The Battle of Maldon took place on the 10thAugust 991 at the mouth of the River Blackwater near Maldon in Essex. The heroic poem about the battle was written shortly after.
Essentially, according to the poem, an army of Vikings largely from Norway led by Olaf tried to land in Maldon having made a series of unpleasant visits along the Essex and Kent coast beforehand. Olaf’s raid on Folkestone is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, at Maldon they met with resistance in the form of Earl Brithnoth (or Brythnoth) and his men.
Olaf, who was camped at Northey Island, rather than fight initially asked for money to go away – the so-called Danegeld. Brithnoth recognised that paying Vikings to go away was simply asking for another bunch to arrive so refused saying, according to the poem that the only tribute his men were prepared to offer were their spears. According to the poem there was a pause whilst the tide came in but as it ebbed the Vikings crossed the river and battle was joined. The poem makes it plain that the Vikings could not have crossed from the island where they were camped had Brithnoth not allowed them to do so. This could be translated as hubris or equally the realisation that the Saxon militia was sizeable enough to take on the Vikings and that a victory was required in order for inland raids to stop.
Initially things went well for the Saxons but then Brithnoth was killed by a spear – the poem says that it was poisoned. Most of the men of Essex fled at that point apart from Brithnoth’s loyal house carls who stood over Brithnoth’s body and fought to the death. Although Brithnoth was killed the fight was so fierce that the Vikings withdrew and did not sack Maldon. We don’t actually know the poem ended because it was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there is only a translation remaining.
Historically speaking Brithnoth’s Saxon militia may have been as many as 4000 strong. The fyrd as the Saxon militia was called was summoned after the Vikings raided Ipswich. The battle was composed of the Saxons making a shield wall which the Vikings attacked first with spears and then in the second phase with hand to hand fighting.
Of course the reason why the Battle of Maldon is remembered is not because it was unusual. Afterall this was Ethelred the Unready’s period of rule. He had become king at a young age after the murder of his brother Edward the Martyr and he would be replaced in 1016 by Swein Forkbeard. Ethelred is pictured on a coin at the start of this post. It was not a restful time to live in England. Maldon is remembered because of the 325 line poem.
Brythnoth was not a young man at the time of his death. The poem describes him as having white hair. He was a patron of Ely Abbey and that was where he was buried. Interestingly his wife is supposed to have given the abbey a tapestry celebrating his many heroic deeds – similar possibly to the style of the Bayeaux tapestry. One of the reasons he may have been such a keen supporter of Ely was that when he and his men were busy repelling assorted Scandinavians he was refused shelter and food by Ramsey Abbey whereas at Ely he was welcomed with open arms. When he left he gave the abbey a number of manors including Thriplow and Fulbourn. In 2006 a statue of Brithnoth was erected in Maldon.
In brief, Ethelred who was only twenty-four in 991 was not so wise as Brithnoth. He paid Danegeld to the Vikings not understanding that they were not a nation but individual bands of warriors and would be attracted to free loot like wasps to a picnic. Then, just to make matters worse Ethelred ordered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002 which successfully alienated those Norse families settled in England and not murdered by Ethelred’s men not to mention irritating their extended families over seas. I have posted about Ethelred and the massacre in a longer post about Edward the Confessor
‘Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey and cathedral priory of Ely’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 199-210. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp199-210 [accessed 10 August 2018].