“Here in this year Olaf came with ninety-three ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter.” — Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Once again, Merry Old England was in a right old mess. In 978, King Edward was murdered to clear the way for his ten year old brother Æthelred. This was described in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as such:
“No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him.”
Edward went down in history as Edward the Martyr. Æthelred’s nickname was less flattering. He was known to history as Æthelred the Unready, which was the wrong translation of the Old English word unræd, which mean “ill advised”. Æthelred meant “noble counseled”, so calling him unræd was a pun as well as true.
The Vikings, as their want, took advantage of the transition and stepped up their raids. At first it was a series of smaller coastal raids, but in 991 a large Viking fleet led by Olaf Tryggvason began raiding towns on the Thames. In August of that year the fleet, 2,000 to 4,000 men strong, went to the river Blackwater, then called the Panta, and beached their ships on Northey Island protected by salt marshes and mudflats. They were separated from the mainland by a causeway, which was only passable at low tide. On the other side, stood Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and the fyrd, ready to defend their homes. It was an going to be epic clash. A battle for the ages.
Olaf addressed the English, and offered to leave if the English offered a danegeld. Danegeld was essentially a tribute or a bribe to make the Vikings leave without battle. Byrhtnoth scoffed at such an offer. In the poem The Battle of Maldon, he is reported as saying,
“Sea raider, can you hear what this army is saying? They intend to give all of you spears as tribute, deadly points and tried swords, payment in war-gear which will be of no benefit to you in battle…. here stands with his company an earl of unstained reputation, who intends to defend this homeland, the kingdom of Æthelred, my lord’s people and his country. They shall fall, the heathens in battle. It appears to me too shameful that you should return to your ships with our money unopposed, now that you thus far in this direction have penetrated into our territory. You will not gain treasure so easily: spear and sword must first arbitrate between us, the grim game of battle, before we pay tribute.”
Even though he probably was not that poetic, the sentiment was the same. There was to be no danegeld, and the battle was on. The battle raged and at first the English had the better of it. They were able to hold the Vikings on the island by defending the narrow causeway. Then something happened that is mind boggling. Olaf asked Byrhtnoth if his warriors may cross the causeway to fight the English more fairly. Instead of answering with a hail of arrows, which, dear reader, is what your author would have done, he agreed. The Vikings got safe passage and crossed the causeway to fight the English on the mainland. This was the beginning of the end for the English. After giving up their strategic advantage, the Vikings slaughtered the English. Byrhtnoth was hacked to death with his housecarls by his side. An Englishman named Godric fled on Byrhtnoth’s horse, and the shield wall broke thinking their lord had deserted them. Many men fled, but the loyal ones stayed with Byrhtnoth’s body and fought to avenge their ealdorman. The English forces were decimated and Byrhtnoth’s body was found headless still holding his gold hilted sword.
In the epic poem written about that the battle later, Byrhtnoth’s safe passage across the causeway is explained by ofermōd, which can be translated as “over heart” or “too much courage”. It is akin to hubris, or an excess of pride, from the Greek tradition. Whatever it was, it was the beginning of a long tradition of tribute to be paid to the Vikings. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised Æthelred to pay off the Vikings with 10,000 Roman pounds of silver. This kept them safe…for a time.
It was considered a great shame to have had an ancestor who survived the Battle of Maldon as all the loyal men had stayed with Byrhtnoth and fought to the bitter end. This demonstration of loyalty is what lifts this story from a bitter failure to a tale of victory. In the meantime, dear reader, don’t give up the high ground or let the vikings over the causeway!