The raid in the summer of 991 was one of the first of the major new Viking incursions. It may have been led by Svein Forkbeard, the Danish king, although the contemporary accounts mention Olaf, presumed to be the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason, who was an important Viking leader of the invasions later in the 990s.
Their fleet of 93 ships first descended upon Folkestone and devastated the area around it. Then they moved on to Sandwich and after that to Ipswich, burning and pillaging in typical Viking fashion, if they were not paid to depart. They finally advanced on Maldon. It is generally assumed that the Vikings moved along the coast with their fleet from Ipswich, as they did from Folkestone to Sandwich, drawing up their boats in a secure position in the Blackwater estuary before ravaging the countryside. It has been suggested that in fact their army ranged widely across south Suffolk and eastern Essex , but it seems unlikely that they would have advanced the 30 miles to Maldon by land.
As the Vikings approached Maldon the threat did not go unchallenged. By now the leader of the region, Ealdorman Brihtnoth, had raised the Essex ‘fyrd’, the local militia, and advanced to meet the Viking army. This was not a minor local response of an Essex lord after a few hours preparation to protect his estates. This was a regional commander raising the military forces of the East Saxons, possibly even more widely from East Anglia as a whole, under the system established decades earlier by Alfred and his successors for their reconquest of the east and north of England from the Danes.
There are many books which deal with this period of Viking raids ending in the conquest of England by Cnut. For example:
- Loyn. The Vikings in Britain, London, Batsford, 1977, 81-101.
- Jones. A History of the Vikings, London, Oxford University Press, 1973, 354-386.
However all modern accounts draw heavily upon the sparse detail provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and it is well worth reading that contemporary source in translation. It is published in various editions but the most useful, especially as it includes various other sources of the period, is:
- Whitelock. English Historical Documents, c. 500-1042, v.1, London, Routledge, 1996