The common enemy came from the north. At the end of the eighth century the inhabitants of Norway and Denmark resembled the Angles and Saxons three or four centuries before. They swarmed over the sea as pirates to plunder wherever they could find stored-up wealth along the coasts of Western Europe. The Northmen were heathen still and their religion was the old religion of force. They loved battle even more than they loved plunder. They held that the warrior who was slain in fight was received by the god Odin in Valhalla, where immortal heroes spent their days in cutting one another to pieces, and were healed of their wounds in the evening that they might join in the nightly feast, and be able to fight again on the morrow. He that died in bed was condemned to a chilly and dreary existence in the abode of the goddess Hela, whose name is the Norse equivalent of Hell.
Since Englishmen had settled in England they had lost the art of seamanship. The Northmen therefore were often able to plunder and sail away. They could only be attacked on land, and some time would pass before the Ealdorman who ruled the district could gather together not only his own war-band, but the fyrd, or levy of all men of fighting age. When at last he arrived at the spot on the coast where the pirates had been plundering, he often found that they were already gone. Yet, as time went on, the Northmen took courage, and pushed far enough into the interior to be attacked before they could regain the coast.
Their first landing had been in 787, before the time of Ecgberht. In Ecgberht's reign their attacks upon Wessex were so persistent that Ecgberht had to bring his own war-band to the succour of his Ealdormen. His son and successor, Æthelwulf, had a still harder struggle. The pirates spread their attacks over the whole of the southern and the eastern coast, and ventured to remain long enough on shore to fight a succession of battles. In 851 they were strong enough to remain during the whole winter in Thanet. The crews of no less than 350 ships landed in the mouth of the Thames sacked Canterbury and London. They were finally defeated by Æthelwulf at Aclea (Ockley), in Surrey.
In 858 Æthelwulf died. Four of his sons wore the crown in succession; the two eldest, Æthelbald and Æthelberht, ruling only a short time.
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