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Lay for the Day 11th August

991: a large band of Viking marauders meets a force of East Saxons under the command of Byrhtnoth, on the River Blackwater at Maldon in Essex. Gallantly allowing the invaders to cross the stream unmolested in order to make the fight fairer, the natives are subsequently defeated, as commemorated in a great Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. (The date of Bryhtnoth’s death in battle is recorded as 11th August in an early 11th-century chronicle.)
In the north-west of England, in what is now Cumbria, the Vikings were already well established, as evidenced by the four towering sandstone crosses they erected in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Gosforth, about 50 years before that southern fight. Of the four, only this one survives.



from A Wild Inhabitation

II.Gosforth Cross

They grounded their beast- and bird-headed craft
on Braystones’ milling pebbles, at Silecroft
overlooked by dunes, on a beach of suave
slick mud up an inlet at Ravenglass.

A summer day. Standing on a green grave
watching a breeze slowly heave and then pass,
stifled among yews, looking at their cross –
carved rust-red sandstone honed on hot blue sky.

The fells mount up, Atlantic pitch and toss
and swell of rock. Their mark is the long I,
five yards tall and ten centuries across.

They made land in ships of dust. When the heart
describes itself, its pride is raised in art
and stands by lies though all of time’s denial.

 

John Gibbens
from A Wild Inhabitation

 

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar