King Alfred and the Danes
The union of the Church in England helped bring about a union of all the English kingdoms under a single head. When men had formed the habit of acting together in church matters, they found it easier to act together in matters of government.
Of the seven kingdoms which made up the "Heptarchy," three were larger and stronger than the others. These were Northumberland, Mercia, and Wessex. Each of these tried in turn to secure control over the rest. During the seventh century, the King of Northumberland was recognized as leader. During the eighth century, the King of Mercia held that position. Then, early in the ninth century, the leadership passed to the King of Wessex.
The first of the Wessex kings to hold this overlordship was Egbert, who ruled from 802 to 839. In his early days he was obliged to flee from England to the court of the great Frankish Emperor, Charlemagne. When his fortunes changed, and he returned to his kingdom, he secured more power than any English king before him. The other kingdoms lasted for a time, and had their own kings, but all submitted to Egbert and paid tribute to him. From the reign of King Egbert, then, we may date the union of the English kingdoms.
Perhaps this union would not have continued if it had not been that all parts of England were soon after exposed to a great and lasting danger, through the invasions of the Danes.
The Danes were inhabitants of the northern lands, which now form the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They were "Low-Germans," like the English; and like the ancestors of the English they were great pirates and sea-rovers. In the eighth and ninth centuries they began to swarm forth from their northern homes and overrun all western Europe. They were called "Northmen" in France, and "Danes" in England. They called themselves "Vikings," or men of the "wicks" (or inlets) of their home country, from which their swift ships came forth. They plundered the coasts of Germany, France, England, Ireland, and even Italy. They discovered and settled Iceland about the year 875, and Greenland a century later. Soon after, they visited "Vinland," to the west, which we believe was the then unknown continent of America.
In France, after repeated attacks through all the ninth century, the Northmen at last settled down in a large district about the mouth of the river Seine, which was given them by the French King. There they became known as the "Normans," and the name Normandy is still given to that district.
In England, the first attacks of the Danes were made in the year 787, and were mere pirate raids for plunder. Later they came in great armies, and began to make conquests and settle down, as they had done in France. The Danes were still heathen, as the English had been when they first came; so they destroyed and plundered the monasteries and churches, where the most precious things were to be found, and slew or drove out the priests and monks.
Little by little, the Danes overran one English kingdom after another, until all had been taken except Wessex itself.
Here they were met by the young King, Alfred—"the wisest, best, and greatest King that ever reigned in England,"—and their advance was checked and their conquests stopped. When he was very young, Alfred accompanied his father, the West-Saxon King, to Rome. He spent a year or two there, and became a favorite of the Pope. At home, his mother trained her children carefully, and encouraged them to study. One day she said to them:
"Do you see this little book, with its clear black writing, and the beautiful letter at the beginning, printed in red, blue and gold? It shall belong to the one who first learns its songs."
"Mother," said Alfred, "will you really give that beautiful book to me if I learn it first?"
"Yes," was her reply, "I really will."
Alfred then took the book to his teacher, and soon learned to repeat the verses. Thus he not only earned the coveted prize, but also showed the quickness of mind and interest in learning which made him noted in after years.
As Alfred grew older he continued his studies, and took part also in hunting and in outdoor sports. When he grew to manhood, he found sterner work to do, for the Danes were now advancing into Wessex.
Alfred's older brother, Ethelred, was King of Wessex, and Alfred worked loyally to help him. Of the year 871, a historian of that time writes:
"Nine general battles were fought this year south of the Thames, besides which Alfred, the King's brother, and single rulers of shires and king's thegns, oftentimes made attacks on the Danes which are not counted."
In one of these battles, King Ethelred was wounded so badly that he died, and Alfred became king in his place. Alfred ruled for thirty years, from 871 to 901.
During the first seven years that he was King, Alfred's attention was given chiefly to the Danes. Again and again they made peace, and soon broke it. The Danish army spent the winter in fortified camps in the land, but the English, when the summer's fighting was done, scattered to their homes, to protect their families and prepare their crops.
During one such winter, Alfred sought refuge in a small fortified island called Athelney, amid the swamps of Wessex. Afterwards the people told stories of how he, wandering alone in these regions, was sheltered in a herdsman's hut, and scolded by the herdsman's wife for allowing some coarse cakes to burn, which she had told him to watch. An old song represents the woman as saying to the King, whom she did not know:
Another story tells how he went into the Danish camp, in disguise as a minstrel, or wandering singer, in order to get news of their plans; and how the Danes were so pleased with his singing that he had difficulty in getting away again. These stories the people told out of love for Alfred's memory, but we are not sure that the tales are really true.
When the hardships of that winter were over, Alfred gathered his army together and attacked the Danes. He defeated them badly, and drove them into their fortified camp. There he besieged them for fourteen days, and as they were now separated from their ships, and could get no supplies, their King, Guthrum, agreed to make peace.
"And then," says the old chronicle, "the army delivered hostages to King Alfred, with many oaths that they would leave his kingdom, and also promised him that their king should receive baptism. And this they accordingly fulfilled. About three weeks after this, King Guthrum came to him, with some thirty of the most distinguished men of their army, and the king was his godfather at baptism. And he was twelve days with the King; and he greatly honored him and his companions with gifts."
By a revision of this treaty made a few years later, the Danes were to have all the country of England north and west of the Thames river, and of the old Roman road called Watling Street. Only the country south of that line, including London, remained to the English, under the rule of the West-Saxon king, Alfred.
The country which the Danes ruled was known as the "Danelaw." There they settled down and became tillers of the soil, just as the English had done four centuries before this. The Danes were of near kin to the English, both in language and in ways of living. Before many generations had passed, they all became Christians and blended with their English neighbors. But, to this day, northern England shows some features which remind us that once it was ruled by these rude, freedom-loving Danes. For example, we find many hundreds of names of villages and towns there which end in the syllable "-by," as in "Derby." This was the Danish word for "town," and corresponds to the old English "-ton" or "-ham," which we find so frequently on the map of southern England.
After the treaty with Guthrum, Wessex for some time enjoyed peace, and Alfred had opportunity to repair the damages done by war.
Among other things, Alfred fortified and partly rebuilt the city of London. For some time it had been in the hands of the Danes, but it was now freed, and its old inhabitants restored. London was located at the lowest point on the Thames river at which a bridge could be built, or at which merchants could find solid ground for landing goods from their ships. It was already an important place in Roman days, and it was to become the greatest city of England. Long afterward, when ocean commerce developed, its splendid harbor helped to make it the greatest city in the world. But for several centuries after Alfred, its citizens were as much interested in agriculture as in carrying on their small trades, and commerce on a large scale was unknown.
The great trouble with the English army was that it was not a regular army, and the king could not keep it in the field all the year round because the men had to go home to attend to their farming. To remedy this, Alfred divided all the able-bodied men of his kingdom into three groups, one of which was to be always ready for war. After a short time, these would go to their homes, and others would take their places.
Alfred saw also that the English must put their trust in the sea. He had a large number of ships built, after his own pattern, twice as large as those of the Danes. These proved very useful when the Danes renewed their attacks.
Alfred also improved the government. To make it easier to find out what the law was, Alfred collected and revised the old laws of the kingdom. But he did this work modestly, and without reckless change.
"I, Alfred," he wrote, "gathered these laws together, and commanded many of them to be written which our forefathers held, those which seemed to me good. And many of those which seemed to me not good, I rejected, and in otherwise commanded them to be held. For I durst not venture to set down in writing much of my own, for it was unknown to me what of it would please those who should come after us."
Alfred encouraged industry of all kinds. He brought many skilful men to England from foreign countries. He himself could show his gold workers, and other artisans, how to do their work. He invented a method of counting the hours by means of candles, carefully made so that six of them would burn just twenty-four hours. He also invented a lantern, with transparent sides made of horn (for glass was scarce or unknown) to keep drafts away from the candle and make it burn better. His mind was constantly at work, seeking to better the condition of his country.
But Alfred thought none of these things could help his people much unless they improved in mind and spirit. He lamented their growing ignorance, through the destruction of the monasteries, with their schools and libraries.
"Formerly," said he, "foreigners came to this land in search of wisdom and instruction, but we should now have to get teachers from abroad, if we would have them."
So he invited many learned men to come to his kingdom and help instruct his people.
Alfred thought the greatest need for all was books which people could read—books in English, and not Latin.
"I wondered extremely," he said, "that the good and wise men who were formerly all over England, and had perfectly learned all the books, did not wish to translate them into their own tongue."
He set himself to put into English some of the best books. First came a history of the world, and to this he added his own account of two voyages into the northern seas, made by Danes whom he had invited to England. Then came Bede's History of England, besides a book of religious instruction, and one of stories, by Pope Gregory the Great; and also a book on philosophy, in which Alfred gave many of his own most serious thoughts. All these works are still preserved, but our language has changed so much since Alfred's day that they are now like books in a foreign tongue.
Another great work, prepared under Alfred's direction, was the Old English Chronicle. This is a record of events, year by year, kept by the monks. For the years of Alfred's reign, it gives us most of the knowledge that we have, and it may be that the king himself wrote portions of it. No other European nation has so good a record of its early years, written in its own language.
Alfred died after a reign of nearly thirty years. The English people cherished his memory as "England's Darling," and we now call him "Alfred the Great." He was a brave warrior, a wise lawmaker, a patient teacher, and a watchful guardian of his people. Above all, he was a true and pure man, loving his family and training his children with great care. The secret of his success is told in his own words:
"To sum up all," he said, "it has ever been my desire to live worthily while I was alive, and after my death to leave to those that should come after me my memory in good works."
Alfred's work was indeed good, for he saved England from being completely conquered by the Danes. Because he kept his courage at the trying time, his own kingdom was preserved, and the Danes were settled beyond the Thames, there to become almost Englishmen. Because he was wise and patient, he made his kingdom strong, so that his descendants were able, little by little, to regain all that the Danes had taken, and to become again, in their later years, kings of all England.