The Battle of Maldon is an Old English heroic poem that describes an historical skirmish between the East Saxons and mainly Norwegian Viking raiders in 991. The actual battle took place three weeks before Whitsun on 10th August 991 AD near Maldon beside the River Blackwater in Essex during the reign of Aethelred the Unready.
The poem itself is incomplete as both its beginning and ending is lost but the poem is famous for its vivid and dramatic description of the combat scenes and the way in which it expresses the Germanic ethos of loyalty to a leader – an emotion that is evident in Denny Bradbury’s novel “Borvo II”, where many of the young men, such as Aeschwine, Borvo’s nephew, approaching adulthood are looking for something more than just the village life and have a restlessness inside them that drives them forward and pushes them to become fighters for their King.
When Aeschwine is confronted – and defeats – three men who threatened to hurt his new found four-legged companion Hlaf, he is then brought before the “Lord’s man”, Aethelword, son to the King’s dead elder brother by Wyman and despite his “youthfulness and probable inexperience” within him Wyman sees “..A stubborn defiant look that hinted of a great soldier. Many men can kill but to kill and also know when to stop was the difference between a soldier and a leader of men. Compassion was a good trait in the eyes of the old campaigner” – ‘(Chapter 12, Aeschwine travels on’) .
The poem, in so far as what remains, begins with the two war parties aligned on either side of a stream (the present River Blackwater) and whilst the Vikings offer the cynical suggestion that the English may buy their peace with golden rings, the English commander Earl Byrhtnoth replies that they will pay their tribute in spears and darts. When the Vikings cannot advance because of their poor position, Byrhtnoth allows them safe conduct across the stream, the battle then follows and in spite of Byrhtnoth’s feats of courage he is finally slain. As a result, some of the English warriors flee and the names of these deserters are recorded in the poem as well as the names of those loyal retainers who stood fast to avenge Byrhtnoth’s death. The poem, as it exists as such, ends with the rallying speech by the old warrior Byrthwold. Translated from Olde English into that of modern day it reads:
“..Mind must be firmer, heart the more fierce,
Courage the greater, as our strength
With the University of Essex taking its motto “Thought the harder, heart the keener” from the poem’s line “Hige sceal pe heardra, heorte pe cenre,” there is no denying how keen Aescwine is to play his part in a country at war, haunted as he is by the final lines of a chant that people said in times of wistful longing:
“…. – leaving ruins and a race
with steel inside their loins – determination in their jaw.”
In Chapter Seventeen, ‘Aescwine travels on ‘ Denny writes how these words set Aescwine’s “… determination to find the fight and take on the world. He was full of anger and hope and a need to justify his position in a confusing world…. The longing to be someone would take hold of him and his energy burst forth so that he rose, broke his fast and moved on, ever onwards until he met up with his fate.”