Friday, November 6, 2015

The Battle of Maldon

Translator’s Note

The anonymous Old English poem known as The Battle of Maldon was preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript that was destroyed in the 1731 Ashburnham House fire. Although a copy was made by David Casley in 1726, the beginning and end of the poem have been lost – hence the ellipsis a the start and the sudden cessation of the action at the finish.

The Battle of Maldon tells of a historical battle between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings that took place in August 991 on the River Blackwater (called Pante in the poem). In The Anglo-Saxons (1982), Campbell, John and Wormald call The Battle of Maldon an “unparalleled vernacular poem” and write that it “has been taken by almost all commentators as virtually contemporary with the battle.”

Illustration of Óláfr Tryggvason
by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)

The Viking invaders begin the battle on the island (now called Northey) where they had landed their ships. Their main leader is Óláfr Tryggvason, famous (or infamous) for his declaration that “all Norway should be Christian, or die” and for his bloody forced conversions of the unwilling. The Maldon battle took place while Óláfr was still pagan, three years before his confirmation as a follower of Christ.

The Anglo-Saxon defenders are led by the ealdorman Byrhtnoth, follower of King Æthelræd. Campbell et al. refer to Æthelræd’s reign (979-1016) as one “of almost unremitting disaster that has impressed itself on the folk-memory of the English.” Æthelræd is today known as the Unready, but his nickname was actually Unræd (“ill-advised”), a play on the literal meaning of his name Æthelræd (“good advice”).

The battle begins at high tide, when the causeway from the island to the mainland is completely submerged by the river. As the tide flows out, the raised path is revealed and the Anglo-Saxons defend the narrow way until the Vikings politely ask to be let across.

Byrhtnoth’s fatal decision to let the Vikings wade over from their island camp to fight on the mainland – a decision made “because of his overconfidence” – may not have been as unwise as it seems at first blush. If he had not agreed to let the Vikings come to land and fight his assembled army, they would simply have sailed along the river in their ships and raided undefended spots.

Map of the site of The Battle of Maldon (click image to enlarge)

Readers familiar with Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, Beowulf and related medieval sources will recognize many elements of The Battle of Maldon, such as having no tolerance for cowardice, standing by a boast made in the hall, vocally challenging the opposing side, demanding tribute or battle, standing in the shield-wall, seeing ravens fly over the battlefield, and winning glory in battle. There is a familiar emphasis on the special relationship of sister-son, the reciprocity between leader and followers, the duty to avenge a fallen lord, and the leader as giver of rings. Also present are tropes such as such as laughter amid slaughter, the “storm of spears,” and the image of Vikings as “slaughter-wolves.”

Following translators of Old English such as R.D. Fulk and J.R.R. Tolkien, I have rendered the poem as prose. The full text of The Battle of Maldon in Old English can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson’s A Guide to Old English.

The Battle of Maldon
Translated from the Old English by Karl E. H. Seigfried

…was broken. [Byrhtnoth] then commanded each one of the warriors to let his horse go, to drive it far away, and to walk forth, to give thought to his hands and to good courage.

When the kinsman of Offa first realized that the nobleman would not tolerate cowardice, he let his beloved hawk fly from his hands towards the forest, and he strode towards the battle; through that one was able to recognize that the youth would not weaken at the battle, when he took up arms.

Statue of Byrhtnoth by John Doubleday

Besides him, Eadric wished to support his leader, his lord at the fight, then began to bear forth a spear to the battle. He had good thought as long as he was able to hold a shield and a broad sword with his hands; he stood by his boast when he had to fight before his lord.

Then Byrhtnoth began to array the warriors there, he rode and gave counsel, taught the warriors how they had to stand and hold the position, and bade that they hold their shields aright fastly with their hands, and fear not. When he had properly arrayed that army, he dismounted among the people where it was dearest to him, where he knew his household retainers were most loyal.

“The heathens shall fall at the battle”

Then the messenger of the Vikings stood on the shore, loudly cried out, spoke with words, he threateningly announced the message of the seafarers to the nobleman, where he stood on the shore.

“The bold seamen sent me to you, commanded that you be told that you may quickly send rings in exchange for protection; and it is better for you that you buy off this storm of spears with tribute, than we dispense such hard battle. We do not need to destroy ourselves, if you are wealthy enough for that; we will establish a truce with the gold.

“If you decide, you who is richest here, that you will ransom your people, give to the seamen in their own judgment wealth in exchange for friendship, and take peace from us, we are willing to go with the payment to ship, fare on the sea, and keep peace with you.”

Byrhtnoth spoke, he raised his shield aloft, he brandished a slender spear of ash, spoke with words, angry and resolute gave him back an answer:

“Do you hear, sailor, what this army says? They want to give to you as tribute spears, poisoned spear-point and ancient swords, that war-­equipment which will not be of use to you at the battle.

“Messenger of seamen, announce back again, say to your people a much more hateful message, that here stands a noble of unblemished reputation with his troop, who will defend this homeland, the country of Æthelræd, of my leader, people and ground. The heathens shall fall at the battle.

“It seems too shameful to me that you would go unopposed to ship with our payment, now you have come thus far hither into our homeland. You shall not get treasure so easily; spear and sword shall first reconcile us, fierce game of battle, before we give tribute.”

The slaughter-wolves waded

He then commanded shields be carried, warriors to go, so that they all stood on the riverbank. Because of the water, the troop was not able to go to the other; there came the flowing flood after ebb-­tide, the water-­streams joined. It seemed too long to them, until they would bear spears together.

The island of Northey (left) and the site of the battle (right)
Photo by Terry Joyce

They stood there alongside the river Pante in array, the East-­Saxon vanguard and the spear-­army. Nor was any of them able to harm the other, unless someone took a fall through the flight of an arrow. The tide went out; the seamen stood ready, Vikings many, eager for battle.

The protector of the warriors then commanded the war-­hard warrior to hold the bridge, he was called Wulfstan, brave with his kin, that was the son of Ceola, who shot the first man with his spear who stepped there most boldly on the bridge. There stood with Wulfstan warriors unafraid, Ælfere and Maccus, two bold men, who would not take flight at the ford, but they steadfastly defended against the enemies, as long as they were allowed to wield weapons.

When they perceived and readily saw that they found bitter bridge-­wardens there, the hateful strangers began to use guile, asked that they might have passage to land, to fare over the ford, to lead the foot-troop. Then the nobleman began because of his overconfidence to allow too much land to hateful people.

Then the son or Byrhtelm began to call out over the cold water (warriors listened):

“Now a way is opened to you, walk quickly to us, men to battle; God alone knows who may control the place of slaughter.”

The slaughter­-wolves waded (not mourning because of water), the Viking troop, west over the Pante, carried shields over gleaming water, ship-men bore shields to land. Byrhtnoth with his warriors stood there ready against the hostile ones; he commanded them to form the battle-­wall with shields, and to hold that formation fast against the enemies.

Then the fight was near, glory from battle. The time was come that there doomed men had to fall. There was shouting raised, ravens circled, an eagle eager for carrion; there was a cry on the earth.

The warriors give thought to war

They then released from hand file-hard spears, grimly ground spears to fly; bows were busy, shield received spear-­point. Bitter was the battle-­rush, warriors fell on either hand, young men lay dead. Wulfmær was wounded, chose a bed of death, kinsman of Byrhtnoth; he was with swords, his sister-son, cruelly cut down.

The Battle of Maldon by Rory W. Stapleton

There the Vikings were given requital. I heard that Eadweard slew one fiercely with his sword, withheld not the stroke, so that the doomed warrior fell at his feet; for that his lord said thanks to the bower-­servant, when he had the opportunity.

So the resolute warriors stood firm at the battle, eagerly gave thought who there with spear-­points might first win life from doomed man, a warrior with weapons; the slaughtered fell on the earth. They stood steadfast; Byrhtnoth commanded them, bade that each of the warriors give thought to war who wished to win glory from the Danes by fighting.

Then advanced one hard in battle, raised weapon up, shield as defence, and strode against that warrior. So went the resolute nobleman to that yeoman, each intent on harm to the other. Then the sea-­warrior sent the southern spear, so that the lord of the warriors was wounded; he shoved then with the shield, so that the shaft burst apart, and so that the spear quivered, that it sprang back.

The warrior was enraged; he stabbed with a spear the proud Viking, who gave him the wound. The army-warrior was wise; he let his spear go through the neck of the warrior, hand guided so that it reached the life of the sudden attacker. Then he quickly shot another, so that the mail-­coat burst apart; he was wounded in the breast through the ring-­mail, the poisoned spear-­point stood in him at his heart. The nobleman was the happier one, laughed then, bold man, said thanks to the Creator for the day’s work that the Lord gave him.

Then a certain one of the Vikings let spear go from hand, to fly from hand, so that it too deeply went through the noble thane of Æthelræd. By his side stood a warrior not fully grown, a boy in the battle, who completely bravely pulled from the warrior the bloody spear, son of Wulfstan, Wulfmær the young, let go the exceedingly hard one to go back again; the spear-­point penetrated in, so that he lay on the earth who previously severely wounded his lord.

Their lord lay dead

Then an armed warrior walked to the nobleman; he wished to fetch the rings of the warrior, armor and ring-­mail and ornamented sword. Then Byrhtnoth drew sword from sheath, broad and with shining blade, and struck on the coat of mail. A certain one of the ship-men hindered him too quickly, so that he wounded the arm of the nobleman. Golden-­hilted sword fell then to earth; he was not able to hold hard sword, to wield weapon.

Anglo-Saxon sword grip & pommel (late 8th century)

Then the hoary battle-warrior still spoke words, encouraged young warriors, bade to go forth as good companions; he was not able then to longer stand up fast on feet. He looked to heaven:

“Thank you, Ruler of peoples, for all of the joys that I experienced in the world. Now I have, merciful Creator, most need that you grant goodness to my spirit, that my soul be allowed to travel to you into your dominion, lord of angels, to go with peace. I am requesting to you that hellish enemies are not allowed to lay it low.”

Then heathen warriors hewed him and both the warriors who stood by him, Ælfnoth and Wulmaer both lay dead, who alongside their lord gave up life.

They retreated then from battle, those who did not wish to be there. There the son of Odda was first in flight, Godric from battle, and abandoned the good one that often gave him many a horse; he leaped upon the horse that his lord owned, on the harness which was not right, and his brothers both ran with him, Godwine and Godwig, cared not for battle, but turned from the battle and sought the wood, fled into that stronghold and saved their lives, and more men than was proper, if they all remembered the favors he had done them to their benefit. So Offa had said to him earlier in the day before in the meeting-place, when he had a meeting, that many spoke bravely there that afterwards at need would not endure.

Then the leader of the army was fallen, nobleman of Æthelræd; all the hearth-­companions saw that their lord lay dead. Then there went forth proud thanes, undaunted men hastened eagerly; they all wished then for one of two things, to forsake life or to avenge the dear one.

They did not care about life

So the son of Ælfric encouraged them forward, warrior young in winters, spoke words, Ælfwine then said, he valiantly spoke,

“I remember the times when we often spoke at mead, when we raised boasts on bench, heroes in hall, about hard battle; now one can find out who is brave. I wish to make my noble lineage known to all, that I was of a great family among the Mercians; my grandfather was called Ealhelm, wise nobleman, prosperous.

“Thanes in that people shall not reproach me that I wish to fare from this fyrd, to seek my homeland, now that my lord lies cut down in battle. To me is that greatest of harms; he was both my kinsman and my lord.”

Anglo-Saxon drinking horn made from aurochs (late 6th century)

Then he went forth, remembered feud, so that he wounded one with spear, seaman in that army, so that he on the ground lay killed with his weapon. He then began to urge comrades, friends and companions, that they should go forth.

Offa spoke, shook ashen spear:

“Hey you, Ælfwine, you have exhorted all thanes at need, now that our lord lies dead, nobleman on the earth. It is needful for us all that each of us should encourage the other warrior to battle, as long as he is able to have and to hold weapon, hard blade, spear and good sword.

“Godric, cowardly son of Odda, has betrayed us all. Many a man thought that, when he rode on horse, on that proud horse, that it was our lord; therefore here on the field the army was divided, shield-wall broken. May his beginning come to naught, because here he caused so many a man to flee!”

Leofsunu spoke and raised his shield, shield as protection; he answered the warrior:

“I vow that I will not flee a footstep from here, but wish to go further, to avenge my beloved lord in battle. Steadfast heroes need not reproach me around Sturmer with words, now that my lord has fallen, that I would travel lordless home, would turn from battle, but a weapon must take me, spear and iron sword.”

He advanced very angrily, fought steadfastly, he scorned flight.

Dunnere then said, shook spear, humble yeoman, called out over all, bade that each of the warriors would avenge Byrhtnoth:

“He who intends to avenge the lord in the army can not draw back, nor care about life.”

Then they went forth, they did not care about life; retainers then began to fight fiercely, fierce spear-bearers, and asked God that they might avenge their beloved lord and work death on their enemies.

A special song of terror

The hostage eagerly began to help them; he was of a tough family in Northumbria, son of Ecglaf, his name was Æschferth. He did not flinch at the fighting, but he often shot forth an arrow; sometimes he shot into a shield, sometimes tore apart a warrior, always after a short while he gave some wound, as long as he could wield weapons.

Anglo-Saxon shield ornament (late 6th century)

Edward the Tall still stood in the vanguard, ready and eager, spoke boasting words that he would not fly the space of a foot of land, retreat in the rear, when his better lay dead. He broke the shield-­wall and fought against the warriors, until he splendidly avenged his treasure-giver on the seamen, before he lay dead in the slaughter.

So did Ætheric, noble companion, ready and eager to advance, fought earnestly. The brother of Sibyrht and very many others cleaved keel-shaped shields, keenly defended themselves; rim of shield burst, and the byrnie sang a special song of terror.

Then at battle Offa struck that sailor, so that he fell on the earth, and there the kinsman of Gadd sought ground. Soon Offa was cut down at battle; nevertheless he had carried out what he had promised his lord, as he before vowed with his ring-giver that they should both ride into the stronghold, hale to home, or fall in the army, in the place of slaughter perish from wounds; he lay loyally beside his lord.

Then was crashing of shields. Seamen advanced enraged by battle; spear often passed through life-house of a doomed man. Then Wistan went forth, son of Thurston, fought against these warriors; he was the slayer of three of them in the throng, before the descendant of Wigelin would lie on the field of slaughter.

There was a hard encounter; warriors stood fast in strife, warriors perished, weary with wounds. The slaughtered fell on the earth. Oswold and Eadwold all the while, both the brothers, encouraged warriors, bade their beloved kinsmen with words that they ought to endure there at need, unweakly use weapons.

“Mind must be the harder”

Bryhtwold spoke, he raised his shield aloft (he was an old retainer), shook spear; he very boldly advised warriors;

“Mind must be the harder, heart the keener, courage the larger, the smaller our strength grows. Here lies our leader entirely cut down, the good one in the dust. He can mourn forever, he who now intends to turn from this fighting. I am old in life; I will not away, but I myself by the side of my lord, by so beloved a man, intend to lie.”

So the son of Æthelgar encouraged them all, Godric to battle. Often he let spear go, slaughter-spear to fly into the Vikings, so he went foremost in that army, hewed and injured, until he perished in battle. That was not that Godric who fled from the battle.

This modern English translation is © 2015 by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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