The battle took place in 991, and the poem which has made it famous (for the battle was of almost no importance as far as history is concerned) was written within a few decades of this.
The poem is missing its beginning and end, but we still have a substantial account: 325 lines, to be exact.
The battle happened like this. The English were defending a causeway, but Byrhtnoth allowed the Vikings to cross it so that there could be a pitched battle. Whether this was an act of bright bravery or dull idiocy will probably never be settled, but by the end of the bit of the poem that we still have it is clear that the English are overwhelmed and are going to be slaughtered.
Byrhtnoth, the commander of the English is already dead, and these are his dying words:
"Geþancie þe, ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton."
ða hine heowon hæðene scealcas
and begen þa beornas þe him big stodon,
Ælfnoð and Wulmær begen lagon,
ða onemn hyra frean feorh gesealdon.
"I thank you, Wielder of nations,
for all the joys I have felt in this world.
Now I, merciful Lord, have great need
that you grant a blessing on my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your wielding, Lord of the angels,
and depart in peace. I entreat you
that hell's fiends may not harm it!"
Then heathen warriors hewed him,
and the men who stood by him;
Ælfnoð and Wulmær both lay dead,
giving up life their lives beside their lord.
I'm left thinking about modern war poems, and I'm wondering why nowadays we don't name the names of real people so much.
It makes deaths in battle easier to bear, of course.
And I wonder how much that is really the point.
Word To Use Today: merciful. The word mercy comes from the Latin mercēs, wages or price, from merx, which means goods.