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Hendrik Willem Van Loon

The Norsemen

Why the People of the Tenth Century Prayed the Lord to Protect Them from the Fury of the Norsemen

I N the third and fourth centuries, the Germanic tribes of central Europe had broken through the defences of the Empire that they might plunder Rome and live on the fat of the land. In the eighth century it became the turn of the Germans to be the "plundered-ones." They did not like this at all, even if their enemies were their first cousins, the Norsemen, who lived in Denmark and Sweden and Norway.

What forced these hardy sailors to turn pirate we do not know, but once they had discovered the advantages and pleasures of a buccaneering career there was no one who could stop them. They would suddenly descend upon a peaceful Frankish or Frisian village, situated on the mouth of a river. They would kill all the men and steal all the women. Then they would sail away in their fast-sailing ships and when the soldiers of the king or emperor arrived upon the scene, the robbers were gone and nothing remained but a few smouldering ruins.

During the days of disorder which followed the death of Charlemagne, the Northmen developed great activity. Their fleets made raids upon every country and their sailors established small independent kingdoms along the coast of Holland and France and England and Germany, and they even found their way into Italy. The Northmen were very intelligent. They soon learned to speak the language of their subjects and gave up the uncivilised ways of the early Vikings (or Sea-Kings) who had been very picturesque but also very unwashed and terribly cruel.


The Home of the Norsemen

Early in the tenth century a Viking by the name of Rollo had repeatedly attacked the coast of France. The king of France, too weak to resist these northern robbers, tried to bribe them into "being good." He offered them the province of Normandy, if they would promise to stop bothering the rest of his domains. Rollo accepted this bargain and became "Duke of Normandy."


The Norsemen Go to Russia

But the passion of conquest was strong in the blood of his children. Across the channel, only a few hours away from the European mainland, they could see the white cliffs and the green fields of England. Poor England had passed through difficult days. For two hundred years it had been a Roman colony. After the Romans left, it had been conquered by the Angles and the Saxons, two German tribes from Schleswig. Next the Danes had taken the greater part of the country and had established the kingdom of Cnut. The Danes had been driven away and now (it was early in the eleventh century) another Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, was on the throne. But Edward was not expected to live long and he had no children. The circumstances favoured the ambitious dukes of Normandy.


The Normans Look Across the Channel

In 1066 Edward died. Immediately William of Normandy crossed the channel, defeated and killed Harold of Wessex (who had taken the crown) at the battle of Hastings, and proclaimed himself king of England.

In another chapter I have told you how in the year 800 a German chieftain had become a Roman Emperor. Now in the year 1066 the grandson of a Norse pirate was recognised as King of England.

Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?


The World of the Norsemen