Editor’s Note:  This is the third chapter of Alfred the Great, by Jacob Abbot (published 1872)

Read Part 2 here


III. The Danes

The landing of Hengist and Horsa, the first of the Anglo-Saxons, took place in the year 449, according to the commonly received chronology. It was more than two hundred years after this before the Britons were entirely subdued, and the Saxon authority established throughout the island, unquestioned and supreme. One or two centuries more passed away, and then the Anglo-Saxons had, in their turn, to resist a new horde of invaders, who came, as they themselves had done, across the German Ocean. These new invaders were the Danes.

The Saxons were not united under one general government when they came finally to get settled in their civil polity. The English territory was divided, on the contrary, into seven or eight separate kingdoms. These kingdoms were ruled by as many separate dynasties, or lines of kings. They were connected with each other by friendly relations and alliances, more or less intimate, the whole system being known in history by the name of the Saxon Heptarchy.

The princes of these various dynasties showed in their dealings with one another, and in their relations with foreign powers, the same characteristics of boldness and energy as had always marked the action of the race. Even the queens and princesses evinced, by their courage and decision, that Anglo-Saxon blood lost nothing of its inherent qualities by flowing in female veins.

For example, a very extraordinary story is told of one of these Saxon princesses. A certain king upon the Continent; whose dominions lay between the Rhine and the German Ocean, had proposed for her hand in behalf of his son, whose name was Radiger. The consent of the princess was given, and the contract closed. The king himself soon afterward died, but before he died he changed his mind in respect to the marriage of his son. It seems that he had himself married a second wife, the daughter of a king of the Franks, a powerful continental people; and as, in consequence of his own approaching death, his son would come unexpectedly into possession of the throne, and would need immediately all the support which a powerful alliance could give him, he recommended to him to give up the Saxon princess, and connect himself, instead, with the Franks, as he himself had done. The prince entered into these views; his father died, and he immediately afterward married his father’s youthful widow—his own step-mother—a union which, however monstrous it would be regarded in our day, seems not to have been considered any thing very extraordinary then.

The Anglo-Saxon princess was very indignant at this violation of his plighted faith on the part of her suitor. She raised an army and equipped a fleet, and set sail with the force which she had thus assembled across the German Ocean, to call the faithless Radiger to account. Her fleet entered the mouth of the Rhine, and her troops landed, herself at the head of them. She then divided her army into two portions, keeping one division as a guard for herself at her own encampment, which she established near the place of her landing, while she sent the other portion to seek and attack Radiger, who was, in the mean time, assembling his forces, in a state of great alarm at this sudden and unexpected danger.

In due time this division returned, reporting that they had met and encountered Radiger, and had entirely defeated him. They came back triumphing in their victory, considering, evidently, that the faithless lover had been well punished for his offense. The princess, however, instead of sharing in their satisfaction, ordered them to make a new incursion into the interior, and not to return without bringing Radiger with them as their prisoner. They did so; and after hunting the defeated and distressed king from place to place, they succeeded, at last, in seizing him in a wood, and brought him in to the princess’s encampment. He began to plead for his life, and to make excuses for the violation of his contract by urging the necessities of his situation and his father’s dying commands. The princess said she was ready to forgive him if he would now dismiss her rival and fulfill his obligations to her. Radiger yielded to this demand; he repudiated his Frank wife, and married the Anglo-Saxon lady in her stead.

Though the Anglo-Saxon race continued thus to evince in all their transactions the same extraordinary spirit and energy, and met generally with the same success that had characterized them at the beginning, they seemed at length to find their equals in the Danes. These Danes, however, though generally designated by that appellation in history, were not exclusively the natives of Denmark. They came from all the shores of the Northern and Baltic Seas. In fact, they inhabited the sea rather than the land. They were a race of bold and fierce naval adventurers, as the Anglo-Saxons themselves had been two centuries before. Most extraordinary accounts are given of their hardihood, and of their fierce and predatory habits. They haunted the bays along the coasts of Sweden and Norway, and the. islands which encumber the entrance to the Baltic Sea. They were banded together in great hordes, each ruled by a chieftain, who was called a sea king, because his dominions scarcely extended at all to the land. His possessions, his power, his subjects pertained all to the sea. It is true they built or bought their vessels on the shore, and they sought shelter among the islands and in the bays in tempests and storms; but they prided themselves in never dwelling in houses, or sharing, in any way, the comforts or enjoyments of the land. They made excursions every where for conquest and plunder, and were proud of their successful deeds of violence and wrong. It was honorable to enter into their service. Chieftains and nobles who dwelt upon the land sent their sons to acquire greatness, and wealth, and fame by joining these piratical gangs, just as high-minded military or naval officers, in modern times, would enter into the service of an honorable government abroad.

Besides the great leaders of the most powerful of these bands, there was an infinite number of petty chieftains, who commanded single ships or small detached squadrons. These were generally the younger sons of sovereigns or chieftains who lived upon the land, the elder brothers remaining at home to inherit the throne or the paternal inheritance. It was discreditable then, as it is now in Europe, for any branches of families of the higher class to engage in any pursuit of honorable industry. They could plunder and kill without dishonor, but they could not toil. To rob and murder was glory; to do good or to be useful in any way was disgrace.

These younger sons went to sea at a very early age too. They were sent often at twelve, that they might become early habituated to the exposures and dangers of their dreadful combats, and of the wintery storms, and inured to the athletic exertions which the sea rigorously exacts of all who venture within her dominion. When they returned they were received with consideration. and honor, or with neglect and disgrace, according as they were more or less laden with booty and spoil. In the summer months the land kings themselves would organize and equip naval armaments for similar expeditions. They would cruise along the coasts of the sea, to land where they found an unguarded point, and sack a town or burn a castle, seize treasures, capture men and make them slaves, kidnap women, and sometimes destroy helpless children with their spears in a manner too barbarous and horrid to be described. On returning to their homes, they would perhaps find their own castles burned and their own dwellings roofless, from the visit of some similar horde.

Thus the seas of western Europe were covered in those days, as they are now, with fleets of shipping; though, instead of being engaged, as now, in the quiet and peaceful pursuits of commerce, freighted with merchandise, manned with harmless seamen, and welcome wherever they come, they were then loaded only with ammunition and arms, and crowded with fierce and reckless robbers, the objects of universal detestation and terror.

One of the first of these sea kings who acquired sufficient individual distinction to be personally remembered in history has given a sort of immortality, by exploits; to the very rude name of Ragnar Lodbrog, and his character was as rude as his name.

Ragnar’s father was a prince of Norway. He married, however, a Danish princess, and thus Ragnar acquired a sort of hereditary right to a Danish kingdom—the territory including various islands and promontories at the entrance of the Baltic Sea. There was, however, a competitor for this power, named Harald. The Franks made common cause with Harald. Ragnar was defeated and driven away from the land. Though defeated, however; he was not subdued. He organized a naval force, and made himself a sea king. His operations on the stormy element of the seas were conducted with so much decision and energy, and at the same time with so much system and plan, that his power rapidly extended. He brought the other sea kings under his control, and established quite a maritime empire. He made more and more distant excursions, and at last, in order to avenge himself upon the Franks for their interposition in behalf of his enemy at home, he passed through the Straits of Dover, and thence down the English Channel to the mouth of the Seine. He ascended this river to Rouen, and there landed, spreading throughout the country the utmost terror and dismay. From Rouen he marched to Paris, finding no force able to resist him on his way, or to defend the capital. His troops destroyed the monastery of St. Germain’s, near the city, and then the King of the Franks, finding himself at their mercy, bought them off by paying a large sum of money. With this money and the other booty which they had acquired, Ragnar and his horde now returned to their ships at Rouen; and sailed away again toward their usual haunts among the bays and islands of the Baltic Sea.

This exploit, of course, gave Ragnar Lodbrog’s barbarous name a very wide celebrity. It tended, too, greatly to increase and establish his power. He afterward made similar incursions into Spain, and finally grew bold enough to brave the Anglo-Saxons themselves on the green island of Britain, as the Anglo-Saxons had themselves braved the aboriginal inhabitants two or three centuries, before. But Ragnar seems to have found the Anglo-Saxon swords and spears which he advanced to encounter on landing in England much more formidable than those which were raised against him on the southern side of the Channel. He was destroyed in the contest. The circumstances were as follows:

In making his preparations for a descent upon the English coast, he prepared for a very determined contest, knowing well the character of the foes with whom he would have now to deal. He built two enormous ships, much larger than those of the ordinary size, and armed and equipped them in the most perfect manner. He filled them with selected men, and sailing down along the coast of Scotland, he watched for a place and an opportunity to land. Winds and storms are almost always raging among the dark and gloomy mountains and islands of Scotland. Ragnar’s ships were caught in one of these gales and driven on shore. The ships were lost, but the men escaped to the land. Ragnar, nothing daunted, organized and marshaled them as an army, and marched into the interior to attack any force which might appear against them. His course led him to Northumbria, the most northerly Saxon kingdom. Here he soon encountered a very large and superior force, under the command of Ella, the king; but, with the reckless desperation which so strongly marked his character, he advanced to attack them. Three times, it is said, he pierced the enemy’s lines, cutting his way entirely through them with his little column. He was, however, at length overpowered. His men were cut to pieces, and he was himself taken prisoner. We regret to have to add that our cruel ancestors put their captive to death in a very barbarous manner. They filled a den with poisonous snakes, and then drove the wretched Ragnar into it. The horrid reptiles killed him with their stings. It was Ella, the king of Northumbria, who ordered and directed this punishment.

The expedition of Ragnar thus ended without leading to any permanent results in Anglo-Saxon history. It is, however, memorable as the first of a series of invasions from the Danes—or Northmen, as they are sometimes called, since they came from all the coasts of the Baltic and German Seas—which, in the end, gave the Anglo-Saxons infinite trouble. At one time, in fact, the conquests of the Danes threatened to root out and destroy the Anglo-Saxon power from the island altogether. They would probably have actually effected this, had the nation not been saved by the prudence, the courage, the sagacity, and the consummate skill of the subject of this history, as will fully appear to the reader in the course of future chapters.

Ragnar was not the only one of these Northmen who made attempts to land in England and to plunder the Anglo-Saxons, even in his own day. Although there were no very regular historical records kept in those early times, still a great number of legends, and ballads, and ancient chronicles have come down to us, narrating the various transactions which occurred, and it appears by these that the sea kings generally were beginning, at this time, to harass the English coasts, as well as all the other shores to which they could gain access. Some of these invasions would seem to have been of a very formidable character.

At first these excursions were made in the summer season only, and, after collecting their plunder, the marauders would return in the autumn to their own shores, and winter in the bays and among the islands there. At length, however, they grew more bold. A large band of them landed, in the autumn of 851, on the island of Thanet, where the Saxons themselves, had landed four centuries before, and began very coolly to establish their winter quarters on English ground. They succeeded in maintaining their stay during the winter, and in the spring were prepared for bolder undertakings still.

They formed a grand confederation, and collected a fleet of three hundred and fifty ships, galleys, and boats, and advanced boldly up the Thames. They plundered London, and, then marched south to Canterbury, which they plundered too. They went thence into one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms called Mercia, the inhabitants of the country not being able to oppose any effectual obstacle to their marauding march. Finally, a great Anglo-Saxon force was organized and brought out to meet them. The battle was fought in a forest of oaks, and the Danes were defeated. The victory, however, afforded the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms only a temporary relief. New hordes were continually arriving and landing, growing more and more bold if they met with success, and but little daunted or discouraged by temporary failures.

The most formidable of all these expeditions was one organized and commanded by the sons and relatives of Ragnar, whom, it will be recollected, the Saxons had cruelly killed by poisonous serpents in a dungeon or den. The relatives of the unhappy chieftain thus barbarously executed were animated in their enterprise by the double stimulus of love of plunder and a ferocious thirst for revenge. A considerable time was spent in collecting a large fleet, and in combining, for this purpose, as many chieftains as could be induced to share in the enterprise. The story of their fellow-countryman expiring under the stings of adders and scorpions, while his tormentors were exulting around him over the cruel agonies which their ingenuity had devised, aroused them to a frenzy of hatred and revenge. They proceeded, however, very deliberately in their plans. They did nothing hastily. They allowed ample time for the assembling and organizing of the confederation. When all was ready, they found that there were eight kings and twenty earls in the alliance, generally the relatives and comrades of Ragnar. The two most prominent of these commanders were Guthrum and Hubba. Hubba was one of Ragnar’s sons. At length, toward the close of the summer, the formidable expedition set sail. They approached the English coast, and landed without meeting with any resistance. The Saxons seemed appalled and paralyzed at the greatness of the danger. The several kingdoms of the Heptarchy, though they had been imperfectly united, some years before, under Egbert, were still more or less distinct, and each hoped that the one first invaded would be the only one which would suffer; and as these kingdoms were rivals, and often hostile to each other, no general league was formed against what soon proved to be the common enemy. The Danes, accordingly, quietly encamped, and made calm and deliberate arrangements for spending the winter in their new quarters, as if they were at home.

During all this time, notwithstanding the coolness and deliberation with which these avengers of their murdered countryman acted, the fires of their resentment and revenge were slowly but steadily burning, and as soon as the spring opened, they put themselves in battle array, and marched into the dominions of Ella. Ella did all that it was possible to do to meet and oppose them, but the spirit of retaliation and rage which his cruelties had evoked was too strong to be resisted. His country was ravaged, his army was defeated, he was taken prisoner, and the dying terrors and agonies of Ragnar among the serpents were expiated by tenfold worse tortures which they inflicted upon Ella’s mutilated body, by a process too horrible to be described.

After thus successfully accomplishing the great object of their expedition, it was to have been hoped that they would leave the island and return to their Danish homes. But they evinced no disposition to do this. On the contrary, they commenced a course of ravage and conquest in all parts of England, which continued for several years. The parts of the country which attempted to oppose them they destroyed by fire and sword. They seized cities, garrisoned and occupied them, and settled in them as if to make them their permanent homes. One kingdom after another was subdued. The kingdom of Wessex seemed alone to remain, and that was the subject of contest. Ethelred was the king. The Danes advanced into his dominions to attack him. In the battle that ensued, Ethelred was killed. The successor to his throne was his brother Alfred, the subject of this history, who thus found himself suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to assume the responsibilities and powers of supreme command, in as dark and trying a crisis of national calamity and danger as can well be conceived. The manner in which Alfred acted in the emergency, rescuing his country from her perils, and laying the foundations, as he did, of all the greatness and glory which has since accrued to her, has caused his memory to be held in the highest estimation among all nations, and has immortalized his name.