In the year 991, the Anglo-Saxon Earl Byrhtnoth of Essex and his men fought and lost a battle against Viking raiders at a spot east of what was then called "Maeldun", meaning "Hill with a Cross", and today is known as Maldon.

The Vikings occupied Northey Island, where a single causeway afforded the only access to the mainland--and then only when the tide was low. Both sides were within shouting distance of one another: Byrhtnoth and his forces were arrayed on the mainland, and the Vikings stood on the island waiting for the tide to go down so they could cross.

The Vikings demanded gold and silver as tribute; Byrhtnoth refused. As the water receded, the Vikings began crossing the only way they could, single-file. The men of Essex easily cut them down as they approached.

The Viking leader Anlaf shouted across the water, asking that his men be allowed to cross in safety so they could meet the Anglo-Saxons fairly on the field of battle. Byrhtnoth, in what is either one of the bravest or stupidest decisions in military history, agreed. The battle was fiercely fought on both sides, but in the end Byrhtnoth was slain and the Essex men routed.

The battle is the subject of a famous poem of the same name, probably written near the end of the tenth century. The manuscript, part of the collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and the beginning and end of the poem are lost entirely. Here's how it starts, in the original and in modern English:

...brocen wurde.
Het þa hyssa hwæne hors forlætan,
feor afysan, and forð gangan,
hicgan to handum and to hige godum.

" ...would be broken.
Then he ordered a warrior each horse be let free,
driven afar and advance onward,
giving thought to deeds of arms and to steadfast courage."

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