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.

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