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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.