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"Here in this year Olaf came with ninety-three ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter."
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Winchester MS)
In AD 978, Edward, the king of England, was murdered, "no worse deed for the English race was done than this was," and his ten-year-old brother Æthelred assumed the throne. Two years later, after a respite of nearly twenty-five years, there was a renewal of Viking attacks on the country, which culminated early in August AD 991. The Battle of Maldon marked a series of harrying raids and sporadic attacks that began that year and continued throughout the troubled reign of Æthelred the Unready until, in 1016, the king of England was defeated by Cnut, the son of Swein Forkbeard.
There already had been raids on towns south of the Thames and Ipswich to the north when the Vikings rowed up the river Blackwater to Northey Island near Maldon. Protected by the mudflats and salt marshes of the estuary, they beached their ships and established camp, separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway submerged by the tide. On the other side, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and a levy of English defenders (fyrd), having dismounted their horses and proceeded to the shore, waited for the waters to recede.
He assembled the men and arranged the shield-wall and then took his place among his hearth retainers. Presently, the Vikings called out
"...you must quickly send gold rings in return for protection. And it is better for you all that you should buy off this onslaught of spears with tribute-money than that we should join battle so grievously. We need not destroy each other if you are sufficiently wealthy; we are prepared to establish a truce in return for the gold. If you who are the richest man here decide that you are willing to ransom your people, willing to give to the seafarers, in an amount determined by them, money in exchange for peace, and to accept protection from us, we are content to embark with the taxes, to set sail across the sea, and to keep the peace with you all."
To which Byrhtnoth replied:
"Sea raider, can you hear what this army is saying? They intend to give all of you spears as tribute, deadly points and tried swords, payment in war-gear which will be of no benefit to you in battle.... here stands with his compnay an earl of unstained reputation, who intends to defend this homeland, the kingdom of Æthelred, my lord's people and his country. They shall fall, the heathens in battle. It appears to me too shameful that you should return to your ships with our money unopposed, now that you thus far in this direction have penetrated into our territory. You will not gain treasure so easily: spear and sword must first arbitrate between us, the grim game of battle, before we pay triburte."
(Although it is certain that there was a battle near Maldon in which Byrhtnoth lost his life, it is not known how much of the poem commemorating the event is historically accurate or the imagination of the poet. He is not likely to have been in the battle and actually says, "I heard tell that..." Indeed, any survivors would have been considered cowards. The speeches, therefore, would not have been spoken, even if they do reflect the sentiment of the speaker.)
Then, as the flood tide receded, one of the men rashly attempted to cross and was struck down. Realizing that the causeway was too well defended, the Vikings asked to be allowed safe passage, and the earl, "because of his pride," granted it to them. "Now a path is opened for you: come quickly against us, men at war. God alone knows who will control the battlefield."
The poet writes that glory was at hand, that the time had come for doomed men to perish. Byrhtnoth soon was hacked to death together with those at his side. "Then those who did not want to be there turned from the battle" and fled, Godric taking his lord's horse and fleeing into the woods nearby. The shield-wall broke, while others, "more men than was at all fitting," assuming that it was Byrhtnoth, deserted the field as well, leaving only his hearth retainers, who, in the poem, each speak out in defense of their lord, vowing not to retreat but to avenge him in battle and exhorting one another in what are the most famous lines of the poem:
"'The spirit must be the firmer, the heart the bolder, courage must be the greater as our strength diminishes.'"
Godric, too, "slashed and laid low, until he died in the conflict. It was not at all that same Godric who fled that battle..." Here the poem ends, with the contrast between the loyal and brave followers of a generous Christian thegn and the disloyalty of ungrateful cowards and pagan invaders, between the Godric who abandoned his lord and the Godric who stood and fought to avenge his death.
The death of the ealdorman was long remembered. He had been one of the most powerful men in the country and a benefactor of the church. His widow gave a tapestry to the cathedral at Ely, where the headless body of her husband is buried, and it may be she who commissioned the poem. Byrhtnoth also supported the church at Ramsey, where a monk wrote a hagiography its founder. Composed within a decade or so of the battle, the Life of St. Oswald (Cotton, Nero E.i) preserves some of its details, however exaggerated.
"During his [Æthelred] reign the abominable Danes came to the kingdom of the English, and laying waste and burning everything, did not spare men, but, glorying in flashing blades and poisoned arrows, armed themselves in bronze helmets, in which they fought and were wont to terrify beholders.... another very violent battle took place in the east of this famous country, in which the glorious Ealdorman Brihtnoth held the front rank, with his fellow-soldiers. How gloriously, how manfully, how boldly he urged his leaders to the front of the battle,who, relying on an elegant style, can make known? He himself, tall in stature, stood conspicuous above the rest.... He smote also on his right hand, unmindful of the swan-like whiteness of his head.... And when the beloved leader in the field saw his enemies fall, and his own men fight bravely and cut them down in many ways, he began to fight with all his might for his country. An infinite number, indeed, of them and of our side perished, and Brihtnoth fell, and the rest fled. The Danes also were wondrously wounded, and could scarcely man their ships."
Byrhtnoth is said to have been tall and have white hair (the poet also speaks of the "grey-haired warrior"), although it is difficult to reconcile how the Danes (a generic name for the Scandinavian invaders) were so injured that they still were able to extort the payment of tribute mentioned in another version of the Chronicle for that year.
"Then because of his pride the earl set about allowing the hateful race too much land..." This is the most contentious line in the poem: the pride of Byrhtnoth, his ofermode. The battle was perceived by the poet as a moral event, one between Christian and pagan, between loyalty and disloyalty. Byrhtnoth's decision to allow the Vikings to cross the ford is condemned, just as are the Vikings for their perfidy in asking to do so (their cunning, lytegian, is the only use of the word found in Old English). But when the righteous perish, there has to be a moral reason. Since the poet cannot change the outcome of the battle, the defeat must be understood in terms of an explanatory fault or vice: that of the ealdorman's pride. Indeed, in the poem, just as Byrhtnoth exults in victory over his foe, giving thanks to God, he is struck down. In the loyalty of his retainers, however, who continue to avenge their lord even after he has been killed, the loss of the battle and the death of the ealdorman are redeemed.
And the defeat at the Battle of Maldon transformed by the poet into victory.
The picture above is the causeway to Northey Island, just beginning to be submerged by the incoming tide.
"Here in this year Olaf came with ninety-three ships..."
References: The Battle of Maldon (1981) edited by D. G. Scragg; The Battle of Maldon AD 991 (1991) edited by Donald Scragg; The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (1993) edited by Janet Cooper; The Battle of Maldon (1937) edited by E. V. Gordon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1996) translated and edited by Michael Swanton; English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (1979) edited by Dorothy Whitelock; Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla (1964) translated by Samuel Lang (Everyman); English and Norse Documents: Relating to the Reign of Ethelred the Unready (1930) by Margaret Ashdown; Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Texts in Translation (1976) translated by Michael J. B. Allen and Daniel G.Calder; The Viking Ships: Their Ancestry and Evolution (1971) by A. W. Brøgger and Haakon Shetelig; The Age of the Vikings (1962) by P. H. Sawyer; The Vikings (1979) by Rober Wernick (Time-Life Books); The Vikings (1987) by Else Roesdahl (Penguin); Encomium Emma Regina (1949/1998) edited by Alistair Campbell and introduction by Simon Keynes; The Heroic Age of Scandinavia (1951) by G. Turville-Petre; Vikings: Raiders from the North (1993) by the Editors of Time-Life Books; Tacitus: On Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin); A New Critical History of Old English Literature (1986) by Stanley B. Greenfield and Daniel G. Calder; The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (1991) edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge; Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (1950) translated by John R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn.
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