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In the Track of the Danish Invaders

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The Danish invasions of England began between the years 789 and 802 with the coming of three ships to the Dorset coast. The royal officer in charge of the king's town of Dorchester wished to arrest the ships' companies, because he did not know what men they were, but he and those with him were killed.

With this incident, only recorded because of its interest to an historian in the neighbourhood, English history enters on a long and troubled phase, in which a third of England was colonised by Scandinavian settlers and the whole land was harried by Scandinavian armies. During the next seventy years no part, of England was safe from the descent of raiding parties. The districts near the coast suffered first and most severely. Before the end of the eighth century the Northumbrian coast had been visited by pirates, who destroyed the ancient monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, and that of Jarrow in the following year. There was a temporary respite from Danish attack in the early part of the ninth century, and then a series of descents began which came near to destroying such civilization as existed in England, and but for the heroic resistance made by Alfred king of Wessex, would have turned the whole country into a Scandinavian land. At first the raiders were isolated companies of adventurers, with no object beyond plunder, and it was only as time went on that they joined forces with each other and formed the "armies" whose movements are followed by contemporary historians. Our knowledge of the course of events is very imperfect. Raids which must have devastated a whole county or more are only known because of some brief reference in a chronicle, or through some incidental observation in a legal record. We know, for example, that the Danes were abroad in Shropshire in 855, but our knowledge is only derived from a charter of that year, which happens to be dated "when the heathen were in the Wrekin country."

The range of these early raiders was wide. In 831 Sheppey was harried. Next year a fleet of thirty-five ships descended on Somerset, and their crews defeated King Egbert of Wessex at Carhampton. Two years later a Danish army, allied with the Britons of Cornwall, was defeated by Egbert at Hingstondown in that county. After Egbert's death, in 839, the attacks become more frequent. In the following year the Danes appeared in force both at Southampton and Portland, and a year later all the English coast was harried from Lindsey to the marshes between Kent and Sussex. One notable English victory was won in 851, when Ethelwulf, Egbert's son, defeated a great army at a place called "Aclea," unfortunately not now to be identified. But this victory had little effect on the course of events, and in 855, for the first time, the raiders took winter quarters in England, in the Isle of Sheppey. In 866 a new period of continuous war began with the descent of what is significantly called a "great army" on East Anglia.

Its movements can be traced year by year thenceforward. Each year, when it had extracted tribute from the men of the country around the place of its encampment, it moved to fresh quarters in the autumn. It can be followed over England from East Anglia to York in 867, and so year by year to Nottingham, back again to York, then to Thetford in 870, when it put to death Edmund, the last native king of East Anglia, and from there, doubtless along the Icknield Way under the Chilterns, it moved to Reading. The tale of the fighting around Reading in 871 belongs to the history of King Alfred, who became king of Wessex in that year.

After all the efforts of Alfred and his elder brother King Ethelred, the West Saxons were compelled to pay tribute to the army, and it moved next year to London, thence north to Torksey by the lower Trent, then south again to Repton in the heart of Mercia, where it took winter quarters in 874. At this point it divided into two independent hosts. One of them moved to Cambridge, then invaded Wessex and reduced King Alfred to the straits which give his history a romantic quality which has-done much to preserve his memory. Alone among the English kingdoms, Wessex, under Alfred, was successful in repelling a Danish army, and ultimately, in 880, the Danes whom Alfred had defeated invaded East Anglia and having subjugated it, divided the country among themselves.

The other division of the army which had wintered at Repton in 874 moved north to the river Tyne, and in 876 proceeded to divide Northumbria, part of the army settling on the soil and forming a new Scandinavian state on the ruins of the old Northumbrian kingdom. The rest of the army, which had not shared in the division of Northumbria, entered Mercia in the following year and made a similar division of that country, occupying its eastern portion between the Humber and the Welland. The whole of later Anglo-Saxon history is affected by the relations between the Danes of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, and the West Saxon kingdom which Alfred had preserved from Danish settlement.

For more than a century the Danes in eastern and northern England preserved much of their original military organization. They offered a strong resistance to King Edward the Elder, Alfred's son and successor, who attempted to bring them under his rule, and they only submitted to him after a war which lasted for nearly twenty years. The campaigns by which Edward and his sister Ethelflaed, ruler of the Mercians, fortified the English midlands against the Danes and gradually reduced their strongholds form a remarkable chapter in English history.

Even before the reduction of the original Danish settlers was complete, fresh Scandinavian settlers had entered the land. While the Danish armies had been raiding over England, other Scandinavian adventurers, mostly of Norwegian extraction, had formed colonies on the east coast of Ireland. At the very beginning of the tenth century, different bands of Norwegians from Ireland were descending upon north-western England and founding settlements there. They established themselves in the Wirral peninsula, formed occasional settlements in Lancashire, and colonised Cumberland and Westmorland in force. From their settlements in the far north-west they spread into the North Riding of Yorkshire, and at last one of their chief leaders, Earl Ragnall, took possession of York itself. For more than a generation, until the middle of the century, the Norwegians of York and the north-west maintained close relations with their kinsmen who had settled in Ireland.

This Norwegian settlement in the north has left many traces in the place-names and personal names which appear as soon as records become common. Its most striking memorial is the multitude of stone crosses bearing Norse and Irish designs which were raised in this part of England after the conversion of the new settlers. The greatest of them is the high sandstone cross at Gosforth in west Cumberland, on which a representation of the crucifixion is accompanied by scenes derived from Norse mythology. No other monument in England shows Teutonic heathenism in such close association with Christianity. But the Gosforth cross is the work of an exceptional artist, and a juster impression of the abilities of the Norse sculptors in England may be gathered from the designs upon the numerous monuments commonly called "Hogbacks." Essentially the representation of a house for the dead, the hogback is characteristic of north-western England. The highly distinctive ornamentation which these monuments display is the best illustration of the artistic traditions which the Norwegian settlers brought to this remote part of England. If other evidence were lacking, they alone would prove that the Scandinavian settlers in the north-west were of a different stock from those of the Trent valley, Lincolnshire and East Anglia.

The latter were destined to leave the deepest impression upon English society. The east was the richest part of England. Its population was large, and the descendants of the Danish settlers of the ninth century were able to maintain much of the freedom which their ancestors had enjoyed. By the time of the Norman Conquest the English peasantry of the south and west were, as a class, bound in close subjection to the lords of the villages which they occupied. They formed part of a manorial system, which might allow a tolerable life to the ordinary man, but certainly denied him personal independence. Conditions were entirely different in the shires in which the Danes had settled.

The ordinary peasant in this region could sell, give or exchange the land he cultivated. He always had a lord, but was only bound to him by the duty of attending his court, paying a rent which was always low, and performing services which were usually very light. With every addition to our knowledge of English social history the contrast between the shires of Danish settlement and the rest of England becomes clearer. It was more than a contrast of social organization. For centuries there were two languages in England: much of the ancient Danish speech lasted in the north and east far into the-Middle Ages. There were also two distinct systems of customary law in England. The legal customs which the Danes had introduced only became unimportant when the law of the king's court at Westminster had come to override all local differences. The Danes even preserved, and indeed handed on to men in the south, their own way of reckoning money. The familiar fee of thirteen shillings and fourpence represents the mark of medieval England, and it was the Danes who introduced into England both the word and the curious monetary unit which it represents.

The region which the Danes settled was known as the Danelaw, that is, the district within which the customary law of the Danes prevailed. It fell into three main divisions. In East Anglia, the first of them, the Danes have left comparatively little trace of their presence in place-names, though their influence can be traced clearly enough in the remarkable freedom enjoyed by the East Anglian peasantry of the middle ages and in the ancient Danish personal names which long survived in this part of England. The most northerly division of the Danelaw is now represented by Yorkshire. Here the Danish and Norwegian lines of invasion met and produced a race which was intensely jealous of its independence, and determined to keep its local liberties free from all encroachment at the hands of king or earl.

The north was the most unruly part of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was only brought into submission to Norman rule after it had undergone a terrible devastation from William the Conqueror, a devastation which must have closely resembled the harryings which the ancestors of its population had often inflicted on the unfortunate peasants of the south. Between Yorkshire and East Anglia came a third division of the Danelaw. Unlike the other two divisions, it had never formed a kingdom. It was known as the district of the "Five Boroughs," and derived its names from the five towns of Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Stamford, round which its settlers had grouped themselves. It was this region, and especially its eastern portion, the modern Lincolnshire, which formed the real heart of Danish England. Nowhere are Danish place-names more numerous and nowhere did Danish customs in law and agriculture last longer. Its men showed little wish for political independence. Of the five boroughs themselves only Derby seems to have resisted the English advance under Edward the Elder and his sister. So long as their ancient customs were not threatened the men of this country were quite content to accept the rule of the king of the West Saxons, and, like the men of East Anglia, they gave little trouble to William of Normandy. Their acquiescence in any lord whom events might set over them meant that they played no distinctive pail in English history, but it saved them from devastation such as fell on the men of Yorkshire, and enabled them to preserve their ancient customs through all the wars of the eleventh century.

The last Norwegian kingdom of York came to an end at the middle of the tenth century. Thirty years passed, and then Scandinavian raiders once more descended on England. In 981, seven ships' companies of pirates harried Southampton, and thenceforward the land was never free from attack until in 1016 a king of the 'Danes was accepted everywhere as sovereign. The story of these raids shows that, despite all that had been done by strong kings like Edward the Elder, Athelstan and Edgar, the land was still as open to raiders as it had been a hundred years before. A contemporary writer calls the Isle of Wight the "sanctuary" of the Danes. They on their side deliberately took risks to show their contempt for the levies of the shires. There was an English saying that if the Danes ever went to "Cwichelmeshlaew," the great barrow on the Berkshire Downs now called Scutchamer Knob, they would never get to sea again. In 1006, after harrying Hampshire and Berkshire, and burning Reading and Wallingford, the Danes out of bravado rode along the Downs to this barrow, and then turned southwards, passed unhindered by the walls of Winchester, and brought their plunder to the sea. To enemies like these the English could make no effective reply.

Sometmes the Danes were bought off by the payment of heavy tribute. Vast quantities of money of this date found in the Scandinavian countries show that the chroniclers who complain of this burden were not exaggerating its weight. At one time King Ethelred the Unready feared a rising of the Danes already settled in the country and ordered a massacre of them. How far his orders were carried out will never be known, but the sister of Swegn, king of Denmark, perished at this time, and King Ethelred gained an implacable enemy. Finally, the king received a large body of Danes into his service. They proved faithful to him, but King Swegn of Denmark resented the attraction of his own subjects into the allegiance of another king, and invaded England in the summer of 1013. He touched the English coast at Sandwich, then sailed northwards, passed up the Humber and Trent, and made his headquarters at Gainsborough. The men of Northumbria and of the Five Boroughs submitted quickly, then all the people north of Watling Street, and at last, after ravaging widely in the south, Swegn was accepted as king throughout England. His death in February 1014 gave opportunity for an English revival. Edmund Ironside, son of Ethelred, maintained an heroic resistance against Cnut (Canute), son of Swegn, but was defeated in a great battle at Ash-ingdon in Essex, and then agreed to a treaty by which he retained his ancestral kingdom of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England. Within a year Edmund died, and the undisputed reign of Cnut over all England began.

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