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 dragonflies 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 gleamsunder the clouds; evil deeds will nowbe 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 Secganand 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 shoneit seemed as if all Finnesburh were in flames.I have never heard of sixty warriorswho bore themselves more bravely in the fightand never did retainers better repayglowing 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 everduly 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 kinfolk and realm when forth thou goestto greet thy doom. For gracious I deemmy Hrothulf, willing to hold and rulenobly our youths, if thou yield up first,prince of Scyldings, thy part in the world.I ween with good he will well requiteoffspring of ours, when all he mindsthat for him we did in his helpless daysof 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.
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
The Finnesburg Fragment is a fragment of an Old English poem of the type called a leoð, or "lay." The existing text is a transcript of a loose manuscript folio that was once kept at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury; the manuscript was almost certainly Lambeth Library MS 487. The British scholar George Hickes made the transcript some time in the late 17th century, and published it in an anthology of Anglo-Saxon and other antiquities in 1705. Since then the original manuscript folio has been lost or stolen. One of the difficulties with the text is that other transcriptions Hickes made, which can be compared with their original manuscripts, are often inaccurate; so the text may well require substantial emendation
The context for the poem is obscure, but a version of the story also appears within the text of the epic poem Beowulf, and some of the characters are mentioned in other texts. The story appears in Beowulf in the form of a lay sung by a bard at a celebration. The scholar J. R. R. Tolkien made a study of the surviving texts in an attempt to reconstruct what may have been the original story behind the Finnesburg Fragment and Beowulf's "Finnesburg Episode"; this study was ultimately edited into the book Finn and Hengest. Tolkien ultimately argues that the story is historical, rather than legendary, in character.
The poem describes a probably historical battle in which the Danish prince Hnæf is attacked at a place called Finnsburuh, "Finn's stronghold"; this was the hall of his brother-in-law Finn, lord of the Frisians. Apparently, Hnæf has come to spend the winter there. The fragment begins with Hnæf's observation that what he sees outside "is not the dawn in the East, nor is it the flight of a dragon, nor are the gables burning"; what he sees is the torches of approaching attackers. Hnæf and his sixty thanes hold the doors for five days, without any falling. Then a wounded warrior turns away to talk to his chief (it is not clear on which side) and the fragment ends.
Tolkien argues that Finnsburuh is most likely an error by either Hickes or his printer, since that construction appears nowhere else, and the word should be Finnesburh. It is not clear whether this was the actual name of the hall or only the poet's description of it. Where exactly the hall was, or even whether it was in Frisia, is not known.
Uniquely in the surviving Anglo-Saxon corpus, the fragment contains no Christian references, and the burning of Hnæf is clearly pagan; it is short and about a battle, but the two fragments of the battle-poem Waldere manage to be explicitly Christian in hardly more space.
The fragment is only about fifty lines long; it does not mention Finn's name, or the name of either contending tribe. Fortunately, there is a passage in the epic poem Beowulf, in which Hrothgar's bard sings a lay on the aftermath of a battle called the Freswæl, the "Frisian Slaughter", which is clearly the same story. The Beowulf episode is some ninety lines long. The episode is allusive, even for Beowulf, and is clearly intended for an audience that already knows the story.
This "Finnesburg Episode" (lines 1068-1159 in Beowulf) describes the mourning of Hildeburh, Hnæf's sister; Hnæf's funeral pyre, on which the body of Finn's son is also burnt; and the pact between Finn and one Hengest, who is a leader among Hnæf's surviving warriors and is mentioned also in the Fragment. The conditions of this are obscure; but Hnæf's men are to stay in Finnesburgh, at least for the winter, and the Frisians are not to taunt them for following the slayer of their lord. In the end, however, Hengest is persuaded that vengeance is more important; Finn is killed, and Hildeburh is "carried off to her people".
Hickes, Linguarum. Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archaeologicus, vol 2 (Oxford, 1705); this anthology also contained the first reference to the sole manuscript of Beowulf.
Tolkien, J. R. R.; Bliss, Alan J. (ed.): Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York (1983). ISBN 0-395-33193-5
Finn and Hengest is a study by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Alan Bliss and published posthumously in book form in 1982.
Finn and Hengest are two Anglo-Saxon heroes appearing in the Old English epic poem Beowulf and in the fragment of "The Fight at Finnsburg". Hengest has sometimes been identified with the Jutish king of Kent. He and his brother Horsa (the names meaning "stallion" and "horse") were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon immigrants to Britain as mercenaries in the 5th century).
The book is based on an edited series of lectures Tolkien made before and after World War II. In his lectures, Tolkien argued that the Hengest of "The Fight at Finnsburg" and Beowulf was an historical rather than a legendary figure and that these works record episodes from an orally composed and transmitted history of the Hengest named in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle." This view has gained acceptance from a number of medieval historians and Anglo-Saxon scholars both since Tolkien's initial lectures and since the publication of this posthumous collection.
Tolkien's lectures describe what he called the "Jutes-on-both-sides theory", which was his explanation for the puzzling occurrence of the word ēotenas in the episode in Beowulf. Tolkien read the word as Jutes, and theorized that the fight was a purely Jutish feud, and Finn and Hnæf were simply caught up by circumstance. Tolkien explained both their presence and their ambiguous loyalty with his interpretation of the story, as follows:
Hnæf, son of Hoc Half-Dane, is the lord of a Danish people who have conquered part of Jutland (probably the northern part of the Cimbrian peninsula) and exiled its former Jutish rulers. Finn, king of Frys-Land (modern-day Friesland in the Netherlands) has allowed dispossessed Jutes to settle in his lands and enter his service. Finn marries Hnæf's older sister Hildeburh, and sends their son (whose name was probably Friðuwulf) to be fostered in Hnæf's household.
Around the year AD 450, Hnæf sails to Frys-Land in the autumn; his purpose is to return Finn's now-grown son and spend the winter in Finn's citadel, celebrating Yule. He brings a retinue of some sixty thanes. Chief among these thanes is a Jute named Hengest, leader of a band of Jutes who have taken service under Hnæf. Unfortunately, and foreseen by no one, when they arrive at Finn's stronghold they find that many of Finn's thanes are also Jutes, particularly one Garulf, who seems to be the rightful heir to the kingdom conquered by Hnæf's people; and these Frisian Jutes are at blood feud with Hengest and his band, because Hengest supports the conquering Danes, if for no other reason. This would explain why Hildeburh "had no cause to praise the fealty of the Jutes," since that fealty led to the re-awakening of the feud , which killed her brother, husband, and son.
Finn (who seems guiltless in Tolkien's interpretation) tries to prevent trouble by separating the parties, and allowing Hnæf and his thanes to occupy the royal hall, while he removes his own thanes to a different building. However, the Frisian Jutes make a pre-dawn attack, hoping to take Hengest and his band by surprise. But the Danes have been expecting trouble, and a watchman sees the light of their approaching torches. He asks rhetorically, "What is this light? Is it the dawn in the East, or is it the flight of a dragon, or are the gables burning?" Hnæf answers, "Neither is this the dawn in the East, nor is it the flight of a dragon, nor are the gables of this hall burning," it is an attack. Prepared, the Danes and Hengest's Jutes barricade the two doors of the hall against attack. Garulf is warned by one Guðhere not to risk his "precious life" in the assault, but he attacks and is the first to fall. Finn's Frisian thanes, who have ties of marriage and friendship to Finn's Jutish thanes, join in the fight against the Danes. The Danes hold the hall for five days without losing a man. On the morning of the fifth day the Frisians force their way into the hall, and in the battle, both Hnæf and Friðiwulf are killed. (It is not clear which side Friðiwulf was fighting on, but Tolkien thinks it likely he was staying in the hall with Hnæf, his foster-father and uncle; this would explain why Beowulf emphasizes that Friðiwulf was laid on the funeral pyre at Hnæf's side.) The surviving Danes and Hengest's Jutes drive the Frisians and Jutes out of the hall and re-barricade the door.
At this point Finn (who may not have joined in the fight personally) intervenes and offers to make a bargain with the survivors. As Tolkien points out, the Danes had several advantages:
1) Finn had lost so many men that he could not force his way into the hall again. 2) The Danes were occupying his royal hall, and he was unwilling to burn it to get them out. 3) Finn must have felt both guilty and ashamed that his feuding thanes had killed Hnæf, who was his brother-in-law and guest. Inside the hall, the survivors are in two groups: Danes, led by a chief thane who is described as Hunlafing ("the son of Hunlaf") and Jutes, led by Hengest. The Jutes are Hengest's own band, and owed loyalty to Hnæf only because Hengest followed him. Finn at first tries to make peace with the Danes only, but the Danes loyally insist that any peace agreement must include Hengest and his men. Finn agrees, and swears an oath of peace: the Danes and Hengest's men will lay down their arms, and since they cannot leave Frys-Land until the winter ends, they will sit at Finn's table and technically accept him as their protector (since he was now their only possible source of food and maintenance, and they had intended to be his guests throughout the winter anyway.) Finn gives the Danes a separate hall to dwell in for the winter, specifying that they shall share it with the sons of the Jutes (meaning Hengest and his band.) He also swears that any one of his own thanes who tries to renew the feud (by taunting the Danes that they now follow the slayer of their lord) will be punished, possibly with death, by Finn himself. The bodies of Hnæf and Friðiwulf are honorably burned.
Over the winter, the Danes and their Jutish allies brood over the fall of Hnæf. Hengest is faced with a conflict of duty: whether to honor the peace-treaty with Finn, or to honor his duty to avenge his fallen lord. Finally the son of Hunlaf takes a sword Hildeleoma ("Battleflame") which was probably Hnæf's sword, and lays it in Hengest's lap. Hengest "does not refuse the world's counsel" (that is, he goes along with what everyone agrees is right) and decides that his loyalty to Hnæf must outweigh his obligation to Finn. (In any case, Tolkien points out that we do not see Hengest swearing any oath to Finn; we only see Finn swearing oaths to Hengest and the Danes.) When the spring comes, the Danes sail home and tell the story of the downfall of Hnæf. They return to Finn's stronghold in force. Hengest, having remained in Frys-Land under the guise of upholding the terms of the peace-treaty, opens the gates to the invaders and the Danes sack Finn's stronghold, kill Finn and all his men, loot and burn the city and return home, taking Hildeburh with them.
Tolkien, J. R. R.; Bliss, Alan J. (ed.): Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York (1983). ISBN 0-395-33193-5
Glossary for Beowulf
To take revenge for somebody else. So to avenge a friend who has been killed would be to kill his killer.
A large mound of earth with a grave inside for burying a person and his belongings. A barrow often looks like a small hill. It is by digging in some of these that many Anglo-Saxon objects have been found.
A battle standard is the pole and the banner which a lord's army carries into battle.
This is a feud started by an act of bloodshed when somebody is killed. Because of this killing, two groups or tribes are at war as more and more killings take place in revenge for those who have died.
Nowadays we might say that boasting is a big-headed thing to do, but to the Anglo-Saxons it meant something quite different. A boast was a kind of promise a warrior made in front of other people. When a warrior had boasted that he would carry out a brave action and everyone had heard it, then he had to do it. If he succeeded (or even if he died trying) his would be talked about and praised. If he did not, he would not be respected any more.
This is another word for skeleton or rib-cage.
Craftsmen are people who are clever at making things. To make the mead-hall Hrothgar has to find people who are skilful at building with wood, and at carving and decorating.
A drinking horn was usually made from the horn of a wild ox. It was polished and decorated and used to hold wine, beer or mead.
Fame was very important to warrior tribes like the Geats and Danes. Life was short - many died in battle or from disease. What mattered was for the things you had done while you were alive to be spoken about and praised when you were dead. Then you would have created something that lasted longer than a life. You could win fame by brave deeds in battle or by being a wise adviser, for making good decisions or bringing about peace. You could win ill-fame too, of course, for leaving your friends in battle or being a bad lord or murdering your relatives. Fame was the way you were remembered and spoken of, the way your story was told.
A feud is a state of hatred and killing between two groups of people. It is a war by one family or tribe against another. Often a feud can begin when a member of one tribe kills a member of another in a quarrel. The dead person's friends and family kill the killer, or some member of his tribe, and so it goes on. Feuds are very difficult to stop because too many people on each side want revenge for their loved ones who have died.
Finn the Frisian and the Fight at Finnsburgh
This story was well known and liked in Anglo-Saxon times. Finn, the lord of the Frisians, married Hildeburgh, a Dane, to end a feud between their two tribes. But when Hildeburgh's brother came with a group of Danes to visit her, the Frisians attacked them in the night. This was especially wicked, as the Danes were guests in the Frisians' home. Hildeburgh's brother and her son were killed. The rest of the Danes at last managed to get revenge and in the Fight at Finnsburgh, Finn was killed. Hildeburgh was taken home by the Danes.
Franks, Frisians, Swedes and Hetware
The Franks, the Frisians and the Hetware were tribes living in the areas of Europe that are now part of Germany, Holland and Belgium. The Swedes were the neighbouring tribe of the Geats, living in the north of the country we now call Sweden. Later on, the Franks moved south into what is now France. The word France comes from their name.
This is a huge pile of wood for burning a body at a funeral. The ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons believed the soul left the body when it was burnt, not at the moment when the person died. Sometimes a person's armour and other treasures would be burnt with them.
In Anglo-Saxon times land was measured in hides. One hide of land was supposed to be enough to meet the needs of one family - for them to live on, grow crops and graze animals. So 7000 hides of land is a very large gift of land indeed.
The hilt of a sword is the part you hold it by. The hilts of Anglo-Saxon swords were often beautifully decorated with jewels and complicated patterns.
These are places or buildings especially for worshipping. Anglo-Saxon holy places were often in woods or on hills. When the Anglo-Saxons became Christians they often built churches on the same spot. So many of the churches you can see today actually stand on the holy places of the Anglo-Saxons.
The swords in Anglo-Saxon stories often have names. Beowulf's own sword is called Naegling (you will read about it later).An Anglo-Saxon warrior depended on his sword to save his life and kill enemies. The Anglo-Saxons admired swords for being beautifully decorated and well-made things. A sword often lasted longer than the life of its owner and was handed down from father to son. A sword could see more battles than one person could. So a sword that had been successful many times seemed to have magical powers to protect its owner and destroy his enemies. This is why it had a character and a name of its own.
hunting with his hawk
A hawk is a bird with hooked beak which kills small animals (like rabbits) for food. An eagle is a type of hawk. Hawks can be caught and trained to hunt animals for humans. This sport was popular in Anglo-Saxon times and for hundreds of years after.
This is another word for relative. Beowulf is Hygelac's nephew.
mailcoats (also sometimes called mail-shirts in the story).
Anglo-Saxon warriors wore mailcoats to protect their bodies from spears, arrows and swords. They were made of hundreds of tiny metal rings linked tightly together so that the sharp points of weapons could not easily find a way through.
mail-shirt (also called mailcoat in this story)
This is made of tiny metal rings linked tightly together. It covers the body to protect it from spears, swords and arrows.
In Anglo-Saxon society the highest position was that of the lord or king. Then came noblemen (called thanes or eldermen - these were usually warriors or advisers). There were also the farmers (called churls) and slaves. A slave could be bought and sold like a cow or a pig. Some slaves were born the children of slaves. Some became slaves after being taken prisoner in wars. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery just to have enough to eat. Sometimes when the slave-owner died, their will said that their slaves should be set free.
The word 'mead-hall' means a place for drinking 'mead'. Mead is a drink made from honey. The Anglo-Saxons liked to drink mead, wine and beer. The mead-hall was a building where everyone could meet together.
A mere is another word for a lake or pool. You can still see this word in place-names today - for example, Lake Windemere in the Lake District.
ninth hour of the day
The Anglo-Saxons counted the hours of the day beginning from 6 o'clock in the morning. So the ninth hour is 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
These are gifts that people make to please the gods so that they will answer their prayers. When the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons still lived in Sweden and Denmark they sometimes killed people to give them as offerings to the gods. These offerings - or 'human sacrifices' - were to please the earth-goddess. The bodies of some of these people have been found in large bogs in Sweden and Denmark. The bodies did not decay because the peat in the bogs kept them whole.
olden days of the Giants
This is a story from the Bible, which says that once a race of Giants lived on the earth. They were at war with God. The people grew wicked too, so God sent a great flood to punish and destroy all this wickedness. Noah and his family were saved, along with two animals of every kind, because Noah kept them safe in his Ark while the earth was flooded. Grendel and his mother are supposed to be related to this race of Giants who once ruled the earth.
Your reputation is how you are known among your group (or tribe). You can have a reputation for being a coward, or clever, or funny. It is what people know or say about you. A warrior's reputation must be that he is brave and willing to face danger. Unferth loses his reputation as a brave warrior because he does not dare to face Grendel's Mother. For the Anglo-Saxons, reputation was connected to fame (how a person was talked about after he or she was dead) and was very important.
As you know from the story, the lord often gave gifts to his warriors at feasts.
The 'swan's riding-place' is the sea. The Anglo-Saxons liked to make word-pictures like this, especially in poetry. For example, the sun is called 'the sky's candle' later in the story. The Anglo-Saxons used at least fifteen different words for the sea - another example is 'whale-road'.
Tapestries are pictures sewn onto cloth or woven out of thread. Large tapestries often hang on the walls in castles.
The tapestry was made soon after William the Conqueror and the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066. It was made by Anglo-Saxons and tells the story of their defeat by the Normans
The group of soldiers on guard against enemies is often called the Watch. Here, the man in charge of these soldiers looking out for raiders from the sea is called the Watchman.
The 'whale-road' is the sea. The Anglo-Saxons liked to make word-pictures like this, especially in poetry. For example, the sun is called 'the sky's candle' later in the story. The Anglo-Saxons used at least fifteen different words for the sea - another example is 'swan's riding-place'.