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

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


CHAPTER VII: The Danish Kings of England

1. The West Saxon line of kings had reached their greatest power, and were now to fall before their old foes


the Danes, who came not as in 's time to settle and repeople the land, but merely to change for a time the royal line, and, by their strong central government and plan of ruling by viceroys, the great earls found an English peerage like that of France, which when they themselves left the throne, governed England for twenty-five years as it would, and only fell before a second foreign invasion of Northmen. That Danish kings came to rule in England at all was largely the fault of the young king, who was in every way unlike the noble rulers of the six generations before him. He cared for nothing but his own selfish pleasures, leaving the government to the evil counsellors and treacherous favourites in whom he trusted. When he did act of himself his behaviour was foolish, cruel, and unjust. , that dying early in the reign, but not before he had had occasion to rebuke the young king for regarding

"silver rather than righteousness in his judgments,"

there was no one to check his wickedness.

2. [2] Just at this moment the Danes and Northmen being hard pressed by civil war and by the Great Famine of , which was sorely felt in Norway and Denmark, began to attack England, where they found a different welcome to that their fathers had got from and . Not that the English were loath to defend themselves, for with a wise king to head them they could have kept their country safe enough. Such a fight as Maldon, , shows this well enough, where, as the Lay tells us, Byrthnoth the Old, Alderman of East England, withstood the Northmen's king, Anlaf Tryggvisson himself, and being struck down in the fight was nobly revenged by his thegens, who vowed not to fly a step, and fell one by one over his body. So too, in , when Anlaf and King the Dane came against London with more than five hundred ships, and attacked the city with fire and sword,

"they got more hurt than they ever thought any burghers could do them,"

and were beaten off so bravely that Anlaf agreed to make peace, be confirmed (he had been baptized before in the Scillies), and promise never to come to England as an enemy again. But the courage and skill of the people were made of no effect by the laziness of ; the folly of the Wise Men, who were persuaded into buying off the Danes with gold, which of course was a mere inducement to them to come again; and the treason of Ælfric, who had succeeded Ælfhere as Alderman of the


. Thus in , when Swegen and his Danes were harrying , the king and the Wise Men settled to go against them with both the fleet and the army; "but when the ships were ready, they put it off from day to day and wore out the poor fellows on board the ships with toil, and ever the more forward things ought to have been, the later they were, time after time, and ever they let their foemen's host wax greater. And in the end the cruise came to nought but people's toil and waste of money and the emboldening of their enemies."

3. [3] In , thinking that a friendship with the Normans would be of help to him (for the Danish kings and the Dukes of Rouen were allied) married Duke Richard's sister Emma (whom the English called Ælfgifu), a beautiful but cold-hearted and selfish woman. But this step again was of little profit, for he brought his foes upon him again with double violence by ordering all the Danes that happened to be in England to be put to death on S. Brice's Day, November 13, giving out that he had been warned they were about to betray him and all his Wise Men and take the kingdom. Among those then killed in cold blood was Gunhild, 's sister, with her husband and child. Whereupon swore an oath to take 's realm from him, and came to England with a large fleet. Thither shortly followed Earl Thurcytel the Tall with sixty ships full of soldiers, most of whom had once been wickings and buccaneers, and were still heathen. As usual, the aldermen of the Marchmen, Ælfric and his successor Eadric Streona, betrayed their country to the enemy, while the East English behaved best of all. Their alderman Ulfcytel the Swift (who, like Eadric, had married one of 's daughters) coming upon the enemy as they were marching to their fleet with the plunder of Thetford,

"many on both sides fell. But if the English had been in full strength, the Danes (as they themselves said) would never have got to their ships, for Ulfcytel showed them such hard play as they had never yet met."

And at Balsham an Englishman, whose name is lost, held the church tower single-handed against a whole band of wickings till they left the place.

But the Danes were too strong for any single shire, and ere long sixteen counties were overrun by these though the Wise Men met time after time, and the whole land was taxed to raise and keep the fleets and arm them;

"but the people's labour was lightly cast away through want of wisdom, for they would neither buy off their enemies at

the right time, nor fight with them, but when they had done all the ill they could, then they bought peace of them."

In was betrayed to Earl Thurcytel and his buccaneers, and taken.[1]  They wished to put him to ransom, but he would not have the Church or the poor robbed for his sake, and refused. This made them very angry, and

" on Saturday evening, in the octave of Easter, when they were all drunk with wine they had got from


, they took the archbishop to their husting,"

and though Thurcytel offered them all that he had save his own ship to let the old man go, pelted him with ox-heads and bones till one of them in pity slew him outright with an axe. Thurcytel was so angry that he and many of his followers left the rest and made peace with the king and entered his service. The archbishop's body was given up to the Londoners, who buried it in state and paid honours to as a saint and martyr ever after.

4. [4] At last, in , all England began to see that it would be better to obey a foreign king than bear what they were now bearing for such a man as , and the whole land submitted to ; going on board Thurcytel's ships with his family and sailing to Normandy, where he stayed till died. When this happened, in , the Danish army chose , 's son, as king, but the English Wise Men sent to and told him

"that they loved no lord better than their own natural lord, if he would rule them rightlier than he did before."

And he answered

"that he would be their true lord and right that they misliked, and forgive all that had been said or done against him."

So he came back, and every Danish king was declared an outlaw in England.

But Eadric the Grasper quarrelled with , 's son, and joined with his[1]  Marchmen. Thurcytel also changed sides, and as the Londoners chose for their king in , when died, the whole country was torn in two by their partisans. Six pitched battles were fought, the last of which at Ashington won, after a struggle in which Ulfcytel the Swift was killed by Thurcytel (in revenge for his brother Heming, whom the East English alderman had slain), and nearly all the English nobles fell. After this Eadric and the Wise Men brought the kings together at Olney, and made them agree to divide the realm, taking and the March, and East England


and . So matters stood till the end of the year (November 30), when Eadric had his noble young brother-in-law murdered and was left sole king. 's body was laid at .

5. [5]  was wise and faithful, and made up his mind to rule England like an English-born king. As soon, therefore, as he made his crown safe, by marrying Ælfgifu, 's widow, killing such traitors as Eadric and banishing the kinsmen of the last kings, he paid off and sent home nearly all his Danish troops, and dividing England into four great earldoms (, , East England, and ), put an earl over each under himself. Having such a mighty empire, for when he died he was king of the Ostmen, Northmen, and Danes, as well as the English, he was often away warring abroad, where his English thegens (especially , whom he made Earl of and married to his kinswoman) showed great skill and bravery. But paid the greatest attention to his English kingdom, making laws for it, and protecting it from the inroads of the Scottish kings, whom he compelled to swear faithfulness to him.

To the Church he was a generous friend, building up the minsters and churches that suffered in the wars, raising stone chapels at Ashington and other places where he had won battles, and giving many gifts to cathedrals and minsters at home and abroad. He also took the body of Ælfheah from London to with great state. It is well known how he rebuked his courtiers for their flattery by Southampton Water when the tide was coming in, and it is said that after this he never wore his crown again, but hung it on the Rood at , and set out for Rome to pray there for the forgiveness of his sins and the welfare of his people.

The Pope and Emperor were glad to see him, and promised to let all English pilgrims henceforward pass freely through their dominions, and gave him many costly gifts. He wrote home from Rome a letter to his people, in which he says,

" I have vowed to God Almighty Himself to amend my life from this day in all ways, and to rule with righteousness and mercy, giving upright judgments. I therefore bid all my sheriffs and servants throughout my kingdom, as they care for my goodwill and their own safety, to use no unrighteous violence against any man rich or poor, but that all alike, high or low, shall enjoy fair law. Nor let any man turn aside therefrom, either for the favour of the king,

or the power of the great, or to get money wrongfully, for I have no need to heap up wealth by unrighteousness. I have sent this letter before me that my people may be gladdened by my welfare, for as ye yourselves know, I have never spared, nor will I ever spare, myself or my labour in taking care for the needs of all my people."

And it is certain that under his good rule England recovered from the misfortunes of 's reign, and enjoyed peace and safety.

Like other great kings, took delight in useful works, going on with the drainage of the Fens, and building towers and bridges and churches of stone (little used till his day save for church building). A great deal of 's success was owing to his guard of House-carles, two or three thousand picked men (many of them Thurcytel's buccaneers), whom he paid highly and kept strictly under laws which he himself gave them. This little standing army, which was always with him, was held the finest body of soldiers in the world.

In died at Shaftesbury, and was buried at . He was a little man, but strong of body, pleasant spoken, but keeping his thoughts to himself till he was ready to act, fond of riches, yet spending them wisely, a good judge of men and not easily deceived. He was fond of hunting, and of poetry and singing. The verses he made about the monks of Ely's chanting are well known.

6. [6] Soon after 's death the Wise Men all met at , and Earl Leofric of and most all the thegens north of the , and the men of the fleet at London, chose as king, but Earl and the West Saxon lords withstood this as far as they could, but could not prevail. Their favourite, , was, however, made King of the South to please them; but as he was also chosen king in Denmark, he did not come to England, and left his mother Emma and Earl to rule for him. , the son of and a Northamptonshire lady, hated Emma, his stepmother, took away the jewels his father had given her, and sent for her two sons by , who were living in Normandy, to come to England, entrapping them by false words. When they came seized and his followers and gave them up to 's men, who put most of them to death very cruelly, and blinded the Etheling so that he died of the wounds. his brother was luckily able to leave England unhurt and sail back to Normandy. Next year the West Saxons got tired of 's staying away, and choosing for king, drove Emma out of England.


She went to Bruges, whither her son, , came to her, and began to get ready a fleet to invade England and turn out his half-brother, when, before he could start, died. was sent for and chosen king at once. His rule was stern. He had his brother's body dug up and cast into a sewer, and brought to trial for 's murder; but there were no witnesses, so the earl was allowed to clear himself by oath, and by Leofric's advice he brought back the king's favour by the gift of a splendid war-galley, with arms for eighty men aboard. Heavy taxes were raised to pay off the fleet that had come with the king, and they were sent home. was called back from Normandy and kindly welcomed by his brother, and things were going on well, when went to the wedding of one of his great officers at Lambeth, and as he stood up to pledge the married pair, suddenly fell to the ground in awful anguish. They that were next him picked him up, but he never spoke word more, and died there on the 8th of June .


[1] Athelred the Ill-counselled, 979-1015.

[2] Ravages of the Danes and Northmen, 988-1001.

[] [999-1016.]

[3] King Swegen conquers England, 1002-1013.

[1] Archbishop Ælfheah murdered, 19th April 1012.

[4] Swegen Forkbeard, 1013-1014.

[1] Eadmund Ironside, 1016.

[] [1016-1037.]

[5] Cnut the Mighty, 1016-1035.

[6] Harold Harefoot and Hartha-Cnut, 1035-1042.

[] [1040-1050.]

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