The Battle of Maldon
He had each man abandon his horse
driving it far so he could march
forward unfettered his mind on his hands
and the blade of his sword with its edge of honor.
Great Offa’s kinsman when he first understood
the earl would not now tolerate cowards
set free from his hand his favorite hawk
to fly high on the wind away to the forest.
Forging them forward shoreward, warward,
that lusty lad would not shrink from the moment
as any man might see for himself
when it was time to hold his weapon.
Eadric likewise, eager to serve
his lord in the combat, carried his spear,
daring, determined with sword hand and shield hand
to vindicate vows given the master.
Byrhtnoth then began to arrange in order
his muster of men in the best dispositions,
how they should hold homestead ground
their round-shields aligned together in good grip
and with broadswords ready and not be frightened.
When they were rightly arrayed as he wanted
he dismounted at last to stand on the turf
hard by his hearth’s men closest and most loyal.
The Viking herald, strident, shouting
from shore declared the Vikings’ clear purpose.
His errand: to tell the earl the terms
of the seafarers’ message from the ships on the bank:
“Send in all speed to the valiant seamen
treasure to take. Buy your safety,
paying them tribute to avoid battle.
We see no need for wanton destruction
for you are wealthy and we can deal--
for gold to give the advantage of truce.
If you and your council consider our offer
you will send us seafarers away from Essex
and redeem your people with the peace all men want.
We will go willingly, your gold in our coffers,
traveling elsewhere and leave you alone.”
Byrhtnoth spoke hefting his shield
and ashen spear, to answer for all:
“Hear them, seaman? Hark at my host.
What they will pay is spears they will send
with poisoned points and their family swords,
those heriot weapons not for your profit.
Go then, envoy, say to your seamen
our terse terms-- that the English earl
stands fast with his troops, defends his homeland,
and defies your demands upon Aethelred’s realm,
his land and his people. In hard battle
heathens will fall, for it would be shameful
that you should depart in your plundering ships
without the fight that we must give you.
Thus far have you come into our country,
but fare no farther or think to extort
what is ours from us. Point and sharp edge
must carve the conclusion, who gives and who takes,
and settle the terms before we pay tribute.
He bade them then to heft their shields
and all advance to the bank of the river
where water would ward one troop from the other
while the flood tide took its own time turning.
They waited for water, the Pant’s current,
where waterstreams locked to ebb and allow
the spearmen to move and, patient, watched
the ship-army of Viking invaders.
Both sides were harmless except for arrows’
feathered flight till the tide moved out,
and the many Vikings in ranks eager for war
stood in massed menace. Byrhtnoth then ordered
Wulfstan, Ceola’s son, his hero to guard the bridge
the bravest of brethren. When the first of the Danes
approached the bridge, with sharp spear-shot
he cut him down. Alongside Wulfstan,
stood Aelfhere and Maccus, a fine pair of steadfast men
who would not deign to flee from that ford
but defied the foe with the weapons they wielded.
When the Vikings discovered these gallant bridge-guards
they fell back, dissembling, and craved, as if craven,
permission to put ashore to lead their men safely
into battle and blood-risk. The earl, overconfident,
granted them passage, too much land
to those hateful people, and Byrhthelm’s son, Byrhtnoth,
called across the chill water as his host harkened:
“The pathway is open. Come to us quickly,
war-men meeting war-men. God alone knows
who will win control of this killing field.”
Advancing then, the Viking army, careless of water,
crossed the Pant westward, lifting high
their linden shields. Opposed, the fierce
forces of Byrhtnoth then formed a war-wall,
shield next to shield, to hold off the attack,
for the crisis had come, the time of trial
where the men who are fated will fall as they must.
Overhead ravens and carrion-hungry
screeching eagles made leisurely circles,
while below the massed men sent their roar skyward,
followed by sharp-filed spears they flung.
Bows, too, were busy, and Viking shields
bristled with arrows. The war-charge then
was fierce, and men fell leaving the ground
a clutter of corpses, and Wulfmar wounded
and sliding to death-rest he could not refuse.
Byrhtnoth’s kinsman, his sister’s son,
was hard-hacked by many swords.
But the wound was redressed as Edward offered
payment in kind, and a doomed fighter,
as I have heard, fell at his feet.
For this his lord thanked him at the earliest moment,
telling his chamberlain. Thus, they stood,
firm and strong-minded, men in hard battle,
keen in competing whose pointed weapons might
find their way to fated men
and garner the lives of those men of war.
Dying men fell but the steadfast and resolute
still stood as Byrhtnoth gave his heartening words,
that whoever strove now to achieve great glory
should look to the Danes to drag it from them.
The bold one, Byrhtnoth, raised up his weapon
and set his shield to stride toward a soldier,
the earl to the churl and each meaning evil.
That seaman marauder hurled his southern spear
and wounded was the warriors’ lord.
Byrhtnoth banged the shaft, shaking it free
and stabbed with the spear-point its Viking owner,
giving him back the bite of its wound.
Skillful was Byrhtnoth and he struck with his lance,
hitting the Viking and piercing his neck
and in that quick thrust reaching his life.
He turned to another and hurled at this Viking
that lance that landed and pierced through his chainmail
the hard point hitting his heart.
Elated, the earl, the valiant victor,
laughed aloud and gave thanks to his God.
for the work of the day, the deity’s grant.
But one Viking then loosed from his hand
a javelin striking Aethelred’s noble thane,
Byrhtnoth, and biting into his body.
Hard by his side a fledgling fighter,
Wulfstane’s son the young Wulfmaer
drew from his lord the bloodied spear
and flung it forward back at that Viking
to get him for getting the lad’s lord.
This strike was successful and the Viking lay down dying.
Came then another Viking marauder
up to the earl to harvest rich pickings,
rings and armor and patterned sword.
But Byrhtnoth could draw his blade from its scabbard
to strike at that sailor and would have, but one
of the cut-throat’s comrades hit the earl’s arm
and rendered it useless. His biting blade then
fell to the earth, for Byrhtnoth could no more
hold the weapon’s weight. Still, he could speak,
that white-haired war man, to encourage his people
and urge them onward. His legs were unsteady
and footing uncertain, as the hero to heaven
spoke his last words: “I give you my thanks,
O King of Kings, for all my achievements
in this life I have lived. Now, my king Maker,
I ask a last favor, that you may admit me
into your high domain. Lord of the Angels,
grant peaceful passage and hear my petition
that the demons of hell not snare my spirit.”
Then heathen men hacked him and his two companions,
Alfmar and Wulfmaer who had stood beside him
and, along with their lord, they too gave their lives.
They then fled the battle whose spirit for the fighting
began now to quaver: Odda’s son, Godric
was the first man who fled, abandoning Byrhtnoth
who had given him many mares and their trappings and tack.
He leapt on his lord’s own charger
who had not ever earned the right to ride and use,
and he and his brothers, Godwine and Godwig,
flew from the battle they could not bear,
away from the fighting to hide in the forest.
to find there some refuge and save their hides,
they and many more spiritless men
who each had received Byrhtnoth’s favors.
Offa had warned him early that day
at the morning meeting in the counsel-place
that many who spoke the speeches of warriors
might not at need be worth their fine words.
Æthelred’s earl, their leader, lay dead,
and all who saw Byrhtnoth’s body,
the proud thanes and the household troops,
brave men now hastened keenly,
seeing but two choices of honor:
either to die there along with their lord,
or else to avenge him, and kill many Danes.
Ælwin, Ælfric’s young son, urged them all onward
making his valorous speech: “Remember those times
after much mead there in the great hall
we were such heroes making proud vows
of our bearing in battle, the times of tough fighting.
Now we discover which ones are brave.
I pray that my progeny declare with some pride
among Mercian men of noble line
that I was here. My grandfather, Ealhelm,
an earl of much wisdom, did well in the world.
Let no one now taunt me that I wanted to go
away from this army home and to safety
when my leader lay cut down in the fighting,
my kinsman, my lord, the greatest of griefs.”
Then he moved forward hot with his hatred
and with his weapon-point found one of the Vikings
impaling the pirate to leave him lying
dead on the ground. With this he could rally
as much as his words did his friends and his comrades
to advance toward the enemy. Offa spoke up
shaking his ash-spear: “Yea, Ælwin has said it
to urge you all on, the good thanes at need-time.
Byrhtnoth lies dead, our earl on the earth,
and this is our moment to rally each other
forward to war, holding our hard blades
of spear and sharp sword. The coward, Godric,
Odda’s get, has betrayed us, fleeing the field
on Byrhtnoth’s own mount, thus dispersing the army
and breaking the shield-wall. Damn him for what he did,
spreading his foul fear among the formation!”
Leofsun then spoke, raising his linden shield:
“I offer my oath. Not one step backward!
I fare only forward to avenge in hard battle
my good lord’s death. The brave men of my village,
the people of Sturmer, will not have the need
to reproach my behavior. My friend has fallen
and I am lordless. I will not go home
or turn away from the fight, but a weapon must take me,
point or sharp blade edge.” He advanced in his anger
and steadfast he fought, scorning the flight.
Dunner spoke up as he brandished his weapon.
An honest peasant, he called out to all,
bidding each soldier to avenge great Byrhtnoth:
“Let no one hesitate who intends to wreak vengeance
on the Viking horde, nor fear for his life!”
And then they moved forward, indifferent to death.
Into the fight, then, the brave spear-bearers
advanced to avenge their stricken good lord,
and prayed to the Lord that they might destroy Danes.
Their hostage helped them, a Northumbrian captive,
Edglaf’s son, Asfroth, of hardy kin.
He joined in the struggle, firing arrows.
Some stuck in shields but some pierced Vikings,
and on and on he fought, wielding his weapon
as long as he could. The tall Edward,
fierce in the front line, shouted defiance
and said he would never yield one foot of land
when his lord lay dead. He broke through their shield wall
and with fellow fighters collecting from Vikings
blood for Byrhtnoth’s blood. Æthric, also,
a noble warrior, pressing forward
wreaked worthy vengeance. He, Sibricht’s brother,
and many more with him split the Danes’ targes
and defended themselves as chain-mail sang
its shrill terror-songs. Offa in battle
struck one of the seamen who fell to the turf:
Gad’s kinsman fell, cut down in the fighting.
Still, he had fulfilled his oath to his lord,
the ring-giver Byrhtnoth, that they return together
into the town or else die together
from wounds on the slaughter-field. Noble, he lay there
close to his lord. Then were shields crashing
as the Vikings, enraged, fought their way forward,
their sharp spears piercing life-boxes.
Wystan advanced, Thurstan’s son,
and hot in the hurly-burly felled three of their fighters
before he himself lay dead on the ground.
There was hard fighting with warriors standing firm
in the hard struggle. Worn down by wounds
fighters fell. All the while,
Oswold and Eadwold, two brawny brothers,
exhorted the men, their cousins and kinsmen,
to stand firm and to use their good weapons.
Then Byrhtwold spoke up, raising his shield,
an older fighter, shaking his ash-spear
and exhorting the men: “Your minds put in order,
and settle your hearts. Our courage must grow
as the strength we have ebbs. Here lies our leader,
a good man in the dirt. Any who leave now
will ever be sorry for quitting this war work
to survive then in shame. I have lived long
and I know much of life, but I shall not leave here.
My firm intention is here to be killed
to lie by the side of the lord I have loved.”
Godric, too, Ethelgar’s son,
called them to battle, and hurling his javelin,
a death-spear flying into the Vikings.
And he with his friends advanced on the Danes,
hacking at them and cutting them down
until he, himself, was killed in the combat—
a far different Godric than he who had run….
Translated by David R. Slavitt