Battle of Maldon

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Maldon took place in 991 near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex, England, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. The Anglo-Saxons, led by Byrhtnoth and his theigns, fought against a Viking invasion, a battle which ended in utter defeat for the Anglo-Saxons. An account of the battle, embellished with many speeches attributed to the warriors and with other details, is related in an Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name. A modern tapestry depicting the battle can be seen at the Moot House (Town Hall) in Maldon.

The Viking fleet is said in one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been led by a Norwegian, Olaf Trygvasson, though this name may have been interpolated after some of the facts were forgotten. The Viking force is estimated to have been between 2,000 and 4,000 fighting men. A source from the 12th century, Liber Eliensis, written by the monks at Ely, suggests that Byrhtnoth had only a few men to command: "he was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy". Not all sources indicate such a disparity in numbers.

The poem The Battle of Maldon

The Old English poem was written soon after the battle itself, probably by a monastic scribe. Unfortunately, the manuscript was burned in the Cotton fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Although a transcription had been made of 325 lines of the poem, the front and back pages were missing from the manuscript (possibly around 50 lines each). This means that vital clues about the purpose of the poem and perhaps its date have been lost.

At the time of battle, English royal policy of responding to Norse incursions was split. Some favored paying off the Viking invaders with land and wealth, while others favored fighting to the last man. Recent scholarship suggests that Byrhtnoth held this latter attitude, hence his moving speeches of patriotism in the poem.

The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater (then called the Pante), and Byrhtnoth called out his levy. The poem begins with his teaching his men (who, except for his household guard, were peasants and householders from the area) how to stand and how to hold weapons. The Vikings sailed up to a small island in the river. At ebb, the river leaves a land bridge from this island to the shore, the description of which seems to have matched the Northey Island causeway at that time. This would place the site of the battle about two miles southeast of Maldon. Olaf addressed the Saxons, promising to sail away if he was paid with gold and armor from the lord. Byrhtnoth refused.

Olaf's forces could not make headway against the troops guarding the small land bridge, and he asked Byrhtnoth to allow his warriors onto the shore. Byrhtnoth, in a moment of "ofermode," allowed the full complement of Norse onto shore for the battle. The Vikings made short work of the Saxons, killing Byrhtnoth early in the battle, after which many Saxons fled.

There is some discussion about the meaning of "ofermode." Most basically, it means "over heart," and it could mean either "pride" or "excess of courage" (cf. Swedish övermod which means both "hubris" and "recklessness"). One argument is that the poem was written to celebrate Byrhtnoth's actions and goad others into heroic action, and Byrhtnoth's action stands proudly in a long tradition of heroic literature. Another argument is that the poem is an elegy on a terrible loss and that the monastic author pinpoints the cause of the defeat in the commander's sin of pride.

Norse invaders and Norse raiders differed in purpose. The forces engaged by the Anglo-Saxons were raiding, or "vikking." Their goal was to gather loot, rather than to acquire land for settlement. Therefore, had Byrhtnoth's forces kept the Vikings off by guarding the bridge, it is likely that Olaf would have sailed farther up the river or along the coast, and taken another target. As a man with troops and with weapons, it might be that Byrhtnoth had to allow the Vikings ashore to protect others. Also, had the Anglo-Saxons paid off the Vikings, the latter would likely have gone on to other targets. The poem may, therefore, represent the work of what has been termed the "monastic party" in Ethelred's court, which advocated a military response, rather than tribute, to all Norse attacks.


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