Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Battle of Maldon

10 August is the date of one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history: the Battle of Maldon, fought between the men of East Anglia and a force of Vikings on the coast of Essex in 991. Note that I said one of the most famous battles in Anglo-Saxon history, and not one of the most important; it's famous because it's the subject of a poem, but if it weren't for the poem we probably wouldn't see this as a particularly significant event among the many battles and skirmishes which culminated in the Danish Conquest of England in 1016. The poem is, however, so fascinating and so important in the history of Old English literature that it makes the battle correspondingly more interesting, and its anniversary more worth marking.

The poem which is today known as The Battle of Maldon is on the first-year undergraduate syllabus of the Oxford English course, which means that everyone in my world has taught and studied it a thousand times, and it feels like something 'everybody knows'. For this reason it's never seemed to me worth blogging about, but of course that's just silly; among the handful of Old English poems even vaguely known to the general public (a tiny fraction of the surviving corpus), none of them are well-known enough to have become not worth talking about in public. So if you do know this poem well, you'll have to forgive me blogging about it...

Byrhtnoth, All Saints' Church, Maldon

The poem as we have it - 325 lines long - is fragmentary, lacking its beginning and end, so what we have focuses on the immediate prelude to the battle and the events of the fight; we don't know whether the poem originally provided more in the way of set-up or aftermath, context or explanation, and what kind of interpretative frame the poet might have given his account of the battle. The story as we have it is briefly this: a band of Vikings (nameless and unidentified, in the poem as it stands) have come to the coast of Essex, where they are met by the ealdorman of East Anglia, Byrhtnoth, and his men, a mixture of his own trained soldiers and others from further afield in Anglo-Saxon England. The Vikings demand money, and tell Byrhtnoth that if they get it they'll go away peacefully. Byrhtnoth returns a bullish answer, declaring that instead of paying tribute he and his men will fight to defend their land and the kingdom of their lord, King Æthelred. He allows the Vikings to come ashore from the island in the estuary on which they are encamped (as it turns out, a tactical error - the result either of high courage or of overweening arrogance, depending on whose translation of the OE word ofermod you believe). Battle commences. Byrhtnoth is killed, but his men keep fighting to avenge his death, their numbers and strength dwindling; the poem breaks off as we see them declaring their intention to fight on to the last, but even without an ending we know that they are going to lose the battle and die.

One of the fascinating things about The Battle of Maldon is that it's one of the few Old English poems which can be fairly precisely dated, as it can only have been written within a few decades after the date of the battle; I think the latest date that's been proposed is in the 1030s, and it's usually dated considerably earlier than that. Since with most Old English poems we can only guess at a rough century of composition, this makes The Battle of Maldon special. It's also unusual among Anglo-Saxon poems (though not, I should stress, unique) in dealing with specific contemporary events and people, some of whom may have been known to the poem's first audience. In this text we see the immediate past being suddenly transmuted into literature, which should produce for us a jolt of disquieting juxtaposition: these are ordinary modern-day men being talked about in the language of heroic poetry, a minor battle on the Essex coast being turned into an epic struggle between invader and defender, heathen and Christian. And this poem, for all that it seems to elevate its characters out of everyday life into the world of heroic literature, can't help but have an electric political charge: the question of how the Anglo-Saxon nobility should respond to Viking raids, the debate we see acted out in The Battle of Maldon, was a problem which only became more acute in the years after 991. As Viking raids intensified, military and political leadership in England descended into chaos, reaching their nadir in the winter of 1013-14, when King Æthelred was forced to flee into exile and leave his kingdom to the triumphant Danish king Svein Forkbeard. (Svein may possibly have been fighting on the Danish side at Maldon, though the poem affects not to know the names of any of the Viking leaders.) The discussions in the poem about paying tribute vs. engaging in battle, or fighting to the death vs. fleeing to fight another day, or the loyalty a warrior owes to his leader, are thus not abstract theoretical debates but questions of the utmost importance and contemporary relevance. The poem commemorates the men who died at Maldon but it also uses their deaths to intervene in an ongoing debate, to offer implicit commentary on the conduct of the living as much as of the dead.

Where exactly you choose to date and place the poem in the decades after 991 makes a difference to how you read it, but any way you look at it, the actions of the characters in the poem, praised or condemned according to the poet's own agenda, are there to be interpreted, read, judged. And what they say is as important as what they do; several characters draw our attention to the disparity between what people boast they will do and what they will actually perform, which seems not just a commentary on the relationship between words and deeds (an abiding concern in heroic poetry) but an acknowledgement that this poem itself turns deeds into words, battle into language, history into poetry.

As a result, the speeches in The Battle of Maldon are some of its most interesting sections. Byrhtnoth's defiant speech to the Viking messenger, for instance, is a fine bit of rhetoric, which like the most effective political speeches constructs its own reality as it tells the audience, rather than the enemy, what they are fighting for:

"Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean eþel þysne,
Æþelredes eard, ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum to scype gangon
unbefohtene, nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg ær geseman,
grim guðplega, ær we gofol syn."

"Do you hear, seaman, what this people are saying?
They want to give you spears as tribute,
deadly spear-points and ancient swords,
war-equipment which will not help you in battle.
Sailors’ messenger, take a message back again:
tell your people a much more hostile reply,
that here stands undaunted an earl with his company,
who intends to defend this homeland,
the land of Æthelred, my leader,
people and ground.  The heathen shall
fall in battle.  It seems too shameful to me
that you should go to your ships with our money
unopposed, now you have come
so far into our country.
You shall not get treasure so easily;
spear and sword shall settle this between us,
fierce battle-play, before we pay tribute."

Besides the rhetorical flourish of 'weapons in place of tribute' (the kind of riddling substitution at which Anglo-Saxon poets particularly excelled), the emotional pull of this speech is exerted by ideas of territory, land, and boundaries, real and psychological. Byrhtnoth persistently calls the Vikings 'seamen' and 'sailors', creatures of the waters, while he and his men belong to the land - and the land, therefore, belongs to them. He talks about defending eþel þysne 'this homeland' and urne eard 'our land', highly emotive language, and he links the land on which the Vikings are encroaching to the very name of the English king - how could this eþel be anything other than Æthelred's land? The picture is of a strong, united England behind Byrhtnoth where he stands, unafraid, on the coast of Essex, ready to repel the unrighteous raiders who have come from the sea. This is fantasy. King Æthelred was no great symbol of national unity - controversial from the very beginning of his reign, and if not quite as tyrannical, weak and unpopular in 991 as he was later to become, already well on his way to earning the nickname Unready ('bad-counsel', unwise) by which he has become known to generations of schoolchildren. Byrhtnoth is not on firm ground in staking his appeal to national unity on Æthelred, and surely the poet and his audience knew this. It's rhetoric, not reality; but that doesn't mean it's not true, or that it would not be a powerful idea to which to appeal. Does a king have to be a good king for his name to be an inspiration? I wonder.

Coming to this poem after a week in which the news has been full of the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, as well as so many present-day conflicts, it's tempting to read the poem in light of the wars whose stories and myths are so familiar to us. This is almost unavoidable, I think, and not entirely illegitimate: generations of scholars who lived through the wars of the twentieth century have read The Battle of Maldon under their shadow. (Tolkien's 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son' is one good example.) So I'll now proceed to be shamelessly anachronistic for the rest of this paragraph, because the poem is commemorative story-telling as powerful as any Remembrance Day service, and perhaps some contemporary examples will illustrate that. Byrhtnoth's rhetoric is remarkably close to the kind we now call Churchillian: standing on a beach (or is it a landing-ground?) to proclaim his defiance to the invaders, he seems only one step away from declaring "we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be". But in trying to read the poet's attitude to the events he is recounting, the resonances are sometimes thought to be with another war-narrative familiar to a modern British audience - the 'lions led by donkeys' of the First World War. The references to Æthelred have been interpreted as deeply and bitterly ironic, intended to signal to us that this battle is ill-conceived, futile and doomed to failure (the later you date the poem, the more plausible this reading is). Byrhtnoth too has come in for a great deal of criticism, mostly for allowing the Vikings to cross the causeway (because of his ofermod) but also for his belligerent rhetoric and his loyalty to Æthelred. It's possible - I personally wouldn't do it, but it's possible - to read the poem as one long cynical attack on what happens when loyal soldiers have their devotion abused by arrogant war-mongering leaders. That would make the poet of The Battle of Maldon, I suppose, something like the Siegfried Sassoon of Anglo-Saxon war poetry.

To me, this reading undermines too much of the poem to be sustainable, but I think the poem is aware of the gap between Byrhtnoth's rhetoric (and all the soldiers' grand speeches) and the reality of the war they're fighting. I'd interpret the poem as engaging in the production of a fiction which stands at one remove from contemporary reality - while, as I said earlier, intervening in a live contemporary debate - to paint a picture of how people can and should behave in a crisis, thoroughly conscious that sometimes they can't and won't. Their inability and unwillingness doesn't ultimately undermine the power of the poetic fiction, which is close enough to truth to be effective. The poem shows us an ideal world, but not an idealised one - what the world could be, but isn't now.

I especially don't read the poem as all that critical of Byrhtnoth, but judge for yourself from the account of his death:

Stodon stædefæste; stihte hi Byrhtnoð,
bæd þæt hyssa gehwylc hogode to wige
þe on Denon wolde dom gefeohtan.
Wod þa wiges heard, wæpen up ahof,
bord to gebeorge, and wið þæs beornes stop.
Eode swa anræd eorl to þam ceorle,
ægþer hyra oðrum yfeles hogode.
Sende ða se særinc suþerne gar,
þæt gewundod wearð wigena hlaford;
he sceaf þa mid ðam scylde, þæt se sceaft tobærst,
and þæt spere sprengde, þæt hit sprang ongean.
Gegremod wearð se guðrinc; he mid gare stang
wlancne wicing, þe him þa wunde forgeaf.
Frod wæs se fyrdrinc; he let his francan wadan
þurh ðæs hysses hals, hand wisode
þæt he on þam færsceaðan feorh geræhte.
ða he oþerne ofstlice sceat,
þæt seo byrne tobærst; he wæs on breostum wund
þurh ða hringlocan, him æt heortan stod
ætterne ord. Se eorl wæs þe bliþra,
hloh þa, modi man, sæde metode þanc
ðæs dægweorces þe him drihten forgeaf.
Forlet þa drenga sum daroð of handa,
fleogan of folman, þæt se to forð gewat
þurh ðone æþelan Æþelredes þegen.

They stood steadfast. Byrhtnoth commanded them,
ordered that each warrior set his mind on warfare
who wanted to win glory against the Danes.
A warrior bold in battle advanced, lifted up his weapon
with his shield for protection, and moved towards that man.
Very resolutely the earl went towards the man;
each intended evil to the other.
Then the sea-warrior sent forth a spear of southern work,
so the warriors’ lord was wounded;
he shoved with his shield so that the shaft broke,
and the spear shattered so that it sprang back.
The battle-warrior was enraged: he stabbed with his spear
the proud viking who had given him the wound.
The war-soldier was skilled; he shot his spear
through the man’s neck, guided by his hand
so that he reached the life of his sudden assailant.
Then he quickly shot another
so that the mail-coat shattered; he was wounded in his breast
through the interlocking rings; in his heart
stood a deadly spear. The earl was the gladder:
he laughed then, the high-spirited man, gave thanks to God
for the day’s work which the Lord had given him.
Then one of the vikings sent a spear from his hand,
flying from his fist, so that it went all too successfully
through Æthelred’s noble thegn.

Byrhtnoth's men spring into action to kill his slayer, but the damage has been done. Byrhtnoth, fatally wounded, can no longer hold a sword, but he can still speak and encourage his men - words are sometimes better than weapons in Anglo-Saxon poetry. He dies with a prayer on his lips:

"Geþancie þe, ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton."
ða hine heowon hæðene scealcas
and begen þa beornas þe him big stodon,
Ælfnoð and Wulmær begen lagon,
ða onemn hyra frean feorh gesealdon.

"I thank you, Ruler of nations,
for all the joys which I have experienced in this world.
Now, merciful Lord, I have the greatest need
that you grant good to my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your power, Lord of angels,
and depart in peace.  I am beseeching you
that the fiends of hell may not injure me!"
Then heathen warriors cut him down
and both the men who stood beside him;
Ælfnoð and Wulmær both lay dead,
they gave up life alongside their lord.

At this moment some among the English begin to flee - 'more than was in any way right', says the poet, 'if they had remembered all the good things which he had done for their benefit'. But others will not leave their leader, even in death. We then get a series of speeches, brave words and deeds from men who know they are already defeated. A young warrior named Ælfwine urges his comrades on:

"Gemunan þa mæla þe we oft æt meodo spræcon,
þonne we on bence beot ahofon,
hæleð on healle, ymbe heard gewinn;
nu mæg cunnian hwa cene sy.
Ic wylle mine æþelo eallum gecyþan,
þæt ic wæs on Myrcon miccles cynnes;
wæs min ealda fæder Ealhelm haten,
wis ealdorman, woruldgesælig.
Ne sceolon me on þære þeode þegenas ætwitan
þæt ic of ðisse fyrde feran wille,
eard gesecan, nu min ealdor ligeð
forheawen æt hilde. Me is þæt hearma mæst;
he wæs ægðer min mæg and min hlaford."

"Remember the words which we often spoke over our mead,
when we raised up boasts on the benches,
heroes in the hall, about hard fighting:
now we may learn who is brave!
I will make known all my lineage,
that I was born in Mercia of a great family;
my grandfather was named Ealhelm,
a wise ealdorman, prosperous in the world.
I will not be reproached by thegns among those people
that I wanted to escape from this army,
to seek my home, now my leader lies
hewn down in battle.  It is the greatest sorrow to me;
he was both my kinsman and my lord."

Others echo his words:

Leofsunu gemælde and his linde ahof,
bord to gebeorge; he þam beorne oncwæð:
"Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonon nelle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan,
wrecan on gewinne minne winedrihten.
Ne þurfon me embe Sturmere stedefæste hælæð
wordum ætwitan, nu min wine gecranc,
þæt ic hlafordleas ham siðie,
wende fram wige, ac me sceal wæpen niman,
ord and iren."

Leofsunu spoke and raised his linden-shield,
his shield as protection; he answered the warrior:
"I make this vow, that I will not flee one foot’s step
from here, but will go on,
avenge in battle my friend and lord.
Steadfast warriors near Sturmere will not need
to reproach me with their words, now my friend has perished,
that I journeyed home lordless,
went from the warfare; but I shall take up weapons,
spear and sword."

No sign here of Byrhtnoth's declaration that they are fighting for king and country; these men are dying for loyalty and duty alone. It is a hopeless but - the poem would have you believe - a noble sacrifice; they declare they would rather die with Byrhtnoth than live with the dishonour of retreat.

Dunnere þa cwæð, daroð acwehte,
unorne ceorl, ofer eall clypode,
bæd þæt beorna gehwylc Byrhtnoð wræce:
"Ne mæg na wandian se þe wrecan þenceð
frean on folce, ne for feore murnan."

Then Dunnere spoke, shook his spear,
a simple peasant, cried out above them all,
urged each of the warriors to avenge Byrhtnoth:
"He who intends to avenge his lord among those people
may not flinch or think of fear."

We hear name after name of the men who go on fighting for Byrhtnoth, and then die valiantly by his side - names for the most part meaningless to us, but perhaps very familiar to the poem's first audience. Wistan, Godric, Edward the tall, Oswald, Eadwold, Offa - some of these people have been identified by modern scholars, but like a World War I Roll of Honour, the bare names say much on their own. One by one they fight and die, and the last words of the poem (just before the only surviving copy breaks off) belong to the 'old retainer' Byrhtwold:

"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Her lið ure ealdor eall forheawen,
god on greote. A mæg gnornian
se ðe nu fram þis wigplegan wendan þenceð.
Ic eom frod feores; fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
be swa leofan men, licgan þence."

"Courage must be the firmer, heart the keener,
mind must be the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader all cut down,
a good man on the ground.  He who now thinks of turning
from this battle-play will always regret it.
I am old in years; I will not go,
but by the side of my lord,
by the man so dear, I intend to lie."

It was an old-fashioned attitude even in the tenth century, the language of heroic poetry and not of real life; but at least one poet thought it noble - something to aspire to, perhaps something to inspire.

My own opinion is that this poem was written within ten years of the battle, most likely c.1000, and at Ely, where Byrhtnoth was buried and commemorated. (I should note that the date 10 August for the battle comes from an Ely calendar; other sources give slightly different dates.) An Ely chronicler, writing some 150 years later, recorded how Byrhtnoth was still honoured as a local hero there, and tells a story about how Ely provided hospitality for the English army on their way to Maldon, claiming that Byrhtnoth had previously tried to have his men accommodated at Ramsey Abbey. At Ramsey the monks offered him food for himself and only seven of his men, but in reply, the Ely writer claims, "he is said to have made the elegantly phrased response: 'Let the lord Abbot know that I will not dine alone without the men you refer to, because I cannot fight alone without them'." Very much in the spirit of the poem, and bearing probably about as much relationship to the reality of what happened at Maldon in August 991.

Luckily the monks of Ely were more generous than those of Ramsey; as well as feeding Byrhtnoth and his men, they buried him after the battle in what is now Ely Cathedral, where he was held in great esteem as a benefactor of the church. His widow Æthelflæd was supposed to have made and given to Ely a wall-hanging embroidered with her husband's deeds - one is tempted to imagine something along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry. But of course it's the poem which is Byrhtnoth's best memorial.


Stephen Wigmore said...

Another marvellous post. Thank you so very much.

(And for recognising that even people who didn't do Oxford English course are not entirely beyond the pale :P)

Athelred said...

I went to the site of the battle of Maldom last month. The is not much there to mark it other than a nice big statue of Bryhtnoth. It's a beautiful place, quiet lots of wading birds and salt marsh. Would recommend a visit if you are passing. Thanks for the interesting post.

Richard Rohlin said...

Thank you for this. Just because we have read the poem before does not mean the things in it which first stirred our hearts do not still work.