The Bravery of Byrtnoth
When reading The Battle of Maldon, I found myself attempting to grade the noble Byrhtnoth using the heroic code as a rubric. Initially, I doled out poor marks, labeling Byrhtnoth as a failure according to the heroic code. However, after reexamining the poem and critiquing my own verdict, I concluded that Byrhtnoth instead served an unfit king, and is unfairly cast as a disappointment during the Battle of Maldon. In fact, Byrhtnoth is fiercely heroic and notably brave, exemplified by his willingness to commit entirely to a fight in spite of the resoundingly unfavorable odds, his ability to command an amount of respect from his thanes that is awe-inspiring, and his devoted dedication and understanding of the heroic code.
In the moments that precede the Battle of Maldon, a vivid picture is painted. From the opening lines of the poem, it is apparent that the Anglo-Saxon army is far from elite. The bold Byrhtnoth begins “to array the troops,” who are clearly greenhorn soldiers (17). Inexperienced in the art of war, the protector of heroes shows the soldiers “how they should stand” and instructs them on the proper way “to hold their shields securely” (18,20). It would be easy to criticize Byrhtnoth for the deficiencies of the assembled men, as I initially did; however, there is a certain nobility and admiration associated with dedicating to the cause in spite of the disadvantages. Despite leading a group of (arguably) misfits into battle, Byrtnoth commits to the battle ahead, impressively dismissing a messenger who attempts to make a deal: “a truce in exchange for gold” (35). He instead bids the seafarer to relay a message. Byrtnoth makes a formal boast that is both brave and pragmatic. In short, the tremendous thane pledges to “defend his homeland,” he never promises that the English will emerge victorious, however (52). This willingness to die for his own lord, who is visibly absent from the battle, exemplifies Byrtnoth’s bravery and his readiness to fully honor the comitatus; even if his lord did not entirely deserve this level of commitment.
Throughout the battle, Byrtnoth commands a great deal of respect from his thanes, especially following his death, which is remarkable. I found this intriguing because the reverence shown by the English soldiers rivals that of the typical lord/thane relationship, so much so that I initially believed Byrtnoth to be a king rather than a lord. Following an impressive battle advance, Byrtnoth is eventually struck down and “departs in peace” (179). The poet takes great care to convey that two fellow soldiers, Wulmar and Ælfnoth, “both lay dead / and gave up their lives” fighting beside Byrtnoth (183-184). The fact that these men were willing to die in battle alongside Byrtnoth speaks volumes to the amount of respect these men had for the “noble thane of Æthelred” (151). As the remaining soldiers discover that Byrtnoth has fallen, they each make a final boast and charge valiantly into battle to avenge him. An additional aspect that deserves mention which also illustrates the influence that Byrtnoth held over fellow soldiers occurs after his death. When those who were against the battle see that Byrtnoth has been slain, they abandon their fellow thanes. In the heat of battle, many English soldiers mistake a fleeing man for Byrtnoth, they, too, follow suit. I find it interesting that these men would choose to abandon battle and risk possible exile. This willingness illustrates that these thanes respected Byrtnoth more than they feared breaking the heroic code.
Even in death, Byrtnoth is able to sway the Anglo-Saxon soldiers, a feat that great kings could not even accomplish when alive. A great point of debate, and arguably the turning point of the battle occurs when Byrtnoth grants passage to the Vikings, allowing them to approach. This “overconfidence” can be labeled as one of Byrtnoth’s flaws. However, in accordance with the heroic code, this eagerness to “bring on the battle” exemplifies how a heroic man should view a fight (89,94). While it might not be the smartest decision, it is a choice that leaves no doubt in regard to Byrtnoth’s bravery and desire to construct his own legend. When a battle looms ominously in the distance, warriors embrace it, and only cowards avoid it. Governed by a set of principles that values fame, Byrtnoth was proactive in his war strategy, inviting the enemy. The battle itself was inevitable, but Byrtnoth’s enterprising attitude to wield his own wyrd illustrates his understanding of the heroic code and his deep commitment to these governing guidelines.
It is too easy to simply dismiss Byrtnoth for his miscalculation during battle. Instead, Byrtnoth should be graded against the principles of the entire heroic code. His ferocious bravery, his capacity to command an amazing amount of respect in spite of his miscalculation, and his deep understanding and commitment to the heroic code are tangible evidence that Byrtnoth was a close human representation of the heroic code and should not be labeled a failure. The legend that surrounds his name should be one constructed entirely of fame. Weaving his legend with shameful seams is too easy, and does not take into account the entirety of the heroic code.
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When reading The Battle of Maldon, I found myself attempting to grade the noble Byrhtnoth using the heroic code as a rubric. Initially, I doled out poor marks, labeling Byrhtnoth […]