Maldon Battlefield

Maldon Battlefield

Battle of Maldon

Battle of Maldon

"Here in this year Olaf came with ninety-three ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Winchester MS)

In AD 978, Edward, the king of England, was murdered, "no worse deed for the English race was done than this was," and his ten-year-old brother Æthelred assumed the throne. Two years later, after a respite of nearly twenty-five years, there was a renewal of Viking attacks on the country, which culminated early in August AD 991. The Battle of Maldon marked a series of harrying raids and sporadic attacks that began that year and continued throughout the troubled reign of Æthelred the Unready until, in 1016, the king of England was defeated by Cnut, the son of Swein Forkbeard.

There already had been raids on towns south of the Thames and Ipswich to the north when the Vikings rowed up the river Blackwater to Northey Island near Maldon. Protected by the mudflats and salt marshes of the estuary, they beached their ships and established camp, separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway submerged by the tide. On the other side, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and a levy of English defenders (fyrd), having dismounted their horses and proceeded to the shore, waited for the waters to recede.

He assembled the men and arranged the shield-wall and then took his place among his hearth retainers. Presently, the Vikings called out

"...you must quickly send gold rings in return for protection. And it is better for you all that you should buy off this onslaught of spears with tribute-money than that we should join battle so grievously. We need not destroy each other if you are sufficiently wealthy; we are prepared to establish a truce in return for the gold. If you who are the richest man here decide that you are willing to ransom your people, willing to give to the seafarers, in an amount determined by them, money in exchange for peace, and to accept protection from us, we are content to embark with the taxes, to set sail across the sea, and to keep the peace with you all."

To which Byrhtnoth replied:

"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 war-gear which will be of no benefit to you in battle.... here stands with his compnay an earl of unstained reputation, who intends to defend this homeland, the kingdom of Æthelred, my lord's people and his 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 battle, before we pay triburte."

(Although it is certain that there was a battle near Maldon in which Byrhtnoth lost his life, it is not known how much of the poem commemorating the event is historically accurate or the imagination of the poet. He is not likely to have been in the battle and actually says, "I heard tell that..." Indeed, any survivors would have been considered cowards. The speeches, therefore, would not have been spoken, even if they do reflect the sentiment of the speaker.)

Then, as the flood tide receded, one of the men rashly attempted to cross and was struck down. Realizing that the causeway was too well defended, the Vikings asked to be allowed safe passage, and the earl, "because of his pride," granted it to them. "Now a path is opened for you: come quickly against us, men at war. God alone knows who will control the battlefield."

The poet writes that glory was at hand, that the time had come for doomed men to perish. Byrhtnoth soon was hacked to death together with those at his side. GODRIC’S FLIGHT

"Then they ran from the battle who had no wish to be there: and Odda’s son was earliest to leave; he was called Godric, he abandoned his good master who often gave him many a fine mare: now he leapt on that very steed his lord had been sitting on, used those trappings he had no title to; and his brothers with him both rode off, Godwine & Godwig they had little regard for fighting but turned away from the war-strife, made for the woods, fled for refuge, saved their wretched lives, and with them more people than was in any way proper if they’d at all recalled the many kindnesses, all the help the hero had given them.

Just as much Offa had said earlier on at the moot-place when there was a meeting, that many spoke there most bravely who when there was need would never match their words. Assuming that it was Byrhtnoth, deserted the field as well, leaving only his hearth retainers, who, in the poem, each speak out in defense of their lord, vowing not to retreat but to avenge him in battle and exhorting one another in what are the most famous lines of the poem:

"'The spirit must be the firmer, the heart the bolder, courage must be the greater as our strength diminishes.'"

Godric, too, "slashed and laid low, until he died in the conflict. It was not at all that same Godric who fled that battle..." Here the poem ends, with the contrast between the loyal and brave followers of a generous Christian and the disloyalty of ungrateful cowards and pagan invaders, between the Godric who abandoned his lord and the Godric who stood and fought to avenge his death.

So Godric Hero or Coward ?

A mistake in the spelling or the telling perhaps (Godwine & Godwig). Godric, too, "slashed and laid low, until he died in the conflict. It was not at all that same Godric who fled that battle..."

I must leave it to the reader to make up his own mind.

Maldon Battlefield can be PDF at the top of this page.

 

 

Edited by Michael B Goodrick 2003.