Friday, June 22, 2012

The Battle of Maldorn: History & Scenario Suggestions

This is a guest post by Gareth Humphreys (user Windy Miller on the WWPD Forum)

The Battle of Maldon
Marauders from the Sea
It was late summer in 991. The people of Essex, mostly Anglo-Saxon farmers, were looking forward anxiously to harvest, watching their crops every morning for any sign of an early frost. But at least one man realised that this year, a shortage of grain was not the only threat to their land.

On August 10th, Viking raiders sailed up the Blackwater, and landed on Northey Island, a strip of land separated from the mainland only by a river, near to the town of Maldon. The Earl of Essex, Brythnoth son of Beorthelm, had anticipated the invasion, and raised an army of his fellow Saxons to oppose them. Most of what we know about the battle that followed comes from a poem written by an unnamed monk, shortly after the battle, which has become one of the best known pieces of literature of the age.

The Earl
Brythnoth was, according to an examination of his bones in 1769, an incredibly tall man at approximately 69. By 991 he was old and hoar and had seen his share of fighting. However, he was by no means disillusioned and battle-shy as a result of his experiences, and was extremely confident in his mens ability to throw the raiders back into the cold clutches of the North sea.

At the outset, the Vikings offered their usual terms peace in exchange for gold. Brythnoths reply was fierce Hearest thou, sea-robber, what these people say? They are ready to give you their spears as tribute! The Vikings would have to pay for their gold in blood. The stage was set for a battle.

The Vikings soon discovered that their tactical situation was far from perfect. The only way off Northey Island was via a narrow ford called the causeway, which Brythnoth had blocked with his best troops. These raiders were probably used to having their victims pay gold out of hand, so forcing a river crossing against a shieldwall of veteran Saxon warriors, determined to defend their homeland, was not what they had in mind. The attack was pushed back and the Vikings tried a parley.

We do not know exactly how the Vikings presented themselves to Brythnoth, but what is clear is that, unbelievably, Brythnoth moved his army back and let the Vikings deploy on his side of the river and engage the Saxon host in open battle. Why Brythnoth did this is a matter of debate. Was he simply over-confident, sure of his army's ability to defeat these Norsemen under any circumstances? Did he have religious reasons for 'playing fair' believing that God would grant victory to the righteous? Or was this an example of the same heroic spirit which was so important to the Saxons the courage that inspired Beowulf to fight Grendel without weapons or armour, or the honour which made Sir Gawain face the immortal Green Knight in single combat, despite certain death?

Whatever his reasons, the outcome was decisive. At first the Saxons held firm, with Brythnoth personally fighting in the front rank and exhorting his men not to give an inch to the enemy. However, despite his bravado, he could not avoid the strokes of the enemy's weapons for long. With his spear broken, his gut pierced and his arm shattered, Brythnoth fell and with his dying breath encouraged his men to fight on.

The Last Stand
It was then that Godric, the son of Odda, panicked and took to the Earl's horse to retreat. Seeing what they took to be Brythnoth in full flight from the enemy, most of the Saxons broke. The battle began to turn into a rout. However, it was not over yet. Brythnoth's huscarls surrounded his body and prepared to defend their lord to the death. Brythwold, an old comrade of Brythnoth's, encouraged them in the most famous words of the poem: Thought must be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater, as our might lessens. The warriors of Brythnoth's house fell to the last man rather than abandon him.

In the aftermath of the battle, the Saxon king Æthelred granted the Vikings 10,000 pounds of silver to leave his land in peace, a practice which became known as paying Danegeld. It was a habit that he found difficult to get out of as his reign went on, earning him the ignoble title of 'Æthelred the Unready'. Brythnoth's hubris ultimately led to disaster for the Saxon Kingdom. One could say that never in the history of human conflict had so much woe been caused, to so many, by so few.

The Battle of Maldon in SAGA
If you wish to re-fight the battle of Maldon, I recommend fighting the three distinct stages of the battle as three different games:
1)      The Vikings attempt to take the causeway. Use the Battle at the Ford scenario from the main rulebook.
2)      The Vikings and the Saxons face off in open battle. Use the Clash of Warlords scenario from the main rulebook.
3)      The final stand of the Saxon huscarls. Use the Sacred Ground scenario with only one objective (Brythnoth's body), and the Saxons can only field units of Hearth Guards. NB: Their Warlord is not Brythnoth any longer but Brythwold.


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