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According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 991 CE, that summer, Olaf Tryggvason (later king of Norway) sailed with a fleet of 93 ships and raided the English coast. He began in Kent, raiding Folkestone and then Sandwich, and then moved on to Ipswich in Suffolk. After overrunning Ipswich, the fleet moved onwards to Maldon in Essex, sailing up the River Blackwater and establishing a base at the island of Northey in early August.

Northey was only accessible to the mainland via a tidal causeway and so was a safe harbour for the Vikings. Not that they needed to be overly wary; no one had opposed their raids so far. At Maldon, however, they faced opposition in the form of the Ealdorman of Essex, Byrhtnoth, gathered there with his retinue of huscarls (his heorthwerod or hearth-warriors) and the fyrd, the muster of the able-bodied men of Essex required to serve in the army when called. With this force, Byrhtnoth gathered on the shore opposite the tidal causeway to Northey.

The battle of Maldon is remarkable in the history of Anglo-Saxon and Viking warfare, indeed in the history of the Dark Ages, because we are, is the best source we have on shieldwall warfare in the entire period. By using the poem judiciously, we can tell a great deal about what happened on the shores of the River Blackwater that August afternoon in 991 CE. Of course, there are those who consider the poem a poetic exaggeration of the battle (some even maintain it is a fictional account complete with speeches, heroes and villains). The details of the poem, where we can corroborate them, are remarkably accurate and if we have no reason to reject the other details, we should not be quick to reject them as ‘mere poetry’. The speeches may well reflect some of what was actually said on the day and add to the evocation of the battle, the mindset of the participants and contemporary feelings in the kingdom. The poem includes several names of the warriors who fell to protect Essex, as well as criticism of the policy that was enacted soon after the battle by King Aethelred II, of paying the Vikings not to ravage the lands of the Anglo-Saxons (the payment became known as the ). In the poem, a Viking demand of payment is met with scorn by Byrhtnoth before the battle is joined.

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