Battle of Maldon

Battle of Maldon

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Maldon
partof=the Viking invasion of England

place=Maldon, Essex
result=Viking victory
commander2=Olaf Tryggvason?
strength2=2,000-4,000 men
Location map|United Kingdom
label =
lat = 51.72
long = 0.70
caption = Map showing the location of the Battle of Maldon
float = right
background = white
width = 200
The Battle of Maldon took place on 10 August 991 near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex, England, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. The Anglo-Saxons, led by Byrhtnoth and his thegns, fought against a Viking invasion, a battle which ended in defeat for the Anglo-Saxons.

An account of the battle, embellished with many speeches attributed to the warriors and with other details, is related in an Anglo-Saxon poem which is usually named "The Battle of Maldon". A modern embroidery created for the millennium celebration in 1991 and, in part, depicting the battle can be seen at the Maeldune Centre in Maldon.

The Viking fleet is said in one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been led by a Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason, though this name may have been interpolated after some of the facts were forgotten. The Viking force is estimated to have been between 2,000 and 4,000 fighting men. A source from the 12th century, "Liber Eliensis", written by the monks at Ely, suggests that Byrhtnoth had only a few men to command: "he was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy". Not all sources indicate such a disparity in numbers.

The poem "The Battle of Maldon"

The Old English poem was written soon after the battleFact|date=August 2007, probably by a monk. Unfortunately, the manuscript was burned in the Cotton library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. John Elphinstone had transcribed 325 lines of the poem in 1724, but the front and back pages were already missing from the manuscript (possibly around 50 lines each): an earlier catalog described it as "capite et calce mutilata" ("mutilated at head and heel"). As a result, vital clues about the purpose of the poem and perhaps its date have been lost.

At the time of battle, English royal policy of responding to Viking incursions was split. Some favoured paying off the Viking invaders with land and wealth, while others favored fighting to the last man. Recent scholarshipFact|date=February 2007 suggests that Byrhtnoth held this latter attitude, hence his moving speeches of patriotism in the poem.

The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater (then called the Panta), and Byrhtnoth called out his levy. The poem begins with him ordering his men to stand and how to hold weapons. His men, except for his household guard, were peasants and householders from the area. He ordered them to "send steed away and stride forwards": they arrived on horses but fought on foot. The Vikings sailed up to a small island in the river. At ebb, the river leaves a land bridge from this island to the shore; the description seems to have matched the Northey Island causeway at that time. This would place the site of the battle about two miles southeast of Maldon. Olaf addressed the Saxons, promising to sail away if he was paid with gold and armor from the lord. Byrhtnoth refused.

Olaf's forces could not make headway against the troops guarding the small land bridge, and he asked Byrhtnoth to allow his warriors onto the shore. Byrhtnoth, "for his ofermōde" (line 89b), let all the Vikings cross to the mainland. The Vikings overcame the Saxons after losing many men, killing Byrhtnoth. An Anglo-Saxon called Godrīc fled riding Byrhtnoth's horse. Godrīc's brothers Godwine and Godwīg followed him. Then many Anglo-Saxons fled, recognizing the horse and thinking that its rider was Byrhtnoth fleeing. After the battle Byrhtnoth's body was found with its head missing, but his gold-hilted sword was still with his body.

There is some discussion about the meaning of "ofermōd"." Although literally meaning "over-heart" or "having too much heart", it could mean either "pride" or "excess of courage" (cf. Swedish "övermod" or German "Übermut", which mean both "hubris" and "recklessness"). One argument is that the poem was written to celebrate Byrhtnoth's actions and goad others into heroic action, and Byrhtnoth's action stands proudly in a long tradition of heroic literature. Another argument is that the poem is an elegy on a terrible loss and that the monastic author pinpoints the cause of the defeat in the commander's sin of pride, a viewpoint bolstered by the fact that "ofermōd" is, in every other attested instance, used to describe Satan's pride. However, this is an old argument ended quite clearly by Helmet Gneuss' philological study of the word which proved beyond doubt that it did in fact mean "pride". There is a memorial window, representing Byrhtnoth's dying prayer, in St Mary's church at Maldon.

Norse invaders and Norse raiders differed in purpose. The forces engaged by the Anglo-Saxons were raiding, or (in Old Norse) "í víking", to gather loot, rather than to occupy land for settlement. Therefore, if Byrhtnoth's forces had kept the Vikings off by guarding the causeway or by paying them off, Olaf would likely have sailed farther up the river or along the coast, and raided elsewhere. As a man with troops and weapons, it might be that Byrhtnoth had to allow the Vikings ashore to protect others. The poem may, therefore, represent the work of what has been termed the "monastic party" in Ethelred's court, which advocated a military response, rather than tribute, to all Norse attacks.

Other sources

The death of Byrhtnoth, an ealdorman of Essex, was recorded in four versions of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". Its Cotton Tiberius manuscript says for the year 991:-:"Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, 7 æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune. 7 on þam geare man gerædde þæt man geald ærest gafol Deniscum mannum for þam myclan brogan þe hi worhton be þam særiman, þæt wæs ærest .x. þusend punda. Þæne ræd gerædde ærest Syric arcebisceop. ":Here Ipswich was raided. Very soon after that, ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon. And on that year it was decided to pay tax to Danes for the great terror which they made by the sea coast; that first [payment] was 10,000 pounds. Archbishop Sigerīc decided first on the matter.

"The Life of Oswald", written in Ramsey, England around the same time as the battle, portrays Byrhtnoth as a nearly supernatural, prophetic figure.

In 1170, the "Book of Ely" retold and embroidered the story and made the battle two fights, with the second being a fortnight long against overwhelming odds. These texts show, to some degree, the growth of a local hero cultus.

Manuscript sources

In the Cotton library, the "Battle of Maldon" text had been in Otho A xii. The Elphinstone transcription is in the British Library.

In modern fiction

*"The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son" is the title of a work by J. R. R. Tolkien that was originally published in 1953 in volume 6 of the scholarly journal "Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association". It is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the Old English Maldon fragment. It is written in the form of an alliterative poem, but is also a play, being mainly a dialogue between two characters in the aftermath of The Battle of Maldon. The work was accompanied by two essays, also by Tolkien, one before and one after the main work.
*In one episode of the science fiction novel "Perelandra" by C. S. Lewis, the protagonist (a philologist from Cambridge transported to the planet Venus) recites "The Battle of Maldon" in order to keep up his courage while wandering dark tunnels deep under the alien planet's surface.
*The Swedish bestselling historical novel "The Long Ships" ("Red Orm") includes a long fictionalised account of the Battle of Maldon, described from the Scandinavian side.
* In David Drake's short story "As Our Strength Lessens" in Keith Laumer's Bolo series, a sentient tank named after the battle of Maldon discusses the battle with a human officer. They consider whether Byrhtnoth and his men acted nobly or failed in their mission to protect the land and people from the Viking invaders.

ee also

*Ethelred the Unready
*The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son
*The Long Ships


*"Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems" tr. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Dent, 1982 (translation into English prose).

External links

* [ James Grout: "The Battle of Maldon", part of the Encyclopædia Romana]
* Derek Punchard [ The Battle of Maldon] from the Maeldune website
* [ Battle of Maldon] Battlefields Trust London and South East article. Contains some discussion of the aftermath and consequences of the battle.
* [ The Battle of Maldon, with photograph of the famous causeway]
* Alexander M. Bruce [,+Gandalf,+and+heroism+in+The+Lord+of...-a0171579964 Maldon and Moria: on Byrhtnoth, Gandalf, and heroism in The Lord of the Rings] Article from "Mythlore", September 22, 2007.

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  • Battle of Maldon, The — (ca. 1000)    The Battle of Maldon is an OLD ENGLISH poem in ALLITERATIVE VERSE, composed shortly after the 991 battle between local English forces and Viking invaders. The anonymous poet wrote in the style of traditional heroic poetry about a… …   Encyclopedia of medieval literature

  • Battle of Maldon — noun a battle in which the Danes defeated the Saxons in 991; celebrated in an old English poem • Syn: ↑Maldon • Regions: ↑England • Instance Hypernyms: ↑pitched battle …   Useful english dictionary

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  • Maldon (district) — Maldon District   Non metropolitan district   Maldon shown within Essex Sovereign state …   Wikipedia

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  • Maldon — noun a battle in which the Danes defeated the Saxons in 991; celebrated in an old English poem • Syn: ↑Battle of Maldon • Regions: ↑England • Instance Hypernyms: ↑pitched battle …   Useful english dictionary

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