Saville draws our attention to a poetic account of Anglo-Saxon
heroism which has provided him with encouragement and inspiration with its
lessons about defeat, victory and the nature of loyal service
politics is unavoidable; the prayer is a daily duty; the spiritual discipline is
part of our tradition. All these come naturally (though not easily) when we live
our life as a Catholic minority within the Church of England. But what comes
much more uncertainly, and is not widely shared, are the images, themes,
pictures against which we can measure ourselves, or with which we can somehow
turn our present difficulties into a fictional counterpart.
What is it like to be us? What
imaginative picture would we draw of ourselves? I don't mean historically
accurate, but imaginatively encouraging. What ancient resonance gives heart in
moments of despair? We seem rather poor at imagination, so let me share my own
favourite (for the moment).
In August of the year 991,
during the reign of King Aethelred II, a battle was fought near Maldon in Essex,
between an English defence force under the earl Beorthnoth and a Viking or
Danish/Norwegian raiding army.
The English fought with great
bravery but were defeated. Why? The fatal error was committed by Beorthnoth
himself, at 6' 7" a giant of a man, with a great reputation for strength
and courage, now old and grey-haired and possibly too proud of his status and
reputation. As the narrative poet wrote, 'Then the earl in his overmastering
pride yielded ground to the enemy, something he should never have done.'
Camped on Northey Island, the
Vikings failed to frighten the English into offering tribute so as to avoid a
fight (the Danegeld). This was their usual tactic, and generally a most
effective one. 'Then did the strangers turn to guile' and somehow persuaded the
defenders, probably by an appeal to the earl's honour, to allow them to cross
the narrow causeway to dry land, so that it would be a fair fight. 'The wolves
of war advanced' and the terrible battle ensued.
Modern scholars have suggested
tactical reasons for his allowing the Vikings to cross from the island, which is
an unprovable possibility. It seems more likely that since such battles had
enormous propaganda importance, the earl wished to win, in an equal and
We know all this from a
fragment, some 325 lines long with both beginning and end now lost, of an epic
poem in Old English, known as 'The Battle of Maldon'. We have this text thanks
to the librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Thomas Hearne, who copied it
out in the late seventeenth century, just before he was sacked for being a
Nonjuror, and before the original
manuscript was burned in a fire.
What a curious and poignant
detail, that this great poem, which speaks to us in our present condition, only
survived because one who faced the same fateful decision as we do, had passed on
this treasure from the past, before he was thrown out of the church of his
birth. Puny Christian that I am, I find an echo in this faithful scholar, when I
dare not measure myself against those who fought with swords for their freedom.
But back to that August
battle, 1017 years ago. The fight now was no longer fair, for the foreigners,
with superior force, had the clear advantage. The earl was overwhelmed and
killed early on, being at the front of his soldiers. And now is the point where
this small, mundane battle between men turned from a trivial and forgettable
defeat, to an iconic moment that helped to change the history of these islands.
The English were nearly all
killed because they did not flee, as in a sense they should have done - that is
what you are meant to do when defeated. They died fighting. But in the end the
victory went to the Christians, not the pagans - it was the men from the north
who converted, who settled and took on the faith and culture of those whom they
The latter part of the poetic
fragment tells of that final conflict and defeat:
Warriors stood fast in battle, though their comrades fell
Weary with wounds. Dead men
dropped to the earth.
All this time Oswold and his brother
Inspired the warriors, and bade their
That in that grim necessity they
Endure and wield their weapons
Byrhtwold spoke out, he raise his
And shook his spear; an elderly
Courageously he taught the warriors:
'Will must be the stronger, heart the
And spirit the greater, as our
It is the great cry of Anglo-Saxon heroism.
Byrhtwold is only a servant, but he is old enough to know, as did the writer,
that their tragedy is the result of a greater man's folly.
loyalty of servants
It is the earl, Beorthnoth,
who has made the fateful error, but as a loyal servant, Byrhtwold makes no
complaint: he continues, indeed he redoubles his commitment to service, even
when his lord is dead, and there is to all appearances no further need of his
'Will must be the stronger,
heart the bolder, and spirit the greater, as our strength fails' It is a
powerful statement of faithfulness, loyalty and steadfastness. Probably quoted
from an earlier source, it was the statement that changed a grubby little battle
in an Essex estuary into one of the key moments of Anglo-Saxon Christian
When the monks of Ely came to fetch the body of the earl, and bury it at the abbey, with a wax effigy in place of his severed head, it was not merely because he had been an important patron of their monastery; it was to do with this realization that something more had occurred than a simple defeat before the up and coming forces of a new world order. This is what loyal service means. Others make the decisions; we (faithfully) live and die by them.
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