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Northern Europe and France; the Norman Conquest.

Medieval history. From end of western empire to the discovery of America (a.d. 476-1492). Treaty of Verdun to Crusade Period (a.d. 843-1096).
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The Northmen, Norsemen, or Normans, as they were called by the people of the Netherlands, Germany, and France - in the British Isles they were styled Danes - were the inhabitants of, or rather a certain class of the dwellers in, the mediaeval Scandinavia, comprising Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They fill a large space in the history of Europe from the 9th to the 12th centuries, and have left on two of its chief countries - France and England - ineffaceable marks of their presence, and their moral, martial, and intellectual power. The people of the Scandinavian peninsula - the northern Teutons - showed an enterprise and intelligence beyond those of neighbouring countries. Dwelling in a land of sterile soil, but one whose forests supplied abundant timber most suitable for ship-building, a region where the waters swarmed with fish and the hills gave shelter to abundant game, the men were from the first devoted to the bold and hardy life of hunters and fishermen. As population grew, and their desires expanded with the knowledge of the wealth of countries near at hand, a love of the sea-life and of warfare turned many of the peasants and the chiefs, the fishermen and hunters, into sea-robbers, by themselves called "vikings," a word of no connection with "king," but meaning "men of the viks," the bays or fiords unnumbered on the Norway coast. The younger men were also urged to this career by the land-system which made a family estate an indivisible possession, and so they spent the summer seeking plunder on the seas and coasts. For this they launched their stout, seaworthy, roomy long-ships, or ships of war, with an upreared dragon for a figure-head, propelled by oars and by sails that were often of gay colours, or striped with cloth of red and white and blue. The steering could be ruled only by sun and stars, or by the flight of ravens which they carried and let loose as guides to the nearest land. The flag of these terrible sea-rovers bore a black raven on a blood-red ground, and the time came when the sight of it was hated and dreaded on every shore from the North Sea to the Levant. Their religion was a powerful aid to natural love of fighting, in holding forth a hell of cold and darkness for those who died of sickness or old age, and a heaven where conflict passed the time from sunrise till the hour came for return to feast in the Valhalla or great hall. This was the lot reserved for all warriors who fell in action.

A great impulse was given to the career of foreign conquest when the smaller chiefs at home began to fall under the sway of the more powerful, and separate kingdoms were created under strong rulers. The free landowners did not choose to sink to the position of feudal vassals, and many of them sought possessions in foreign lands as the gift of their own swords. Before the end of the 8th century there were Norsemen settled in the Faroe Islands and the Orkneys, and Iceland was discovered and colonised before the close of the 9th century. Leaving for the moment the work done by the Northmen in the British Isles and France, we find them, in their light-draught ships, passing far up the rivers in the valleys of the Elbe and Rhine, with force sufficient to capture and sack seaport towns and inland cities, as well as to plunder abbeys and churches of their gold and silver plate and vestments of valuable cloth, for which a ready market was found at regular trading-places on the Baltic and the North Sea coasts, where merchants from Italy and Flanders and the East purchased slaves and precious metals and stones from their captors. The period until the middle of the 9th century was rather one of plunder and adventure, extending in succession to the western coasts of France and the northern coast of Spain; then to fighting with the Moors in Andalusia, and in 859 and 860 to ravages in Majorca and Mauretania, the Mediterranean coast of Spain, and western Italy The last half of the 9th and the 10th and 11th centuries found Norsemen, apart from their achievements in France and England, establishing realms in Russia; threatening Constantinople from the Black Sea, reached by voyaging down the Dnieper; twice bought off by heavy sums from assaulting the Byzantine capital; and even launching on the Caspian, to the dismay of Moslem dwellers on the coast. It is needless to dwell on the martial renown which Normans won after they had become members of regular states. Robert Guiscard, in southern Italy, became duke of Calabria and Apulia in the nth century, fighting brilliantly there and in Sicily against Saracens and Greeks, and winning victories over the troops of the emperor Alexius beyond the Adriatic. Their prowess will be seen in the Crusades, in which one adventurous warrior of Norman blood became ruler of Antioch, and the famous Tancred, the hero of Tasso's epic poem, was the bravest and most generous of the fighters who, for a time, freed the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the Moslem.

A chaotic period of history is that of the western Frank kingdom in the last half of the 9th century, and the only facts of moment are the frequent, audacious, and terrible ravages of the Northmen, involving the sack of Bordeaux, Tours, Rouen, Orleans, Toulouse, Bayeux, Evreux, Nantes, and other towns, and the hereditary character of feudal fiefs, proclaimed in 877. In that year came the death of Charles the Bald, and some brief reigns ended in 884 in the union of the whole empire under Karl the Fat of Germany, He was deposed three years later for his cowardice, as it was deemed, in paying for the retreat of the Northmen in one of their raids. These invaders were now to become the founders of a new state in the north of the country where they had thrice • taken and plundered Paris, and had for many years controlled the coast-districts from Flanders to Brittany, protected by entrenched camps at the river-mouths, whence they made raids far inland, and levied heavy tribute from counts and dukes and towns. One of the most formidable of their leaders was Rollo (Rou), or Rolf, styled "the Ganger" or "Walker," because he was too tall to ride the small steeds of his native country. This man had been banished from Norway, and sought to found a realm or duchy of his own. After an unsuccessful siege of Paris, Rollo and his followers became masters of Rouen, Bayeux, Evreux, and other towns, daily adding to their territory. The Frank ruler, Charles the Simple (893-923), unable to drive them out, made a safe compromise about the year 912. The Normans settled in the fertile province called Neustria, watered by the Seine, with an extensive coast. In return for this permanent possession of territory, to be held in fief, or on feudal tenure, from Charles, Rollo became a Christian, baptised as "Robert," and thus was founded the Duchy of Normandy. Before his death in 927, the Norman influence had been spread over adjacent territory in Brittany and Maine, fresh lands had been acquired by grant from the suzerain, and the people were firmly settled in their new country.

The Normans, as these people may now be called, showed an unrivalled capacity for adopting and improving upon the civilisation of the country and age in which they lived. With the speech, usages, and faith of those whom they had subdued, they acquired all the knowledge and culture of western Europe. They improved the rude early French into the most refined tongue of the age, the "Norman-French," adapted for high service in legislation, poetry, and romance. Good taste, splendour, and luxury appeared in their diet, their manners, and apparel, and the heathen rovers of the North Sea and the Channel became a nation of civilised people, almost fanatics in their religion, skilled in handicrafts, trade, arts, and letters, the builders of the noble castles and cathedrals which are among the glories of mediaeval architecture. The one thing which the Normans did not change or lay aside was their dauntless valour. The gentlemen and nobles of Normandy overlaid its original ferocity with the chivalrous spirit that made them the foremost knights of Christendom in the battle-field and the tournament. Their great improvement in the art of war was the employment of the heavy cavalry, horse and man alike protected by armour, the rider using a sword and a long heavy spear or lance.

One or two of the successors of Rollo in the Duchy were at war with the Frank or French kings following Charles the Simple, and there were also conflicts between the East (or German) and the West (or French) Franks. The direct line of Karl the Great became extinct in 987 on the death of the feeble Ludwig V., and the history of France is held to begin with the Capetian dynasty (987-1328, in the direct line) in the person of Hugh Capet, son of Hugh of Paris, duke of France. Hugh Capet, king of France (987-996), was, however, only the chief among a number of great feudal lords, the dukes of Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine, the counts of Flanders, Champagne, and other territories. His own little realm extended from the Somme to the Loire, with Paris as the capital, having Champagne on the east and Normandy and Anjou on the west. Under his successors, for over a century, the power of the king of France, surrounded by territories whose feudal rulers surpassed him in military resources, remained a shadowy thing. The reign of Philip I. (1060-1108) has no distinction of its own, but the period included two important events soon to be dealt with - the Norman conquest of England and the first of the Crusades.

The Danes had begun to trouble England before the days of Egbert, having made in 787 their first recorded attack by landing on the coast of Wessex. The pagan rovers hated the English, akin to them as they were in blood and language, for their change of religion. Until after the middle of the 9th century, these assailants only made desultory ravages, some of a very serious kind, as the sacking of London and Canterbury in 851. Then began a period of settlement and conquest in various parts of the country, a time when it was well for England that Egbert's successors were energetic men, who made a stout fight against the invaders, and kept the country from being overwhelmed. It was in 855 that a party of Danes, for the first time, passed the winter in the land, maintaining themselves in a fortified position of the Isle of Sheppey, on the north of Kent. Under Ethelred I. (866-871), much of Northumbria was overrun, and a large part of East Anglia was conquered in 870, by a body of Danes who had come down from the north, and plundered and burnt the rich abbeys of Peterborough, Croyland, and Ely in the fen-country. Edmund, king of East Anglia, ranking as a martyr and saint, shot to death with arrows as he was when he refused to give up his faith, has left his name in the place of his interment, Bury St. Edmunds, or St. Edmund's town. Mercia was then forced to become tributary, and the invaders were masters of the whole of England north of the Thames. A turn of the tide came when, in 871, they moved on Wessex, and, pushing their way up. the Thames to Reading, reached the Vale of White Horse in the north-west of Berkshire. The district has its name from the most famous of the many huge figures of horses, on hillsides, chiefly found in Wiltshire, formed by removing the turf so as to show the chalk beneath. The one which traditionally commemorates the victory won by the king and his younger brother Alfred at Aescesdun, or Ash-tree Hill, a spot not clearly known, is over 350 feet in length, and 120 feet in height from ear to heel, cut out on a slope about two miles due south of Uffington. The Danes, after a severe conflict, were defeated and driven back to the river, but the arrival of reinforcements up the Thames made them stronger than before, and Ethelred fell in a later action.

It was at this critical time that the rule of Wessex was taken up by one of the best sovereigns that ever reigned, one whose devotion to duty has never been equalled in our annals save by the great lady, his lineal descendant, who was Queen of England a thousand years later. It is needless, for British readers, to dwell on the noble career of the man born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in 849, who was king of Wessex for 30 years (871-901). We all know his retreat in 878, before Guthorm or Guthrum, Danish king of East Anglia, to a refuge in the Somerset marshes at the Isle of Athelney, his gathering of forces, and his victory at Ethandun, another uncertain spot, perhaps in Wiltshire, over Guthrum and his men. The spirit of a true statesman was shown in the victor's compromise with the foe, embodied in the Treaty (or Peace) of Wedmore, in Somerset, a few miles west of Wells. The wise man knew that he could not drive the Danes from the land, and he resolved to turn gallant foes into a new and friendly element of the nation. The Danish king and his men were baptised as Christians, and by this and a later treaty Alfred kept Wessex, Sussex, and Kent, with London and the western half of Mercia, while the Danes possessed East Anglia, the eastern half of Mercia, and Northumbria to the Tees. The Northmen had thus the larger half of England, called the Danelagh, or Danes' community, until the Norman conquest, because it was ruled by Danish customs and codes. From 880 to 893 Wessex was, for the most part, at peace. An invasion from Normandy under a brave leader named Hasting, who landed in Kent, gave Alfred a contest of four years (893-897), by sea and land, against these new enemies, and the Danes of Northumbria and East Anglia. At last he was successful, and further invasion was prevented by the creation of a powerful fleet of ships, far superior to the Danish in size, stability, and speed, and manned by crews well trained in all the work of naval warfare. The roving squadrons were kept at bay, and pirates who were taken were promptly hanged.

The work of Alfred in restoring and improving the civilisation of his portion of England is beyond praise. "Without haste, without rest," he was an able administrator; a lawgiver who compiled from the old codes of Ina of Wessex, Offa of Mercia, and Ethelbert of Kent; a restorer of ruined towns, churches, and abbeys, of justice and commerce, of literature and learning. He created a new militia and the first English navy; he was the spiritual and intellectual leader of his people. His many-sided character and culture are seen in his literary work; his skill and delight in the chase; his love of ballad, anecdote, and merry tale; his zeal as a builder, his mechanical ingenuity, his invention for measuring time, his planning of a new type of battleship. It was the genius and the incessant toil of this most admirable and lovable of Englishmen that made the grand empire of Queen Victoria possible, by saving his little England from foreign domination, raising her in the scale of nations, and maintaining her in the fellowship of Christian peoples. It is true that, three generations after his death, the people were overcome for a time by the successors of the Danes whom he had mastered, and that, in two generations more, the land was subdued again by Northmen. None the less had Alfred, in the days when he delivered Wessex from the Dane, rescued an England for the glories of the future. The indomitable courage, the religious endurance, the heart and hope of this great Christian hero, tested in every kind of trial, were a most precious bequest to the crown and to the nation, a model of our national character at its best, as combining, in the achievements of our race, the world of thought and the world of action. "Duty before all" was and is the motto of the best of Englishmen, never more nobly illustrated than in the vivid and charming personality of Alfred, bright and frank in feature and expression; dignified in form and demeanour; kindly, humorous, truthful, simple, in all points worthy of what he won, the lasting affection and esteem of posterity. Alfred was succeeded by his son called Edward the Elder, as the first king of that name, who reigned from 901 to 925. Under him and his able and energetic sister Ethelflaed, called the "Lady of the Mercians," as being the widow of the Ealdorman of West Mercia, the English cause was well maintained against the Danes by the building of fortresses along the border, and the annexation of East Mercia in the capture of the "Five Boroughs," Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Derby, and Nottingham. The subjugation of East Anglia and Essex made Edward master, before his death, of all the centre of the country as far as the Humber. The next king, Athelstan, (925-940), son of Edward, ruled with ability and strength, breaking up a powerful league of Welsh, Scots, and Danes, in 937, in a battle at Brunanburh, an unknown site on the coast of Northumbria. His brother, Edmund the Elder (940-946), was energetic in warfare, and, after crushing a revolt in the Danish portion of the land, he conquered Cumberland from its Celtic possessors, and gave it over to Malcolm of Scotland, to be held by him on the terms of alliance against the Danes. At this period we have, under Edmund, Edred, brother of Edmund, and Edgar (959-975), the famous Dunstan as chief minister in civil and ecclesiastical affairs. This accomplished man, skilful in all the intellectual and manual arts of his day - carving, metal-work, music, painting, Latin - rose from the position of abbot of the Benedictine house at Glastonbury to that of archbishop of Canterbury in 959. He was an active restorer of monastic houses and discipline, and was devoted to church-work from the time of his retirement from civil affairs in 978 until his death, ten years later, at the seat of his ecclesiastical authority. In 954 the Danes of Northumbria were overcome by Edred, and the country from the Channel to the Firth of Forth was thus under one ruler. The surrender, to the Scottish king, of the land called Lothian, between the Forth and the Cheviot Hills, brought England to the limits which now exist, except as regards Cumberland, which was taken from the Scots under William Rufus, and gradually settled by English in place of Welshmen. During the loth century the royal power increased through the king's leadership of a regular military force against the Danes. The office was subject to election by the Witan, or assembly of nobles, the new king being, however, chosen from the kinsmen of the late monarch, with preference for an eldest son, unless he were manifestly unfit. The transition from this method of choice to the hereditary kingship was easy. It was Athelstan who first styled himself "King of the English." The division of the country into shires belongs to this period, the territory of a county being that of one of the old smaller kingdoms, as in Kent, Essex, Middlesex, and Sussex, or a district connected with some important town. The system of local government still in full force existed in the shire-moot ("meeting") or county-court, with the ealdorman, the chief military and civil shire-official, and the bishop, as presidents. There business was transacted, and law was dispensed, both in civil and criminal affairs, by the shire landowners, in many matters now managed by County Councils and by the justices at Quarter-Sessions. We have here an important difference between the insular and the continental systems. The Roman law, so prominent in judicial business among foreign European nations, has little sway in this country, south of the Tweed, and the "common law" of England is still, to a large extent, that of our Teutonic ancestors.

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Pictures for Northern Europe and France; the Norman Conquest.

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