In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a minor classic of Anglo-Saxon poetry
The Battle of the Blackwater was real and not just something that happened in Game of Thrones. It’s an odd fact that the first great poem written in English about a real battle is about a resounding defeat for the English. For ‘English’ here we need to think ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but then we have to go back nearly a century before the Norman invasion, to the year 991, and the Battle of Maldon to find the inspiration for English literature’s first great battle-poem. And according to the contemporary chroniclers, the Battle of Maldon ended in humiliating defeat for the Angles and Saxons: one chronicle claims that the English had to pay the Viking victors some ‘x thusend punda’. Yes, that’s ten thousand pounds – a colossal sum, and the first example of the English ‘natives’ paying the Vikings Danegeld, money paid in tribute to make their bearded and saga-singing aggressors go away, basically.
By the time the Germanic Angles and Saxons met their Viking invaders on the field of battle in Essex in 991, Norsemen had been raiding Britain for nearly two centuries. But it took the Battle of Maldon to produce a lasting piece of poetry about this clash of nations and peoples – or, at the very least, a piece of poetry that lasted. It’s a sobering thought that all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that has survived is found in just four manuscripts: the Cotton manuscript containing the long heroic narrative poem Beowulf, the Vercelli book, a collection of manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Exeter Book. Greater poems than ‘The Battle of Maldon’ may well have perished in the flames of some monastery fire or been actively consigned to the flames by raiders or religious puritans. Beowulf was nearly lost, and it’s only thanks to Robert Bruce Cotton that the sole surviving manuscript of that poem did survive so long. In 1731, even this copy, the sole surviving manuscript of the poem, was destroyed in a fire; thankfully, someone had made a transcription of the poem only a few years earlier, and it’s thanks to this individual, who was probably named John Elphinston, that we have ‘The Battle of Maldon’ at all, even in incomplete form. (Sadly, not every one of the poems that perished in the Cotton manuscript fire had been copied down beforehand; and we’ll probably never get to read the intriguingly titled The Passion of the 11000 Virgins.)
In summary – and here I am borrowing from Michael Alexander’s informative prefatory material from his excellent translation of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and other poems, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics) – ‘The Battle of Maldon’ tells of how the ‘Danes’ (at the time, a term used to describe all Scandinavians) sailed up the River Pant, part of the longer River Blackwater, to the town of Maldon in Essex, beaching their ships on Northey Island. Bryhtnoth, elderly earl or Ealdorman of Essex, led the English against the invading Norsemen, who in turn were led into the battle by ‘Anlaf’ (in reality, possibly Olaf Tryggvason, who would later rule as King of Norway from 995 until his death in 1000). Bryhtnoth and his followers are overwhelmed by Anlaf’s forces, and many of Bryhtnoth’s followers flee the field; his personal retinue remain with their earl, and bleed and die with him. One of the English, Godric, even flees the battle on Bryhtnoth’s own horse, leading some of the other soldiers to believe that their liege-lord has fled the battle.
What might have inspired the defeated Anglo-Saxons to commemorate this military defeat in verse? Poems are often written to celebrate great victories; those who win the war write up the history. Answering this question is made more difficult by the fact that only 325 lines of the poem survive: both the beginning and end of the poem were lost, and these sections may well have seen the poet setting out his justification for the poem. But history is not always written by the victors, and one of the abiding messages that come through ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is the importance of loyalty to one’s lord, even if it means going to one’s certain death. The important thing is to stand and do one’s duty. In this respect, ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ are not so very different.
Michael Alexander has called ‘The Battle of Maldon’ the best battle-poem in English, and perhaps even better than the far better-known Beowulf. Alexander attributes its greatness to the poet’s commitment to ‘ruthlessly subordinating everything to the unity and truth of his account’. It’s highly probable that the poet was present at the battle and survived, although, given the resounding defeat of the English, this raises curious questions. Did the Vikings accept the English surrender before all of the Angles and Saxons had been slaughtered? Or did the poet tuck tail and run? This seems unlikely, and would either make him a terrible hypocrite, or else would invite us to view ‘The Battle of Maldon’ as his atonement for his cowardly behaviour on (or rather off) the battlefield. If that were true, then what greater piece of atonement could one imagine than this poem?
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a sequel to the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (collected in Tree and Leaf / Smith of Wootton Major / The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth / Beorhthelm’s Son), which takes the form of a dialogue between two characters at the end of the battle.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.