The Battle of Maldon took place on English soil on the 10th August 991 A. D. approximately two miles south-east of Maldon, in Essex, during the reign of Æthelred the Unready.
Attacked by Vikings from Norway Sweden and Denmark since the 700’s, Saxon England would respond to Viking raids. By this point in English history the main difference between Saxons and Vikings was that the Saxon English were Chritianised and the Vikings still believers in the Northern European Gods. Otherwise Saxons and Vikings would look, sound, dress, and fight in a similar way.
One day in August 991, a Viking fleet of approximately ninety long-ships, carrying between two and four thousand men, sailed into the estuary of the Blackwater river (Pante). Facing them on the shore was Byrhtnōþ, the second nobleman of the realm, with an army drawn from the common households of the region.
Earl Byrhtnōþ and his Thegns bravely led the Saxons against the Viking invasion led by King Olaf of Norway. In the poem, edited by S. A. Swaffington, author of Offa: Rise of the Englisc Warrior, a messenger addresses the Saxons, promising to sail away if they paid him with gold and armour (dangeld).
Byrhtnōþ replied, ‘We will pay you with spear-tips and sword blades.’
What follows is a true, heroic poem of the English folk
The Battle of Maldon (991 A.D.)
Translated by author S.A. Swaffington
…should be broken.
Then he commanded each young warrior
to leave his horse, to drive it far away,
and to march on, with mind turned
to strong hands and good thoughts.
Then Offa’s kinsman first discovered
that the great earl would not tolerate slackness;
he let from his hand his beloved hawk,
free to fly to the woodland,
From that, no one believed that the youth
while he stepped to battle.
would weaken in war when he seized weapons.
Ēadrīc would gladly follow his leader,
his lord to the fight,
his spear held tightly in the palm of his hand.
He had firm thoughts.
As long as he could hold shield and bright sword:
his boast he performed,
when to the fight he came with his lord.
Then Byrhtnōþ began to call upon the eager warriors,
riding amongst them, giving counsel,
showing them how to hold their shields with firm hands
and to show no fear in the face of the enemy.
When he had organised his men,
he dismounted from his steed,
resting his feet on the ground,
closest to his hearth-troops,
his most loyal men.
Then on the shore stood a Viking messenger,
called out with a stern, threatening voice,
boastfully bringing his lord’s message to the Saxon earl:
‘Bold Seamen sent me,
ordered me tell you to send rings without delay,
wealth to pay for your protection.
It is better for all of you
to pay with tribute, to buy off this clash of spears,
than to fight in such a bitter war.
Nor need we kill each other if you pay us what is asked.
For gold we will secure peace with you.
If you wish it, the mightiest here,
we will take to the sea and leave your land in peace.
With ransom, you will secure our friendship
and save your men from our spears.’
Earl Byrhtnōþ raised his shield and shook his slender ash-spear.
Angry and one-minded, the Saxon gave his answer:
Hear you, seafarer, what the Saxons say.
We will pay you with spear-tips and sword blades.
A tax will be useless to you, when your men lie bleeding at our feet.
Seamen’s messenger, take this message back;
tell your people that here stands a good earl,
with his war-band of mad Saxons,
who will defend this homeland,
Æthelred’s kingdom, my lord’s people,
home and hearth.
The heathens must now fall in battle.
It would be shameful that you should return to your ships
with Saxon gold having not fought for it!
Not so softly shall you carry off our riches;
point and edge and grim battle-play
should first decide the matter between us,
before we give tribute.’
The brave Saxon earl then told his men to step forward,
so that warriors all stood on the bank.
The river came flowing after ebb-tide,
there the rivers locked together.
Because of the water, each army could not reach the other.
It seemed to them too long until their spears could clash.
With anticipation, the men shouted and sang
as they stood along Pante’s stream,
the spears of the East-Saxons and the ash-army
could not bring harm to the other,
but those who through flight of arrow took death.
The flood washed away.
The seamen stood ready,
many Vikings, eager for war.
Then Byrhtnōþ, the Saxons’ protector,
told a war-hardened hero to hold the bridge
Wulfstān was his name.
Wulfstān, a mighty warrior, like his father, Cēola
slew the first Viking who dared cross the bridge.
With the mighty Wulfstān stood fierce warriors,
unfrightened, unfazed, uncaring, merciless!
Ælfere and Maccus, two brave Saxon warriors,
stood with their companion.
They would not flee the ford,
rather they would steadfastly defend against their foes from the north
for as long as they could wield their weapons.
When the Vikings saw clearly
that the bridge-guards were fierce and bitter,
the hated strangers began to use cunning and deceitfulness.
They asked to cross the ford, a free passage to the shore,
to land their men on hard ground.
Then Earl Byrhtnōþ for all his arrogance
allowed too much land to that loathsome folk.
Then over cold water, Byrhthelm’s son
began to call and the men listened:
‘Now you have space to die by our spears.
Come quickly, warriors to war.
God alone knows
who may master this slaughter-place.’
Slaughter-wolves waded through the water without care.
The Viking bands went west over the Pante,
over the bright water, carrying their shields;
seamen bore their linden-wood to land.
Waiting for the hated Vikings stood Byrhtnōþ and his battle-brave warriors.
With their shields, the earl told his men to form the wall,
the battle-edge, to hold fast against their hated enemies.
Then was the fight near, glory in battle:
the time had come
when doomed men must fall there.
Clamour was raised in that place of death.
eagles, eager for carrion
There was uproar on earth.
From fists they released file-hard spears;
grimly-ground spears flew.
Bows were busy; shield took spear-point.
Bitter was that battle-rush.
on both sides’ young men lay still
forever silenced by war.
Wounded was Wulfmǣr; he chose death in battle,
With enemy swords he was cruelly cut down
his sister’s son. A similar reward to the Vikings was given then.
I heard Ēadweard slew one
fiercely with his sword.
He did not hold back with its swing,
so that the doomed warrior fell at his feet;
for that his lord thanked him, when he could.
So they stood strong, those firm-minded
young men at battle,
eagerly waiting to see who with spear-point would conquer
a weapon-wielding warrior from the enemy ranks.
The slain men fell to the earth.
Steadfast they stood, with Byrhtnōþ directing them,
telling each young man to turn his thoughts to battle,
to the struggle against the Danes,
Then a battle-hardened Viking stood forth
and lifted his weapon and shield.
And so the brave Saxon earl did likewise.
Both men had bad intensions on their mind.
Then the sea-warrior hurled a southern spear
so that the Saxon, lord of warriors, was wounded.
The earl knocked the spear with his shield,
so the shaft burst and the spear broke and sprang back.
Enraged was the mighty Saxon
that he spiked the man who had wounded him with his spear.
Wise was that fyrd-warrior:
The earl let his spear wade through the youth’s neck,
his hand guided it,
so that it took the life of his attacker.
Quickly, he threw another
so that the enemy’s byrnie ripped open.
The gleaming spear-tip smashed through the Viking’s
ring-locked mail-coat and breastbone.
The deadly point lodged itself in his heart.
As the Viking dropped to his knees
The earl blabbered to himself,
and the brave man laughed,
said thanks to God above
for the day’s work the Lord gave him.
Then an enemy warrior let from his hand a dart,
so that it flew through that noble,
By the injured earl’s side stood a youth,
an ungrown man,
who quickly and valiantly
drew from the lord the bloody spear,
Wulfstān’s son, Wulfmǣr the Young was his name.
Wulfmǣr gripped the spear tightly.
His eyes shone bright from beneath his boar-crested helm.
He turned to face the enemy.
He positioned the spear horizontally over his right shoulder.
Whilst looking down the pole,
the youth squinted one eye, whilst trying to balance the weight.
He tensed the muscles in his arm.
His breathing quickened.
Wulfmǣr held the spear back, paused, took a deep breath and,
with all the strength of the Lord Almighty,
Wulfmǣr, son of Wulfstān,
thrust his arm forward, releasing the spear.
The boar-headed spear sailed through the air,
before crashing into the flesh of the man
who had brought harm to his lord
Then a mail-clad warrior approached the fallen earl,
wishing to take for himself the earl’s rings and patterned sword.
Then Byrhtnōþ drew his sword from its sheath,
broad and bright-edged, and struck at his byrnie.
Quickly, one of the seamen stopped him
when he wounded the earl’s arm.
The Saxon earl dropped the shining-hilt sword,
now unable to wield the honourable weapon.
The grey-haired warrior then encouraged the brave,
young men by his side to fight on.
He could no longer stand fast.
The Saxon looked to the heavens above:
‘I thank thee, guider of men,
for all those joys I have experienced in this world.
Merciful Lord, now I ask that you grant kindness to my spirit,
that my soul may journey to thee
Lord of the angels,
journey in peace.
I beg thee that no hell-hounds harm it.’
Then the heathen Vikings slayed him,
and the men who had stood by him,
Ælfnoð and Wulfmǣr,
both lay there, alongside their lord.
For him, for Byrhtnōþ, they laid down their lives.
Then they who wished not be there fled from the scene.
Odda’s sons were first in flight.
Godric then turned from battle and left the good man
who had often given him horses.
He leapt on a steed which belonged to his lord,
on those trappings where he had no right,
and his brothers both ran with him,
Godwin and Godwīg, rushed from battle.
Into the woods they fled, saving their own lives,
and more men than was fitting if they all remembered those favours
their lord had bestowed upon them for their benefit.
Earlier that day, Offa had said to him at the moot,
he meeting place of men,
that many men spoke bravely,
but when all hell broke loose,
many would flee, forgetting their brave words.
Then the folk’s noble leader fell in battle,
His hearth-companions could see that their lord lay silenced.
Then the valiant thegns went forth there,
undaunted men, eagerly rushed.
They all wished one of two things
to avenge their loved one or die in the attempt.
So Ælfric’s son encouraged them,
the winter-young warrior, Ælfwine, then valiantly spoke:
‘Remember the speeches we made in the hall,
when we boasted on the bench with our drinks raised,
when we spoke of a hard fight:
now I will see who will prove their bold words.
I will make my nobility known to all,
that I was of great kin among the Mercians;
my grandfather was called Ealhelm,
wise ealdorman, a graceful man.
Thegns in the land shall not have my name to blame,
or falsely claim that I wished to leave the army,
the brave fyrd-men,
to seek my homeland,
now my lord lies bleeding into the earth
It is a great grievance to me, for he was both kin and my lord.’
Then he rushed forth, mindful of battle,
with his spear-point he pierced a Viking warrior,
so that he lay dead,
destroyed with his weapon.
roared to the heavens,
ready to join the warrior,
their brother, Ælfwine, the brave Mercian.
Offa answered, shook ash-wood and spoke these words to Ælfwine:
‘You have made our spirits grow,
us thegns when faced with the rush of battle.
Now that our lord lies still upon the earth,
we must encourage each other to stand fast,
warrior to war,
while his weapons may yet be carried and heaved upon the enemy,
a hard blade, spear and good sword.
Godric, Odda’s son, has betrayed us,
when he rode that proud steed.
Many men thought it was our lord that fled.
That caused the men to divide,
the shieldwall broken.
Because of his cowardly actions, many men have fled.’
Lēofsunu spoke and raised his shield to protect himself;
to Offa he said:
I swear an oath that I shall not flee a foot’s length,
but will advance to avenge my lord-friend in the fight.
Steadfast heroes need not blame me
with words that my friend fell,
or that I journeyed home lord-less,
or that I fled from battle,
but weapon took me,
spear-point and iron.’
Lēofsunu rushed angrily
and fought with honour,
flight he would not!
Then Dunnere spoke, brandished a dart,
the humble lord called over all,
asking that each man avenge Byrhtnōþ:
‘He must not flinch, must not hold back,
who thinks to avenge their lord.
He must not fear for his own life.’
Then they rushed forth, caring nothing of fear or their own lives.
The hearth-troops began to fight hard,
and prayed to God that they might avenge their lord-friend,
and bring death to their hated foes.
The hostage began eagerly helping them,
he was of brave kin among the Northumbrians
Æscferþ, son of Ecglāf, was his name.
He did not flinch at deathly battle-play
but shot forth many deadly arrows.
Sometimes they pierced shields
sometimes they tore through men.
Time and time again, Æscferþ inflicted deadly wounds upon the enemy,
while he could still wield his weapons.
Ēadweard the Long stood firm at the front,
ready and eager,
with boasting words he told the warriors
that he would not flee a foot-space of land,
that he would not show his back to the enemy
while better men than he lay dead before him.
Ēadweard smashed the shieldwall and fought with those warriors,
until he had taken enough lives of the seamen that his ring-giver was avenged
before he lay amongst the slain.
Æþeric, the noble companion, did likewise,
fighting eagerly and bravely,
without fear for his own safety.
Sibyrht’s brother, and many others,
clove through the ridged shield,
keenly defended them.
Shield’s rim burst and the mail-coat sang
a terrible song of death.
Then Offa struck the seaman,
so that he fell to the earth.
There, Gadda’s kinsman sought the ground.
In retaliation, Offa was quickly cut down in battle,
just as he had promised his ring-giver,
that they would both ride home, into the borough as victors,
or together fall in battle upon the death-field,
with brave wounds upon their mortal flesh.
Loyal and true, Offa the thegn laid down beside his lord
a glorious death!
Then shields of men clashed like thunder.
The seamen advanced,
burning with battle-rage.
Their spears wounded many doomed men,
piercing through flesh and bone.
Wīstān, son of Thurstān,
went forth and fought against the Viking warriors.
Three of them, he alone slayed with skill and grace,
before Wīghelm’s son lay slain by his side.
The battle was fought hard.
Both sides stood fast, warriors in deadly conflict.
Brave warriors fell, weary with wounds.
The slain fell to the gore-splattered earth.
All the while, the two brothers,
Ōswold and Ēadwold,
strengthened the men with words,
encouraging their kinfolk,
to use their weapons without weakness.
Then Byrhtwold spoke.
Raising his shield, he shook his ash-spear,
he was an old warrior.
With great courage he addressed the Saxons:
‘Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare,
þe ure mægen lytlað…
Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater,
though our strength grows less.
Here lies our leader,
cut down in battle, lying on the dirt.
Let he who thinks it wise to leave…
forever grieve for his cowardice.
I am an old man, yet I do not wish to leave this fight!
… With my friend and lord, I will lie here today.’
With that said, Godric, son of Æþelgar,
encouraged them all to battle.
Often he let a slaughter-spear speed into the Vikings.
He bravely led the men to glory,
until he fell on the doomed death-field.
Let it be known that it was not the same Godric
who had fled earlier in the struggle…
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Battle of Maldon" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/battle-of-maldon/, February 17, 2022