Battle of Maldon: Saxon Earl Bryhtnoth & Militia Defeated by Vikings

 
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Battle of Maldon: Saxon Earl Bryhtnoth & Militia Defeated by Vikings

"The Battle of Maldon, 991" by Alfred Pearse, oil on canvas
Taken from the book Hutchinson's Story of the British Nation (c. 1923)
(Image courtesy of http://callitaweasel.wordpress.com )
[Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia]

Today in Military History: August 10, AD 991

It has been some time since I wrote about my favorite historical warmongers (almost five months to be exact), so today's history tale involves the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, and a classic tale of bravery and devotion to one's lord.

Background

Since their first overt appearance in the British Isles in 793 [see my Burn Pit post vikings raid lindisfarne from June 2010 for background], the Vikings spent the better part of two centuries raiding, pillaging, killing, and generally causing mayhem in modern-day England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Russia. They journeyed to Italy, Greece, and Russia. Their prowess as fighters, as well as their reputation for brutality with honor, became truly legendary.

Viking invaders had begun efforts to conquer the Saxon kingdoms of Britain in the 860s. By 877, only the kingdom of Wessex resisted the barbarians, under their king Alfred the Great. Over the next 20 years, the Vikings settled the eastern portion of England in an area called the "Danelaw," where Viking (Danish) laws and customs prevailed. However, their presence was only lightly accepted. Another round of Danish invasions came in 891, but these new attackers dispersed and left England by 896. England enjoyed relative peace for the next 80 years, with a few small raids spoiling the peace. The Saxons launched attacks of their own, seeking to recover areas of the Danelaw for the English kingdoms. In 927 King Athelstan of Wessex conquered York, bringing all of England under his rule; later that year, the Welsh and Scots recognized his suzerainty, making him "King of Britain."

Map of England, c. 880
Map of England, c. 880

The descendants of Alfred the Great ruled England fairly well, but occasional Viking raids kept the kingdom on edge. However, things really started going downhill in 978, with the coronation of Ethelred as the king of England. Ethelred was not well regarded by many of his subjects; he was even suspected of complicity in the murder of his predecessor, his half-brother King Edward (surnamed "the Martyr"). The new king began to reign in an atmosphere of suspicion which destroyed the prestige of the crown. It was never fully restored in his lifetime. Over the next 40 years, Ethelred's vacillation and poor decision-making would earn him the sobriquet Ethelred Unraed, usually mis-translated as "Ethelred the Unready," but more precisely as "Ethelred the Ill-Advised."

A number of major Danish raids occurred throughout the 980s. [These raids could be traced to attempts King Harald Gormsson, better known to history as "Harald Bluetooth," to force Christianity on his reluctant subjects.] These raids were so successful that in 991 a major raid of organized by King Harald himself. A total of 93 ships sailed for England, with one Viking saga claiming the fleet was commanded by Olaf Trygvasson, who four years later would become king of Norway.

King Ethelred (978-1013, 1014-1016); Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220
King Ethelred (978-1013, 1014-1016)
Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220

This fleet was spotted off the southeast coast of England. It sacked the town of Ipswich, then moved north along the North Sea coast. Looking for somewhere to establish a temporary base, they found Northey Island, a small bit of land in the estuary of the River Blackwater in Essex. The island is about 2 kilometers east of the town of Maldon, and is connected to the mainland by a natural causeway, which is covered by water for two hours on either side of high tide. Such natural defenses were always looked for and used by the Vikings in their raids.

Word of the arrival of the pagan raiders spread quickly to Maldon, where Earl Bryhtnoth was located. Moving quickly, the Saxon leader organized his thegns (also spelled "thanes"), who were his sworn men and local leaders who could be considered low-level noblemen. They in turn gathered their own fighting men, probably also calling in any and all local men who had any military training to meet this threat to their homes. They quickly marched to Northey Island, knowing of the causeway connecting the island to the mainland.

Viking ships moored at Northey Island, early August, AD 991 (Image courtesy of http://tasmancave.blogspot.com)
Viking ships moored at Northey Island, early August, AD 991
(Image courtesy of http://tasmancave.blogspot.com)

Danish Raiders vs. Anglo-Saxon Militia

The battle of Maldon is mentioned in four versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is also preserved in an incomplete poem called The Battle of Maldon, which was composed sometime in the early eleventh century. It is also touched upon by two chronicles – the Life of Oswald and the Book of Ely.

None of the sources gives a definitive total for either force. Estimates range from 2000 up to 6000 for the Northmen, with the Anglo-Saxons probably fielding between 2000 and 4000 men. The Viking force was probably composed of various types of fighters, likely a small number of Viking nobles with their personal retinues. The rest were probably small farmers and fishermen looking for loot, with many of the men just looking for adventure or trying to make a name for themselves. There may have even been a few berserkr, crazed or drunken men who chewed the hafts of their battle axes or shield rims, then launched themselves into battle in a frenzy of killing.

The Saxon force consisted of Earl Bryhtnoth's personal bodyguard, his thegns and their personal retainers; these men went into battle with full armor, weapons and shields. They had likely trained all their lives for such an engagement. Many of the local farmers and lower classes were also present. Many of this latter group probably had only farming implements, clubs, and the like as weapons, and only very rudimentary training in war-fighting. It was usually only in dire emergency when such men would be raised to face Viking raiders.

Prelude to the Battle

Early on the morning of August 10, Earl Bryhtnoth and his force rode to a spot opposite Northey Island. He ordered his men to dismount, release the horses, and began to order his lines. Bryhtnoth placed his men on a ridge squarely in front of the point where the causeway from the island attached to the mainland. The causeway was only a few hundred feet long and no more than fifteen feet wide.

The Vikings on the island had just formed their ranks to leave the island, but found their progress immediately blocked. Seeing he was bottled up, the Viking leader shouted across the water, asking the Saxons to give his men money and armor, and they would be on their way. According to the poem, Earl Bryhtnoth replied, "We will pay you with spear tips and sword blades."

The Norse raiders launched a number of attacks across the narrow causeway, but they were blocked by three members of Byrhtnoth's household troops, who fought with considerable skill. Finally, the Viking leader called across, asking the Saxon earl to allow the Northmen to come onto the mainland, so that the two sides could fight man-to-man. Inexplicably, Byrhtnoth agrees and ordered his causeway champions to pull back. The Viking poured across the land-bridge, reformed their lines. The earl gave a number of high-flying speeches, encouraging his men to essentially fight to the death.

Northey Island (l) today, looking to the west; the causeway is in the upper right corner of island; (The photograph was obviously taken sometime other than high tide)
Northey Island (l) today, looking to the west; the causeway is in the upper right corner of island
(The photograph was obviously taken sometime other than high tide)

[At the time of battle, English royal policy of responding to Viking incursions was split. Some favored paying off the Viking invaders with land and wealth, while others favored fighting to the last man. The poem suggests that Byrhtnoth held this latter attitude.]

Battle of Maldon

Once arriving on the mainland, the Vikings launched assault after assault on the Saxon line. After several hours of fighting, Bryhtnoth himself was mortally wounded. As he lay dying, the earl urged his followers to continue the fight. Shortly after he died, one of Byrhtnoth's sworn men named Godric left the Saxon shield-wall. He managed to catch one of the wandering horses – in fact it was Earl Byrhtnoth's own steed – and fled the battlefield. Many of the lesser men, seeing their earl's horse fleeing, assumed it was Bryhtnoth and lost heart and fled themselves.

With the Saxon force heavily reduced by casualties and desertion, the dead Earl Bryhtnoth's personal troops surrounded his body and continued the fight. The single most memorable line in the poem "The Battle of Maldon" is uttered by one of the earl's retainers:

"The spirit must be the firmer, the heart the bolder, courage must be the greater as our strength diminishes."

Shortly afterwards, the Vikings overwhelmed the few remaining Saxons, killing them to the last man, and the battle ended.

Aftermath

While the Saxon force was essentially wiped out – less the ones who fled – the Vikings sustain heavy casualties as well. One sources claims the Norsemen did not have sufficient men to sail their ships, but this is rather unlikely.

After the Norsemen left the battlefield, the local Saxons returned to collect and bury the dead bodies. They found Earl Bryhtnoth's body fairly easily. The earl's head had been removed, but his gold-decorated sword was still by his side.

Footnote #1: Shortly after this battle, the Viking raiding party was given a colossal bribe by King Ethelred, at the suggestion of Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was termed the danegeld, and it was paid to make the Vikings essentially go away. The first danegeld consisted of 10,000 Roman pounds of silver, which works out to 3289 kilograms or 7251 English pounds of gold. If converted into today's [August 5] price of silver at approximately $20 per ounce, this amounts to $2.32 million.

Footnote #2: The danegeld of 991 had the exact opposite effect. Viking raids in 994, 1002, 1007, and 1012 resulted in progressively larger danegelds. The largest was collected in 1018, when the Norse king Canute the Great – who had recently ascended to the English throne – decided to pay off his forces. He collected 26,900 kilograms (nearly 72,000 troy pounds) of silver from all over England, as well as an additional 3900 kilograms (10,500 troy pounds) of silver from the city of London alone. Again, using today's price of silver, this amounts to $21.73 million.

Footnote #3: There are standing rune stones scattered throughout Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These monuments were erected to commemorate the achievements of Norse warriors by their families. One runestone (below) is in the churchyard of the town of Orkesta, in Uppland province of Swenden. It commemorates the Viking Ulf of Borresta. The inscription states that Ulf collected three danegelds in England, the last in 1018.

Runestone U344 in Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden
Runestone U344 in Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden

Footnote #4: The battlefield is mostly unchanged in the 1000+ years since the famous fight. There is a statue of Earl Bryhtnoth dominating the site. There is also a small plaque marking the site of the stand of the Saxons against the Viking raiders.

Plaque commemorating battle of Maldon
Plaque commemorating battle of Maldon

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Comments

Thank you for putting this together. You have a great talent for telling the story. Although my father's ancestry is described today as English, never a day went by that he didn't tell me, "Don't forget, you are a mighty little Viking." I took two years of genealogy research, but I eventually found out he was he was right. Glad to see the history come alive here.

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