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Battle of Maldon

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Maldon, 991 A.D. (although there is a great deal of confusion in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about the date, and it might have been 992).

The Battle of Maldon took place near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex, England, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. The Saxons fought against a Viking invasion, a battle which ended in utter defeat for the Saxons, led by Byrhtnoth, and his thegns. An account of the battle, embellished with many speeches attributed to the warriors and with other details, is related in a Saxon poem of the same name.

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 2000 and 4000 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 poem was written near the time of the historical battle itself, probably by a monastic scribe. It comes to us as a fragment, primarily with a missing ending. At the time of battle, English royal policy of responding to Norse incursions was split. Some favored paying off, in land and wealth, the Viking invaders, while others favored fighting to the last man. Recent scholarship suggests that Byrhtnoth held this latter attitude, generally favored by the ecclesiastic party.

The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater, 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." One argument is that the poem was written to celebrate Byrhtnoth's actions and goad others into heroic action, and Byrhtnoth's action is out of "heroic spirit." 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 AEthelred's court, which advocated a military response, rather than tribute, to all Norse attacks.