Contributor Notes

The Battle of Maldon

Introduction and Translation

Marijane Osborn

by Marijane Osborn

The Battle of Maldon


In this translation I attempt to recreate “The Battle of Maldon” as faithfully as possible while roughly imitating the original meter and including the alliteration that both defines the Anglo-Saxon verse line and creates its unique music. Though the beginning and end have been lost, the poem is probably nearly complete. The original may be seen here: http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/medieval/labyrinth/library/oe/texts/a9.html.

The two main heroes of the battle are easily confused because of their similar names: Byrhtnoth, who dies valiantly at line 181, and the aged thane Byrhtwold, who makes the great heroic speech of lines 312-319 near the end. The division of the poem into parts I and II is my addition.


 Although the Battle of Maldon did not occur exactly as described in this eulogistic poem, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for year 991 confirms that it was a historical event, and a will of 998 in which the son of Wulfstan (line 75) deeds land in this region adds to the authenticity of this group of warriors. The situation of the opposing forces is significant: the Vikings have landed on an island in the mouth of the Blackwater River (Old English Panta in the poem), and the Anglo-Saxons are defending their homeland on the opposite shore; a tidal causeway links their two positions. For clarity I have expanded names and pronouns in the Chronicle entry below and in the poem.

– Marijane Osborn, Davis, 2013

                                                *    *    *

From The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A):

991.  In this year Olaf Tryggvason came with 93 ships to Folkestone, and ravaged round about it, and then from there went to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran it all, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against him there with his army and fought against him; and the Norsemen killed the ealdorman there and had control of the field. And afterwards peace was made with them, and the king [Athelred, 979-1016] stood sponsor to Olaf later at his confirmation.



Part I: Byrhtnoth


                                            ... would be broken.

            He told his young troops to turn loose their horses,

            drive them far off, and on foot proceed,

            to attend to their hands and be high of courage.

 5         When Offa’s kinsman discovered Byrhtnoth

            would brook no nonsense, that boy stretched out

            his hand to let his dear hawk fly off

            to the woods, and forth to the fray he strode,

            thus letting them know that never would he care

10        to be thought a weakling when he took up weapons

            of war.  And Eadric wanted to stand

            by his leader too; he leapt to bear

            his spear into battle. Splendid was his courage!

            As long as he held in his hands both shield

15        and sword, he did what he had sworn to,

            going into the fight in front of his lord.


            Then Byrhtnoth marshaled his men, and rode

            among them, giving them good advice,

            instructing them where they should stand and hold

20        their ground, and the right way to raise their shields

            firmly in their fists, fearing nothing!

            Once his warriors were well-positioned,

Byrhtnoth dismounted where most he liked

            to be, with the thanes he thought most loyal.


25        Then there came a shout from the shore across

            the river, the voice of the Vikings’ herald

            who stood there, announcing with stern threats

            his errand to the earl on the other bank:

            “Bold seamen have sent me to you

30        to tell you to send them treasure at once

            to buy them off. It’s better for you

            to turn this attack with tribute, than make us

            share together such grim battle!

            We need not kill each other – if you’re quick.

35        We’ll grant you truce for a tribute in gold!                            

            If you in command here make the decision

            to ransom your people, you can pay for this

            by offering these seamen all they require

            in fee, taking from us frith in exchange,                                   ON frið: pledged peace

40        and with that tribute we’ll return to our ships

            and put to sea, keeping peace with you.”


            Byrhtnoth raised his bright shield

            and shook his spear in sharp reply,

            angry and resolute, answering thus:

45        “Can you hear, pirate, what my people say?

            They’ll willing give you war-gear as tribute:

            deadly spear-points and steel blades –

            not so useful to you in battle!

            Go back to advise your Vikings of this,

50        messenger – a tale that will much displease them:

            An earl, intrepid with his troops, is standing

            firmly prepared to defend this place,

            the realm of Athelred, my prince,

            his folk and homesteads. And heathens shall fall

55        shattered, for methinks it would shame us if you

            returned to your ships, taking our tribute

            unfought, when from so far you have come

            hither to our shores. You shall not so lightly

            go sailing off with our good treasure.

60        Peace will be made with point and edge

            in warplay most grim, before we give tribute!”


            Then he commanded his men to take

            their stand on the shore with shields at the ready.

            But water prevented advance of any

65        army. After the ebb-tide came

            the flood, and currents that flowed around

            the island locked. Too long it seemed

            before they could get at their foes with spears.

            They stood on the Panta in proud array,

            the East-Saxon front and the ash-ship troops,                      

70        and neither could do more than annoy the other

            with a looping javelin’s lucky hit.

            The floodtide went out. The foreigners stood ready

            and eagerly waiting for war. The leader

            of heroes commanded a man to hold

75        the ford – a warrior, Wulfstan by name,

            of valiant stock, the son of Ceola.     

            He hurled his spear and struck down the first

            foe who dared to set foot on that bridge.

            Two warriors stood with Wulfstan, Alfhere

80        and Maccus, a brave pair of men who scorned

            to flee from that ford, and firmly they guarded

            its entrance against the enemy

            for as long as they could lunge with weapons.


            The Vikings, those uninvited guests,

85        saw they had clearly encountered determined

            guards and began to negotiate.

            They asked permission to make their way

            across that ford with a complement

            of troops. Byrhtnoth too bravely agreed

90        to permit passage to that menacing host.

            He called out over the cold water

            and both armies listened to Byrhthelm’s son:

            “The way is open. Warriors, come quickly

            to grips with us. God alone knows

95        who will finally hold the field!”


            West over the Panta those wolves of carnage

            waded unbothered by the water, bearing

            across that shining current their shields

            of yellow linden. To land they came,

100      and valiant against the Vikings stood

            Byrhtnoth with his men. He bade them raise

            a hedge of shields and hold it fast

            against the foe. Fighting was imminent,

            honor in war. The hour had come

105      when fated men should fall in battle.

            A shout was raised. Ravens and hungry

            eagles hovered. Howls rose from the land.

            Men let fly their file-hard spears,

            grimly sharpened, from their gripping fists.

110      Bows were shot and shields took the arrows.

            Hard was that onslaught. Heroes fell

            among both armies. Men lay dying.


            Wulfmær was bleeding; Byrhtnoth’s sister’s

            son would take up position now

115      among the dead men cut down by a sword.

            The Vikings were paid their price for that!

            I heard that Edward, single-handed,

            struck so hard, withholding nothing,

            that a doomed man went down at his feet.

120      For that, his leader, when later he had

            the chance, gave his chamberlain thanks.

            Thus, strong of purpose, they all stood firm.

            Each stout-hearted warrior strove to be first

            in thrusting where blows would best strike home,

125      where weapons might, among the doomed,

            cut life short.  Corpses fell to earth.


            Steadfast they stood, incited by Byrhtnoth.

            He told each one who wished to win glory

            to turn his mind entirely to battle.

130      Then came a warrior, with weapon and shield

            held high, running straight to strike at him,

            and Byrhtnoth, single-minded, made for the Dane.

            Each was intent on the other’s harm.

            The seaman threw a spear of southern make

135      so that it wounded the warriors’ leader –

            who shoved back with his shield. The shaft broke,

            and the Dane’s spearhead sprang away.

            Then raging Byrhtnoth ran with his lance

            at the glittering Viking who gave him that wound,

140      deftly forcing his Frankish spear

            through the warrior’s neck, and with his hand

            guiding it in till it got at his life.

            Next, he hastily hurled it at another

            and burst his chainmail byrnie, for the spear

145      had struck in his breast. He stabbed that point

            To the heart, fatally. Then, feeling better,

            he laughed grimly and gave God thanks

            for the feats He had let him perform that day.


            A certain Swede then swung his hand

150      to fling a spear that furrowed deeply

            through Byrhtnoth, Athelred’s excellent thane.

            Beside him was standing a strapping youth,

            a mere boy in battle, who bravely pulled

            the bloody spear from Byrhtnoth’s flesh,

155      and then young Wulfmaer, Wulfstan’s son,

            hurled that spear back again, so hard

            and straight, that its point struck to the ground

            the man whose blow had maimed his lord.

            Then a warrior in armor went toward Byrhtnoth

160      intending to take his treasure, to strip him

            of booty in rings and bright-wrought sword,

            but Byrhtnoth swept that broad and gleaming

            blade from its sheath and shoved it through

            the man’s bright byrnie. But much too quickly

165      another lunged then, lashed at his arm,

            so that to the ground that golden sword

            fell, for his hand could no longer hold it,

            could wield no more weapons. Then the warrior spoke;

            silver-haired Byrhtnoth emboldened his men.

170      He told them to advance on the Vikings together

            with their courage high -- but he could not

            stay long on his feet. He looked toward heaven

            and said, “I thank Thee for the things I have known,

            O generous Ruler, the joys of this world.

175      But now I urgently need, O Lord,

            for you to grant this grace to my soul:

            its right to fare to your realm, to journey

            into your power, O Prince of angels,

            in peace, so do not, I pray you, allow

180      these scathers from Hell to harm my spirit!”


            Then heathen warriors hacked him down

            together with the two who had taken their stand

            with him. Alfnoth and Wulfmar both

            gave up their lives at their lord’s side.


                        Part II: The Aftermath


185      Then some fled who preferred not to be there.

            The first to desert were the sons of Offa.

            Turning his back on battle, on the man

            Who had made him the gift of many a warhorse,

            Godric leapt on his lord’s own steed,

190      riding in a saddle he had no right to,

            and with him Godwin and Godwig ran

            away from the battle. The brothers fled

            the field of combat, seeking cover

            among the trees to protect their lives.

195      Many turned away there, more than was fitting

            had they recalled all the courtesies

            and gifts that Byrhtnoth had given them.

            Indeed, earlier that day in council,

            Offa had remarked that many warriors

200      were making brave speeches who might not show

            such courage when it was required of them.


            Now fallen lay the leader of the people,

            Athelred’s earl. When all his companions

            saw how their lord was lying slain,

205      those proud thanes went thronging forth

            undaunted and eager to do their best.

            Each one wanted one of two things:

            to avenge his dear lord or lay down his life.

Thus did Alfine, son of Alfric,

210      a man young in winters, in words like this,

inspire the warriors to courage with his speech:

“Remember the times when we spoke at mead

and vowed on the benches to do our best?

Heroes in the hall, we spoke of hard fighting—

215      Whoever is brave can prove it now!

            I speak as a man of a mighty lineage,

            coming from a noble kindred of Mercia:

            my grandfather Ealdhelm was an alderman

            wise and successful in the world’s ways.

220      None of the thanes in my family will need

            to taunt me for wanting to turn from this fight

            or light out  for home with my lord lying dead

            in battle. For me, that would be the worst

            of crimes: he was both my kinsman and my lord.”

225      Then Alfwine went forth, his mind on fighting,

            and at once with his spear he wounded one

of those Vikings so that the invader fell,

killed by that weapon. Then he called to his friends

and comrades-in-arms to come join the fray.

230      Offa spoke up then, shaking his spear:

            “Alfwine, your words have encouraged all

            of our thanes, as was needed, for now that our lord

            lies dead, there is need for us all to do

            the same, and encourage each of the others

255      to fight for as long as he is fit

            to handle weapons, to wield his sword

            or guide a spear. Godric, the cowardly

            son of Odda, has betrayed us all,

            for many assumed, when he mounted that steed,

240      that proud warhorse, that it was our lord,

            so that here on the field our forces were sundered,

            the shield-fortress broken. May shame be his downfall

            for causing so many of our men to flee.”

            Leofsunu, raising the linden shield

245      that protected his body, replied to Odda:

            “I swore that I would not swerve from here

            even a foot’s space. But now I’ll go farther:

            I’ll avenge my beloved lord in battle.

            The steadfast men of Sturmer won’t need

250      to reproach me that once my friend had perished

            I, being lordless, would light out for home,

            turn away from this war. My weapons now

            I’ll take up instead!” He strode out, angry,

            and bravely he fought. He scorned to flee.

255      Dunnere then spoke. He rattled his spear,

            merely a churl, he challenged them all

            loudly, bidding them avenge lord Byrhtnoth:

            “Now may each warrior who wants to seek

            vengeance on the Vikings never waver in fear!”

260      Then the warriors went forth. None wavered in fear,

            and fiercely our army began to fight.

            Gripping their spears, they prayed to God

            that they might avenge their lord on the Vikings

            and get full recompense for their dear friend.

265      Even the hostage began to help.

            Coming from a noble Northumbrian kindred,

            his name was Ashferth, Edgelaf’s son.

            He never flinched at all in that fighting

            but sent forth many a missive among

270      the foe – at a shield, or shooting into

            a warrior, and he kept on wounding some

            as long as he could launch his weapon.

            Then out in the front Long Edward stood,

            poised and eager, repeating his vow

275      that never would he flee by even a foot

            in retreat, when dead lay his treasure-giver. 

            Breaking from the shield wall, he bravely fought

            those Vikings alone until he’d avenged

            his superior and lay down dead beside him.

280      Thus also did the noble Atheric,

            Sibright’s brother, eager for battle.

            He thronged with the others thinking to cleave

            the Viking’s shields, so valiant were they.

            Shield-rims burst and the byrnies sang                       byrnies: chain-mail tunics

285      a song of terror. Then Offa attacked


            and hewed at a man, so that hard to the ground

            he crashed, but then that kinsman of Gadd

            was suddenly cut down himself in battle –

            having done, however, the deed he had sworn to.

290      He had pledged at home in the hall with his ring-giver

            that either they’d both ride back to town

            whole men, or wounded among the host

            would perish together in that place of slaughter.

            As befits a thane, he fell by his lord.


295      The Vikings came on then, crashing their shields,

            berserk with battle-rage, bludgeoning spears

            through a fated man’s life-house. Forth then in death

            went Thurstan’s son Wigstan, and three of those Vikings

            were slain in the crush by the son of Wighelm,

300      before he too lay fallen in that carnage.

            Fierce was that meeting! In their fighting, the men

            were dauntless, though warriors were dying everywhere,

            exhausted by their cuts. Corpses fell to earth.


            The brothers Oswald and Eadwold, during

305      all that havoc, exhorted their men,

            the kinsmen for whom they cared, to stand

            noble in this hour, and not to show

            weakness, but use their weapons’ potential.

            Then Byrhtwold, honored and aged, raised

310      his shining shield, shook his spear,

            and spoke to his men these words to inspire them:

            “Mind must be the harder, heart the bolder,

            courage the sterner, as our strength grows less.

            Here lies our leader hacked with blades,

315      a hero in the dust. He who thinks now

            to go from battle, may he always regret it.

            I who am old would not ever think

            of leaving, but here at my lord’s side,

            by him I hold dear, I hope to die.”


320      Athelgar’s son incited them too,

            that same Godric, who had often guided

            his menacing spear among the Vikings

            as in front of the others he fiercely advanced.

            He hewed and hacked till he had to fall.

325      That was not the Godric who galloped away  . . .                              (See line 189.)