The events of 1006 were typical of the calamity that befell England between 980 and 1016: a generation of escalating misery during which time Viking armies roamed practically unopposed across the rolling hills of southern England, looting and burning at will. A sense of the scale of the violence can be gauged simply by the number of conflicts recorded, particularly once the eleventh century got under way. Across England, there were (give or take) eighty-eight instances of armed violence recorded in the written record in the thirty-five years up to and including 1016; this compares with fifty-one conflict events recorded over the whole of the preceding eighty years. For the people of southern England, whose experience of Viking incursions had dissipated in the early tenth century, it would have felt as though a forgotten nightmare had dragged itself upright from the mire – a revenant horror, long thought staked and buried, stalking abroad once more.
There are, of course, some issues here about the trustworthiness of the written record – chroniclers sometimes had a vested interest in minimizing or exaggerating the travails of various monarchs – but it is evident that the quarter-century after Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954 had been noteworthy for its stability, its lack of dramatic incident. This seems, in large part, to have been down to the firm grip of one king – a man largely forgotten today, but with a good claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England: Edgar pacificus – Edgar the Peaceful. It is a name that conjures up images of quiet and contemplation, a just and gentle ruler whose benevolent rule would usher in the golden age of peace and plenty that twelfth-century chroniclers imagined he and his subjects had enjoyed. It was they, however, and not his peers, who conferred the epithet pacificus upon him: his contemporaries would take a rather different view.
King Eadred died in 955, one year after seeing his rule extended, formally and finally, to include Northumbria within the English kingdom. He was succeeded by his nephew Eadwig, Edmund’s son, but he died in 959 and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar. The most famous achievement of Edgar’s reign – and the one incident for which he is chiefly remembered – came towards the end of his life. In 973, he arrived at Chester with – according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – his entire naval force, there to meet with the other principal rulers of Britain. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the potentates who were present, but probably among them were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd and Maccus Haraldsson, whom William of Malmesbury called archipirata (‘arch-pirate’) and others referred to as plurimarum rex insularum (‘king of many islands’ – probably Man and the Hebrides). No doubt there were serious and practical issues to discuss – matters of borders and security and the safety of shipping and trade and so on. What Anglo-Norman historians saw fit to record happening there, however, was a most extraordinary spectacle: at least half a dozen of the most powerful men in the islands, cowed into submission by Edgar’s majestic presence (or, more likely, the menacing presence of his enormous war-fleet), rowing the English king in a barge down the River Dee. It was a very physical, and very public, demonstration of what it meant to be a ‘little kinglet’ in Edgar’s Britain.
It may be that the way this incident was reported in Anglo-Norman sources was deliberately intended to promote an anachronistic idea of English superiority – issues of insular power dynamics were very much alive in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, indeed, have never really gone away. But there is little doubt about who was at the top of the British political food chain in the 970s and, regardless of the details of what took place, it seems likely that the meeting was partly concerned with thrashing out issues of precedence, of putting lands, people and princes into their rightful places; for Edgar seems to have been a king who was obsessed with order. His laws reveal an administration that was determined to regulate and reform – creating nationwide standards of weights and measures and ensuring that coinage was made to uniform standards everywhere it was produced: gone were the idiosyncratic designs of the old Viking kings at York. Edgar’s coinage would look and weigh the same, whether it was minted there, or in Exeter, Chester, Canterbury, Lincoln or Norwich (or anywhere else that coins were made). He was also interested in bringing the whole of his realm into administrative harmony and ensuring that justice was both available and correctly applied. Wessex had long been organized by shires and hundreds, but everywhere else had had different (though perhaps similar) systems of organization. Edgar – perhaps drawing on precedents set by his immediate predecessors – formalized this system, creating new stipulations for the way that courts were held at the hundred (or wapentake in ‘Danish’ areas) and shire level, making attendance obligatory for the land-holding class.
What really cemented Edgar’s legacy, however, was the unprecedented period of peace and stability that England seems to have enjoyed until his death in 975. It was a peace that was achieved to a certain degree at the expense of others: repeated punitive raids into Welsh territory demonstrate that Edgar, despite his nickname, was no pacifist. (Indeed, pacificus can be translated as ‘Pacifier’, just as it can as ‘Peaceable’ or ‘Peaceful’.) It was also a peace paid for through unprecedented investment in the kingdom’s naval defences: during his reign the number of English warships, according to later accounts, reached an improbable 4,800, and it is likely that reforms to the manner in which ships and mariners were recruited and obliged to serve the king began during Edgar’s reign. It also seems likely that the king’s naval power was founded in part on paid fleets of Viking mercenaries. The swelling of English royal authority may have meant that, for some Viking war-bands plying the seas around Britain, the risks of plunder were becoming intolerably high, while at the same time the wealth that the English king commanded may have become an increasingly attractive source of patronage to those prepared to work for him.
All of these achievements added up to what most medieval writers felt constituted a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the Church and bullied and humiliated all the other (non-English) inhabitants of Britain – especially the Welsh. This was the sort of thing that was guaranteed to ensure a favourable write-up, and indeed his obituary in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is largely comprised of effusive praise. And yet, in the eyes of the chronicler – almost certainly Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (d. 1023) – all of his achievements were undermined by the ‘one misdeed […] he practised too widely’. King Edgar, Wulfstan disgustedly reveals, ‘loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country’.
This censure may have stemmed in part from the pragmatic and conciliatory approach that Edgar adopted. Large parts of his realm had been settled by people of Scandinavian origin for over a century, producing a mixed population whose tastes, trading connections and family ties were as intimately tangled with the wider North Sea world as they were with the populations of Winchester, London or Canterbury. Edgar understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognizing the distinctiveness of local laws and customs in those regions which had become – in Anglo-Saxon parlance – ‘Danish’. In his fourth major law code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The sudden shift from third to second person feels clumsy when written down, but read out loud at a Northumbrian wapentake or north Mercian thing-site, it may have had real dramatic force: that sudden turn to the camera, the steady eye contact that the pronouns imply, delivered a disarmingly direct and personal address from the king exclusively to his Danish subjects.
In some ways, this recognition of a separate and parallel legal tradition stands at odds with Edgar’s stated intention (in the same code) to create laws for ‘all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion’. But, seen more broadly, this limited concession (it does not seem to have overruled all the king’s other edicts relating to coinage and administration) can be understood as the product of a keen political intelligence, one that recognized that – in the long term – the cause of national unity was better served by establishing trust and mitigating grievance than by lumbering authoritarianism. The result was the real ‘Danelaw’, a practical solution intended to bring the most reluctant of his new subjects willingly inside his vision for a coherent and cohesive English state.
Attitudes towards strangers in Anglo-Saxon England had not always been kind, but xenophobia seems to have peaked in the late tenth century, perhaps buoyed by the rising sense of English identity that had been growing since the reign of Athelstan but conditioned over two centuries of Viking depredations of one sort or another. For his own part, the king seems to have been alive to any threat that such sentiments could pose to the peace of his realm (and his revenues). In 969, ‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet,’ apparently because the locals had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Hostility to foreign nationals on England’s estuarine outposts has a distressingly long history, but few have responded so robustly as Edgar. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’.
It was presumably this sort of thing that so offended Archbishop Wulfstan. In 975, however, he would doubtless have been relieved to discover that no longer would he have to endure the ‘foul foreign customs’ that Edgar had so perversely enjoyed. For in that year the king died. He was thirty-one years old. There followed a disputed succession and the short reign of Edgar’s son Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’ – the last of the long line of ‘Ed’ kings. When Edward died in March 978, he was replaced by his brother Æthelred. The new king was only a boy of twelve, but he came to the throne already in shadow, his people divided in their loyalties: Edward had died, not of natural causes like their father, but at the hands of men loyal to Æthelred, done to death at Corfe (Dorset). Whether the new king was himself complicit in the killing has generally been doubted by historians, but it can have done little to endear those people to him who had supported his brother’s claim. Even as stories of Edward’s (improbable) sanctity and martyrdom began to spread, so Æthelred’s reputation was stained – like Eric’s – with fratricide. Little that occurred over the following forty years would help to restore it.
Thirteen years into Æthelred’s reign, in 991, a Viking fleet arrived on the River Blackwater in Essex or, as it was known then, the Pant (OE Pante). These were not the first Vikings to return to England after Edgar’s death; raids are recorded from 980 onwards and continued with little pause thereafter. The crown’s authoritarian grip seems to have slackened with mortality and inter-familial strife and it is possible that, distracted by a succession crisis, the English administration had become a less reliable paymaster than it had been in Edgar’s day, leaving swarms of unemployed marauders plying the coastal waters. Southampton, Thanet and Cheshire were attacked in 980 (the latter menaced Norwegenensibus piratis, according to John of Worcester) and Padstow (Cornwall) in 981. Portland, the scene of the first recorded Viking raid in Britain, was raided in 982, two centuries after the first ‘Northmen’ had spilled Ealdorman Beaduheard’s blood on the Portland strand. In the same year London was burned. In 986 Vikings attacked Watchet (Devon), and in 991 a fleet arrived that harried Folkestone and Sandwich (Kent), before sailing north to assault Ipswich (Suffolk). This fleet – of ninety-three ships – was led by a warlord named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Olaf. Most would agree that that individual can be identified as Olaf Tryggvason, a Norwegian aristocrat who would later – as king – be instrumental in the (often brutal) Christianization of Norway.
Olaf’s army was met on the Blackwater by an army led by the Essex ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Northey Island, a chunk of land adrift in the estuary, connected by only a narrow tidal causeway. Seen from above – as no one in 991 could have seen it – the frayed edges of the land are an alien wilderness, a madness of trackless patterns and dark pools, spiral rivulets and twisting gulleys, the rising and falling tidal waters cleansing and hollowing banks and channels, depositing the salts and nutrients that sustain a complex ecology of insects and wading birds; it is a dying landscape – swallowed by the rising waters, obliterated by accelerating climate change. A thousand years ago, the land was higher and Northey Island was closer to the mainland. But it would have presented a similar panorama – mud and water, brine and seabirds, the yellowing marsh-grasses and the cushions of dank moss, a flat and broken vista under an endless sky. The English were assembled on the mainland. Out beyond the flooded causeway, the Viking host stood arrayed on the island, their ships moored across the estuary – a hundred masts jutting from the still water like the ruins of a forest, blasted and drowned in the river waters. And there they stood, facing one another, bellowing their insults across the salt-flats as the gulls wheeled overhead.
We would know very little about what happened at the Blackwater were it not for the survival of an extraordinary poetic fragment, The Battle of Maldon, which offers in 325 lines of Old English verse a detailed and dramatic account of what transpired. The poem lacks its beginning and its end, a loss that predates the early eighteenth century, but it is remarkable that the poem survives at all. It formed part of the Cotton library (named after its collector, the MP and antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton, 1571–1631), an enterprise of far-sighted bibliophilia undertaken in the wake of the Dissolution of the Monasteries of the 1530s. Cotton’s efforts preserved the Lindisfarne Gospels and the vast bulk of surviving Old English poetic literature, among many other priceless works, but all were nearly lost in 1731 when the building in which the library was preserved – the aptly named Ashburnham House – caught fire. Much was saved – including the badly singed Beowulf manuscript, but The Battle of Maldon was destroyed. Thankfully, however, the poem had been transcribed in 1724 – less than seven years before the fire. It is this version that now provides the basis of all modern versions of the poem.
The poem begins with a Viking spokesman shouting his demands across the water, for rings (beagas) and speedily sent tribute (gafol) to avert the inevitable killing. The response that the poet places in Byrhtnoth’s mouth is the father of all doomed declamations of defiance, words that find their echo in every steadfast utterance delivered throughout England’s pugnacious history: the resolve of a proud nation – in the first century of its self-consciousness – to choose death before dishonour. ‘Out spoke Byrhtnoth,’ the poet proclaims,
lifted his shield, shook his slim ash spear, held forth with words and, angry and single-minded, gave him answer:
‘Do you hear, sea-wanderer, what this nation says? They will give you spears as tribute, the poison-tipped javelin and ancient swords, those warlike accoutrements which will profit you nothing in battle. Seamen’s spokesman, report back again; tell your people much more distasteful news: that here stands a worthy earl with his troop of men who is willing to defend this his ancestral home, the country of Æthelred, my lord’s nation and land. The heathens shall perish in battle.’
There would be blood. And yet, to fight across the causeway was impossible; for a proper battle to take place, the Viking army had to be allowed to cross, and this is precisely what Byrhtnoth, on account of ofermod, determined to do. This word – ‘over-mood’ rendered literally into modern English – has stimulated an enormous amount of speculation and learned wrangling over its precise meaning. Tolkien saw it in almost irredeemably negative terms – as hubris, overweening pride and misplaced confidence, a personal flaw that doomed Byrhtnoth, his men and his nation to destruction. Others, however, have stressed the connotations of exceptional courage, unusual reserves of energy and spirit. The ambiguities are obvious – does ‘over’ in this context imply ‘too much’ or an exceptional quantity? What, precisely, does ‘mood’ mean when it is left unqualified? My personal view is that the ambiguity is deliberate, that the poet has chosen to use a term that is essentially an empty vessel, ready to be filled with our own value judgements; all we see is Byrhtnoth, overflowing with spirit, with gusto, with eagerness to go head on with fate – it is up to us, readers or listeners, to judge his motives and his wisdom.
Across the river ‘the slaughter-wolves waded, caring not for the water, the Viking war-band; they came west over Pant, bearing shield-boards over bright water and up onto land, linden-wood braced’.
Some have observed the strategic sense of allowing the Viking army to cross; it was perhaps the only opportunity to bring this Viking horde to battle and prevent them from continuing the coastal rampage that had already struck Folkstone, Sandwich and Ipswich. This may be so, although it is worth remembering that this is a poem – a self-consciously literary product – and may not reflect reality with any great accuracy. Its purpose was to emphasize Byrhtnoth’s courage, his stoicism and the resolve of his closest followers to stand and die beside him rather than face the ignominy of surrender or retreat.
Byrhtnoth, for all his valiant leadership, was struck down by a spear and died a prolonged Hollywood death – fending off foes until finally slumping to the earth. Some of the English fled the battlefield, the poet ensuring that their names (Godric, Godwine and Godwig) would live for ever in infamy for what was – in reality – probably the wiser path in the circumstances. But wisdom was not what was at stake here: the animating ethic was one of loyalty, even in death, and of the moral courage that the English shared with their Viking enemies – the idea that to face death unflinching, though it came at them up the salt-flats as inevitably as the tide, and to die in heaps around the body of their slain lord was the greatest end to which a warrior could aspire.
The words that the poet gives to the elderly retainer Byrhtwold, steadfast despite Byrhtnoth’s demise, echo down the centuries as the unparalleled expression of heroism in defeat, the determination to go down fighting while all around ‘fighting men dropped down dead, exhausted by wounds’:
‘Will shall be harder, hearts the keener, our mettle shall be more as our strength lessens. Here lies our leader, all hewn down, goodness on the ground. He has cause to mourn whosoever from this fight thinks to flee. I am old in life. I will not leave this place, but I will lie me down by my lord’s side, by the man I think so dear.’
Maldon is a better poem than Brunanburh, a paean to heroic defeat that transmits pathos and emotional heft through the bitter-sweet song of hard-fought failure – sorrow and glory entwine together, pride and despair. These qualities are nowhere to be found in the crude triumphalism of Brunanburh, its poetic force squandered on surface glitter and hollow bluster, an English retort to the skaldic verses prepared for Viking warlords. And for all of the older poem’s proto-nationalism, it is Maldon that speaks more deeply and with greater truth to sentiments that the British have enduringly valued: that to face one’s opponent on a level field and to play the game fairly – to play with heart and courage no matter the outcome, to fight until the bitterest of ends – is where true glory resides, worth a thousand hollow victories or a thousand weaklings sent sprawling in the dirt.
The Battle of Maldon was, however, an anachronism even when it was written, a recapitulation of a heroic ideal that was growing old, couched in language that harked back to the ideals of a vanished past – to the sixth-century world of Beowulf, a legendary lost past. Perhaps this was the poet’s intention – to inspire his audience to hold themselves to a higher standard, to raise their spears in the face of unfolding calamity, a call to arms to resist the tidal wave of aggression, whatever the cost: a renewal of the heroic values of Old England. Now, however, the monsters were real, and the heroes were dying. As one scholar remarked, ‘the poem looks with longing eyes at a vanished world where heroes could act like heroes’ but in the context of ‘a world that was rapidly spinning out of English control’ – passing, as another Old English poet might have put it, into ‘dark beneath the helm of night, as though it had never been’