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Old English - The Battle of Maldon: Passage 1

The Battle of Maldon: Byrhtnoth’s response

This well-known Old English poem concerns the encounter between English and Viking forces near the Essex town of Maldon in A.D. 991, when Æthelred II (‘Ethelred the Unready’) was king. It is the stirring account of the last stand by a group of heroic but doomed Anglo-Saxon warriors, led by ealdorman Byrhtnoth. The action takes place around a causeway which links an island to the mainland, and which is only passable at low tide. At the beginning of the surviving fragment of the poem, Byrhtnoth draws up his troops on the mainland side. A Viking messenger appears on the far shore, and snidely suggests that the English would do better to send tribute than to engage the doughty Norsemen in battle. Passage 1 (lines 42–61) is Byrhtnoth’s response: wittily and sarcastically he turns the terms of the Vikings’ insulting offer (taxation, arbitration) back on them, and tells the messenger in no uncertain terms what sort of gift he and his comrades can expect. The English begin the battle in a strong position, with stout warriors defending the causeway. Perceiving that they cannot cross their army to begin the conflict in earnest, the Vikings ask Byrhtnoth to allow them over the river. The English leader agrees to this, an action ascribed to his ofermod (his ‘pride’, though the meaning of the word in context has been much debated). In the dramatic pitched battle that follows, Byrhtnoth and many of his close companions are killed. The desertion of the cowardly Godric (son of Odda) and his brothers then makes defeat for the English forces inevitable. But the remaining warriors vow to fight on, to prove their courage and their loyalty, and they exhort one another with stirring words. The most famous of these speeches comes at the beginning of Passage 2 (lines 309–25). Here we meet the old soldier Byrhtwold, whose declamation is presented in terms directly reminiscent of Byrhtnoth’s earlier rejoinder to the Viking messenger, and his words present a rousing, touching display of loyalty to his dead lord. His resolve is matched by Godric (son of Æthelgar) in a display of doomed heroism which forms the end of the poem as it has come down to us.