byrhtnoth. Not a particularly enthralling subject for the general public. Why has it had so many hits? Is it the title?

Number two is a report on the Historical Novel Society Conference 2018 , with 58 views. I am sure that a mention by the HNS improved the circulation of that post.

Third comes a post from November 2015: The Last Kingdom – Book v Television has had 50 views this year. It is also the second all time favourite. I think it gets noticed whenever the TV program is shown.

Fourth place this year (34 views) goes to “Do you need a Structural Edit?” Something that is of interest to all writers. Giving my current editor a rave review helped to publicise that one.

In joint fifth place, on 27 views each is a post “With Aethelflaed in Tamworth” a report of an event about The Lady of Mercia – talks and books for sale, which was promoted by the organisers (and participants, thank you). With the same number of views came one of a series of five posts about a holiday in Orkney and Shetland. Why was number three more popular than the others?

What have I learned from this exercise? It helps to write about someone or something with a high profile and tell them you have posted. The other is to ask a question. I will have to give this a lot of thought. Of course, I could always ask you, my readers.

What would you like me to write about in 2019?

How do you pronounce that?

My lack of planning has caused me a lot of problems during the writing of my book. One of the most difficult has been the name of my protagonist, which is also the name of this blog, and my Twitter  and Facebook names. It was to be the name of the book – until I discovered a problem.

Nobody knows how to pronounce it – and that includes me!

Why did I pick on Byrhtnoth? Why not any of the other versions of his name? To be honest, I don’t really remember. Perhaps I thought it more “authentic” than the more common Britnoth. More likely, it was easier to grab a unique name for the blog etc.

ANNAL 991 IN MS D OF THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY, COTTON TIBERIUS B.IV, FOL. 33V

There are several different ways of writing the name – here is how it was written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The crossed d is an Old English letter called Eth and is the equivalent of th. Don’t ask me about the other letters!

Byrhtnoth’s Memorial in Ely Chathedral.

 

 

 

In Latin, inscribed on his memorial in Ely Cathedral it is Brithnothus.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a play called The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, describing the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, so we know that he thought it should be written Beorhtnoth.

Britnoth, Byrhtnoth, Beorhtnoth and probably several others. Really, it doesn’t matter how you write it, as long as you know how to pronounce it. That is the problem. Since Britnoth seems to be the usual “modern” spelling, I assumed that was how it should be pronounced. So when anyone looked at my version, tried to read it and ask “How do you pronounce it?” I tell them Brit-noth.

The name itself Byrhtnoth means something like bright courage, so should it be Brite-noth? At least this gave me a new name for the book – Bright something, and since it is about a search for a sword, it became Bright Sword (after checking that there wasn’t another book of that name – surprisingly there wasn’t.) As the book became a series, I can use it for Bright Axe, Bright anything!

While we’re here, have a look at that word “Bright”. If you hadn’t come across it before, probably at school singing “All things Bright and Beautiful” wouldn’t you stumble over how to pronounce it?

Returning to my problem. My book is nearly published – less than a week to go!

Sooner or later, I will be asked to read something from it. Can I get away with a piece that doesn’t mention my protagonist’s name? After all it is written in the first person. No, sooner or later I am going to have to face up to it, I will have to stand up and say “His name is – What?

I have asked people I would have expected to know, they declined to commit. I can find nothing on the internet to tell me.

But wait. The Battle of Maldon is a poem – a famous poem. There must be a recording of someone reading it. There are several.

See here for a reading of Byrhtnoth’s speech. You can compare the Old English words with the modern version and hear the words. “Byrhtnoth” is the first word spoken , so you may have to replay it several times to hear how it is pronounced.

Here, is another, more dramatic rendition, with subtitles so you can follow the words. I find it fascinating that in places the words are so similar, you can almost understand it, the next sentence is incomprehensible.

What conclusion have I come to? I think the correct pronunciation should be something like Birrt-noth. This fits the old versions, but not the modern Britnoth. Why? Is it something to do with the Great Vowell Shift, when there were big changes in the pronunciation of the English language between 1350 and the 1600s and 1700s. See here for more information – I don’t know enough to explain it!

What do I do now? Change my version of his name? Could you, having known someone intimately for five years, suddenly call them something different? Or do I stick with what I know and risk being told I’m wrong?

Please, if anyone knows the correct version, tell me, before it’s too late!

In other news, the cold I started last week didn’t develop into anything serious, but at least it gave me a bit of spare time to write. I managed 5,429 words last week.

I will be blogging more this week, every day, up to publication day – 28th January.

I will start later today with an interview with Byrhtnoth – however you pronounce it!

Fireworks for Byrhtnoth

I have come to a turning point. Well, not a turning point, just a place to stop and take stock of where I am going.

This afternoon, I finished editing Book 2. Not sure which edit it is but I have gone through the first draft, checking for all those words I overuse. One of the worst was “look”. My characters look up, look down, they look at each other, they look at the sky, at the sea and their own hands. Well, they did, but not any more, and you know what? They don’t miss it at all (I did have to put back one or two, You can’t have a whole book without the word “look”.) Other words were Begin and Start, as in “he began to do something” – no he didn’t – he just did it! There are many others – I got rid of as many as possible. Then there were the adverbs – chopped.

When I had done that, I printed out the whole thing, then locked myself away where no-one could hear and read it out loud! The things you discover when you do that! I returned to the computer with my, by now, colourful pages and made the amendments, picking up other errors on the way.

I now have a readable manuscript of just over 91K words – just where I wanted to be. I have turned it into an ebook and sent it off to my Beta readers – yes, I have actually found someone to do that job. I was tempted to write another chapter – there are a few loose ends, but that can wait, for now.

While going through all this, scenes for book 3 have been running through my mind. When the first line appeared, I knew I had to start writing again. I thought about taking part in NaNoWriMo, but didn’t allow myself to start until the editing was finished. It’s too late now, but I would never have managed 50k words in a month. I have too many other things to do.

Bright Sword finally came to the end of its proofread/copyediting and is being printed. It is available for pre-order in all the usual outlets. It even has a review on Good Reads – four stars!

So now I have given a big sigh (another overused word!) and prepare to start writing again.

To celebrate this, and because it’s 5th November, here are some fireworks.

And if you are wondering what fireworks have to do with Byrhtnoth, this picture is from a film was taken on 10th August 1991 – the finale of the thousand-year anniversary of the Battle of Maldon.

(It was supposed to be a video, but apparently it was the wrong format – just hum Ride of the Valkyries and imagine the bangs!)

Or watch on Facebook