History of England, Part I For the use of Middle Forms of Schools

Tout, T. F. --Powell, F. York


CHAPTER V: The West Saxon Kings and the Danes

1. [1] The Northumbrian head-kings had spread Christianity and learning through England and broken the power of the Welsh; the head-kings had crushed the smaller kingdoms and bound them under their rule, both thus making smooth the way for the West Saxon head-kings, from whose house the sceptre was never to depart, and under whom England at last became really one kingdom under one king. Up to this time the West Saxon kings had been chiefly taken up with fighting the Welsh, colonizing the land so won, subduing the smaller neighbouring kingdoms, , , , , and seeing to the government of their own kingdom, which was better ruled and ordered than any other. When they once won the head-kingship they were able to keep it, not only because they were helped by the English Church and befriended by the Frankish kings,


but chiefly because they alone were able to stand out as the champions of the whole English nation and to keep their realm from the Danes, while and and all the other smaller kingdoms had been overrun and conquered.

2. [2] These DANES (as the English called all their Scandinavian foes) were those Teuton tribes which instead of going west to Britain had crossed the Baltic north and settled Norway and Sweden and the Danish isles, setting up many little kingdoms. At the end of the eighth century many of the princes and nobles of these tribes began to take to sea-roving, setting out in their ashes, large well-built luggers that could withstand the storms of the North Sea, to plunder the richer lands of Germany, , or the Western Islands (the British group). Sailing into the broad river-mouths, they first threw up a stockaded earthwork as their headquarters, and then began scouring the country far and wide, slaying the people, burning the towns and minsters, and carrying off the cattle and goods, till the land was left bare, when they would sail home with their booty. In this way the British coasts were ravaged for nearly a hundred years.

3. [3] But what was happening in England was also taking place in Norway and Denmark; there arose head-kings who put down the small tribal kings and brought the whole land under one firm and peaceful rule. The wickings (sea-rovers), many of whom belonged to royal races whom the head-kings were rooting out, resisted this as far as they could, but at last were obliged to choose between staying quietly at home and giving up piracy, or going off altogether to win new homes in the

"golden lands "

they had plundered. Most of them took this choice, and at the end of the ninth century Northmen were setting up kingdoms in Ireland, Man, the Orkneys, and , whence later went forth the men who colonized the Færeys and Iceland; while the Danes were peopling and ruling half the , Lindesey, and East England. The success of those Scandinavian wickings was partly owing to their good discipline and the swiftness in attack and retreat which their ships gave them, but more to the fact that England was still made up of many separate states, which would not or could not act together, though no one of them alone save , which had a strong central government, was powerful enough to cope with the invaders. Moreover, though the English had been continually warring


against each other, they had hitherto had no foe from abroad to guard against, and so lacked war-vessels and coast-fortresses, for the Roman forts were fallen to decay.

4. [4] So, as will be told below, from to the West Saxon kings were continually warring against the Danes, who overran the greater part of England; but in 's reign they settled on the lands they had won, bowed to , and became Christians. From to the West Saxon kings brought all England (Saxon, Mercian, and Danish alike) under one rule, casting out all the under-kings that remained, and also forced the Welsh and Scottish princes to bow to them; thus making themselves not only kings of all England, but also emperors of Britain.

5. [5] The first West Saxon who became head-king was , an Etheling (man of royal blood), who, being driven abroad, took refuge with the Frank king , the best soldier and wisest statesman of the age, who ruled over all the nations from the Ebro to the Elbe, and from the plain of the Morava to the Bay of Biscay, and was crowned Emperor of the West by the Pope at Rome in , while was with him. Two years after, was called home and chosen king. He was skilful and brave, and, like , a close friend of the Church, which helped him very much in his plans. His reign is full of wars and triumphs. Forcing the king to bow to him after beating him at Ellandun () in a terrible battle, of which the old verse says-

"Ellandun stream was choked with slain and foully stained with gore,"

he next conquered , putting his son as king there under himself, whereon the men of Saxony, Essex, and took him as their lord. The kings of East England and also bowed to him at Dore and swore to be faithful. Besides this he beat the Welsh of Cornwall and Wales, and when the Danes came with large fleets to plunder and he defeated them in a great battle at () though they had the Welsh to help them.

6. [6] When died full of years and honour, his son , a pious and mild-hearted man, the friend of the monks, was chosen king, and his brother became Under-King of in his stead. He was thrice defeated by the Danes, who attacked South England after harrying the French and German coasts; but at


Oakley, in , he and his eldest son, , won a victory where was greater slaughter of the heathen than had yet been heard of, and

" Men fell like corn in harvest-tide in both those mighty hosts."

But though the Danes were defeated, they came again and even dared to winter in Sheppey in .

"The same year King


booked [gave by deed] a tenth part of his land over all his realm for the love of God and his own everlasting salvation. And the same year he journeyed to Rome with great worship [honour] and was there dwelling twelve months."

He had sent his little son there two years before, and the Pope had received him kindly and made him his godson and hallowed him as a king. On s journey home, Charles the Bald, King of the Franks,

"gave him his daughter [Judith] to queen, after which he came back to his people and they were fain of his coming."

7. [7] But his son and his bishop Ealhstan rebelled against him, and took away the kingdom from him, leaving him only to rule as under-king (for his brother was dead). Two years after this he died, and his body lies at . In his will he divided his realm among his sons, the Wise Men agreeing thereto, so that , , and should be head-kings one after another, and , his second son, should have for ever as under-king. He also ordered that for every ten hides of land that he had one poor person should be fed and clothed, and commanded his heirs to send three hundred gold marks to Rome every year (one hundred for lights in St. Peter's Church, and one hundred for lights in St. Paul's, and one hundred for the Pope to give to the poor).

So was chosen head-king and ruled well and prosperously, the Danes being put to flight. He married his father's widow, Judith, after the fashion of the heathen kings, against the bidding of Swithun, Bishop of , the friend of his father. In died sorely lamented, and his wife went back to and married again, and from her are sprung the Earls of Flanders.

then took the whole realm in spite of his father's will. In his days the Danes broke into the royal city, , and plundered , but they were beaten in battle. In he died, and was buried by his brother at Sherborne.

8. [8]  was now crowned king, and his brother, who had come back from Rome, ruled with him. That very year there came to England a mighty Host of Danes under , , and Halfdan, the sons of , meaning to win England and settle it. There are two stories told of their coming. The English say that Osbryht, King of Northumberland, had carried off the wife of one of his nobles, Biorn the Sailor, and that Biorn called in the Danes to avenge him on the wicked king. But the Danes say that the great wicking had been shipwrecked on the coast of , and that the king had ordered him to be thrown into a pit full of snakes, which when his sons heard they swore to take vengeance on the English for their father's death. However this may be, the Danes took and Nottingham, and forced the people of and the to bow to them; and went to East England and defeated Eadmund the under-king, a holy and righteous man, and took him and slew him with arrows. His body was laid in a town now called after him, and he was held a martyr by the English. Then in the heathen Host came through the land to attack , but the West Saxons and their kings met them boldly and fought nine pitched battles against them in one year, along the West Saxon borders. In many of these the Danes got the better, but at Ashdown and won a great victory over the whole Danish host. fought like a wild boar at bay, and many thousand of the heathen were slain, a king and five earls among them.

9. Soon after [2]  this died of the wounds he had got in battle and was buried at Wimborne, and Elfred his brother reigned in his stead. He was able for a while to keep clear of his foes, though the Danes held all the rest of England, setting up an under-king of their own choice in to rule part of it, but dividing the rest of the March and all the south of among themselves, settling there under King Halfdan, and parting the land by lot, and sowing and tilling it as their own ().

The rest of the Host, under Guthrun the Dane and Ragnar's son, attacked and put him to sore distress. was slain by the Devonshire men, and all his followers and his magic banner taken-the Raven, which 's daughters had woven and wrought in a single night, charming it so that it should seem to flap its wings before a victory. But Guthrum built a fort at Chippenham and drove King


into Athelney, an island in the Parret marshes, where he stayed for seven weeks in ; but being encouraged by a vision and joined by all the good men and true out of the west, he was able to beat the Danes at Eddington and besiege them so straitly at Chippenham that they were obliged to make peace with him, swearing to become Christians and to leave his realm for ever. So Guthrum was baptized at Aller, King being his godfather and giving him a new name-. And next year he led his people into East England, where they settled down and parted the land among them. Those who were not content to dwell in England went off to join another great host of Danes that were plundering and Germany, and some of these wicking in settled in Normandy (which was called after them), under Hrolf [Rollo], and became Christians too.

It was in this war, which took up the first part of his reign, that is said to have had all those famous adventures of his in the swineherd's hut and the Danish camp and the little island fastness. But what is certain is that his bravery saved , that from henceforward no more Danes were able to win land in England, and those who had settled in the north and east began to live peacefully among the English, being now of like faith.

10. [9]  now set himself to work with all his might for his people's weal. Seeing that "a realm must be established by righteousness," he and his Wise Men set many good laws, both new and old, and the king had them kept, punishing evildoers, especially bad judges and robbers, very strictly. And since he found that the Danes had swept awayall learning in the north of England, killing the priests and monks and burning their schools and libraries, he sent abroad for learned clerks to come and teach his people; such men as Asser the Welshman, whom he made Bishop of Sherborne, John the old Saxon, and Grimbold the Frank, and there came even wise men from Ireland to visit him, hearing of his love of knowledge. He also set up schools, to which he sent his own sons and the young nobles and gentlemen of his realm. He had many good books put into English for the unlearned, translating some of them himself, as . He also ordered the old English history down to his own day to be written in a book in English, and chained to a desk in Minster. It is from this noble , which was carefully kept and added to from time to time down to the


crowning of , that most of our knowledge of England after 's time comes. also collected all the old English poems he could hear of, being very fond of them from his youth up, as the story about the pretty painted book of songs which he learned shows; but they have unfortunately been lost, as have also 's , and his of notes on all kinds of subjects.

He was a good friend to the Church, building and restoring minsters, putting good priests and bishops over his people, and giving alms to the churches in Rome, Jerusalem, and India as well as to the poor at home. His own life was godly and upright; though his health was bad he never spared himself, but worked hard, setting out his time every hour in the day to its appointed task, and taking little ease, though he was fond of hunting and hawking and singing. , first of all English kings, found out the real way to stop the Danish invasions, by fortifying the towns, building and keeping a fleet, and so ordering his levies that in every shire in there should be half the fyrd (militia) under arms, while the other half were working at home. He built ships against the ashes "full nigh twice as large as they, some with sixty oars, some with more, both swifter and stancher and higher than the others," after his own design, and got Frisians to teach his English how to manage them. His income he divided into two halves, with the first of which he paid his servants, workmen, and the foreigners who came to see him; the other half he gave to the poor, the monks, and the school. His favourite maxim was that on the welfare of the priest, the soldier, and the yeoman depends the wellbeing of a kingdom; and, in a word, he did all he could to bring this about.

So great was his fame that the Welsh princes came of their own will and took him as their lord in , swearing to be faithful to him if he would keep them against the Danes. Thus he was Overlord of All Britain south of the Humber, Welsh, Danish, or English.

11. [10] In the Danish Host that had been abroad in and Germany, where the emperor overthrew them at Lowen, came to England under Hæsten and other leaders, hoping to find an easier prey; but and his alderman and son-in-law of the took their ships and forts, till in they gave up all hope of winning England, and hiring ships of their Christian kinsmen, went off to , leaving the English


power unbroken, though it had been sorely tried by a plague during the last three years of the war, in which many men and beasts perished. So, after all, 's reign ended peacefully; he died on the 26th October , and his body was laid in the New Abbey which he founded at . Never has a nobler king ruled over Englishmen, or one more worthy of honour than



the truth-teller, England's darling."


[1] Rise of Wessex.

[] [787-839]

[2] Danish sea-rovers ravage the English coasts, 787-875.

[3] Settlement of Danes and North-men, 850-950.

[4] Danes and English under same kings, 950-1012.

[5] Ecgberht, 802-838.

[6] Æthelwulf, 839-858.

[] [851--876.]

[7] Æthelbald, 856-860, and Æthelberht, 860-866.

[8] Æthelred and Alfred. The Great Host. 866-871.

[2] Ælfred,871-901. The Danes settle Northumberland, North Marchland, and East England.

[] [878-897.]

[9] Ælfred's righteousness, learning, godliness, and wisdom.

[10] Alfred's last wars against Hæsten,892-897.

[] [901-937.]

  • In-text illustrations for this text are cataloged in MS004/002.001#DO01.
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