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Chapter XVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Ethelred the Second - His Reign - Wars with the Danes - Reverses and Death.
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After the murder of Edward, Ethelred, whose youth absolved him from all suspicion of having shared in his mother's crime, succeeded to the vacant throne in a.d. 978, to the great discontent of Dunstan, who, despite his influence with the people, did not dare to refuse to crown him.

The young prince is said to have bitterly lamented his brother's death, and wept for him so long, that the imperious Elfrida chastised him severely for his weakness.

Scarcely had the new monarch received the crown than the Danes determined to renew their invasion of England. A powerful body of them lauded at Southampton, which they pillaged, and then directed their expedition into Cornwall.

The same year a second band landed at Portland, and ravaged the surrounding country.

These invasions, which during the first ten years of Ethelred's reign were exceedingly frequent, though only of a temporary character, were exceedingly harassing, seeing that the Saxons had not only an enormous extent of coast to guard, but never knew the exact point at which their enemies would land.

Frequently, when their army was in one part of the kingdom, the invaders would debark at another, and before ( it could march to the place threatened, the barbarians would collect their booty and retire to their ships. The j only efficient remedy for these misfortunes would have been to equip a powerful fleet, so as to have encountered the Danes at sea; but the youth and inexperience of the king prevented such a step, and the island was exposed, in consequence, to outrage, murder, and pillage.

Elfric, Duke of Mercia, whose activity and military skill rendered him one of the most zealous as well as successful defenders of England, died in 983; and his loss added still more to the insolence of the Danes, and miseries of the people.

As the character of Ethelred developed itself, he proved a very different personage from his predecessors in his treatment of the monks, whose influence had considerably decreased amongst the lower orders. The people naturally began to ask why men, who had performed so many miracles when their own interests were in danger, could not work one to preserve the kingdom from the attacks of the common enemy; and the king very shortly afterwards, in a dispute between himself and the Bishop of Rochester, laid waste the lands belonging to his diocese, particularly those of the monastery of St. Andrew.

It was in vain that the prelate predicted the vengeance of the apostle, and obtained the interference of Dunstan, who had long since been removed from all direction in affairs; the remonstrances of the primate were treated, like those of his suffragan, with contempt; and the ambitious churchman died shortly afterwards in 988, and was succeeded by Ethelgar.

In 991, Justin and Guthmund, two Danish leaders, landed at Ipswich; and having defeated the Duke of East Anglia, Brithnoth, who attempted to oppose their progress, Ethelred was compelled to give them a large sum of money to retire from the country.

Sweyn I., King of Denmark, and Olaf, King of Norway, excited by the success of their subjects, and the immense amount of plunder they brought home from England, determined on joining their forces, and attacking the island. With this intent, in a.d. 994, they fitted out a powerful fleet and sailed up the Thames, with the intention of making themselves masters of Loo don. The courageous resistance of the inhabitants, however, obliged them, to retire without obtaining possession of the city.

Determined not to be disappointed in the great object of their expedition, which was plunder, the two Danish kings directed their troops into the interior of the island, levying contributions in Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. The sufferings of the inhabitants became intolerable.

Ethelred once more had recourse to money, and promised the enemy a large sum, on condition that they ceased their cruelties and quitted the kingdom: the offer was accepted. The weak, cowardly monarch afterwards received the King of Norway as a friend and ally; and persuaded him to receive baptism. Olaf quitted the country after taking an oath, which he kept, of never returning again.

His colleague, Sweyn, had formed far different projects. When he returned home, he left his fleet at Southampton to keep the English in awe; and also to receive the payment of the money promised. No sooner had he taken his departure than his admiral became impatient for the tribute.

But as there was no haste made to comply with these demands, he took their delay for a refusal, and resolved to renew the war. In order to elude the vigilance of the English, he set sail, as if to return to Denmark, but on a sudden, he unexpectedly entered the Severn, and after devastating Wales with fire and sword, crossed the river and penetrated into Dorsetshire, where he committed the same ravages. All the forces that could be levied against the Danes were defeated as soon as raised. They sacked whole counties, it being impossible to oppose them; till at last finding nothing more to plunder in that part, they put to sea again, and landed in Kent. The inhabitants, by endeavouring to make some resistance, only increased the fury of their enemies, who treated them with the utmost barbarity; and to complete their misfortunes, a fleet, equipped by Ethelred to engage them at sea, was rendered useless by the dissensions and unskilfulness of the commanders. In this melancholy situation, England would have irretrievably perished, if the Danes by a lucky and unexpected accident had not been called to the assistance of Richard II., Duke of Normandy, whom the King of France would have dispossessed of his dominions. Ethelred took this opportunity to go and ravage Cumberland, but for what reason is unknown. After that, he returned to London, where he kept his usual residence.

The quiet which England now enjoyed was but the lull of the tempest. Having been successful in their errand in France, the Danes quickly returned, landed in Cornwall, and entered Wessex, which suffered terribly from their presence. They afterwards made themselves masters of Exeter.

In this extremity, Ethelred, who had no resolution, agreed at last to pay the Danes thirty thousand pounds; and this sum, which in those days was very considerable, was levied by a tax called Danegeld, that is, Danish money, or money for the Danes; and for the payment of it, every hide of land was taxed at twelve pence. A hide of land is such a quantity of land as may be ploughed with one plough in a year.

The Danes, satisfied with this arrangement, made peace, and many returned to their own country, whilst others remained in the island; and such was the awe they were held in by the people, that, in speaking of them, they invariably styled them the Lord-Danes.

From this custom there is little doubt but the word "lurdane," signifying a rich, idle man, had its origin. It is to be met with in writers as late as the reign of Elizabeth, and is still used in some parts of England.

Ethelred, who had grown weary of the contest with his powerful enemies, in which he displayed neither courage nor dignity, hit on an expedient for ridding the island of their presence, which he put into execution shortly after his second marriage, in a.d. 1002, with Emma, the sister of Richard II., Duke of Normandy, styled by some writers, on account of her rare loveliness, the Pearl of Normandy.

As might be expected from a weak prince, his project was a cruel one, being neither more nor less than the massacre of all the Danes residing in England. To carry out this barbarous as well as useless policy, a vast conspiracy was entered into; and on the 13th of November, St. Brice's day, 1002, all the invaders were put to death, with circumstances of the most shocking barbarity.

The sister of Sweyn was not spared. Her name was Gunilda, and she is said to have been married to a noble Dane settled in England, named Paleng. Being a Christian, she had exerted all her influence with her brother to bring about the peace. Her children were first murdered in her presence, and their unhappy mother afterwards slain.

Sweyn received the news of this massacre from some Danes, who succeeded in getting on board a vessel ready to sail for Denmark. Their relation of the cruelties of the English to those of his nation would have been sufficient to arouse him; but when informed of his sister's barbarous murder, he was seized with all the rage that such a crime was likely to excite in a vindictive nature. He solemnly swore he would never rest till he had revenged the atrocious outrage. It was not, therefore, with intent to plunder that he made a second expedition into England, but to destroy the whole country with fire and sword. However, as he did not doubt but Ethelred would take precautions to oppose his entrance, he would not sail without securing a place where he might safely land his troops. Cornwall was then governed by Earl Hugh, placed in that important trust by the influence of the queen, in full confidence that, as her countryman, her husband might rely on his devotion and fidelity.

To this man Sweyn secretly despatched an emissary, with the offer of a great reward, provided he would assist him in his enterprise. The traitor yielded to the temptation, and allowed not only the fleet of the invader to enter his ports, but the Danes to land without offering the least opposition.

After debarking his forces on the island, Sweyn marched his forces to Exeter, and as the first fruits of his vengeance, not only massacred the inhabitants, but after plundering the city, laid it in ashes. Wherever the furious monarch led his army, the same cruelties were repeated; submission was useless, for he knew not the meaning of the word mercy.

Sweyn afterwards took several other places, which he plundered and burnt, and then retired to Denmark, to pass the winter.

Early the next year, however, he returned, landing, it is supposed, at Yarmouth, and took the city of Norwich, which he burned to the ground. Ulfkytel, the governor of the East Angles, gave him an immense sum of money to induce him to spare that part of the country from any further ravages. Regardless of his promises, the invader had no sooner received the tribute than he attacked Thetford, and destroyed it; which breach of faith so incensed Ulfkytel, that he collected as many troops as possible, and posted himself between the invaders and the fleet, in the hope of cutting them off. The Danish king marched back to give him battle, and the English were beaten, after a severe contest. The Danes were afterwards driven from England by the famine.

At the termination of the scarcity another expedition of the enemy landed at Sandwich, in Kent, and Ethelred levied an army to oppose them; on hearing which, the Danes retreated to the Isle of Thanet, well knowing that the English, who served at their own expense, would soon disperse. The event proved that their calculation was a just one; tired of waiting for an enemy who refused to come from their stronghold, the soldiers of Ethelred quickly melted away, and the unlucky king only procured a peace upon the payment of 36,000.

Ethelred, on their departure, gave one of his daughters in marriage to Edric, surnamed Streon, whom he had lately created Duke of Mercia; but his new son-in-law, instead of assisting him, as he had a right to expect, leagued with the Danes, and betrayed the kingdom on every occasion. The following year after the treaty, the Danish king demanded a similar sum of 36,000, pretending that it was a yearly tribute which the English had agreed to pay. Ethelred, by the advice of his council, employed the money in fitting out a powerful fleet, the command of which was given to Buthric, the brother of the new Duke of Mercia. This measure obliged the enemy to retire.

Buthric was no sooner in command than he used his authority to ruin Ulnoth, a noble who was his enemy, and began to accuse him of crimes to the king, who lent but too willing an ear to his rival. Finding his ruin determined upon, Ulnoth persuaded nine of the captains of the fleet to put to sea with him, which they did, plundering the English coasts, and committing fearful ravages. The admiral, incensed at his escape, set out with eighty ships to give him chase; but a terrible storm arising, he lost a great part of them, and the rest fell into the hands of Ulnoth. Thus was the fleet, which should have been the safeguard of the kingdom, lost and destroyed.

Taking advantage of this state of affairs, the Danes, who had their spies both in the court and country of England, prepared another expedition. Two fleets arrived in the kingdom - one in East Anglia, under Turkil; and the second in the Isle of Thanet, commanded by two leaders, Kemsig and Anlaff. They attacked the city of Canterbury, and would, doubtless, have destroyed it, had not the inhabitants ransomed it at an enormous sum.

Whilst the Danes were pillaging Kent, Ethelred drew an army together to oppose their ravages; and as soon as he was ready, he posted himself between them and their ships to prevent their embarking and carrying off their booty. Probably, he might have executed his project, and perhaps gained considerable advantage, considering the superiority of his forces, if Edric had not found means to relieve the Danes. The traitor, perceiving their danger, represented to the king, his father-in-law, that it would be more advantageous to let them retire, than hazard a battle, which might prove fatal to him; and this pernicious advice made such impression on the weak-minded monarch, that he suffered them to march by, with all their plunder, unmolested. But instead of sailing for Denmark, as it was expected, they threw themselves into the Isle of Thanet; from which, during the whole winter, they made incursions into the neighbouring counties, and even made several attempts upon London; in which, however, they were always repulsed. During this period, Ulfkytel, Duke of East Anglia, willing once more to try the fortune of a battle in the defence of his territory, had the misfortune to be overthrown.

Hitherto the Danes wanted cavalry, on account of the difficulty of transporting horses from Denmark; but as soon as they were in possession of East Anglia, a country abounding with horses, they mounted part of their troops, and by that means extended their conquests. Shortly after, they subdued Essex, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Devonshire, whilst Ethelred, who had scarce anything left, kept himself shut up in London, without daring to take the field and stop their progress. In all the above-named counties, London and Canterbury were the only places in the king's power. But at length they attacked the last so vigorously, that they took, plundered, and reduced it to ashes; and Elphegus, the archbishop, being taken prisoner, was afterwards murdered by these barbarians at Greenwich, to which place, the station of their ships, they had brought him prisoner. In the old church of Greenwich, on the top of the partition wall between the nave of the church and the chancel, was formerly the following inscription: - "This church was erected and dedicated to the glory of God, and the memory of St. Alphage, Archbishop of Canterbury, here slain by the Danes, because he would not ransom his life by an unreasonable sum of money. An. 1012." He was first buried at St. Paul's in London, and afterwards removed to Canterbury. He was honoured as a martyr, and stands in the Roman Martyrology on the 19th of April.

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Pictures for Chapter XVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

King Sweyn.
King Sweyn. >>>>
Danish Arms and Armour.
Danish Arms and Armour. >>>>

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