This poem covers the Battle of Hatfield Chase, which was fought in the year 633. Penda, the pagan king of Mercia and arguably one of the more powerful kings of the time, teamed up with Cadwallon, king of Gwynned (a Roman state). The events of the battle are described in both The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:
“This year King Edwin was slain by Cadwalla and Penda, on Hatfield moor, on the fourteenth of October. He reigned seventeen years.” (Chronicle, year 633)
“The glorious reign of Edwin over England and Britons alike lasted seventeen years, during the last six of which, as I had said, he labored for the kingdom of Christ. Then the British king Cadwalla rebelled against him, supported by Penda, a warrior of the Mercian royal house, who from then onwards ruled that nation with varying success for twenty-two years. In a fierce battle on the field called Haethfelth on the twelfth of October 633, when he was 48 years old, Edwin was killed, and his entire army destroyed or scattered.” (from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 20)
For a time before that, Edwin their enemy ruled and expanded the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia (now Northumbria), driving Cadwallon out of his territory. “The bitterest of his enemies was Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, whom Edwin had at one point driven from his kingdom to cower on the tiny island of Priestholm (Puffin Island) off the east coast of Anglesey.” (Marren) Naturally, this made Cadwallon angry with Edwin, and he became allies with Penda, who was a powerful king in Anglo-Saxon England at the time. Together, the two traveled the Roman road, where Raedwald had traveled in previous years to take Northumbria for Edwin away from Aethelfrith, the king who had exiled him. “Cadwallon’s army marched on York, very probably on the same route that Raedwald had used seventeen years before.” (Marren) This too is described both by Bede and Chronicle.
“This year was Ethelfrith, king of the Northumbrians, slain by Redwald, king of the East-Angles; and Edwin, the son of Ella, having succeeded to the kingdom, subdued all of Britain, except the men of Kent alone, and drove out the Ethelings, the sons of Ethelfrith, namely, Enfrid. Oswald, Oswy, Oslac, Oswood, Oslaf, and Offa.” (Chronicle, year 617)
“As a sign that he would come to the Faith and the heavenly kingdom, King Edwin received wide additions to his earthly realm, and brought under his sway all the territories inhabited by English or by Britons, an achievement unmatched by any previous English king. He also brought the Isles of Anglesey and Man under English rule […]” (from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 9)
Hæðfeld was at the edge of Northumbria, which made it a difficult place to defend. Nevertheless, Edwin and his men tried to defend Northumbria. According to Bede, one of Edwin’s sons was killed in battle, while the other submitted to Penda. Later, Penda would put him to death, breaking his vow of protection. After the battle, Edwin’s head was carried to York. After this, Penda and Cadwallon (who was said to be worse than Penda in temperament, since he never spared women or children) went on to slaughter more people in Northumbria and cause great disorder. Edwin had been a loved king. He was made a saint.
“At this time, a terrible slaughter took place among the Northumbrian church and nation the more horrible because it was carried out by two commanders, one of whom was a pagan and the other a barbarian more savage than any pagan. For Penda and all his Mercians were idol-worshipers ignorant of the name of Christ; by Cadwalla, although he professed to call himself a Christian, was utterly barbarous in temperament and behavior. He was set upon exterminating the entire English race in Britain, and spared neither women nor innocent children, putting them all to horrible deaths with ruthless savagery, and continuously ravaging their whole country.” ( from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 20)
I wrote this poem in a way that is slanted toward Edwin, much like Bede’s writings are. Many of the feelings of negativity toward Cadwallon and Penda are feelings that Bede expressed, and Edwin was one of Bede’s favorites, as he was both Christian and Northumbrian. I placed more importance on Penda than Bede did, as Bede tries to downplay the amount of power he had.
This is written to emulate the Anglo-Saxon style of poetry, which was a type of Germanic poetry. Like other Germanic poetry, Old English poetry was defined chiefly by alliteration. The significant words, those which are stressed, follow an alliterative pattern. In Old English poetry, there is more than one acceptable type of alliteration. There is AA/AY, and there is AX/AY. (Terasawa) In Old English Meter An Introduction, Terasawa lists an example of both. “Fēasceaft funden. // Hē þæs frōfre gebād” – line seven of Beowulf – is an example of AA/AY, and “on flōdes æht // feor gewītan” – line 42 of Beowulf – is an example of AX/AY. As evidenced by Terasawa’s examples, both can be used in the same poem. I chose AX/AY primarily because it was more convenient to write in.
Another rule in Old English meter involves which syllables are stressed. This is important not only because it establishes rhythm, but because it guides alliteration. Not every word is counted when determining stress: particles and possessives are among words which usually do not receive stress (Terasawa). Longer syllables are typically stressed on words with multiple syllables. A typical half line will consist of either two feet of equal length or a short foot and a long one. Each foot will have at least one stressed syllable and one unstressed.
The most difficult part of maintaining this for me was choosing words which alliterated and would allow me not to mess up the stresses. I expect that some of this is a linguistic difference; many of the words we use today are from languages other than English, and our language structure is much more rigid about word order than Old English, which determined the role of a word in the sentence based on its case rather than where in the sentence it was placed. I used mostly words that come from Old English linguistically.
Kennings are another trait of Anglo-Saxon poetry. A kenning is a type of metaphor that tries to describe a commonly known word. Many of my kennings are borrowed from other poems and are kennings that a Saxon audience would be familiar with. For instance, “ring-giver” is a kenning for “ruler”, which is similar to “breaker of rings” in Beowulf. “Blade sweat” is a kenning I used for “blood”, similar to “battle sweat” from Beowulf.
Old English poetry has a good deal of heroic poetry, which generally follows the brave or heroic deeds of its subject. There are fictional accounts, like Beowulf, but there are also poems like mine that recount historical battles in both Old English and British poetry. The two poems that I have read that serve to recount battles are The Battle of Brunanburh and, more famously, The Battle of Maldon. Both depict tenth-century battles, though I believe that their approach is different.
Maldon focuses on the Saxons fighting a foe of a greater number, and talks about the bravery of the leader of the Saxons and the cowardice of those who desert him, and the honor of those who fight to avenge him and honor their oath to his service. We see those themes evidenced in this passage:
Ælfnoth and Wulfmær, wounded to death,
Gave their lives for their lord in the fight.
Then quitted the field the cowards and faint-hearts;
The son of Odda started the flight.
Godric abandoned his good lord in battle,
Who many a steed had bestowed on his thane.
Leaped on the horse that belonged to his leader,
Not his were the trappings, he had no right to them.
Both of his brothers basely fled with him,
Godwin and Godwy, forgetful of honor,
Turned from the fight, and fled to the woods,
Seeking the cover, and saving their lives.
Those were with them, who would have remained,
Had they remembered how many favors
Their lord had done them in days of old.
We see more of this viewpoint spoken by Leofsunu later in the poem:
“Here I stand, and here shall I stay!
Not a foot will I flinch, but forward I’ll go!
Vengeance I’ve vowed for my valiant leader.
Now that my friend is fallen in battle,
My people shall never reproach me, in Stourmere;
Call me deserter, and say I returned,
Leaderless, lordless, alone from the fight.
Better is battle-death; boldly I welcome
The edge and the iron.” Full angry he charged,
Daring all danger, disdaining to fly.
Brunanburh has a great deal of detail given its length and seems to be more of a traditional retelling than a poem focused on the values present in Maldon (from my perspective). This section is an example of the tone:
“They left behind them raw to devour, the sallow kite, the swarthy raven with horny nib, and the hoarse vulture, with the eagle swift to consume his prey; the greedy goshawk, and that grey beast the wolf of the weald. No slaughter yet was greater made e’er in this island, of people slain, before this time, with the edge of the sword; as the books inform us of the old historians; since hither came from the eastern shores the Angles and Saxons, over the broad sea, and Britain sought, – fierce battle-smiths, o’ercame the Welsh, most valiant earls, and gained the land.” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 938)
I would say that my poem errs more toward the narrative style of Brunanburh than the tale of honor and shame in Maldon. I slip in historical events, such as the partnership between Edwin and Raedwald, and I do my best to focus on the three kings – that is, Edwin, Penda, and Cadwallon – rather than the armies and what the men themselves might be feeling or doing. My lens is focused on Edwin’s piety, and in contrast, Penda’s pagan religion and Cadwallon’s brutality. I do try to make mention of some of the themes present in Maldon, like in this passage where I comment on Penda’s breaking of his oath to protect Edwin’s son and how, to a Saxon, that would be a breach of their code of honor:
“In hatred and anger // hunted Edwin.
Penda took Eadfrid, promised shelter.
Oathbreaking Penda // honored nothing.”
I also make mention of the idea that men are expected to fight for their liege, though I am nowhere near as heavy-handed with this theme as the Maldon poet:
Oathbound fighters, // Edwin’s liegemen,
To Penda’s war-field, // praying for boldness,
Deira’s princes // daring to follow,
Praying and hoping // for Penda’s downfall.
Ultimately, my goal was less to retell a piece of history in a way that might seem authentic to an Anglo-Saxon audience. I feel that Brunanburh and Maldon both do an excellent job at that, and my goal was to see if I could take some of Bede’s writing and spin it into a poem. I think that I was more successful in this endeavor than I have been in the past.
Bede, David Hugh. Farmer, R. E. Latham, Egbert, and Cuthbert. Ecclesiastical History of the English People: With Bede’s Letter to Egbert. London, England: Penguin, 1990. Print.
Ingram, J., and J. A. Giles. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1912. Print.
Marren, Peter. Battles of the Dark Ages: British Battlefields AD 410 to 1065. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2006. Print.
Pollington, Stephen. First Steps in Old English. Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon, 1997. Print.
Terasawa, Jun. Old English Metre. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2011. Print
“The Battle of Maldon (Fragment).” Translated by J. Duncan Spaeth. Old English Poetry, translated by J. Duncan Speath, Princeton University Press, 1922, p. 164. LitFinder