Post-classical history

CHAPTER SEVEN

ALFRED THE GREAT

THE STORY OF ALFRED IS MADE KNOWN TO US IN SOME DETAIL in the pages of Asser, a monk of St. David’s, who became Bishop of Sherborne. The Bishop dwells naturally upon the religious and moral qualities of his hero; but we must also remember that, in spite of ill-health, he was renowned as a hunter, and that his father had taken him to Rome as a boy, so that he had a lively comprehension of the great world. Alfred began as second-in-command to his elder brother, the King. There were no jealousies between them, but a marked difference of temperament. Ethelred inclined to the religious view that faith and prayer were the prime agencies by which the heathen would be overcome. Alfred, though also devout, laid the emphasis upon policy and arms.

In earlier years the overlordship of Mercia had never been popular, and her kings had made the serious mistake of quarrelling with the See of Canterbury. When, in 825, the Mercian army, invading Wessex, was overthrown by Alfred’s grandfather, King Egbert, at Ellandun, near Swindon, all the South and East made haste to come to terms with the victor, and the union of Kent, the seat of the Primate, with Wessex, now the leading English kingdom, created a solid Southern block. This, which had been the aim of West Saxon policy for many generations, was achieved just in time to encounter the invasion from the North. And Wessex was strategically strong, with sharp ridges facing north, and none of those long, slow rivers up which the Danes used to steer their long-ships into the heart of Mercia. Wessex had moreover developed a local organisation which gave her exceptional resiliency under attack: the alderman at the head of the shire could act on his own account. The advantages of this system were later to be proved. Definite districts, each under an accepted commander, or governor, for civil and military purposes, constituted a great advance on the ancient tribal kingdoms, or the merely personal union of tribes under a single king. When the dynasties of Kent, Northumbria, and Mercia had disappeared all eyes turned to Wessex, where there was a royal house going back without a break to the first years of the Saxon settlement.

The Danes had occupied London, not then the English capital, but a town in the kingdom of Mercia, and their army had fortified itself at Reading. Moving forward, they met the forces of the West Saxons on the Berkshire downs, and here, in January 871, was fought the Battle of Ashdown. Both sides divided their forces into two commands. Ethelred tarried long at his devotions. The Vikings, with their brightly painted shields and banners, their finery and golden bracelets, made the West Saxons seem modest by contrast. As they slowly approached they clashed their shields and weapons and raised long, repeated, and defiant war-cries. Although archery was not much in use, missiles began to fly. The King was still at his prayers. God came first, he declared to those who warned him that the battle must soon be joined. “But Alfred,” according to Bishop Asser, who had the account from “truthful eyewitnesses,”

seeing the heathen had come quickly on to the field and were ready for battle . . . could bear the attacks of the enemy no longer, and he had to choose between withdrawing altogether or beginning the battle without waiting for his brother. At last, like a wild boar, he led the Christian forces boldly against the army of the enemy . . . in spite of the fact that the King had not yet arrived. And so, relying on God’s counsel and trusting to His help, he closed the shield-wall in due order and thereupon moved his standards against the enemy.1

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The fight was long and hard. King Ethelred, his spiritual duty done, soon joined his brother. “The heathens,” said the Bishop, “had seized the higher ground, and the Christians had to advance uphill. There was in that place a single stunted thorn tree which we have seen with our own eyes. Round about this tree, then, the opposing ranks met in conflict, with a great shouting from all men—one side bent on evil, the other side fighting for life and their loved ones and their native land.” At last the Danes gave way, and, hotly pursued, fled back to Reading. They fled till nightfall; they fled through the night and the next day, and the whole breadth of Ashdown—meaning the Berkshire hills—was strewn with their corpses, among which were found the body of one of the Viking kings and five of his jarls.

The results of this victory did not break the power of the Danish army; in a fortnight they were again in the field. But the Battle of Ashdown justly takes its place among historic encounters because of the greatness of the issue. If the West Saxons had been beaten all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy. Since they were victorious the hope still burned for a civilised Christian existence in this Island. This was the first time the invaders had been beaten in the field. The last of the Saxon kingdoms had withstood the assault upon it. Alfred had made the Saxons feel confidence in themselves again. They could hold their own in open fight. The story of this conflict at Ashdown was for generations a treasured memory of the Saxon writers. It was Alfred’s first battle.

All through the year 871 the two armies waged deadly war. King Ethelred soon fell sick and died. Although he had young children there was no doubt who his successor must be. At twenty-four Alfred became King, and entered upon a desperate inheritance. To and fro the fighting swayed, with varying fortunes. The Danes were strongly reinforced from overseas; “the summer army,” as it was called, “innumerable,” “eager to fight against the army of the West Saxons,” arrived to join them. Seven or eight battles were fought, and we are told the Danes usually held the field. At Wilton, in the summer, about a month after Alfred had assumed the crown, he sustained a definite defeat in the heart of his own country. His numbers had been worn down by death and desertion, and once again in the field the Vikings’ ruse of a feigned retreat was successful.

On the morrow of this misfortune Alfred thought it best to come to terms while he still had an army. We do not know the conditions, but there is no doubt that a heavy payment was among them. “The Saxons made peace with the heathen on the condition that they should depart from them, and this they did,” declares the Chronicle laconically. But as they took three or four months before retiring upon London it seems that they waited for the Danegeld to be paid. Nevertheless Alfred and his Saxons had in all this fighting convinced the Vikings of their redoubtable force. By this inglorious treaty and stubborn campaign Alfred secured five years in which to consolidate his power.

The reasons which led the Danes to make a truce with Alfred are hard to analyse at this date. They were certainly convinced that only by prolonged and bloody fighting could they master the West Saxons. Both sides liked war, and this had been ding-dong: there was little to show but scars and corpses on either side. But Alfred had always counted upon the invaders dividing, and the stresses at work within the heathen army justified his policy.

Still maintaining their grip on London, the Danes moved back to the Midlands, which were now in complete submission. “The Mercians made peace with the army.” Their king Burgred in 874 was driven overseas, and died in piety under the Papal compassion in Rome. “After his expulsion,” says Asser, “the heathen subjected the whole kingdom of the Mercians to their lordship.” They set up a local puppet, in a fashion which has often been imitated since, after he had given hostages and taken an oath “that he would not obstruct their wishes, and would be obedient in everything.”

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But now in the last quarter of the century a subtle, profound change came over the “Great Heathen Army.” Alfred and the men of Wessex had proved too stubborn a foe for easy subjugation. Some of the Danes wished to settle on the lands they already held; the rest were for continuing the war at a suitable moment till the whole country was conquered. Perhaps these two bodies acted in concert, the former providing a sure and solid base, the latter becoming an expeditionary force. Thus, after mauling the kingdom of Strathclyde and carrying off the stock and implements of agriculture nearly half of the sea-pirates settled themselves in Northumbria and East Anglia. Henceforward they began “to till the ground for a livelihood.” Here was a great change. We must remember their discipline and organisation. The ships’ companies, acting together, had hitherto fought ashore as soldiers. All their organisation of settlements was military. The sailors had turned soldiers, and the soldiers had turned yeomen. They preserved that spirit of independence, regulated only by comradeship and discipline for vital purposes, which was the life of the long-ship.

The whole of the East of England thus received a class of cultivator who, except for purposes of common defence, owed allegiance to none; who had won his land with the sword, and was loyal only to the army organisation which enabled him to keep it. From Yorkshire to Norfolk this sturdy, upstanding stock took root. As time passed they forgot the sea; they forgot the army; they thought only of the land—their own land. They liked the life. Although they were sufficiently skilful agriculturists, there was nothing they could teach the older inhabitants; they brought no new implements or methods, but they were resolved to learn.

They were not dependent wholly upon their own labour. They must have exploited the former possessors and their serfs. The distribution of the land was made around a unit which could support a family. What eight oxen could plough in a certain time under prescribed conditions, much disputed by students, became the measure of the holding. They worked hard themselves, but obviously they used the local people too.

Thus the Danish differs in many ways from the Saxon settlement four hundred years earlier. There was no idea of exterminating the older population. The two languages were not very different; the way of life, the methods of cultivation, very much the same. The colonists —for such they had now become—brought their families from Scandinavia, but also it is certain that they established human and natural relations with the expropriated English. The blood-stream of these vigorous individualists, proud and successful men of the sword, mingled henceforward in the Island race. A vivifying, potent, lasting, and resurgent quality was added to the breed. As modern steel is hardened by the alloy of special metals in comparatively small quantities, this strong strain of individualism, based upon land-ownership, was afterwards to play a persistent part, not only in the blood but in the politics of England. When in the reign of Henry II, after much disorder, great laws were made and royal courts of justice were opened descendants of these hardy farmers—not only “sokemen” or independent peasants, but much smaller folk—were found in a state of high assertiveness. The tribulations of another three hundred years had not destroyed their original firmness of character nor their deep attachment to the conquered soil. All through English history this strain continues to play a gleaming part.

The reformed and placated pirate-mariners brought with them many Danish customs. They had a different notation, which they would have been alarmed to hear described as the “duodecimal system.” They thought in twelves instead of tens, and in our own day in certain parts of East Anglia the expression “the long hundred” (i.e., 120) is heard on market-days.

They had a different view of social justice from that entertained by the manorialised Saxons. Their customary laws as they gradually took shape were an undoubted improvement upon the Saxon theme.

With East Anglia we enter the region within which Danish influence endured. Long before the Norman Conquest it had developed a distinctive form of rural society, which preserved many Scandinavian features, and in which the free man of peasant condition was holding his own successfully against the contemporary drift towards manorialism.2

Scandinavian England reared a free peasant population which the burdens of taxation and defence had made difficult in Wessex and English Mercia. And this population related itself so closely to the original invaders that students seek in the Domesday Book of the eleventh century for the means of estimating the size of the Viking armies in the ninth. We shall see presently the equitable, deferential terms which even after their final victory the Anglo-Saxon monarchs proffered to the districts settled by the Danes, known as the Danelaw. It remained only for conversion to Christianity to mingle these races inextricably in the soul and body of a nation. These considerations may aptly fill the five years’ breathing-space which Alfred had gained by courageous fighting and politic Danegeld. In this interval Halfdene, the Viking king, departed like Ivar from the scene. The tortured, plundered Church requited his atrocities by declaring that God punished him in the long run by madness and a smell which made his presence unendurable to his fellows.

At Lindisfarne, in Dane-ravaged Northumbria, a pathetic tale is told. The ruined monks quitted their devastated, polluted sanctuary and carried on their shoulders the body of St. Cuthbert and the bones of St. Aidan. After seven years of pilgrimage by land and sea they established themselves in a new patrimony of St. Cuthbert as Chester-le-Street. The veneration felt throughout the North for St. Cuthbert brought such wealth to his see that in 995 its bishops began to build a new cathedral on the rock at Durham. Thither St. Cuthbert’s bones were taken, and so great was his prestige that until the nineteenth century the Bishops of Durham were Prince-Bishops, exercising immense power in North-Eastern England.

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Alfred’s dear-bought truce was over. Guthrum, the new war-leader of the mobile and martial part of the heathen army, had formed a large design for the subjugation of Wessex. He operated by sea and land. The land army marched to Wareham, close to Portland Bill, where the sea army joined him in Poole harbour. In this region they fortified themselves, and proceeded to attack Alfred’s kingdom by raid and storm from every quarter. The prudent King sought peace and offered an indemnity. At the same time it seems probable that he had hemmed in the land army very closely at Wareham. The Danes took the gold, and “swore upon the Holy Ring” they would depart and keep a faithful peace. With a treachery to which all adjectives are unequal they suddenly darted away and seized Exeter. Alfred, mounting his infantry, followed after, but arrived too late. “They were in the fortress, where they could not be come at.” But let all heathen beware of breaking oaths! A frightful tempest smote the sea army. They sought to join their comrades by sea. They were smitten in the neighbourhood of Swanage by the elements, which in those days were believed to be personally directed by the Almighty. A hundred and twenty ships were sunk, and upwards of five thousand of these perjured marauders perished as they deserved. Thus the whole careful plan fell to pieces, and Alfred, watching and besetting Exeter, found his enemies in the summer of 877 in the mood for a new peace. They swore it with oaths of still more compliant solemnity, and they kept it for about five months.

Then in January 878 occurred the most surprising reversal of Alfred’s fortunes. His headquarters and Court lay at Chippenham, in Wiltshire. It was Twelfth Night, and the Saxons, who in these days of torment refreshed and fortified themselves by celebrating the feasts of the Church, were off their guard, engaged in pious exercises, or perhaps even drunk. Down swept the ravaging foe. The whole army of Wessex, sole guarantee of England south of the Thames, was dashed into confusion. Many were killed. The most part stole away to their houses. A strong contingent fled overseas. Refugees arrived with futile appeals at the Court of France. Only a handful of officers and personal attendants hid themselves with Alfred in the marshes and forests of Somerset and the Isle of Athelney which rose from the quags. This was the darkest hour of Alfred’s fortunes. It was some months before he could even start a guerrilla. He led “with thanes and vassals an unquiet life in great tribulation. . . . For he had nothing wherewith to supply his wants except what in frequent sallies he could seize either stealthily or openly, both from the heathen and from the Christians who had submitted to their rule.” He lived as Robin Hood did in Sherwood Forest long afterwards.

This is the moment when those gleaming toys of history were fashioned for the children of every age. We see the warrior-king disguised as a minstrel harping in the Danish camps. We see him acting as a kitchen-boy to a Saxon housewife. The celebrated story of Alfred and the Cakes first appears in a late edition of Bishop Asser’s Life. It runs: “It happened one day that the countrywoman, who was the wife of the cowherd with whom King Alfred was staying, was going to bake bread, and the King was sitting by the fireside making ready his bow and arrows and other weapons. A moment came when the woman saw that her bread was burning; she rushed up and removed it from the fire, upbraiding the undaunted King with these words (recorded, strangely, in the original in Latin hexameters): ‘Alack, man, why have you not turned over the bread when you see that it is burning, especially as you so much like eating it hot.’ The misguided woman little thought that she was talking to King Alfred, who had fought so vigorously against the heathens and won so many victories over them.” Low were the fortunes of the once ruthless English. Pent in their mountains, the lineal descendants of the Ancient Britons, slatternly, forlorn, but unconquered, may well have grinned.

The leaders of the Danish army felt sure at this time that mastery was in their hands. To the people of Wessex it seemed that all was over. Their forces were dispersed, the country overrun; their King, if alive, was a fugitive in hiding. It is the supreme proof of Alfred’s quality that he was able in such a plight to exercise his full authority and keep contact with his subjects.

Towards the end of Lent the Danes suffered an unexpected misfortune. The crews of twenty-three ships, after committing many atrocities in Wales, sailed to Devon and marched to the attack of one of Alfred’s strongholds on Exmoor. The place was difficult to assail, but

in besetting it they thought that the King’s thanes would soon give way to hunger and thirst . . . since the fortress had no supply of water.

The Christians, before they endured any such distress, by the inspiration of heaven judged it to be better either to suffer death or to gain the victory. Accordingly at daybreak they suddenly rushed forth against the heathen, and at the first attack they laid low most of the enemy, including their king. A few only by flight escaped to their ships.3

Eight hundred Danes were killed, and the spoils of the victory included an enchanted banner called the Raven, of which it was said that the three daughters of Ragnar Lodbrok had woven it in a single day, and that “in every battle in which that banner went before them the raven in the middle of the design seemed to flutter as though it were alive if they were going to have the victory.” On this occasion it did not flutter, but hung listlessly in its silken folds. The event proved that it was impossible for the Danes to win under these conditions.

Alfred, cheered by this news and striving to take the field again, continued a brigand warfare against the enemy while sending his messengers to summon the “fyrd,” or local militia, for the end of May. There was a general response; the King was loved and admired. The news that he was alive and active caused widespread joy. All the fighting men came back. After all, the country was in peril of subjugation, the King was a hero, and they could always go home again. The troops of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire concentrated near Selwood. A point was chosen near where the three shires met, and we can see from this the burdens which lay upon Alfred’s tactics. Nevertheless here again was an army: “and when they saw the King they received him like one risen from the dead, after so great tribulations, and they were filled with great joy.”

Battle must be sought before they lost interest. The Danes still lay upon their plunder at Chippenham. Alfred advanced to Ethandun, now Edington, and on the bare downs was fought the largest and culminating battle of Alfred’s wars. All was staked. All hung in the scales of fate. On both sides the warriors dismounted; the horses were sent to the rear. The shield-walls were formed, the masses clashed against each other, and for hours they fought with sword and axe. But the heathen had lost the favour of God through their violated oath, and eventually from this or other causes they fled from the cruel and clanging field. This time Alfred’s pursuit was fruitful. Guthrum, king of the Viking army, so lately master of the one unconquered English kingdom, found himself penned in his camp. Bishop Asser says, “the heathen, terrified by hunger, cold, and fear, and at the last full of despair, begged for peace.” They offered to give without return as many hostages as Alfred should care to pick and to depart forthwith.

But Alfred had had longer ends in view. It is strange that he should have wished to convert these savage foes. Baptism as a penalty of defeat might lose its spiritual quality. The workings of the spirit are mysterious, but we must still wonder how the hearts of these hard-bitten swordsmen and pirates could be changed in a single day. Indeed these mass conversions had become almost a matter of form for defeated Viking armies. It is reported that one old veteran declared he had been through this washing twenty times, and complained that the alb with which he was supplied was by no means up to the average standard. But Alfred meant to make a lasting peace with Guthrum. He had him and his army in his power. He could have starved them into surrender and slaughtered them to a man. He wished instead to divide the land with them, and that the two races, in spite of fearful injuries given and received, should dwell together in amity. He received Guthrum with thirty prominent buccaneers in his camp. He stood godfather to Guthrum; he raised him from the font; he entertained him for twelve days; he presented him and his warriors with costly gifts; he called him his son.

This sublime power to rise above the whole force of circumstances, to remain unbiased by the extremes of victory or defeat, to persevere in the teeth of disaster, to greet returning fortune with a cool eye, to have faith in men after repeated betrayals, raises Alfred far above the turmoil of barbaric wars to his pinnacle of deathless glory.

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Fourteen years intervened between the victory of Ethandun and any serious Danish attack. In spite of much uneasiness and disturbance, by the standards of those days there was peace. Alfred worked ceaselessly to strengthen his realm. He had been content that the Danes should settle in East Anglia, but he cultivated the best relations with the harassed kingdom of Mercia, which had become tributary to the Danes, though still largely unoccupied by them. In 886 he married his eldest daughter to the regent, Ethelred, who was striving to bear the burden abandoned to him by the fugitive king, Burhred. There had already been several inter-marriages in the Mercian and Wessex royal families, and this set the final seal upon the cooperation of the South and the Midlands.

The first result of this new unity was the recovery of London in 886. London had long been the emporium of Christian England. Ancient Rome had seen in this bridgehead of the Thames, at the convergence of all the roads and sea routes, the greatest commercial and military centre in the Island. Now the City was set on the road to becoming the national capital. We read in the Chronicle: “King Alfred restored London, and all the English—those of them who were free from Danish bondage—turned to him, and he then entrusted the borough to the keeping of the ealdorman Ethelred.” It would seem that heavy fighting and much slaughter attended the regaining of London, but of this nothing has been recorded. We know little more than the bare fact, and that Alfred after the victory made the citizens organise an effective defence force and put their walls in the highest order.

King Alfred’s main effort was to restore the defences and raise the efficiency of the West Saxon force. He reorganised the “fyrd,” dividing it into two classes which practised a rotation of service. Though his armies might be smaller, Alfred’s peasant soldiers were encouraged not to desert on a long campaign, because they knew that their land was being looked after by the half of the militia that had stayed at home. The modesty of his reforms shows us the enormous difficulties which he had to overcome, and proves that even in that time of mortal peril it was almost impossible to keep the English under arms. The King fortified the whole country by boroughs, running down the Channel and then across to the Severn estuary and so back by the Thames valley, assigning to each a contributory district to man the walls and keep the fortifications in repair. He saw too the vision of English sea-power. To be safe in an island it was necessary to command the sea. He made great departures in ship design, and hoped to beat the Viking numbers by fewer ships of much larger size. These conclusions have only recently become antiquated.

Then King Alfred commanded to be built against the Danish warships longships which were well-nigh twice as long as the others. Some had sixty oars, some more. They were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others. They were shaped neither as the Frisian nor as the Danish, but as it seemed to himself that they might be most useful.4

But the big ships were beyond the skill of their inexperienced seamen to handle. In an action when nine of them fought six pirate vessels several were run ashore “most awkwardly,” says the Chronicle, and only two of the enemy fell into Alfred’s hands, to afford him the limited satisfaction of hanging their crews at Winchester. Still, the beginning of the English Navy must always be linked with King Alfred.

In spite of the disorders a definite treaty was achieved after the reconquest of London in 886. Significance attaches to the terms in which the contracting parties are described. On Alfred’s side there are “the counsellors of the English nation,” on Guthrum’s “the people who dwell in East Anglia.” The organisation of the Danelaw, based entirely upon the army and the subjugated inhabitants, had not yet assumed the form of a State. The English, on the other hand, had already reached the position of “King and Witan”; and none did more to enforce the idea than Alfred himself. The treaty defined a political boundary running up the Thames, up the Lea, along the Lea to its source, then straight to Bedford, and after by the Ouse to Watling Street, beyond which no agreement was made. This line followed no natural frontiers. It recognised a war front. It was drawn in No Man’s Land.

The second part of the treaty is curious and instructive. Both sides were familiar with the idea of “wergeld.” In order to deal with the ceaseless murders and physical injuries which the anarchic conditions had produced, a scale for compensation or revenge must at all cost be agreed. Nothing would stop the Danes from killing and robbing the English, and vice versa; but if there was to be any cessation of war a tariff must be agreed. Both Danish and English independent peasants were accordingly valued at 200 silver shillings each, and men of higher rank were assigned a wergeld of 8½ marks of pure gold. In accepting this clause of the treaty Guthrum was in fact undertaking not to discriminate in wergelds between his English and his Danish subjects. Alfred had gained an important point, which is evidence of the reality of his power.

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King Alfred’s Book of Laws, or Dooms, as set out in the existing laws of Kent, Wessex, and Mercia, attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and old Germanic customs. He inverted the Golden Rule. Instead of “Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” he adopted the less ambitious principle, “What ye will that other men should not do to you, that do ye not to other men,” with the comment, “By bearing this precept in mind a judge can do justice to all men; he needs no other law-books. Let him think of himself as the plaintiff, and consider what judgment would satisfy him.” The King, in his preamble, explained modestly that “I have not dared to presume to set down in writing many laws of my own, for I cannot tell what will meet with the approval of our successors.” The Laws of Alfred, continually amplified by his successors, grew into that body of customary law administered by the shire and hundred courts which, under the name of the Laws of St. Edward (the Confessor), the Norman kings undertook to respect, and out of which, with much manipulation by feudal lawyers, the Common Law was founded.

The King encouraged by all his means religion and learning. Above all he sought the spread of education. His rescript to the Bishop of Worcester has been preserved:

I would have you informed that it has come into my remembrance what wise men there formerly were among the English race, both of the sacred orders and the secular; and what happy times those were throughout the English race, and how the kings who had the government of the folk in those days obeyed God and His Ministers; and they on the one hand maintained their peace and morality and their authority within their borders, while at the same time they enlarged their territory abroad; and how they prospered both in war and in wisdom, . . . how foreigners came to this land for wisdom and instruction. . . . So clean was it fallen away in the English race that there were very few on this side Humber who could understand their Mass-books in English, or translate a letter from Latin into English; and I ween that there were not many beyond the Humber.5

He sought to reform the monastic life, which in the general confusion had grossly degenerated.

If anyone takes a nun from a convent without the King’s or the bishop’s leave he shall pay 120 shillings, half to the King, half to the bishop. . . . If she lives longer than he who abducted her, she shall inherit nothing of his property. If she bears a child it shall inherit no more of the property than its mother.6

Lastly in this survey comes Alfred’s study of history. He it was who set on foot the compiling of the Saxon Chronicle. The fact that the early entries are fragmentary gives confidence that the compilers did not draw on their imagination. From King Alfred’s time they are exact, often abundant, and sometimes written with historic grasp and eloquence.

We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice; using in defence arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land.

This King, it was said, was a wonder for wise men. “From his cradle he was filled with the love of wisdom above all things,” wrote Asser. The Christian culture of his Court sharply contrasted with the feckless barbarism of Viking life. The older race was to tame the warriors and teach them the arts of peace, and show them the value of a settled common existence. We are watching the birth of a nation. The result of Alfred’s work was the future mingling of Saxon and Dane in a common Christian England.

In the grim time of Norman overlordship the figure of the great Alfred was a beacon-light, the bright symbol of Saxon achievement, the hero of the race. The ruler who had taught them courage and self-reliance in the eternal Danish wars, who had sustained them with his national and religious faith, who had given them laws and good governance and chronicled their heroic deeds, was celebrated in legend and song as Alfred the Great.

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One final war awaited Alfred. It was a crisis in the Viking story. In 885 they had rowed up the Seine with hundreds of ships and an army of forty thousand men. With every device known to war they laid siege to Paris, and for more than a year battered at its walls. They were hampered by a fortified bridge which the Franks had thrown across the river. They dragged their long-ships overland to the higher reaches and laid waste the land; but they could not take Paris. Count Odo, a warrior prince, defended it against these shameless pirates, and far and wide the demand was made that the King of the Franks should come to the rescue of his capital. Charles the Great had not transmitted his qualities to his children. The nicknames which they received as their monuments sufficiently attest their degeneracy. Charles the Bald was dead, and Charles the Fat reigned in his stead. This wretched invalid was at length forced to gather a considerable army and proceed with it to the aid of Paris. His operations were ineffectual, but the city held firm under its resolute governor. The Viking attack flagged and finally collapsed. All the records are confused. We hear at this time of other battles which they fought with Germanic armies, in one of which the dyke was filled with their corpses. Evidently their thrust in all directions in Western Europe encountered resistance, which, though inefficient, was more than they could overcome. For six years they ravaged the interior of Northern France. Famine followed in their footsteps. The fairest regions had been devoured; where could they turn? Thus they began again to look to England: something might have had time to grow there in the interval. On the Continent their standards were declining, but perhaps again the Island might be their prey. “It was,” says Hodgkin in his admirable account, “a hungry monster which turned to England for food as well as plunder.” A group of pagan ruffians and pirates had gained possession of an effective military and naval machine, but they faced a mass of formidable veterans whom they had to feed and manage, and for whom they must provide killings. Such men make plans, and certainly their descent upon England was one of the most carefully considered and elaborately prepared villainies of that dark time.

Guthrum died in 891, and the pact which he had sworn with Alfred, and loosely kept, ended. Suddenly in the autumn of 892 a hostile armada of two hundred and fifty ships appeared off Lympne, carrying “the Great Heathen Army” that had ravaged France to the invasion of England. They disembarked and fortified themselves at Appledore, on the edge of the forest. They were followed by eighty ships conveying a second force of baffled raiders from the Continent, who sailed up the Thames and established themselves on its southern bank at Milton, near Sittingbourne. Thus Kent was to be attacked from both sides. This immense concerted assault confronted Alfred with his third struggle for life. The English, as we may call them—for the Mercians and West Saxons stood together—had secured fourteen years of unquiet peace in which to develop their defences. Many of the Southern towns were fortified; they were “burhs.” The “fyrd” had been improved in organisation, though its essential weaknesses had not been removed. There had been a re-gathering of wealth and food; there was a settled administration, and the allegiance of all was given to King Alfred. Unlike Charlemagne, he had a valiant son. At twenty-two Edward could lead his father’s armies to the field. The Mercians also had produced an Ethelred, who was a fit companion to the West Saxon prince. The King, in ill-health, is not often seen in this phase at the head of armies; we have glimpses of him, but the great episodes of the war were centred, as they should be, upon the young leaders.

The English beat the Vikings in this third war. Owning the command of the sea, the invaders gripped the Kentish peninsula from the north and south. Alfred had tried to buy them off, and certainly delayed their full attack. He persuaded Hæsten, the Viking leader, at least to have his two young sons baptised. He gave Hæsten much money, and oaths of peace were interchanged, only to be broken. Meanwhile the Danes raided mercilessly, and Alfred tried to rouse England to action. In 893 a third expedition composed of the Danish veterans who had settled in Northumbria and East Anglia sailed round the south coast, and, landing, laid siege to Exeter. But now the young leaders struck hard. Apparently they had a strong mounted force, not indeed what we should call cavalry, but possessing swiftness of movement. They fell upon a column of the raiders near the modern Aldershot, routed them, and pursued them for twenty miles till they were glad to swim the Thames and shelter behind the Colne. Unhappily, the army of the young princes was not strong enough to resume the attack, and also it had run out of provisions. The pursuit therefore had to be abandoned and the enemy escaped.

The Danes had fortified themselves at Benfleet, on the Thames below London, and it is said that their earthworks can be traced to this day. Thence, after recovering from their defeat, they sallied forth to plunder, leaving a moderate garrison in their stronghold. This the princes now assaulted. It had very rarely been possible in these wars to storm a well-fortified place; but Alfred’s son and his son-in-law with a strong army from London fell upon Benfleet and “put the army to flight, stormed the fort, and took all that there was within, goods as well as women and children, and brought all to London. And all the ships they either broke in pieces or burnt or brought to London or Rochester.” Such are the words of the Saxon Chronicle. When in the nineteenth century a railway was being made across this ground the charred fragments of the ships and numbers of skeletons were unearthed upon the site of Benfleet. In the captured stronghold the victors found Hæsten’s wife and his two sons. These were precious hostages, and King Alfred was much criticised at the time, and also later, because he restored them to Hæsten. He sent back his wife on broad grounds of humanity. As for the two sons, they had been baptised; he was godfather to one of them, and Ethelred of Mercia to the other. They were therefore Christian brethren, and the King protected them from the consequences of their father’s wrongful war. The ninth century found it very hard to understand this behaviour when the kingdom was fighting desperately against brutal marauders, but that is one of the reasons why in the after-time the King is called “Alfred the Great.” The war went on, but so far as the records show Hæsten never fought again. It may be that mercy and chivalry were not in vain.

In this cruel war the Vikings used their three armies: the grand army that Hæsten had brought from the Continent, the army which had landed near Lympne, and the third from the Danelaw. But in the end they were fairly beaten in full and long fight by the Christians from Mercia, Wessex, and Wales.

One other incident deserves to be noticed. The Saxon Chronicle says:

Before the winter [the winter of A.D. 894-5] the Danes . . . towed their ships up the Thames and then up the Lea . . . and made a fort twenty miles above Lunden burh. . . . In the autumn [895] the King camped close to the burh while they reaped their corn, so that the Danes might not deprive them of the crop. Then one day the King rode up by the river, and looked at a place where it might be obstructed, so that they could not bring their ships out. . . . He made two forts on the two sides of the river; . . . then the army perceived that they could not bring their ships out. Therefore they left them and went across country, . . . and the men of Lunden burh fetched the ships, and all that they could not take away they broke up, and all that were worth taking they brought into Lunden burh.

In 896 the war petered out, and the Vikings, whose strength seemed at this time to be in decline, dispersed, some settling in the Danelaw, some going back to France. “By God’s mercy,” exclaims the Chronicle, in summing up the war, “the [Danish] army had not too much afflicted the English people.” Alfred had well defended the Island home. He had by policy and arms preserved the Christian civilisation in England. He had built up the strength of that mighty South which has ever since sustained much of the weight of Britain, and later of her Empire. He had liberated London, and happily he left behind him descendants who, for several generations, as we shall see, carried his work forward with valour and success.

038

Alfred died in 899, but the struggle with the Vikings had yet to pass through strangely contrasted phases. Alfred’s blood gave the English a series of great rulers, and while his inspiration held victory did not quit the Christian ranks. In his son Edward, who was immediately acclaimed King, the armies had already found a redoubtable leader. A quarrel arose between Edward and his cousin, Ethelwald, who fled to the Danelaw and aroused the Vikings of Northumbria and East Anglia to a renewed inroad upon his native land. In 904 Ethelwald and the Danish king crossed the upper reaches of the Thames at Cricklade and ravaged part of Wiltshire. Edward in retaliation ordered the invasion of East Anglia, with an army formed of the men of Kent and London. They devastated Middle Anglia; but the Kentish contingent, being slow to withdraw, was overtaken and brought to battle by the infuriated Danes. The Danes were victorious, and made a great slaughter; but, as fate would have it, both Eric, the Danish king, and the renegade Ethelwald perished on the field, and the new king, Guthrum II, made peace with Edward on the basis of Alfred’s treaty of 886, but with additions which show that the situation had changed. It is now assumed that the Danes are Christians and will pay their tithes, while the parish priest is to be fined if he misleads his flock as to the time of a feast-day or a festival.

In 910 this treaty was broken by the Danes, and the war was renewed in Mercia. The main forces of Wessex and Kent had already been sent by Edward, who was with the fleet, to the aid of the Mercians, and in heavy fighting at Tettenhall, in Staffordshire, the Danes were decisively defeated.

This English victory was a milestone in the long conflict. The Danish armies in Northumbria never recovered from the battle, and the Danish Midlands and East Anglia thus lay open to English conquest. Up to this point Mercia and Wessex had been the defenders, often reduced to the most grievous straits. But now the tide had turned. Fear camped with the Danes.

Edward’s sister had been, as we have seen, married to Earl Ethelred of Mercia. Ethelred died in 911, and his widow, Ethelfleda, succeeded and surpassed him. In those savage times the emergence of a woman ruler was enough to betoken her possession of extraordinary qualities. Edward the Elder, as he was afterwards called, and his sister, “the Lady of the Mercians,” conducted the national war in common, and carried its success to heights which Alfred never knew. The policy of the two kingdoms, thus knit by blood and need, marched in perfect harmony, and the next onslaught of the Danes was met with confident alacrity and soon broken. The victors then set themselves deliberately to the complete conquest of the Danelaw and its Five Boroughs. This task occupied the next ten years, brother and sister advancing in concert upon their respective lines, and fortifying towns they took at every stage. In 918, when Edward stormed Tempsford, near Bedford, and King Guthrum was killed, the whole resistance of East Anglia collapsed, and all the Danish leaders submitted to Edward as their protector and lord. They were granted in return their estates and the right to live according to their Danish customs. At the same time “the Lady of the Mercians” conquered Leicester, and received even from York offers of submission. In this hour of success Ethelfleda died, and Edward, hastening to Tamworth, was invited by the nobles of Mercia to occupy the vacant throne.

Alfred’s son was now undisputed King of all England south of the Humber, and the British princes of North and South Wales hastened to offer their perpetual allegiance. Driving northwards in the next two years, Edward built forts at Manchester, at Thelwall in Cheshire, and at Bakewell in the Peak Country. The Danes of Northumbria saw their end approaching. It seemed as if a broad and lasting unity was about to be reached. Edward the Elder reigned five years more in triumphant peace, and when he died in 925 his authority and his gifts passed to a third remarkable sovereign, capable in every way of carrying on the work of his father and grandfather.

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