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The Battles of Brunanburh and of Maldon

The Battle of Brunanburgh is both important and significant to the Anglo-Saxon peoples because not only did it lead to the establishment of England as a single kingdom. It was also widely reported in many different sources and various languages including Old English, Middle English, Latin, Irish, Welsh, and Icelandic.

Under Aethelstan, the King of the West Saxons, the Anglo-Saxon world went through something of a revival following the imposition of Danelaw in 886. He ruled Wessex from 924 to 927 and achieved a notable success in that period by capturing the Viking kingdom of York following the death of its’ King Sihtric in 927. The capture of York meant that Aethelstan became the first Saxon monarch to rule over the whole of the English peoples and hence from 927, until his death in 939, he was known as the King of the English.

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-empt further Anglo-Saxon expansion.

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-west England and seem to have caught King Aethelstan unprepared. He quickly raised an army from the Saxons of Wessex and Mercia and marched north to Brunanburh.

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.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle even records the battle in the manner of an heroic poem, contrary to its’ usual style of prose.

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-Saxon force to oppose the raids along the coast of Essex by Vikings under the leadership of the Norse chieftain Anlaf.

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-walls that come together in an attempt to force one or other side backwards. In the Battle of Maldon the men of Essex make a firm stand against the Vikings but then Eorl Beorhtnoth was wounded by a poisoned spear and died. Some of his men flee in panic but others remain to defend their lord’s body and they fight to the last man.

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-Saxons were indeed a very war-like people. The hit and run tactics of the Vikings suited their war-bands well and gave them an advantage over the Saxons in that respect. However, when they were able to field an army the Anglo-Saxons became a formidable foe and were certainly not short on courage or heroes to embody the Saxon spirit.

The Sorrow Song Trilogy © 2013 Peter C. Whitaker. All Rights Reserved.