The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon took place in 991. It is famous because it paved the way for the permanent occupation of England by the Danes and the paying of Danegeld, and because a large fragment of the poem marking this 'noble defeat' has survived. You can both see and hear a part of the poem on this page. There is also a simple sketch plan of the site of the battle; a modern photograph of the causeway crossed by the Vikings; and a brief account of the what happened.


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Part of the poem

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Hear a part of this poem

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A sketch plan of the battle

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The causeway at Maldon crossed by the Vikings

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What happened in 991

There is a merest outline of this event in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: 'In this year Olaf came with 93 ships [and ravaged the Kent coast] and so to Maldon. And Ældorman Brihtnoth came against him there with his army and fought against him; and they killed the ældorman there and had control of the field.' The poem tells more, as does a surviving manuscript, the Life of St. Oswald.

The Vikings had established themselves on a small tidal island on the River Blackwater in Essex. This is called Northey Island. The causeway can only be crossed at low tide, and the Vikings (Danes) prepared to go to the mainland when the tide fell. But Brihthnoth had deployed just three of his men (Wulfstan, Maccus and Ælfhere) to defend the landward end of the causeway. This was such a good defensible position that the Vikings could not force their way through. Instead, they asked if they could cross to give open battle. In a controversial decision, Brihtnoth agreed to this. The poem is critical of his tactic but perhaps this is understandable, given the fact that Brihtnoth's army had been trying to run the raiders to earth anyway. Battle began with a discharge of spears and arrows followed by bloody hand-to-hand combat.

Then, in another controversial action, Brihtnoth accepted individual combat with one of the advancing Vikings. Although he killed two of the attackers, he was wounded by spear thrusts and his sword-arm was disabled. He was slain, and with the death of their leader, the Saxon defence was effectively over. A large part of the army fled the battlefield, and although a Saxon called Ælfwine tried to rally the remaining hearth-troop, there was soon a Viking victory in the field. This encouraged them to make a permanent settlement in England, and demand the tribute known as Danegeld.


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