“Brythnoth at Sunset” by Trevor Harris. Wikimedia Commons.
by Helena Hirst
The Battle of Maldon took place in August 991 A.D. in the town of Maldon, in the kingdom of the East Saxons (modern-day Essex) beside the River Blackwater (then known as the “Pante”) during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. Æthelred the Unready, King of the East Saxons (“Battle of Maldon”), had a “troubled reign.” The English paid large sums of money to Danish Vikings to ensure protection and stability during this period known as “Danelaw” (Niles). At this time, over two decades had passed without Danish attacks on England when The Battle of Maldon signaled a renewal of “harrying raids and sporadic attacks” until the eventual Norman Conquest of England in 1066 (Grout).
The Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” begins when English forces ( fyrd ) led by Byrhtnoth, the Ealdorman (a nobleman of high rank, representing the king), prepare to mobilize against their Danish invaders. On the shore of the Pante river, a Viking herald voices their demand: money for protection. Rather than secede, Byrhtnoth challenges them with “You must not get our gold so softly” (“Battle of Maldon,” line 58). The English are at an advantage as the two forces are “separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway submerged by the tide” and the English are “protected by the mudflats and salt marshes of the estuary.” Byrhtnoth and his fyrd are able to form a shield-wall for their defense (Grout).
Byrhtnoth and his men safeguard the causeway, and, as the tide lessens, neither truly can advance on each other. So, the Vikings ask to be allowed safe passage onto land, and Byrhtnoth, “due to his overweening pride,” grants it to them. Carnage ensues on both sides as Byrhtnoth orders his men to hold their position. Byrhtnoth is wounded by a spear-throwing Viking, but is determined to persist. Byrhtnoth, wounded once again, is no longer able to wield his weapon, but musters the strength to inspire his men with the words `Ì am a suppliant to you that these hell-harmers shall not be allowed to injure it” (“Battle of Maldon,” line 180) before he perishes alongside two of his men, Ælfnoth and Wulfmær.
Several of Byrhtnoth’s men, led by Godric, flee for their lives, causing confusion amongst the fyrd who mistake Godric for their leader, Byrhtnoth. The shield-wal breaks until only the core remains who are steadfast in their cause to avenge Byrhtnoth. Passionate speeches are made by the empowered warriors encouraging each other to keep fighting, and even Godric is written to have returned to battle, but eventually, “the slain fell to the earth” and the Anglo-Saxons were defeated.
“The Battle of Maldon” is a story of guts and glory; patriot versus enemy. Byrhtnoth symbolizes the patriot, who would rather die than secede to the enemy, who are the Vikings, portrayed as villainous “slaughter-wolves” hell-bent on destruction. In contrast, the English are presented as loyal and virtuous protectors, with fearless Byrhtnoth to lead them to their heroic deaths. It is noted that in the last surviving line of the poem, Godric’s actions are contrasted against each other, representing “the loyal and brave followers of a generous Christian thane and the disloyalty of ungrateful cowards and pagan invaders, between the Godric who abandoned his lord and the Godric who stood and fought to avenge his death” (Grout). As the poem states: “This certainly was not the Godric who flew from the fight.” Rather than save himself, he chose to die for his King and become a patriot like Byrhtnoth.
As for the authenticity of the accounts in the poem, “an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 991” reports that “Byrhtnoth was slain at Maldon” but there are “no other details… preserved in that source” (Slocum and Lehman). The fiery imagery of “ravens circling” and “shields… peppered with points” indicates a clear embellishment, but nonetheless, the Battle of Maldon did occur, and subsequently, the Anglo-Saxons were forced to pay the Danes (“Battle of Maldon”).
There is some controversy surrounding the dating of “The Battle of Maldon” (Niles).
The Old English poem was likely passed down orally, then transferred to multiple manuscripts before burning in the Cotton library fire at the Ashburnham House in 1731. Thankfully, 325 lines had been previously transcribed, but an estimated 50 lines of the poem were lost to the fire, dwindling an already fragmented piece of writing. Without a proper ending, crucial information may have been lost pertaining to its purpose and its dating (“Battle of Maldon”). According to linguistic experts, it is most reasonable to assume the poem was written not long after the battle occurred, in the 10th century, due to the reverent references to Æthelred. Others see these references as comical, an insult to Æthelred’s “ineffectiveness as king”, proving the poem was written for an 11th-century audience (Niles). Though reactions may vary, all can agree “The Battle of Maldon” serves as an important monument to the spirit of the Anglo-Saxons.
“Battle of Maldon.” Wikipedia. 20 April 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Maldon. Accessed 20 April 2020.
“Danelaw.” Wikipedia. 20 April 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danelaw. Accessed 20 April 2020.
Hostetter, Aaron K. “Battle of Maldon.” Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project . 25 April 2018. anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/battle-of-maldon/. Accessed 14 April 2020.
Grout, James. “The Battle of Maldon.” Encyclopaedia Romana, N.d. penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/maldon/ma ldon.html. Accessed 14 April 2020.
Slocum, Jonathan and Winfred P. Lehmann. “Old English Online: Lesson 6.” The University of Texas at Austin Linguistics Research Center, n.d. lrc.la.utexas.edu/eieol/engol/60. Accessed 14 April 2020.
Niles, John D. “Maldon and Mythopoesis.” Old English Literature: Critical Essays , edited by R.M. Luizza, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 445–474. JSTOR , www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npg1h.26. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.
- “He gave up too much land to those hated people.” What is this line referring to?
- What does Byrhtnoth do when the Vikings ask for permission to cross onto land?
- What does the Viking herald ask for in exchange for protection?
- Who is “the lord of warriors”?
- What were the two things the hearth-retainers wished for?
- Why is Bryhtwold’s speech significant?
- How does the Battle of Maldon relate to the English national identity?
Reading: The Battle of Maldon
. . . . . . . . . . was broken;
He bade the young barons abandon their horses,
To drive them afar and dash quickly forth,
In their hands and brave heart to put all hope of success.
The kinsman of Offa discovered then first
That the earl would not brook dishonorable bearing.
He held in his hand the hawk that he loved,
Let him fly to the fields; to the fight then he stepped;
By this one could know that the knight was unwilling
To weaken in war, when his weapons he seized.
Edric wished also to aid his chief,
His folk-lord in fight; forward he bore
His brand to the battle; a brave heart he had
So long as he held locked in his hand
His board and his broad sword; his boast he made good,
Fearless to fight before his lord.
Then Byrhtnoth began to embolden the warriors;
He rode and counseled them, his comrades he taught
How they should stand in the stronghold’s defence,
Bade them to bear their bucklers correctly,
Fast by their hands without fear in their hearts.
When the folk by fair words he had fired with zeal,
He alighted in a crowd of his loyal comrades,
Where he felt that his friends were most faithful and true.
Then he stood on the strand; sternly the messenger
Of the Vikings called in vaunting words,
Brought him the boast of the bloody seamen,
The errand to the earl, at the edge of the water:
“I am sent to thee by seamen bold;
They bade me summon thee to send them quickly
Rings for a ransom, and rather than fight
It is better for you to bargain with gold
Than that we should fiercely fight you in battle.
It is futile to fight if you fill our demands;
If you give us gold we will grant you a truce.
If commands thou wilt make, who art mightiest of warriors,
That thy folk shall be free from the foemen’s attack,
Shall give of their wealth at the will of the seamen,
A treasure for tribute, with a truce in return,
We will go with the gold again to our ships,
We will sail to the sea and vouchsafe to you peace.”
Byrhtnoth burst forth, his buckler he grasped,
His spear he seized, and spoke in words
Full of anger and ire, and answer he gave:
“Dost thou hear, oh seamen, what our heroes say?
Spears they will send to the sailors as tribute,
Poisoned points and powerful swords,
And such weapons of war as shall win you no battles.
Envoy of Vikings, your vauntings return,
Fare to thy folk with a far sterner message,
That here staunchly stands with his steadfast troops,
The lord that will fight for the land of his fathers,
For the realm of Æthelred, my royal chief,
For his folk and his fold; fallen shall lie
The heathen at shield-play; Shameful I deem it
With our treasure as tribute that you take to your ships,
Without facing a fight, since thus far hither
You have come and encroached on our king’s domain.
You shall not so easily earn our treasure;
You must prove your power with point and sword edge,
With grim war grip ere we grant you tribute.”
He bade then his band to bear forth their shields,
Until they arrived at the river bank.
The waters prevented the warriors’ encounter;
The tide flowed in, the flood after the ebb,
Locked up the land; too long it seemed
Until they could meet and mingle their spears.
By Panta’s stream they stood in array,
The East Saxon army and the eager shield-warriors;
Each troop was helpless to work harm on the other,
Save the few who were felled by a flight of arrows.
The flood receded; the sailors stood ready,
All of the Vikings eager for victory.
Byrhtnoth bade the bridge to be defended,
The brave-hearted warrior, by Wulfstan the bold
With his crowd of kinsmen; he was Ceola’s son,
And he felled the first of the foemen who stepped
On the bridge, the boldest of the band of men.
There waited with Wulfstan the warriors undaunted,
Ælfhere and Maccus, men of courage;
At the ford not a foot would they flee the encounter,
But close in conflict they clashed with the foe,
As long as they wielded their weapons with strength.
As soon as they saw and perceived it clearly,
How fiercely fought was the defense of the bridge,
The treacherous tribe in trickery asked
That they be allowed to lead their hosts
For a closer conflict, to cross over the ford.
Then the earl, too eager to enter the fight,
Allowed too much land to the loathed pirates.
Clearly then called over the cold water
Byrhthelm’s son; the soldiers listened:
“Room is now made for you; rush quickly here
Forward to the fray; fate will decide
Into whose power shall pass this place of battle.”
Went then the battle-wolves— of water they recked not—
The pirate warriors west over Panta;
Over the bright waves they bore their shields;
The seamen stepped to the strand with their lindens.
In ready array against the raging hosts
Stood Byrhtnoth’s band; he bade them with shields
To form a phalanx, and to defend themselves stoutly,
Fast holding the foe. The fight was near,
The triumph at conflict; the time had come
When fated men should fall in battle.
Then arose an alarm; the ravens soared,
The eagle eager for prey; on earth was commotion.
Then sped from their hands the hardened spears,
Flew in fury file-sharpened darts;
Bows were busy, boards met javelins,
Cruel was the conflict; in companies they fell;
On every hand lay heaps of youths.
Wulfmere was woefully wounded to death,
Slaughtered the sister’s son of Byrhtnoth;
With swords he was strongly stricken to earth.
To the vikings quickly requital was given;
I learned that Edward alone attacked
Stoutly with his sword, not stinting his blows,
So that fell at his feet many fated invaders;
For his prowess the prince gave praise and thanks
To his chamberlain brave, when chance would permit.
So firm of purpose they fought in their turn,
Young men in battle; they yearned especially
To lead their line with the least delay
To fight their foes in fatal conflict,
Warriors with weapons. The world seethed with slaughter.
Steadfast they stood, stirred up by Byrhtnoth;
He bade his thanes to think on battle,
And fight for fame with the foemen Danes.
The fierce warrior went, his weapon he raised,
His shield for a shelter; to the soldier he came;
The chief to the churl a challenge addressed;
Each to the other had evil intent.
The seamen then sent from the south a spear,
So that wounded lay the lord of the warriors;
He shoved with his shield till the shaft was broken,
And burst the spear till back it sprang.
Enraged was the daring one; he rushed with his dart
On the wicked warrior who had wounded him sore.
Sage was the soldier; he sent his javelin
Through the grim youth’s neck; he guided his hand
And furiously felled his foeman dead.
Straightway another he strongly attacked,
And burst his burnie; in his breast he wounded him.
Through his hard coat-of-mail; in his heart there stood
The poisoned point. Pleased was the earl,
Loudly he laughed, to the Lord he gave thanks
For the deeds of the day the Redeemer had granted.
A hostile youth hurled from his hand a dart;
The spear in flight then sped too far,
And the honorable earl of Æthelred fell.
By his side there stood a stripling youth,
A boy in battle who boldly drew
The bloody brand from the breast of his chief.
The young Wulfmere, Wulfstan’s son,
Gave back again the gory war-lance;
The point pierced home, so that prostrate lay
The Viking whose valor had vanquished the earl.
To the earl then went an armed warrior;
He sought to snatch and seize his rings,
His booty and bracelets, his bright shining sword.
Byrhtnoth snatched forth the brown-edged weapon
From his sheath, and sharply shook the attacker;
Certain of the seamen too soon joined against him,
As he checked the arm of the charging enemy;
Now sank to the ground his golden brand;
He might not hold the hilt of his mace,
Nor wield his weapons. These words still he spoke,
To embolden the youths; the battle-scarred hero
Called on his comrades to conquer their foes;
He no longer had strength to stand on his feet,
. . . . . . . . he looked to heaven:
“Ruler of realms, I render thee thanks
For all of the honors that on earth I have had;
Now, gracious God, have I greatest of need
That thou save my soul through thy sovereign mercy,
That my spirit speed to its splendid home
And pass into thy power, O Prince of angels,
And depart in peace; this prayer I make,
That the hated hell-fiends may harass me not.”
Then the heathen dogs hewed down the noble one,
And both the barons that by him stood—
Ælfnoth and Wulfmær each lay slaughtered;
They lost their lives in their lord’s defence.
Then fled from the fray those who feared to remain.
First in the frantic flight was Godric,
The son of Odda; he forsook his chief
Who had granted him gifts of goodly horses;
Lightly he leapt on his lord’s own steed,
In its royal array —no right had he to it;
His brothers also the battle forsook.
Godwin and Godwy made good their escape,
And went to the wood, for the war they disliked;
They fled to the fastnesses in fear of their lives,
And many more of the men than was fitting,
Had they freshly in mind remembered the favors,
The good deeds he had done them in days of old.
Wise were the words spoken once by Offa
As he sat with his comrades assembled in council:
“There are many who boast in the mead-hall of bravery
Who turn in terror when trouble comes.”
The chief of the folk now fell to his death,
Æthelred’s earl; all his companions
Looked on their lord as he lay on the field.
Now there approached some proud retainers;
The hardy heroes hastened madly,
All of them eager either to die
Or valiantly avenge their vanquished lord.
They were eagerly urged by Ælfric’s son,
A warrior young in winters; these words he spoke—
Ælfwine then spoke, an honorable speech:
“Remember how we made in the mead-hall our vaunts,
From the benches our boasts of bravery we raised,
Heroes in the hall, of hard-fought battles;
The time has now come for the test of your courage.
Now I make known my noble descent;
I come from Mercia, of mighty kinsmen;
My noble grandsire’s name was Ealdhelm,
Wise in the ways of the world this elder.
Among my proud people no reproach shall be made
That in fear I fled afar from the battle,
To leave for home with my leader hewn down,
Broken in battle; that brings me most grief;
He was not only my earl but also my kinsman.”
Then harboring hatred he hastened forth,
And with the point of spear he pierced and slew
A seaman grim who sank to the ground
Under weight of the weapon. To war he incited
His friends and fellows, in the fray to join.
Offa shouted; his ash-spear shook:
“Thou exhortest, O Ælfwine, in the hour of need,
When our lord is lying full low before us,
The earl on the earth; we all have a duty
That each one of us should urge on the rest
Of the warriors to war, while his weapons in hand
He may have and hold, his hard-wrought mace,
His dart and good sword. The deed of Godric,
The wicked son of Offa, has weakened us all;
Many of the men thought when he mounted the steed,
Rode on the proud palfry, that our prince led us forth;
Therefore on the field the folk were divided,
The shield-wall was shattered. May shame curse the man
Who deceived our folk and sent them in flight.”
Leofsunu spoke and his linden-shield raised,
His board to defend him and embolden his fellows:
“I promise you now from this place I will never
Flee a foot-space, but forward will rush,
Where I vow to revenge my vanquished lord.
The stalwart warriors round Sturmere shall never
Taunt me and twit me for traitorous conduct,
That lordless I fled when my leader had fallen,
Ran from the war; rather may weapons,
The iron points slay me.” Full ireful he went;
Fiercely he fought; flight he disdained.
Dunhere burst forth; his dart he brandished,
Over them all; the aged churl cried,
Called the brave ones to battle in Bryhtnoth’s avenging:
“Let no hero now hesitate who hopes to avenge
His lord on the foemen, nor fear for his life.”
Then forward they fared and feared not for their lives;
The clansman with courage the conflict began;
Grasped their spears grimly, to God made their prayer
That they might dearly repay the death of their lord,
And deal defeat to their dastardly foes.
A hostage took hold now and helped them with courage;
He came from Northumbria of a noble kindred,
The son of Ecglaf, Æscferth his name;
He paused not a whit at the play of weapons,
But unerringly aimed his arrows uncounted;
Now he shot on the shield, now he shattered a Viking;
With the point of his arrow he pierced to the marrow
While he wielded his weapons of war unsubdued.
Still in the front stood the stalwart Edward,
Burning for battle; his boasts he spoke:
He never would flee a foot-pace of land,
Or leave his lord where he lay on the field;
He shattered the shield-wall; with the shipmen he fought,
Till on the treacherous tribesmen his treasure-giver’s death
He valiantly avenged ere his violent end.
Such daring deeds did the doughty Æthric,
Brother of Sibyrht and bravest of soldiers;
He eagerly fought and the others followed;
They cleft the curvèd shields; keenly they battled;
Then burst the buckler’s rim, and the burnies sang
A song of slaughter. Then was slain in battle,
The seaman by Offa; and the earth received him;
Soon Offa himself was slain in battle;
He had laid down his life for his lord as he promised
In return for his treasure, when he took his vow
That they both alive from battle should come,
Hale to their homes or lie hewn down in battle,
Fallen on the field with their fatal wounds;
He lay by his lord like a loyal thane.
Then shivered the shields; the shipmen advanced,
Raving with rage; they ran their spears
Through their fated foes. Forth went Wistan,
Thurstan’s son then, to the thick of the conflict.
In the throng he slew three of the sailors,
Ere the son of Wigeline sent him to death.
The fight was stiff; and fast they stood;
In the cruel conflict they were killed by scores,
Weary with wounds; woeful was the slaughter.
Oswald and Eadwold all of the while,
Both the brothers, emboldened the warriors,
Encouraged their comrades with keen spoken words,
Besought them to strive in their sore distress,
To wield their weapons and not weaken in battle.
Byrhtwold then spoke; his buckler he lifted,
The old companion, his ash-spear shook
And boldly encouraged his comrades to battle:
“Your courage be the harder, your hearts be the keener,
And sterner the strife as your strength grows less.
Here lies our leader low on the earth,
Struck down in the dust; doleful forever
Be the traitor who tries to turn from the war-play.
I am old of years, but yet I flee not;
Staunch and steadfast I stand by my lord,
And I long to be by my loved chief.”
So the son of Æthelgar said to them all.
Godric emboldened them; oft he brandished his lance,
Violently threw at the Vikings his war-spear,
So that first among the folk he fought to the end;
Hewed down and hacked, till the hated ones killed him—
Not that Godric who fled in disgrace from the fight.
Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918, licensed under No Known Copyright.