The Battle of Maldon I

By their very nature, battle sites leave little in the way of archaeological remains. The English dead following the battle of Maldon would have been carried away to be given honourable burial, and the Vikings may well have dealt with their own casualties, or, if that were impossible, the English would have left them for nature to take care of, or perhaps burnt them. Material objects such as weapons and armour were useful to both sides, and such weapons as the Vikings left on the field would have been quickly taken by the English survivors. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the dead being stripped of body armour. For knowledge of most early battles we are dependent on literary sources, and in the case of Maldon, we have a surprisingly large number. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported the encounter, but only (in the case of chronicle A) in the starkest terms, noting the large size of the fleet, the outcome of the conflict and its repercussions. There is also a short account of the battle in the Vita Oswaldi or Life of St Oswald (bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, died 988), which is a work by Byrhtferth, a monk of Ramsey, who is known to be the author of a number of texts in the decade or so after the fight occurred. That Byrthferth was writing so soon after the event might be seen at first sight as giving his work particular authority, especially as Ramsey benefited from Ealdorman Byrhtnoth’s will and might have wished to preserve an accurate account of his death. The abbey was a relatively minor beneficiary, however, in comparison with Ely, and the account of Byrhtnoth’s fall in the life of St Oswald has to be read in the light of its author’s habitual style, which depends more on rhetorical patterning and grand gestures than attention to detail. After stating that Byrhtnoth’s personal retinue fought alongside him and that he encouraged his men when they were in battle formation, he tells us that the hero of his narrative was tall and white-haired (both confirmed by other sources), and that he struck blows with his right hand and protected himself with his left, unmindful of the weakness of his body. In a particularly grandiose passage, he has him fighting in the thick of the battle, adding, more pertinently perhaps:

An infinite number of them and us were killed, and Byrhtnoth himself was killed, and the remainder fled. The Danes too were severely wounded; they were scarcely able to man their ships.

For all its probable historical deficiencies, it may be deduced from this that it was generally understood at the time that the battle was a major encounter. No doubt many of the English ran away (a possibility which will be explored below), and no doubt Viking numbers were considerably depleted. But just how many of their ships were incapacitated is not clear, given the Chronicle report that a large sum was paid to the Vikings after the battle to prevent further depredations along the south-east coast.

Three other types of source material give us information about the battle: monastic records of Byrhtnoth’s death, monastic chronicles, and the English poem now usually known as The Battle of Maldon. The first of these are notices deriving from the fact that Byrhtnoth, as both a pious defender of the Church party in the disputes that arose after King Edgar’s death, and a generous benefactor of monasteries in his will, was remembered by the monks in their prayers on the anniversary of his death. To ensure that they commemorated him on the right day, his obit was recorded in three necrologies (lists of deceased members of the monastery or significant persons associated with it) added to calendars, originating from monasteries in Winchester, Ely and Ramsey. The Winchester obit is in a calendar written by the monk Ælsinus for Ælfwine, the deacon of the New Minster. Since Ælfwine became deacon in 1023 and was promoted to abbot in 1031 or 1032, the manuscript can be dated with unusual precision. The date may be further narrowed by the entry for Ælfwine’s mother, who died in 1029, which means that the calendar was written around 1030. It gives the date of Byrhtnoth’s death as 11 August, and since the manuscript was written within living memory of the battle, this date may be seen as reliable. The two other obits are from less secure sources. The first records his death as 10 August and is in an Ely calendar copied at the end of the twelfth century. Though Ely is a place that particularly revered the memory of Byrhtnoth, it would not be surprising to find a slippage of one day in a calendar copied two centuries after the event. For the last calendar, made at Ramsey, we have no surviving medieval evidence but only a sixteenth-century copy of a manuscript that was lost during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, but this again records the death as occurring on 11 August, giving further confirmation of the Winchester date for the battle.

The ecclesiastical chronicles were compiled in monasteries primarily to record events that pertained to their houses, and were especially concerned to note documents and evidential matter proving how and when they acquired land, thereby proving their entitlement to their wealth. Among a number of chronicles which mention the battle and its outcome, that of John of Worcester which records the names of the Viking leaders as Justin and Guthmund. Of the rest of his brief account, only one sentence is significant:

Not long afterwards Byrhtnoth, mighty ealdorman of the East Saxons, engaged in battle with them near Maldon but after an infinite multitude had been killed on both sides, the ealdorman himself fell.

The phrase ‘not long afterwards’ is reminiscent of the ‘very soon after that’ of the account of the battle of Maldon in the CDE chronicle and may well be drawn from it. If that is the case, the rest of the passage may be an imaginative elaboration of the Chronicle account, interwoven with material drawn from the 994 treaty that names Justin and Guthmund as present in England, together with Olaf Tryggvason. If this chronicle is not reliant on CDE, however, we have here an independent witness to the significance of the battle in terms both of the number killed on each side and of the length of the engagement – and the information supplied by John is supported by the evidence of the much earlier Vita Oswaldi. Although the Vita and John’s account both speak of the large number of dead, the actual Latin words used are different in the two versions, and therefore the reports must be considered to be independent of each other, even though, for material elsewhere in his chronicle, John is known to have drawn on the Vita. There are a few other later chronicles which mention the battle but all are clearly dependent on either John or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and add nothing to the information that they afford.

There are two independent twelfth-century monastic chronicles, however, which are of significance, one at Ely and another at Ramsey. Both of these houses, as has been noted, received bequests from Byrhtnoth and from other members of his family, and they were therefore at pains to remember him and praise his generosity. As with all monastic chronicles, they were written to serve a particular agenda, notably to promote the importance and prestige of the writer’s house, and they must be read with that project in mind. The Liber Eliensis has been mentioned as a source of information on Byrhtnoth and the battle. Like all other chronicles, it borrows from earlier works, including John of Worcester’s Chronicle of chronicles and the Vita Oswaldi. There are also chronological errors in much of the material presented, including the names of the abbots of both Ely and Ramsey in 991. These errors call into question the absolute reliability of statements made about the battle when the information is unconfirmed by other sources, even at points where the author is emphatic that what he says is drawn from earlier writings. Nonetheless, his testimony is patently of interest. Commenting upon Byrhtnoth’s eloquence, strength and height, the writer calls him a great leader and one who fought many battles. He is eloquent in his praise of his defence of the monasteries after the death of Edgar, and continues with an account of his role in the defence of England against the Danes. It is here that we arrive at the crucial passage:

At a certain time when the Danes landed at Maldon and he heard the news, he met them with an armed troop and destroyed nearly all of them on a bridge over the water. Only a few of them escaped and sailed to their own country to tell the tale. When Duke Byrhtnoth [the Latin title is dux, literally Duke, presumably seen as equivalent to ealdorman] returned with speed to Northumbria after this victory, the Danes, greatly saddened with what they heard, prepared another fleet, hurried to England, and, led by Justin and Guthmund Stectason, landed at Maldon again after four years to avenge the killing of their men. When they reached the harbour and heard that it was Byrhtnoth who had done these things to their men, immediately they sent word that they had come to avenge them, and that they would see him as a coward if he would not undertake to join battle with them. Moved to foolhardiness by their messengers, Byrhtnoth called together his former companions in this affair and, led by the hope of victory and his excessive boldness, he set out with a few warriors on the journey to battle, taking care and hastening lest the enemy army should occupy as much as one foot’s length of land in his absence.

The features of this account that are clearly drawn from earlier chronicles are the names of the Viking leaders and the fact that a battle was fought by Byrhtnoth at Maldon. It is possible that some further elements are drawn from a copy of the Old English poem on the theme, though not from the version that has survived to modern times, or perhaps from a Latin summary of that work. The fact that the fight took place on a bridge, that Byrhtnoth displayed excessive boldness, and that he refused to allow the Vikings one foot of land all occur in the poem, though the Old English word bricg which occurs in the text of the poem that survives means ‘ford’ rather than ‘bridge’. The overlap is too great to admit any other explanation than that the chronicle is dependent to some degree on the poem. However, the Ely chronicler’s assertion that there were two battles, the second a re-run of the first, is both unlikely and without confirmation elsewhere. It has to be seen as error or fabrication, linked perhaps to the long digression that follows on the respective merits of Ramsey and Ely in terms of the fulfilment of their charitable mission. The Benedictine Rule places a clear obligation on monasteries to provide bed and board for travellers, and the Ely account records that Byrhtnoth, as he led his troops south from Northumbria, called first at Ramsey and was offered food for only himself and seven of his men – an offer to which Byrhtnoth responded in the manner of Alexander, who refused to sup before his soldier (as reported in the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle which was widely read in monastic circles). Ely, on the other hand, which Byrhtnoth visited next, offered ‘royal hospitality’, in return for which Byrhtnoth bequeathed the monastery a vast number of estates, all of which are listed, as well as a series of valuable items and quantities of gold and silver, on condition that his body was buried in the church. A number of factors point to the unreliability of this account. At over sixty years of age, Byrhtnoth would certainly have made a will disposing of his possessions long before undertaking his last battle, and would similarly have made earlier provision for his internment. More tellingly, the names of the abbots mentioned in the course of the account are incorrect. The chronicler, in short, is weaving a story of how the abbey came to be in possession of Byrhtnoth’s estates to give credence to the contention that they were willed to the foundation.

The Ely account goes on to relate that the second battle of Maldon lasted for fourteen days, despite the fact that the enemy were there in greater numbers than before and Byrhtnoth had only a small number of men. It claims that on the last day, with his own army severely depleted, he almost put the Vikings to flight after considerable carnage, but they made one last push against him as a group and ‘just managed to cut off his head as he fought’. Once again, that account is manifestly erroneous in some respects. No battle lasted for more than a day in this period, much less fourteen, but the claim that Byrhtnoth’s head was cut off is a true one, as the chronicler would know for himself from the fact that his body, minus its head, was buried at Ely and translated to a different position within the church in the twelfth century, not long before he was in process of improving his record.

The Ramsey Chronicle account of the battle and of the house’s relations with Byrhtnoth are, perhaps surprisingly in view of the light in which Ramsey itself is shown, remarkably similar to the Ely record. The Ramsey chronicler attempts to explain his abbot’s position more fully and to belittle the generosity of Ely’s abbot, but it is nonetheless apparent that the two versions are closely connected. Unlike the Liber Eliensis, this chronicle makes no mention of two battles at Maldon, or even one, but states that Byrhtnoth passed Ramsey by ship (technically possible since Ramsey is in the Fens) with a large number of troops and asked the abbot for food. The abbot replied that he had insufficient bread for the army as a whole but could feed Byrhtnoth and six or seven of his companions. Byrhtnoth’s response again accorded with that attributed to Alexander (i.e. that it would be improper for the leader to satisfy himself while his soldiers went without) whereupon the ‘shameless’ abbot of Ely sent word that he would offer hospitality with ‘copious provisions’. Accordingly, ‘with the trivial price of their liberality’ the monks of Ely gained the gratitude of Byrhtnoth and with it many of his lands, including some that had been destined for Ramsey. The chronicler nevertheless mentions two properties that Byrhtnoth did in fact grant to his house ‘in a charter of King Edgar’. Although the surviving charter relating to those particular properties is a forgery, there is no doubt that Ramsey did receive them from Byrhtnoth, and that they were granted in Edgar’s reign when Ramsey was founded in 966. The gifts to Ramsey are associated with Byrhtnoth’s close friendship with Ramsey’s founder, Ealdorman Æthelwine of East Anglia, however, rather than with any interest of his own in Ramsey itself. All other evidence suggests that Byrhtnoth’s family as a whole favoured Ely, an ancient abbey which had fallen into decay under Danish rule but was re-founded by Bishop Æthelwold in 970 with King Edgar and Byrhtnoth himself as its principal lay patrons.

What factual information, then, may be deduced from the two chronicles? Ramsey’s offers no information that is not in Ely, and where the two overlap, the only point of interest is that Byrhtnoth was involved with both houses. It would seem that at some point Byrhtnoth did visit both with a large entourage, but it is doubtful that this was when he was on his way to fight at Maldon. The evidence points to the Ely account being based on earlier sources, but with considerable embroidery on the part of the chronicler. One of those sources must have contained an account of the competition between the two houses for Byrhtnoth’s support, but how accurate the story of the feeding of the army is can never be known. In short, neither account affords any reliable information on the marshalling and organisation of the English army in the lead-up to the battle of Maldon.

The most immediate and detailed report of the battle comes from a fragmentary vernacular poem now generally known as The Battle of Maldon but referred to by various titles such as The Death of Byrhtnoth in the nineteenth century. The work survived to the modern period in a single manuscript copy, discovered in the sixteenth century. It may have belonged to Lord Lumley in 1596 if a library catalogue entry which refers to a ‘Saxon fragment’ is to be identified with this text, but it certainly had come into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) by 1621. Cotton was an indefatigable antiquarian who had begun to collect medieval materials when he was only seventeen years old, and the very large library that he assembled in the course of his life passed into public hands in the seventeenth century, and ultimately became an important part of the British Library. Cotton’s library was unfortunately subject to a disastrous fire in 1731, however, in which many early manuscripts perished. The one which contained the poem, shelf-mark Otho A.xii, was badly affected, and all the leaves on which the poem was written were totally lost. Happily, before it was burnt, the manuscript had been described and its contents copied and published, and there is no reason to doubt its authenticity as a medieval document. Since the manuscript itself has not survived, it is impossible to date the copy of the poem it contained, and without the terminus that information would have supplied, critics have vigorously debated the poem’s date of composition. Arguments advanced include dates as late as the middle of the eleventh century. In order to assign a possible time of composition to the poem it is necessary to take careful note of the language used, and of precisely what is said about the battle. From a linguistic viewpoint, the best guide to the poem’s date is the form given for the name Byrhtnoth, which in the early tenth century was spelt Beorhtnoth, and which in the eleventh became Brihtnoth. The spelling Byrhtnoth used throughout the poem occupies a narrow window in other records at the end of the tenth century. If the poem was not composed and written down at that time, its scribe had a remarkable knowledge of late tenth-century writing habits. As regards content, the poem offers two pieces of evidence: first, English armour is described in terms appropriate to conditions before 1008 but not after that date, suggesting either the poet was composing before 1008 or that he had an unusual understanding of military history. Secondly, the long list of names of English participants in the battle includes many that would be apposite to 991 but not later. Some are names of people who had lands in Essex and might be expected to have fought to defend them, though there is so much repetition in the use of Anglo-Saxon names it may be misguided to identify those named with specific individuals. Others mentioned are historical figures who are not known to have survived beyond 991, including Byrhtnoth himself, and Ælfwine, whom the poet calls the grandson of Ealdorman Ealhhelm of Mercia (Ealhhelm indeed having a grandson with that name). The accretion of convincing detail is so great that it seems highly unlikely that a poet writing at a distance from the battle could have achieved this degree of authenticity. It may thus be assumed that the poet was writing near enough in time to the historical event for his poem to serve as a memorial work – as the inclusion of the extensive list of names suggests. If so, it may be further assumed that the general account of the conduct of the battle given in the poem is an accurate one since the work is designed for an audience that had second- or even first-hand knowledge of the encounter. Writers close to the event, such as the compiler(s) of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the monk Byrhtferth of Ramsey, refer to it in terms that suggest that there were many people in the England of the period who had a clear idea of what took place, and there must also have been a large local community to whom those named in the poem would have been known. The poem could function as a memorial only if it was directed towards an audience familiar with the participants, able to appreciate the extolling of their deeds, and acquainted, from survivors, with the general conduct of the battle.

Before considering how far the information supplied by the poem is reliable, however, it is necessary to recall the nature of poetry itself. While it is true that history in the form of a chronicle may be written in verse, if the composition displays other poetic devices, for example the use of imagery, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish the factual elements of the poem from the imaginative arena that the writer creates. In the case of The Battle of Maldon, the poet’s imaginative engagement with his narrative is clear in aspects of his work. He assigns speeches to his characters, for example, and describes their thoughts and intentions, neither of which can directly reflect events in the heat of battle. The Battle of Maldon may be seen, in fact, not as versified history but as a type of epyllion, a literary form which describes a single heroic incident from the past, epic in theme and tone but shorter than the conventional epic, and narrower in scope. Of course, the length of the original poem can only be guessed at, but the narrative structure as it has come down to us points to relatively little having been lost. Although both the beginning and end are missing, there is good reason to assume that what is lacking is a general introduction to the battle, and a heroic conclusion in which the remainder of the vanquished die heroically. Descriptions of the manuscript before it was burnt make clear that the poem survived on three parchment sheets folded to make six folios or twelve pages, and they were perhaps preserved as part of the binding of a later medieval book. Since in the Anglo-Saxon period manuscripts regularly consisted of four sheets folded to make an eight-leaf quire, it is a reasonable speculation that no more than a single outer leaf has been lost. This means, to judge by the surviving material, that about fifty lines of verse have been lost at the beginning and the same number at the end, or rather less if the poem ended before the bottom of the last page.

The Battle of Maldon Poem


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