I thought I’d share my own reenactment of The Battle of Malden from Wulfstan: An Anglo Saxon Thegn, a side story to the epic Earls of Mercia series.
Prologue – Wulfstan at the Battle of Maldon – 991
From his place atop the minor rise, he watched the battle play itself out before him. More than anything he wanted to run back into the foray, his sword raised and ready, his shield in place. The impulse was instinctive.
He’d trained for this. It was his place to be, not out here, away from the heat of the battle feeling useless and unskilled.
Beneath his legs, his horse shuffled from side to side. The animal, Heard, was keen to be away from the smell of the sea and the tang of shed blood. If only he could turn away, but he knew he couldn’t. He needed to watch what was about to happen so that at the least he could tell his lord’s son all about his final moments. He hoped it had been a good death, a warrior’s death, not pissing himself with fear when the moment came.
They’d never spoken about the final moments. There had never been the need to before. They’d always known that they were going to emerge as the victors.
Not this time though.
He gazed out to the vast expanse of sea, scanning the vast Viking raider fleet that had come to their lands, unbidden and without warning. Years it had been since the last concerted attack by the raiders. They’d come in dribs and drabs, a stray Norseman and his warriors just testing their luck and more often than not going away empty handed or with little apart from their lives, or not at all. But not in their masses. Not ninety-three ships full of bristled warriors, and rumour had it, would-be-kings.
He sighed deeply at the most concerted attack his land had faced from across the sea throughout his adult life. He should have known that it was all too good to be true. That the small attacks would eventually coalesce into something more menacing. He fervently wished they hadn’t.
These men from the north seemed less honourable than the English warriors; either that or they just saw an opportunity and exploited it. He wondered if he’d ever decipher why Ealdorman Bryhtnoth had decided to let the attackers cross the marshy land instead of hemming them in with the rising tide. He could accept that it was the English thing to do, to give the men a fighting chance, but it had allowed them to win the battle, or would allow them to win the battle, and he couldn’t help thinking that it had been a foolish mistake. A life-ending mistake.
An honourable mistake but a mistake all the same.
The gentle smash of shields on wood touched his ears, becoming muted as it travelled the great distance between him and the battle. He noted that tears were falling freely down his face. He raised his hand and wiped them angrily away. It wasn’t that he felt he shouldn’t cry, more that if he did cry he’d not be able to see the battle before him.
Around him the press of the other retreating men had faded away. Now only he, and a priest from Ealdorman Bryhtnoth’s household stayed and watched, a silent vigil for dead men who yet lived.
The priest was praying quietly and Wulfstan appreciated the soft words and the exhortations to their God that he was making. It made a strange contrast, the words of the priest, the almost silent but deadly battle before him, and the view of the gently bobbing fleet of Viking raider ships. A beautiful tableaux and one he’d have given anything not to see and not to witness.
The sails on the raiding ships were half cast down, but on the ones that still stood he could discern patterns in the weaves and wondered if they depicted who owned the craft. If they did, he detected three separate designs, or colour schemes. Did that mean that there were three individual war leaders facing his lord?
He thought he might quite like his own ship but then reconsidered, perhaps not. The sea was calm today and still they swayed haphazardly in the water, just watching them was making him feel ill at ease. He had no stomach for ships. He never had.
The rising voice of the priest recalled him to his gruesome task.
He squinted into the sunlight and saw what the priest saw. The defenders were slowly thinning, the attackers coming ever closer to the back of the shield wall, and when they broke through there’d be no one else to stop them. Their victory would be complete. There was no one other than him and an old priest to offer any further resistance.
His lord still stood, but barely. Somehow out of all the men, he could pinpoint where he stood without any effort. The familiar slicing action as he fought, the familiar stance as he placed his weight behind the shield.
His mouth dry, breath rasping he watched in horror as a mighty warrior, blond and bulky, cleaved his way to where Ælfwine stood. The other warriors seemed to fall away to either side of them.
A crash of shields, he imagined the noise although it did not reach him, and the figures were fiercely engaged in battle. He couldn’t see the individual sword strokes, the rise of the war-axe; instead he saw only the impact that the weapons had on the two men. First Ælfwine staggered and then the mighty warrior, and then once more it was Ælfwine’s turn and then the other warrior’s, but even from such a distance he could tell that Ælfwine was the weaker of the men, his years going against him. He was an old man, although not as old as others he knew, still, at their age their movements were slower, and it was clear to see who’d be the victor.
And now he did turn away, slowly and with sorrow, for after all, he didn’t want to watch his lord fall in battle. It was enough to know that he would.
His horse, keen to finally be away from the carnage, stepped lively when it was turned to face inland. It was Ælfwine’s horse and it would guide him home whether he wanted to face Ælfwine’s son, Leofwine, or not.
The son, a lad no more. The son, a lord from now on and sure to be recognized by the king for his father’s ultimate sacrifice.
An orphan at the hand of the raiders.
Read on in Wulfstan: An Anglo Saxon Thegn, one of the Earls of Mercia side stories.