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.

Thegn in a reasonably priced car.

I recently read an interesting article about Anglo-Saxon swords by Matthew (get your seax out) Harffy. You can read it here.

A patten-welded sword?

A pattern-welded sword?

One of the points made was that a sword could be compared with a modern man (It’s always a man) boasting about his car. I noticed a similar analogy on a recent TV programme about Versailles. I can’t remember what was compared with an expensive sports car – it might have been a piece of lace. This is one of those common comparisons; the size of Wales, a football pitch or a double-decker bus.

It got me thinking. If an expensive, pattern-welded can be compared to a posh car, what about the man who owned it? What is the modern equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon warrior?

I decided that it must be a professional football player. Both have to be young and fit. They have little in the way of brains and their working life is short. I know little about cars (or footballers) but the top flight international/premier league players with the exotic cars (see here for examples) are the top Ealdormen. Their weapon/car is impractical for daily use but stands out from the crowd and costs a lot to buy. Further down the league, those with a modest, but still decent car, would have had an ordinary, cheaper sword or seax. Your ordinary, amateur or local league player would be a spear carrier and drive a second-hand hatchback. I see the men whose chosen weapon was the axe as Rugby players, perhaps driving something off-road. After all, weren’t Land Rover sponsors of the recent Rugby World Cup.

Before I go further down the sporting road (Tennis players as archers?) let’s think about the women (or WAGS). Things haven’t changed much there over the years, they have always been judged by the money their partner earns. This usually means cloths and jewellery. The more riches won by your warrior, the better quality gown you wore. Silk was the ultimate achievement and equates to designer dresses. I’m not sure that high heeled shoes were important to the Anglo-Saxon woman though. Or handbags?

Finally, who held the power in Anglo-Saxon England? The king of course and his relatives. They demonstrate their status by property. An impressive hall/castle to house their retinue, a feast/garden party to feed them. Mead v A cup of tea and cake?

And then there was the church. At that time, usually the only people able to read and write. The great bishops and abbots, building churches and monasteries and advising the king. The ordinary priest or monk would be the equivalent of teachers, writers, artists, vowed to poverty. Their superiors, surely, must be the modern businessmen and politicians.  Ostensibly subject to the same vow of poverty, but dealing in power and large sums of money. The ones not caught fiddling their expenses were turned into saints.

I think I have followed this tread almost to breaking point, but if you have any suggestions, let me know. I might mention the best in a future post.