The Armies & the Losses
The primary sources suggest that the strength of the two forces deployed at Maldon was large for the period, but they do not provide any detail about the actual numbers involved, indeed they do not even agree as to whether the English had more or less troops than the Vikings.
It is likely that the two armies were equipped in a broadly similar way and that they followed similar military practice. That is with one exception, for some at least of the English force had approached the battlefield on horseback, but all English and Viking troops are believed to have fought on foot in the late Anglo-Saxon period. In the poem the riders dismount to fight and send their horses away.
The main weapon was the spear, used both for throwing and for thrusting. Some of the troops at least wore armour in the form of mail corselets while many if not all carried a shield. The troops were formed up into a shield wall, with shields probably overlapping to provide a solid defence. Swords were a weapon particularly of the upper classes and were carried by at least a proportion of troops at Maldon. Bows were a lower class weapon, perhaps explaining why their role in the battle, although mentioned at the beginning, is not given any prominence as the poem concentrates on the deeds of Brihtnoth and his retainers. The battle axe was an important weapon of the period in both English and Scandinavian armies but it is not specifically referred to in the poem as a significant weapon at Maldon.
The Viking force that fought at Maldon was a substantial Danish army. Although the leader named as Olaf has been identified with the Norwegian adventurer, later king, Olaf Tryggvason, this is considered by some to be a later amendment. It has been suggested that the force was actually under the command of Svein Forkbeard, the Danish King.
The only information on the possible size of the Viking force is where, earlier in the campaign, they are said to have arrived in 93 ships. The Viking ships were typically of two types, one carrying about 60 and another carrying about 30 men. If all the ships were of the smaller type then this would give a minimum force of around 2790, while if all were the larger type then this gives an upper limit of around 5580.
The English army was largely if not wholly an East Saxon force, under the command of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth. Byrhtnoth was one of a small group of nobles appointed as ealdormen, one responsible for each region of England, through whom the Saxon kings of the 10th century governed the kingdom.
The core of Byrhtnoth’s force was formed by his thegns’ retainers who held estates from him and in return fought for him. However, although well trained, equipped and motivated, Byrhtnoth’s retainers will have been a small force. The main body of the army was essentially a militia, comprising part or all of the ‘fyrd’ of Essex. The English fyrd was raised according to strict rules in which every five ‘hides’ of land were responsible for supplying and equipping one trained soldier for the army for a fixed period.
There is no information as to numbers involved but one may assume a similar order of scale to that fielded by the Vikings, because otherwise one side or other would be expected to have chosen not to fight at that time.
There is no indication of the losses, but the sources tend to agree that this was a hard fought battle in which a significant proportion on both sides were killed, the Vikings being said to have found it difficult to man their ships to sail away.