Public School History of England and Canada/England/Chapter 3


Chapter III


1. The Coming of the Danes.—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 the 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.—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 allowed 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.—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 then 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.—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 names of towns they 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.

5. Dunstan.—Edgar did not really rule England, that was the work of a great man in his reign, Archbishop Dunstan. It was Dunstan’s task to make the English and Danes live peaceably together, and this he did by allowing the Danes to keep their own laws and customs. Like Alfred the Great, he loved learning, and sought to educate the people. He brought in from-abroad good teachers, and encouraged the monks to write books and lead pure lives and be diligent in teaching and caring for the people. Under Dunstan commerce revived, for fleets guarded the English shores against the attacks of the Northmen, and enabled traders from France and Germany to visit England. Men of the same trade began to unite in societies or guilds to look after their own interests, while the householders of each burgh or borough claimed the right to manage their own affairs.

6. Social changes.—A great change had by this time come over the English people since they first came to England. The king had now become much more powerful by reason of the increase in the number of his personal followers or thegns. These thegns got land from the king and became a kind of nobility, and did not recognize any authority except that of the king. Again, many of the ceorls had given up their freedom during the troublous times of the Danes. Not able to defend themselves they became the “men” of rich and powerful nobles, and had to work for them in return for protection. These ‘‘villeins” (from ‘‘villanus” a husbandman), although no longer free, were not badly treated. They had houses and land of their own; and for food had barley-bread, fish, vegetables, fruit, and buttermilk. Nevertheless they could no longer take part in the village meeting, nor move from place to place without their masters’ permission.

The lower order of freemen, the ancestors of our yeomanry, lived comfortably on their own homesteads. They had an abundance of good food and clothing and were a sturdy, manly class, with a strong love of freedom and independence. It is from this class, living chiefly in the North of England, that so many brave men have come, who on many battlefields have saved England from her enemies, both at home and abroad.

The nobles having less to do than the ceorls, lived idle and often riotous lives. Their slaves and villeins did all their work, and provided for all their wants. When not engaged in fighting, they passed their time in hawking, hunting, racing, wrestling, and other rough out-door sports. In their halls the ladies spun or embroidered, and amused themselves with travelling gleemen who sang and played ballads to while away the tedious hours. It was from the nobles and bishops that the Witangemot was chosen, which had great power in choosing the king, in making laws and treaties, and governing the people. In olden times every freeman had a right to a voice in making the laws; but now this was impossible, and it fell to the king and his Witan to do all the governing.

7. Danish Conquest.—This was the state of the English people in Dunstan’s time. Dunstan did not remain the king’s minister long after Edgar died, for a quarrel having arisen in the church about the right of the clergy to marry, Dunstan, who favored an unmarried clergy, retired to Canterbury, and a few years later died.

The next king after Edgar was another Edward, and then came Ethelred, rightly called the Unready or ‘‘Uncounselled,” because he would not take good advice. In Edgar’s time the Danes from Denmark and Norway were kept off, but now, Ethelred being a weak king, they landed in great numbers, and once more the land was plundered and the people murdered. Ethelred tried to buy them off, but this only brought them back in greater numbers. Then Ethelred married Emma of Normandy, hoping that her people would help him against the Danes. At last he had a great many of them treacherously murdered on St. Brice’s Day, 13th November, 1002. But this only made matters worse, for among the slain was the sister of the Danish king, Swegen or Sweyn. To revenge his sister, Swegen came over with a large army, and Ethelred fled to Normandy. Sweyn died, but his son Cnut, a still more terrible enemy, continued the war. When Ethelred died in 1016, his son Edmund Ironsides fought so bravely and well that Cnut agreed to divide England with him. Edmund, however, died, and then Cnut became king of all the country.

8. Danish Rule.—Cnut, although cruel in his earlier days, ruled justly and mildly after he became king. He governed by the English laws, and tried to stop the trade in slaves that went on between Bristol and Ireland. English and Danes alike obeyed him, and for eighteen years the troubled land had peace. His reign came to an end in 1036.

Cnut had married Emma of Normandy, Ethelred’s widow, and by her had two sons, Harold and Harthacnut, who in turn succeeded him. They were wild, vicious, and brutal young men. Fortunately their reigns were soon over, Harthacnut, the last to rule, dying in 1042. The English then sent over to France for Edward, the son of Ethelred and Emma, and once more an English king ruled in England.