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Battle of Maldon and Overheart August 10, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

File: Byrhtnoth statue

Beachcombing has a long tradition of screwing up anniversaries – wrong days, wrong months, wrong years… But just for once he thought that he would get things right and offer his readers a story on the right day – 10 August– and hopefully in the right tone. What we have here is a Weird War, a massacre and a lot, depending on your perspective, of stupidity or heroism.

In 991 the fledgling Kingdom of England was fighting for its survival against a blitz of Viking attacks on the east coast. In Essex in that year the ‘dark sails’ were spotted on the horizon and the local militia under an elderly warrior, Byrhtnoth, went out to meet the invaders. The battle was to take place on a beach, at Maldon, which can be visited with profit by modern day trippers. The Vikings had landed – as was their sneaky, conniving way – on a tidal island there and the militia, determined to defend their Kingdom, blocked the approach from the sea effectively bottling up the raiders.

So far, so normal. Every one has played their part in the illuminated manuscript of the past. The Vikings have raged, the locals have shivered but have held the shield wall intact. However, now the actors are about to leave their script… Bizarrists beware.

The Vikings having failed to force their way onto the mainland now decided to push their luck. One of their leaders shouted across to the men of Essex (in Anglo-Saxon or trusting in their tolerably similar German tongue) asking for the militia to move back a few hundred yards so that the Vikings could cross, form up on the beach and so have a ‘fair’ fight – not something that characterized Viking warfare but anyway. Incredibly Byrhtnoth agreed and, giving up his excellent defensive position, he let the nasty Scandinavians onto English soil so that the rumble could go down.

The results of this spectacularly brave/stupid decision are recorded in a near contemporary heroic poem. The militia was overrun, Byrhtnoth was killed and decapitated and his household, as convention demanded, gathered around their lord’s body determined to die where he had fallen. They succeeded and the Vikings were then free to raid and destroy to their heart’s content through the heartlands of Essex. For the first time in English history the crown gave Dane-geld, buying the Vikings off with all the sad consequences that flowed from that.

The poem does not criticize Byrhtnoth directly, though it describes his decision as stemming from ofermod (‘too much heart’) that might be, as J.R.R. Tolkien argued many years ago, an epic poet shaking his head somewhat, perhaps even accusing the dead hero of hubris. But can turning a battle into a duel ever really be excused? Beach hasn’t the slightest idea: these are questions for the ages. If pushed he has some sympathy for the words of one modern Anglo-Saxon scholar.

Nothing could diminish our admiration for his brave response [of Byrhtnoth] or for the loyalty which he displayed towards his king… But nor should we, from our own vantage point removed one thousand years in time from Athelered’s reign, condemn the actions of those after Byrhtnoth who knew only too well how things had turned out. There may have been a little touch of Byrhtnoth in every one of them; but what for him was a matter of principle had been turned by his death into a far more difficult choice.

Other strange examples of fair fighting in dirty wars? Beachcombing needs to know. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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10 August 2011: Ricardo writes in with memories of the noble Duke Xian of Song who allowed – in a striking parallel to Maldon – his enemy to safely cross the river before attacking them. Even better Mao didn’t like Xian: ‘We are not the Duke of Song!’ – there are few higher recommendations. Daniel from Civilian Military Intelligence Group writes in with cases from the American Civil War and WW2. First ‘during the battle for Monte Cassino, there was a moment when the SS and the US and British decided to call a ceasefire to clear out dead and wounded and the SS paratroopers borrowed US and British gurneys and then returned them!’ Oh those punctilious Germans… Then ‘Richard Rowland Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Army of the Confederacy. Kirkland was a Sergeant who had seen Battle, including Second Manassas and Shiloh. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, masses of Union soldiers under General Burnside made frontal assaults on the Confederates entrenchments along the Rappahannock River on December 13th, 1862. It was a foolish and wasteful assault that cost 6,000 dead on the first day alone and thousands more wounded; it also cost Burnside his job. During the Civil War, battles ended when the sun went down. So as combatants headed to their own lines, all one could hear were the frightful cries from wounded soldiers for help. All through the night, Kirkland, stationed at a stonewall near a sunken road, was jolted by the lugubrious mournful cries of Union soldiers. The next morning, Kirkland asked his commander’s permission to gather canteens and blankets to help the wounded. General Kershaw allowed the gesture and in broad daylight the General watched as he gathered water and wool cover and carried it to the soldiers. During the hour and a half while he helped wounded soldiers on the battlefield, in this small area no one from either side fired. They waited until Kirkland was done ministering. (On September 20th 1863, Kirkland was killed at the battle of Chickamauga. He has since been feted with song and story and statues.)’ Then there was also the question of music: ‘Often bands would play during the evenings even when the sides were so close they could hear each other. After the second day of Fredericksburg, the Union forces had brought their band along with them and they played that evening. One night, a Confederate yelled, ‘Now play one of ours!’ the Union band immediately struck up ‘Dixie. Memories of Lincoln calling for Dixie to be played as the war wound down. Then finally ‘during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a fire swept through the dry grassy hills between the Union and Confederate lines. Many wounded soldiers actually burned alive in this fire. At one juncture, a Confederate officer hollered ‘We won’t fire a gun until you get them away’’. SY pays tribute to Hans Langsdorff captain of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. ‘HL prided himself on never taking a life when attacking British merchant shipping, even congratulating enemy captains who had not immediately surrendered so as to send off distress signals. He was finally defeated by British guile at the Battle of the River Plate, scuttled his ship – saving his 1000 crewmen from certain death – and then committed suicide before being repatriated to Hitler’s Germany. His funeral in Buenos Aires was almost unique in the war as it was also attended by British officers.’ Thanks SY, Ricardo and Daniel!!

11 August 2011: Jonathan from A Corner of Tenth Century Europe writes specifically on Maldon: ‘In the first place, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with rare unaninimity between its manuscripts, agrees that 991 was the first year in which Danegeld was paid, and subjoins this to the notice of the death of Byrhtnoth, it does not say explicitly that the one caused the other, but blames it on the ‘marvels’ that the Vikings had wrought that year on the east coast. One should not necessarily assume that Maldon was the first of these, I think, not least because it makes more sense of Byrhtnoth’s decision if the army he cornered were already notorious. I’ll come back to that, but the first point I wanted to make was simply that, of course, money had been paid to the Vikings before by Alfred, and occasionally by his son Edward on bad days. Whether that is the ‘English’ crown is a long debate – there was no other left but was there an England yet? But the 991 solution was, at least, not unheard of. As to Byrhtnoth’s weird decision, I think it is clear from the poem (and I’ve seen it argued by people with more Old English than me, more to the point) that while the English were safe on the mainland, the Vikings were also safe on the island; neither side could come at the other over the narrow causeway. Byrhtnoth’s choice, therefore, was not between a successful defence and a slaughter of his own men, it was between a fight that might go either way and the Vikings certainly getting away scot-free to ravage until cornered again, if at all. He couldn’t engage without them coming to the mainland. Given the chance to actually stop this instalment of the Viking threat, he took it. A stupid gamble? (More stupid than the Viking offer?!) Maybe, but the poet doesn’t say that; instead he blames a particular section of the English army for not liking the look of this and turning tail, leaving Byrhtnoth and his loyal followers to fight on outnumbered. It doesn’t, as far as I can see, say that the English were outnumbered till then. I’m not sure whether keeping a defence in being would have been wiser, in retrospect, than trying to deliver a temporary knock-out blow, but it is at least clear that when the writer of the section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that covers this period (all done in a lump in 1016, so the author knew how things would turn out – very important!) was writing it up, he thought that the biggest problem in his mind was armies that never caught the enemy or, if they did, didn’t engage. Men like Byrhtnoth, he would presumably have seen as the solution, not the problem; the problem was that there were so few like him to take his place.’ Surely a very important point here is that if Byrhtnoth had not fought the Vikings they could easily have sailed away and ravaged another part of the Essex or English coast. Thanks as always Jonathan!

15 August 2011: Tim writes in with another ‘fair fight’. ‘With regard to your recent post on fair fights, I’ve always found the story from the War of 1812 of the Battle of Boston Harbor interesting for its civility.  You may already know the story, but if not, Wikipedia does a fair job describing it. The HMS Shannon was sitting outside the harbor attempting to block the exit of any American warships.  The USS Chesapeake was being refitted in the harbor, and was ready to attempt an escape. The captain of the HMS Shannon sent to the captain of the USS Chesapeake inviting his ship out to sea to engage in battle: ‘As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her main deck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarter-deck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We have both noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.’ According to wikipedia, the Chesapeake set out before her captain received the note, but the story remains interesting as the Chesapeake’s captain had the same intent as the Shannon’s captain: meet in neutral grounds and have at it. Patrick O’Brian even cribbed the facts of the battle for one of his Aubrey and Maturin books. Spoiler: you guys won. Overall, it wasn’t our smartest war.’ Thanks Tim!