Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brihtnoth

BRIHTNOTH (d. 991), ealdorman of the East Saxons, married Æthelflæd, daughter of the ealdorman Ælfgar, and succeeded him in his office, probably about 953. As Brihtnoth's sister-in-law Æthelflæd was the wife of Æthelstan, ealdorman of the East Anglians, the friend of Dunstan, it is probable that he was the uncle of Æthelstan's son, Æthelwine, the leader of the monastic party (Green, Conquest of England, 286, 352). He strongly upheld the cause of the monks, and made lavish grants to monastic foundations, especially to Ely and Ramsey. It is said that when he went to fight his last battle he asked Wulfsige, abbot of Ramsey, for food for his army. Wulfsige replied that the ealdorman and six or seven of his personal following could be maintained, but not the whole host. 'Tell the abbot,' Brihtnoth said, 'that as I cannot fight without my men, I will not eat without them,' and he turned and marched to Ely, where the abbot gladly entertained the whole army. In return he gave the house wide estates, and much gold and silver. The story is told with some considerable differences both in the Ely and the Ramsey history (Gale, iii. Hist. Ram. 432, Eli. 492). It has been wholly rejected by modern criticism (Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 297, n. i). While some details in both versions are doubtless imaginary (the Ely history makes Brihtnoth ealdorman of the Northumbrians, and the Ramsey writer is regardless of geography), there seems no reason for refusing to believe that the tradition is based on fact. The Ely historian, who tells it of an earlier battle, which for lack of knowledge he also places at Maldon, may be near the truth. When in 991 a fleet of Norwegian ships under Justin and Guthmund, and possibly Olaf Tryggvason, plundered Ipswich, Brihtnoth, who was then an old man, went out to meet the invaders. He gave them battle near Maldon, on the banks of the Blackwater, then called the Panta. The fight is described in one of the very few old English poems of any length that have come down to us. In its present incomplete state this poem consists of 690 lines (Thorpe's Analecta Anglo-Saxonica, 131, in translation Conybeare's Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, xc., in rhythm in Freeman's Old English History}. Out of greatness of soul the ealdorman allowed a large number of the enemy to cross the water without opposition. A detailed description of the battle founded on the lay is to be found in Dr. Freeman's 'Norman Conquest' (i. 297-303). Brihtnoth was wounded early in the fight. He slew the man who wounded him and another, then he laughed and 'thanked God for the day's work that his Lord gave him.' After a while he was wounded again, and died commending his soul to God. The English were defeated; the personal following of the ealdorman fell fighting over his body. Brihtnoth's head was cut off and carried away by the enemy; his body was borne to Ely and buried by the abbot, who supplied the place of the head with a ball of wax. His widow Æthelflæd gave many gifts to Ely, and among them a tapestry in which she wrought the deeds of her husband.

[Florence of Worcester, an. 991; Ely and Ramsey Histories (Gale), iii. 432, 493; Green's Conquest of England, 261,316, 352, 370; Freeman's Norman Conquest, i. 289, 296-303.]

W. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.37
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
342 ii 3f.e. Brihtnoth: for sister read sister-in-law