It marked the beginning of the end of Anglo-Saxon England, leading down the path to the battlefield at Hastings several decades later. 

The Unready or the Unruly 

History has not been kind to Æthelred the Unready. Pilloried as the king who "lost" Anglo-Saxon England to a bunch of Viking invaders, his name has been mistranslated as "unprepared," when in fact his epitaph means something akin to "poorly advised." 

And poorly advised he was. 

Reigning as the King of the English and ruling over Anglo-Saxon England from 978 to 1013, he ascended to the throne at the age of 12 and managed to stave off several challenges from home and abroad during his nearly four-decade-long reign. 

Despite the longevity of his reign, which for many other medieval rulers automatically meant a period of stability, Æthelred's reign was plagued by political instability. 

He faced frequent and devastating Viking raids – the start of the process that saw a Viking king of England succeed Æthelred – which caused tumultuous social and economic disruption and upheaval. 

This internal strife, caused by external Viking pressure, led to conflicts with Anglo-Saxon nobility and challenges to his leadership. 

His rule was often characterized by weak leadership and a reactive approach, rather than exhibiting strong vision and proactive measures against Viking raids. 

There has been momentum toward rehabilitating his reputation since the early 1980s in academic circles. 

Some historians have pointed out that he made efforts to defend his kingdom by constructing two fleets to fend off the Vikings and by enacting political and legal reforms. 

He reigned over a wealthy kingdom with a healthy economy. Ultimately, though, he was responsible for not dealing with the Viking threat properly by the early 990s. 

The aerial view illustrates the battlefield layout: Earl Byrhtnoth's forces were positioned on the shore at the top, and Olaf's men had to cross the causeway from Northey Island on the left. Photo: terry joyce (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An epic Anglo-Saxon poem 

One of the key ways to gain insight into historical events and figures during the Viking Age is through the rich tapestry of poetry and literature that has survived. 

The Battle of Maldon, said to have occurred on 11 August 991, during the 14th year of King Æthelred's reign, is unique in that it is commemorated by a 325-line poem written in Anglo-Saxon, also titled The Battle of Maldon

Whilst this poem provides valuable insights into the battle and contains historical truths, it should not be treated as a definitive historical account. 

Like all poetry from this era, its primary function is entertainment rather than serving as a strict historical record. 

However, historians and academics have agreed that there is a smattering of historical truth throughout the poem. 

It begins with a bit of context, explaining how the Anglo-Saxon nobility was divided over how best to deal with the Viking threat. 

Some wanted to simply pay them off with land and money, while others wanted to stand and fight. 

One such Anglo-Saxon nobleman, a thegn, who desired to fight and fend off the Vikings was the ealdorman of Essex, Byrhtnoth. 

He emerges as the hero of this poem, as well as of Anglo-Saxon lore and legend, finding himself confronted with a Viking invasion led by a Viking named Olaf. 

Historians agree that this Viking was likely Olaf Trygvasson, who later became the King of Norway in 995. 

Olaf had been terrorizing the local population recently, leading his force of hardened Vikings up the River Blackwater in Essex right into the heart of Byrhtnoth's fiefdom. 

They pulled their longships ashore on an island in the river during low tide, and now they were attempting to cross along a sandbank to reach the mainland. 

To stop them from coming ashore and terrorizing his community, Byrhtnoth called up his levy. 

Facing early medieval Europe's most feared warriors were a bunch of ragtag Anglo-Saxon farmers and peasants, or so the poem would have us believe. 

This surely amounted to a mismatch of epic proportions. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle establishes Maldon in Essex as the site of the battle. This conclusion is supported by its proximity to Ipswich and the fact that Byrhtnoth was an Ealdorman of Essex. 

The bronze statue of Byrhtnoth, Earl of Essex, created by local artist John Doubleday, stands in Maldon, England. Photo: Oxyman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Flawed heroism, hubris, or inspiration? 

One of the most stirring lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry ever penned (sorry, quilled) occurs just before the two sides clash swords. 

As the Anglo-Saxons line up, facing down the Vikings, Olaf makes a promise to sail away if the Vikings are paid with treasure and weapons. 

You can almost hear the chest thumping when Byrhtnoth replies that the only payment the Vikings will receive will be with "spear tips and sword blades." 

Zing! It almost makes you want to dust off that old sword you've got lying around the house and rush headfirst into battle! 

With this witty quip, the battle begins, and the Viking forces land an assault on the Anglo-Saxons. 

For some reason known only to him, Byrhtnoth then allows the Viking forces to cross the sandbank and onto the mainland, rather than keeping them at bay and picking them off one by one. 

This proved to be a fatal mistake, as the Vikings soon overran their peasant opposition, with Byrhtnoth falling in battle, reportedly decapitated. 

Nevertheless, the peasant opposition reportedly put up stiff resistance and managed to send many Vikings into the afterlife. 

Scholars argue over why Byrhrnoth would let the Vikings cross the river and then overwhelm and win the battle. 

Some argue that this poem served as a warning about hubris and pride, while others suggest it aimed to encourage Anglo-Saxon resistance and inspire them to take up arms against their Viking overlords. 

Regardless of the motives behind the poem, the Vikings emerged victorious, not only in the battle but also in the larger conflict. 

Over the course of two decades, they witnessed one of their own, Sweyn Forkbeard, adding the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England to his two kingdoms across the North Sea. 

The illustration depicts the Battle of Maldon in 991, as featured in Hutchinson's Story of the British Nation, published in 1922. Illustration: Alfred Pearse (Public domain)

Fallout from the battle 

The Viking victory was one of many that plagued King Æthelred's reign. 

The payment of Danegeld, advised by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the Battle of Maldon, exemplifies the poor counsel that characterized Æthelred's reign. 

This decision would haunt his rule. 

The payment amounted to some 10,000 "Roman pounds" (approximately 3300 kilograms or 7700 pounds) of gold. 

However, this vast payment did not deter Viking raids; instead, it encouraged them, leading to even more frequent attacks. 

These escalating raids left Æthelred with what he felt was his only remaining option: outright slaughter. 

In another piece of famously unwise advice, he was responsible for the order of the St. Brice's Day massacre – the supposed widespread murder of all Danes living in his kingdom in 1002. 

This action provided a pretext for the famous Viking warrior Sweyn Forkbeard to invade the wealthy kingdom, ultimately toppling Æthelred and establishing the North Sea Empire

This just proves the old adage that money really can't buy you happiness, whether you're a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon King or not. 

For more information on how the poem inspired the works of 20th-century author J.R.R Tolkien, visit The Conversation here.

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