[Somebody complained there were no Vikings in my series. - HAC ]
England, at the end of the tenth century, was ruled by King Aethelred II. Now commonly
described as the Unready (arising from his description at the time as Aethelred Unrede,
meaning "no counsel" or "ill advised"), his reign was punctuated by ever-increasing
raids upon his territories by the ravaging and pillaging Vikings. Aethelred had no
military or diplomatic answer to their raids, so he simply raised a series of taxes,
called Danegeld, to pay them off.
The earliest raiders of this period descended upon England in small companies, which
came ashore without warning, and departed before meeting any but local resistance,
and they circumnavigated the entire British Isles in their search for booty, visiting
in the 980s amongst other places Hampshire, Kent and Cheshire, Devon and Cornwall,
and Dorset. No part of the coast was safe, and Essex and the Blackwater estuary towns
like Maldon were no exception.
In August 991 yet another body of raiders appeared off the English coast, with Olaf
Tryggvasson at their head. It was larger than any of the forces which had lately
harried the English, possibly greater than 3,000 men, and to some extent it was much
more an organised army than a raiding party. Its ravages are important in English
financial history, for they compelled the government to raise a particularly heavy
tax (danegeld) in order to buy off the invaders.
But the war of 991 would be no more than a dim episode in a monotonous succession
of disasters were it not for the great poem which describes the death of Byrhtnoth,
ealdorman (the King's representative) of Essex, in a battle against the raiders.
In the second week in August, after a profitable descent on Ipswich, 40 miles to
the north-east they entered the Blackwater estuary, and occupied Northey Island to
the east of Maldon (then called Maeldun, meaning "Hill with a Cross"). For access
to the mainland they depended then, as today, on a single causeway, flooded at high
tide, which led from Northey to the flats along the southern margin of the estuary.
Before the Vikings had left their camp on the island, Byrhtnoth, with his retainers
and a hastily assembled force of local militia, had taken possession of the landward
end of the causeway. The Vikings, as was their way, shouted across the water while
the tide was high their demands for gold and silver tribute in exchange for their
leaving. However, Byrhtnoth refused and drew up his men along the bank and waited,
as then did the Vikings, for the ebb tide.
As the water fell the raiders began to stream out along the causeway. But three of
Byrhtnoth's retainers, tough and hardened fighting men, held it against them, and
at last they asked to be allowed to cross unhindered and fight on equal terms on
Even at low tide, the causeway is no more than a few feet wide at best, and both
to the left and right is the black sticky ooze of the Essex salt marshes. A man weighed
down with arms and thick mud would be no match for those waiting on dry land. It
was a virtually unassailable position, yet with what even those who admired him most
called over-courage, Byrhtnoth agreed to their request: the pirates rushed through
the falling tide, and battle was joined.
It was a fearsome fight with no quarter asked or given on either side. The English
were well aware of the ferocity of the Vikings who in their turn knew that there
could be no surrender so far from home. The issue was decided when Byrhtnoth himself
Many, even of his own men, immediately took flight and the English ranks were broken.
What gives enduring interest to the battle is the superb courage with which a group
of Byrhtnoth's thegns (his personal military entourage), knowing that the fight was
lost, deliberately gave themselves to death in order that they might avenge their
lord. A plaque has been erected at the spot to mark the site.
"The Battle of Maldon" was one of the great epic bardic poems of the old Anglo-Saxon
language. Unfortunately, only a fragment of it has survived. The author is unknown.
The Battle of Maldon
...would be broken.
Then he ordered a warrior each horse be let free,
driven afar and advance onward,
giving thought to deeds of arms and to steadfast courage.
Then it was that Offa's kinsman first perceived,
that the Earl would not endure cowardice,
for he let then from his hand flee his beloved
falcon towards the woods and there to battle went forth.
By this a man might understand that this youth would not
prove soft at the coming battle, when he takes up arms.
Further Eadric desired to serve his chief,
his lord to fight with; and so he advanced forward
his spear to battle. He had a dauntless spirit
as long as he with hands might be able to grasp
shield and broad sword: the vow he would carry out
that he had made before his lord saying he would fight.
Then Byrhtnoth marshalled his soldiers,
riding and instructing, directing his warriors
how they should stand and the positions they should keep,
and ordering that their shields properly stand firm
with steady hands and be not afraid.
Then when he beheld that people in suitable array,
he dismounted amid his people,
where he was most pleased to be,
there amid his retainers knowing their devotion.
Then stood on the shore, stoutly calling out
a Viking messenger, making speech,
menacingly delivering the sea-pirate's
message to this Earl on the opposite shore standing:
"I send to you from the bold seamen,
a command to tell that you must quickly send
treasures to us, and it would be better to you if
with tribute buy off this conflict of spears
than with us bitter battle share.
No need to slaughter each other if you be generous with us;
we would be willing for gold to bring a truce.
If you believe which of these is the noblest path,
and that your people are desirous of assurance,
then pay the sea-farers on their own terms
money towards peace and receive peace from us,
for we with this tribute will take to our ships,
depart on the sea and keep peace with you."
Byrhtnoth spoke, his shield raised aloft,
brandishing a slender ash-wood spear, speaking words,
wrathful and resolute did he give his answer:
"Hear now you, pirate, what this people say.
They desire to you a tribute of spears to pay,
poisoned spears and old swords,
the war-gear which you in battle will not profit from.
Sea-thieves' messenger, deliver back in reply,
tell your people this spiteful message,
that here stands undaunted an Earl with his band of men
who will defend our homeland,
Aethelred's country, the lord of my
people and land. Fall shall you
heathen in battle! To us it would be shameful
that you with our coin to your ships should get away
without a fight, now you thus far
into our homeland have come.
You shall not so easily carry off our treasure:
with us must spear and blade first decide the terms,
fierce conflict, is the tribute we will hand over."
He then ordered their shields taken up, his soldiers
advancing until on the river-bank they all stood.
Because of the river they were not able
this band of men to fight the other:
there came flowing the flood after the tide;
joining in the tidal stream. Too long it seemed to him
until the time when they together with spears join in battle.
There they on the Pante stream with pride lined the banks,
East Saxon spears and the sea-raider army;
nor might any harm the other
unless through an arrow's flight death receive.
Then the tide went out. The seamen stood ready,
many Vikings eager for battle.
Then the heroes' protector ordered that the causeway be held
by a warrior stern—Wulfstan was his name—
valiant with his people: that was Ceola's son,
who the first man with his spear slain
was one who boldly on the causeway stood.
There fought with Wulfstan warriors fearless,
Aelfere and Maccus, two great in courage,
who would not at this fjord take to flight,
but stoutly against the enemy defended themselves
while with their weapons they might wield.
Then they understood and clearly saw,
that this guarding of the causeway was a fierce encounter,
and so began to use guile, the hateful strangers,
asked that passage to land they might have,
to the shore and pass the fjord would this force lead.
Then the Earl permitted in his great pride
to allow land many of these hateful people;
and so then shouted on the shore of the cold water
Byrhtelm's child—and the warriors listened:
"Now the way is open to you: come quickly to us
you men to battle. God alone knows
who on this field of honor may be allowed to be the master of."
Then advanced the wolves of slaughter, for water they
cared not for, this band of Vikings;
west over the Pante's shining water shore they carried their shields,
these men of the fleet towards land advanced their linden shields.
There against the enemy stood ready
Byrhtnoth with his soldiers. He with his shield commanded
to form the battle ranks and that force of men to hold fast
firmly towards the enemy. Then was the fight near,
glory in battle. The time was come
that these doomed men would fall in battle.
There came the loud clamor. Ravens circled around,
eagles eager for carrion. On Earth was the battlecry.
They then sent forth from their hands shafts hard as file,
murderously sharpened spears flew.
Bows were busily at work, shields received spears.
Fierce was that onslaught. Warriors fell in battle
on either side, young men lay slain.
Wounded was Wulfmaer, meeting death on the battlefield,
Byrhtnoth's kinsman: he with sword was,
his sister's son, cruelly hewn down.
There were the Vikings given requital:
I hear that Eadweard smote one
fiercely with his sword, withholding not in his blow,
so that at his feet fell a doomed warrior;
for this he of his people gave thanks for,
this chamber-thane, when the opportunity arose.
So stood firm of purpose
these young men in battle, eagerly giving thought
to who there with spear-points was first able
of doomed men's life destroy,
warriors with weapons. The slain in battle fell to Earth.
Steadfast and unyielding, Byrhtnoth exhorted them,
bidding that each young warrior's purpose to this battle,
against the Danes a desire to win glory in war.
Advanced again to fierce battle, weapons raised up,
shields to defense, and towards these warriors they stepped.
Resolute they approached Earl to the lowest Yeoman:
each of them intent on harm for the enemy.
Sent then a sea-warrior a spear of southern make
that wounded the warrior lord.
He thrust then with his shield such that the spear shaft burst,
and that spear-head shattered as it sprang in reply.
Enraged became that warrior: with anger he stabbed
that proud Viking who had given him that wound.
Experienced was that warrior; he thrust his spear forward
through the warrior's neck, his hand guiding
so that he this ravager's life would fatally pierce.
Then he with another stab speedily pierced the ravager
so that the chainmail coat broke: this man had a breast wound
cut through the linked rings; through his heart stuck
a deadly spear. The Earl was the better pleased:
laughed then this great man of spirit, thanking the Creator for
the day's work which the Lord had given him.
And so then another warrior a spear from the other side
flew out of hand, which deeply struck
through the noble Aethelred's retainer.
To him by his side stood a young man not fully grown,
a youth on the battlefield, who valiantly
pulled out of this warrior the bloody spear,
Wulfstan's child, Wulfmaer the younger;
and so with blinding speed came the shaft in reply.
The spear penetrated, for that who on the Earth now lay
among his people, the one who had sorely pierced.
Went then armed a man to this Earl;
he desirous of this warrior's belongings to take off with,
booty and rings and an ornamental sword.
Then Byrhtnoth drew his sword from its sheath
broad and bright of blade, and then struck the man's coat of mail.
But too soon he was prevented by a certain sea-scavenger,
and then the Earl's arm was wounded.
Fall then to the ground with his gold-hilted sword:
his grip unable to hold the heavy sword,
or wield the weapon. Then still uttered those words
of the grey-haired warrior, encouraging the younger warriors,
bidding to advance stoutly together.
Not could he on his feet any longer stand firmly up,
and so he looked to heaven:
"I thank you, Lord of my people,
all the joys which I on this world have experienced.
"Now I ask, oh merciful Creator, the greatest hope
that to you my spirit shall be granted salvation
that my soul to thee be permitted to journey
and into your power, King of Angels,
with peace I depart. I only beseech that
the fiends of hell shall not be permitted to harm me."
Then he was slain by the heathen warriors;
and both of those warriors which by him stood,
Aelfnoth and Wulmaer were each slain,
close by their lord did they give up their lives.
Then turned away from battle those that would not stay:
there went Odda's child first to flight,
Godric fled from the battle, and the noble abandoned
the one which had often given him many a horse.
He leapt upon the mount of the steed
which had once been his lord's,
on those trappings of which he was not fit,
he and with his brothers both galloped away,
Godwine and Godwig not caring for battle,
but turned away from this battlefield and to the forest fled,
seeking a place of safety and to protect their lives,
and many more men than what is right were there,
then if they had acted deservingly and all remembered
he, who had to them, all benefits did make.
Thus had Offa on that day first said
at the meeting place, there at the council,
that there would be boldly many a boastful speech
which at the time of stress would not endure.
So now was laid low the Chief of this army,
Aethelred's Earl. All saw those
sharers of the hearth that their lord lay slain.
But then there advanced onward those splendid retainers,
undaunted men hastening eagerly:
they desired all one of two things,
to leave life or else to avenge their dear lord.
And so exhorting them to advance was the child of Aelfrices,
a warrior young in winters whose words spoke,
Aelfwine then said, he in valiant talk:
"Remember the speeches which we had often at mead spoken,
that we on the bench had loudly uttered vows,
warriors in the hall, concerning bitter strife:
Now may we prove who is truly valiant!
I am willing that my royal descent be made known to all men,
that I was of Mercian blood greatly kindred;
my grandfather was named Ealhelm,
a wise alderman and very prosperous.
"Not shall me these people's liegeman reproach
that I of this army am willing to depart from,
a homeland seek, now that my lord lies slain
and hewn down in battle. Mine is that sorrow greatest:
he was both my kinsman and my lord."
Then he advanced onward, remembering with hostility,
then he with spear-point pierced one
pirate in their host, and to the ground lie slain
killed with the weapon. He began then to exhorted his
comrades, friends and compatriots, that they advance onward.
Offa spoke, shaking his ashen spear:
"Lo, thou Aelfwine, have your words thus reminded
us liegemen to our allegiance. Now our people's protector lies slain,
the Earl is on the Earth, and to us all is our need
that one another encourage each other
warriors to battle, while with weapons we are able
to have and grasp, the hard blade,
the spear and the good sword. To us has Godric,
that cowardly sun of Odda, all betrayed.
Many men believed, then when he rode on the horse,
on that splendid steed, that it was our lord.
Because of that happening here on the battlefield the people scattered,
the wall of shields breaking asunder. Shame on that action,
for because of him thus many a man was caused to flee!"
Leofsunu spoke and his linden shield was raised,
the board to defense; this warrior replied:
"I that swear, that from here I will not
flee a foot's space, as my desire is to advance further,
avenge in battle-strife my lord and friend.
I have no desire among Sturmere's unyielding heroes
to reproach my word, now that my patron has perished,
that I now lordless go on a homeward journey,
having turned away from battle,
but rather I shall be taken by weapons,
either spear or iron." Wrathfully he advanced,
fighting resolutely, for he despised flight.
Dunnere then said, brandishing his spear,
a simple yeoman calling out to the entire shore,
exhorting that each warrior avenge Byrhtnoth:
"One cannot retreat who intends vengeance
for our lord of the host, if their lives they care not for."
So then they pressed forward, caring not about their lives.
Then began these retainers to fiercely fight,
ferocious warriors armed with spears, and praying to God
that they might avenge their lord and patron
and on their enemy death make.
Thus the hostage himself willingly helped;
he was a Northumbrian of a brave family,
Ecglaf's child; he was named Aescferth.
He hesitated not at the play of battle,
but shot forward many arrows;
here striking a shield, there cutting down a warrior,
at almost every moment giving out some wound,
all the while with his weapon he would wield.
Yet still at the battle front stood Eadweard the tall
ready and eager, speaking vaunting words
that he would not flee a foot's ground,
or turn away back to the bank, then leave his superior where he lay.
He broke through that wall of shields and among the warriors fought,
until his bounteous lord upon those sea-men
did worthily avenge, and he on the battlefield lie slain.
So did Aetheric, noble comrade,
press forward and eager to advance fight resolutely,
Sibyrht's brother and very many others;
splitting the enemy's shields, valiantly they defended themselves.
Rang the shield rims, and sang the corselets of mail
a certain terrible dirge. Then at the battle's height
Offa a sea-farer sent to the Earth dead,
and there Gadd's kinsman was laid low to the ground:
soon it was at battle that Offa was hewn down.
He had however accomplished that vow to his lord
that he had uttered before to his giver of rings,
that either they both ride to the fortified
home unhurt or else perish fighting
on the battlefield and die of their wounds.
He lay slain nobly near the lord of his people.
Then it happened that the shields broke through.
The sea-warriors advanced,
to battle enraged. Spear often pierced
the doomed houses of life. Onward then advanced Wistan,
Thurhstan's son, to these warriors fought.
He was among the throng and slew three,
before Wigelm's child lay slain in battle.
There was severe combat. Stood firm
did these warriors in battle. Warriors perished
exhausted by their wounds. The slain fell dead to the Earth.
Oswold and Eadwold all this time,
both of these brothers encouraged the soldiers,
their beloved kinsman they would exhort through words
that they needed to endure
without weakening and make use of their weapons.
Byrhtwold spoke, shield raised aloft—
he was an old loyal retainer—and brandished his spear;
he very boldly commanded the warriors:
"Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.
Here lies our Lord all hewn down,
goodly he lies in the dust. A kinsman mourns
that who now from this battle-play thinks to turn away.
I am advanced in years. I do not desire to be taken away,
but I by my liege Lord,
by that favorite of men I intend to lie."
So then did Aethelgar's child enbolden them all,
Godric to battle. Often he sent forth spears,
deadly shaft sped away onto the Vikings;
thus he on this people went out in front of battle,
cutting down and smiting, until he too on the battlefield perished.
This was not that Godric who from the battle had flown away ...