Gateway to the Classics: Alfred the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alfred the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Sequel

T HE romantic story of Godwin forms the sequel to the history of Alfred, leading us onward, as it does, toward the next great era in English history, that of William the Conqueror.

Although, as we have seen in the last chapter, the immediate effects of Alfred's measures was to re-establish peace and order in his kingdom, and although the institutions which he founded have continued to expand and develop themselves down to the present day, still it must not be supposed that the power and prosperity of his kingdom and of the Saxon dynasty continued wholly uninterrupted after his death. Contentions and struggles between the two great races of Saxons and Danes continued for some centuries to agitate the island. The particular details of these contentions have in these days, in a great measure, lost their interest for all but professed historical scholars. It is only the history of great leading events and the lives of really extraordinary men, in the annals of early ages, which can now attract the general attention even of cultivated minds. The vast movements which have occurred and are occurring in the history of mankind in the present century, throw every thing except what is really striking and important in early history into the shade.

The era which comes next in the order of time to that of Alfred in the course of English history, as worthy to arrest general attention, is, as we have already said, that of William the Conqueror. The life of this sovereign forms the subject of a separate volume of this series. He lived two centuries after Alfred's day; and although, for the reasons above given, a full chronological narration of the contentions between the Saxon and Danish lines of kings which took place during this interval would be of little interest or value, some general knowledge of the state of the kingdom at this time is important, and may best be communicated in connection with the story of Godwin.

Godwin was by birth a Saxon peasant, of Warwickshire. At the time when he arrived at manhood, and was tending his father's flocks and herds, like other peasants' sons, the Saxons and the Danes were at war. It seems that one of Alfred's descendants, named Ethelred, displeased his people by his misgovernment, and was obliged to retire from England. He went across the Channel, and married there the sister of a Norman chief named Richard. Her name was Emma. Ethelred hoped by this alliance to obtain Richard's assistance in enabling him to recover his kingdom. The Danish population, however, took advantage of his absence to put one of their own princes upon the throne. His name was Canute. He figures in English history, accordingly, among the other English kings, as Canute the Dane, that appellation being given him to mark the distinction of his origin in respect to the kings who preceded and followed him, as they were generally of the Saxon line.

It was this Canute of whom the famous story is told that, in order to rebuke his flatterers, who, in extolling his grandeur and power, had represented to him that even the elements were subservient to his will, he took his stand upon the sea-shore when the tide was coming in, with his flatterers by his side, and commanded the rising waves not to approach his royal feet. He kept his sycophantic courtiers in this ridiculous position until the encroaching waters drove them away, and then dismissed them overwhelmed with confusion. The story is told in a thousand different ways, and with a great variety of different embellishments, according to the fancy of the several narrators; all that there is now any positive evidence for believing, however, is, that probably some simple incident of the kind occurred out of which the stories have grown.

Canute did not hold his kingdom in peace. Ethelred sent his son across the Channel into England to negotiate with the Anglo-Saxon powers for his own restoration to the throne. An arrangement was accordingly made with them, and Ethelred returned, and a violent civil war immediately ensued between Ethelred and the Anglo-Saxons on the one hand, and Canute and the Danes on the other. At length Ethelred fell, and his son Edmund, who was at the time of his death one of his generals, succeeded him. Emma and his two other sons had been left in Normandy. Edmund carried on the war against Canute with great energy. One of his battles was fought in the county of Warwick, in the heart of England, where the peasant Godwin lived. In this battle the Danes were defeated, and the discomfited generals fled in all directions from the field wherever they saw the readiest hope of concealment or safety. One of them, named Ulf, took a by-way, which led him in the direction of Godwin's father's farm. Night came on, and he lost his way in a wood. Men, when flying under such circumstances from a field of battle, avoid always the public roads, and seek concealment in unfrequented paths, where they easily get bewildered and lost. Ulf wandered about all night in the forest, and when the morning came he found himself exhausted with fatigue, anxiety, and hunger, certain to perish unless he could find some succor, and yet dreading the danger of being recognized as a Danish fugitive if he were to be discovered by any of the Saxon inhabitants of the land. At length he heard the shouts of a peasant who was coming along a solitary pathway through the wood, driving a herd to their pasture. Ulf would gladly have avoided him if he could have gone on without succor or help. His plan was to find his way to the Severn, where some Danish ships were lying, in hopes of a refuge on board of them. But he was exhausted with hunger and fatigue, and utterly bewildered and lost; so he was compelled to go forward and take the risk of accosting the Saxon stranger.

He accordingly went up to him, and asked him his name. Godwin told him his name, and the name of his father, who lived, he said, at a little distance in the wood. While he was answering the question, he gazed very earnestly at the stranger, and then told him that he perceived that he was a Dane—a fugitive, he supposed, from the battle. Ulf, thus finding that he could not be concealed, begged Godwin not to betray him. He acknowledged that he was a Dane, and that he had made his escape from the battle, and he wished, he said, to find his way to the Danish ships in the Severn. He begged Godwin to conduct him there. Godwin replied by saying that it was unreasonable and absurd for a Dane to expect guidance and protection from a Saxon.

Ulf offered Godwin all sorts of rewards if he would leave his herd and conduct him to a place of safety. Godwin said that the attempt, were he to make it, would endanger his own life without saving that of the fugitive. The country, he said, was all in arms. The peasantry, emboldened by the late victory obtained by the Saxon army, were every where rising; and although it was not far to the Severn, yet to attempt to reach the river while the country was in such a state of excitement would be a desperate undertaking. They would almost certainly be intercepted; and, if intercepted, their exasperated captors would show no mercy, Godwin said, either to him or to his guide.

Among the other inducements which Ulf offered to Godwin was a valuable gold ring, which he took from his finger, and which he said, should be his if he would consent to be his guide. Godwin took the ring into his hand, examined it with much apparent curiosity, and seemed to hesitate. At length he yielded; though he seems to have been induced to yield, not by the value of the offered gift, but by compassion for the urgency of the distress which the offer of it indicated, for he put the ring back into Ulf's hand, saying that he would not take any thing from him, but he would try to save him.

Instead, however, of undertaking the apparently hopeless enterprise of conducting Ulf to the Severn, he took him to his father's cottage and concealed him there. During the day they formed plans for journeying together, not to the ships in the Severn, but to the Danish camp. They were to set forth as soon as it was dark. When the evening came and all was ready, and they were about to commence their dangerous journey, the old peasant, Godwin's father, with an anxious countenance and manner, gave Ulf, this solemn charge:

"This is my only  son. In going forth to guide you under these circumstances, he puts his life at stake, trusting to your honor. He can not return to me again, as there will be no more safety for him among his own countrymen after having once been a guide for you. When, therefore, you reach the camp, present my son to your king, and ask him to receive him into his service. He can not come again to me." Ulf promised very earnestly to do all this and much more for his protector; and then bidding the father farewell, and leaving him in his solitude, the two adventurers sallied forth into the dark forest and went their way.

After various adventuress they reached the camp of the Danes in safety. Ulf faithfully fulfilled the promises that he had made. He introduced Godwin to the king, and the king was so much pleased with the story of his general's escape, and so impressed with the marks of capacity and talent which the young Saxon manifested, that he gave Godwin immediately a military command in his army. In fact, a young man who could leave his home and his father, and abandon the cause of his countrymen forever under such circumstances, must have had something besides generosity toward a fugitive enemy to impel him. Godwin was soon found to possess a large portion of that peculiar spirit which constitutes a soldier. He was ambitious, stern, energetic, and always successful. He rose rapidly in influence and rank, and in the course of a few years, during which King Canute triumphed wholly over his Saxon enemies, and established his dominion over almost the whole realm, he was promoted to the rank of a king, and ruled, second only to Canute himself, over the kingdom of Wessex, one of the most important divisions of Canute's empire. Here he lived and reigned in peace and prosperity for many years. He was married, and he had a daughter named Edith, who was as gentle and lovely as her father was terrible and stern. They said that Edith sprung from Godwin like a rose from its stem of thorns.

A writer who lived in those days, and recorded the occurrences of the times, says that, when he was a boy, his father was employed in some way in Godwin's palace, and that in going to and from school he was often met by Edith, who was walking, attended by her maid. On such occasions Edith would stop him, he said, and question him about his studies, his grammar, his logic, and his verses, and she would often draw him into an argument on those subtle points of disputation which attracted so much attention in those days. Then she would commend him for his attention and progress, and order her woman to make him a present of some money. In a word, Edith was so gentle and kind, and took so cordial an interest in whatever concerned the welfare and happiness of those around her, that she was universally beloved. She became, in the end, as we shall see in due time, the English queen.

In the mean time, while Godwin was governing, as vicegerent, the province which Canute had assigned him, Canute himself extended his own dominion far and wide, reducing first all England under his sway, and then extending his conquests to the Continent. Edmund, the Saxon king, was dead. His brothers Edward and Alfred, the two remaining sons of Ethelred, were with their mother in Normandy. They, of course, represented the Saxon line. The Saxon portion of Canute's kingdom would of course look to them as their future leaders. Under these circumstances, Canute conceived the idea of propitiating the Saxon portion of the population, and combining, so far as was possible, the claims of the two lines, by making the widow Emma his own wife. He made the proposal to her, and she accepted it, pleased with the idea of being once more a queen. She came to England, and they were married. In process. of time they had a son, who was named Hardicanute, which means Canute the strong.

Canute now felt that his kingdom was secure; and he hoped, by making Hardicanute his heir, to perpetuate the dominion in his own family. It is true that he had older children, whom the Danes might look upon as more properly his heirs; and Emma had also two older children, the sons of Ethelred, in Normandy. These the Saxons  would be likely to consider as the rightful heirs to the throne. There was danger, therefore, that at his death parties would again be formed, and the civil wars break out anew. Canute and Emma therefore seem to have acted wisely, and to have done all that the nature of the case admitted to prevent a renewal of these dreadful struggles, by concentrating their combined influence in favor of Hardicanute, who, though not absolutely the heir to either line, still combined, in some degree, the claim of both of them. Canute also did all in his power to propitiate his Anglo-Saxon subjects. He devoted himself to promoting the welfare of the kingdom in every way. He built towns, he constructed roads, he repaired and endowed the churches. He became a very zealous Christian, evincing the ardor of his piety, whether real or pretended, by all the forms and indications common in those days. Finally, to crown all, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome. He set out on this journey with great pomp and parade, and attended by a large retinue, and yet still strictly like a pilgrim. He walked, and carried a wallet on his back, and a long pilgrim's staff in his hand. This pilgrimage, at the time when it occurred, filled the world with its fame.

At length King Canute died, and then, unfortunately, it proved that all his seemingly wise precautions against the recurrence of civil wars were taken in vain. It happened that Hardicanute, whom he had intended should succeed him, was in Denmark at the time of his death. Godwin, however, proclaimed him king, and attempted to establish his authority, and to make Emma a sort of regent, to govern in his name until he could be brought home. The Danish chieftains, on the other hand, elected and proclaimed one of Canute's older sons, whose name was Harold; and they succeeded in carrying a large part of the country in his favor. Godwin then summoned Emma to join him in the west with such forces as she could command, and both parties prepared for war.

Then ensued one of those scenes of terror and suffering, which war, and sometimes the mere fear of war, brings often in its train. It was expected that the first outbreak of hostilities would be in the interior of England, near the banks of the Thames, and the inhabitants of the whole region were seized with apprehensions and fears, which spread rapidly, increased by the influence of sympathy, and excited more and more every day by a thousand groundless rumors, until the whole region was thrown into a state of uncontrollable panic and confusion. The inhabitants abandoned their dwellings, and fled in dismay into the eastern part of the island, to seek refuge among the fens and marshes of Lincolnshire, and of the other counties around. Here, as has been already stated in a previous chapter when describing the Abbey of Crowland, were a great many monasteries, and convents, and hermitages, and other religious establishments, filled with monks and nuns. The wretched fugitives from the expected scene of war crowded into this region, besieging the doors of the abbeys and monasteries to beg for shelter, or food or protection. Some built huts among the willow woods which grew in the fens; others encamped at the road-sides, or under the monastery walls, wherever they could find the semblance of shelter. They presented, of course, a piteous spectacle—men infirm with sickness or age, or exhausted with anxiety and fatigue; children harassed and way-worn; and helpless mothers, with still more helpless babes at their breasts. The monks, instead of being moved to compassion by the sight of these unhappy sufferers, were only alarmed on their own account at such an inundation of misery. They feared that they should be overwhelmed themselves. Those whose establishments were large and strong, barred their doors against the suppliants, and the hermits, who lived alone in detached and separate solitudes, abandoned their osier huts, and fled themselves to seek some place more safe from such intrusions.

And yet, after all, the whole scene was only a false alarm. Men acting in a panic are almost always running into the ills which they think they shun. The war did not break out on the banks of the Thames at all. Hardicanute, deterred, perhaps, by the extent of the support which the claims of Harold were receiving, did not venture to come to England, and Emma and Godwin, and those who would have taken their side, having no royal head to lead them, gave up their opposition, and acquiesced in Harold's reign. The fugitives in the marshes and fens returned to their homes; the country became tranquil; Godwin held his province as a sort of lieutenant general of Harold's kingdom, and Emma herself joined his court in London, where she lived with him ostensibly on very friendly terms.

Still, her mind was ill at ease. Harold, though the son of her husband, was not her own son, and the ambitious spirit which led her to marry for her second husband her first husband's rival and enemy, that she might be a second time a queen, naturally made her desire that one of her own offspring, either on the Danish or the Saxon side, should inherit the kingdom; for the reader must not forget that Emma, besides being the mother of Hardicanute by her second husband Canute, the Danish sovereign, was also the mother of Edward and Alfred by her first husband Ethelred, of the Anglo-Saxon line, and that these two sons were in Normandy now. The family connection will be more apparent to the eye by the following scheme:

Harold was the son of Canute by a former marriage. Emma, of course, felt no maternal interest in him, and though compelled by circumstances to acquiesce for a time in his possession of the kingdom, her thoughts were continually with her own sons; and since the attempt to bring Hardicanute to the throne had failed, she began to turn her attention toward her Norman children.

After scheming for a time, she wrote letters to them, proposing that they should come to England. She represented to them that the Anglo-Saxon portion of the people were ill at ease under Harold's dominion, and would gladly embrace any opportunity of having a Saxon king. She had no doubt, she said, that if one of them were to appear in England and claim the throne, the people would rise in mass to support him, and he would easily get possession of the realm. She invited them, therefore, to repair secretly to England, to confer with her on the subject; charging them, however, to bring very few, if any, Norman attendants with them, as the English people were inclined to be very jealous of the influence of foreigners.

The brothers were very much elated at receiving these tidings; so much so that in their zeal they were disposed to push the enterprise much faster than their mother had intended. Instead of going, themselves, quietly and secretly to confer with her in London, they organized an armed expedition of Norman soldiers. The youngest, Alfred, with an enthusiasm characteristic of his years, took the lead in these measures. He undertook to conduct the expedition. The eldest consented to his making the attempt. He landed at Dover, and began his march through the southern part of the country. Godwin  went forth to meet him. Whether he would join his standard or meet him as a foe, no one could tell. Emma considered that Godwin was on her side, though even she had not recommended an armed invasion of the country.

It is very probable that Godwin himself was uncertain, at first, what course to pursue, and that he intended to have espoused Prince Alfred's cause if he had found that it presented any reasonable prospect of success. Or he may have felt bound to serve Harold faithfully, now that he had once given in his adhesion to him. Of course, he kept his thoughts and plans to himself, leaving the world to see only his deeds. But if he had ever entertained any design of espousing Alfred's cause, he abandoned it before the time arrived for action. As he advanced into the southern part of the island, he called together the leading Saxon chiefs to hold a council, and he made an address to them when they were convened, which had a powerful influence on their minds in preventing their deciding in favor of Alfred. However much they might desire a monarch of their own line, this, he said, was not the proper occasion for effecting their end. Alfred was, it was true, an Anglo-Saxon by descent, but he was a Norman by birth and education. All his friends and supporters were Normans. He had come now into the realm of England with a retinue of Norman followers, who would, if he were successful, monopolize the honors and offices which he would have to bestow. He advised the Anglo- Saxon chieftains, therefore, to remain inactive, to take no part in the contest, but to wait for some other opportunity to re-establish the Saxon line of kings.

The Anglo-Saxon chieftains seem to have considered this good advice. At any rate, they made no movement to sustain young Alfred's cause. Alfred had advanced to the town of Guilford. Here he was surrounded by a force which Harold had sent against him. There was no hope or possibility of resistance. In fact, his enemies seem to have arrived at a time when he did not expect an attack, for they entered the gates by a sudden onset, when Alfred's followers were scattered about the town, at the various houses to which they had been distributed. They made no attempt to defend themselves, but were taken prisoners one by one, wherever they were found. They were bound with cords, and carried away like ordinary criminals.

Of Alfred's ten principal Norman companions, nine were beheaded. For some reason or other the life of one was spared. Alfred himself was charged with having violated the peace of his country, and was condemned to lose his eyes. The torture of this operation, and the inflammation which followed, destroyed the unhappy prince's life. Neither Emma nor Godwin did any thing to save him. It was wise policy, no doubt, in Emma to disavow all connection with her son's unfortunate attempt, now that it had failed; and ambitious queens have to follow the dictates of policy, instead of obeying such impulses as maternal love. She was, however, secretly indignant at the cruel fate which her son had endured, and she considered Godwin as having betrayed him.

After this dreadful disappointment, Emma was not likely to make any farther attempts to place either of her sons upon the throne; but Harold seems to have distrusted her, for he banished her from the realm. She had still her Saxon son in Normandy, Alfred's brother Edward, and her Danish son in Denmark. She went to Flanders, and there sent to Hardicanute, urging him by the most earnest importunities to come to England and assert his claims to the crown. He was doubly bound to do it now, she said, as the blood of his murdered brother called for retribution, and he could have no honorable rest or peace until he had avenged it.

There was no occasion, however, for Hardi- canute to attempt force for the recovery of his kingdom, for not many months after these transactions Harold died, and then the country seemed generally to acquiesce in Hardicanute's accession. The Anglo-Saxons, discouraged perhaps by the discomfiture of their cause in the person of Alfred, made no attempt to rise. Hardicanute came accordingly and assumed the throne. But, though he had not courage and energy enough to encounter his rival Harold during his lifetime, he made what amends he could by offering base indignities to his body after he was laid in the grave. His first public act after his accession was to have the body disinterred, and, after cutting off the head, he threw the mangled remains into the Thames. The Danish fishermen in the river found them, and buried them again in a private sepulcher in London, with such concealed marks of respect and honor as it was in their power to bestow.

Hardicanute also instituted legal proceedings to inquire into the death of Alfred. He charged the Saxons with having betrayed him, especially those who were rich enough to pay the fines, by which, in those days, it was very customary for criminals to atone for their crimes. Godwin himself was brought before the tribunal, and charged with being accessory to Alfred's death. Godwin positively asserted his innocence, and brought witnesses to prove that he was entirely free from all participation in the affair. He took also a much more effectual method to secure an acquittal, by making to King Hardicanute some most magnificent presents. One of these was a small ship, profusely enriched and ornamented with gold. It contained eighty soldiers, armed in the Danish style, with weapons of the most highly-finished and costly construction. They each carried a Danish axe on the left shoulder, and a javelin in the right hand, both richly gilt, and they had each of them a bracelet on his arm, containing six ounces of solid gold. Such at least is the story. The presents might be considered in the light either of a bribe to corrupt justice, or in that of a fine to satisfy it. In fact, the line, in those days, between bribes to purchase acquittal and fines atoning for the offense seems not to have been very accurately drawn.

Hardicanute, when fairly established on his throne, governed his realm like a tyrant. He oppressed the Saxons especially without any mercy. The effect of his cruelties, and those of the Danes who acted under him, was, however, not to humble and subdue the Saxon spirit, but to awaken and arouse it. Plots and conspiracies began to be formed against him, and against the whole Danish party. Godwin himself began to meditate some decisive measures, when, suddenly, Hardicanute died. Godwin immediately took the field at the head of all his forces, and organized a general movement throughout the kingdom for calling Edward, Alfred's brother, to the throne. This insurrection was triumphantly successful. The Danish forces that undertook to resist it were driven to the northward. The leaders were slain or put to flight. A remnant of them escaped to the sea-shore, where they embarked on board such vessels as they could find, and left England forever; and this was the final termination of the political authority of the Danes over the realm of England—the consummation and end of Alfred's military labors and schemes, coming surely at last, though deferred for two centuries after his decease.

What follows belongs rather to the history of William the Conqueror than to that of Alfred, for Godwin invited Edward, Emma's Norman son, to come and assume the crown; and his coming, together with that of the many Norman attendants that accompanied or followed him, led, in the end, to the Norman invasion and conquest. Godwin might probably have made himself king if he had chosen to do so. His authority over the whole island was paramount and supreme. But, either from a natural sense of justice toward the rightful heir, or from a dread of the danger which always attends the usurping of the royal name by one who is not of royal descent, he made no attempt to take the crown. He convened a great assembly of all the estates of the realm; and there it was solemnly decided that Edward should be invited to come to England and ascend the throne. A national messenger was dispatched to Normandy to announce the invitation.

It was stipulated in this invitation that Edward should bring very few Normans with him. He came, accordingly, in the first instance, almost unattended. He was received with great joy, and crowned king with splendid ceremonies and great show, in the ancient cathedral at Winchester. He felt under great obligations to Godwin, to whose instrumentality he was wholly indebted for this sudden and most brilliant change in his fortunes; and partly impelled by this feeling of gratitude, and partly allured by Edith's extraordinary charms, he proposed to make Edith his wife. Godwin made no objection. In fact, his enemies say that he made a positive stipulation for this match before allowing the measures for Edward's elevation to the throne to proceed too far. However, this may be, Godwin found himself, after Edward's accession, raised to the highest pitch of honor and power. From being a young herdsman's son, driving the cows to pasture in a wood, he had become the prime minister, as it were, of the whole realm, his four sons being great commanding generals in the army, and his daughter the queen.

The current of life did not flow smoothly with him after all. We can not here describe the various difficulties in which he became involved with the king on account of the Normans, who were continually coming over from the Continent to join Edward's court, and whose coming and growing influence strongly awakened the jealousy of the English people. Some narration of these events will more properly precede the history of William the Conqueror. We accordingly close this story of Godwin here by giving the circumstances of his death, as related by the historians of the time. The readers of this narrative will, of course, exercise severally their own discretion in determining how far they will believe the story to be true.

The story is, that one day he was seated at Edward's table, at some sort of entertainment, when one of his attendants, who was bringing in a goblet of wine, tripped one of his feet, but contrived to save himself by dexterously bringing up the other in such a manner as to cause some amusement to the guests; Godwin said, referring to the man's feet, that one brother saved the other. "Yes," said the king, "brothers have need of brothers' aid. Would to God that mine were still alive." In saying this he directed a meaning glance toward Godwin, which seemed to insinuate, as, in fact, the king had sometimes done before, that Godwin had had some agency in young Alfred's death. Godwin was displeased. He reproached the king with the unreasonableness of his surmises, and solemnly declared that he was wholly innocent of all participation in that crime. He imprecated the curse of God upon his head if this declaration was not true, wishing that the next mouthful of bread that he should eat might choke him if he had contributed in any way, directly or indirectly, to Alfred's unhappy end. So saying, he put the bread into his mouth, and in the act of swallowing it he was seized with a paroxysm of coughing and suffocation. The attendants hastened to his relief, the guests rose in terror and confusion. Godwin was borne away by two of his sons, and laid on his bed in convulsions. He survived the immediate injury, but after lingering five days he died.

Edward continued to reign in prosperity long after this event, and he employed the sons of Godwin as long as he lived in the most honorable stations of public service. In fact, when he died, he named one of them as his successor to the throne.

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