Friday, November 16, 2012

Eadwig 955-959

In 955 Eadred died, having completed the work which Ælfred had begun, and which had been carried on by his son and his three grandsons. England, from the Forth to the Channel, was under one ruler. Even the contrast between Englishmen and Danes was soon, for the most part, wiped out. They were both of the same Teutonic stock, and therefore their languages were akin to one another and their institutions very similar. The Danes of the north were for some time fiercer and less easily controlled than the English of the south, but there was little national distinction between them, and what little there was gradually passed away.
 
Eadred was succeeded by Eadwig, the eldest son of his brother Eadmund. Eadwig was hardly more than fifteen years old, and it would be difficult for a boy to keep order amongst the great ealdormen and earls. At his coronation feast he gave deep offence by leaving his place to amuse himself with a young kinswoman, Ælfgifu, in her mother's room, whence he was followed and dragged back by two ecclesiastics, one of whom was Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Eadmund (940-946) and Eadred (946-955)

Æthelstan died in 940. He was succeeded by his young brother, Eadmund, who had fought bravely at Brunanburh.

Eadmund had to meet a general rising of the Danes of Mercia as well as of those of the north. After he had suppressed the rising he showed himself to be a great statesman as well as a great warrior. The relations between the king of the English and the king of the Scots had for some time been very uncertain. Little is definitely known about them but it looks as if they joined the English whenever they were afraid of the Danes, and joined the Danes whenever they were afraid of the English. Eadmund took an opportunity of making it to be the interest of the Scottish king permanently to join the English.

The southern part of the kingdom of Strathclyde had for some time been under the English kings. In 945 Eadmund overran the remainder, but gave it to Malcolm on condition that he should be his fellow-worker by sea and land. The king of Scots thus entered into a position of dependent alliance towards Eadmund. A great step was thus taken in the direction in which the inhabitants of Britain afterwards walked. The dominant powers in the island were to be English and Scots, not English and Danes. Eadmund thought it worth while to conciliate the Scottish Celts rather than to endeavour to conquer them.

The result of Eadmund's statesmanship was soon made manifest. He himself did not live to gather its fruits. In 946 an outlaw who had taken his seat at a feast in his hall slew him as he was attempting to drag him out by the hair. The next king, Eadred, the last of Eadward's sons, though sickly, had all the spirit of his race. He had another sharp struggle with the Danes, but in 954 he made himself their master. North-humberland was now thoroughly amalgamated with the English kingdom, and was to be governed by an Englishman, Oswulf, with the title of Earl, an old Danish title equivalent to the English Ealdorman, having nothing to do, except philologically, with the old English word Eorl.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Æthelstan. 925—940

Three sons of Eadward reigned in succession.

The eldest, of illegitimate birth, was Æthelstan. Sihtric, the Danish king at York, owned him as over-lord, and on Sihtric's death in 926, Æthelstan took Danish North-humberland under his direct rule. The Welsh kings were reduced to make a fuller acknowledgment of his supremacy than they had made to his father. He drove the Welsh out of the half of Exeter which had been left to them, and confined them to the modern Cornwall beyond the Tamar. Great rulers on the Continent sought his alliance. The empire of Charles the Great had broken up.

One of Æthelstan's sisters was given to Charles the Simple, the king of the Western Franks; another to Hugh the Great, Duke of the French and lord of Paris, who, though nominally the vassal of the king, was equal in power to his lord, and whose son was afterwards the first king of modern France. A third sister was given to Otto, the son of Henry, the king of the Eastern Franks, from whom, in due time, sprang a new line of Emperors.

Æthelstan's greatness drew upon him the jealousy of the king of the Scots and of all the northern kings. In 937 he defeated them all in a great battle at Brunanburh, of which the site is unknown. His victory was celebrated in a splendid war-song.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Eadward's Conquests

Eadward was not, like his father, a legislator or a scholar, but he was a great warrior. In a series of campaigns he subdued the Danish parts of England as far north as the Humber. He was aided by his brother-in-law, Æthelred, and after Æthelred's death by his own sister, Æthelred's widow, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, one of the few warrior-women of the world. Step by step the brother and sister won their way, not contenting themselves with victories in the open country, but securing each district as they advanced by the erection of 'burhs' or fortifications. Some of these 'burhs' were placed in desolate Roman strongholds, such as Chester. Others were raised, like that of Warwick, on the mounds piled up in past times by a still earlier race. Others again, like that of Stafford, were placed where no fortress had been before. Towns, small at first, grew up in and around the 'burhs,' and were guarded by the courage of the townsmen themselves.
 
Eadward, after his sister's death, took into his own hands the government of Mercia, and from that time all southern and central England was united under him. In 922 the Welsh kings acknowledged his supremacy.

Tradition assigns to Eadward a wider rule shortly before his death. In the middle of the ninth century the Picts and the intruding Scots had been amalgamated under Keneth MacAlpin, the king of the Scots, and the new kingdom had since been welded together, just as Mercia and Wessex were being welded together by the attacks of the Danes. It is said that in 925 the king of the Scots, together with other northern rulers, chose Eadward 'to father and lord.' Probably this statement only covers some act of alliance formed by the English king with the king of Scots and other lesser rulers. Nothing was more natural than that the Scottish king, Constantine, should wish to obtain the support of Eadward against his enemies; and it was also natural that if Eadward agreed to support him, he would require some acknowledgment of the superiority of the English king; but what was the precise form of the acknowledgment must remain uncertain.

In 925 Eadward died.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Eadward the Elder 899-825

In 899 Ælfred died. He had already fortified London as an outpost against the Danes, and he left to his son, Eadward, a small but strong and consolidated kingdom. The Danes on the other side of the frontier were not united. Guthrum's kingdom stretched over the old Essex and East Anglia, as well as over the south-eastern part of the old Mercia. The land from the Humber to the Nen was under the rule of Danes settled in the towns known to the English as the Five boroughs of Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Stamford, and Nottingham. In the old Deira or modern Yorkshire was a separate Danish kingdom. Danes, in short, settled wherever we now find the place-names, such as Derby and Whitby, ending in the Danish termination 'by' instead of in the English terminations 'ton' or 'ham,' as in Luton and Chippenham. Yet even in these parts the bulk of the population was usually English, and the English population would everywhere welcome an English conqueror.

A century earlier a Mercian or a North-humbrian had preferred independence to submission to a West Saxon king. They now preferred a West Saxon king to a Danish master, especially as the old royal houses were extinct, and there was no one but the West Saxon king to lead them against the Danes.

Eadward was not, like his father, a legislator or a scholar, but he was a great warrior. In a series of campaigns he subdued the Danish parts of England as far north as the Humber. He was aided by his brother-in-law, Æthelred, and after Æthelred's death by his own sister, Æthelred's widow, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, one of the few warrior-women of the world. Step by step the brother and sister won their way, not contenting themselves with victories in the open country, but securing each district as they advanced by the erection of 'burhs' or fortifications. Some of these 'burhs' were placed in desolate Roman strongholds, such as Chester. Others were raised, like that of Warwick, on the mounds piled up in past times by a still earlier race. Others again, like that of Stafford, were placed where no fortress had been before. Towns, small at first, grew up in and around the 'burhs,' and were guarded by the courage of the townsmen themselves.

Eadward, after his sister's death, took into his own hands the government of Mercia, and from that time all southern and central England was united under him. In 922 the Welsh kings acknowledged his supremacy.

Tradition assigns to Eadward a wider rule shortly before his death. In the middle of the ninth century the Picts and the intruding Scots had been amalgamated under Keneth MacAlpin, the king of the Scots, and the new kingdom had since been welded together, just as Mercia and Wessex were being welded together by the attacks of the Danes. It is said that in 925 the king of the Scots, together with other northern rulers, chose Eadward 'to father and lord.' Probably this statement only covers some act of alliance formed by the English king with the king of Scots and other lesser rulers. Nothing was more natural than that the Scottish king, Constantine, should wish to obtain the support of Eadward against his enemies; and it was also natural that if Eadward agreed to support him, he would require some acknowledgment of the superiority of the English king; but what was the precise form of the acknowledgment must remain uncertain.

In 925 Eadward died.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Aelfred's Laws and Scholarship

King Ælfred was too great a man to want to make every one conform to some ideal of his own choosing. It was enough for him to take men as they were, and to help them to become better.

He took the old laws and customs, and then, suggesting a few improvements, submitted them to the approval of his Witenagemot, the assembly of his bishops and warriors. He knew also that men's conduct is influenced more by what they think than by what they are commanded to do.

His whole land was steeped in ignorance. The monasteries had been the schools of learning; and many of them had been sacked by the Danes, their books burnt, and their inmates scattered, whilst others were deserted, ceasing to receive new inmates because the first duty of Englishmen had been to defend their homes rather than to devote themselves to a life of piety. Latin was the language in which the services of the Church were read, and in which books like Bede's Ecclesiastical History were written. Without a knowledge of Latin there could be no intercourse with the learned men of the Continent, who used that language still amongst themselves.

Yet when the Danes departed from Ælfred's kingdom, there were but very few priests who could read a page of Latin. Ælfred did his best to remedy the evil. He called learned men to him wherever they could be found. Some of these were English; others, like Asser, who wrote Ælfred's life, were Welsh; others again were Germans from beyond the sea. Yet Ælfred was not content. It was a great thing that there should be again schools in England for those who could write and speak Latin, the language of the learned, but his heart yearned for those who could not speak anything but their own native tongue. He set himself to be the teacher of these. He himself translated Latin books for them, with the object of imparting knowledge, not of giving, as a modern translator would do, the exact sense of the author. When, therefore, he knew anything which was not in the books, but which he thought it good for Englishmen to read, he added it to his translation.

Even with this he was not content. The books of Latin writers which he translated taught men about the history and geography of the Continent. They taught nothing about the history of England itself, of the deeds and words of the men who had ruled the English nation. That these things might not be forgotten, he bade his learned men bring together all that was known of the history of his people since the day when they first landed as pirates on the coast of Kent. The Chronicle, as it is called, is the earliest history which any European nation possesses in its own tongue.

Yet, after all, such a man as Ælfred is greater for what he was than for what he did. No other king ever showed forth so well in his own person the truth of the saying, 'He that would be first among you, let him be the servant of all.'

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Aelfred's Military Work

Ælfred would hardly have been able to do so much unless his own character had been singularly attractive. Other men have been greater warriors or legislators or scholars than Ælfred was, but no man has ever combined in his own person so much excellence in war, in legislation, and in scholarship.

As to war, he was not only a daring and resolute commander, but he was an organiser of the military forces of his people. One chief cause of the defeats of the English had been the difficulty of bringing together in a short time the 'fyrd,' or general levy of the male population, or of keeping it long together when men were needed at home to till the fields. Ælfred did his best to overcome this difficulty by ordering that half the men of each shire should be always ready to fight, whilst half remained at home. This new half-army, like his new half-kingdom, was stronger than the whole one had been before.

To an improved army Ælfred added a navy, and he was the first English king who defeated the Danes at sea.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Aelfred and the Treaty of Chippenham 878AD

Aelfred Gold JewelryIn Wessex Aethelred strove hard against the Viking invaders. He won a great victory at Aescesdun (Ashdown, near Reading), on the northern slope of the Berkshire Downs. After a succession of battles he was slain in 871. Though he left sons of his own, he was succeeded by Aelfred, his youngest brother. It was not the English custom to give the crown to the child of a king if there was any one of the kingly family more fitted to wear it. Aelfred was no common man. In his childhood he had visited Rome, and had been hallowed as king by Pope Leo IV., though the ceremony could have had no weight in England. He had early shown a love of letters, and the story goes that when his mother offered a book with bright illuminations to the one of her children who could first learn to read it, the prize was won by Aelfred. During Aethelred's reign he had little time to give to learning. He fought nobly by his brother's side in the battles of the day, and after he succeeded him he fought nobly as king at the head of his people. In 878 the Danish host, under its king, Guthrum, beat down all resistance. Ælfred was no longer able to keep in the open country, and took refuge with a few chosen warriors in the little island of Athelney, in Somerset, then surrounded by the waters of the fen country through which the Parret flowed. After a few weeks he came forth, and with the levies of Somerset and Wilts and of part of Hants he utterly defeated Guthrum at Ethandun (? Edington, in Wiltshire), and stormed his camp.

After this defeat Guthrum and the Danes swore to a peace with Aelfred at Chippenham. They were afterwards baptised in a body at Aller, not far from Athelney. Guthrum with a few of his companions then visited Aelfred at Wedmore, a village near the southern foot of the Mendips, from which is taken the name by which the treaty is usually but wrongly known. By this treaty Aelfred retained no more than Wessex, with its dependencies, Sussex and Kent, and the western half of Mercia. The remainder of England as far north as the Tees was surrendered to the Danes, and became known as the Danelaw, because Danish and not Saxon law prevailed in it. Beyond the Tees Bernicia maintained its independence under an English king. Though the English people never again had to struggle for its very existence as a political body, yet, in 886, after a successful war, Aelfred wrung from Guthrum a fresh treaty by which the Danes surrendered London and the surrounding district. Yet, even after this second treaty, it might seem as if Aelfred, who only ruled over a part of England, was worse off than his grandfather, Ecgberht, who had ruled over the whole. In reality he was better off. In the larger kingdom it would have been almost impossible to produce the national spirit which alone could have permanently kept the whole together. In the smaller kingdom it was possible, especially as there was a strong West Saxon element in the south-west of Mercia in consequence of its original settlement by a West Saxon king after the battle of Deorham. Moreover, Aelfred, taking care not to offend the old feeling of local independence which still existed in Mercia, appointed his son-in-law, Aethelred, who was a Mercian, to govern it as an ealdorman under himself.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Vikings Plunder the English Coast

Gold ring of AethelwulfSince 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.

The task of the third brother, Æthelred, who succeeded in 866, was harder than his father's. Hitherto the Northmen had come for plunder, and had departed sooner or later. A fresh swarm of Danes now arrived from Denmark to settle on the land as conquerors. Though they did not themselves fight on horseback, they seized horses to betake themselves rapidly from one part of England to the other. Their first attack was made on the north, where there was no great affection for the West Saxon kings. They overcame the greater part of North-humberland. They beat down the resistance of East Anglia, and, fastening its king, Eadmund, to a tree, shot him to death with arrows. His countrymen counted him a saint, and a great monastery arose at Bury St. Edmunds in his honour. Everywhere the Danes plundered and burnt the monasteries, because the monks were weak, and their houses were rich with jewelled service books and golden plate. They next turned upon Mercia, and forced the Mercian under-king to pay tribute to them. Only Wessex, to which the smaller eastern states of Kent and Sussex had by this time been completely annexed, retained its independence.