The Battle of Maldon
Introduction and Translation
by Marijane Osborn
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 Offas 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. Its better for you
to turn this attack with tribute, than make us
share together such grim battle!
We need not kill each other – if youre quick.
35 Well 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 well 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?
Theyll 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 javelins 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 Byrhthelms 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; Byrhtnoths sisters
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 others 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 Danes 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 warriors 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, Athelreds excellent thane.
Beside him was standing a strapping youth,
a mere boy in battle, who bravely pulled
the bloody spear from Byrhtnoths flesh,
155 and then young Wulfmaer, Wulfstans 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 mans 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 lords 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 lords 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,
Athelreds 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 worlds 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 foots space. But now Ill go farther:
Ill avenge my beloved lord in battle.
The steadfast men of Sturmer wont 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
Ill 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, Edgelafs 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 hed avenged
his superior and lay down dead beside him.
280 Thus also did the noble Atheric,
Sibrights brother, eager for battle.
He thronged with the others thinking to cleave
the Vikings 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 theyd 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 mans life-house. Forth then in death
went Thurstans 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 lords side,
by him I hold dear, I hope to die.
320 Athelgars 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.)