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THE SONG OF MALDON
Then he bade each warrior leave his horse, drive it afar and go forth on foot, and trust to his hands and to his good intent.
Then Offa’s kinsman first perceived that the earl would suffer no faintness of heart; he let his loved hawk fly from his hand to the wood and advanced to the fight. By this it might be seen that the lad would not waver in the strife now that he had taken up his arms.
With him Eadric would help his lord, his chief in the fray. He advanced to war with spear in hand; as long as he might grasp his shield and broad sword, he kept his purpose firm. He made good his vow, now that the time had come for him to fight before his lord.
Then Brihtnoth began to array his men; he rode and gave counsel and taught his warriors how they should stand and keep their ground, bade them hold their shields aright, firm with their hands and fear not at all. When he had meetly arrayed his host, he alighted among the people where it pleased him best, where he knew his bodyguard to be most loyal.
Then the messenger of the Vikings stood on the bank, he called sternly, uttered words, boastfully speaking of the seafarers’ message to the earl, as he stood on the shore. “Bold seamen have sent me to you, and bade me say, that it is for you to send treasure quickly in return for peace, and it will be better for you all that you buy off an attack with tribute, rather than that men so fierce as we should give you battle. There is no need that we destroy each other, if you are rich enough for this. In return for the gold we are ready to make a truce with you. If you who are richest determine to redeem your people, and to give to the seamen on their own terms wealth to win their friendship and make peace with us, we will betake us to our ships with the treasure, put to sea and keep faith with you.”
Brihtnoth lifted up his voice, grasped his shield and shook his supple spear, gave forth words, angry and resolute, and made him answer: “Hear you, searover, what this folk says? For tribute they will give you spears, poisoned point and ancient sword, such war gear as will profit you little in battle. Messenger of the seamen, take back a message, say to your people a far less pleasing tale, how that there stands here with his troop an earl of unstained renown, who is ready to guard this realm, the home of Ethelred my lord, people and land; it is the heathen that shall fall in the battle. It seems to me too poor a thing that you should go with our treasure unfought to your ships, now that you have made your way thus far into our land. Not so easily shall you win tribute; peace must be made with point and edge, with grim battle-play, before we give tribute.”
Then he bade the warriors advance, bearing their shields, until they all stood on the river bank. Because of the water neither host might come to the other. There came the tide, flowing in after the ebb; the currents met and joined. All too long it seemed before they might clash their spears together. Thus in noble array they stood about Pante’s stream, the flower of the East Saxons and the shipmen’s host. None of them might harm another, unless a man should meet his death through javelin’s flight.
The tide went out, the seamen stood ready, many a Viking eager for war. Then the bulwark of heroes appointed a warrior, hardy in war, to hold the bridge, Wulfstan was his name, accounted valiant among his kin. It was he, Ceola’s son, who with his javelin shot down the first man that was so hardy as to set foot upon the bridge. There with Wulfstan stood warriors unafraid, Aelfhere and Maccus, a dauntless pair; they had no thought of flight at the ford, but warded themselves stoutly against the foe, as long as they might wield their weapons. When the Vikings knew and saw full well that they had to deal with grim defenders of the bridge, the hateful strangers betook themselves to guile, craved leave to land, to pass over the ford and lead their men across. Then the earl, in his pride, began to give ground all too much to the hateful folk; Brihthelm’s son called over the cold water (the warriors gave ear): “Now is the way open before you; come quickly, men, to meet us in battle. God alone knows to whom it shall fall to hold the field.”
The wolves of slaughter pressed forward, they recked not for the water, that Viking host; west over Pante, over the gleaming water they came with their bucklers, the seamen came to land with their linden shields.
There, ready to meet the foe, stood Brihtnoth and his men. He bade them form the war-hedge with their shields, and hold their ranks stoutly against the foe. The battle was now at hand, and the glory that comes in strife. Now was the time when those who were doomed should fall. Clamour arose; ravens went circling, the eagle greedy for carrion. There was a cry upon earth.
They let the spears, hard as files, fly from their hands, well-ground javelins. Bows were busy, point pierced shield; fierce was the rush of battle, warriors fell on either hand, men lay dead. Wulfmaer was wounded, he took his place among the slain; Brihtnoth’s kinsman, his sister’s son, was cruelly cut down with swords. Then was payment given to the Vikings; I heard that Edward smote one fiercely with his blade, and spared not his stroke, so that the doomed warrior fell at his feet. For this his lord gave his chamberlain thanks when time allowed.
Thus the stout-hearted warriors held their ground in the fray. Eagerly they strove, those men at arms, who might be the first to take with his spear the life of some doomed man. The slain fell to earth.
The men stood firm; Brihtnoth exhorted them, bade each warrior, who would win glory in fight against the Danes, to give his mind to war.
Then came one, strong in battle; he raised his weapon, his shield to defend him, and bore down upon the man; the earl, no less resolute, advanced against the “churl”. Each had an evil intent toward the other. Then the pirate sent a southern spear, so that the lord of warriors was stricken. He pushed with his shield so that the shaft was splintered, and shivered the spear so that it sprang back again. The warrior was enraged; he pierced with his lance the proud Viking who had given him the wound. The warrior was deft; he drove his spear through the young man’s neck; his hand guided it so that it took the life of his deadly foe. Quickly he shot down another, so that his corselet burst asunder; he was wounded through his mail in the breast, a poisoned point pierced his heart. The earl was the more content; then the proud man laughed, and gave thanks to his Creator for the day’s work that the Lord had granted him.
Then one of the warriors let a dart fly from his hand, so that it pierced all too deeply Ethelred’s noble thegn. By his side stood a warrior not yet full grown, a boy in war. Right boldly he drew from the warrior the bloody spear, Wulfstan’s son, Wulfmaer the young, and let the weapon, wondrous strong, speed back again; the point drove in so that he who had so cruelly pierced his lord lay dead on the ground. Then a man, all armed, approached the earl, with intent to bear off the warrior’s treasure, his raiment and his rings and his well-decked sword. Then Brihtnoth drew his blade, broad and of burnished edge, and smote upon his mail. All too quickly one of the seamen checked his hand, crippling the arm of the earl. Then his golden-hilted sword fell to the earth; he could not use his hard blade nor wield a weapon. Yet still the white-haired warrior spoke as before, emboldened his men and bade the heroes press on. He could no longer now stand firm on his feet. The earl looked up to heaven and cried aloud: “I thank thee, Ruler of Nations, for all the joys that I have met with in this world. Now I have most need, gracious Creator, that thou grant my spirit grace, that my soul may fare to thee, into thy keeping, Lord of Angels, and pass in peace. It is my prayer to thee that fiends of hell may not entreat it shamefully.”
Then the heathen wretches cut him down, and both the warriors who stood near by Aelfnoth and Wulfmaer, lay overthrown; they yielded their lives at their lord’s side.
Then those who had no wish to be there turned from the battle, Odda’s sons were first in the flight; Godric for one turned his back on war, forsook the hero who had given him many a steed. He leapt upon the horse that had been his lord’s, on the trappings to which he had no right. With him his brothers both galloped away, Godwine and Godwig, they had no taste for war, but turned from the battle and made for the wood, fled to the fastness and saved their lives, and more men than was fitting at all, if they had but remembered all the favours that he had done them for their good. It was as Offa had told them on the field when he held a council, that many were speaking proudly there, who later would not stand firm in time of need.
Now was fallen the people’s chief, Ethelred’s earl. All the retainers saw how their lord lay dead. Then the proud thegns pressed on, hastened eagerly, those undaunted men. All desired one of two things, to lose their lives or to avenge the one they loved.
With these words Aelfric’s son urged them to go forth, a warrior young in years, he lifted up his voice and spoke with courage. Aelfwine said: “Remember the words that we uttered many a time over the mead, when on the bench, heroes in hall, we made our boast about hard strife. Now it may be proved which of us is bold! I will make known my lineage to all, how I was born in Mercia of a great race. Ealhhelm was my grandfather called, a wise ealdorman, happy in the world’s goods. Thegns shall have no cause to reproach me among my people that I was ready to forsake this action, and seek my home, now that my lord lies low, cut down in battle. This is no common brief to me, he was both my kinsman and my lord.”
The he advanced (his mind was set on revenge), till he pierced with his lance a seaman from among the host, so that the man lay on the earth, borne down with his weapon.
Then Offa began to exhort his comrades, his friends and companions, that they should press on. He lifted up his voice and shook his ashwood spear: “Lo! Aelfwine, you have exhorted all us thegns in time of need. Now that our lord lies low, the earl on the ground, it is needful for us all that each warrior embolden the other in war, as long as he can keep and hold his weapon, hard blade, spear and trusty sword. Godric, Odda’s cowardly son, has betrayed us all. Too many a man, when he rode on that horse, on that proud steed, deemed that it was our lord. So was our host divided on the field, the shield-wall broken. A curse upon his deed, in that he has put so many a man to flight!”
Leofsunu lifted his voice and raised his shield, his buckler to defend him, and gave him answer: “This I avow, that I will not flee a foot-space hence, but will press on and avenge my lord in the fight. About Sturmer the steadfast heroes will have no need to reproach me now that my lord has fallen, that I made my way home, and turned from the battle, a lordless man. Rather shall weapon, spear-point and iron blade, be my end.” He pressed on wrathful and fought sternly, despising flight.
Dunhere spoke and shook his lance; a simple churl, he cried above them all, bade each warrior avenge Brihtnoth: “He that thinks to avenge his lord, his chief in the press, may not waver nor reck for his life.” Then they went forth, and took no thought for life; the retainers began to fight hardily, those fierce warriors. They prayed God that they might take vengeance for their lord, and work slaughter among their foes.
The hostage began to help them eagerly; he came of a stout Northumbrian kin, Aescferth was his name, Ecglaf’s son. He did not flinch in the war-play, but urged forth the dart unceasingly. Now he shot upon a shield, now he hit his man; ever he dealt out wounds, as long as he could wield his weapons.
Still in the van stood Edward the Long, bold and eager; he spoke vaunting words, how that he would not flee a foot-space or turn back, now that his lord lay dead. He broke the shield-wall and fought against the warriors, until he had taken due vengeance upon the seamen for his lord. Then he himself lay among the slain.
So too did Aethelric, Sigebriht’s brother, a noble companion, eager and impetuous, he fought right fiercely, and many another. They clove the hollow shield and defended themselves boldly. The buckler’s edge burst and the corselet sang a fearful song.
Then Offa smote a seaman in the fight, so that he fell to earth. Gadd’s kinsman too was brought to the ground, Offa himself was quickly cut to pieces in the fray. Yet he had compassed what he had promised his chief, as he bandied vows with his generous lord in days gone by, that they should both ride home to the town unhurt or fall among the host, perish of wounds on the field. He lay, as befits a thegn, at his lord’s side.
Then came a crashing of shields; seamen pressed on, enraged by war; the spear oft pierced the life-house of the doomed. Wigstan went forth, Thurstan’s son, and fought against the men. Wighelm’s child was the death of three in the press, before he himself lay among the slain.
That was a fierce encounter; warriors stood firm in the strife. Men were falling, worn out with their wounds the slain fell to earth.
Oswold and Eadwold all the while, that pair of brothers, urged on the men; prayed their dear kinsmen to stand firm in the hour of need, and use their weapons in no weak fashion.
Brihtwold spoke and grasped his shield (he was an old companion); he shook his ash-wood spear and exhorted the men right boldly: “Thoughts must be the braver, heart more valiant, courage the greater as our strength grows less. Here lies our lord, all cut down, the hero in the dust. Long may he mourn who thinks now to turn from the battle-play. I am old in years; I will not leave the field, but think to lie by my lord’s side, by that man I held so dear.”
So too Godric, Aethelgar’s son, emboldened them all to battle. Often he launched his javelin, his deadly spear, upon the vikings; thus he advanced in the forefront of the host; he hewed and laid low, until he too fell in the strife. It was not the same Godric that fled from the battle.
Source: Allen Brown, R.: Documents of Medieval History, The Norman Conquest, Edward Arnold, 1984.
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The author of the content is Charles Jones - firstname.lastname@example.org Last updated April 2015
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