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The Finnesburgh Fragment

by Ben Levick

This fragment is part of a longer Anglo-Saxon poem, now lost. It recounts events that took place in the early fifth century, when the Danish (Jutish) prince Hnæf is on a visit to his sister Hildeburh, who is married to Finn, ruler of the Frisians. He is accompanied by sixty warriors, one of them Hengest. They are all attacked at night by Finn's men, and Hnæf and Hildeburh's sons are killed.....

By great good fortune more of this story is preserved within a digression in Beowulf, and from this we learn how Hengest took over the leadership of the Danes (Jutes) after Hnæf's death, and served Finn (his leader's slayer) throughout the bitter winter, and in the spring took revenge.

The hero Hengest is almost certainly the same Hengest who became the first Germanic king of Kent, so this poem is likely to have had a particular interest for an Anglo-Saxon audience. Now we can only guess at the remainder of this poem.

Old English original

...nas byrnað?"
Hnæf hleoþrode ða, heaþogeong cyning:
"Ne ðis ne dagað eastan, ne her draca ne fleogeð,
ne her ðisse healle hornas ne byrnað.
Ac her forþ berað; fugelas singað,
gylleð græghama, guðwudu hlynneð,
scyld scefte oncwyð. Nu scyneð þes mona
waðol under wolcnum. Nu arisað weadæda
ðe ðisne folces nið fremman willað.
Ac onwacnigeað nu, wigend mine,
habbað eowre linda, hicgeaþ on ellen,
winnað on orde, wesað onmode!"
ða aras mænig goldhladen ðegn, gyrde hine his swurde.
ða to dura eodon drihtlice cempan,
Sigeferð and Eaha, hyra sword getugon,
and æt oþrum durum Ordlaf and Guþlaf,
and Hengest sylf hwearf him on laste.
ða gyt Garulf Guðere styrde
ðæt he swa freolic feorh forman siþe
to ðære healle durum hyrsta ne bære,
nu hyt niþa heard anyman wolde,
ac he frægn ofer eal undearninga,
deormod hæleþ, hwa ða duru heolde.
"Sigeferþ is min nama," cweþ he, "ic eom Secgena leod,
wreccea wide cuð; fæla ic weana gebad,
heardra hilda. ðe is gyt her witod
swæþer ðu sylf to me secean wylle."
ða wæs on healle wælslihta gehlyn;
sceolde cellod bord cenum on handa,
banhelm berstan (buruhðelu dynede),
oð æt ðære guðe Garulf gecrang,
ealra ærest eorðbuendra,
Guðlafes sunu, ymbe hyne godra fæla,
hwearflicra hræw. Hræfen wandrode,
sweart and sealobrun. Swurdleoma stod,
swylce eal Finnsburuh fyrenu wære.
Ne gefrægn ic næfre wurþlicor æt wera hilde
sixtig sigebeorna sel gebæran,
ne nefre swetne medo sel forgyldan
ðonne Hnæfe guldan his hægstealdas.
Hig fuhton fif dagas, swa hyra nan ne feol
drihtgesiða, ac hig ða duru heoldon.
ða gewat him wund hæleð on wæg gangan,
sæde þæt his byrne abrocen wære,
heresceorp unhror, and eac wæs his helm ðyrel.
ða hine sona frægn folces hyrde,
hu ða wigend hyra wunda genæson,
oððe hwæþer ðæra hyssa...

Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland

..... 'the gables are not burning.'
Then the king, a novice in battle, said:
'This is not 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 .....