I T was now the time of Wessex to suffer. The Danes were not sure of being able to take Mercia, for they had seen that Wessex would come to her aid; but they felt little doubt of their ability to take Wessex, for Mercia, with the Danish force on her north and east, could lend no assistance to another kingdom.
Now in Wessex the fortified town that was farthest east was Reading. It was on the Thames, and so a great force could come by boat, while one equally great was coming with almost equal swiftness by land. To strengthen their position, the Danes threw up earthworks extending from the Thames to the Kennet, the little river to the south of Reading, and in less than three days after their arrival, they sent out bands of men to plunder the country round about.
Now there had been no fighting in Wessex since the time, some ten years before, that the Danes had pillaged Winchester. Ethelwulf, the valiant ealderman of Berkshire, who with Osric of Hants had so completely routed the pirates at the mouth of the Itchen, had not forgotten how to fight. Without waiting to send for help he brought together the men of his district. It can hardly be wondered at that they were not eager to meet the Danes, who had many times their numbers, but they took the field courageously. Up and down in front of the lines rode Ethelwulf.
"Remember the fight of the Itchen," he said. "The Danes were more than we, but the Lord helped us. He divided their forces, and they ran before us like sheep. Why should we fear the heathen? The God of battles is our leader; their commander is Satan himself."
Bravely the little company went on. The first body of Danes that they met they attacked with so much vigor that the invaders were put to flight, and one of their leaders was slain.
Messengers were sent . . . to every little village.
A fiercer contest was coming. No sooner had the tidings reached Ethelred and Alfred that their foes were in Wessex than messengers were sent over the kingdom to every village, even to every little grange. They bore an arrow and a naked sword. These they held up in sight of the people, who knew their meaning only too well, and cried:—
"The enemy are upon us. Let every man leave his house and land and come. This is the word of the king," and then they turned to ride swiftly to the next town or hamlet. If any man refused to come, his land was forfeited to the king.
Neither Ethelred nor Alfred had any practical knowledge of fighting, and it is no wonder that they mistook enthusiasm for the power that could come only with experience and numbers. Without waiting for troops to come from the more distant parts of the kingdom, they set off at once to meet the Danes; and in four days after Ethelwulf's successful encounter, they were ready with all zeal and a firm belief in their own ability to drive the heathen from their land.
Ethelred had surprised those who judged him by his somewhat childish speeches and his inaction. So long as the Danes were on the farther side of the land, it seemed impossible for him to realize that they could come nearer; but when they were once within the bounds of his own kingdom, no one could have been more prompt than he in getting his men together or more fearless in leading them on to the battle.
The royal forces were in front of Reading. They expected to win, for Ethelred with fewer numbers had been successful. Wild with enthusiasm, they fell upon the Danes who were outside the fortifications. These were taken by surprise and were easily overcome. The Saxon courage rose higher. It was now late in the afternoon; they would encamp in a convenient place near at hand, and in the morning there should be another battle and another victory.
The Danes were quiet within their stronghold. The Saxons were joyfully making their camp, when, like the bursting forth of a mighty river, the enemy suddenly rushed out from the fortifications and fell upon the unsuspecting Saxons. Surprised and taken at a disadvantage as they were, the Saxons wheeled about and renewed the battle so fiercely that the Danes had far from the easy victory that they had expected.
There was no special advantage of place, for the battle-field was a long stretch of level meadow lands, and success seemed now in the hands of one side, now of the other. Both sides were equally courageous, but the Danes had many more men and life-long experience in fighting, while few of the Saxons had ever been on a field of war. The wonder is not that they were finally forced to flee, but rather that they could resist so long and so determinedly.
The retreat was hardly a flight, for they withdrew to the westward in good order, though with ranks sadly thinned, to do what would have been wiser in the first place, that is, to await the arrival of more forces. Rapidly the troops came up, in companies, in straggling bands, even one by one, for there was little delaying one for another. The farther Ethelred retreated, the more powerful he grew, and when they had come to Ashdown in Berkshire, both he and Alfred believed that if they could ever oppose the invaders, it would be then. There they halted.
But the heathen were upon their track. Faster and faster they came with the whole force save the few that remained to guard Reading. On both sides the armies had been busy in throwing up earthworks. Darkness came upon them, and through the chill of the March night, the sentinels paced to and fro, and the watchfires blazed red and angry. The soldiers, many of them exhausted by the long march, slept heavily; but there was no rest for the young leaders upon whom the new responsibility weighed so gravely. When they were before Nottingham, there may have been some small skirmishes, but aside from these, all their experience in fighting had come from the disaster of four days previously. Thinking, perhaps, more of shelter than of military advantage, they had pitched their camp near the base of a hill, while the Danish camp was at its top.
Slowly the long night passed away. As the morning began to dawn, the anxious young commanders noticed that the Danes had divided their forces into two companies, one led by two kings, the other by the jarls.
"We will gain by their experience," said Ethelred. "If our men are in one body, and we attack one of their divisions, the other will set upon us on the rear. I will take command of half of our men and meet those who are led by the kings, and do you lead the other half and meet the jarls and their men."
"The Danes are already moving," said Alfred. "They will be upon us," but Ethelred had galloped swiftly away. There was more and more movement among the Danish troops. The top of the hill was black with them. They formed in line. Alfred almost thought that he could hear their terrible battle-cries. He drew up his own men, but where was Ethelred?
Trusting the message to no one else, Alfred went at full speed in search of his brother. He came to a thick clump of trees where the temporary altar had been built. A low sound of chanting struck his ears. It was the voice of the priest.
"Ethelred—my brother—my king," he cried, "the Danes are upon us. Their lines are formed. My men are ready. A moment's delay may lose the battle." But Ethelred said quietly:
"It is the service of God. Our priest is saying prayers for us and for our men. Shall I forsake the help of God to trust in men and in weapons? It is meet that the king pray for his people."
Alfred stood for a moment helpless, then he galloped back. Directly in front of his division was a stunted thorn tree. Here the prince stopped. The Danes were above him. They were looking down. They were ready to charge. He glanced below him. There were his own men. They stood, not like the great machine that an army is to-day, but like a multitude of individuals, held together by a common purpose, but by no strong bonds of discipline. In that one glance, Alfred saw that one face was eager, another angry, another scornful. Then came the supreme moment; they raised their shields and cried:—
"Battle! battle! Lead us to the battle!" Through the young man's mind thoughts flashed like the flashing of a sword. From his higher position he could see the multitudes of the hostile ranks more clearly than could his men. Then first, he realized the great advantage of the enemy in being on higher ground. Let the Danes make the first charge, and coming from above they would be resistless. Let the Saxons realize this, and they would perhaps flee in despair. One wrong step, and the kingdom of Wessex might be in the hands of the heathen. His very lips paled. No long prayers had the young prince made that morning, but if there ever was a true prayer, it was his whispered "God help us!" He trembled, but his voice rang clear and strong as he shouted:—
"Forward!" and with his men following dashed up the hill "like a wild boar."
Then came the terrible onslaught of the Berserkir warriors, who excited themselves to madness and fury until they were more like ferocious wolves than men. They rolled on the ground, they beat their breasts, they gnashed their teeth, they bit their shields, they howled and they screeched, until they seemed to have lost all likeness to human beings. These were in the front of the Danish lines, and horrible, indeed, was their attack. It was not fighting men, but fiends.
From Alfred's one little experience of four days previously, he and his men realized that their only hope was in keeping together. Even Berserkir could not scatter them. Men fell by hundreds on both sides. Alfred's men could not advance beyond the stunted thorn; the Danes could not make their way one step farther down the hill. The second division of the Danes was swinging around from the other side. With no orders and no leader, Ethelred's men had formed in line, and stood in a great body, ready to charge at a moment's warning. Down came the Danish forces led by the two kings, rushing headlong down the hill to get between Alfred's men and the men without a leader. The limit of Saxon self-restraint had been reached. Edmund, who had succeeded Alstan as bishop of Sherborne, came in front of the line.
"Men of Wessex," he began; but there was a cloud of dust as a horse and rider plunged furiously up the hill, tearing up the turf at every step. It was the king. In a moment he was at the head of his army.
"The blessing of God is with us," he shouted. "The Lord will save His people. Forward!" All the more madly for their restraint, the Saxons rushed upon the two kings and their men, and drove them in frantic confusion over the hill. They were almost as wild as the Berserkir themselves. The jarls had fled in a frenzy of alarm. The whole Saxon troop pursued. One of the Danish kings was slain. One after another, five of the great jarls fell. No one noticed. No one thought of them. It was a mad scramble for safety. The battle itself had lasted only three or four hours at longest; but all day long, over hill and meadow and through the forest the Saxons pursued their retreating foes, until they had been driven back to the walls of Reading. No one knows how many thousands of the invaders fell. Their bodies lay where they had been struck down, on a rock, in a brook, under a tree, in the midst of a great stretch of meadow land. Anywhere and everywhere was a feast for the wolves and the ravens, the corpses of the Danish invaders.
Far up on Ashdown Hill is the rudely outlined figure of a horse, made by cutting away the turf from the white limestone. It is so large that it spreads over nearly an acre of the hillside. Tradition says that this is the white horse, the standard of the Saxons, cut in memory of the victory of Ashdown; and for no one knows how long, it has been the custom for the people of the neighborhood to assemble every few years to celebrate with games and races and a general jubilee a day of "scouring the White Horse," that is, of clearing away the turf and bushes that may have grown over the trenches forming the outline.
The Saxons well knew that there was nothing permanent about even so complete a victory as this. The Danes had been routed, but they could return; they had lost nothing but men, and there might be thousands more on the way. Little time could the victors spare for rejoicing over the victory or even for rest. In a fortnight the Danes were ready to march out in numbers as great as ever.
This time they went to the south across the Kennet River into Hants. Ethelred and Alfred pursued in hot haste. The Saxons were not victorious, but they were strong enough to prevent the foe from carrying away booty. But of what avail was a victory when it only opened the way for another contest? More than one king would have deserted his people and crossed the seas. The refuge of Rome was always open. It was not looked upon as a cowardly thing for a Saxon king to withdraw from active life and spend his last days in the English palace in Rome. Ethelred, at least, seems to have had some little bent toward the quiet life under the shadows of the cloister; but to neither him nor Alfred did any thought come of attempting to secure a heavenly kingdom by deserting the one that had been entrusted to them on the earth.
They pressed on boldly, and two months later, at a little place called Merton, there was another engagement. The ranks of the Danes were again filled. A fierce battle was waged all day, and in spite of their smaller numbers, the Saxons held their own. Just before sunset, the enemy made one last, furious charge, and the Saxons were forced to retreat. The brave bishop who had succeeded Alstan was slain, and the king was so severely wounded that he died soon after the battle.
Ethelred was buried with royal honors at Wimborne, but scant time could the younger brother spare for his grief. Weighty questions were pressing upon him. Must he become king? He was not yet twenty-three; he was afflicted with a painful disease whose attacks might come upon him at any moment. He had not a relative in the land, saving the children of his brothers and his sister Ethelswitha. No wonder that he repeated his childish plaint, "They all go away from me."
Is it any marvel that he fell into utter discouragement? Nominally the king of the West Saxons was king of all England, but in reality his power was limited to a part of the land of Wessex. He was at the head of the army, but the very flower of his army had fallen. Ethelwulf, upon whom he might have depended for counsel, had been slain at Reading; Osric had died long before. The Danish power was all around him. Could he accept the throne? Was there any throne to accept? Had he any country to rule? After his talk with Alstan, it had all seemed easy. He had felt strong and confident, but now he was discouraged and almost hopeless. There was no one to counsel him. The glad courage that had come to him after his lonely night in the chapel in Cornwall had left him; but he remembered his resolution and the promise that he had made to Alstan, "I will do the best that I can for my people;" and so it was that Alfred became king of England.
It was a sad coming to the throne. There was no public rejoicing, no coronation ceremonies, not even a formal declaration on the part of the counselors that they accepted him as their king; but no one thought of any opposition, and one month after Ethelred's death the Saxon soldiers met the enemy as enthusiastically as ever, at Wilton, not far from the centre of Wessex. The story of the battle was only an old tale repeated; for the Saxons fought fiercely, but were overcome at last by the same old trick of the Danes,—their pretending to be routed and then, when the ranks of the eager pursuers had lost all semblance of form and order, of wheeling about and cutting them down without mercy. It was a sad beginning for a young king's reign, but a few months later the Danes withdrew from Wessex.
The explanation seems to be that though the Danes were fighters, and though they sang many war-songs, they did not often fight without an object. So long as there were rich pastures full of flocks and herds, and churches with their treasures, to be had almost for the taking, why should they stay in Wessex where every step was marked with blood rather than gold? They moved to the east and took up their winter quarters in London.
For a year or more there was peace; then came a day when Ethelswitha fled to Alfred and said:—
"My husband can no longer meet the Danes. He has left his kingdom and gone to Rome. I cannot leave my people." This was in 874. Mercia had fallen into Danish hands, Alfred alone resisted. How long could his resistance last? Successful battles were nothing, when in a few days reënforcements filled up the ranks of their foes. Was there any way to shut off these fresh supplies?
Now, though of the same blood as the Danes and born with the same love of the sea, the Saxons who had come to Britain had settled down to a quiet life on the land. Could the old success and fearlessness on the ocean be aroused? King Alfred pondered long and carefully, then he sent for his counselors.
"Let us," he said, "build ships that we may meet the heathen on the water, and guard the harbors and the mouths of the rivers."
At first the counselors saw many objections to the plan. They had no practised builders of ships, they had no sailors, no commanders. The Danes would be as invincible on the sea as on the land. It would be a useless waste of the energy that ought to go to defend their country.
The king bit his lip and there was a spot of anger on his cheeks.
"What will you do?" he said quietly, though there was a certain restraint in his voice that made every word tell like a blow. "We have tried to defend our land. Your brothers and sons have fallen. King Ethelred gave up his life trying to protect you. What have we gained? At the cost of many lives, we have gained a short freedom from the heathen. You well know how little a treaty with them means. They will come again in the summer, and perhaps in greater numbers than ever. You say we have no shipbuilders? We have builders of small vessels. I can teach them to build larger ones. I can train sailors, and I can command the war-ships. What will you do?" The counselors hesitated.
"They say that the king could build a whole war-ship himself," whispered one of the counselors to another, "that he has read about them in his books."
"What will you do?" repeated the king almost sternly. His quiet confidence gave them courage, and perhaps, indeed, they felt half afraid to oppose him. They meditated a little time and then said:—
"We will build the boats."
Alfred had not fought the Danes without learning something of their military tactics. "He who would win must surprise" was one great lesson, and with this thought in mind, he planned to build his ships in a hidden recess of the rocky shore, a long arm of the sea that made an abrupt turn to the east. Projecting cliffs hid it from all but the keenest, most watchful eyes. It was a small fleet of small vessels that he built, and it was commanded by an admiral who was utterly without practical experience; but he had one great advantage. The vikings, cruising fearlessly along the southern coast, had no thought of meeting the slightest opposition until they were far inland, and when Alfred's ships suddenly appeared before them, it seemed to the superstitious pirates almost as if supernatural aid had been given to their opponents. One of the Danish ships was captured and the other six sailed back to Denmark. The enthusiasm of the hero-worshipping Saxons was aroused. They were ready to do whatever their wonderful young king might suggest, and enough of their old love of the sea came back to them to make them more than ready to build as many more vessels as Alfred thought best.
The Danes began to feel something a little like dread of the leader of the Saxons. He had won a great battle on land, and they, the invincible warriors, had been driven over field and through forest to seek refuge as best they might. Now, came this victory on the sea. That they, the rulers of the ocean, should be overpowered and forced to flee across the waters to their own land with vessels empty of treasures, was a humiliation that was new to them. They would come again, this should not be the end. The lord of the West Saxons should feel their vengeance.