That the material has been shaped according to a literary convention is evident from the characterisation of the English participants. The most enduring image in all surviving Old English verse is that of a chieftain surrounded by a band of his close companions. The leader binds his followers to him by rich gifts which he offers at a ceremony during a feast in his hall, and they, in turn, vow absolute loyalty to him. This image was extended by Christian writers to stories from both the Old and the New Testaments. Abraham is a war-lord with his warrior band in the Old English Genesis, and in what is regarded as the earliest use of the inherited heroic form for Christian use, the Hymn to the Creation by the cow-herd Caedmon, God builds the earth as a hall for men and fills it full of treasures for them, and it is implied, though not stated, that they then owe him absolute loyalty. Christ too is seen as a leader, the term generally used in Old English for him being Drihten which is precisely the word used in other contexts for the leader of a troop of men (driht).
It is in this guise of a Germanic warrior lord with his loyal followers beside him that Byrhtnoth is portrayed by the Maldon poet (cf. Byrhtnoth identified as a giver of treasure in lines 278 and 290), and it is through this image that the poet turns his poem into an essay on loyalty, with those men who die beside their leader and thus fulfil their vows being victorious even in defeat. Unusually, however, where traditional poetry of this genre in Old English is concerned only with aristocratic life and the warfare that accompanied it, the poet of Maldon takes care to include all social classes in the pact of loyalty represented by the poem, even the peasant Dunnere (lines 255–6), and it is here that fiction may well blur with fact. There is no doubt that all social classes did take part in this battle, but it is also true that the ancestral heroic code applied much less to them than the legal obligation to fight for the king or his representative in defence of the country. In using the poem as evidence, it is therefore necessary to distinguish between the poet’s purpose, to glorify the dead, and those details of his narrative which reflect aspects of what actually happened on 11 August 991. One such act of transference between historicity and conformity to a poetic tradition occurs with the flight of some of the English troops. The poet condemns those who run away from the battle after Byrhtnoth’s death, not for desertion (i.e. a contemporary legal obligation), but for disloyalty. The characters are led by Godric son of Odda, who is portrayed as a member of Byrhtnoth’s personal entourage, who has received, amongst other gifts, ‘many a horse’ (line 188), yet he steals Byrhtnoth’s own horse to escape, the ultimate abrogation of the heroic code. Many critics have noted that, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the poem makes no mention of the names of the Vikings who took part in the attack, and it has been suggested that this may be a product of ignorance or the mutilation of the text. In terms of the structure of the poem, however, it is clear that the Vikings are no more than a mechanism, the cause of the battle, and the real juxtaposition is not between the opposing forces but between the men who are loyal to their lord and those who are not. The point is that at every turn this witness to the event has to be seen as a work of art and not as a factual account, and must therefore be subject in this context to a species of decoding.
According to the poem, Byrhtnoth’s army consisted of two groups, a trained force of professional troops surrounding the leader himself, presumably the select fyrd but modified here to represent Byrhtnoth’s personal followers as in the older heroic tradition, together with a larger body of less well-trained and less well-armed levies, i.e. the great fyrd. It would appear that the army was gathered at some distance from the battlefield, perhaps within the town of Maldon, where tactics were discussed and, no doubt, a rallying call was made, since late in the poem (lines 198–201) the character Offa is made to speak of a meeting ‘earlier in the day’, before the battle, where ‘many spoke bravely’. The reference occurs at the point when many of the English flee, and since it is confirmed in other sources that there was indeed a flight – inevitable once the leader was known to have died – the flight may be accepted as an accurate reflection of what took place. The mention of the meeting at this juncture adds little to the poet’s construction of the event, other than to confirm perhaps Offa’s view that the loyalty of many was suspect from the start, and thus there is no reason to doubt that the meeting actually occurred. After this meeting the troops would then have travelled to the battlefield, many of them on horseback, an inference confirmed by the fact that the fragment opens with Byrhtnoth ordering that the horses be driven away. Not all of the members of the English army would have had horses, and it may seem that the use of horses by the citizens of Maldon – or indeed anyone travelling the short distance to the battlesite from the town – would hardly have been necessary, especially as English armies at the time fought on foot without the use of cavalry. Even at Hastings, seventy years later, Harold and his household were not mounted during the battle if the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry may be relied on. But the horse was a sign of rank and wealth during this period, and it is likely that the select fyrd would all have used their horses as a matter of course. But the whole issue of the use of horses at Maldon is complicated by the way in which the poet uses the horse motif in the poem. First, the driving away of the horses is linked to courage in two ways. At the start of the fragment, Byrhtnoth exhorts the men to think about the performance of brave deeds as they advance on foot, and the poet cites a young, inexperienced warrior recognising that his leader would not tolerate cowardice. The driving off of the horses thus signals that there would be no ignominious flight if the encounter proved hard. This is clearly an imaginative reconstruction of an event, rather than unmediated fact. At the same time, however, Byrhtnoth apparently retains his horse in that he rides up and down his battle line to ensure that the troops are in the right position. Though not overtly stated, this indicates to the listening or reading audience that every member of the English side knew that Byrhtnoth’s horse was still on the field of battle, and thus prepares for the turning point of the conflict. When Byrhtnoth is killed, one of his immediate entourage betrays him by escaping on his leader’s horse, and the army as a whole naturally assumes that the rider is Byrhtnoth himself. This is the reason that the poet gives, through one of his characters, for the breaking of the English battle line and the fleeing of so many of the English troops. Clearly the use of the horse motif here is part of the structural design and cannot be relied upon as hard fact. The most that can be said is that some of the army arrived on horseback, but that the engagement was fought on foot.
The theme of fidelity is established at the beginning of the fragment with two cameos of individuals who show enduring loyalty to their lord, an aristocratic youth who is identified only as a relative of a senior member of Byrhtnoth’s household and who rides to the battle with a hawk on his wrist (not, as some have suggested, because he was not taking the situation seriously but as a badge of his rank), and a named warrior, Eadric. The young nobleman causes his hawk to fly off to the wood, a sign that he has no expectation that he will survive the battle. Hawks take a great deal of time and patience to train, and are very personal to the owner since they can only be taught to return to the wrist of their trainer. For the youth to release his hawk indicates his acceptance that he would never go hawking again, and the poet makes the point as an indication of his resolve. Similarly, Eadric steps forward boldly with his weapons, intending to use them ‘as long as’ he could. In each case, the image is doom-laden, implying that neither would return home safely. These are the first, in the poem as it survives, of a long list of brief portraits of brave individuals amongst the English who maintain fortitude in the face of the enemy. Although an Eadric almost certainly died in the battle, and his name appears here as part of the poet’s purpose to provide a memorial roll-call, the thoughts and intentions assigned to him are clearly fictitious.
The next section of the poem is entirely credible. It has Byrhtnoth lining his troops up along the bank of a river named later in the poem as the Pant, an early name for the Blackwater, the headwaters of which are called the Pant to this day. He told them ‘how they should form up and hold their position’ (line 19), and that they should grasp their shields properly. The shield-wall formation, a line of interlocking shields which the enemy was forced to charge against, was crucial to Anglo-Saxon battle tactics, as both literary and iconographic depictions make clear. In this instance, with a large number of untrained troops facing an experienced foe, the army could only hope to stand firm by keeping the Vikings from getting into their ranks and thus able to attack them from both front and rear. Whether or not Byrhtnoth did actually ride up and down his lines personally, as the poet maintains, he would certainly have needed someone to do so, to ensure that the shield-wall was solid and correctly formed. The poet’s use of the riding motif has already been discussed, but Byrhtnoth (or his substitute) would certainly have used his horse for this purpose both for speed and the height that it gave him. Following the inspection of the shield-wall, the poet describes the ealdor-man dismounting among his most trusted companions, contributing to the traditional heroic leader/loyal follower image which runs through the poem, and continuing the theme of loyalty which is so important to the poet’s message. There may also be dramatic irony here in that it is one of those trusted followers who is close to where Byrhtnoth ultimately falls who uses his horse to escape and who is thus responsible for the loss of the battle. Obviously, none of this portion of the poem is verifiable and must be seen in terms of an imaginative reconstruction of the event.
The poem continues with an exchange, in direct speech, between Byrhtnoth and a messenger from the Vikings, in which the latter demands tribute in return for peace and the former scornfully rejects the offer, commenting derisively that it would be shameful for the Vikings to leave without a fight having travelled such a long way. What is taking place here is the characterisation of the two sides. Byrhtnoth is presented as brave, loyal to his king, and capable of speaking without hesitation on behalf of the army, of whose loyalty he is confident. The Viking’s speech is larded with expressions that a contemporary audience would have recognised as Norse influenced, while Byrhtnoth uses legal terminology (e.g. ‘arbitrate’, line 60) appropriate to a man who regularly presided at the shire court. Though providing a convincing representation of reality, two things militate against the exchange as a factual account. In the first place, there is no recorded precedent for the payment of tribute in the later tenth century before the battle took place, and while that does not in itself prove that the Vikings might not have asked for payment, it does cast doubt on a piece of evidence which may be no more than an anachronistic device on the part of the poet designed to elevate the central figure. Knowing that tribute was subsequently paid, a contemporary audience would be unlikely to question the precise sequence of events. The second difficulty with the passage is a practical one. It is not easy to envisage an exchange of complex messages across a river which was sufficiently broad, as demonstrated by subsequent events, to prohibit the participants from crossing or using any weapon effectively except for a bow. A ‘fliting’ or scolding dispute was a regular feature of heroic verse before the onset of a physical encounter, and this exchange should probably be seen as part of this tradition.
Byrhtnoth, according to the poet, then ordered his men to advance their formation until they were lined up along the bank, presumably so that the Vikings would have to attack them by climbing out of the river and the mud that lay beneath the water. At this point the poet becomes much more specific about topography in that he makes it clear that the Vikings were at the opposite side of a channel from the English, across which there was a causeway, covered at the start of the encounter by the tide. There has been much speculation on the relevance of these details to the site of the battle, ranging from an assumption that the poet knew the area and made intelligent guesses about the conduct of the action without any specific facts on which to draw, to the assertion that he had detailed knowledge of the battle and was accurately identifying Northey Island as the Viking camp and its causeway as the place of the encounter. It was suggested above that linguistic features of the poem and details of the weaponry used indicate that it was composed close in time to the battle, and the nature of the composition as a memorial indicates that it was intended for an audience which would know something of the fight itself. It is inherently unlikely in these circumstances that the causeway – described in terms which correlate with that to Northey Island – is the poet’s invention. A detailed geological survey has shown that the channel south of the island in 991 was much narrower than it is today, little more than 120 yards (100 metres) at high tide, with a depth of water across the causeway of almost six feet (two metres). This would be too deep for a man to venture across against an armed enemy and would explain the pause that occurs in the poem before the two sides are able to meet. The fact that a pause is said to have occurred, however, is not in itself hard evidence of the geographical situation, as a pregnant pause before a battle is an effective and well-used literary device. But an experienced and able commander such as Byrhtnoth would obviously have advanced his men to the river at full tide, knowing that the Vikings would be unable to reach them until his battle-line was prepared. When in the poem the Vikings cross the causeway during the ebb-tide, they are said to travel west (line 97), and the existing causeway does indeed cross to the mainland in a south-westerly direction, the simplifying of the compass point being arguably dictated by the poet’s metre. Nevertheless Northey is not the only possible site for a battle which could reasonably be described, as in all contemporary accounts, as taking place ‘at Maldon’. Downstream of Northey is a larger island, Osea, and this too has a causeway connecting it to the mainland. In this case, however, the causeway ends at the north bank of the river, whereas Maldon, like Northey, is on the south bank. If the Vikings intended to attack Maldon and beached their ships at Osea, they would have had to cross the river again to do so. Closer again to the mouth of the Blackwater is a third island, Pewit, but this now has no causeway and is probably too far from Maldon to be described by the cartographically sensitive Anglo-Saxons as being near that town. Other islands off the north bank of the river are as close to Colchester as to Maldon, and a battle taking place there would hardly have been recorded as ‘at Maldon’. Generally, the accumulation of evidence thus suggests that the Vikings were camped on Northey Island, and the identification is as safe as is possible at this distance in time.
The geological survey of the area around Northey has concluded that the bank of the channel dividing Northey from the south shore of the river was firmer than it is today, and relatively steep, giving the English troops a slight advantage as they stood against the Viking attack. The poet indicates that bows were used to send flights of arrows across the flooded channel, but gives no exact details of casualties inflicted in this way. This omission may derive from the fact that he is at pains to stress that when the battle proper begins, the first man to die on the English side at least (and the death of Englishmen is his only concern) is a relative of Byrhtnoth (lines 113–5), his sister’s son to be precise, chosen no doubt because in heroic society there is a special relationship between a man and his sister’s son to whom the former has an obligation of protection. The death of his kinsman is a device to heighten Byrhtnoth’s close personal involvement in the battle and should not be seen as historically accurate. The man may well have died in the battle but was extremely unlikely, given the arrow shower, to have been the first of the English to do so. As the tide receded, the poem records that the commander chose three named warriors to protect the ford. Three men would undoubtedly be sufficient to protect a causeway six feet (two metres) wide, still partly covered by the tide and with deep water on either side. The deployment of a vanguard to cut down as many Vikings as possible before the main attack would be an obvious military tactic in this situation, although the position was not one that a warrior could maintain for long, as the poem indicates in the ominous phrase ‘as long as they could wield weapons’ (line 83). Of the three men named by the poet, it has been suggested that the first, Wulfstan, may have been the owner of the manor closest to the causeway, since a son of a man called Wulfstan disposed of an estate in the area in his will, dated seven years after the battle. The name Wulfstan, however, is a common one, and the evidence is therefore inconclusive. Another of the three names, Maccus, is an anglicised form of Norse Magnus, and this man may have been put into the front line because of his Scandinavian connections or even his previous life as a Viking. But again there is no supporting record to strengthen speculation of this kind.
With the Vikings still confined to the island, the poet introduces a further exchange between the two sides in which the Vikings, using ‘guile’ (line 86), ask for leave to cross the causeway and thus by implication to fight on more equal terms. Byrhtnoth, ‘because of his pride’ (line 89), agrees and allows the Vikings ‘too much land’ (line 90). Much critical ink has been spilt on this crux, some suggesting that the poet is accurately recording that Byrhtnoth’s overweening self-esteem was the cause of the English defeat, others maintaining that any responsible English general would have wished to engage the Vikings while he had an army in place rather than allowing them to sail away and attack a less well-defended site. Whatever the force of the poet’s comment, the terrain on which the encounter took place suggests that the huge weight of Viking numbers, with battle adrenalin rushing through their blood, must quickly have overwhelmed any attempt to defend the causeway, whatever the resistance. Indeed, the poet makes clear why he thinks the battle was lost at a later stage in his account (see below). In short, neither the motivation of the commander nor some presumed tactical advantage would have had much to do with the Vikings crossing the ford. The poet’s introduction of the second exchange relates once again to his characterisation of the hero, in that he places the outcome in God’s hands. His piety was clearly of great moment to the poet (he dies, for example, with a prayer for his soul), and this is consistent with the preservation of the poem in a monastic environment and perhaps with its composition there too. It must be remembered, however, that many men survived the battle and the notion that the English forces pulled back to allow the Vikings to cross the ford may therefore have some basis in fact. Rather than having three men only guarding the ford, Byrhtnoth may have placed an elite group (perhaps headed by the three named men) at the end of the crossing to take out as many of the Vikings as possible before any of them could reach firm ground. The attack would surely have begun before all of the water had ebbed from the causeway, and, with very deep water on either side, whatever their weight of numbers they would have suffered heavy casualties without making any significant headway. In these circumstances, they might well have withdrawn to the island end of the crossing, and the English general may have seen the likelihood that, if they elected to return to their ships, he would have lost the opportunity for a major confrontation while he had significant numbers at his command. Thus a tactical pulling back from the ford may have been effective, to entice the Vikings across.
The poet gives few details of either tactics or strategy during the battle itself. The account is largely taken up with single combat encounters which include some information about fighting methods, largely couched in traditional poetic phraseology, and therefore difficult to correlate with the historic event. There is little likelihood that the precise manner in which individuals died would have been known after the encounter, even the death of Byrhtnoth himself. All Old English poetic battles refer to the ‘beasts of battle’ (line 106), the wolf, the raven and the eagle, that traditionally feast on corpses when the warriors have finished their work. Here the wolves are the Vikings (line 96), appropriately, from the poet’s point of view, in that it incorporates them into a de-personalising motif. Some reliance can be placed, however, on the emphasis on spears as the weapon of choice (lines 67, 77, 124, 138–40, 226, 230, 237, 255, 262, 310 and 321–2) for the English warriors, although Vikings use them too (lines 134, 149 and 253). There is no reference to English body-armour or helmets, only shields linked to form a defensive wall, and this tactic is mentioned on more than one occasion (lines 102, 277 and 242). Spears are frequently described as being used for throwing (by the English at lines 108–9, 150 and 321–2, and by a Viking at line 134) but sometimes it is suggested that they were also used for thrusting (lines 138 and 226). The poet indicates, moreover, that the men carried more than one weapon of this kind (line 143). If they fought with spears in their right hands and those with swords kept them in their belts until their spears were lost, the shield in the left hand was of major importance for both defence and offence. Archaeological and iconographic evidence shows that the shield was round and made of wood covered with leather, and that it had a heavy metal boss at the centre, guarding the hand that held it, as well as a metal rim. Use of the shield as more than a simple defensive weapon is indicated in the poem. The poet describes how, when wounded, Byrhtnoth used the edge of his shield to snap the shaft of the spear that had pierced him, and caused the end to vibrate until it was dislodged (lines 136–7). An enemy might also be given a blow with the shield at close quarters. In engaging an opponent with the sword, it was important, according to the poet, to first break the metal rim of his shield, as the wooden planks which it held together would then disintegrate (lines 283–4). Bows and arrows are also mentioned in the poem a number of times (lines 71, 110 and 269), and a few of the English are described as using swords (lines 15, 117–8, 162–3, and 324), as are the Vikings (lines 114 and 253). There is no mention of the battleaxe in the course of the poem, but since this weapon never occurs in Anglo-Saxon heroic verse, little can be deduced from this fact other than that the poet is conforming to a literary tradition. Interestingly, only the Vikings are said to have body-armour (line 284), but it is not clear from the poem as it survives whether the writer understood the Vikings to have deployed a shield-wall. The single significant reference (line 277) is ambiguous since it is not clear whether Edward the Tall breached theirs or his own in order to reach the enemy.
Iconographic evidence adds a little to our knowledge of how the two sides would have fought. Illustrations in manuscripts show long spears one and a half times the length of the men holding them, making them around eight feet (two and half metres) long. They are held in the right hand high above the head and the users seem to thrust downwards, perhaps to get inside an opponent’s body-armour or behind his shield. Beyond this, most of our information about the conflict has to be deduced from the poem. The throwing spears were probably not thrown at random in the way that arrows were loosed, but directed at a specific target. The description in the poem of Byrhtnoth’s own, ultimately fatal, encounter with the Vikings indicates that he aimed his first spear at the neck of his opponent where the body-armour and the helmet left a gap, and, when the enemy was disabled (and presumably with the shield-guard dropped), threw a second spear through the corselet. Whereas the deadly part of the spear was its point, that of a sword was its edge, allowing the weapon to be used in a slashing motion to disable limbs. The poet reports that Byrhtnoth’s arm was cut through (lines 164–5) when he tried to draw his own sword, indicating that the spear was used first in hand-to-hand encounters. Though the importance of the shield-wall is emphasised, no information is supplied on the way that it was formed, but the Bayeux Tapestry may be helpful here in that it shows a line of men with overlapping shields. By 1066, however, warriors were encased in body-armour, and their shields are generally portrayed as kite-shaped, a style designed for fighting on horseback where the tapering end of the shield protected the rider’s left leg. At Maldon, warriors must have thrust their spears at the advancing Vikings while using the barrier of shields to protect one another against any of the enemy who penetrated beyond the line of deadly points. It has to be assumed that there would have been a body of men behind the front lines to fill any breach that occurred, and that the line extended along the bank of the Blackwater in a curve to end in each direction at the river in order to prevent any Vikings from outflanking the English troops.
Byrhtnoth, according to the poet, was appropriately well accoutred. As a wealthy aristocrat and lord of the land he was defending, he was suitably attired in an ornamented robe (line 161), with torques on his arms made of gold (lines 160–1). His horse too was fit for a prince, the saddle symbolising the throne that he would occupy when at home in his hall. When the traitor Godric rode away on Byrhtnoth’s horse (line 190), causing the rout that followed the lord’s death, one of the crimes severely castigated by the poet is that he sat on his lord’s ‘trappings’, i.e. his saddle. At Byrhtnoth’s death, the Vikings tried, according to the poet, to steal his valuable possessions. Two words for (gold) rings are used in the description of his accoutrements (beagas and hringas, lines 160–1), and his golden-hilted sword is mentioned at line 166. The word for gold in this last instance, fealo, is particularly carefully chosen as it is one of many words for yellow in Old English and corresponds to the modern word ‘fallow’. It carries the same overtones of brownish yellow that it has today, and denotes a colour reminiscent of falling leaves. The reference comes at the point when Byrhtnoth’s sword falls to the ground because his arm has been disabled, both literally and metaphorically. The finery attributed to Byrhtnoth is appropriate to a high-ranking aristocrat, and must correspond on some level with actuality. Similarly he is described as being flanked by two close companions, one of them a boy, who would certainly have been present in such a conflict to hold his standard and, presumably, his horse. According to the poet, both attendants died with him, and since they are named, their presence at the battle may be taken as fact. Some space is given in the poem to the boy who, it is implied, was unused to warfare, but the heroic poignancy of his death detracts from its evidential value. He is described as avenging Byrhtnoth’s death by pulling out the spear that had wounded his lord and throwing it back with such dexterity that Byrhtnoth’s killer was brought down. Were this true, it would imply that the boy was himself unarmed.
As far as strategy is concerned, the only significant point to be deduced from the poem is that the English shield-wall was crucial to the outcome of the conflict. Once Godric flees on Byrhtnoth’s horse and is seen by many of the rank and file who assume him to be their commander, they too turn and flee and the day is lost. The poet puts this information into the mouth of Offa (lines 237–43) who appears to be the most experienced English soldier after Byrhtnoth and may well have been his second-in-command. The length of the battle cannot be determined from the poem. The reference to an assembly (lines 198–9) might be to a conference that took place earlier on the day of the battle or possibly on the day prior to the encounter. Unless victory was assured, the Vikings would probably not have risked being cut off from their boats by an incoming tide, so it may be presumed that Byrhtnoth was killed before the tide turned on 11 August. On that day (a Tuesday), there was low water at sunrise (04.43 hours), but given the fact that there was no moon (there was a new moon on 12 August) and if the poet is accurate in his assertion that the battle took place after a standoff, it is unlikely that the conflict began at this time, i.e. during the hours of darkness. The second low tide was at 17.20, which suggests that the battle may not have begun before late afternoon, and since sunset was at 19.19, there would have been little time for an extended fight, even allowing for a lengthy twilight. Brief as the encounter may have been, however, it is clear that many of the English besides Byrhtnoth himself died, and this could not have been the case without equally significant losses on the Viking side. Both the Vita Oswaldi and the poem suggest that both armies suffered heavy casualties, and this may be taken as fact. The battle of Maldon was a major engagement, and had Byrhtnoth lived to ensure that the English fought on, its outcome might have been very different. Given what followed, his death may be seen as one of the major turning points of English history.