The Battles of Brunanburh and of Maldon
The Battle of Brunanburgh is both important and significant to the Anglo-
Under Aethelstan, the King of the West Saxons, the Anglo-
Indeed King Aethelstan’s rise to power was formidable. Initially the Northumbrians
resisted his claim to lordship as they had always been independent and were naturally
suspicious of the southern powers but Aethelstan was strong enough to force the Welsh
and Scottish kings to acknowledge his authority. Although this power helped establish
King Aethelstan as the supreme force in the British Isles it also had the effect
of bringing once hostile neighbours together to try and pre-
In 937 Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking king of Dublin, joined forces with King Constantine
II of Scotland and Owen of Strathclyde to form an alliance to oppose Aethelstan.
Individually neither leader possessed the power to challenge the King of the English
but collectively they hoped to overwhelm him. The Welsh, for their own reasons, chose
not participate in the campaign. The allied forces invaded north-
The engagement that followed was remarkable no less because even for the early medieval period it was considered to be a particularly bloody affair. This is not surprising in light of the fact that King Aethelstan seems to have wanted one battle to settle matters between himself and the Scots and the Irish.
In the Annals of Ulster the battle is summed up as; “A huge war, lamentable and horrible, was cruelly waged between the Saxons and Norsemen. Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Olaf escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Aethelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory.”
Although Aethelstan emerged the victor it is believed that it proved to be one battle too many as it capped the limit on his military achievements. The countries of England, Wales, and Scotland conformed to the boundaries that they more or less occupy today and after the death of Aethelstan Northumbria fell under the rule of King Olaf of Dublin without opposition.
However one thing that cannot be denied is that the success of King Aethelstan created the idea of England as a single entity and that this would prove an irresistible force in the coming years.
The Battle of Maldon
The Battle of Maldon has been made famous by the poem that was written about it not
long after the actual conflict. It recounts how, on 10th August 991, Eorl Beorhtnoth
assembled an Anglo-
Eorl Beorhtnoth spurned an offer made by the Vikings to withdraw if the Saxons agree to pay a Danegeld, effectively a sum of gold or silver in the form of a bribe. Instead he assembled his force near the causeway to Northey Island on the River Panta, known today as the River Blackwater. The Saxons then waited for the ebb tide to allow the Vikings to cross the river and begin the battle.
The actual battle conforms to the norm of the early medieval period. The two armies
lined up facing each other in respective shield-
In the poem Eorl Beorhtnoth appears to modern eyes as quite a foolish general, his decision to allow the Vikings to cross the River Panta unopposed is startling, his strong defensive position would have allowed him to inflict serious injuries upon his enemy but instead he holds back and allows them time to assemble their strength. Of course this might not be an actual depiction of events as they happened, the poet remains anonymous and as the poem was written some years after the event it may well have been intended to present a defeat as something of a victory; in spirit at least.
Certainly the courage of the men who remained to defend the body of Eorl Beorhtnoth is held up as an example to others of what it was to be a Saxon. The poem is notable for containing several speeches ascribed to various Saxon warriors that urge patriotism and a determined resistance to the Vikings.
In that respect the Battle of Maldon illustrates one of the two contrary policies pursued by the Saxons in their dealings with the Vikings, one being the use of bribes to avoid conflict and damage to Saxon settlements and the other to actively engage in pitched battles to repulse them. Although Eorl Beorhtnoth fell at Maldon his example was one that many Saxon noblemen looked to follow rather than surrendering to the less heroic example of Danegeld.
One impression that is undeniable from both battles is that the Anglo-
The Sorrow Song Trilogy © 2013 Peter C. Whitaker. All Rights Reserved.