The Desperate Battle for Maldon
Rise up ye men of Essex.
Come forth with me this day.
For there’s Viking to be fighting,
Their ships are in the bay.
The harvest has to wait for now,
Take down your bow let’s heft your spear.
Your women, leave them with the plough
For we have foes now drawing near.
And Byrhtnot wants the fighting men
Of Langford, Haybridge, Woodham Walter,
Forming up and locking shields
To launch their spears and not to falter.
And, as you form, his chosen men
Will show you how to brace your shield;
To make your thrust, when high, when low;
To stamp, to push, thus as they yield
You will not stumble, but will kill
Trygvason’s ravens. And by your cutting down,
Those not dead will turn to run.
And in the darkening water, there will drown.
The Essex men they loosed their arrows,
Lancing, dancing to the sky,
To turn them, make them deathward plunging
On those Vikings standing by.
This whilst Aelfere, Wulfstan, Maccus,
Grim, named men and skilled in war;
Placed by their Earl to block the causeway,
Roared their boasts defying Thor.
And Olaf tore his beard and howled
His hatred for the English there.
‘You will not fight as man to man,
Shield to shield, you do not dare.
So, craven Saxon if you won’t fight,
Dare by combat, take the field,
Give me Danegeld, compensation;
Ethelred’s silver to me yield.
Then my boats I’ll take away;
Slake my thirst elsewhere to fight;
With men of metal, stalwart warriors,
Unafraid of Viking might.’
Byrthnoth called his men together
‘Free your horses, give your hands.
We fight for Ethelred and for Essex,
Win or loose here Byrthnoth stands.
Then strode he forth, both proud and grim.
His raised his shield, he shook his spear.
He cursed those men across the sea-tide,
Swearing words for them to hear.
‘We give you nothing arrant sea wolf.’
Loud words hurled across the water.
‘Come, with me fight and I will promise
Spears and swords and bloody slaughter.’
Eager then the sea wolves wade;
Across the causeway now they go.
Pushing past those face-down floating
With the ebb-tide, to and thro.
While Byrhtnot cheers the men of Essex,
Bids his thanes move to their place.
The warrior lord then roars defiance;
‘Come, with these Northmen let’s embrace.’
The raiders, they’ve formed by the River,
Carefully, neither crowd nor crush;
This so Woden’s skilful Warcraft
Wefts within their first spear rush.
While men of Essex, jeering, cheering,
Lock their shield wall, stamp and go.
And those supporting launch spear volleys;
Manic death soon theirs to know.
Stands forth, bold, a Viking warrior
Shield held fast and spear point raised;
To kill the Essex champion early,
Win much gold and be thus praised.
His thrust, made but a partial wound,
By Byrhtnot’s shield was cast asunder
Opened thus, he cried to God,
His god of war, his god of thunder.
But Byrhtnot, always battle savage,
Laughed and roared his battle cry.
He pierced the Viking’s neck and breast plate,
Held him down to watch him die.
And ravens wheel about the sky,
They croak delight at what they see.
While Essex farms, the fens, the fastness
Wonder what their fate will be.
Now – a spear strikes Byrhtnot hardly,
Wulfstans’ child, he pulls it out,
And makes a lunge at the attacker.
Our leader’s down goes up the shout.
Then snarls another from the melee;
Viking warrior seeking plunder;
With broad sword drawn from ready sheath
Byrhtnot slashes, treads him under.
Bloodied, frothing lips a snarl;
Blood lust crazed, the Earl he stands;
Roars ‘Ethelred, my king, my king.’
Holds up his sword in both his hands.
And as the Essex men he urges
Surge with shield ‘gainst Viking shield,
The Past, the Present and what shall be,
Those Norns, decide who wins this field.
And bitter in the battle rush,
The men of Essex fighting there:
Intensive blood rage, focused murder,
Glory, fame, for those who dare.
But Godric sees the blood run freely,
Sees his Earl begin to sway;
He with his brothers loves not battle,
Horses stealing, sneaks away.
Godric rides his chieftain’s grey.
With Offa’s sons, all sworn men made,
The brothers swear away their honour;
Oath breaking for the lives they trade.
This, while pagan spear tears Byrhtnot’s arm;
His sword, it falls from powerless hand.
The Earl, he shakes his grizzled head.
With loss of blood he cannot stand.
So at the last the war lord topples;
Crashing down he shakes the Earth.
His war band grimly gather round him.
Each man sworn, all men of worth.
Aesferf, Eadward, Erdric, Wulfmer,
Sworn as kinsmen, guard their chief.
Lock shields against the savage onslaught;
Bitter fighting, bitter grief.
Giving life, but giving dearly;
Keeping slathering wolves at bay.
Bound by oath, they stay with Byrhtnot,
Even though they’ve lost their way.
For seeing Byrhtnot’s grey nag leaving,
Thinking he, not Godric, rides there
Leave the battle; Essex farmers;
War-worn, weary, in despair.
Berserk now, Eadward leaves his chieftain.
Refusing just to stand at bay.
His leap, it shatters Viking shield wall;
Vengeance, slaughter, take the day.
Savage, shrewd, tall Wulfmer follows;
Axe blade, shield rims pulling down.
Throat-wise thrusting, spear-blade striking,
Blood-drenched Vikings, choking, drown.
Olaf meanwhile quaffs his mead;
Standing tall midst all the dead.
He laughs then lifts his horn aloft,
‘A toast, and gold for Byrhtnot’s head.’
And so his frenzied warriors roar
Slaughter laughs out loud and long
Proud men clashing shield to shield
A mighty tale, a mighty song.
Now round Byrthnot’s trampled corpse;
Desperate fighting, good men fall;
Sworn by oath fight to their end;
Less Godric – foul, dead be they all.
But Essex farms escape the fire
They who died on Panta’s shore,
Those that Byrthnot’s death inspired,
Gave their all, could give no more.
And Maldon never knew the sword;
And women welcome home or weep;
Those dead and quiet a mist conceals;
And Byrhtnot in his grave can sleep.
By Michael Shave
Image composite by CONTACT