IN the ninth century England was harassed by wild bands of Viking sea-rovers who came in their dragon-prowed ships, as the Saxons themselves had come three centuries before, looted the seacoast towns, and made off with their plunder. Finding the booty plentiful and the danger slight, they returned again and again in ever-increasing numbers. These raiders came from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the islands of the Baltic; but the English called them all Danes. In 866-68, they overpowered East Anglia and the southern part of Northumbria. Convents, churches, and schools were swept away, the inhabitants were almost exterminated, and it began to seem probable, as many of the English thought, that the land would some day be given over to wild beasts.
In 871, Alfred the Great came to the throne. After a desperate struggle with the invaders he succeeded in checking their advance, and, giving them the land they had already conquered, he set to work to upbuild and strengthen the remainder of his kingdom. In a few generations the Danes had become loyal Englishmen, and by the middle of the tenth century all England, Scotland, and Wales paid homage to Edgar, the Anglo-Saxon king.
But evil times were ahead. The weak rule of Edgar's successor,!Ethelred the Unready, tempted the Vikings to pay England another visit, and in 980, Olaf Trygvason of Norway and Sweyn (Svend of the Forked Beard) of Denmark invaded the country. After thirty-four years of alternate warfare and bribery (ten to forty-eight thousand pounds of silver a year were paid to the invaders), Sweyn was acknowledged King of England. He was succeeded by his son Knut, or Canute, a wise ruler who conciliated the English by his moderation. The mighty Scandinavian empire which he had held together with a firm hand fell to pieces after his death, and in 1042 the English crown reverted to the Anglo-Saxon line in the person of Edward the Confessor, who was succeeded in 1060 by Harold, Earl of Wessex.