The Battle of Finnsburgh

  By Rider, 31 January 2007; Revised
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The Battle at Finnsburg is an event with little other historical mentions than the Fragment and Episode from Beowulf. This event is supposed to have taken place around the 5th or 6th century, and most people think that it was in Frisia (although it is unclear if it really happened in Frisia). There, a Danish prince, Hnæf, has come to spend the winter; he is attacked by his enemies and the defenders carry out a magnificent defense of the hall, where Hnæf and his companions were situated. The hall was not Hnæf’s, however, and this is the reason why the owner (the opponents’ leader), Finn, didn’t burn it down. The sixty men survived for some time, but then they fall, one after the other. The ending, however, is unclear. We may assume that the defenders were killed to the last man (except for some that are mentioned in the Beowulf, such as Hengest), for Beowulf refers to it (in some places) as the Frisian Slaughter.

The Finnsburg Fragment

The Fragment is supposedly just a small part of the real piece that told us the story of what happened at Finnsburg. It is thought that the lost parts were the beginning and the ending of the text.

‘the gables are not burning.’
Then the king, a novice in battle, said:
‘This is no dawn from the east, no dragon
flies here, the gables of the hall are not burning,
but men are making an attack. Birds of battle screech,
the grey wolf howls, spears rattle,
shield answers shaft. The wandering moon gleams
under the clouds; evil deeds will now
be done, bringing grief to this people.
But rouse yourself now, my warriors!
Grasp your shields, steel yourselves,
fight at the front and be brave!’
Then many a thegn, laden in gold, buckled his sword-belt.
Then the stout warriors, Sigeferth and Eaha,
went to one door and unsheathed their swords;
Ordlaf and Guthlaf went to guard the other,
and Hengest himself followed in their footsteps.
When he saw this, Guthere said to Garulf
that he would be unwise to go to the hall doors
in the first rush, risking his precious life,
for fearless Sigeferth was set upon his death.
But that daring man drowned the other voices
and demanded openly who held the door.
‘I am Sigeferth, a prince of the Secgan
and a well-known warrior; I’ve braved many trials,
tough combats. Even now it is decreed
for you what you can expect of me here.’
Then the din of battle broke out in the hall;
the hollow shield called for men’s hands,
helmets burst; the hall floor boomed.
Then Garulf, son of Guthlaf, gave his life
in the fight, first of all the warriors
living in that land, and many heroes fell around him,
the corpses of brave men. The raven wheeled,
dusky, dark brown. The gleaming swords so shone
it seemed as if all Finnesburh were in flames.
I have never heard of sixty warriors
who bore themselves more bravely in the fight
and never did retainers better repay
glowing mead than those men repaid Hnæf.
They fought for five days and not one of the followers
fell, but they held the doors firmly.
Then Guthere withdrew, a wounded man;
he said that his armour was almost useless,
his corselet broken, his helmet burst open.
The guardian of those people asked him at once
how well the warriors had survived their wounds
or which of the young men
The Finnsburg Episode

The Finnsburg Episode is part of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem. This gives a better insight into why the battle took place. Yet, this part presumes that you should know the story of the battle itself quite well. Therefore, it is wise to first read the Fragment and then turn to this Episode. Here, a bard of Hrothgar sings of the fall of the men.

Then hastened those heroes their home to see,
friendless, to find the Frisian land,
houses and high burg. Hengest still
through the death-dyed winter dwelt with Finn,
holding pact, yet of home he minded,
though powerless his ring-decked prow to drive
over the waters, now waves rolled fierce
lashed by the winds, or winter locked them
in icy fetters. Then fared another
year to men’s dwellings, as yet they do,
the sunbright skies, that their season ever
duly await. Far off winter was driven;
fair lay earth’s breast; and fain was the rover,
the guest, to depart, though more gladly he pondered
on wreaking his vengeance than roaming the deep,
and how to hasten the hot encounter
where sons of the Frisians were sure to be.
So he escaped not the common doom,
when Hun with “Lafing,” the light-of-battle,
best of blades, his bosom pierced:
its edge was famed with the Frisian earls.
On fierce-heart Finn there fell likewise,
on himself at home, the horrid sword-death;
for Guthlaf and Oslaf of grim attack
had sorrowing told, from sea-ways landed,
mourning their woes. Finn’s wavering spirit
bode not in breast. The burg was reddened
with blood of foemen, and Finn was slain,
king amid clansmen; the queen was taken.
To their ship the Scylding warriors bore
all the chattels the chieftain owned,
whatever they found in Finn’s domain
of gems and jewels. The gentle wife
o’er paths of the deep to the Danes they bore,
led to her land.
The lay was finished,
the gleeman’s song. Then glad rose the revel;
bench-joy brightened. Bearers draw
from their “wonder-vats” wine. Comes Wealhtheow forth,
under gold-crown goes where the good pair sit,
uncle and nephew, true each to the other one,
kindred in amity. Unferth the spokesman
at the Scylding lord’s feet sat: men had faith in his spirit,
his keenness of courage, though kinsmen had found him
unsure at the sword-play. The Scylding queen spoke:
“Quaff of this cup, my king and lord,
breaker of rings, and blithe be thou,
gold-friend of men; to the Geats here speak
such words of mildness as man should use.
Be glad with thy Geats; of those gifts be mindful,
or near or far, which now thou hast.

Men say to me, as son thou wishest
yon hero to hold. Thy Heorot purged,
jewel-hall brightest, enjoy while thou canst,
with many a largess; and leave to thy kin
folk and realm when forth thou goest
to greet thy doom. For gracious I deem
my Hrothulf, willing to hold and rule
nobly our youths, if thou yield up first,
prince of Scyldings, thy part in the world.
I ween with good he will well requite
offspring of ours, when all he minds
that for him we did in his helpless days
of gift and grace to gain him honor!”
Then she turned to the seat where her sons wereplaced,
Hrethric and Hrothmund, with heroes’ bairns,
young men together: the Geat, too, sat there,
Beowulf brave, the brothers between.

Finnsburg Fragment
Finn and Hengest
Finn and Hengest
Additional Information

For people interested in this event, I should suggest to read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, which gives a better insight into the battle and tries to explain many things.

Tolkien, J. R. R.; Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode