Wednesday 10 August 2011

August 10: Battle of Maldon Day

Today is the anniversary of a battle which inspired one of the greatest English poems. In 991, exactly 1020 years ago, a group of Viking raiders were met by the men of Essex at the mouth of the River Blackwater, near Maldon. After a fierce battle, the English, led by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, were comprehensively defeated and many, including Byrhtnoth himself, were killed.

It was a humiliation for the Anglo-Saxons, and like some other British military humiliations, it produced excellent poetry. The fragmentary Old English poem known simply as 'The Battle of Maldon' extols the heroic resistance of the Essex men. The Vikings were there to demand money with threats of violence - this had become a profitable tactic for them, and many towns and villages in England, unable to fight back, gave in to their increasingly extortionate demands (after the defeat at Maldon, it became official royal policy - the first payment of the Danegeld). The poem has it that the Vikings send a messenger to the English army demanding tribute, but Byhrtnoth replies angrily, "We will give you spears as tribute!" He challenges them to fight, and allows them to cross the estuary to a better place for the battle (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, and Byrhtnoth is soon killed, dying with a prayer on his lips. The most moving section of the poem commemorates the bravery of the men who refuse to flee the battle after their lord is killed; in true heroic fashion, they declare they would rather die with him than live with dishonour. One old retainer makes this famous speech:

"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."

"Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit must be the greater, as our might lessens.
There lies our leader all cut down,
A good man, on the ground. May he regret it forever
Who now thinks to flee from this battle-play.
I am old in years - I will not go from here,
But by the side of my lord,
By the man so beloved, 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.

An Ely chronicler, writing some two hundred years later, recorded how Byrhtnoth was still honoured as a local hero. He 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. There the monks offered him food for himself and 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! Luckily the monks of Ely were more generous.

After his death, his widow Æthelflæd was supposed to have made and given to Ely a wall-hanging embroidered with her husband's deeds - perhaps something along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry?

Gratuitous picture of Bayeux Tapestry. English spears.

So you see, the Anglo-Saxons had their problems with looters too.

1 comment:

Gerald said...

War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.