Anthony 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

The 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).

Essex estuary

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 honourable fight, not only to enhance his own reputation but to frighten off other Vikings. Pride had a tactical value. It was, however, in this case, a fatal error.

Poetic fragment

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 had defeated.

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 Eadwold
Inspired the warriors, and bade their kinsmen
That in that grim necessity they should
Endure and wield their weapons without weakness.
Byrhtwold spoke out, he raise his shield aloft
And shook his spear; an elderly retainer,
Courageously he taught the warriors:
‘Will must be the stronger, heart the bolder,
And spirit the greater, as our strength fails.’

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.

The 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 service.

‘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 culture.

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.