Return to Battle of Maldon

Byrhtnoth at Ely Cathedral

"He [Byrhtnoth] was fluent in speech, robust in strength, of huge physical stature, indefatigable in soldiering and warfare against the enemies of the kingdom, and courageous beyond all measure, being without respect for, or fear of, death....As long as he lived, moreover, he devoted his life to defending the freedom of his native land, so totally committed to this desire that he would rather die than tolerate an unavenged injury to his country. At that time, indeed, frequent raids were being made by the Danes upon England, and they wreaked serious devastation upon it, arriving as they did in various places by ship....Accordingly, on one occasion, when the Danes had come ashore at Maldon, on hearing report of this, he confronted them with an armed force and slaughtered nearly all of them on a causeway above the water. It was only with difficulty that a few of them escaped and sailed to their own country to tell the tale. After this victory, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth returned in good spirits to Northumbria [Byrhtnoth mistakenly was thought to be a leader of the Northumbrians, as can be seen in the memorial above]. However, the Danes, very much saddened by the news that they had heard, fitted out a fleet again, made haste to England and in the fourth year landed at Maldon again to avenge the killing of their men, with Justin and Guthmund, the son of Stectan, as their leaders. On having reached the harbour they learned that it was Byrhtnoth who had done these things to their men, so they sent word straight away that they had come to avenge them, and that he would have to be numbered among cowards if he would not dare join battle with them. Incited to daring by their messengers, Byrhtnoth summoned his former comrades together for this venture and, led on by the hope of victory and his exceedingly great courage, he set out on his way to battle with a few warriors, both taking precautions and moving fast, lest the enemy army should occupy so much as one foot of land in his absence....On arrival there, he was neither perturbed by the fewness of his men, nor fearful of the numerical strength of the enemy, but attacked them straight away and fought them fiercely for fourteen days. On the last of these days, few of his men being still alive, Byrhtnoth realized that he was going to die. He was not fighting any the less energetically against the enemy, but in the end, after he had inflicted great slaughter on his adversaries and almost put them to fight, they were encouraged by the small number of Byrhtnoth's supporters, made a wedge-formation, and, grouping together, rushed with one resolve upon him and, with a great effort, only just successful, cut off his head as he fought. They took it with them, fleeing from the place to their native land. But the abbot, on hearing the outcome of the fighting, went with some monks to the battle-ground and found Byrhtnoth's body. He brought it back to the church and buried it with honour. And in place of the head he put a round lump of wax."

Liber Eliensis, (II.62)

Drawn to the doleful isolation of the meres and morasses of the Fens in East Anglia, a twin Benedictine monastery of monks and nuns was established on a high point of ground at the Isle of Ely. And there it flourished in quiet devotion for two hundred years, until AD 870, when the monastery was destroyed by marauding Danes—the buildings burnt, the inhabitants slaughtered or driven into the surrounding marshes, and everything of value plundered (Liber Eliensis, I.38-40). A century later, the ruined monastery was refounded and endowed by King Edgar. As part of the same monastic revival, another Benedictine abbey had been founded just the year before (in AD 969), at nearby Ramsey on land donated by ealdorman Æthelwine. It, too, was richly endowed, so much so that the abbey was known in an old rhyme as "Ramsey, the rich of gold and fee [fief]."

Both recorded their respective histories in the form of a cartulary chronicle: a chronicle of the monastery's history but also a compilation of documents and charters relating to its foundation and benefactors, honors and customs, privileges and legal rights. Grants of land, in particular, were recorded to justify holdings and titles. The chronicle of Ramsey, written about 1170 to venerate its saints and commemorate its benefactors, was titled by its compiler simply Liber benefactorum ecclesiae Ramesiensis. And the Liber Eliensis, which was written about the same time or just a few years later, is especially effusive in its praise of ealdorman Byrhtnoth, who "beloved of God and men, contributed many benefactions to the place in the course of restoration and afterwards" (II.55).

But the chronicler of Ely was just as ready to demonizes those who did it harm. Having praised Byrhtnoth, in the very next sentence Æthelwine, one of "certain evil-minded men," is accused of harassing the monastery after the death of Edgar in AD 975, seizing property, if not by force then by trickery, and diminishing its resources, either in defending itself from claims and lawsuits or otherwise having to buy land to which it presumably already felt entitled (Liber Eliensis, II.55). The rivalry between the two houses is show to particular effect when Byrhtnoth visited them both on his way to meet the Danes at Maldon in AD 991.

The Rule of St. Benedict stipulated that "Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect" (LIII.15). As Byrhtnoth and his men marched south, the chronicler of Ely makes a point of noting that, when the ealdorman "approached the abbey of Ramsey and sought hospitality and provisioning from Abbot Wulfsige for himself and his men, the reply was given to him that the place had not resources sufficient for such a multitude but, so that he should not go away entirely rejected, Wulfsige would provide what he was requesting for Byrhtnoth himself and seven of his men," to which the ealdorman memorably replied "'Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them'" (II.62).

Rebuffed, he then proceeded to Ely and there was welcomed. "Byrhtnoth was provided with hospitality fit for a king, and, as a consequence of the unremitting attentiveness of the monks, he was fired with a great love of the monastery." Mindful, too, that he would not be successful in the battle to come were he not to repay this goodwill, Byrhtnoth bequeathed estates and manors to Ely (fifteen are mentioned by name) as well as gold and silver if, were he to die in battle, his body was brought back and given burial. This largess was supplemented with two gold crosses and a cloak woven with gold and gems. It is an instructive story, to be sure, and Bryhtnoth's response "elegantly phrased." But it is more likely that arrangements for his inheritance and internment already had been made, and not in spontaneous appreciation for a night's food and lodging.

Byrhtnoth's visit to Ramsey is recorded as well in the abbey's own chronicle and, even though the Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis has not been translated into English, one can discern the scribe's annoyance with his niggardly abbot (Rameseiensis, LXVIII). No mention is made of the Battle of Maldon, but Byrhtnoth, passing in his ship (the second largest lake in England once was in the Fens), and his immediate retinue are offered food, even if there was not enough bread for them all. Byrhtnoth again replies that he will not eat if his men cannot and angrily departs for Ely, whereupon its "shameless" (impudentiæ) abbot sent word that he would offer kindness and hospitality. With such trivial liberality on their part (levi sibi liberalitatis), the monks of Ely gained Byrhtnoth's gratitude—and much of the land that once had been intended for Ramsey.

Byrhtnoth also is memorialized in a long hagiography of Oswald of Worcester, who had founded Ramsey Abbey. Written by Byrhtferth, a monk there and one of the most learned scholars of the age, the Vita Oswaldi likely was composed within a decade of Oswald's death in AD 992.

"Who, sustained with eloquence, could say how gloriously, how bravely, how boldly the battle-leader exhorted his men in the battle-array. He himself was tall of stature, standing above the rest....When the estimable field general saw his enemies rush forward, and saw his own men fighting bravely and falling in droves, he began to fight for his country with all his might. For an infinite number of them and us fell; and Byrhtnoth fell, and those remaining fled. The Danes too were severely wounded: they were scarcely able to man their ships" (V.5).

It is the earliest account of the Battle of Maldon in Latin and differs from the Old English poem in recording that the Anglo-Saxons fled rather than fighting to the last man. Byrhtferth regards the battle in the broader context of Viking assaults on England. There was an attack in the West, in which the English were victorious, and an attack in the East, in which they were defeated and Byrhtnoth killed. But, even though Byrhtferth was a contemporary of the events he describes—and so might assumed to be well informed about the battle, he so wraps Byrhtnoth in Biblical typology that it is difficult to discern the historicity of the account. Byrhtnoth, for example, who must have been about sixty when he died, is described as having "swan-white" hair (cigneam caniciem), which may have recalled Eleazar who, in the dignity of his old age and gray hairs, desires to leave "to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly" (2 Maccabees, 6:23, 28) or, in striking blows from his right side and protecting himself from the left, he may have been patterned after the Eleazar fighting for Judas Maccabeus, killing "men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides" (1 Maccabees, 6:45).

In addition to the cartulary chronicles of Ely and Ramsey, two earlier twelfth-century chroniclers mention Byrhtnoth, however briefly: John of Worcester (died c. 1140), from whom the Liber Eliensis sometimes quotes, and Henry of Huntingdon (died c. 1155)—both of whom also used the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 991.

"In the same year the Danes laid waste Ipswich under the leadership of Justin and Guthmund, son of Steitan. Not much later the vigorous Brihtnoth, ealdorman of the East Saxons, joined battle with them near Maldon, but when an infinite host had been slain on either side, the ealdorman himself fell and Danish fortune triumphed. In addition, in that year, on the advice of Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury, and of the ealdormen Æthelweard and Ælfric, tribute amounting to £10,000 pounds was given to the Danes for the first time so that they might give up the numerous plunderings, burnings, and the slaughter of men which they frequently committed around the sea coast, and maintain a firm peace with them. St. Oswald the archbishop consecrated the abbey of Ramsey" [on November 8, just three months later].

John of Worcester, Chronicle (AD 991)

"In another direction Ipswich was ravaged. But Ealdorman Brihtnoth met them in great strength, fought and was defeated by them, and cut down by their swords he was slain, and his battalions were driven back to disaster. In King Æthelred's thirteenth year [AD 991], the English first decided, on the unfortunate advice of Archbishop Sigeric, to pay tribute to the Danes, so that they might cease their plunder and slaughter. And they gave them £10,000. This evil has lasted into the present day, and unless God's compassion intervenes, it will last for a long time still. But now we pay to our kings, out of custom, what used to be paid to the Danes out of unspeakable fear."

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum (V.28-29)

When Ely was refounded in AD 970, its first abbot, who formerly had been prior of Winchester, also was named Byrhtnoth. He rebuilt the ruined building, which had been sacked and burned by the Danes a century earlier, so that it was more magnificent than before.

"Those part of it which were so much decayed by time as to have fallen down he rebuilt; and by constant application and much labour and expense, he finished all the stonework, in less time than could be expected; and afterwards completing the roof, which had been quite destroyed by the fire; the church was so thoroughly repaired in all parts that it appeared on the whole more splendid than when it was first built" (Liber Eliensis, II.52).

He then set about to increase the prestige of the monastery as a shrine worthy of pilgrimage and devotion. To that end, Byrhtnoth is described as a "a pirate in the cause of Faith....a man well suited to holy sacrilege, to theft in furtherance of the Faith, rapine in pursuance of salvation" (II.53), oxymorons that are descriptive of the medieval phenomenon of furta sacra ("holy theft").

In life, saints offered an exemplar of how to attain the kingdom of heaven; in death, their earthly remains continued to give surety that the faithful could join them there. Relics sanctified the space they occupied and offered protection and intercession for the pilgrims who revered them. They therefore were eagerly sought by competing religious houses—especially if they were stolen. Less a matter of money or questionable dealings with the brokers of such things, a theft assured authenticity and provenance, and ironically, the blessing of the saints themselves who, it was reasoned, hardly would have consented to such a translation otherwise. That it had to occur at all was a sign of their presumed discontent with the previous house and satisfaction with the new one, which now benefitted from the holiness the relics conferred upon it.

And so, not long after becoming abbot, Byrhtnoth led a contingent of soldiers and monks to steal away the remains of Wihtburh, who was thought to be the youngest sister of Æthelthryth, the patron saint who had founded the monastery three hundred years before, in AD 673. She had laid in a chapel dedicated to her in Dereham, which already was in the possession of Ely. But it was thought "how a more suitable hall might give her honour on a higher level and how she might give it greater lustre by the adornment and splendour of her presence." Getting the townspeople drunk by means of "generous convivial festivities," the sarcophagus was unsealed and the incorruptible body hurried overland to a waiting ship, pursued by an outraged populace. "The object of their quest was the sole glory of the district, removed by cunning and trickery, and taken captive away." Cursing and threatening from the riverbanks, the thieves were reproached but could not be hindered as they moved away in the night.

Later, when the monks of Ramsey were returning with the body of Eadnoth, the successor to Oswald as abbot of Ramsey, who had been killed in the Battle of Ashingdon (1016), they stopped at Ely, where they were hospitably received. But when they, too, were drunk, the monks seized the body and hid it. Too few in number to demand its return, it remained at Ely, where Eadnoth was venerated as a saint (II.71). On another occasion, the monks of Ramsey were returning with the relics of another saint when a flotilla of small boats from Ely began to pursue them. But they were able to escape when a thick mist sent by God hid them (Rameseiensis, LXXII).

If one is to believe the account in the Liber Eliensis ("so the report goes," II.56), the death of abbot Byrhtnoth was no less eventful than his life.

Riding through the New Forest to the court of King Æthelred, Byrhtnoth turned off the road, seeking a secluded spot to relieve himself, when he unexpectedly spied Ælfthryth, the king's mother beneath a tree, busily engaged in the preparation of a potion that would transform her into a horse "as if, by her fantasies and magical art, she had been changed into an equine beast: to those who looked at her she used to give the impression of being a mare, not a woman, her aim being to satisfy the unquenchable intemperance of her seething lust. Running around hither and thither and cavorting with the horses, she indecently exposed herself to them, in contempt of the fear of God and the honour of her royal dignity, and in this way brought reproach upon her good name."

Horrified at what he had seen (but also having been noticed by the dowager queen herself, who groaned at the discovery), he hurriedly continued on his way. The business of the church having been concluded with the king, the abbot felt obliged to take leave of the queen mother as well. He was summoned to her chamber on the pretext of discussing some matter in private concerning her salvation. But, upon entering, "she spoke to him in an exceedingly cajoling and immodest way, uttering a number of lustful enormities. By means of entreaties and promises, she, shameless woman as she was, meant to entice him to herself." Indignant, Byrhtnoth rejected her advances and admonished the queen for her shameful life, which prompted equal indignation on her part. Furious at the rejection, she ordered her attendants to slay the hapless abbot. Daggers were heated in the fire and, so that no wound might appear on the body, thrust under his arm pits. Then, crying out that the abbot suddenly had died, his monks and servants were admitted. Never suspecting what had happened, they mournfully carried the body away and conveyed it back to Ely. Indeed, the murder would not have been discovered had not the queen herself, remorseful and repentant, later confessed her crime and retired to spend her remaining days as a nun in penance and contrition.

Ælfthryth ("elf's strength," also Elfrida) was the second wife of King Edgar, the great-grandson of King Alfred. William of Malmesbury relates in the Chronicle of the Kings of England that the king, hearing of her charms, sent his ealdorman Æthelwald with the commission "to offer her marriage, if her beauty were really equal to report" (II.8). Smitten, he contrived to marry Ælfthryth himself, reporting to the king that "she was a girl nothing out of the common track of beauty, and by no means worthy such transcendent dignity." When Edgar eventually learned of the deception, he was no less deceitful, saying simply that he would like to see the lady for himself. Terrified at the prospect, the ealdorman beseeched his wife to attire herself as unbecomingly as possible but, when told the reason, she determined "to call up every charm by art, and to omit nothing which stimulate the desire of a young and powerful man. Nor did events happen contrary to her design. For he fell so desperately in love with her the moment he saw her." Dissembling for the moment, the indignant king later summoned the faithless Æthelwald under the pretence of a hunt and, in AD 962 or 963, ran him through with a javelin.

Edgar divorced his first wife, by whom he had a son Edward (the Martyr), and married Ælfthryth two years later, in AD 964 or 965, when she became the first Saxon to be crowned queen of England—and by whom he had another son, Æthelred. Edgar died in AD 975 and Edward, with the support of Oswald of Worcester (now Archbishop of York), became king. Only a boy and incapable of dealing with the anti-monastic sentiment of a nobility determined to reclaim lands given to the church by his father, Edward fatefully chose to visit his step-mother Ælfthryth and her young son. While waiting outside the castle gates, he was offered a cup to quench his thirst and then treacherously stabbed while still on his horse, which bolted into the night, dragging the body behind it. Æthelred then ascended the throne, many thought at the instigation of his perfidious mother.

The remains of ealdorman Byrhtnoth are interred in the Chantry Chapel of Bishop West in Ely Cathedral. Examined in 1769, when the choir was relocated, a letter read to the Society of Antiquarians several years later describes the discovery. In measuring the bones, it was estimated that they belonged to a man who "must have been six foot nine inches in stature." The absence of a head also was noted, the collar bone having been nearly cut through. A benefactor of the church, Byrhtnoth was remembered and his death commemorated in several ecclesiastical calendars. Obituaries kept at Ely fix his death (and so the date for the Battle of Maldon) on August 10, those at Ramsey and Winchester on August 11.

The inscription translates "Brithnoth, Leader of the Northumbrians, cut down in battle by the Danes, AD 991."

References: Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely (2005) translated by Janet Fairweather; Liber Eliensis (1962) edited by E. O. Blake; Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral (1897) by Charles William Stubbs, who was Dean of Ely Cathedral and quotes the letter (pp. 92-93); Byrhtferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine (2009) edited by Michael Lapidge (Oxford Medieval Texts); "The Genesis of the Battle of Maldon " by N. F. Blake (1978), in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 7, edited by Peter Clemoes; Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis (1886) edited by W. Dunn Macray; The History and Antiquities of the Conventual & Cathedral Church of Ely (1812) by James Bentham; Ramsey Abbey: Its Rise and Fall, Taken from the Ramsey History or Chronicle and Other Reliable Sources (1882) by John Wise and W. Mackreth Nobel (p. 89); The Rule of St. Benedict in English (1982) translated by Timothy Fry; Return of the Vikings: The Battle of Maldon 991 (2006) by Donald Scragg; The Chronicle of John of Worcester (Vol. II) (1995) edited by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurke (Oxford Medieval Texts); Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon: Historia Anglorum (1996) edited by Diana Greenway (Oxford Medieval Texts); "Byrhtferth and Oswald" (1996) by Michael Lapidge, in St Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence, edited by Nicholas Brooks and Catherine Cubitt; "The 'Liber Ellensis' 'Historical Selections' and the Old English 'Battle of Maldon'" (1997) by Thomas D. Hill, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 96(1), 1-12; "Ely Abbey 672–1109" (2008) by Simon Keynes, in A History of Ely Cathedral, edited by Peter Meadows and Nigel Ramsay, pp. 3-58; William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum (1998) edited by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom (Oxford Medieval Texts); Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis (1886) edited by W. Dunn Macray; Furta Sacra: Theft of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (1990) by Patrick J. Geary; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1954) translated by G. N. Garmonsway.

 Return to Top of Page