Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Norman Dukes, 912—1002

The country which lies on both sides of the lower course of the Seine formed, at the beginning of the tenth century, part of the dominions of Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, who had inherited so much of the dominions of Charles the Great as lay west of a line roughly drawn from the Scheldt to the Mediterranean through the lower course of the Rhone. Danes and Norwegians, known on the Continent as Normans, plundered Charles's dominions as they had plundered England, and at last settled in them as they had settled in parts of England.

In 912 Charles the Simple ceded to their leader, Hrolf, a territory of which the capital was Rouen, and which became known as Normandy—the land of the Normans. Hrolf became the first Duke of the Normans, but his men were fierce and rugged, and for some time their southern neighbours scornfully called him and his descendants Dukes of the Pirates. In process of time a change took place which affected both Normandy and other countries as well. The West Frankish kings were descended from Charles the Great; but they had failed to defend their subjects from the Normans, and they thereby lost hold upon their people.

One of their dependent nobles, the Duke of the French, whose chief city, Paris, formed a bulwark against the Normans advancing up the Seine, grew more powerful than themselves. At the same time the Normans were becoming more and more French in their speech and customs. At last an alliance was made between Hugh Capet, the son of Hugh the Great, Duke of the French, and Richard the Fearless, Duke of the Normans. The race of Charles the Great was dethroned, and Hugh became king of the French. In name he was king over all the territory which had been governed by Charles the Simple. In reality that happened in France which Æthelred had been trying to prevent in England. Hugh ruled directly over his own duchy of France, a patch of land of which Paris was the capital.

The great vassals of the crown, who answered to the English ealdormen, only obeyed him when it was their interest to do so. The most powerful of these vassals was the Duke of the Normans. In 1002 the duke was Richard II.—the Good—the son of Richard the Fearless. In that year Æthelred, who was a widower, married Richard's sister, Emma. It was the beginning of a connection with Normandy which never ceased till a Norman duke made himself by conquest king of the English.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Return of the Danes, 984.

Æthelred, now a boy of ten, became king in 979. The epithet the Unready, which is usually assigned to him, is a mistranslation of a word which properly means the Rede-less, or the man without counsel. He was entirely without the qualities which befit a king. Eadmund had kept the great chieftains in subordination to himself because he was a successful leader. Eadgar had kept them in subordination because he treated them with respect. Æthelred could neither lead nor show respect. He was always picking quarrels when he ought to have been making peace, and always making peace when he ought to have been fighting. What he tried to do was to lessen the power of the great ealdormen, and bring the whole country more directly under his own authority.

In 985 he drove out Ælfric, the Ealdorman of the Mercians. In 988 Dunstan died, and Æthelred had no longer a wise adviser by his side.

It would have been difficult for Æthelred to overpower the ealdormen even if he had had no other enemies to deal with. Unluckily for him, new swarms of Danes and Norwegians had already appeared in England. They began by plundering the country, without attempting to settle in it. In 991 Brihtnoth, Ealdorman of the East Saxons, was defeated and slain by them at Maldon. Æthelred could think of no better counsel than to pay them 10,000l., a sum of money which was then of much greater value than it is now, to abstain from plundering. It was not necessarily a bad thing to do.

One of the greatest of the kings of the Germans, Henry the Fowler, had paid money for a truce to barbarians whom he was not strong enough to fight. But when the truce had been bought Henry took care to make himself strong enough to destroy them when they came again. Æthelred was never ready to fight the Danes and Norwegians at any time. In 994 Olaf Trygvasson, who had been driven from the kingship of Norway, and Svend, who had been driven from the kingship of Denmark, joined forces to attack London. The London citizens fought better than the English king, and the two chieftains failed to take the town. 'They went thence, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning, and harrying, and in man-slaying, as in Essex, and in Kent, and in Sussex, and in Hampshire. And at last they took their horses and rode as far as they could, and did unspeakable evil.'

The plunderers were now known as 'the army,' moving about where they would. Æthelred this time gave them 16,000. He got rid of Olaf, who sailed away and was slain by his enemies, but he could not permanently get rid of Svend. Svend, about the year 1000, recovered his kingship in Denmark, and was more formidable than he had been before. Plunderings went on as usual, and Æthelred had no resource but to pay money to the plunderers to buy a short respite. He then looked across the sea for an ally, and hoped to find one by connecting himself with the Duke of the Normans.