Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

Alfred and the Danes

Europe was not the only realm to be caught in the flood of the Northmen's invasions. "This year," reads the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 787, "first came three ships of the Northmen out of Norway. These were the first ships of Danish men that sought Angle-land." Across the waters into Britain where the Angles and Saxons had dwelt for four hundred years, and where they were beginning to build up a peaceful and united and civilized order of national life, came the fierce northern invaders in their black dragon ships. Invasions Britain had seen before. The Romans, the Picts and Scots, and the Saxons had all in their turn seized the kingdom by force. But such an invasion as this Britain had never suffered, for there was no end to it. To conquer in one battle was of no avail, for the enemy would shortly invade some other spot with a larger fleet and a stronger force, till it seemed to the weary Saxons that all the barbarians in the world were come to their shores.

At first the Northmen came only to harry and plunder the land, and returned after their summer raids to their own land with their spoil. Henry of Huntington gives a graphic picture of the distress and perplexity of the kings and nobles during these summer raids. "Wonder was it," he writes, "how when the English kings were hasting to meet the Danes in the East, ere they could come up with their bands a breathless scout would run in, saying, 'Sir King, whither marchest thou? The heathen have landed in the South, a countless fleet. Towns and hamlets are in flames; fire and slaughter are on every side.' Yea, and that very day another would come running: 'Sir King, why withdrawest thou? A fearsome host has come to shore in the West. If ye face them not speedily, they will hold that ye flee, and will be on your rear with fire and sword.' Again on the morrow would dash up yet another, saying: 'What place make ye for, noble chieftains? In the North the Danes have made a raid. Already have they burnt your dwellings. Even now they are sweeping off your goods, dishonoring your wives, and haling them to captivity.'"

It was no wonder that the king and the people "lost heart and strength both of mind and body, and were utterly cast down"; nor that it seemed to the young Alfred, brought to the throne of the West Saxons at the age of twenty-two because the Danes had killed his brother the king in battle, that "never might he, all alone, with but God for aid, endure so grievous a stress and strain of heathendom."

Alfred had to face a greater peril even than the fierce but brief summer raids, for the Danes had begun twenty years before his accession to the throne to winter in England. At first Northmen who came to Britain had been only Vikings, sea robbers out for spoil, who cared nothing for land and conquest; but in these later years the Danes had come and had begun to bring their wives and children and goods and settle in the provinces which they spoiled.

One month only the young king Alfred was allowed to reign in peace, he who cared more than any king of England before him for learning and arts, and desired nothing so much as to rule a quiet, peaceful land. Then he was attacked by the Danes, and was forced to defend his kingdom against them lest soon he have no kingdom at all, for the Danes "thought it scorn that any part of England should yet be Alfred's." Nine battles he fought against the heathen in the first year of his reign, to say nothing of numberless raids which he and his captains made with small companies of men, and for the time being the invaders were held back. But by the seventh year of his kingship they had conquered and occupied all the land from the Thames northward. In Northumbria and East Anglia and in Mercia and around London barbarian kings reigned. Alfred alone of all the kings of the provinces of Britain remained supreme in his own realm. In more than two thirds of England the Danes held sway.

Alfred had fought the Danes successfully both on land and on the water, but in the year 878, in mid winter, when no campaigns had been fought before, Guthrum and two other kings of the Danes with a mighty force "stole away to Chippenham, and over ran all the land of the West Saxons, and sat them down there. With wondrous swarms newly come in from Denmark the barbarian kings spread over the land, covering the face of the earth like locusts, and taking all for themselves, for none could withstand them. Many of the folk drave they oversea, and, of the rest, they brought under the most, and forced them to yield to their sway,"—Had the story ended here, as it did in the tale of the conquest of every other province in Britain, all history would have been changed. Danes instead of Anglo-Saxons would have ruled the British Isles, and instead of Angle-land, or England, we should to-day have Daneland. But that was not the end of the story. "Many of the folk drave they oversea, and, of the rest, they brought under the most, and forced them to yield to their sway, save only King Alfred. He, with a small band, gat him away to the woods, and that hardly, and to the fastnesses of the fens."

A fugitive and in peril of his life, Alfred sought a place where he might dwell in hiding within his own realm. For a time he wandered with his men in the woods of Somerset, and then he came to a region of salt marshes, in the midst of which lay an island called Athelney, or Isle of Nobles. "Athelney," says the chronicler, "was girded in by fen on all sides, so that by boat only could it be come at. On this islet was there a thicket of alders, full of stags and goats and other such creatures, and in the midst a bit of open ground, scarce two acres. Hither in his distress came Alfred all alone," and hither followed him Ethelnot, one of his nobles, and a few of his faithful followers.

Englishmen have always looked back with pride on that dark hour in English history, when England's only hope was in this young king, living a homeless and dangerous life on the tiny island, in the midst of his foes, for as they think of those months of suffering and discouragement they see the true greatness of Alfred. When every one else was disheartened he was brave and strong and hopeful.

Many stories have been handed down to us of the things which befell Alfred in those three months in hiding, and though we know they are probably not true history like the dates and names of battles, yet they give us a picture of how people thought and felt and acted in Alfred's day, and how he perhaps may have thought and felt and acted. First, there is the story of the cakes,—of Alfred's coming to a hut one day and being recognized by the master of the house, a goatherd, who did not tell his wife who it was who came to their house for food and shelter. The story is that the old woman left Alfred to mind the cakes on the hearth, and when he let them burn she rated him soundly for his carelessness, and Alfred, king of England though he was, took his scolding meekly, for he knew he deserved it. None can doubt that many times in those sad months Alfred must have gone hungry, for the little group of nobles had nothing to live on but what they could get by hunting or fishing, and very likely he came more than once to the home of some of his humble subjects and was fed by them, unbeknown to themselves; and that is how this story grew up.


Again there is a tale of how Alfred ventured forth, disguised as a minstrel, with one trusty servant, and went to the Danish camp. That he was a very good minstrel we may be sure, for he loved the Saxon songs of his fathers and learned many of them by heart and had them written down. First he played to the soldiers in their camps, and then because he played and sang so well they led him to the tent of the Danish king, Guthrum. Little did the blue-eyed Norse barbarian dream that he should so soon meet the handsome and skillful minstrel in another and more terrible guise. Guthrum was so charmed with the music and the songs of Alfred that he desired him to stay; and the story is that Alfred found great difficulty in getting away from the Danish camp, not because he was in danger, but because he had won such a place by the charm of his bearing and by his talents that they would not let him go. But the English king had learned all which he needed to know of the Danes and their strength and position, and he returned as soon as possible to his people.

This story puts Alfred's return to the war immediately after his visit to the Danish camp; but there is yet another tale which is written in the books of the Church, telling how, when he felt himself most forsaken, Cuthbert, one of the saints of England, appeared to him and gave him cheer. The people felt that without the help of God England could never have been saved in this dark hour, and they loved to tell this tale, which some say they heard from the lips of Alfred himself, "how one night the king could not sleep, but lay pondering on all that had come to pass. And presently he saw a great light which shone upon his bed brighter than the beams of the sun. In the midst of this light he saw the form of an old man, who blessed the king. Then Alfred said unto him, 'Who art thou?'

"And he answered: 'Alfred, my son, rejoice; for I am called Cuthbert, the soldier of God, and I am come to tell thee what thou must do to win back the kingdom from which thou hast been banished. Now therefore be strong and courageous and of joyful heart, and I will thee what thou must do. Rise up early in the morning, and blow thine horn thrice, that thine enemies may hear it and fear. Then about the ninth hour of the day five hundred of your loyal followers shall come to your help. And by this sign thou shalt know that after seven days an army of all your folk shall be gathered unto you. Thus shalt thou fight the enemy, and doubt not that thou shalt gain the victory.'"

History tells us that Alfred was not long left deserted on his island. While he was waiting there, making occasional raids till the power of winter was broken, word came that in Devon the Danes had met a terrible defeat and had lost the banner of the Raven, which they believed brought them victory and could never be taken. "So in the seventh week after Easter," reads the chronicle, "rode Alfred to Egbert's Stone, and there met him all the whole folk of Somersetshire and Wiltshire and all the folk of Hampshire, such as had not, through fear of the Heathen, sailed beyond seas. And when they saw the King, they were filled with joy untold, and they hailed him as one alive again from the dead. So came he, the third day after, with a mighty host, to the place called Ethandune; whereat, hard by, he found no less mighty forces of the Heathen, drawn up in one dense mass for battle. With the first bright rays of the rising sun did the King alike and all the flower of his folk beclothe themselves in their war gear. . . . All the long day did the two nations fight; and far off might you hear the shouting and the crash of arms. Stoutly and long they kept at it, and in the end Alfred got the victory.

"Then the remnant of the foe came to Alfred and cried ever aloud, for sorrow of heart, and for bitter hunger, and for cold, and for mighty dread. Mercy do they implore, mercy, mercy and peace—they who had ever been enemies unto peace, of direst mood. Sureties they proffer; trothplight they would swear. The King should name and take from them such sureties as he would, giving them none in return. Never before had they made a peace with any one after this sort."

So the Danes were humbled as they had never been humbled before, and Alfred in the kindness of his heart showed the mercy which they besought of him. Alfred's wisdom and greatness never showed forth more plainly than in the famous treaty which he made with the Danes at this time, the treaty of Wedmore, as it is called, from the name of the place where the English and the Danish kings met.

Besides the sureties which had been given by the Danes, it had been agreed that Guthrum the Danish king should become a Christian and receive baptism without delay. Seven weeks after the victory Guthrum came with thirty of his best nobles, and they presented themselves to Alfred for baptism, and donned with solemn ceremonies the white robes which they must wear for the first seven days of their Christian life. Alfred was to stand as godfather to his former enemy Guthrum, giving to him the English name of Athelstan. According to the custom King Guthrum wore the white robe, and on the eighth day it was taken off or "loosed" by Ethelnot, the noble who had shared Alfred's exile.


The Danish leader remained twelve days with Alfred, and they made a peace which began after this wise "This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the Wise Men of all the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and their descendants, as well for born as for unborn." Bounds, it went on, were to be established between Alfred's territory and that over which Guthrum was still to hold sway with Alfred as his over lord, and all the necessary laws were made by which the Danes and the English could carry on trade and community relations. Best of all, neither nationality was to regard the other as a conquered people, but both were to be equal before the law.

Thus Alfred in his wisdom recognized that the Danes were never to be driven wholly from the island, but that the English must receive them as neighbors and treat with them in fairness and justice. And in token of the relation which should be maintained by all men of each nationality, he took Guthrum, the barbarian king, to be his own godson; and Guthrum kept his part of the peace until he died, as did Alfred. Peace had not come to Alfred for all time. He was forced to fight the Danes again and again during his reign before a final peace was established; but in this treaty comes the beginning of our united England. Soon "all England turned to him," we read, "and of their own free will did many Franks, Gauls, Danes, Britons, Scots, and Angles, bow them to his sway, highborn and lowborn alike; and all of them, in his own worthy wise, did he rule and love and honor, even as his own folk," for although the saying was "amid arms laws are still," yet "amid all the clash of weapons" was Alfred a lawgiver, and never ceased in his tendance on the helm of his kingdom.

When you read of Alfred's greatness in other lines,—as a poet, as the founder of a navy, and as a king,—remember this story of his dealings with the Danes, and think of him as England's defender, the first man to be king of a united England, and the wise ruler who was great enough to make the barbarian invaders his neighbors and allies instead of his foes.

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