History of Literature

The Battle of Maldon

Battle of Maldon Monument


The Battle of Maldon

Old English heroic poem describing a historical skirmish between East Saxons and Viking (mainly Norwegian) raiders in 991. It is incomplete, its beginning and ending both lost. The poem is remarkable for its vivid, dramatic combat scenes and for its expression of the Germanic ethos of loyalty to a leader. The poem, as it survives, opens with the war parties aligned on either side of a stream (the present River Blackwater near Maldon, Essex). The Vikings offer the cynical suggestion that the English may buy their peace with golden rings. The English commander Earl Byrhtnoth replies that they will pay their tribute in spears and darts. When the Vikings cannot advance because of their poor position, Byrhtnoth recklessly allows them safe conduct across the stream, and the battle follows. In spite of Byrhtnoth’s supreme feats of courage, he is finally slain. In panic some of the English warriors desert. The names of the deserters are carefully recorded in the poem along with the names and genealogies of the loyal retainers who stand fast to avenge Byrhtnoth’s death. The 325-line fragment ends with the rallying speech of the old warrior Byrhtwold (here in modern English):

Mind must be firmer, heart the more fierce,

Courage the greater, as our strength

diminishes . . . .



The Battle of Maldon

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon

by Wilfrid Berridge


Part I




Then he ordered each of his warriors his horse to loose
Far off to send it and forth to go,
To be mindful of his hands and of his high heart.
Then did Offa's Kinsman first know
That the earl would not brook cowardice,
Loosed he from his hands his darling to fly,
His Hawk to the wood, and to the battle strode.
From that one could tell that the chieftain would never
Weaken in the warfare - when he his weapons seized.
And after him Edric chose his chief to follow,
His friend in the fight - then 'gan he forth to bear
The spear to the strife - high spirit had he,
So long as he with his hands to hold was able
His buckler and broadsword; his boast he fulfilled
That he by his friend's side should fight.



Then did Brithnoth begin his men to bestow -
He rode up and counselled them - his soldiers he taught
How they should stand, and their standing to keep,
And bade them their round shields rightly to hold
Fast to their forearms, that they flinch not at all.
And when he had his folk fairly bestowed
He lighted there with his people, where he would liefest be
Where he knew his own troops were most to be trusted.



Then stood forth on the strand and sternly spake
The messenger of the Vikings, delivered his tidings;
He boastfully spoke, for the seafarers
Their sentence to the earl, where he stood on the shore.
"They sent me to thee, those bold seamen,
And bade me to say that thou must send swiftly
Ring-money for pledges. For you were it better
That you buy off this spear-rush with your tax,
Than that we should have so hard a battle.
What need we to vex us, if you will agree?
We will for this gold a sure compact make
If thou wilt agree to it - thou that art strongest.
If that thou be willing thy people to redeem,
To yield to the seamen at their own choice
Tribute for a truce, and so take peace of us,
Then will we with the tax to ship betake us
To sail on the sea - and hold truce with you.
Brithnoth made answer - his buckler he grasped,
Brandished his slender spear - and spoke.
"Hearest thou, sea-robber, what this people say?
For tribute they're ready to give you their spears,
The edge poison-bitter, and the ancient sword.
War-gear that will bring you no profit in the fight.
Thou messenger of the seamen, back with thy message.
Tell to thy people, these far more hateful tidings,
There stands here a good earl in the midst of his men,
Who will this country ever defend,
The kingdom of Aethelred, mine overlord,
The folk and the ground - but they shall fall,
The foemen in the fight; too shameful methinks
That ye with our tribute, to ship should be gone
Without a blow struck - now that ye have thus far
Made your incoming into our land.
Nor shall ye so softly carry off our riches.
Sooner shall point and edge reconcile us,
Grim warplay indeed - before we give tribute."
Bade he then to bear the shields, the warriors to go,
So that they on the river's bank all stood.



Nor could for the water, the army come at the other,
For there came flowing, flood after ebb;
Locked were the ocean-streams, and too long it seemed
Until they together might carry their spears.
There by Panta's stream in array they bestood,
Essex men's rank, and the men from the ships,
Nor might any one of them injure the other
Except where from arrow's flight one had his death.
The flood went out - the pirates stood ready.
Full many of the Vikings, eager for battle.



Then bade the men's saviour, one to hold the bridge,
A warrior war-hardened, that was Wulfstan hight1,
Courageous mid his kin - he was Ceola's son,
Who the first foeman with his spear did fell
That bravest stepped forth upon the bridge.
There stood with Wulfstan warriors goodly
Aelfere and Maccus, high hearted both,
That never at the ford would turn them to flight,
But they steadfastly 'gainst their foes made defence,
While their weapons to wield they were able.



When they saw that, and keenly espied
That bitter bridge-guardians there they met
Then began they to feign - those loathed guests -
And begged that they might some foothold get,
To fare over the ford - the foemen to lead.



Then did the earl, in his overweening heart
Lend land too much to that loathed people.
Then 'gan he call out - across the cold water
Brighthelm's son, and all the band listened.
"Now room is meted you, come swiftly to us,
Warriors to war. Only God knows
Who at the end shall possess this fight's field".
Then went the war wolves - for water they recked not.
The troop of the pirates, west over Panta.
Over the shining water they carried their shields
Seamen to the shore, their bucklers they shouldered.
There against the raiders ready stood
Brithnoth with his band, and with the bucklers bade
Form the shield wall, and make firm the ranks
Fast against the foes. Then was fighting nigh,
Fame in the fight - now was the hour come
When that the feymen2 must fall.

 1 ‘hight’ = archaic, literary word meaning ‘named’ or ‘called’

2 ‘feymen’ = ‘doomed men’ destined to die in the battle


Part II




Now was riot raised, the ravens wheeled,
The eagle, eager for carrion, there was a cry on earth.
Then loosed they from their hands the file-hard lance,
The sharp-ground spears to fly.
Bows were busied - buckler met point
Bitter was the battle-rush, warriors fell
On either hand, the young men lay!
Wounded was Wulfmur, a war bed he chose,
Even Brithnoth's kinsman, he with swords
Was straight cut down, his sister's son.
Then to the Vikings was requital given.
I heard that Edward did slay one
Straightly with his sword, nor stinted3 the blow,
That at his feet fell - the fey warrior.
For this his thane did to him give thanks,
Even to his chamberlain - when he had a space.



So stood firm the stout-hearted
Warriors in the war - they did keenly strive
Who with his point first should be able
From fey men to win life.
Warriors with weapons: wrack fell on earth.
They stood steadfast; Brithnoth stirred them,
Bade each of his men intend to the strife
That would from the Danes win glory.



Went one stern in battle - his weapon upheaved,
His shield for safety - and 'gainst the chief strode -
As resolute against him the earl did go,
Each to the other did evil intend.
Sent then the seafarer a southern dart,
And wounded was the warriors' chieftain.
But he shoved with his shield - so that the shaft burst,
And the spear broke, and it sprang away.
Wroth was the chieftain, he pierced with his spear
That proud Viking who gave him that wound.
Yet prudent was the chieftain; he aimed his shaft to go
Through the man's neck - his hand guided it
So that he reached his sudden enemy's life.
Then he a second swiftly sent
That the breastplate burst - in the heart was he wounded
Through the ring-harness - and at his heart stood
The poisoned point; the earl was the blither:-
Laughed then that high-heart - made thanks to God
For his day's work - that his Saviour granted him.



Loosed then one of the foemen a dart from his hands,
To fly from his finders - that it rushed forth
Through the noble thane of Aethelred.
Close to his side stood a youth not yet grown
Wulfstan's child - even Wulfmeer the younger.
He plucked from his chieftain that bloody spear
Then loosed the hard spear 'gainst that other to go;
In ran the point - so that he on earth lay
Who ere had sorely wounded his chief.
Went an armed Viking against the earl
Who wished the earl's jewels to plunder,
His armour and rings - and well-adorned sword.
Then Brithnoth drew his sword from sheath
Broad and brown edged - and at his breast-plate smote.
Too soon hindered him one of the seamen,
So that the earl's arm he did injure.
Fell then to earth the fallow-hilted sword,
Nor could he hold the hard brand
Or wield his weapon.



Yet then this word did speak
The old warrior; cheered on his men
Ordered to go forward - his good brethren.
No longer could he firmly on his feet stand.
He looked up to heaven........
"I thank Thee, Lord of all peoples
For all those joys that I on earth have known.
Now, my Maker mild - I have most need
That thou to my ghost should grant good.
That my soul to Thee may journey,
Into thy kingdom - O lord of the Angels,
May pass with peace - I do desire of Thee
That the hell-fiends may not hurt it."
Then hewed at him those heathen men
And at both those men that stood him beside,
Aelfnoth and Wulfmeer - both fell;
Then beside their liege - their lives they yielded.


3 ‘stinted’ = restrained, held back


Part III




Then fled those from the fight that wished not to be there.
Then were Odda's sons first in the flight
Godric from the battle, and left his good lord
Who had often given him many a mare,
He sprang upon the horse that his lord had owned,
Upon the trappings where no right had he,
And with him his brothers - they both galloped off,
Godrinc and Godwig, they loved not the battle,
They went from that war - and the wood they sought,
They fled to the fastness - and saved their own lives,
And men more than had any right
If they had all bethought them of the blessings
That he had done them for their good comfort.
Even thus to him Offa one day ere had said
In the meeting-place where he held his moot.
That with proud minds many did then speak
Who later at need would not endure.
Then fell that leader of the folk,
Aethelred's earl and all did see,
His hearth companions - that their lord was laid low.



Then went forth the proud thanes,
Brave men - hastened eagerly,
And willed they all - for one of two things:
Their lives to lose, or their loved lord to avenge.
Thus urged them forth the son of Aelfric,
A warrior young in winters - with words he spake,
Aelfwin thus said - boldly he spoke,
"Think ye of the times when we oft spake at mead
When we on the benches did raise up our boast,
Henchmen in the hall - about hard strife,
Now may each one make trial of how bold he be.
Now will I tell my lineage to all
That I was in Mercia of a mighty kindred
Mine old father - Aldhelm was hight,
An alderman wise - and rich in wealth;
Nor shall the thanes mid the people reproach me,
That I would consent to flee from this fight,
My home to seek, now my lord lieth low,
Slain in the strife; but yet it most grieves me
For that he was both - my kinsman and my lord."
Then went he forth - full mindful of the feud,
So that with his spear one he slew.
A pirate 'mong his people - that he fell to the earth.
Slain by his weapon. He 'gan to urge on
His comrades and friends - that they should go forth.
Offa spake, his spear-shaft shook,
"Lo thou, Aelfwin, hast all heartened
Thanes at need - now our lord lieth,
The earl on the earth - for us all is need
That each one of us should hearten the other
Warrior to war, while he his weapon may
Have and hold, his hard blade,
His spear and good sword - for Godric hath us,
Odda's coward son, all betrayed.
For many men thought when he rode off on the mare,
On that proud steed, that he was our lord.
And for that cause are the folk scattered over the field
The shield wall broken. May his plan come to nought!
For that he so many men hath set to flight."
Leofsund spoke, his buckler uphove,
His shield for safety - and that man answered,
"I do promise this, that I will not hence
Fly a foot's step, but shall further go
To avenge in the war my friendly lord.
Then shall not need in Sturmere the steadfast soldiers
To twit me with words, now my friend is fall'n,
For that I returned home without my lord,
Turned from the battle, but the sword shall take me,
The point and the steel." And he, most wroth, departed.
Fought steadfastly - flight he despised.
Dunmer then spoke - shook his spear,
A humble churl - called out above all,
Bade each warrior - "Brithnoth avenge!
Now may not go he who thinketh to avenge
His friend among the folk, nor mourn for his life."


Part IV




And then they went forth - for life they recked not.
Then 'gan the house men hardly to fight,
The fierce spear bearers - and they begged God
That they might avenge their friendly lord,
And on their enemies bring death.
Then the hostage 'gan eagerly help,
He was in Northumbria of a hardy kin,
Eclaf's child, and Aesferth his name.
He weakened not a whit in the warplay,
But he sent forth often a shaft,
Often he a buckler struck, often a man hit,
Ever and again he dealt out wounds
The while he his weapons might wield.
Then yet in the rank stood Eadward the tall,
Ready and eager - a boastful word spoke,
That he would not flee a foot's space of land,
Or budge back, now that his better chief was fall'n.
He shattered the shield wall and fought with the soldiers
Until he his treasure-giver upon the seamen
Had worthily avenged - 'ere he lay with the slain.
So did Aeturic - a noble companion,
Eager and impetuous - he fought keenly,
Sibright's brother, - and full many more, -
Split the hollow shields, sharply parried.
The buckler's edge burst, breast-plate sang
A grisly song. Then in the strife struck
Offa a seaman, that he sank to the earth,
And then Gadda's kinsman the ground sought.
Soon in the struggle was Offa struck down
Yet had he done what he boasted to his friend
As he bragged before to his ring-giver:-
That they both to the burg should ride
Hale to their home, or in the battle fall,
On the war field perish of their wounds.
He fell like true thane at his chief's side.
Then was breaking of bucklers, the seamen came on
Stern to the strife; the spear often pierced
A feyman's body. Forth then went Wistan,
Thurstan's son, with the enemy fought,
He was in the throng - of three men the bane
Ere him Wigelin's son on the battlefield laid.
Then was stern meeting, stood fast
Warriors in the war, then men sank down
Wearied with wounds - slaughter fell on earth.
Oswald and Ealdwald all the while
Brothers both, urged on the men,
Their dear kinsmen, with words incited
That they there at need should hold out,
Stoutly wield their weapons.
Brythwold spoke, grasped his buckler,
He was an old comrade, urged the men,
He full boldly cheered his soldiers,
"Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit shall be more - as our might lessens.
There lies our chief all cut down,
Good man on the ground; for ever may he grieve
Who now from this war-play thinketh to go.
I am old in years - hence I will not,
But by the side of mine own lord,
By my chief so loved, I think to lie."
And thus them all did Aethelgar's son urge,
Even Godric, to the battle - oft he cast a spear,
A spear of slaughter to go upon the Vikings,
As he 'mid the folk foremost went,
Smote and struck down till he sank down in the fight.
He was not that Godric who left the battle.


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