“Brithnoth avenge! Now may not go he who thinketh to avenge His friend among the folk, nor mourn for his life.”

The Battle of Maldon, fought in 991 AD near Maldon in Essex, England ended in defeat for the Anglo-Saxons and a victory for the raiding Norsemen. This period of 980-1012 could be considered one of the peaks of the Norse raiding against the English; due to a wane in political strength in English rule under Æthelred the Unready over the previous decade. The English coast again became attractive to Viking raids creating a split in English policy to pay off the invaders -or fight to the last man.

When given the choice of either payment or battle, Earl Byrhtnoth chose to fight what was described in a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a force estimated to have been between 2,000 and 4,000 fighting men led by Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason. How aware was Byrhtnoth that he was facing such a large and experienced force? His men–except for his household guard, were peasants and householders from the area. A source from the 12th century written by the monks at Ely, suggests that Byrhtnoth had only a few men to command: “he was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy”, although not all sources indicate such a disparity in numbers.

After a rousing patriotic speech to spur his men on, Byrhtnoth met Olaf as the Vikings waited on an islet for the tide to retreat. Even when this small piece of ground would be exposed, they would be at a disadvantage to Byrhtnoth who could overwhelm them as they crossed. So Olaf asked the Earl nicely if they could cross safely before the battle began. Why Byrhtnoth agreed to Olaf’s request remains debatable. Some scholars’ project it was his pride while others suggest recklessness.

According to the Old English poem, typically called The Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth let all the Vikings cross to the mainland where they joined in battle. Then, an Englishman called Godrīc fled the battle using Byrhtnoth’s horse. Seeing this, his brothers Godwine and Godwīg followed, which in turn led to the fleeing of many other Englishmen who thought it was Byrhtnoth himself who was retreating. It was believe that Godrīc had been held in high regard by Bryhtnoth, having received gifts and status from himbut was forever marked as a coward and traitor. After losing many men and his own life, Byrhtnoth’s body was found decapitated on the field where the Vikings claimed victory.

After the defeat at Maldon, Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and other aldermen advised the King to pay the attackers the protection money they requested, giving them 10,000 Roman Pounds of silver. This was not enough and over the next decade the Vikings had to be paid increasingly large sums of money. And so, in time, the English people, who were no doubt the ones funding the Danegeld, began to demand that a more permanent solution be taken against the Vikings. In response, King Æthelred proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed on St. Brice’s feast day, November 13, 1002. This killing -based on ethnic hatred -would become known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre (St. Brice was the Bishop of Tours in the fifth century).


The Battle of Maldon poem and the battle itself are worth delving into if only because of its many explore-able levels. It may be too easy to simplify such an event that happened so long ago, but with a closer look there remain contemporary beliefs, emotions, and attitudes. It is believed by many scholars that the poem, while based upon actual events and people was created to be less of a historical account and more of a means of enshrining and lifting up the memories of the men who fought and lost their lives on the battlefield protecting their homeland, especially in the case of the English commander of the battle, Byrhtnoth. He (Byrhtnoth) seems to embody many of the virtues that are uplifted in the Anglo-Saxon world, and is compared often by many scholars to the character Beowulf.