It would appear that there were two battles at Maldon. The first went in favour of the English, who placed themselves beneath the banner of Brithnoth, alderman of Northumbria, and almost annihilated a force of sea-wolves from the North. The few who did escape carried the news back to their own country and preached a war of retribution.
Hence the second battle.
Brithnoth, as we have said, was a Northumbrian chief who lived in the days of the giants, and was himself a giant. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, with a body as hard as nails, and arms that knew well how to wield the mighty sword—in all, a noble figure of a man—Brithnoth had one ambition in life, and that was to preserve England from the encroachments of the Danes, those wolves of slaughter who ravaged the coast and plundered where they could. Brithnoth's valour and his known determination to check the inroads of the Danes brought him many other chiefs who placed themselves beneath his victorious banner. When, therefore, the Danes, under Anna and Guthmund, came on their errand of vengeance, and sent to tell Brithnoth that if he refused to give them battle, they would regard him as the greatest of cowards, Brithnoth went forth to give them what they asked.
He had gathered together what force he could, and rather than wait for reinforcements and so give the Danes time to advance far, he set out with a comparatively small army, and hastened away to Maldon, where, with poetic feeling, the Danes had decided to take their revenge.
Arrived at Maldon, he found the Danes in battle array; Brithnoth quickly put his own army in fighting order, and then went to the front to hear what the Viking herald had got to say.
The Danes had come for gold, or failing gold, for blood. They were pirates through and through. So, standing there on one side of the river (the estuary of the Blackwater, at Maldon, Essex, seems to have been the scene), the Viking herald lifted up his voice:
"The seamen bold send me to thee; they bid me say that thou must deliver to them forthwith thy treasures for thy safety; better it is for you that ye should buy off this warfare with tribute than that we should wage so hard a conflict. It boots not that we should slay each other; if ye will assent to this, we will ratify a peace with gold."
Brithnoth was angry; he would hold no truce with the pirates.
With buckler upraised, and shaking his slender javelin, he answered the sea-wolves' herald.
"Hear, thou mariner, what this people sayeth; they will for tribute bestow on you their weapons, the edge of their spears, their ancient swords, and arms of war, which shall not avail you in the fight. Herald of the men of the ocean I Deliver to thy people a message in return—a declaration of high indignation. Say that here stand undaunted an earl with his retainers, who will defend this land, the domain of my sovereign Ethelred, his people, and his territory; and the heathen shall perish in the conflict. . . . Point and edge shall determine between us in the grim game of war ere we give you tribute."
Back to the Danish camp the herald went, and down to the river bank the Northumbrian army moved. On the opposite bank the Danes were gathered, but between them lay the river, with the tide at the flow, which prevented either army crossing. The battle began nevertheless, the warriors, unable to use their swords, sending in flights of arrows at each other.
So they waited till the ebb of the tide, when the Danes began to construct a bridge by which they could cross the river and fly at their foe. The bridge was made under difficulties, and the Viking Wulfstan and two comrades stood as guard over the workers. Down upon them went the English, but the bold three stood firm, giving and taking many a lusty blow. At last the bridge was in position, and the invaders began to pour across to the other side of the river where stood Brithnoth hurling defiance at them, taunting them, and waxing sarcastic and bidding them come on.
The Danes needed no second bidding; England was a fair country, and offered much plunder, so they went to the fight with zest and eagerness. The English let them cross the river—and the two armies met.
Then, with shouts and battle-cries, they hurled themselves at each other. The air was dark with javelins and arrows, and filled with the sound of crashing battle-axes, groans and screams of pain. Both sides fought as they loved to fight—hand to hand, with keen-edged swords, penetrating spears, and mighty axes, which crashed through bucklers and shields, and lay their bearers low.
All over the field deeds of valour were being done, youngsters scarce out of their teens vying with well-tried warriors, and proving their mettle. "Shouts arose—the ravens congregated—and the eagle greedy of its food," so says the noble Anglo-Saxon poem which celebrated the battle, "a cry was on the earth. They darted from their hands many a stout spear—the sharpened arrows flew—the bows were busy—the buckler received the weapon's point—bitter was the fight."
Thus the battle raged for several days, and at last the final combat came. The Vikings formed themselves into a wedge, and advanced on the Northumbrians, breaking through their ranks, and doing terrible damage in the already decimated army.
Brithnoth and a great Danish chieftain met. First blood went to the Dane, who hurled a javelin that pierced buckler and hauberk and inflicted a serious wound on Brithnoth. He broke the spear shaft, and succeeded in getting the head out of the wound, and then, incensed at the blow, hurled his own javelin, pierced the Viking's neck, threw another which found its way through mail, pierced the heart, and laid the warrior low. Brithnoth had triumphed.
But his triumph was short-lived. A Viking dart sped through the air, transfixed the noble Northumbrian, and brought him to the earth. A boy standing at his side quickly plucked the spear from his master's breast and hurled it back, striking down the man who first had thrown it. But Brithnoth was wounded to the death, though he lay there issuing orders and inciting his men to fall on and drive the hated pirates back. A Dane approached to loot the earl of his rich apparel, his rings, his gems, his mighty sword. With a great effort Brithnoth raised himself, seized his battle-axe, and gave the thief such a blow as he had never before felt. It sent him scampering off.
It was Brithnoth's last blow, for the axe fell from his nerveless hand; the hero was dead.
The pirates flung themselves upon his corpse, mutilated and mangled it, though two youngsters stood watch over their fallen master and fought like brave men till speeding arrows and flashing swords sent them headlong over Brithnoth's body.
The fall of the chief struck dismay into the hearts of a large number of the English, and many of them, including Godric, son of Odda, and Godwy, played the coward, and left the field. With biting sarcasm the old poet cries: "They sought the woods, they fled to the fortress, they sheltered their lives!"
Others, however, scorned to flee; few though they were, they stayed to avenge the death of their noble chief. Shaking their spears, whirling their battle-axes round their heads, they arrayed themselves in a solid wall and fell on the foe. Again bucklers crashed into bucklers, swords met swords—and the Saxons were through the ranks of the Vikings, and the carnage began afresh. Soon the Vikings rallied their broken ranks and fell on the Northumbrians. Men fell on all sides, yet not a Saxon flinched, though the battle was going against them, and the sea-wolves were carrying everything before them, hewing a way through the buckler-made wall of the Northumbrians.
For hours the conflict raged, and the flower of Northumbria's chivalrous forlorn hope bit the dust, till the field was a shambles, and bodies of brave men lay piled high. On went the mariners, not after the Saxons, but over them and through them, till at last the second battle of Maldon was lost and won.
The sea-kings from the North had conquered; and in that year of grace 991, for the first time England paid tribute to the pirate horde.