BookLog: Battle of Maldon I
The Battle of Maldon was fought in 980. Though the battle may have been seen as of no great consequence at the time, it did signal a new level of Scandinavian threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The poem which commemorates the battle is not only one of the masterpieces of AS literature but also an expression of the spirit of defiant men who are willing to die, defending their families and their country.
That kingdom, you will recall, emerged from centuries of conflicts among the larger AS kingdoms--particularly Mercia, Northumbria, and, the ultimate victor, Wessex. Wessex succeeded in unifying England partly through her kings' success in combatting the Danes. Alfred (king in 871), Edward the Elder (903), Aethelstan (924), Edmund (939), and Edgar (957) had all with varying fortunes beaten back the Danes and expanded the direct control of their state all the way to southern Scotland. There were reverses, of course, especially the temporary conquest of York by Vikings from Dublin, but when Edgar died in 975, the condition of the kingdom was strong, and the Danes had become loyal subjects. We (certainly I) know too little of the English dialects in the 9th century, but Danish was certainly beginning to fuse with AS, as the two not dissimilar peoples married and lived side by side.
After Edgar's death, however, the kingdom faced two challenges: the first was a new and more vigorous set of Viking raiders and the second, perhaps equally serious, was the internal disorder. Viking history lies far outside my field of study, and what I have to say is derived from reading I did two years ago. The Anglo-Saxons now had to face a new more virulent breed of Vikings, who were better oganized.
Archaeological excavations in Scandinavia reveal fortress complexes said to have been more powerfully built than anything since the fall of the Roman empire. These forts, which could hold thousands, confirm a Viking tale told of these days, how the Danish king Harald Bluetooth established a fortified settlement, Jomsburg, on the Baltic Sea between the mouths of the Oder and Vistula Rivers. The harbor was big enough to shelter 300 ships, and the Viking warriors—without women or children—lived according to strict military discipline. They were a corporation of warriors sworn to put their loyalty to the community and their King above any loyalty to family and king.
King Harald Bluetooth himself (who became king of Denmark in 958) is said to have taken refuge in Jomsburg, perhaps after his son overthrew him. This Harald is one of the great men of the 10th century. He was a military ally of Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy , whose sister Emma would marry both a Saxon king and, later, Harald’s grandson, Canute, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard (King 986-1014) who deposed his father Harald Bluetooth. It gets complicated.
This new breed of Vikings—led by chiefs such as Thorkell the Tall, his brothers Sivaldi (Jomsburg commander) and Heming—had the typical Viking superiority at sea, but, with their greater discipline and training and centralized command structure, they also enjoyed distinct advantages on land. Apart from exceptional men like Thorkell, the new breed were even more terrifying in their merciless brutality than earlier raiders had been.
About to face this great threat, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom was undergoing a crisis in leadership. Edgar left behind two sons by two wives: Edward "the martyr," as the elder, was his heir, but Aethelred had the support of an influential mother. When Edward was murdered in 978—the foulest crime, as the chronicler says, to have stained England since the arrival of the AS—Aethelraed came to the throne. As an 11-year old child, he was probably innocent of the deed, but his reputation was already damaged. A later generation and probably many contemporaries would blame his mother Aelthfryth, but there is no solid evidence, and the crime was certainly carried out by Aethelraed’s ambitious retainers who wanted to put their child-king on the throne. The irascible Dunstan had virtually cursed Ethelred at the baptismal font, and he made the curse explicit at the coronation ceremony when he crowned the king: “The sin of your wicked mother and her accomplices will rest upon your head.” it was not long before he was known as Aethelraed Unraed, a pun on his name. Aethelraed means of noble counsel, while Unraed means of ill counsel. Despite her evil reputation Aelthfryth did have support from several of the leading nobles of the kingdom, including Ealdorman Byrthnoth of Essex.
Within two years of his accession, Aethelraed and his supporters had the chance to prove their mettle, when the Viking raids began afresh. Initially, the raiders seemed to have been disgruntled warriors who resented the increased order and control that Harald Bluetooth had imposed. In the 980s Ealdorman Byrthnoth made a vigorous defense until he was killed in the Battle of Maldon.
In 991 Olaf Trygavvson, later king of Norway, led a strong force of Vikings to England. For the next 25 years England would be harried and scourged by apparently endless waves of Viking invaders. One of the bands, in August of 991, attacked Essex, probably up the Blackwater River to an island now called Northey located two miles below the village of Maldon. If this reconstruction is correct, the Vikings wanted to use the island as a base. At high tide, it was inaccessible except by boat but at low tide, it was reachable by a causeway/ford. Byrhnoth's mistake, then, was to allow the Vikings to cross the causeway without having to fight.
Although the poet gives us a vivid and detailed description of the fight, historians have not been able to use the text as a basis for reconstructing either the strategy of the two sides or the course of the battle.
What interests us most, I think, is the contrasting ethos of those who leave the battle, after the death of the ealdorman, and those who stay. Some scholars have argued that argument used by the loyal retainers--that they have a duty to die in an attempt to avenge their fallen lord--is anachronistic. Pope and Fulk, however, argue quite persuasively that the poet expects his readers to admire the heroes and approve their moral reasoning.
The loyalty to lord and nation is a hallmark of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as readers of Beowulf are aware. It is the code of the Anglo-Saxon warrior, one that Travis and Crockett and Bowie understood. What makes Maldon so interesting is that we know we are dealing with an historical incident described by someone more or less contemporary. Disunity in the face of the new Danish threat, along with Aethelred's incompetence, is what exposes England to Danish rule. A similar note is sounded by Wulfstan's Homily to the English:
Wolfram's Homily was delivered in 1014, 25 years after Maldon, and he blisters the English for their faithlessness and disloyalty. "Understand also well that the Devil has now led this nation astray for very many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men, though they spoke well. And too many crimes reigned in the land, and there were never many of men who deliberated about the remedy as eagerly as one should, but daily they piled one evil upon another, and committed injustices and many violations of law all too widely throughout this entire land."
Even family loyalties have declined: "Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again. And stealing and slaying, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, malice and hate, and the robbery by robbers have injured us very terribly. And excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops; therefore in this land there have been, as it may appear, many years now of injustices and unstable loyalties everywhere among men. Now very often a kinsman does not spare his kinsman any more than the foreigner, nor the father his children, nor sometimes the child his own father, nor one brother the other."
They have been ultimately unfaithful to their lords and even to the king: "For there are in this nation great disloyalties for matters of the Church and the state, and also there are in the land many who betray their lords in various ways. And the greatest of all betrayals of a lord in the world is that a man betrays the soul of his lord. And it is the greatest of all betrayals of a lord in the world, that a man betray his lord's soul. And a very great betrayal of a lord it is also in the world, that a man betray his lord to death, or drive him living from the land, and both have come to pass in this land: Edward was betrayed, and then killed, and after that burned; and Æthelred was driven out of his land."