The 11th of August commemorates the Battle of Maldon of 991 AD, where the Norse Vikings engaged in battle with the Ealdorman of Essex, Byrhtnoth, and his Anglo-Saxon forces, near the town of Maldon in Essex. The Vikings would go on to rout the Saxons, and Byrhtnoth would be slain in battle.
The Battle of Maldon took place during a tumultuous period of English history. England’s King at the time was Æthelred II, known more famously as Æthelred the Unready. Having come to the throne as a minor, Æthelred – and England by extension, were to be presided over by a regency council, one which viewed both Æthelred and the Crown of England with suspicion. The reign of Æthelred ’s father, Edgard the Peaceful, saw a period of relative peace for England, free from the Viking raids that had plagued the reigns of previous kings, whilst the reign of his brother, Edward the Martyr (975-979), was cut short when Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle on the 18th March 979AD.
Such weakness in the realm was one of the many reasons why the ‘Danes’ – the Saxon term for the Vikings – began to raid England again. Indeed, areas such as Southampton, Thanet, Cornwall and Dorset were raided by Vikings in a period of only two years from 980 to 982: less than a year after Æthelred took the throne when he was reputed to have been only 14 years old. Small-scale, Intermittent raiding would continue up until the summer of 991AD, when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the future King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), arrived in the vicinity of Maldon with nearly 93 ships, after having first raided Folkestone and Ipswich.
Such a large force had never been amassed, even in the period of the Great Heathen Army of the 9th century. During that period, when King Alfred had signed a treaty with King Guthrum that divided England between Saxons and Danes – the ‘Danelaw’ – the Vikings had been composed of many disparate ‘warbands’, that had unified as the Great Heathen Army. Alfred’s son and heir, King Edward the Elder (899-924), would later go on to repel the Danes from England entirely, in part through the construction of ‘Burghs’ – including at Maldon, where more than half a century later Olaf would arrive.
In the second week of August, after successfully raiding Ipswich, the Vikings entered the Blackwater Estuary. Though it has been debated where, it is believed that Olaf and his raiders encamped on Northey Island to the east of Maldon, according to a description given by the epic Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. The poem makes reference to a river known as the ‘Penta’, which was the old name for the current River Blackwater, and the description made by the poem referring to a singular causeway as the only way to reach the mainland from the island is no dissimilar to Northey Island’s relation to the river and its mainland.
Indeed, the high-tide flooding that characterised the island meant that Olaf and his men would have to be selective when they could cross to the mainland – an aspect that the local Saxon Ealdorman, by the name of Byrhtnoth, exploited. Having previously repelled a Viking siege in 917AD during the reign of King Edward the Elder, Maldon was meant to have been well-suited for repelling invasion, as well as for protecting the Royal Mint that had been based there since c.958, no doubt a prized target for the Vikings.
Arriving along the other side of the causeway with his Retainers – ‘Housecarls’ – and a force of local militiamen, Byrhtnoth held fast with his men. The Vikings attempted to negotiate with the Saxons, though boastfully so. They spoke of their seafaring prowess, and threatened to give battle should their demands for gold not be met.
In retort to the Vikings, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth raised his shield and waved his spear, loudly exclaiming that the only tribute the Vikings would receive would be the tips of Saxon spears and swords and that they should return home and tell their masters that in Maldon, all the Vikings would find would be ‘an earl of unstained reputation, who intends to defend this homeland, the kingdom of Æthelred , my lord’s people and his country’.
Despite Byrhtnoth’s advanced age at this point – described in the poem as a ‘grey-haired warrior’ – he was still confident of his victory. This confidence would be costly, however, as the tide soon shifted and the waters fell, allowing the Vikings to respond in kind to Byrhtnoth’s warning. The raiders moved across the causeway to give battle, but a few of Byrhtnoth’s housecarls held fast and prevented them from doing so. The raiders soon asked to be allowed to cross over and be allowed to fight an equal battle, which Byrhtnoth permitted.
Battle soon followed, with ravens circling overhead, looking for carrion corpses of the dead to feast on. The Saxons, outnumbered by the Vikings, fought bravely and with devotion to both their King and to their Ealdorman, but then Byrhtnoth was overpowered by one of the raiders. His sword arm was disabled, and his weapon fell to the ground. (A similar sword exists within the museum, as pictured below) Unable to fight any longer, Byrhtnoth instead exhorted his men to fight on, before being killed by the raiders.
What should have been an inspiring moment for the Saxon defenders instead turned into a military rout. Whilst several of his thegns fought on, preferring to die in service and devotion to their lord, many of even Byrhtnoth’s most trusted men instead fled the field of battle, leaving the Saxons to their fate.
The aftermath of the battle saw Æthelred do what Byrhtnoth had refused to: pay the Vikings to stop raiding. On the advice of the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, the King handed over nearly 10,000 Roman Pounds or 3,300Kg of silver to the Vikings – an equivalent of nearly £1.2 Million in 2023 – and a treaty between the two parties was entered, in which the Vikings would keep the peace towards the king and his subjects in return for large sums of money and provisions.
For the Raiders, the Battle of Maldon was nothing more than an opportunistic raid. Seeking rather to raid and pillage than to occupy any territory, it is argued that Olaf and his men would have merely sailed further downriver if battle had failed to break out. Byrhtnoth’s overconfidence by giving battle to the raiders, whilst characterised by some scholars as an example of personal folly, has also been argued to have been a heroic act: by fighting the Vikings at Maldon, Byrhtnoth spared other villages from the ravages of the Dane – a sort of heroism that was exalted by Anglo-Saxon culture and literature as one of the highest virtues.
The blow that the defeat of Byrhtnoth and the Battle of Maldon dealt to the Anglo-Saxon world was immense. In a society that had, since the time of Alfred the Great, long defined itself by its military successes against the Dane, the Battle of Maldon was a shameful contrast. Whilst many were keen to point out that even Alfred had resorted to paying off the Dane, it was also observed that Alfred had actually fought the Dane in person, rather than hide away.
As a result of the battle, King Æthelred ’s policies shifted numerous times. When Olaf returned to raiding England in 994, he did so with a larger force than he had used to raid Maldon. Another payment brought his peace, and he disappeared from English history to become the King of Norway. Meanwhile, Æthelred fought unsuccessfully against more Viking raids from 997 to 999, before taking advantage of the raiders’ departure to Normandy to devastate the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
In 1002, Æthelred married his second wife, Emma, who was the sister of the Duke of Normandy, Richard II. This was done partly out of attempts by Æthelred to put an end to the Dane’s usage of Normandy as a staging ground for raids on England, something which an Anglo-Norman treaty in 991 had failed to stop. His marriage entitled him to hospitality in Normandy, and so would have meant the end of the Vikings’ usage of the area as a base.
To ensure the security of his realm further, Æthelred committed an unspeakable crime in the Autumn of 1002: according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelred was warned by his councillors that all the Danes that had settled in England “would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards”, so in response to this perceived threat, Æthelred ordered the deaths of all the male Danes in England. This event, taking place on the 13th of November 1002, would live on as the Saint Brice’s Day Massacre – a massacre that certainly would not have happened, had the Battle of Maldon not resulted in the continual monetary extortion of the Saxons by the Vikings.