Chapter VII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1
Reign of Alfred the Great - Wars with the Danes, who finally obtain Settlements in the Country.Pages: <1> 2
It is impossible to treat of the reign of a monarch to whom England owes so much, and whose memory is still revered, without feelings of respect and veneration commensurate with the benefits he conferred upon his countrymen, whose gratitude has accorded the noblest recompense in the power of a nation to bestow - the epithet of Great.
His predecessor, as we perceive, had left the affairs of the kingdom utterly disorganised, when Alfred, who hitherto had lived in comparative obscurity, succeeded him; but that obscurity had doubtless been favourable to the development of those rich qualities of mind, which, however luxuriant and promising the soil, require time and study to ripen and perfect.
The Danes, already masters of Northumbria and East Anglia, were in the very heart of the kingdom of Wessex; and, notwithstanding the many battles Ethelred had fought with them, they were in possession of several towns; and not only maintained their position in the island, but had reason to hope they should soon complete the conquest of it. The new monarch had only been a month on the throne, when he found himself obliged to take the field against these formidable enemies, who had advanced as far as Wilton, whither he marched to attack them. Victory for some time inclined to his side, then suddenly changed in favour of the Danes; but Alfred's loss was not so considerable as to make him despair, though the victory certainly belonged to the enemy. He laboured incessantly to put his army in condition to give them battle again, before they should be reinforced; they were astonished at his expedition, and, though victorious, sued for peace, finding themselves unable to continue the war. As they offered to march out of his dominions, on condition he would not molest them in any other part of England, Alfred accepted their offer, and gained by this treaty time to prepare against a new invasion.
The Danes, quitting Wessex, retired to London, which they had taken during the late war. Ivar was gone back to Denmark, having left the command of the army to his brother Hubba, who, being prevented from attacking Wessex, turned his arms against Mercia. Buthred, its king, knowing he was unable to resist, since Alfred was bound not to send him any succours, thought it his wisest course to buy off the Danes with a sum of money, and save his country from their depredations. Upon the receipt of the money, they marched towards Northumbria, designing to take up their quarters with their countrymen; but their provisions running short, in consequence of the devastations they themselves had made there, they were under the necessity of returning into Mercia. Before they had left Northumbria, they deposed Egbert, whom they had placed on the throne, and put Recsige, a Danish earl, in his room. Buthred, finding they were come again into his dominions, complained of their breach of faith; but without regarding his complaints they obliged him to give them another considerable sum to save his country from the destruction it was threatened with; and no sooner was the money paid, than they fell to plundering and ravaging, and Buthred found that even his own person was in danger. The fear of falling into their hands obliged him to abandon his kingdom, and retire to Rome, where he spent the residue of his days in the English college. Mercia being thus left without a king, and Alfred being prevented by his own treaty from lending any assistance, the Danes without difficulty became masters of that kingdom, and raised Ceoluph, a servant of Buthred, to the throne, till they could otherwise dispose of it.
Aware of the slight tenure of his office, the new ruler resolved to make the utmost of his time, and so oppressed the unhappy Mercians that they suffered more from the tyranny of their own countryman than the rapacity of the conquerors.
Whilst Alfred flattered himself with the hope of enjoying comparative peace, new calamities were preparing for his unhappy country. A large party of Danes, under Halfden, landed in England, and surprised Warkam Castle, the strongest fortress in Wessex. The king was obliged to purchase his retreat. The invaders swore on the holy relics never again to set foot in Wessex - an oath which they quickly violated.
From the very nature of their government, no treaty could bind the Danes as a nation, seeing that it was composed of a variety of chiefs and petty powers, who entered into associations independent of each other. The successful return of one expedition merely proved an incentive to others of their countrymen to follow in their track.
Alfred, finding it was in vain to conclude treaties with such a perfidious race of people, resolved to take more effectual measures to secure himself from their treachery. For this purpose he convened a general assembly, and represented to them that they had nothing to trust to but their own valour and courage, to deliver them from their miseries; and urged upon them the absolute necessity of venturing their lives in defence of their country, and of sacrificing part of their estates to preserve the remainder. His eloquent remonstrances having produced the effect he expected, an army was immediately levied, with which he engaged the enemy seven times in one campaign; but as fortune was not equally favourable to him in all these engagements, he was once more constrained to treat with the invaders; and though, he could have no great dependence upon their promises, it was the only way by which he could put an end to a disastrous war. The new treaty, in which the Danes undertook not to return any more into Wessex, was somewhat better kept than the former one.
The West Saxons looked upon the retreat of these formidable enemies as a great deliverance; but they were yet far from the climax of their miseries. This band, which had struck them with such terror, were scarce gone, when a new swarm arrived, under the command of Rollo, the famous Norman general, who became afterwards the scourge of France. Fortunately, Alfred was in some measure prepared to receive them; and after several attempts, Rollo, despairing of procuring a settlement in England, resolved to go in quest of one in France. In all probability, finding the best part of England in possession of his countrymen, and Alfred ready to dispute the rest with him, he imagined he had a better prospect in that country. Some superstitious chroniclers inform us it was revealed to Rollo in a dream that he should found a kingdom in France.
After his departure, Alfred enjoyed a repose, which afforded him leisure to revolve means to prevent these frequent invasions; and he ultimately determined to equip a fleet, and engage the Danes before they came to land, where they generally had the advantage; and as the latter had not contemplated being engaged at sea, their ships were only fit for transports, whereas those built by Alfred were constructed for warlike service. It was not long before he reaped the fruit of this wise precaution; for his fleet meeting with six Danish vessels, gave chase to them, and one of the largest being taken, the soldiers and mariners were thrown overboard. This first engagement was followed by a much more considerable one. 120 sail of Danish transport ships making to the shore in order to land their men, the king's fleet attacked them, and sunk the greatest part of them; and the next year another Danish fleet sailing westward, met with so violent a storm, that all the ships perished, except a few which fell into the hands of the English.
Alfred, encouraged by these successes, resolved to attack the Danes in the west, where they had fortified themselves by the taking of Exeter, and where the Cornish men had always taken part with them; and he ultimately obliged them to give him hostages, and entirely abandon Wessex. They retired into Mercia, where they became confounded with the rest of their countrymen. A year before these events occurred, Halfden had elevated Egbert to the throne, in place of Recsige.
The invaders were in possession of three of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy; but this was insufficient to satisfy the hordes who were continually pouring in upon the devoted island with the design of settling; and an expedition was consequently planned, with the greatest secrecy, against Wessex.
The attack took place so suddenly that Alfred was ill prepared to meet it. Chippenham was taken, and the dispirited Britons no longer felt courage to prosecute the war. Many fled, whilst others - and of them not a few - leagued themselves with the Danes, swearing allegiance to them.
So general was the defection, that the unhappy monarch found himself deserted by all but a few domestics and faithful friends, who still adhered to his fallen fortunes. In this extremity, he showed himself greater, perhaps, than when on the throne, and acted with a prudence and wisdom which few princes would have found courage to imitate. He dismissed them all; and, with no other support than his courage and patriotism, set forth a wanderer, alone, and on foot, in the kingdom he had so lately reigned over.
So great was his poverty, that the uncrowned king was compelled to solicit shelter in the hut of a neat-herd in the island Athelney, in Somersetshire, a remote spot, surrounded by a dangerous marsh, wild and desolate as hi own fortunes, and only to be approached by a single path, and that but little known. Here the fugitive had time to repair his shattered health, collect his thoughts, and meditate on plans for the future delivery of his oppressed and outraged country. Savage and uninviting as was his retreat, it afforded that which he had most need of - safety.
It is recorded that, whilst Alfred was an inmate of this abode, the neat-herd's wife, having occasion to quit the cottage for a time, set him the task of watching the cakes of rye-bread which were baking on the fire. The king, whose mind was distracted by far more important subjects, neglected his instructions, and when the woman returned, she found the cakes blackened and burnt. If tradition speaks truly, the virago chid him soundly, reproaching him that he was more ready to eat than to work.
In this miserable concealment the fugitive remained six months, when fortune, tired of persecuting him, appeared to relent, and once more smiled upon the efforts of the brave, but hitherto unlucky, Saxons.
Hubba, who had been entrusted by his brother Ivar with the command of his troops, had invaded Wales, laying the country in flames, ravaging, and destroying. He afterwards penetrated into Devonshire, in the kingdom of Wessex, with a similar intent. At his approach the Earl of Devon retreated with a body of determined men to Kenworth Castle, on the river Taw, in order to withstand them.
The Danish chief was not long before he decided on attacking the fortress, believing that the scanty garrison would surrender at his first summons; in which opinion, however, he was doomed to find himself mistaken, for the earl, seeing that it was impossible to defend the place with so few men, however devoted, told them frankly that one only course was left for them, to conquer and live free men, or die beneath the swords of their relentless enemy. His harangue had the desired effect: the Saxons, animated by his words, sallied forth, and fell upon the Danes so unexpectedly, that before they could recover from their panic their leader was slain; on seeing which, his followers fled in all directions.
The spot where Hubba fell was afterwards called Hubble-stain, or Hubblelaw, from the monument raised over his remains by his countrymen.
On hearing the joyful intelligence of this victory, Alfred left his concealment, and called his friends once more to arms. They assembled in separate bodies in various parts of the kingdom, establishing such means of communication as might enable them to join their forces together at the shortest notice.
The great difficulty was to ascertain the position of the enemy, which dangerous task the patriot king undertook himself. The story runs that, disguised as a harper, he made his way into the Danish camp, and stayed there several days, secretly noting the disposition of their forces all the while. Having acquainted himself with all he wished to learn, Alfred returned to his countrymen, and named Selwood Forest for the general place of meeting. His directions were carried out so expeditiously, that in a comparatively brief space of time the Saxon monarch was enabled to attack his enemy at the head of a powerful army, consisting of the inhabitants of Somersetshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. The Danes, though unexpectedly assailed, defended themselves with their usual bravery, but at last were entirely routed.
They attributed their defeat to the loss of the raven standard, which had been taken when Hubba fell, and to which they superstitiously attached magical powers - that it indicated victory and defeat by clapping or depressing its wings.
Alfred, taking advantage of the consternation thus struck into the whole body of resident Danes, compelled them to capitulate; and granted them terms more advantageous than they could have expected, resigning the lands of East Anglia to such as were willing to become Christians, and requiring those who were not immediately to quit the island, with a promise never to return; hostages for the performance of which were to be given. Guthrun, chief of East Anglia, who since the death of Hubba had commanded the Danish army, agreed to these conditions, and came to Alfred with thirty of his chief officers, having embarked all those who refused to be baptised.
Thus did the patriot king by a single battle recover his kingdom; and his subjects, whom fear had dispersed or constrained to submit to the enemy, flocked to him. All the historians agree that he invested the Danish general with the title of King of East Anglia: but it is not known whether he did so by virtue of some private treaty made before, or with a view to engage him in his interests. The kingdom of East Anglia was now wholly inhabited by Danes, and Guthrun divided the lands among his countrymen, and exercised the regal authority as long as he lived.
It is to be observed that at the time of the last battle there were in England two sorts of Danes - those who were already settled, and those who were endeavouring to procure themselves habitations. It was probably with the last that Alfred treated, as the former were anxious to be left in quiet possession of their settlements; and accordingly all those Danes settled in the three kingdoms of the Angles submitted quietly, and swore allegiance to him. But they were not all equally satisfied, as several had accepted the terms of the last treaty only because they knew not whither to go, and became Christians to procure a subsistence, in expectation of a favourable opportunity to return to their old course of life. That this was the case appears from what followed. When it was least expected, the most considerable among them, headed by Hastings, earnestly solicited Guthrun to renew the war in Wessex, but not prevailing, they put to sea, and ravaged the coast of Flanders; and shortly after, another, and no less numerous troop, informed of the great booty the first expedition had met with in Kent, embarked to join them. These two bauds, thus united, overran Brabant, Hainault, Flanders, Picardy, and Artois, perpetrating unheard-of cruelties; after which, having again divided into two bodies, one of them sailed back to England, in hopes of plundering the country, where they imagined they should come unexpected. Having landed in Kent, they marched towards Rochester, with design to surprise that city; but Alfred, who, contrary to their expectation, had his army in readiness, hastened to meet them upon the first notice of their arrival, and his approach was sufficient to make them fly to their ships with such precipitation that they left their plunder behind them. His vigilance having prevented their designs upon England, they returned to France, and rejoining their companions, continued their devastations in that kingdom.
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