Last Updated: 02 October 2018
The plot is straightforward: in early August 991 CE, an Anglo-Saxon army fights a Viking army near Maldon on the Essex coast. The Vikings win and are paid to leave in peace.
In itself, this battle seems insignificant enough. It is not the first time the Anglo-Saxons fight and lose against the Vikings. But this battle is referred to time and again in medieval sources, and an epic poem has a clear message for the Anglo-Saxon leadership. Thus, the Battle of Maldon has become part of a collective memory. Not just as the first full-scale battle of King Æthelred’s reign, but also as a signal of a troubled and complex time period.
Viking Age Relevance
The Anglo-Saxon Political Prelude
The Anglo-Saxon kings finally get to shape England as a country in the tenth century. It is a relatively peaceful time with few Viking attacks. North and south unite after the last Norse king of York is driven out in 954.1 The country prospers as a result of law and church reforms and lucrative trade deals.2,3 But things change toward the end of the century.
In 978 a twelve-year-old boy is crowned the king of England. Æthelred II starts his reign on the wrong foot. William of Malmesbury, though he lives two centuries later, tells us in Gesta Regum Anglorum how Æthelred and his mother are suspected of murdering his half-brother, King Edward ‘the Martyr’.4 The young king’s other problems include a witan, or assembly, divided by political strife, and the lack of a standing army as in king Alfred’s days.5 On the positive side, the numismatic evidence of Æthelred’s reign suggests that the country hardly lacks money.6 Furthermore, instead of maintaining a standing army, a new law makes it possible to assemble a fyrd, or militia, at short notice.5
So, Æthelred has money and means to respond to any Viking attack. He chooses to leave the military command to his loyal ealdorman of East Anglia, Aethelwine.7 Unfortunately, Aethelwine is poorly by the time of the battle at Maldon and Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, is sent in his stead. He dies during battle and Aethelwine dies shortly after in 991/2.5 Then, for political advise, Æthelred goes on to rely on the new bishop of Ramsbury, Sigiric, who will play an important role in the negotiations after the battle.8
The Vikings take advantage of the circumstances in England. Attacks happen throughout the tenth century, but intensify toward the second half of the 980s. From 987, a pattern seems to form in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) of raids moving from west to east: from Watchet, to Devon, to Ipswich (whether via Folkestone and Sandwich), and ultimately to Maldon.8
The Anglo-Saxons seem to have a clear idea where the raiders’ base camps are. In March 991, Æthelred signs a nonaggression pact with Duke Richard I of Normandy. It includes a clause that neither party will harbour each other’s enemy.9,10 For all its diplomatic success, though, the treaty comes a little too late as Ipswich and Maldon are hit just six months later.11
Whereas the earlier attacks might be just bands of hired mercenaries, a significant Viking army is present at Maldon. A clue to its size can be found in the ASC Parker copy:8 ‘Anlaf’ leads the Viking fleet at Maldon and comes with 93 ships.12,13 The general idea is that ‘Anlaf’ must be Olaf Tryggvason, the first Viking to be mentioned by name in the ASC in this wave of raids.8
The Viking Road to Maldon
This Olaf Tryggvason is a highly motivated man. Born in the 960s like Æthelred, he can’t be defined as a pampered prince. Since early childhood he is on the run from his father’s murderers. He roams Europe and raids its coastline in search of means to claim the Norwegian crown. And he will succeed eventually, well after the battle of Maldon.14
Olaf’s co-conspirator in the English raids is Sweyn Forkbeard, a Danish prince who rebels against his father none other than Harald Bluetooth. Sweyn takes the crown in 987. Though not much of his life is recorded, there are stories about involuntary exile imposed by Eric of Sweden.15 This makes Sweyn a man motivated to search for means to reclaim the Danish crown. Based on the reconstruction of legal documents, Sweyn might even have accompanied Olaf in the battle at Maldon. On the other hand, the ASC only mentions him by name from the attack on London in 994 onwards.16–18
Questions before the Battle
How do the Anglo-Saxons know the Vikings will go to Maldon after Ipswich? This remains an unanswered question. And who waits for whom? Do the Vikings arrive and wait for Byrhtnoth to show up? The Liber Eliensis (LE) suggests there was another battle at Maldon four years earlier where the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Vikings.19 Are the Vikings seeking revenge, then? Unfortunately, no conclusion can be made. The LE is often seen as an unreliable source, despite several parts about Byrhtnoth seeming to hold some truth (such as the way of his death). The earlier battle at Maldon indeed cannot be confirmed with by other source. 20
Or, do the Anglo-Saxons expect the Vikings’ arrival at Maldon? Does the king’s assembly give Byrhtnoth the order to take Aethelwine’s place, raise an army and meet the Scandinavians? Once more, the LE gives a clue that Byrhtnoth comes down from Northumbria, via Ramsey and Ely, to Maldon. The poem mentions a Northumbrian hostage (line 265). Furthermore, Offa talks about a meeting ‘at the council’ before battle in the poem (line 199). If this refers to a large witan assembly, or just a meeting of Byrhtnoth and his men on the eve before battle, is not clear.
Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex
With Aethelwine incapacitated, his retainer, Byrhtnoth goes to Maldon with his huscarls, or bodyguard, and a fyrd. The LE suggests the Anglo-Saxons are outnumbered,19 but more likely, both armies are about equal in size.12,13,20
The direct archaeological evidence for Byrhtnoth and the further recordings that link him to Maldon, giving the battle its setting. The LE mentions him as leader of the Northumbrians, but in all other sources, he is the ealdorman of Essex,19,21 and not to be confused with an abbot Byrhtnoth at Ely around the same time.22 His wife’s will confirms his existence,21 and does a tapestry. This wall hanging documenting his life is given to Ely cathedral after his death, but no longer exists (see below).
His death is mentioned in no less than four sources: the Old English poem, the Vita Oswaldi, the LE and the ASC.12,19,23 Currently, his remains lie in a place of honour in Ely cathedral. The story goes that in 1769, his remains were moved and an antiquarian at the scene had a chance to observe the skeleton. He concluded that the man had been very tall and that there was no skull to complete the skeleton. According to his notes, a large sword or axe must have cut through the collarbone.24 The LE tells how Byrhtnoth is beheaded during battle.19
The location at Maldon has never been confirmed by archaeological evidence. It has been well-argued, though, and thought to be where the causeway links Northey island to the mainland in the Blackwater estuary. The river Pant, mentioned in the poem, flows into the estuary just a little north.12 Even today, the river is still called ‘Pant’ further upstream.25 The causeway itself is one of the geographical keys to the poem.23
Other indirect archaeological evidence such as a pottery,26 metalworking and even cemeteries, confirm there was a Saxon settlement around Maldon at the time.27 The ASC mentions that in 916 a burh at Maldon was fortified.8 Drawings from the eighteenth century seem to suggest that in previous centuries remains of the burh might still have been visible.26 Further excavations in the 20th century suggest that the high street buildings and surroundings indeed followed an urban pattern connected to a burh.28
Another valuable object is a coin with Aethelstan’s head and the inscription of Maldon dating back to 924.20 This suggests that Maldon, like Ipswich, has its own mint.3,29 This makes the town immediately an interesting site to plunder. On the other hand, it also has a burh, which means it would be well-defended. The wide, open water could have been an advantage perhaps to the Anglo-Saxons if they had a navy to speak of. Now, the estuary is an advantage to the Vikings instead, allowing them to sail close to the mainland.20
A Summary of the Poem23
Like the Battle of Brunanburh, the Battle of Maldon is told in an Old English poem. It no longer exists, except in a transcription that survived the fire in Robert Cotton’s library in 1731.30
The Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth orders all horses to be let go and gives the order to battle on foot. Bravery and loyalty are emphasised in these lines, especially by a young man letting go of his favourite falcon, and a young man vows to fight for his lord with spear, shield and broadsword. Byrhtnoth is the last to dismount, after having ordered his men into formation.
A Viking shouts a message demanding treasure in exchange for a peaceful departure. Byrhtnoth raises shield and spear, and answers they will defend their homeland and king’s country and giving them coin would be shameful. On his order, the Anglo-Saxons move toward the banks of the river Pante. Because of high tide, neither side can reach each other. The occasional arrow flies over the water.
When the tide changes, the first Vikings who dare cross or stand on the causeway are killed by three seasoned Anglo-Saxon warriors. The Vikings learn that there is a strong resistance and ask for a passage to shore. Byrhtnoth grants this in his pride, so the poem’s author says. Byrhtnoth calls for honour on the battlefield. The Vikings advance west over the Pante.
The Anglo-Saxon ranks are shouted into position as the Vikings approach. There are loud noises, ravens and eagles on the battlefield. The fighting starts. Byrhtnoth urges his warriors on and leads by example. As he laughs over the death of one Viking, another hungry for his riches strikes him with his spear. Byrhtnoth falls but draws his swords and strikes at the warrior. He is struck again himself and his sword falls. He speeches one last time to motivate his men, and to thank the Lord, hoping he won’t go to hell. Then, he and his bodyguards are slain.
As soon as he sees his lord dying, the first nobleman flees the battle scene. Godric uses Byrhtnoth’s own horse and rides with his brothers to the safety of the tree line of a nearby forest. Many men follow them. The author reminds his audience that Offa had warned Byrhtnoth at the council that some who spoke loudly would act like cowards later.
Then Aelfwine speeches about how his lord and kinsman’s death. Offa continues his story and says how Godric’s fleeing will later suggest this is how the shield wall broke, even though at the time it is still intact. Then Leofsunu talks about avenging Byrhtnoth’s death. Dunnere is a simple yeoman who talks of vengeance. Eadweard follows by saying he won’t leave and throws himself in the Viking mêlée.
All other men kill bravely after their speeches before being killed themselves. Even the Northumbrian hostage Aescferth fights until the end. Aetheric just fights and then Offa dies. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall then truly breaks. Oswald and Eodwold encourage the fighters, Byrhtwold speaks aloud he will die next to his lord. The tough fighting follows until the poem is cut off.
Interpreting the Poem
It is easy to believe the poem is about Byrhtnoth. However, he dies quite early on and not at the height of battle.31 This event is instrumental to poem’s key message but is not the message itself. Byrhtnoth’s death causes three noble brothers to flee and in their wake, other warriors follow. Their flight does not cause the Anglo-Saxon’s defeat, as Offa’s speech underlines. Those who stay and fight to their deaths, do take their time to heavily and strongly condemn the action. These brave souls are from all walks of life, from noblemen to simple yeoman and Northumbrian hostage.8,20
Herein lies the essence of the poem. Ancient, Germanic narratives and heroic elements of glory, honour and loyalty stand out in this poem.13,20 Many parallels have been made with other literary works such as Beowulf,32 Bjarkamál,33 Lazarat’s Brut13 and the Brunanburh poem in the ASC,34 and even the Song of Roland.35 J.R.R. Tolkien himself wrote an epilogue to the battle.32
The moral of the story also begs the question when the author wrote the poem. The most strongly argued version believes within decades after the battle. Firstly, because the name Byrhtnoth is only used this way by the end of the tenth century. Secondly, because the English armour in the poem is consistent with what is used until 1008. And thirdly, the many names can only have been remembered or used shortly after battle, and not in the long-term.20
Further Literary Techniques
From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, the poem is rather mild about the Vikings. Only twice are their speeches described as ‘in threat’ (line 27) or ‘deceiving’ (line 86).
For the rest, the Vikings are never really blamed or critiqued for the battle.20 Rather, the Anglo-Saxons are criticised that Byrhtnoth’s ofermode, or overconfidence, is the cause of the lost battle.13,32 In the scene, Byrhtnoth proudly invites the Vikings over to the mainland and loses his strategical position. A strange, almost silly mistake to make for a man who praised and glorified for his leadership and command.13
So, how realistic is the poem? Certain elements are most likely literary techniques, such as the many speeches and the image of the young man with the falcon.20 For Byrhtnoth’s overconfidence, there is a counter-argument that the Vikings are actually overconfident.
Both armies have excellent strategical positions at Maldon that leads to a status quo. Byrhtnoth wants to prevent the Vikings from leaving and finding easier places to raid. Therefore, he has to break the stand-off. His tactical position is good with the salty marshes in front of him and his shield wall positioned on higher ground. Behind him is the burh at Maldon as a safe haven. The Vikings are also well situated on the higher ground on Northey island giving them a defensive as well as attacking position toward anyone crossing the causeway.13
Byrhtnoth feigns retreat and taunts the Vikings into following him. They do so, but the marshes hinder them before they meet the formidable shield wall.36 Not an ideal situation. The poem describes a fierce and evenly matched the battle. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall takes a last stand after Byrhtnoth’s death and only breaks after Offa’s death dies later. Only then do the Vikings have the opportunity to win the battle.8
After the Battle
The Battle of Maldon has no surprising or fancy military outfits or strategies. The significance of Maldon lies in the payment of Danegeld.5,8 These have been paid before, during Alfred’s reign, but this is the first time under Æthelred’s reign and triggers a growing discontent in Anglo-Saxon England.5 Things spiral out of control when the Vikings keep coming back for more, and more viciously every time.
Despite Æthelred proving himself to be hands-on in foreign policy with impressive successes after Maldon his own retainers undermine every action, he undertakes to keep the Vikings out. They either betray him to the Vikings or start fighting among themselves. Twice, Æthelred loses a newly built navy this way, in 992 and 1009.8 His many efforts turn against him, and the Vikings, especially Sweyn, continue to hound him until the end. Sweyn even sends Æthelred into exile but the latter returns after the Dane dies in 1014.37 Eventually, upon Æthelred’s own death in 1016, Anglo-Saxon England finally comes completely under the rule of a Scandinavian (Vi)king, Cnut the Great.
Upon Byrhtnoth’s death, his wife donates various items, including an embroidered wall hanging to Ely abbey. Whether she made the tapestry herself or only supervised its production remains unknown. The piece has unfortunately not survived. We only know it existed from a medieval inventory list at Ely abbey. Read more about the Ely tapestry here.
A modern embroidery on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the battle is prepared by local embroiders. The narrative not only includes the battle, but also an overview of Maldon’s general history. Read more about this modern embroidery here.
The Return of the Vikings: The Battle of Maldon 991 by D. Scragg – a great, if not the best and complete analysis of the battle to this day.
Cambridge University – ASNC Spoken Word.
Oxford University – Old English Literature Hypertext.
The Battle of Maldon – UK Battlefields Resource Centre. An exhaustive overview of all evidence related to the battle.
The Battle of Maldon – The Lego version.