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The Battle of Finnsburgh
By Rider, 31 January 2007; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe: Military History
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 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 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,
Men say to me, as son thou wishest
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