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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 13. The Battle of Maldon or Byrhtnoth’s Death

The patriotic feeling which probably gave rise to Judith was certainly responsible for the second great poem of our period, the Battle of Maldon, sometimes called Byrhtnoth’s Death. The manuscript of this poem was destroyed by the Cottonian fire; but it had, fortunately, been printed by Herne in 1726, and it is from his text that our knowledge of the poem is derived. It celebrates the death of the great ealdorman Byrthnoth, who was connected by close ties of kinship with Aethelmaer, the friend of Aelfric; it was, indeed partly by means of legacies left by him that Aethelmaer was enabled to support so generously the monastic revival, and it is, therefore fitting that he should be commemorated by one of the finest poems in Old English. In the poem before us he stands out as the ideal leader of men, admirable alike in his devotion to his king, his simple piety and his sense of responsibility towards his followers. He died as became a member of the race that thirsts for danger, almost the last of the warriors of that time who maintained the noble tradition of the days of Alfred. In less than twenty years after this date, the chronicler tells a pitiful story of division between those who should have united to lead the people to battle, and of forced payment of the shameful tribute which Byrhtnoth refused.

It was in the year 991 that the Northman Anlaf sailed with ninety-three ships to the coast of England, and after harrying Stone, Sandwich and Ipswich, came to Maeldune (now Maldon) on the banks of the river Panta or Blackwater. The stream divides here into two branches, and, leaving their ships at anchor in one of them, the Danes drew up their forces on the intervening piece of land. The poem, the beginning and end of which are lost, opens with the directions of Byrhtnoth to his men, and tells how, after marshalling his troops, he exhorted them to stand firm, taking his place among the band of his immediate followers. At that moment there appeared on the other side of the stream the viking herald, who said that he was sent by the seamen to announce that, if Brythnoth would buy off the assault with tribute, they would make peace with him and return to their own land. But Byrhtnoth scornfully rejected the offer, saying that he would give tribute, indeed, but it should be the tribute of the sharp spear and the ancient sword, and their only booty would be battle. With this message he bade his men advance to the edge of the stream; but, owing to the inflowing flood after the ebb, neither army could reach the other, and they waited in battle array till the tide’s going out. Then Byrhtnoth, overweeningly daring, trusting too much in his own strength, allowed the enemy to cross by the bridge (probably one of stepping-stones which would be covered at high tide), and the fight became fierce. “The time had come for the fated men to fall; then was a tumult raised, the raven, eager for carrion, hovered in the air, and on earth was a great cry.” On every side fell the heroes; a kinsman of Byrhtnoth was wounded, and, at last, the brave earl himself was slain by a poisoned spear. With his last words he exhorted his men to resistance, and died commending his soul to God. True to the noble traditions of the heroic age, Aelfnoth and Wulfmaer shared his faith and fell, hewn down by the heathen beside their lord. Then cowards began to flee and seek safety in the woods, forgetting the brave words they had spoken when feasting in the mead-hall. But Aelfwine, the son of Aelfric, shouted to those fleeing, reminding them of their vows, and declaring that none among his race should twit him with flight, now that his prince lay fallen in battle, he who was both his kinsman and his lord. His brave words were taken up by Offa and Dunnere; and the warriors advanced to a fresh attack. The appearance amongst the defending ranks of Aeschere, son of Ecglaf, a Northumbrian hostage is of great interest, as it seems, for a moment, to give us a vivid glance of the political troubles of the land. The poem ends by telling how Godric exhorted his comrades and fought fiercely against the heathen till he too fell.

This brief outline may, perhaps, give some idea of the great interest of the poem, whose every word is filled with deep hatred against the marauding foe, and with dignified sorrow for the loss of beloved friends. The verse is as noble as the deed and instinct with dramatic life. In it we see the heroic feeling of the earlier national poetry, full of the Teutonic theme of loyal friendship and warlike courage. And not until many hundreds of years have elapsed do we find its equal in tragic strength. It is from this stirring narrative, from Wulfstan’s address of the English and from the bitter records in the Chronicle, that we realise the degradation of the country during the unhappy reign of Aethelred.