Public School History of England/Chapter III
Chapter III. Struggle Between the English and the Danes.Edit
1. The coming of the Danes.Edit
But peace did not come to the English when Egbert became king, for new enemies appeared. These were the Danes, a people of the same blood as the English, but living in Denmark and Norway. They were called Northmen or Norsemen, and unlike the English, had remained heathens. They were as fierce and warlike as the English had been before Christianity changed their habits and softened their manners. They came in great numbers in their boats, and landing on the coasts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, plundered the inhabitants, carrying off prisoners, and burning the homes of the defenceless people. They specially delighted in robbing and burning monasteries, partly because they were the homes of priests of the Christian religion, and partly because much wealth was gathered there. Besides the monks could not offer much opposition to them. Egbert and his son and grandsons did their utmost to drive back these robbers. At times the English were successful and defeated the enemy, but they gradually lost ground until a great part of England was subdued by the Danes. Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia were thus taken by them, and then they turned their arms against Wessex. Here four grandsons of Egbert reigned in succession and strove to keep back the Danes. The last of these kings was Alfred, who began to reign in 871. He was chosen king over his brother's son, who was a mere lad, because the English wanted a brave leader at this perilous time, and Alfred had shown his courage in many a fierce fight with the invaders.
2. Alfred the Great.Edit
Few kings have been such good rulers as Alfred, and few have had so many difficulties to overcome. When quite a little lad at his mother's knee he was fond of reading and learning, although books at that time were very scarce. He was sent to Rome when four years old, and there learned much which helped him greatly after he became king. He was troubled all his life with a painful disease, and at the very outset of his reign had to do battle against the ravaging Danes. But he bore himself bravely and manfully at all times, although for the first seven years of his reign he met with nothing but defeat in his struggle against the enemy. In 878, so great was his distress, he had to fly in disguise to the marshes and woods of Somersetshire. There, it is said, while hiding in a swineherd's hut, he allows the good wife's cakes to burn, so intent was he on thinking out a plan by means of which he could save his country. At last he gathered his scattered followers together in Athelney, an island in Somersetshire, and inspiring them with his own hope and courage, attacked and defeated the Danish leader, Guthrum, at Edington. He then made him sign a treaty, called the Treaty of Wedmore, whereby the Danes kept that part of England north of a line from London to Chester, while Alfred kept all south of that line. By this treaty the Danes held Northumbria, East Anglia, and part of Mercia, and this land became known as the Danelagh. Many of the Danes became Christians, and Alfred's supremacy over the Danelagh was recognized. This treaty gave the land peace for many years, and Alfred now tried to improve the condition of his people, and to give them good laws.
3. Alfred's Government.Edit
Among other good things that Alfred did, he collected the old laws of the English and added others from the Ten Commandments and the laws of Moses, and these he put in force. He built monasteries and schools and sought to fill them with pupils under wise and learned teachers. He translated books, which were written in Latin, into English, and so may be said to be the Father of English literature.
Not content with trying to educate his people, he took great care that they should be taught to defend themselves against the Danes. He divided his men into two bodies, one to go out to fight against the Danes, if needful, and the other to guard the homes of the people. He also built ships to keep the Danes away from the shore, and thus began the English navy. His time was always fully occupied, one portion being given to sleep, another to prayer, and a third to work. Thus it was that Alfred, although often ill and troubled by wars and invasions, did more for his people and his kingdom than most kings who have ruled in England.
4. Alfred's successors.Edit
Alfred died in 901, and was succeeded by his son Edward (the Elder). Edward, his sons Athelstan, Edmund, Edred, and his grandson Edwy, gradually but surely won back the Danelagh from the Danes, until in 959, an English king once more ruled over all England, and both English and Danes became subjects of Edgar the Peaceable, Edwy's brother. By this time the Danes and the English were much alike. They were of the same hardy race, and though their languages differed somewhat, they easily learned to talk with one another. The Danes had become Christians while in England, and had lost much of their rudeness and love of fighting and plundering. We, to-day, can tell where they lived by the named by the names of the towns they had founded, these nearly always ending in "by." Thus Grimsby, Derby, and Kirkby, are places of Danish origin, while towns whose names end in "ham" or "ton" are English towns.