Addendum to The Vikings Return I: Unready

The Battle of Maldon

On the 10th or 11th of August 991, English forces were defeated by a Viking army at Maldon. Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, was killed in the fighting. Seemingly soon afterwards, whilst the memory was fresh, the event was commemorated in a vernacular poem, known today as The Battle of Maldon. It survived into (relatively) modern times in a single, incomplete, copy – both its beginning and end were missing. This copy found its way into the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631).

The Cotton Library was bequeathed to the nation by Sir Robert’s grandson, Sir John Cotton, who died in 1702. On Saturday 23rd October 1731 there was a fire at Ashburnham House, Westminster, where the library was housed, in which The Battle of Maldon was destroyed. Fortunately, a transcript of the poem had previously been made, by one David Casley, underkeeper of the library. This transcript had been used, by historian Thomas Hearne, to produce a printed version in 1726. In the early 1930s, Casley’s transcript was discovered among papers belonging to Hearne.[*]

The poem, as it now exists, begins with Byrhtnoth deploying his troops for battle. He orders them to dismount and chase their horses clear of the site. He rides amongst them, giving instruction and encouragement, before himself dismounting amongst his most loyal retainers.


  mmmmmmmmmm… was broken.
Then he ordered every young soldier to send off his horse,
drive it far off and go forward,
pay heed to hands and high courage.
5 When the kinsman of Offa first discovered
that the earl would not suffer slackness,
he let fly from his hands his favourite hawk
off to the woods, and advanced to the battle;
by that you knew that the young warrior
10 would not weaken at battle, when he took up weapons.
Likewise Eadric wished to support his leader,
the lord in the fight; forward he went
with his spear to battle. He had a stout heart
as long as he might hold in his hands
15 board [i.e. shield] and broad sword; he fulfilled his boast
when he had to fight before his lord.
nmThen Byrhtnoth began to array the troops,
ordered, instructed, and showed the soldiers
how they should stand and hold the field,
20 told them to hold their shields securely,
firm in their fists, and never be afraid.
When he had properly organized all those men,
he dismounted among the men where he most wanted to be,
where he knew his retinue most loyal and brave.

Byrhtnoth’s men are facing a Viking army across a tidal river – the Pante (now the Blackwater). A Viking spokesman (none of the Vikings are named) calls across the water. He demands tribute, saying it would be in Byrhtnoth’s interests to buy peace, rather than to engage in battle. Byrhtnoth replies that he will not give up without a fight, and orders his men to form a shield-wall along the river-bank. At length, the tide recedes, exposing a narrow causeway.


25 nmThen on the riverbank, stoutly shouting,
stood a viking messenger who made a speech,
broadcast the boast of the seafarers
to the earl [Byrhtnoth] where he stood on the shore:
“Bold seamen have sent me to thee,
30 commanded me to say that thou must quickly
send us rings for protection; and it is better for you
to buy off this spear-storm with tribute
than for us to share such a hard battle.
We needn’t ruin one another, if you’re rich enough;
35 we’ll call a truce in exchange for gold.
If thou, the richest here, agree to this,
that thou wilt ransom thy people,
give to the seamen all the money they want
in exchange for peace, and take a truce with us,
40 we’ll go back to our ships with your gold coins,
sail off on the sea, and hold you in peace.”
nmByrhtnoth spoke out, raised his shield,
shook his slender spear and made a speech,
angry and resolute, he gave this answer:
45 “Do you hear, seafarer, what this people says?
they will give you spears for your tribute,
poisoned points and ancient swords,
the heriot that will not help you in battle.
Messenger of the sailors, take back a message,
50 tell your people much more hateful news:
here stands an undisgraced earl with his army,
who will defend this homeland,
the land of Æthelred, my own lord,
the folk and the fields. Fated are heathens
55 to fall in battle – it seems too shameful to me
to let you go with our gold to your ships
without a fight, now that you have come
this far into our country.
You shall not get your treasure so easily;
60 points and blades will settle this business,
grim war-play, before we pay tribute.”
nmThen he commanded his men to carry their shields
until they all stood on the river’s edge.
The water kept each troop from the other
65 when the flood came flowing after the ebb,
locking the water-streams. It seemed too long
until they could bring their spears together.
They stood arrayed on the shores of the Pante,
the East Saxon vanguard and the Viking army;
70 neither side could strike at the other,
unless one might fall from an arrow’s flight.
The tide receded; the sailors stood ready,
a great many Vikings eager for battle.

Three brave Englishmen fiercely defend the crossing-place, keeping the Viking host pinned-down on the other side of the channel. The Vikings decide on a change of tactic, and, playing on Byrhtnoth’s pride, goad him into letting them cross.


  The protector of heroes [i.e. Byrhtnoth] ordered a hardened warrior
75 to hold the causeway; he was called Wulfstan,
the son of Ceol, brave among his kinsmen;
he shot with his Frankish spear the first man
who stepped most boldly across the bridge.
Beside Wulfstan stood fearless warriors,
80 Ælfere and Maccus, two valiant men
who would not take flight at the ford,
but stoutly defended themselves against the foe
as long as they might wield weapons.
When they perceived this, and clearly saw
85 that they would meet bitter bridge-wardens there,
the hateful visitors hatched a plot –
they asked if they could have access
to lead their footsoldiers across the ford.
nmThen the earl in his overconfidence began
90 to allow too much land to that hateful people.
Over the cold water he called out then,
the son of Byrhthelm [i.e. Byrhtnoth], while the soldiers listened:
“Here’s room enough – now come quickly to us,
bring on the battle; God alone knows
95 who will hold this place of slaughter.”
On came the slaughter-wolves, not minding the water,
the Viking troop went west over the Pante,
carried their shields over the shining water,
the seamen bore their linden shields to land.
100 nmAgainst the attackers Byrhtnoth and his men
stood ready; he ordered them to raise
the battle-wall with their shields, and stand
fast against the foe. The fight was near,
glory in combat; the time had come
105 when fated men should fall.

Battle is joined. Byrhtnoth is wounded by a spear, but carries on fighting. He is struck by another spear, and still carries on. His sword-arm is then wounded, so he can no longer fight, but he still spurs his men forward. He is now so weak he can barely stand, and he is hacked to death.


  The cry was raised, ravens circled,
the eagle longed for prey, and panic was on earth.
They let fly the file-hard spears,
grimly ground spearheads from their grip;
110 the bows were busy, the shield-boards took the arrows.
The attack was bitter, on either hand
warriors fell, young men lay dead.
Wulfmær was wounded, chose his bed of slaughter;
the kinsman of Byrhtnoth, savagely cut
115 to pieces with swords, his sister’s son.
Payback was brought to the Vikings for that:
I heard that Eadweard struck one fiercely
with his sword – not stingy with strokes –
until at his feet fell the doomed soldier;
120 his leader gave thanks for that
to his chamberlain when he had the chance.
nmAnd so they stood their ground, stouthearted
young men at war, eagerly worked
to see who might be the first to win
125 the life of a doomed man with his spear,
soldiers with weapons; slaughter fell on earth.
They stood steadfast; Byrhtnoth encouraged them,
ordered each young warrior to give thought to war
if he hoped to earn fame from the Danes in the fight.
130 nmThen came a tough warrior, weapon raised,
his shield for protection, and stepped toward him [Byrhtnoth].
Just as firmly went the earl [OE eorl] to the churl [OE ceorl];
each of them thought to harm the other.
The sailor sent off his southern spear
135 so that the lord of warriors [Byrhtnoth] was wounded;
he [Byrhtnoth] shoved with his shield so that the shaft broke in two,
and sprung out the spear when the point sprang back.
The warrior [Byrhtnoth] was furious – he stabbed with his spear
the proud Viking who gave him that wound.
140 The battle-leader [Byrhtnoth] was bold – he let his spear go forth,
his hand threaded it through the young man’s neck
and he took the life of his attacker.
Then without waiting he stabbed another
so his armour burst; he was wounded in the breast
145 through his ring-mail, a deadly point
stood at his heart. The earl was the happier;
he laughed, brave man, and thanked his Maker
for the day’s work the Lord had allowed him.
nmThen one of the Vikings threw a spear from his hand,
150 let it fly from his fingers so it went too far,
through the noble thegn of Æthelred [i.e. Byrhtnoth].
By his side stood a half-grown young warrior,
a boy in the battle, who very boldly
drew out the blood-drenched spear from the man –
155 Wulfstan’s son, Wulfmær the Young –
and sent the hard spear flying back again;
the point went in, so he lay on the earth,
the one who had grievously wounded his lord.
Then an armoured man went to the earl,
160 he wanted to plunder the warrior’s gear,
his robes and rings and decorated sword.
Byrhtnoth drew his sword, broad, bright-edged,
from its sheath, and swung at his mail-coat.
Too soon one of the seafarers stopped him
165 with a wound in the earl’s arm.
The gold-hilted sword fell to the ground;
he could no longer hold the hardened blade,
or wield a weapon. But still the old warrior
said what he could, encouraged the young men
170 and bade them go forth as good companions.
He could no longer stand steady on his feet;
he gazed up to heaven:
nm“I give thee thanks, O Lord of Nations,
for all the joys I have had in this world.
175 Now, gracious Maker, I have most desperate need
that Thou grant grace to my spirit,
so that my soul may journey to Thee
into Thy keeping, King of Angels,
and depart in peace. I implore Thee
180 that the fiends of Hell may not harm it.”
Then the heathen savages hacked him up,
and both the men who stood beside him,
Ælfnoth and Wulfmær both lay dead,
and gave up their lives with their lord.

The cowardly Godric flees from the battle on Byrhtnoth’s horse. Many others, thinking that it is Byrhtnoth who is fleeing, themselves run away. The poem, as it now exists, closes with Byrhtnoth’s faithful followers fighting to the bitter end.


185 nmThen some unwilling ones bowed out of the battle:
the sons of Odda were the first in the flight,
Godric left the battle, and abandoned the good man [i.e. Byrhtnoth]
who had often given him many horses;
he leapt on the horse that belonged to his lord,
190 in his riding gear – which was not right!
and his brothers with him both ran away,
Godwine and Godwig didn’t care for battle,
but turned from the war and took to the woods,
fled to safety and saved their lives,
195 and many more beyond any good measure,
if they had remembered all the rewards
he had given them for their services.
So Offa had said, earlier that day
in the assembly, when he held a meeting,
200 that many a man spoke bravely there
who later would not stand firm at need.
nmThen the people’s leader lay fallen,
Æthelred’s earl; all the house-troops
saw that their lord lay dead.
205 Then forward pressed the proud thegns,
uncowardly men hastened eagerly;
they all wanted one of two things –
to give up their lives or avenge their dear lord.
nmSo the son of Ælfric urged them forward,
210 a warrior young in years spoke his words,
Ælfwine spoke, and bravely said:
“I remember the speeches we made over mead
when we raised our boasts on the benches,
heroes in the hall, about hard struggle;
215 now he who is bold has to prove it.
I will make known my noble descent to all:
I come from a famous family among the Mercians,
my ancestor was called Ealhelm,
a wise nobleman, and prosperous in the world.
220 Thegns will not mock me among my people,
that I would go away from this army,
seek my homeland, now that my lord lies
cut down in battle. Mine is the greatest grief:
he was both my kinsman and my master.”
225 He went forth, remembering revenge,
until with the point of his spear he struck one
of the seamen so that he lay dead on the ground,
cut down by his weapon. He urged his comrades,
friends and companions, to go forth.
230 nmOffa spoke, shook his ashen spear:
“Indeed, Ælfwine, you have reminded all
the thegns at need, now that our lord lies dead,
the earl on the earth. Each of us
needs to encourage every other
235 warrior to war, as long as his weapon
he can have and hold, the hard blade,
the spear and the good sword. Godric,
wretched son of Odda, has betrayed us all.
When he rode off on that horse, that proud steed,
240 too many men thought that it was our lord;
and so our forces were divided on this field,
the shield-wall broken. Shame on his deed,
by which he caused so many men to flee!
nmLeofsunu spoke and raised his shield,
245 his board for protection, and replied to him:
“I hereby promise that from hence I will not
flee the space of a single foot, but will go further,
avenge in the battle my beloved lord.
The steadfast men of Sturmer [in Essex] need not
250 mock me, now that my lord has fallen,
saying I would go home without my lord,
turn away from war – instead weapons shall take me,
point and iron.”  Full of ire he went forth,
fought tenaciously; he scorned flight.
255 nmDunnere then spoke, shook his spear,
a humble churl, cried out over all,
urged each man to avenge Byrhtnoth:
“He must never weaken, who hopes to revenge
his lord on this people, nor care for his life!
260 Then they went forth, not fearing for their lives;
the retainers set about fighting fiercely,
the grim spear-bearers, and asked God
that they might avenge their dear lord
and bring about the downfall of their foe.
265 The hostage began to help them eagerly;
he was from a strong family of Northumbrians,
the son of Ecglaf – his name was Æscferth.
He never weakened at the war-play,
but he shot forth arrows ceaselessly;
270 sometimes he struck a shield, sometimes a man,
again and again he gave one a wound,
as long as he was able to wield weapons.
nmStill in the front stood Eadweard the Long,
brave and eager, spoke boastful words
275 that he would not flee a single foot’s space,
or turn back now that his better lay dead.
He broke through the shield-wall and did battle
with the seamen, until he had worthily avenged
his treasure-giver, then took his place among the slain.
280 Likewise Ætheric, excellent comrade,
eager, death-ready, fought earnestly.
Sibyrht’s brother and many another
split banded [?] shields, boldly defended themselves –
the shield-rim burst, and the byrnie sang
285 its grim horrible song. Then Offa struck
a seafarer in the fight so that he fell to the earth,
and there Gadd’s kinsman [i.e. Offa] sought the ground.
In the heat of battle Offa was hacked up,
but he had lived up to his promise to his lord –
290 he had boasted before his ring-giver
that they would ride together into the stronghold,
get home safely, or fall in the slaughter,
die of wounds on the field of war:
he lay like a thegn at his lord’s side.
295 nmThen shields were shattered, the sailors advanced,
enraged by battle; spears broke open
many a doomed man’s life-house. Then Wistan went forth,
Thurstan’s son, and fought with them;
he was the killer of three in that crowd,
300 before Wigelin’s son [i.e. Wistan] lay down in the slaughter.
There was keen conflict; the men stood
firm in the struggle, warriors fell,
weary with wounds. Slaughter fell on earth.
Oswold and Eadwold all the while,
305 two brothers, exhorted the troops,
bade their band of brothers with their words
that they had to stand steady there at need,
use their weapons without weakness.
nmByrhtwold spoke, raised his shield –
310 he was an old retainer – and shook his ash-spear;
he most boldly gave the men a lesson:
“Spirits must be the harder, hearts the keener,
courage the greater, as our strength grows less.
Here lies our lord all hacked to pieces,
315 a good man in the dust. He will mourn evermore
who thinks to turn back from this war-play now.
I’m an old man; I will not leave,
but by the side of my lord – by such
a beloved man – I intend to lie.”
320 nmSo also the son of Æthelgar urged them all,
Godric, to the battle. Often he let go a spear,
sent a slaughter-shaft whirling to the Vikings,
as he advanced foremost among the folk,
hacked and laid low, until he fell on the field.
325 That was not the Godric who turned away from the battle …
In fact, Thomas Hearne attributed the transcript to John Elphinstone, David Casley’s predecessor, but it is now believed that it was actually Casley’s work (H.L. Rogers ‘The Battle of Maldon: David Casley’s Transcript’, in Notes and Queries new series 32, 1985).
Byrhtnoth was married to a daughter of Ælfgar, who was probably a previous ealdorman of Essex, and who, charters indicate, died in 951. Byrhtnoth had married Ælfgar’s daughter by the time the latter made his will (S1483) – which can be dated between 946 and 951. Byrhtnoth himself features as an ealdorman in charters from 956.
Byrhtferth places the battle of Maldon – which he does not in fact name; saying that a “savage battle was fought in the east of this great country” – before the death, in 988, of Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, seemingly in order to juxtapose it with his notice (V, 4) of an earlier battle against Vikings (“the accursed Danes”), that he begins: “A savage battle took place in the west”.
OE cellod. This adjective is only found here – its true meaning is not actually known.
The terms ‘treasure-giver’ (OE sincgyfa) and ‘ring-giver’ (OE beahgifa) have the meaning ‘lord’ or ‘king’ (such metaphorical compound words are called ‘kennings’), in this case referring to Byrhtnoth of course.
In fact the text says “the seafarer”. It is possible that a couple of previous lines, setting-up this particular Viking, are missing.
OE burh – from which the modern word ‘borough’ – a fortified site. This could be a town, meaning Maldon, but in this instance Byrhtnoth’s base is probably meant.
That is to say: ‘treasure in exchange for peace’.
OE (Old English) heregeatu – means ‘war-gear’ (i.e. weapons and armour), but it is also a type of tax (tribute payable to the lord on the death of a tenant), so it is doubly ironic.
OE æschere, literally ‘ash-army’. Although Viking ships were predominantly built of oak, it seems that, for some reason, the word ‘ash’ was descriptive of a Viking ship. In 896 (though appearing s.a. 897 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), Alfred the Great had ordered ships of a new design to be built: “they were full nigh twice as long as the others; some had 60 oars, some more; they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others; they were shapen neither as the Frisian nor as the Danish, but as it seemed to himself that they might be most useful.”  Alfred had ordered these new vessels specifically: “to oppose the æscas [i.e. the Viking ships]” that were plaguing the south coast of Wessex at the time.
OE ofermod. ‘Overconfidence’ is perhaps a rather mild interpretation – elsewhere it has the meaning ‘pernicious pride’.
It seems reasonable to suppose that Wigelin (an otherwise unknown name) is a corruption of Wigelm (i.e. Wighelm). The phrase “Wigelin’s son” (OE Wigelines bearn) must be referring to Wistan (i.e. Wigstan). However, Wistan has just been called “Thurstan’s son” (OE Þurstanes suna). It is possible that, in this instance, bearn is used to mean ‘descendant’, rather than ‘son’. It is also possible that Thurstan and Wigelin are, in fact, the same person. Thurstan is an anglicized form of a Scandinavian name; he could have adopted the English name Wighelm. (The Dane Guthrum adopted the English name Athelstan at his baptism, following his defeat by Alfred the Great in 878.)
In the king’s charters, an ealdorman’s seniority is indicated by his position in the witness-list. Byrhtnoth became an ealdorman in 956 – bringing up the rear of the ealdormen in the charters he witnesses. From 984 onwards he is consistently in 2nd position, behind Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia. Æthelwine died on 24th April 992, and he had evidently suffered from a protracted and painful illness,[*] so it may be that Byrhtnoth was, effectively, the most senior ealdorman in England at the time of the battle of Maldon.
Æthelwine became an ealdorman in 962. Ramsey Abbey was founded c.966 by Æthelwine and St Oswald. Byrhtferth of Ramsey, in his ‘Life’ of St Oswald says (V, 15) that Æthelwine: “had been afflicted by a lengthy illness, such that he could scarcely eat because of the pain.”  Æthelwine, who died just a couple of months after Oswald, was buried at Ramsey (Oswald was buried at Worcester).
St Oswald (d.992) became bishop of Worcester in 961 and archbishop of York in 971. When he became archbishop of York, however, he also retained the bishopric of Worcester. Byrhtferth was a monk at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon), which was founded c.966, by Oswald and Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia.
Donald Scragg* reckons 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 Return of the Vikings: The Battle of Maldon 991 (2006), Chapter 5.
English Heritage Battlefield Report: Maldon 991 (1995).
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.