From Early English Poems Selected and Edited by Henry S. Pancoast and John Duncan Spaeth; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 1911.
THE BATTLE OF MALDON
The beginning of the poem is lost. The first sixteen lines of the remaining portion describe how Byrhtnoth’s men, arrived at the battle field, dismount and turn their horses loose, how one of them sends his hawk flying to the wood, and how the East Saxon alderman proceeds to marshal his band on the banks of the stream. The poem continues as follows:
Byrhtnoth encouraged his comrades heartily;
Rode through the ranks and roused their spirits;
Marshalled his men to meet the onset;
Showed them how they should hold their shields
Firm in their grip, and fearless stand.
When he had briskly whetted their courage,
He leaped from his steed and stood with his people,
His hearth-band beloved and house-hold thanes.
Then strode to the strand a stalwart Northman,
The viking herald. They heard him shout.
Send o’er the tide the taunt of the pirates;
Hailing the earl, he hurled this challenge:
“Bold sea-rovers bade me tell thee
Straightway thou must send them tribute,
Rings for ransom, royal treasure;
Better with gifts ye buy us off,
Ere we deal hard blows and death in battle.
Why spill we blood when the bargain is easy?
Give us the pay and we grant ye peace.
If thou dost agree, who art greatest here,
To ransom thy folk with the fee we demand,
And give to the seamen the gold they ask,
Pay with tribute for treaty of peace,
We load the booty aboard our ships,
Haul to sea and hold the truce.”
Byrhtnoth spake, he brandished his spear,
Lifted his shield and shouted aloud,
Grim was his wrath as he gave them his answer:
“Hearest thou, pirate, my people’s reply?
Ancient swords they will send for ransom;
Poison-tipped points they will pay for tribute;
Treasure that scarce will serve you in battle.
Go back pirate, give them my answer
Bring them this word of bitter defiance;
Tell them here standeth, stern and intrepid
The earl with his folk, to defend his country;
Æthelred’s realm, the rights of my lord,
His house and his home; the heathen shall fall.
Pirates and robbers. My people were shamed
If ye loaded our booty aboard your ships,
And floated them off unfought, to sea,
Having sailed so far, to set foot on our soil.
Not all so easily earn ye our gold!
Sword-blades and spear-points we sell you first;
Battle-play grim, ere ye get our tribute!”
Forward he told his troop to come,
To step under shield and stand by the shore.
The breadth of the stream kept the bands asunder;
Strong came flowing the flood after ebb,
Filled the channel, and foamed between them.
Impatient stood by Panta stream,
East-Saxon host and horde of the pirates,
Longing to lock their lances in battle.
Neither could harass or harm the other.
Save that some fell by the flight of arrows.
Down went the tide, the Danes were ready;
Burned for battle the band of the Vikings;
On the bridge stood Wulfstan and barred their way.
Byrhtnoth sent him, a seasoned warrior,
Ceola’s son, with his kinsmen to hold it.
The first of the Vikings who ventured to set
Foot on the bridge, he felled with his spear.
Two sturdy warriors stood with Wulfstan,
Maccus and Ælfheré, mighty pair,
Kept the approach where the crossing was shallow;
Defended the bridge, and fought with the boldest,
As long as their hands could lift a sword.
When the strangers discovered and clearly saw
What bitter fighters the bridgewards proved,
They tried a trick, the treacherous robbers,
Begged they might cross and bring their crews
Over the shallows and up to the shore.
The earl was ready in reckless daring
To let them land too great a number.
Byrhthelm’s son, while the seamen listened,
Called across, o’er the cold water:
“Come ye seamen, come and fight us!
We give you ground, but God alone knows
Who to-day shall hold the field.”
Strode the battle-wolves bold through the water;
West over Panta waded the pirates;
Carried their shields o’er the shining waves;
Safely their lindenwoods landed the sailors.
Byrhtnoth awaited them, braced for the onslaught,
Haughty and bold at the head of his band.
Bade them build the bristling war-hedge,
Shield against shield, to shatter the enemy.
Near was the battle, now for the glory,
Now for the death of the doomed in the field.
Swelled the war-cry, circled the ravens,
Screamed the eagle, eager for prey;
Sped from the hand the hard-forged spear-head,
Showers of darts, sharp from the grind-stone.
Bows were busy, bolt stuck in buckler;
Bitter the battle-rush, brave men fell,
Heroes on either hand hurt in the fray.
Wounded was Wulmar, went to his battle-rest;
Cruelly mangled, kinsman of Byrhtnoth,
Son of his sister, slain on the field.
Pay of vengeance they paid the Vikings;
I heard of the deed of the doughty Edward:
He struck with his sword a stroke that was mighty,
Down fell the doomed man, dead at his feet.
For this the thane got the thanks of his leader,
Praise that was due for his prowess in fight.
Grimly they held their ground in the battle,
Strove with each other the stout-hearted heroes,
Strove with each other, eager to strike
First with their darts the foe that was doomed.
Warriors thronged, the wounded lay thick.
Stalwart and steady they stood about Byrhtnoth.
Bravely he heartened them, bade them to win
Glory in battle by beating the Danes.
Raising his shield, he rushed at the enemy;
Covered by buckler, he came at a Viking;
Charged him furious, earl against churl,
Each for the other had evil in store.
The sailorman sent from the south a javelin,
Sorely wounding the war-band’s leader;
He shoved with his shield, the shaft snapped short;
The spear was splintered and sprang against him;
Wroth was Byrhtnoth, reached for his weapon;
Gored the Viking that gave him the wound.
Straight was the lance, strong was the leader;
He thrust it sheer though the throat of the pirate.
His dart meant death, so deadly his aim.
Swiftly he sent him a second javelin,
That crashed through the corslet and cleft his bosom,
Wounded him sore through his woven mail;
The poisonous spear-head stood in his heart.
Blithe was the leader, laughed in his breast,
Thanked his Lord for that day’s work.
Now one of the pirates poised his weapon;
Sped from his hand a spear that wounded
Through and through the thane of Æthelred.
There stood at his side a stripling youth;
Brave was the boy; he bent o’er his lord,
Drew from his body the blood-dripping dart.
’Twas Wulfmær the youthful, son of Wulfstan;
Back he hurled the hard-forged spear.
In went the point, to earth fell the pirate
Who gave his master the mortal hurt.
A crafty seaman crept toward the earl
Eager to rob his armor and rings,
His bracelets and gear and graven sword.
Then Byrhtnoth drew his blade from the sheath.
Broad and blood-rusted, struck at the breast-plate.
But one of the seamen stopped the warrior,
Beat down the arm of the earl with his lance.
Fell to the ground the gray-hilted sword;
No more he might grasp his goodly blade,
Wield his weapon; yet words he could utter;
The hoar-headed warrior heartened his men;
Bade them forward to fare and be brave.
When the stricken leader no longer could stand,
He looked to heaven and lifted his voice:
“I render Thee thanks O Ruler of men,
For the joys Thou hast given, that gladdened my life.
Merciful Maker, now most I need,
Thy goodness to grant me a gracious end,
That my soul may swiftly speed to Thee,
Come to Thy keeping, O King of angels,
Depart in peace. I pray The Lord
That the fiends of hell may not harm my spirit.”
The heathen pirates then hewed him to pieces,
And both the brave men that by him stood;
Ælfnoth and Wulfmæmar, wounded to death,
Gave their lives for their lord in the fight.
Then quitted the field the cowards and faint-hearts;
The son of Odda started the flight.
Godric abandoned his good lord in battle,
Who many a steed had bestowed on his thane.
Leaped on the horse that belonged to his leader,
Not his were the trappings, he had no right to them.
Both of his brothers basely fled with him,
Godwin and Godwy, forgetful of honor,
Turned from the fight, and fled to the woods,
Seeking the cover, and saving their lives.
Those were with them, who would have remained
Had they remembered how many favors
Their lord had done them in days of old.
Offa foretold it, what time he arose
To speak where they met to muster their forces.
Many, he said, were mighty in words
Whose courage would fail when it came to the fighting.
There lay on the field the lord of the people,
Æthelred’s earl; all of them saw him,
His hearth-companions beheld him dead.
Forward went fighting the fearless warriors,
Their courage was kindled, no cowards were they;
Their will was fixed on one or the other:
To lose their life, or avenge their leader
Ælfwiné spoke to them, son of Ælfric,
Youthful in years, but unyielding in battle;
Roused their courage, and called them to honor:
“Remember the time when we talked in the mead-hall,
When bold on our benches we boasted our valor,
Deeds of daring we’d do in the battle!
Now we may prove whose prowess is true.
My birth and my breeding I boldly proclaim:
I am sprung from a mighty Mercian line.
Aldhelm the alderman, honored and prosperous,
He was my grandsire, great was his fame:
My people who know me shall never reproach me,
Say I was ready to run from the battle,
Go back to my home, and abandon my leader,
Slain on the field. My sorrow is double,
Both kinsman and lord I’ve lost in the fight.”
Forward he threw himself, thirsting for vengeance;
Sent his javelin straight at a pirate.
Fell with a crash his foe to the earth,
His life-days ended. Then onward he strode,
Urging his comrades to keep in the thick of it.
Up spake Offa, with ashen spear lifted:
“Well hast thou counselled us, well hast encouraged,
Noble Ælfwiné, needs must we follow thee.
Now that our leader lies low on the field,
Needs must we steadfastly stand by each other;
Close in the conflict keeping together,
As long as our hands can hold a weapon,
Good blade wield. Godric the coward,
Son of Odda, deceived us all.
Too many believed ’twas our lord himself,
When they saw him astride the war-steed proud.
His run-away ride our ranks hath broken;
Shattered the shield-wall. Shame on the dastard!
Who caused his comrades like cowards to fly!
Up spake Leofsunu, lifted his linden-wood,
Answered his comrades from under his shield:
“Here I stand, and here shall I stay!
Not a foot will I flinch, but forward I’ll go!
Vengeance I’ve vowed for my valiant leader.
Now that my friend is fallen in battle,
My people shall never reproach me, in Stourmere;
Call me deserter, and say I returned
Leaderless, lordless, alone from the fight.
Better is battle-death; boldly I welcome
The edge and the iron.” Full angry he charged,
Daring all danger, disdaining to fly.
Up spake Dunheré, old and faithful,
Shook his lance and shouted aloud,
Bade them avenge the valiant Byrhtnoth:
“Wreak on the Danes the death of our lord!
Unfit is for vengeance who values his life.”
Fell on the foe the faithful body-guard,
Battle-wroth spearmen, beseeching God
That they might avenge the thane of Æthelred,
Pay the heathen with havoc and slaughter.
The son of Ecglaf, Æscferth by name,
Come of a hardy North-humbrian race,
— He was their hostage, — helped them manfully.
Never he faltered or flinched in the war-play;
Lances a plenty he launched at the pirates,
Shot them on shield, or sheer through the breast-plate;
Rarely he missed them, many he wounded,
While he could wield his weapon in battle.
Still Edward the long held out at the front;
Brave and defiant, he boasted aloud
That he would not yield a hair’s breadth of ground,
Nor turn his back where his better lay dead.
He broke through the shield-wall, breasted the foe,
Worthily paid the pirate warriors
For the life of his lord ere he laid him down.
Near him Æthelric, noble comrade,
Brother of Sibryht, brave and untiring,
Mightily fought, and many another;
Hacked the hollow shields, holding their own.
Bucklers were broken the breast-plate sang
Its gruesome song. The sword of Offa
Went home to the hilt in the heart of a Viking.
But Offa himself soon had to pay for it,
The kinsman of Gadd succumbed in the fight.
Yet ere he fell, he fulfilled his pledge,
The promise he gave to his gracious lord,
That both should ride to their burg together,
Home to their friends, or fall in the battle,
Killed In conflict and covered with wounds;
He lay by his lord, a loyal thane.
Mid clash of shields the shipmen came on,
Maddened by battle. Full many a lance
Home was thrust to the heart of the doomed.
Then sallied forth Wistan, Wigėlin’s son;
Three of the pirates he pierced in the throng,
Ere he fell, by his friends, on the field of slaughter.
Bitter the battle-rush, bravely struggled
Heroes in armor, while all around them
The wounded dropped and the dead lay thick.
Oswold and Eadwold all the while
Their kinsmen and comrades encouraged bravely,
Both of the brothers bade their friends
Never to weaken or weary in battle,
But keep up their sword-play, keen to the end.
Up spake Byrhtwold, brandished his ash-spear,
— He was a tried and true old hero, —;
Lifted his shield and loudly called to them:
“Heart must be keener, courage the hardier,
Bolder our mood as our band diminisheth.
Here lies in his blood our leader and comrade,
The brave on the beach. Bitter shall rue it
Who turns his back on the battle-field now.
Here I stay; I am stricken and old;
My life is done; I shall lay me down
Close by my lord and comrade dear.”
[Six more lines and the MS. breaks off. There cannot have been much left. The battle is over. And the words of old Byrhtwold make a fitting close for these renderings of Old English verse. “Dark and true and tender is the north,” and it dies fighting.]