The Rise of the North


I. ENGLAND: 577–1066

1. Alfred and the Danes: 577–1016

AFTER the battle of Deorham (577) the Anglo-Saxon-Jute conquest of England met with only minor resistance; and soon the invaders divided the country. The Jutes organized a kingdom in Kent; the Angles formed three kingdoms—Mercia, Northumberland, and East Anglia; the Saxons another three in Wessex, Essex, and Sussex—i.e., West, East, and South Saxony. These seven little kingdoms, and others smaller still, provided the “history of England” until King Egbert of Wessex, by arms or subtlety, united most of them under his rule (829).

But even before this new Angle-land was molded by the Saxon king, those Danish invasions had begun which were to rack the island from sea to sea, and threaten its nascent Christianity with a wild and letterless paganism. “In the year 787,” says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “came three ships to the West Saxon shores … and they slew folk. These were the first ships of Danish men that sought land of Engle folk.” In 793 another Danish expedition raided Northumberland, sacked the famous monastery of Lindisfarne, and murdered its monks. In 794 the Danes entered the Wear and pillaged Wear-mouth and Jarrow, where the learned Bede had labored half a century before. In 838 the raids attacked East Anglia and Kent; in 839 a pirate fleet of 350 vessels moored in the Thames, while their crews pillaged Canterbury and London. In 867 Northumberland was conquered by a force of Danes and Swedes; thousands of “English” men were slain, monasteries were sacked, libraries were scattered or destroyed. York and its neighborhood, whose school had given Alcuin to Charlemagne, were reduced to destitution and ignorance. By 871 most of England north of the Thames was subject to the invaders. In that year a Danish army under Guthrum marched southward to attack Reading, the Wessex capital; Ethelred the king and his young brother Alfred met the Danes at Ashdown and won; but in a second engagement at Merton Ethelred was mortally wounded, and the English fled.

Alfred mounted the throne of West Saxony at the age of twenty-two (871). Asser describes him as then illiteratus, which could mean either illiterate or Latinless.1 He was apparently epileptic, and suffered a seizure at his wedding feast; but he is pictured as a vigorous hunter, handsome and graceful, and surpassing his brothers in wisdom and martial skill. A month after his accession he led his little army against the Danes at Wilton, and was so badly defeated that to save his throne he had to buy peace from the foe; but in 878 he won a decisive victory at Ethandun (Edington). Half the Danish host crossed the Channel to raid weakened France; the rest, by the Peace of Wedmore, agreed to confine themselves to northeastern England in what came to be called the Danelaw.

Alfred, says the not quite reliable Asser, led his army into East Anglia “for the sake of plunder,” conquered the land, and—perhaps to unify England against the Danes—made himself king of East Anglia and Mercia as well as of Wessex. Then, like a lesser Charlemagne, he turned to the work of restoration and government. He reorganized the army, built a navy, established a common law for his three kingdoms, reformed the administration of justice, provided legal protection for the poor, built or rebuilt cities and towns, and erected “royal halls and chambers with stone and wood” for his growing governmental staff.2 An eighth of his revenue was devoted to relief of the poor; another eighth to education. At Reading, his capital, he established a palace school, and gave abundantly to the educational and religious work of churches and monasteries. He recalled sadly how in his boyhood “the churches stood filled with treasures and books … before they had all been ravaged and burned” by the Danes; now “so clean was learning decayed among English folk that very few there were … that could understand their rituals in English, or translate aught out of Latin.”3 He sent abroad for scholars—for Bishop Asser from Wales, for Erigena from France, and for many others—to come and instruct his people and himself. He mourned that he had had so little time for reading, and he now gave himself like a monk to pious and learned studies. He still found reading difficult; but “night and day he commanded men to read to him.” Recognizing, almost before any other European, the rising importance of the vernacular tongues, he arranged to have certain basic books rendered into English; and he himself laboriously translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Orosius’ Universal History, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. Again like Charlemagne, he gathered the songs of his people, taught them to his children, and joined the minstrels of his court in singing them.

In 894 a fresh invasion of Danes reached Kent; the Danes of the Danelaw sent them reinforcements; and the Welsh—Celtic patriots still unconquered by the Anglo-Saxons—signed an alliance with the Danes. Alfred’s son Edward fell upon the pirate camp and destroyed it, and Alfred’s new navy dispersed the Danish fleet (899). Two years later the King died, having lived only fifty-two years, and reigned for twenty-eight. We cannot compare him with a giant like Charlemagne, for the area of his enterprise was small; but in his moral qualities—his piety, unassuming rectitude, temperance, patience, courtesy, devotion to his people, anxiety to further education—he offered to the English nation a model and stimulus that it gratefully received and soon forgot. Voltaire admired him perhaps immoderately: “I do not think that there ever was in the world a man more worthy of the regard of posterity than Alfred the Great.”4

Toward the end of the tenth century the Scandinavian attack on England was resumed. In 991 a force of Norwegian Vikings under Olaf Tryggvesson raided the English coast, plundered Ipswich, and defeated the English at Maldon. Unable to resist further, the English under King Ethelred (978–1013, called the Redeless—counselless—because he refused the advice of his nobles) bought off the Danes with successive gifts of 10,000, 16,000, 24,000, 36,000, and 48,000 pounds of silver, which were raised by the first general taxes levied in England—the shameful and ruinous Danegeld. Ethelred, seeking foreign aid, negotiated an alliance with Normandy, and married Emma, daughter of the Norman Duke Richard I; from that union would spring much history. Believing or pretending that the Danes of England were plotting to kill him and the nation’s Witenagemot or parliament, Ethelred secretly ordered a general massacre of the Danes everywhere in the island (1002). We do not know how thoroughly the order was carried out; probably all male Danes of arms-bearing age in England were slaughtered, and some women; among these was the sister of King Sweyn of Denmark. Swearing revenge, Sweyn invaded England in 1003, and again in 1013, this time with all his forces. Ethelred’s nobles deserted him, he fled to Normandy, and Sweyn was master and king of England. When Sweyn died (1014) Ethelred renewed the struggle; the nobles again deserted him, and made their peace with Sweyn’s son Cnut (1015). Ethelred died in besieged London; his son Edmund “Ironside” fought bravely, but was overwhelmed by Cnut at Assandun (1016). Cnut was now accepted by all England as its king, and the Danish Conquest was complete.

2. Anglo-Saxon Civilization: 1066

The Conquest was only political; Anglo-Saxon institutions, speech, and ways had in six centuries sunk such roots that to this day neither the government nor the character nor the language of the English can be understood without them. In the newsless intervals between war and war, crime and crime, there had been a reorganization of tillage and trade, a resurrection of literature, a slow formation of order and law.

History gives no ground for the delusion that Anglo-Saxon England was a paradise of free peasants living in democratic village communities. The leaders of the Anglo-Saxon hosts appropriated the land; by the seventh century a few families owned two thirds of the soil of England;5 by the eleventh century most towns were included in the property of a thane (noble), a bishop, or the king. During the Danish invasions many peasants exchanged ownership for protection; by 1000 the bulk of them paid rent in produce or labor to some lord.6 There were tun-moots or town meetings, and folk-moots or hundred-moots that served as assemblies and courts for a shire; but only landowners were allowed to attend these gatherings; and after the eighth century they declined in authority and frequency, and were largely replaced by the manorial courts of the lords. The government of England lay essentially in the national Witenagemot (“meeting of the wise”)—a relatively small assemblage of thanes, bishops, and the leading ministers of the Crown. Without the consent of this incipient Parliament no English king could be chosen or sustained, or add a rood to the personal estates from which he derived his regular revenues; without it he could not legislate or tax or judge or wage war or make peace.7The only resource of the monarchy against this aristocracy lay in an informal alliance of throne and Church. The English state before and after the Norman Conquest depended upon the clergy for public education, social order, national unity, even for political administration. St. Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, became chief counselor under kings Edmund (940-6) and Edred (946-55). He defended the middle and lower classes against the nobles, boldly criticized monarchs and princes, was exiled by King Edwig (955-9), was recalled by Edgar (959-75), and secured the crown for Edward the Martyr (975-8). He built St. Peter’s Church at Glastonbury, encouraged education and art, died (988) as Archbishop of Canterbury, and was revered as England’s greatest saint before Thomas à Becket.

In this centrifugal government national law developed slowly, and the old Germanic law, modified in phrase and circumstance, sufficed. Compurgation, wergild, and ordeal survived, but trial by combat was unknown. The wergild varied instructively in Anglian law: the fine or composition-money for killing a king was 30,000 thrimsas ($13,000); a bishop, 15,000; a thane or a priest, 2,000; a ceorl or free peasant, 266. By Saxon law a man paid one or two shillings for inflicting a wound an inch long, thirty shillings for slicing off an ear; it should be added, however, that a shilling could buy a sheep. By the laws of Ethelbert an adulterer was obliged to pay the husband a fine and buy him another wife.8 Any person who resisted a court order was declared an “out-law”; his goods were forfeited to the king, and anyone might kill him with impunity. In some cases wergild was not admitted, and severe punishments were inflicted: enslavement, flogging, castration, amputation—of hands, feet, upper lip, nose, or ear—and death by hanging, beheading, burning, stoning, drowning, or precipitation into an abyss.9

The economy, like the law, was primitive, and far less developed than in Roman Britain. Much work had been done in clearance and drainage, but England in the ninth century was still half forest, heath, or fen; and wild beasts—bears, boars, wolves—still lurked in the woods. The farms were tilled mostly by bondmen or slaves. Men might fall into slavery through debt or crime; wives and children could be sold into slavery by husbands or fathers in need; and all the children of a slave, even if begotten by freemen, were slaves The owner might kill his slave at will. He might make a female slave pregnant, and then sell her. The slave could not enter a suit at court. If a stranger slew him, the modest wergild went to his master. If he fled and was caught he might be flogged to death.10The main commerce of Bristol was in slaves. Nearly all the population was rural; towns were hamlets, and cities were towns.* London, Exeter, York, Chester, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Norwich, Worcester, Winchester were small, but grew rapidly after Alfred’s time. When Bishop Mellitus came to preach in London in 601 he found only “a scanty and heathen population”11 in what had been a metropolis in Roman days. In the eighth century the city grew again as a strategic point commanding the Thames; under Canute it became the national capital.

Industry usually worked for a local market; weaving and embroidery, however, were more advanced, and exported their products to the Continent. Transport was difficult and dangerous; foreign commerce was slight. The use of cattle as a medium of exchange survived till the eighth century, but in that century several kings issued a silver coinage of shillings and pounds. In tenth-century England four shillings could buy a cow, six an ox.12 Wages were commensurately low. The poor lived in wooden thatched huts on a vegetarian diet; wheat bread and meat were for the well-to-do, or a Sunday feast. The rich adorned their rude castles with figured hangings, warmed themselves with furs, made their garments gay with embroidery, and brightened their persons with gems.

Manners and morals were not as prim or refined as in some later periods of English history. We hear much about rudeness, coarseness, brutality, lying, treachery, theft, and other hardy perennials; the buccaneering Normans of 1066, including some bastards, professed to be amazed at the low moral and cultural level of their victims. The moist climate persuaded the Anglo-Saxons to heavy eating and hard drinking, and the “ale feast” was their notion—like ours—of a convention or a holiday. St. Boniface, with picturesque exaggeration, described the eighth-century English, “both Christians and pagans, as refusing to have legitimate wives, and continuing to live in lechery and adultery after the manner of neighing horses and braying asses”;13 and in 756 he wote to King Ethelbald:

Your contempt for lawful matrimony, were it for chastity’s sake, would be laudable; but since you wallow in luxury, and even in adultery with nuns, it is disgraceful and damnable…. We have heard that almost all the nobles of Mercia follow your example, desert their lawful wives, and live in guilty intercourse with adulteresses and nuns…. Give heed to this: if the nation of the Angles,… despising lawful matrimony, gives free indulgence to adultery, a race ignoble and scorning God must necessarily issue from such unions, and will destroy the country by their abandoned manners.14

In the earlier centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule the husband could divorce his wife at will, and remarry. The Synod of Hertford (673) denounced this custom, and gradually the influence of the Church promoted the stability of unions. Women were held in high honor, though this did not preclude their occasional enslavement. They received little book education, but found this no handicap in attracting and influencing men. Kings patiently wooed proud women, and consulted their wives on public policy.15 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled, as regent and queen, gave Mercia for a generation effective and conscientious government. She built cities, planned military campaigns, and captured Derby, Leicester, and York from the Danes. “From the difficulties experienced in her first labor,” says William of Malmesbury, “she ever afterward refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such unpleasant consequences.”16 It was in this period (c. 1040) that there lived in Mercia, as wife of its ruling Earl Leofric, the lady Godgifa, who, as Godiva, played an attractive role in legend, and earned a statue in Coventry.*

Education, like everything else, suffered from the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, and slowly recovered after the conversion of the conquerors. Benedict Biscop opened a monastic school at Wearmouth about 660; Bede was one of its graduates. Archbishop Egbert established at York (735) a cathedral school and library that became the chief seat of secondary education in England. These and other schools made England in the second half of the eighth century the leader of European learning north of the Alps.

The fine devotion of the monastic educators shines out in the greatest scholar of his time, the Venerable Bede (673-735). He summed up his life with modest brevity:

Bede, the servant of Christ, a priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow. Who, being born in the territory of that monastery, was delivered up by my kinsfolk, when I was seven years of age, to be brought up by the most reverend abbot Benedict [Biscop]; and from that time spending all the days of my life in the same monastery, I have applied all my diligence to the study of the Scriptures; and observing the regular discipline, and keeping the daily service of singing in the church, I have taken delight always either to learn, or to teach, or to write…. In the nineteenth year of my life I was made deacon; in my thirtieth I became a priest… and from that time until the fifty-ninth year of my age I have employed myself upon Holy Scripture, and in these following works …17

—all in Latin. They included Biblical commentaries, homilies, a chronology of world history, treatises on grammar, mathematics, science, and theology, and above all, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Church History of the English Nation (731). Unlike most monastic histories, this is no dry chronicle. Perhaps, towards the end, it is too heavy with miracles, and always it is innocently credulous, as befitted a mind immured from the age of seven; nevertheless it is a clear and captivating narrative, rising now and then to a simple eloquence, as in the description of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest.18 Bede had an intellectual conscience; he took great pains with chronology, and is generally accurate; he specified his sources, sought firsthand evidence, and quoted pertinent and available documents. “I would not,” he said, “that my children should read a lie”19—meaning, we hope, the 600 pupils whom he taught. He died four years after penning the above autobiography; and all the tenderness and faith of medieval piety are in its concluding lines:

And I beseech Thee, merciful Jesus, that to whom Thou hast of Thy goodness given sweetly to drink in the words of the knowledge of Thee, Thou wilt also vouchsafe, in Thy loving kindness, that he may one day come to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom, and stand forever before Thy face.

Bede notes that five languages were spoken in his England: English, British (Celtic), Irish, Pict (Scotch), and Latin. “English” was the language of the Angles, but it differed little from Saxon, and was intelligible to Franks, Norwegians, and Danes; these five peoples spoke varieties of German, and English grew out of German speech. As early as the seventh century there was a considerable Anglo-Saxon literature. We must judge it largely from fragments, for most of it perished when Christianity brought in the Latin script (replacing the runic characters of Anglo-Saxon writing), when the Danish Conquest destroyed so many libraries, and when the Norman Conquest almost swamped the English language with French words. Moreover, many of these Anglo-Saxon poems were pagan, and had been transmitted orally through generations of “gleemen” or minstrels who were a bit loose in life and speech, and whom monks and priests were forbidden to hear. It was probably an eighth-century monk, however, who wrote one of the oldest extant Anglo-Saxon fragments—a verse paraphrase of Genesis, not quite as inspired as the original. Interpolated into the poem is the translation of a German narrative of the Fall; here the verse comes to life, largely because Satan is represented as a defiant and passionate rebel; perhaps Milton found here a hint for his Lucifer. Some of the Anglo-Saxon poems are elegies; so “The Wanderer” tells of happy days gone by in the baronial hall; now the lord is dead, “all this firm-set earth becomes empty,” and “sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things”;20 not even Dante improved the expression of this idea. Usually these old poems sing blithely and lustily of war; the “Lay of the Battle of Maldon” (c. 1000) sees only heroism in the English defeat; and the old warrior Byrhtwold, standing over his slain lord, “taught courage” to the overwhelmed Saxons in words presaging Malory:

Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, mood shall be the more, as our might lessens. Here our prince lies low, they have hewn him to death! Grief and sorrow forever on the man that leaves this war-play! I am old of years, but hence I will not go; I think to lay me down by the side of my lord, by the side of the man I cherished.21

The longest and noblest of the Anglo-Saxon poems, Beowulf, was composed, presumably in England, in the seventh or eighth century, and is preserved in a British Museum manuscript dating back to 1000. Its 3183 lines are apparently the complete work. The verse is rhymeless but alliterative antistrophic rhythm, in a West Saxon dialect quite unintelligible to us today. The story seems childish: Beowulf, prince of the Geats (Goths?) in southern Sweden, crosses the sea to free the Danish King Hrothgar from the dragon Grendel; he overcomes Grendel, and even Grendel’s mother; sails back to Geatland, and reigns justly for fifty years. A third dragon, a firedrake, now appears, and ravages the land of the Geats; Beowulf attacks it, and is seriously wounded, his comrade Wiglaf comes to his aid, and together they kill the beast. Beowulf dies of his wound, and is burned on a funeral pyre. The tale is not so naïve as this sounds; the dragons of medieval literature represent the wild beasts that lurked in the woods about the towns of Europe; the terrified imagination of the people might be forgiven for conceiving them fantastically; and it gratefully wove legends about the men who conquered such animals, and made the hamlets safe.

Certain passages of the poem are incongruously Christian, as if some kindly monkish editor had sought to preserve a heathen masterpiece by inserting here and there a pious line. But the tone and incidents are purely pagan. It was life and love and battle on the earth that interested these “fair women and brave men,” not some strifeless* paradise beyond the grave. At the outset, when the Danish king Scyld is buried in the Viking style, in a boat pushed crewless out to sea, the author adds: “Men cannot tell for a truth who received that burden.” But it was not a gay paganism. A somber tone pervades the poem, and enters even into the feasting in Hrothgar’s hall. Through the lilt and sigh of the flowing lines we catch the plaint of the gleeman’s harp.

Then Beowulf sat down on a seat by the wall … he talked of his wound, of the hurt sore unto death; he knew well that he had ended his days…. Then men bold in battle rode about the burial mound; They were minded to utter their grief, to lament the King, to make a chant and speak of the man; they exalted his heroic life, and praised his valorous deeds with all their strength…. They said that among the kings of the world he was the mildest of men and most kindly, most gentle to his people, and most eager for praise…. Thus it is fitting that a man should extol his friendly lord … and should love him heartily, when he must needs depart from his body and pass away.22

Beowulf is probably the oldest extant poem in the literature of Britain; but Caedmon’s (d. 680) is the oldest name. We know him only through a pretty passage in Bede. In the monastery of Whitby, says the Ecclesiastical History, 23 was a simple brother who found it so hard to sing that whenever his turn came to chant he fled to some hiding place. One night as he lay asleep in his stable lair, it seemed to him that an angel appeared and said: “Caedmon, sing me something!” The monk protested that he could not; the angel commanded; Caedmon tried, and was startled at his success. In the morning he recalled the song, and sang it; thereafter he lisped in numbers, and turned Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels into verse “put together,” says Bede, “with very great sweetness and pricking of the heart.” Nothing remains of them except a few lines translated into Latin by Bede. A year later Cynewulf (b. o. 750), minstrel at a Northum -brian court, tried to realize the story by versifying divers religious narratives—“Christ,” “Andreas,” “Juliana”; but these works, contemporary with Beowulf, are by comparison dead with rhetoric and artifice.

Literary prose comes later than poetry in all literatures, as intellect matures long after fancy blooms; men talk prose for centuries “without knowing it,” before they have leisure or vanity to mold it into art. Alfred is the first clear figure in the prose literature of England; his translations and prefaces were eloquent through simple sincerity; and it was he who, by dint of editing and adding, transformed the “Bishop’s Roll,” kept by the clerks of Winchester cathedral, into the most vigorous and vivid sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—the first substantial work of English prose. His teacher Asser may have written most of the Life of Alfred; perhaps it is a later compilation (c. 974);24 in any event it is an early instance of the readiness with which Englishmen used English instead of Latin for works of history or theology, while the Continent still blushed to write such dignities in the “vulgar” speech.

Even amid poetry and war men and women found time and spirit to give form to significance, and beauty to things of use. Alfred established a school of art at Athelney, brought to it from all quarters monks skilled in arts and crafts, and “continued, during his frequent wars,” says Asser, “to teach his workers in gold, and his artificers of all kinds.”25 Dunstan, not content with being both a statesman and a saint, worked cleverly in metal and gold, was a good musician, and built a pipe organ for his cathedral at Glastonbury. Art work in wood, metal, and cloisonné enamel was carried on; gem-cutters joined with carvers to make the jeweled and sculptured crosses of Ruthwell and Bewcastle (c. 700); a famous equestrian statue of King Cadwallo (d. 677) was cast in brass near Ludgate; women made coverlets and tapestries and embroideries “of a most delicate thread”;26 the monks of Winchester illuminated with radiant color a tenth-century benedictional. Winchester itself and York built stone cathedrals as early as 635; Benedict Biscop brought the Lombard style to England from the church that he built at Wearmouth in 674; and Canterbury rebuilt in 950 the cathedral that had survived from Roman times. We know from Bede that Benedict Biscop’s church was adorned with paintings made in Italy, “so that all who entered, even if ignorant of letters, whichever way they turned, should either contemplate the ever-lovely aspect of Christ and His saints … or, having the Last Judgment before their eyes, might remember to examine themselves more strictly.”27 In general the seventh century saw an exuberance of construction in Britain; the Anglo-Saxon Conquest was complete, the Danish had not begun; and architects, who had heretofore built in wood, now had the resources and spirit to raise great shrines in stone. Yet it must be confessed that Benedict imported his architects, glassmakers, and goldsmiths from Gaul; Bishop Wilfrid brought sculptors and painters from Italy to decorate his seventh-century church at Hexham; and the beautifully illuminated Gospel Book of Lindisfarne (c. 730) was the work of Irish monks transplanted by the eremitical or missionary zeal to that bleak isle off the Northumberland coast. The coming of the Danes ended this brief renascence; and not until the sound establishment of Cnut’s power did English architecture resume its climb to majesty.

3. Between Conquests: 1016–11066

Cnut was more than a conqueror; he was a statesman. His early reign was tarnished with cruelty: he banished the children of Edmund Ironsides, and had Edmund’s brother murdered to forestall an Anglo-Saxon restoration. But then, noting that the widow and sons of King Ethelred were alive at Rouen, he cut many knots by offering Emma his hand in marriage (1017). She was thirty-three, he twenty-three. She consented, and at one stroke Cnut secured a wife, an alliance with Emma’s brother the Duke of Normandy, and a safe throne. From that moment his reign became a blessing for England. He brought under discipline the disorderly nobles who had broken the unity and spirit of England. He protected the island from further invasion, and gave it twelve years of peace. He accepted Christianity, built many churches, raised a shrine at Assandun to commemorate the Anglo-Saxons, as well as the Danes, who had fought there, and himself made a pilgrimage to Edmund’s tomb. He promised to follow the existing laws and institutions of England, and kept his word with two exceptions: he insisted that county government, which had been debased by autocratic nobles, should be under his own appointees; and he replaced the archbishop with a lay minister as chief counselor to the Crown. He developed an administrative staff and civil service that gave unprecedented continuity to the government. After the insecure early years of his rule, nearly all his appointees were Englishmen. He labored constantly in the tasks of state, and repeatedly visited every part of his kingdom to supervise the administration of justice and the execution of the laws. He came in as a Dane, and died as a Englishman. He was King of Denmark as well as of England, and in 1028 he became also King of Norway; but it was from Winchester that he ruled this triple realm.

The Danish Conquest continued that long process of foreign invasion and racial mixture which culminated in the Norman Conquest and finally produced the English people. Celt and Gaul, Angle and Saxon and Jute, Dane and Norman, mingled their blood, in marriage or otherwise, to transform the undistinguished and uninitiative Briton of Roman days into the vocal buccaneers of Elizabeth’s time, and the silent world conquerors of later centuries. The Danes, like the Germans and the Norse, brought into England an almost mystic love of the sea, a willingness to accept its treacherous invitation to adventure and trade in distant lands. Culturally, the Danish invasions were a blight. Architecture marked time; the art of illumination decayed from 750 to 950; and the intellectual progress so promoted by Alfred was checked, even as in Gaul Norse raids were canceling the labors of Charlemagne.

Cnut might have repaired more of the damage his people had wrought had he been granted a longer life. But men wear out rapidly in war or government. Cnut died in 1035, aged forty. Norway at once threw off the Danish yoke; Harthacnut, Cnut’s son and appointed heir, had all he could do to protect Denmark against Norwegian invasion; another son, Harald Harefoot, ruled England for five years, then died; Harthacnut ruled it for two years, and passed away (1042). Before his death he summoned from Normandy the surviving son of Ethelred and Emma, and recognized this Anglo-Saxon stepbrother as heir to the English throne.

But Edward the Confessor (1042-66) was as much of a foreigner as any Dane. Carried to Normandy by his father at the age of ten, he had passed thirty years at the Norman court, brought up by Norman nobles and priests, and trained to a guileless piety. He brought to England his French speech, customs, and friends. These friends became high officials and prelates of the state, received royal grants, built Norman castles in England, showed their scorn for English language and ways, and began the Norman Conquest a generation before the Conqueror.

Only one Englishman could compete with them in influencing the mild and malleable King. Earl Godwin, governor of Wessex, and first counselor of the realm under Cnut, Harald, and Harthacnut, was a man of both wealth and wisdom, a master of patient diplomacy, of convincing eloquence and administrative skill; the first great lay statesman in English history. His experience in the government gave him an ascendancy over the King. His daughter Edith became Edward’s wife, and might have made Godwin grandfather to a king; but Edward begot no children. When Godwin’s son Tostig married Judith, daughter of the count of Flanders, and Godwin’s nephew Sweyn became ruler of Denmark, the Earl had forged by marriages a triple alliance that made him the strongest man in northern Europe, far more powerful than his King. Edward’s Norman friends roused him to jealousy; he deposed Godwin; the Earl fled to Flanders, while his son Harold went to Ireland and raised an army against the Confessor (1051). The English nobles, resenting the Norman ascendancy, invited Godwin to return, and pledged him the support of their arms. Harold invaded England, defeated the King’s troops, ravaged and plundered the southwest coast, and joined his father in an advance up the Thames. The populace of London rose to acclaim them; the Norman officials and prelates fled; a Witenagemot of English nobles and bishops gave Godwin a triumphant reception; and Godwin resumed his confiscated property and his political power (1052). A year later, exhausted with tribulation and victory, he died.

Harold was appointed Earl of Wessex, and succeeded in some measure to his father’s power. He was now thirty-one, tall, handsome, strong, gallant, reckless; merciless in war, generous in peace. In a whirlwind of bold campaigns he conquered Wales for England, and presented the head of the Welsh chieftain Gruffydd to the pleased and horrified King (1063). In a gentler phase of his impetuous career he poured out funds to build the abbey church at Waltham (1060), and to support the college that grew out of the cathedral school. All England beamed upon the romantic youth.

The great architectural event of Edward’s reign was the beginning (1055) of Westminster Abbey. While living in Rouen he had become familiar with the Norman style; now, in commissioning the abbey that was to be the shrine and tomb of England’s genius, he bade or let it be designed in Norman Romanesque, on the same lines as the magnificent abbey church which had been started only five years before at Jumièges; here again was a Norman conquest before William. Westminster Abbey was the beginning of an architectural efflorescence that would give England the finest Romanesque buildings in Europe.

In that abbey Edward was laid to rest early in the fateful year 1066. On January 6 the assembled Witenagemot elected Harold king. He had hardly been crowned when news came that William, Duke of Normandy, claimed the throne and was preparing war. Edward, said William, had in 1051 promised to bequeath him the English crown in gratitude for thirty years of protection in Normandy. Apparently the promise had been made,28 but Edward, regretting or forgetting it, had, shortly before his death, recommended Harold as his successor; in any case such a promise had no validity unless approved by the Witan. But, said William, Harold, on a visit to him at Rouen (date now unknown), had accepted knighthood from him, had become William’s “man,” owed him submission according to feudal law, and had promised to recognize and support him as heir to Edward’s throne. Harold admitted this pledge.29 But again no oath of his could bind the English nation; the representatives of that nation had freely chosen him for its king; and Harold now resolved to defend that choice. William appealed to the Pope; Alexander II, counseled by Hildebrand, condemned Harold as a usurper, excommunicated him and his adherents, and declared William the lawful claimant of the English throne; he blessed William’s proposed invasion, and sent him a consecrated banner and a ring containing, within a diamond, a hair of St. Peter’s head.30 Hildebrand was glad to set a precedent for the papal disposition of thrones and deposition of kings; ten years later he would apply the precedent to Henry IV of Germany; and it would come in handy in 1213 with King John. Lanfranc, Abbot of Bec, joined William in calling the people of Normandy—indeed of all countries—to a holy war against the excommunicated king.

The sins of Harold’s wild youth were now visited upon his benevolent maturity. His brother Tostig, long since exiled by the Witan, had not been recalled by Harold come to power. Tostig now allied himself with William, raised an army in the north, and persuaded King Harald Hardrada of Norway to join him by promising him the English throne. In September, 1066, as William’s armada of 1400 vessels sailed from Normandy, Tostig and Hardrada invaded Northumberland. York surrendered to them, and Hardrada was there crowned King of England. Harold rushed up with what troops he had, and defeated the northern invaders at Stamford Bridge (September 25); in that battle Tostig and Hardrada died. Harold moved south with a diminished force far too small to pit against William’s host, and every adviser bade him wait. But William was burning and harrowing southern England, and Harold felt bound to defend the soil that he once had ravaged but now loved. At Senlac, near Hastings, the two armies met (October 14), and fought for nine hours. Harold, his eye pierced by an arrow, fell blinded with blood, and was dismembered by Norman knights: one cut off his head, another a leg, another scattered Harold’s entrails over the field. When the English saw their captain fallen they fled. So great were the butchery and chaos that the monks who were later commissioned to find Harold’s body could not discover him until they led to the scene Edith Swansneck, who had been his mistress. She identified her lover’s mutilated body, and the fragments were buried in the church at Waltham that he had built. On Christmas Day, 1066, William I was crowned King of England.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!