BATTLE OF MALDON

The Battle of Maldon took place over a thousand years ago in 991 and was immortalised by an Old English poem which depicts the events of the battle. This hard fought battle was ultimately a Viking victory, and it is said that they had difficulty manning their boats to leave. In the aftermath of the battle, 'Danegeld' was paid to the Vikings for the first time and marked the beginning of a new era of successful Viking raids in England.

BACKGROUND TO THE VIKINGS



Viking
The Viking Era began at the end of the eighth century with small sporadic raids against poorly defended settlements. The attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 reverberated across Europe for its reported barbarity. Over the next several decades, raids continued in Northumbria, and spread to Ireland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands. During this period, there was no English kingdom as we know of today, rather the land was divided into four main kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

The ninth century saw a rapid increase of Viking exploration as they travelled to Spain, Portugal, Iceland, across the Baltic to Russia, as well as to Constantinople and the Islamic world. In mainland Europe, attacks along the northern coast of the Frankish Empire became so frequent that Charlemagne created a defence system to repel Viking attacks. The initial sporadic attacks during the summer months were by groups mostly emanating from Norway. These attacks evolved into longer term mass armies that built fortified encampments to overwinter, and Danes then became more involved. In 840, after the death of Charlemagne’s successor Louis the Pious, a civil war divided the Carolingian Empire, and the Danes took advantage of this dissention by forming large armies and plundering year round. They later turned their attention to England.

During the mid-860s, the Great Heathen Army attacked Northumbria and East Anglia, and Danish leaders then ruled these kingdoms for fifty years. The army moved through the country and continued to capture territory. They also established Danelaw which covered the north, central and eastern parts of England, and these areas were under Viking influence. There were attempts to fight back against the Vikings, but it is clear that they were able to outrun any significant forces the Saxons could muster. It was only until the later part of Alfred the Great’s reign that mounted defences were strong enough to repel numerous Viking attacks. Alfred further captured London which brought all the English not under Danish rule to accept him as king. His successes led to the unification of England as we know it today. After Alfred’s death, his son Edward the Elder continued to hold defences against Viking advances, and England was not troubled by the Viking threat for more than half a century.
Views of the Blackwater Estuary and Northey Island

THE BLACKWATER ESTUARY

For hundreds of years, the Blackwater Estuary has offered invaders a potential site of invasion, with its various safe anchorages and undefended islands. On the south banks of the Blackwater near Bradwell-on-Sea, the Romans strategically built the fort of Othona, which was one of nine forts built along the south east coast of England and was part of the Saxon Shore military command. Othona was in an ideal position to control the Blackwater and Colne estuaries, and would have helped to protect the Roman settlement on Uvesia, now known as Osea Island, from Saxon raiders. The Romans also built the foundations of the island's present causeway which is a mile long.

Nearly eight centuries after the Battle of Maldon, preparations were made by the French to invade Britain in the 18th century and Maldon was chosen as one of the landing sites. During WWII, defences and pillboxes were put in place along the Blackwater and Crouch estuaries to defend against invasion, and prevent a short passage to London.

Maldon was a desirable target for the Vikings as it possessed a royal mint, and though this wasn’t large it confirms the town’s importance. Coins minted in Maldon have also been uncovered in Scandinavia. Along with the royal mint, the location of the town itself would have also been desirable as it is located at the mouth of the Blackwater Estuary. The Vikings were principally sea-borne raiders, and used their ships to travel across Europe and beyond.

It was a prevalent strategy of the Vikings to use rivers in order to reach targets further inland. They would camp on easily defendable islands, and with quick access to their ships they ensured maximum manoeuvrability. In the face of a large land-based threat, they could easily move to another less defended location along the coast, and exact tribute on an unprepared population. The Blackwater Estuary and Northey Island, along with the significance of Maldon as a rather prosperous town with a royal mint, offered the Vikings an attractive location to launch an attack.

HISTORICAL SOURCES

Maldon Embroidery at the Maeldune Heritage Centre
There are numerous contemporary sources depicting the events of the Battle of Maldon, and the most famous is the Old English poem. This poem is the second oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem after Beowulf, and though not all of it has survived, it is very valuable as a resource. It is highly unusual for an Anglo-Saxon battle to be recorded in such detail and for its battlefield to be located as well. The poem's accuracy is often disputed, and though it can't be seen as purely factual, you can use other sources to ascertain the truth.

Contemporary texts largely agree that the battle took place in Maldon, that it was a hard fought battle which was ultimately a Viking victory, but the Vikings did not attack the settlement of Maldon itself. The date of 991 is agreed, as is the resulting tribute paid to the Vikings. The sources include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, and Symeon of Durham. Some sources are less valuable than others, Liber Eliensis or the Book of Ely for example. This account was more likely written to celebrate Byrhtnoth himself as he was a patron of Ely Abbey. Liber Eliensis states that Byrhtnoth met the Vikings “with an armed force and destroyed nearly all on the bridge over the water”, and its version of events is not depicted anywhere else.

The poem of the battle remains to arguably be its most important source of information, not only for its detail and historical value, but for its emotive narrative verse as well. We can understand how people wanted to depict the battle, with its violence, its personal stories, its fiercely loyal warriors and the loyalty of Byrhtnoth's men who continued to fight even after he was killed. Below is a snippet of the Battle of Maldon poem, where Byrhtnoth reportedly made a speech after the Vikings demand tribute.

"Gehyrst þu, sælida,     hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole     garas syllan,
ættrynne ord     and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu     þe eow æt hilde
ne deah.
Brimmanna boda,     abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum     miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð    
eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean     eþel þysne,
Æþelredes eard,     ealdres mines,
folc and foldan.     Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde.     
To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum     to scype gangon
unbefohtene,     nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard     in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe     sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg     ær geseman,
grim guðplega,     ær we gofol syllon."
Battle of Maldon

"Sea raider, can you hear what this army is saying?
They intend to give all of you spears as tribute,
deadly points and tried swords,
payment in a tax of war-gear which will be of no benefit to you in battle.
Messenger of the seamen, report back again!
Tell your people a much less pleasing tale,
that here stands with his company an earl of unstained reputation
who defends this homeland,
the kingdom of Aethelred, that of my lord,
the people and the country. They shall fall,
the heathens in battle. It appears to me too shameful
that you should return to your ships with our money
unopposed, now that you thus far in this direction
have penetrated into our territory.
You will not gain treasure so easily:
spear and sword must first arbitrate between us,
the grim game of war, before we pay tribute."

LEGACY

The Battle of Maldon marked the beginning of a new era of successful Viking raids in England as it was the first major encounter that began the second wave of Viking attacks. It also marked the first time ‘Danegeld’ was given to the Vikings, and spurred King Æthelred to form a central strategy in dealing with them. Æthelred II reigned as King of the English from 978 to 1016 and is often referred to as Æthelred the Unready. The name comes from his reputation for being incapable of defeating the Viking raiders, and he has not been viewed favourably by history. This perspective of his reign is not entirely accurate as he appeared to be a great law giver, responsible for issuing one of the largest number of law codes.

He also expanded the structures to form his kingdom by issuing numerous charters and diminishing the power of the ealdormen. He was able to extend his power to the localities and make his power felt. Æthelred also faced Vikings attacks which were more numerous and better organised than Alfred the Great. Alfred had opportunities to mobilise defences and also benefitted from the Vikings attacking other kingdoms around him.

Though it could be seen as cowardly, it was strategically more valuable for Æthelred to pay tributes and secure temporary peace with the Vikings, giving him an opportunity to build up military defences and naval forces. This does not however negate his failings as a ruler, but sheds light onto his successes and gives context to the political landscape of his reign. Æthelred’s reign also paved the way for William the Conqueror less than a century later, who effectively claimed that all English land belonged to the king himself. This immense feat could not have been accomplished without the foundations of a king able to extend his power into the localities.