T HREE Danish kings and their forces had wintered in East Anglia, and the land had been so completely subdued that not the least resistance was made. Early in the spring of 876 they set forth on a march to their vessels. They embarked and sailed to the south. They passed the mouth of the Thames, went through Dover Straits, and bore to the westward.
The people of Kent breathed more freely, but Alfred well knew that a time of bitter trial was coming to Wessex. Nearer the ships came. Where would the first blow be struck? The Danes now expected to meet the Saxon fleet; and unless possibly with the advantage of surprise, it could not hope to oppose them, hardly to delay them long enough to warrant even a small portion of the loss that was sure to be the final result.
Still westward came the pirates. They passed the Isle of Wight and entered the wide bay at the east of Dorsetshire. They landed near Wareham, seized the fortress with hardly a struggle, and in a very short time had thrown up earthworks and made a place of safety for themselves.
The king of Wessex had not been idle. The Danes, probably expecting the arrival of the Saxons by sea, had made their defenses especially strong on the seaward side. Alfred marched around to the west. His ranks were thin, for it was earlier in the season than the Danes were wont to sally forth on their expeditions, and it was not easy to collect men at this time. He did the only thing that gave the least promise of success, and attacked the companies that were making their raids outside the fortifications.
Both sides had learned from the previous encounters. The Danes retreated to their defenses, and Alfred was now too wise to attack fortifications that were too strong for him. It was the situation at Nottingham repeated. The Danes could not come out, and the Saxons could not go in. The outcome was precisely the same. A parley was held and a treaty was made.
Alfred well knew of how little value a treaty was in the eyes of the heathen, but there was a possibility of gaining time, and as a last resort he determined to make the mutual agreement in the way that would be most binding upon his own people, hoping that the solemnity with which the Saxons would make their promises would produce some effect upon the heathen.
The Danes built up an altar and made sacrifices of many beasts. A golden bracelet which had been taken in battle was made red with the sacred blood and laid upon the altar. The kings and jarls marched slowly around it, and finally each one laid his hand upon the bloody ring, and swore for himself and the men under his command that they would withdraw from the land of Wessex, doing no harm to man, woman, child, or property.
The most binding oaths known to the Saxons were those sworn on the relics of the saints; so Alfred had collected from the churches and convents that had not been pillaged, bones of the saints, their scourges, robes, psalters, and any other articles that had belonged to them. Other relics had been brought from secret places, from forests and swamps and dens in the rocks, where they had been hastily concealed at the rumors of the Danes' approach. With much ceremony the king and his chief men laid their hands upon these relics, and promised that there should be no molestation of the Danes, if they would withdraw peaceably from the land of the Saxons.
Each nation had sworn by the most sacred form of oath known to them, and now the Danes even offered to confirm their good faith by taking another oath on Alfred's relics. Half fearfully the superstitious heathen touched the pile, not quite knowing what might happen. They took the oath again, gave many hostages, and withdrew into the fortifications to prepare to leave the land.
A few nights later they were holding a feast. The cup went around many times, passing with careful equality of treatment from soldier to king and from king to soldier.
"It is not the way of the vikings to leave so goodly a land rich in convents and churches and go away as poor as they came," said one of the jarls.
"We have sworn by Thor," said another. "If we break an oath to Thor, he will strike us with his hammer and send us to the land of the forgotten." The first jarl broke into a hilarious laugh.
"You think you swore by Thor, do you, children that you are? Leave the seas and plant corn, that is all that you are good for." The men sprang to their feet. The jarl only laughed again, and looked at them with contempt.
"It is well that there is one among you," said he, "who is not a child. You think you swore by Thor?" and again he laughed, a wild, scornful, triumphant laugh. "Let me tell you. When the soothsayer said the words that made the blood of the beasts sacred to Thor, he said not the name of Thor, but of Thealfi. I saw to that. One among you is wise." The vikings' faces grew eager, and the men pressed nearer.
"Are you afraid of Thealfi, the servant of Thor?" he asked.
"No, no, no," they shouted.
"Are you afraid of a pile of old clothes and bones?" he went on. Here they hesitated. The solemnity of the Saxons had not been without its effect upon them. The jarl watched their faces.
"I was at Croyland," he said, "and after there were no more to kill, we piled up the bodies of the saints, scores of them, and burned them. They made a bonfire that was as glorious as the rising sun," he added quietly, and turned to the great cup of mead. That they had given hostages was nothing to them, and with wild shouts they sallied forth, murdered the Saxon horsemen whom Alfred had left on guard, seized their horses, and swept in a devastating course across the land to the westward, burning and pillaging and murdering as they went. Alfred was not near enough to intercept them in their headlong march. They came to Exeter and fortified it.
The Danes now held two strongly protected harbors on the southern shores of Wessex, and all through that winter the pirate fleets cruised fearlessly along the coast, putting into either of the retreats whenever they chose to ravage the land and fill their vessels with Saxon plunder. Finally the Danes decided to bring their forces together at Exeter. The war-ships were loaded and they set sail for the west.
Alfred was in camp before Exeter. He was not strong enough to overpower the Danes, but he could keep them from further invasion of the land round about. He heard of the sailing of the Danish ships, one hundred and twenty of them, great war-galleys loaded almost to the water's edge with the plunder that they had collected at Wareham. He did not dare to leave his station, but he ordered his fleet to put to sea. Little more than one hundred miles away were the vikings, but a strong west wind prevailed, and with their loaded vessels they could only beat and beat and make no real headway. For nearly one month the Danes, who claimed that winds and waves were their allies, were driven up and down at their mercy.
Surely the elements were on the side of the Saxons, for when they met some of the Danish ships, the waves ran so high that the Danes could not follow their usual custom of lashing their boats to the enemy's for the fight. Moreover, their vessels were low in the water, and Alfred's stood high, so that the Danish arrows were almost harmless, and when they tried to climb up the lofty sides, it was an easy matter for the Saxons to thrust them down with their spears. The other Danish boats were out of sight, no one knew where, for a dense fog had settled down upon the sea; and when the fog was driven away, it was by a strong south wind that drove the pirate vessels upon rocks far more fierce than their enemies. Nearly all the Danish ships went to the bottom.
When they tried to climb up the lofty sides it was an easy matter for the Saxons to thrust them down.
The Danes in Exeter sued most humbly for peace. The counselors, elated by their easy victory at sea, advised an instant attack upon the garrison at Exeter; but Alfred, the impetuous fighter of Ashdown, was the one to hesitate.
"We could attack them," he argued, "and perhaps kill the whole number, but they would fight desperately. We should lose many of our men, and while we have few to fill up our ranks, they have hordes. They have almost all England," he said sadly. The counselors were silent. King Alfred went on:—
"They have help near at hand. Hubba and the raven standard are in Wales. I have heard that he is jealous of King Guthrum, but in the last extremity they would stand together."
"Then if we let Guthrum go, will they not unite and come down upon us?" asked one of the counselors.
"I fear it," said the king. "I know that it seems only a question whether it is better to risk immediate destruction, or destruction only a little delayed; but it seems to me wiser to delay. Perhaps before the next season we can strengthen our army. The robbers that we hired fought well for us on the sea; it may be that we can hire men to fight with us on the land."
The counselors could but admit the truth of the king's words. Again a treaty was made, gravely and mechanically on the part of the Saxons, and with earnest protestations of good faith on the part of the Danes.
The enemy withdrew quietly into Mercia, and the poor, ravaged Saxon land hoped for at least a winter of peace; but soon after the Christmas of 877, the forces of Guthrum swept down from the north, the men of Hubba came up from the south, Chippenham was made their headquarters, and the whole district was overrun.
Alfred had now been on the throne for seven years, seven years of constant anxiety and struggling. He had fought bravely, but the great numbers of the Danes had made his bravery of little avail. He had won victories, but they had only opened the way for defeats. He had driven the enemy from one corner of his land only to see them return to another part of it in greater numbers, and with the fury of men who had an injury to avenge. With no guide but that of an experience that was growing more and more bitter every day; with no counselors whose knowledge was at all to be compared with his own, young as he was; with an army thinned beyond all possibility of further self-defense; with great numbers of his people driven away to foreign lands by the want of food; and worst of all, with a people whose enthusiasm had gone, whose faces were sad and hopeless, and who had lost their first earnest confidence in their leader,—what was left for the king to do?
Sadly he thought over his past life. He remembered the day that the Danes had taken Winchester, and how sure he had been that if he had been there, he could have done "something." He remembered the trust of Alstan in him and his own promise, "What is for the good of my people shall ever be first with me." Had he been overbearing with them, impatient with their ignorance? What could he do for them? The Danes would never cease trying to overcome him. He could not defend his people; would it not be better if he disappeared from among them? The treasures of the land were gone, there was little reason for further pillage. Without him, it might be that the Danes and the Saxons would come to live together in peace. Whither could he go? Suicide was the refuge of a coward. Rome? He could not live there in plenty, leaving his abandoned people in want.
The next morning King Alfred had disappeared. A faithful little band of friends had gone with him, and his wife and family soon followed. He had taken refuge, not in the luxuries of Rome, but in the marshy wilderness of Somerset. The king who had grown up in the plenteousness of the royal houses was often faint with hunger.
This swampy forest was not without its dwellers, men who cared for the swine or the cattle of some landholder. They had built themselves rude huts of brushwood plastered with mud, or of earth mixed with straw. The most luxurious among these homes were made by setting up posts in a circle, interweaving twigs of hazel and filling the spaces with clay. The roof was made of poles, and was clumsily thatched with straw. When the smoke went out—if it went out at all—it had to find its way through the door or through a hole in the roof.
In such huts as these the king took refuge. One of these men was a herdsman of his own; but the faithful servant kept the secret even from his wife, who could not understand why her husband was feeding an idle, helpless fellow. The story is that she tried to make the worthless idler useful and set him to watch some cakes that were baking before the fire. When she returned, the king sat gazing absently at the blaze and the cakes were smoking. She scolded him roundly. The old ballad, puts it:—
"There, don't you see the cakes are burnt?
Then wherefore turn them not?
You're quick enough to eat them
When they are good and hot."
One by one, many men learned where the king had hidden himself. His household could hardly have come to him without several being in the secret. The little band of refugees in the forest grew larger. Their food was the fish from the rivers and the animals that they shot with their bows and arrows. They urged Alfred to return, and to call upon the men of Wessex to rally around his standard.
"No," he said. "The time may come when we shall be strong enough; it is not yet here. The Danes cannot attack us in these bogs and marshes, and we can sally out by night wherever we can find a camp. They themselves shall furnish us food."
But there must be a place of abode a little more permanent than this flitting from swamp to swamp, and Alfred chose with the greatest care a small island containing about two acres of ground. All around it were dense thickets of alder, so similar that only one very familiar with the country could hope to find his way among them. These were of themselves almost concealment enough; but Athelney, as Alfred named his island, was in a district overflowed by the river Parret. Twice a day the "bore" swept up the stream, making the peat-bogs and the swamps into broad lagoons. Here it was that the king in exile built his fortifications and trained the men who were coming to him day by day until the little island was crowded with the faithful band.
In all his dangers King Alfred had carried in his bosom the little book of psalms and prayers that Swithin had given him. The legend is that one day he and his wife and a single thegn were alone on the island, for the others had gone to fish. He was reading aloud from this book, when a needy man suddenly appeared before him and begged for food and drink for Christ's sake. There was but a single loaf of bread and a little wine, but Alfred remembered the time when he had not even so much, and he shared them with the beggar. Then the king turned again to his book and fell asleep. He dreamed that Saint Cuthbert came to him and said:—
"It is I who have been your guest. Your trouble is near its end, and in token of this your men will bring home fish enough for an army."
Sure enough, the men did have an enormous haul of fish; but in spite of any visions that may have come to Alfred, these months of waiting, he hardly knew for what, were very trying to heart and mind. At such times, a new sorrow, however small, seems more than one can bear; and when the king found that the slender gold chain had snapped and his jewel was lost, he felt as if all hope had gone with it. To his little son he said:—
"Edward, if your mother had gone away from you forever, and you had lost the last thing that she gave you, what should you do?"
"I'd be sorry," said the child, looking up with quick sympathy. But Alfred's wife said:
"My husband, you told me once that when she gave it to you, she said that one day you would lose it, but that you must not grieve, for then the hardest days of your life would have passed. Good news will come." The king shook his head with a smile, but he felt a new courage in spite of all his wise reasoning against superstition.
Elswitha was triumphant when the very next day there shone a bright gleam of hope. Hubba, the last of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrog, had suddenly landed in Devon, bringing with him the magical flag whereon was the raven that spread its wings gleefully whenever the Danes were to win the day. The ealderman Odda had contrived to surprise the invaders. Hubba was slain, but what brought much more distress and even dismay to his followers, the raven flag had been captured.
More and more encouraging grew the reports that were brought to Alfred by way of the slender bridge that he had built over the Parret. His followers believed that should the king but name a rallying place, a great army would assemble to fight under his standard. The most careful estimates were made of the number that could be depended upon to come; then of the number of the heathen that were in and about Chippenham.
To this time belongs the legend that the king would trust none but his own eyes to count his foes, and he resolved to visit their camp. The minstrel of whatever nation was free to wander where he would, and was sure of a hearty reception in any camp or at any court. In the garb of a harper Alfred and a single attendant made their way through Selwood Forest, testing their disguise at some of the scattered manors on their road. An uproarious welcome greeted them at the Danish camp. The king sang to his foes and amused them with his jests and tricks, until he had learned all that he wanted to know of the number of the Danes and the strength of their fortifications. Then he returned joyfully to his island, and sent forth the arrow and the naked sword.
The second week in May of 878 was the time appointed for the assembling of the Saxon forces. "And when they saw the king, alive after such tribulations," says the old chronicle, "they received him as he merited, with joy and acclamation."
There were few moments of delay, even for "joy and acclamation." If Alfred would win, he must surprise. There was one night's rest, for many had marched long distances, and then came the great battle of Ethandune. In three days Alfred was again a king, for the remnant of the Danes were shut up in their fortress, with little food and no hope of reënforcements. In two weeks they surrendered, begging for peace on any terms that the king would grant.
They made the usual offer of hostages and of their most solemn oaths; but there was one thing that was new, Guthrum avowed his willingness and that of his men to receive Christian baptism. Now to the heathen tribes of the north the acceptance of baptism indicated a wish to give up the wild life of the viking and to settle down quietly on the land. Alfred saw many proofs of the sincerity of the warriors, and a few weeks after the surrender, Guthrum and thirty of his chief men were baptized, and around their heads was bound the white linen cloth that they were to wear for eight days in token of the baptismal purifying.
During this time they were guests of the king, and then it was that they made their agreement upon what terms they should live together. Alfred granted to them East Anglia, the northern half of Mercia, and Northumbria, retaining a kind of overlordship. The penalty for injury done, whether to Saxon or to Dane, was to be the same.
Again Alfred was on the throne, but over what a kingdom he ruled! In all these years of fighting, the marauders had run at large throughout the land. Hardly a corner of it had been free from them. Over and over, crops had been burned, until in some districts agriculture had been entirely given up. The churches with their treasures had been pillaged and destroyed. The monastery of Peterborough had been collecting books for two centuries; and these were swept away, as was the library of every other convent that had felt the Danish touch. The convents were the seats of the schools; and these were gone, and the monks killed or driven into exile. There was no full treasury and the revenues must all be built up. The fortifications were in ruins. There was no strong band of counselors to advise and coöperate with him. There was no strong band of young men to carry out his will. Worst of all, perhaps, was the feeling of unrest and distrust that was the natural result of so many years of danger and uncertainty. Alfred stood alone. The problem was: Given, a devastated land, an empty treasury, an ignorant, unsettled people, and one strong, wise, conscientious man, to build up a nation.