Friday, 7 October 2011

Battle of Maldon - Birthnoth (Ealdorman of Essex AD 991)

Ealdorman Birthnoth
During the Dark Ages of AD 991 most of Anglo-Saxon England was ruled by King AEthelred the Unready. All of Britain was trembling before Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway. This had been so for many centuries and King AEthelred seemed less adapt at fighting the Vikings then previous Anglo-Saxon Kings for the English section of the British Isles.

A Viking named Olaf Tryggvason was leading his long ships on raids along the Essex coast of south east England. In this shire, lived an Ealdorman called Birthnoth, which meant he was a high ranking magistrate or sheriff of noble birth. He managed to issue a summons upon the Saxon men of Essex (East-Sax - East Saxon Lands.) A number responded to the call as the Viking Long Boats came up the River Blackwater in the shire of Essex.

The Vikings landed on an island in the river that most historians believe is today’s Northey Island, close to the town of Maldon. At first they tried to demand Danegeld to leave, but Birthnoth stubbornly refused. As the Norsemen disembarked from their long boats they began to muster and then tried to cross a narrow causeway that connected to the Essex mainland. This narrow stretch was easily defended by the Saxon warriors under the command of Birthnoth, which left the Vikings at a disadvantage under such cramped and narrow circumstances.

However, the noble Ealdorman Birthnoth became over gallant and did not keep a firm grip of the advantage he had. Instead he treated the serious battle as though it was a game of fairness, where each side had to compete on equal terms. With ill-deserved confidence and blind pride, he allowed the Viking host to come across the causeway and get into battle formation to meet the Saxons on equal terms.

If ever there is a prime example of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, the ensuing Battle of Maldon was to become a text book example. Ealdorman Birthnoth may have been a die-hard romantic who believed in fair play and if so; he became immortalised in romantic verse and now echoes in eternity because of the fatal mistake he made.


As the Vikings and Saxons clashed, the fierce contest resulted in the deaths of many warriors on both sides. There can be no doubt of the bravery of the men slashing and chopping away in a riotous line – one force trying to outdo the other. Then Ealdorman Birthnoth was slain before his brave Saxon men. He fell as a group of his loyal Saxons formed around his stricken body.

One of the late Saxon Ealdorman’s companions, named Godric, was said to have climbed upon his horse and fled the scene of Battle. As this was done, the lesser of the Saxon warriors also began to flee, leaving the small throng of ardent loyalists around Ealdorman Birthnoth’s corpse. They were slaughtered to the last man and the brave Saxon was left beheaded by the Viking host with his dead followers about him.



A poem was written in commemoration of the Brave Ealdorman Birthnoth but the script was lost in a fire in 1731. Some of this poem was missing, so it remains incomplete. However there were copies made before it was destroyed.

Also J R R Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame, wrote a short story of two men searching for Birthnoth’s headless corpse in the aftermath of the battle. It is written as a poem come play – a lot of dialogue between the two men as they search among the slain Saxons during the night. The title of this work is called: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.

After the battle, King AEthelred the Unready paid 10,000 Roman pounds to get rid of the Vikings on the ill advice (unready- bad council) of his noblemen.

Sources:

UK BATTLEFIELDS

TOLKIEN ESTATE

AETHALRED THE UNREADY

NORSEMEN

STATUES - HITHER & THITHER
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