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Causeway to Northey Island looking eastward
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The causeway to Northey Island viewed from the mainland
The Action

The two sides could not approach each other immediately for the tide was rising and had covered the causeway or ford across the channel of the Blackwater, then called ‘Pante’, that separated the two armies. It was now, in a shouted exchange, that Byrhtnoth refused the Viking request that the English pay them to withdraw.

Once the tide began to fall a handful of warriors held the causeway against the Vikings. But Byrhtnoth’s objective was to force the Vikings to give battle and this is surely why he drew his troops back from the causeway and allowed the enemy to cross unopposed. He had to engage and defeat them if they were not to raid the coasts of East Anglia with impunity. Thus the Vikings were allowed to advance westward across the causeway and form up in battle array on the mainland.

After an initial exchange of arrows the two forces, deployed in their shield walls, came to close range, first throwing their spears and then finally, in hand to hand combat, thrusting with the spears and hacking with swords. After the battle had raged for a while, Byrhtnoth himself became the focus of a Viking attack. He may have stepped forward at the advance of a Viking ‘strong in battle’, thinking this was an individual challenge. Byrhtnoth was soon cut down, felled by spear thrust and killed by sword blows. If one believes the otherwise dubious account in the Liber Eliensis he was finally felled and his head severed by a sword blow.

With the death of their leader the majority of the Saxon force, presumably including most if not all of the fyrd, fled to the relative safety of the nearby woods. The collapse of an army at the death of its leader appears to have been a major factor in medieval battles, as is seen in the Bayeux Tapestry where great play is made of the fact that William had to reassure his troops that he was still alive at a critical stage of the Hastings battle. Indeed, as late as 1485 one can see Richard III, at Bosworth, attempt to reach and kill the rebel Henry Tudor in one last desperate attempt to save the day. Such personal influence can only have been possible in battles where only a few thousand troops were involved. It was certainly a far less significant influence on major later battles, where troop numbers reach ten thousand or more.

It is not clear how much of the detail of the personal combat and shows of courage depicted in the poem, at Byrhtnoth’s death or in what followed, should be attributed to poetic licence. But after his death his retainers are said to have stood, fought and died to avenge their leader. Despite no longer having any chance of victory they are said to have inflicted great casualties upon the Viking army.


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