In 191 Viking raiders defeated an Anglo-Saxon army under Brithnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, at the Battle of Maldon. An epic poem describes the battle.
When Viking raiders landed in Essex in 991 in the reign of Edward the Unready, the Anglo-Saxons under Brithnoth (or Byrhtnoth) came out to meet them on the shores of the River Blackwater.
They were utterly defeated, and Brithnoth himself was killed. An epic poem describing the battle survived in its original form until 1731, when it was destroyed by fire. However, a largely intact copy survives – and is reproduced in part here.
This account is thought to have been recorded by an unnamed monk. It was translated by Wilfred Berridge (1906-87).
The death of Brithnoth at Maldon, 9 August 991
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
Now was riot raised, the ravens wheeled,
The eagle, eager for carrion, there was a cry on earth.
Then loosed they from their hands the file-hard lance,
The sharp-ground spears to fly.
Bows were busied – buckler met point
Bitter was the battle-rush, warriors fell
On either hand, the young men lay!
Wounded was Wulfmur, a war bed he chose,
Even Brithnoth’s kinsman, he with swords
Was straight cut down, his sister’s son.
Then to the Vikings was requital given.
I heard that Edward did slay one
Straightly with his sword, nor stinted 3 the blow,
That at his feet fell – the fey warrior.
For this his thane did to him give thanks,
Even to his chamberlain – when he had a space.
THE ESSEX MEN STAND FAST
So stood firm the stout-hearted
Warriors in the war – they did keenly strive
Who with his point first should be able
From fey men to win life.
Warriors with weapons: wrack fell on earth.
They stood steadfast; Brithnoth stirred them,
Bade each of his men intend to the strife
That would from the Danes win glory.
A VIKING ATTACKS BRITHNOTH
Went one stern in battle – his weapon upheaved,
His shield for safety – and ‘gainst the chief strode –
As resolute against him the earl did go,
Each to the other did evil intend.
Sent then the seafarer a southern dart,
And wounded was the warriors’ chieftain.
But he shoved with his shield – so that the shaft burst,
And the spear broke, and it sprang away.
Wroth was the chieftain, he pierced with his spear
That proud Viking who gave him that wound.
Yet prudent was the chieftain; he aimed his shaft to go
Through the man’s neck – his hand guided it
So that he reached his sudden enemy’s life.
Then he a second swiftly sent
That the breastplate burst – in the heart was he wounded
Through the ring-harness – and at his heart stood
The poisoned point; the earl was the blither:-
Laughed then that high-heart – made thanks to God
For his day’s work – that his Saviour granted him.
A SECOND VIKING WOUNDS BRITHNOTH
Loosed then one of the foemen a dart from his hands,
To fly from his finders – that it rushed forth
Through the noble thane of Aethelred.
Close to his side stood a youth not yet grown
Wulfstan’s child – even Wulfmeer the younger.
He plucked from his chieftain that bloody spear
Then loosed the hard spear ‘gainst that other to go;
In ran the point – so that he on earth lay
Who ere had sorely wounded his chief.
Went an armed Viking against the earl
Who wished the earl’s jewels to plunder,
His armour and rings – and well-adorned sword.
Then Brithnoth drew his sword from sheath
Broad and brown edged – and at his breast-plate smote.
Too soon hindered him one of the seamen,
So that the earl’s arm he did injure.
Fell then to earth the fallow-hilted sword,
Nor could he hold the hard brand
Or wield his weapon.
BRITHNOTH’S DYING WORDS
Yet then this word did speak
The old warrior; cheered on his men
Ordered to go forward – his good brethren.
No longer could he firmly on his feet stand.
He looked up to heaven……..
“I thank Thee, Lord of all peoples
For all those joys that I on earth have known.
Now, my Maker mild – I have most need
That thou to my ghost should grant good.
That my soul to Thee may journey,
Into thy kingdom – O lord of the Angels,
May pass with peace – I do desire of Thee
That the hell-fiends may not hurt it.”
Then hewed at him those heathen men
And at both those men that stood him beside,
Aelfnoth and Wulfmeer – both fell;
Then beside their liege – their lives they yielded.
Source: The Battle of Maldon.