The Battle of Maldon


The ancient causeway linking Northey Island to the south bank of the Blackwater estuary just east of Maldon  is considered by many to be the most likely site of the Battle of Maldon.  This was fought on August 10th or 11th 991 between an English army led by the veteran ealdorman Byrhtno­ and a professional ship-borne army of Danes.  


View across to Northey Island from the south bank of the Blackwater at low tide with the causeway uncovered (author's photograph, August 1991). 

The entry for the year 991 in the A manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to say after a raid on Ipswich the Danes were led at Maldon by the famous Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, but this entry has almost certainly been confused with the events of 994.  It seems more probable that the Danes at Maldon were led by their own king, Sweyn Forkbeard, son of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (builder of the Danish ring-fortresses, such as Trelleborg on SjŠlland, and of the royal centre at Jelling in Jutland).  

The twelfth-century church at Jelling stands on the site of the late tenth-century royal church of Harald Bluetooth, in which he reburied his father, Gorm the Old, after exhuming his body from the oak-lined burial chamber in the great north mound at Jelling, seen here to the left of the church surmounted by a flagpole (author's photograph).

The main source of our knowledge of the Battle of Maldon is the independently preserved Old English heroic battle-poem, which appears to have been composed not long after the event.  Its beginning and ending are lost, but the poem provides a detailed account of the battle from the English point of view.  Its pace and vividness suggests that the poem might have been intended to accompany a tapestry depicting the deeds of Byrhtno­.  According to the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis, Byrhtno­'s wife, ĂlflŠd, bequeathed such a tapestry to Ely.

The poem as we have it begins with Byrhtno­ deploying his troops along the riverbank.  Across the causeway the Viking herald then calls out the Danes' demands for tribute [ll.29-41].  The width of the river here is now beyond shouting distance, but geological research has shown that in 991 the river was narrower, with meadows along the banks where today there are salt-marshes (G.& S.Petty, "A Geological Reconstruction of the Site of the Battle of Maldon", The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, ed. J.Cooper [Hambledon 1993], pp.159-170).

Waving his ash-shafted spear, Byrhtno­ turns the herald's words around and hurls them back at him:


                                  ôGehyrst ■u sŠli­a,     hwŠt ■is folc sege­?

                        ôHearest thou, seafarer,     what this folk sayeth?

            Hi willa­ eow to gafole     garas syllan,

            They will to you [a] tribute   of spears give,

            Šttrynne ord,     ond ealde swurd,

            deadly points,     & time-tested swords,

            ■a heregeatu     ■e eow Št hilde ne deah..."

            such war-gear     that you in battle [will] not profit fromů."  [ll.45-48].

Byrhtno­'s famous reply [ll.45-61] strikes what has come to be regarded as a characteristic  note of English national defiance against foreign invaders, one that has sounded several times throughout our island history.  

            The battle would have begun then and there but by now the rising tide made it impossible for the combatants to engage [ll.62-64] except for those armed with bows [ll.70-71].  The poem refers to the effect of the intervening flood-tide between the two armies as lucon lagustreamas, 'locking tidal-streams' [l.66a].  This phrase provides a strikingly succinct description of the way that the waters still close over the causeway.  The incoming tide of the Blackwater estuary is separated into two tidal streams by the north eastern edge of Northey Island, which then meet again on its south-western side exactly over the causeway.  

            When the tide ebbs enough to permit a crossing, the poem refers to the Vikings "yearning for battle" [ll.72-72].  Yet still they are frustrated, for they can only advance along the narrow causeway on which Byrhtno­ has stationed a "war-hardened warrior" named Wulfstan and two companions [ll. 74-83].  Like the Horatius on the bridge, Wulfstan stoutly blocks the causeway.  The tactical stalemate is then resolved through negotiations, during which the Danes are said be guileful [l.86], which culminate in Byrhtno­ agreeing to allow the Vikings passage over the causeway for his ofermod, "because of his over-confidence" [l.89b].  Armchair generals have often been critical of Byrhtno­'s decision here, but they overlook his need to bring the dangerously mobile Danish fleet-army to battle while he had the chance, rather than allowing them to continue strike at will along the east coast.

            Nevertheless, it was a fateful decision, emphasised in the poem by the dramatic advance of the Viking "slaughter-wolves" [l.96a] across the causeway as the hungry ravens wheel overhead [l.106].  Once the Danes are across, the battle begins.  There is a blow-by-blow account of the fall of Byrhtno­ himself [ll.130-184], which precipitates the flight of some of the English army.  The poem concludes by immortalising the heroic last stand of several named Englishmen who refuse to yield, even though all seems lost.  Fighting over the body of their fallen lord, their supreme courage is realised through the words of Byrhtno­'s old comrade Byrhtwold: 


"Hige sceal ■e heardra,   heorte ■e cenre, 

                        "Thought shall be harder,   heart keener,

                        mod sceal ■e mare,   ■e ure mŠgen lytla­.... "

                      mood shall be more [resolved],   as our main [strength] lessens!  ..."  [ll.312-313].

The poem concludes on so heroic a note that what is in fact a military defeat is turned into a kind of moral victory.

            After the battle the Danes probably carried off Byrhtno­'s head as a battle-trophy, but his body was recovered by the monks of Ely and buried in their great abbey.  


Byrhtno­'s last resting place in Bishop West's Chapel and the east end of Ely Cathedral [thanks to Jane Newick for the photograph]. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Battle of Maldon, the first major defeat of an English army for generations, was the beginning of the end for line of Alfred.  Further defeats ensued, including the battles of Ringmere near Thetford This phase of Anglo-Danish warfare eventually culminated in the kingdom-winning victory of Sweyn's son Cnut at the battle of Assandun in 1016.

 Further Reading

Cooper, Janet (ed.), The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact (Hambledon 1991)

Hart, Cyril, The Danelaw (Hambledon 1992), pp.533-551

Scragg, Donald (ed.), The Battle of Maldon AD991 (Blackwell 1991)

ę Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Li­a-mona■ AD 2001


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