The Battle of Maldon – where was it?

Today is the one thousand and twenty ninth anniversary of the Battle of Maldon – or was it yesterday? Or two years later, or three years earlier; the sources differ. One thing is certain, we know where it took place. Or do we?

Everyone knows that the Vikings landed at Northey Island, not far from the town of Maldon, and the Battle was fought at the landward end of the causeway, when Ealdorman Byrhtnoth foolishly allowed the enemy to cross and was killed in the ensuing battle.

I wrote about the battle a month ago as part of the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop and it was as a result of that post that I received an enigmatic tweet that led me to a completely different theory.

Surely it is obvious, the Northey Island location fits the facts – if the Battle of Maldon poem can be called fact. But does it? I was shocked to learn that it was only in 1925 that this site was decided upon. Is it coincidence that the site identified was open, visible and easy to view. The National Trust put up a sign and the site was protected. It even appears on maps.

Northey Island Plaque (from National Trust website)

What is the evidence? Archaeological field walks have taken place on and around Northey Island. Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval material has been found but nothing Saxon, and definitely no signs of Vikings. Did ninety three Viking ships arrive, full of warriors, hang around for a few days then fight a major battle – all without leaving a single coin or belt end, or trace of a hearth?

Also, when you think about it, the site doesn’t make sense. Vikings are known for sailing up rivers, as close to their destination, then hitting hard and fast before leaving. Why hang around in the middle of the river, giving time for defenders to arrive, then fighting their way ashore, still some distance from their objective; the mint located in the Burh at Maldon, built by King Edward the Elder in 912?

Even before the 1925 decision, historians had offered different locations, why were they never considered? In this situation local knowledge is helpful and knowledge that included research into the topography of the area at the time of the battle is vital.

The river has changed a lot over time, sea levels were lower and at one time the River Blackwater was navigable as far as Heybridge, where an old church, probably Saxon in origin overlooked a marsh. The road that runs from Heybridge to Maldon through this marsh has long been known as “The Causeway” and regularly flooded. There is also a bridge, which is mentioned in the poem. Wouldn’t this have been the logical place for the Viking to land? It fits the details given in the poem better than Northey

The clinching point for me is the archaeological evidence, sadly lacking at Northey. In the 1960s, work in the vicinity of The Causeway brought to light a collection of swords and what might have been shield bosses. Unwilling to experience delays, the objects were reburied, except for one sword.

This later found its way into the collection of the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon and has been identified as Viking and dating to the late tenth century.

Viking Sword found near Herbridge, Essex.
Picture by permission of Stephen P. Nunn on behalf Maldon CMSM

As far as I’m concerned, the presence of a viking sword of the correct era is surely a clue that something happened in this area at the time, and that event must have been the Battle of Maldon.

Why are the National Trust and English Heritage so unwilling to investigate this alternate theory? Is it because it is easier to put up a sign and say “Job Done”?

All I can say is  the next time that I visit the statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon, I will look up at him, gazing resolutely downriver towards Northey Island and whisper “They’re behind you!”


Thanks to Stephen P Nunn  expert on all things Maldonian for the info included in this post and permission to use of the picture of the sword.

For more information about this theory see this difficult to find page of the official Battle of Maldon website.
And for pictures and maps see this pdf from the Battlefields Trust.

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria – Part 2

The second full day was more holiday than research trip. A long drive round the area in which I demonstrated my map reading skills.

We visited Cragside, a National Trust property. I won’t say too much about it. This is an Anglo-Saxon blog and Cragside is (very) Victorian. It was built by industrialist Lord Armstrong and was the first house to be lit by electricity. If you are interested in hydraulics, bridges and large Victorian paintings of dead animals, it is worth a visit.

Cragside and bridge

Cragside and bridge

On the way back, we stopped at Warkworth Castle which belongs to English Heritage. There was a “Fighting Knights” event on, so this magnificent medieval castle was packed with children. We arrived as the fighting finished, so it soon quietened down. I was attracted to the swords (wrong era I know, but a sword is still better than Victorian lampshades.) and had a chat with the knights. Turned out they had travelled up from Warwick and Kenilworth – practically next door.


Warkworth Castle, entrance

Warkworth Castle, Bailey

Warkworth Castle, after the battle.

Another long day, but I was looking forward to tomorrow.

On my list of places to visit was Yeavering, or Ad Gefrin as it was known. This was the site of King Edwin’s Palace in the 7th Century. Yes, I know there is nothing to see nowadays, but I wanted to use the location in my book.

I had sold it to my husband as an interesting location for a walk and again we found a route online. It included another section of St Cuthbert’s Way (see my last post). We like to have a theme to a holiday!

The route started in the village of Kirknewton, climbed Yeavering Bell and returned via the Ad Gefrin site. Although I was looking forward to it, I was bit apprehensive. I am not the fittest of walkers and the hill, topped by a hillfort, was high. I looked at the map and found a short cut back “just in case.”

I am glad to say that I didn’t need it. The ascent was gradual, the weather was beautiful and the views were stupendous. In fact the worse bit was coming down, straight down what seemed the steepest slope.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

"Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track." Not even reached the short cut yet!

“Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track.” Not even reached the short cut yet!

"Do you think it's that peak straight ahead?"

“Do you think it’s that peak straight ahead?”

Yeavering Bell mean s "Goat Hill". Must be the right place. That's the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Yeavering Bell means “Goat Hill”. Must be the right place. And that’s the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots.

View North. Not far to Scotland.

View North. Can you see the Scottish border?

Ad Gefrin can't be seen from the summit. View from a few yards down.

Ad Gefrin can’t be seen from the summit. This view is from a few yards down.

And here is a close up if you can't pick it out.

And here is a close up if you can’t pick it out.

The way down. Just follow the signs

The way down. Just follow the signs – is that one in the distance?

As I mentioned in my last post, for the purposes of my research I wanted bad weather. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much though.

I did try to imagine it. When we walked though a small stream, we discussed whether it would be frozen when Byrhtnoth came this way, or just a bit of ice along the edges. Would it be snowing or raining? Perhaps a bit of sleet? Well, it helped to pass the time.
You will have to read the book to find out what happens – but first I’ve got to write it. One thing I do know – Byrhtnoth would have made it up a bit quicker than me!

We reached the bottom of the hill at last, legs quivering, and visited the site of Ad Gefrin. As expected, there was nothing to see but a grassy field and a lot of sheep. I tried to imagine the great mead hall and the “theatre”. The place in the river Glen where Paulinus spent 36 days baptising new converts to Christianity.

Site of King Edwin's palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Site of King Edwin’s palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Yes, but… That was in the seventh century. The palace was burnt down not long after and the site abandoned. It will be three hundred years later that Byrhtnoth visits. It would probably look much like it does today. Would there even be any memory of it? Something to think about.

We finished the day with a cream tea in Wooler in a cafe called “ramblers” – very appropriate.

The next morning we had to leave. Would you believe that the weather was grey and misty? All the way down the A1 and M1 we never saw the sun, plenty of fog and rain. If only it had arrived a few days earlier – or perhaps not.

On my Kindle during this trip I was reading (not that I had much time to read, but I have finished it since) The King of the North by Max Adams. It added greatly to the trip and I learned a lot.

This weekend I am of to the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford.
Say hello if you see me, and you might appear in next week’s post.

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell