Anglo Saxon Living History: Part One – War, Valour and being a Warrior.

Anglo Saxon Living History: Part One – War, Valour and being a Warrior.

Set in Scandinavia, the Epic of Beowulf relates aspects of its history and relationship with Britain and European Clans through a complex tale of fate. Significantly, it relates vital aspects of warrior tradition, of gift-giving, troth and gyfu. These affirm the distinction of the warrior class. And although all men were capable ‘warriors’ called up to fight and defend their families and kings, the ‘profession’ of soldier was considerably an elite position. This did of course change over time, and many became farmers, a reflection perhaps of the Christian conversion ethic of ‘swords into ploughshares.’

His father’s warriors were wound round his heart/ With golden rings, bound to their prince/ By his father’s treasure. So young men build/ The future, wisely open-handed in peace,/ Protected in war; so warriors earn/ Their fame, and wealth is shaped with a sword.” [i]

“Nor have I ever seen,/ Out of all the men on earth, one greater/ Than has come with you; no commoner carries/ Such weapons, unless his appearance, and his beauty,/ Are both lies.” [ii]

“They arrived with their mail shirts/ Glittering, silver-shining links/ Clanking an iron song as they came./ Sea-weary still, they set their broad,/ Battle-hardened shields in rows/ Along the wall , then stretched themselves/ On Herot’s benches. Their armor rang;/ Their ash-wood spears stood in a line,/ Gray-tipped and straight: the Geats’ war-gear/ Were honoured weapons.”

“‘And if death does take me, send the hammered/ Mail of my armor to Higlac, return/ The inheritance I had from Hrethel, and he/ From Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!'”

These themes are very much reflected in other contemporary poetry, exampled here in an excerpt from Maxims II (directly below), a wisdom poem that muses upon the realms of fate and time, as meted through the power of kings, and the passage of the seasonal round; and  in ‘The Battle of Malden’ (which follows), a record of a pivotal event leading up to the eventual conquest of England by the Danes.:

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,

orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,

wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,

þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle,

wyrd byð swiðost. Winter byð cealdost,

lencten hrimigost – he byð lengest ceald –

sumor sunwlitegost – swegel byð hatost –

hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð

geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð.

Soð bið switolost, sinc byð deorost,

gold gumena gehwam, and gomol snoterost,

fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð.

Weax bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað.

A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,

the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,

wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,

thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.

Fate is the most powerful thing, winter is coldest,

spring frostiest – it is the longest cold –

summer sun-brightest – the sun is hottest –

harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men

the year’s fruits, which God sends them.

Truth is most treacherous, treasure is dearest,

gold to every man, and an old man is most wise,

made wise with years gone by, he who has experienced much.

Sorrow is wondrously clinging. Clouds glide on. [iv]

Intensive Viking raids throughout the 10-11th centuries seriously destabilised the political leadership of England, eroding its military might until its eventual defeat at Hastings in 1066. Several decisive battles were fought in the decades prior to this. In fact, during the winter of 1013-14, the kingdom was briefly held by the Danish king Svein Forkbeard when King Æthelred fell back, forced into into exile.

One of these significant battles was the now legendary ‘Battle of Maldon’ – 10 August 991, fought on the Essex coast against the Vikings. Recorded in this anonymous epic poem, of 325 lines are events centred upon Byrhtnoth, the Ealdorman of East Anglia, and those men obliged to fight for him. These consist of seasoned warriors of his own guard, and other soldiers garnered from bondsmen further afield.  The Battle ensues when the Ealdorman, confidant of his strength, refuses to pay the tribute demanded by the Vikings in order to avoid fighting.

As a fine performance piece, the poem expresses a beautifully constructed mythology in Byrhtnoth’s defiant speech to the Viking’s emissary.  The context is fine fiction, rhetoric modern spin doctors have adopted in political campaigns typical of our era. The Narrative is timeless. A contrast is made between the men of the sea (Vikings) and those of the land (the warriors who fight for England – their land).

Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah.
Brimmanna boda, abeod eft ongean,
sege þinum leodum miccle laþre spell,
þæt her stynt unforcuð eorl mid his werode,
þe wile gealgean eþel þysne,
Æþelredes eard, ealdres mines,
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hæþene æt hilde. To heanlic me þinceð
þæt ge mid urum sceattum to scype gangon
unbefohtene, nu ge þus feor hider
on urne eard in becomon.
Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan;
us sceal ord and ecg ær geseman,
grim guðplega, ær we gofol syn.
Do you hear, seaman, what this people are saying?
They want to give you spears as tribute,
deadly spear-points and ancient swords,
war-equipment which will not help you in battle.
Sailors’ messenger, take a message back again:
tell your people a much more hostile reply,
that here stands undaunted an earl with his company,
who intends to defend this homeland,
the land of Æthelred, my leader,
people and ground.  The heathen shall
fall in battle.  It seems too shameful to me
that you should go to your ships with our money
unopposed, now you have come
so far into our country.
You shall not get treasure so easily;
spear and sword shall settle this between us,
fierce battle-play, before we pay tribute.


Poor tactics result in his death, but his men up held the fight to avenge his death.  Though the poem does not conclude with their defeat, it is inevitable. It is by far more than ‘just a commentary on the relationship between words and deeds (an abiding concern in heroic poetry) but an acknowledgement that this poem itself turns deeds into words, battle into language, history into poetry.’ [v]

“Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,

mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.” [vi]

Stodon stædefæste; stihte hi Byrhtnoð,

bæd þæt hyssa gehwylc hogode to wige

þe on Denon wolde dom gefeohtan.

Wod þa wiges heard, wæpen up ahof,

bord to gebeorge, and wið þæs beornes stop.

Eode swa anræd eorl to þam ceorle,

ægþer hyra oðrum yfeles hogode.

Sende ða se særinc suþerne gar,

þæt gewundod wearð wigena hlaford;

he sceaf þa mid ðam scylde, þæt se sceaft tobærst,

and þæt spere sprengde, þæt hit sprang ongean.

Gegremod wearð se guðrinc; he mid gare stang

wlancne wicing, þe him þa wunde forgeaf.

Frod wæs se fyrdrinc; he let his francan wadan

þurh ðæs hysses hals, hand wisode

þæt he on þam færsceaðan feorh geræhte.

ða he oþerne ofstlice sceat,

þæt seo byrne tobærst; he wæs on breostum wund

þurh ða hringlocan, him æt heortan stod

ætterne ord. Se eorl wæs þe bliþra,

hloh þa, modi man, sæde metode þanc

ðæs dægweorces þe him drihten forgeaf.

Forlet þa drenga sum daroð of handa,

fleogan of folman, þæt se to forð gewat

þurh ðone æþelan Æþelredes þegen.

They stood steadfast. Byrhtnoth commanded them,

ordered that each warrior set his mind on warfare

who wanted to win glory against the Danes.

A warrior bold in battle advanced, lifted up his weapon

with his shield for protection, and moved towards that man.

Very resolutely the earl went towards the man;

each intended evil to the other.

Then the sea-warrior sent forth a spear of southern work,

so the warriors’ lord was wounded;

he shoved with his shield so that the shaft broke,

and the spear shattered so that it sprang back.

The battle-warrior was enraged: he stabbed with his spear

the proud viking who had given him the wound.

The war-soldier was skilled; he shot his spear

through the man’s neck, guided by his hand

so that he reached the life of his sudden assailant.

Then he quickly shot another

so that the mail-coat shattered; he was wounded in his breast

through the interlocking rings; in his heart

stood a deadly spear. The earl was the gladder:

he laughed then, the high-spirited man, gave thanks to God

for the day’s work which the Lord had given him.

Then one of the vikings sent a spear from his hand,

flying from his fist, so that it went all too successfully

through Æthelred’s noble thegn.

As a staunch Christian, Bryhtnoth dies with a prayer on his lips:
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton.”
Now, merciful Lord, I have the greatest need
that you grant good to my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your power, Lord of angels,
and depart in peace.  I am beseeching you
that the fiends of hell may not injure me!
Momentary panic follows, shifting gear as a young warrior named Ælfwine inspires them into glorious action. The outcome is fatal, but as heroes, they uphold their troth to fight unto the death for their Chieftain and Drighton Lord.

Gemunan þa mæla þe we oft æt meodo spræcon,
þonne we on bence beot ahofon,
hæleð on healle, ymbe heard gewinn;
nu mæg cunnian hwa cene sy.
Ic wylle mine æþelo eallum gecyþan,
þæt ic wæs on Myrcon miccles cynnes;
wæs min ealda fæder Ealhelm haten,
wis ealdorman, woruldgesælig.
Ne sceolon me on þære þeode þegenas ætwitan
þæt ic of ðisse fyrde feran wille,
eard gesecan, nu min ealdor ligeð
forheawen æt hilde. Me is þæt hearma mæst;
he wæs ægðer min mæg and min hlaford.
Remember the words which we often spoke over our mead,
when we raised up boasts on the benches,
heroes in the hall, about hard fighting:
now we may learn who is brave!
I will make known all my lineage,
that I was born in Mercia of a great family;
my grandfather was named Ealhelm,
a wise ealdorman, prosperous in the world.
I will not be reproached by thegns among those people
that I wanted to escape from this army,
to seek my home, now my leader lies
hewn down in battle.  It is the greatest sorrow to me;
he was both my kinsman and my lord.

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Her lið ure ealdor eall forheawen,
god on greote. A mæg gnornian
se ðe nu fram þis wigplegan wendan þenceð.
Ic eom frod feores; fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
be swa leofan men, licgan þence.
Courage must be the firmer, heart the keener,
mind must be the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader all cut down,
a good man on the ground.  He who now thinks of turning
from this battle-play will always regret it.
I am old in years; I will not go,
but by the side of my lord,
by the man so dear, I intend to lie.

Though this principle is upheld within the Maxims (Wisdom texts) recorded in the Exeter Book, noted at stanza 36:
Snotre men sawlum beorgað, healdað hyra soð mid ryhte.
‘Wise men guard their souls, uphold their integrity with justice.’
It is a view tempered with precedent advice located in stanza 23 and 12:
Forbær oft ðæt þu eaðe wrecan mæge. 
‘Forbear often where you might easily take vengeance.’
Ne hopa ðu to oþres monnes deaðe; uncuð hwa lengest libbe.
‘Do not hope for another man’s death; it is unknown who will live longest.’ [vii]

Part Two of this Anglo Saxon Living History continues next week with a Boat Burial.




Regia Anglorum  at

Thynghowe is a Viking Assembly site in Sherwood Forest and was used for gatherings and settling disputes.



[i] The narrative was finally recorded in Britain circa 1000CE. Believed to be the oldest Anglo-Saxon piece of poetic writing by a narrow margin of a few years over the Battle of Maldon, it survives in a single manuscript.


[iii] ibid

[iv] Maxims II (Cotton MS)


[vi] Anonymous, ‘The Battle of Maldon’ probably written between 10 and 20 years after  the event of 991 CE, around the same time as Beowulf, both of which are grand epics of Heroic Poetry.






~ by meanderingsofthemuse on July 1, 2017.

One Response to “Anglo Saxon Living History: Part One – War, Valour and being a Warrior.”

  1. Nice Article Shani, Thanks for sharing

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