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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The Resistance To The Danes
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


In the long period of three and a-half centuries which had elapsed between the Jutish conquest of Kent and the establishment of the West Saxon over-lordship, the politics of Britain had been wholly insular. The island had been brought back by Augustine and his successors into ecclesiastical, commercial, and literary union with the continent: but no foreign war or invasion had ever broken the monotony of murdering the Welsh and harrying the surrounding English. The isolation of England was complete. Ship-building was almost an obsolete art: and the small trade which still centred in London seems to have been mainly carried on in Frisian bottoms; for the Low Dutch of the continent still retained the seafaring habits which those of England had forgotten. But a new enemy was now beginning to appear in northern Europe—the Scandinavians. The history of the great wicking movement forms the subject of a separate volume in this series: but the manner in which the English met it will demand a brief treatment here. Some outline of the bare facts, however, must first be premised.

As early as 789, during the reign of Offa in Mercia, "three ships of Northmen from Hęretha land" came on shore in Wessex. "Then the reeve rode against them, and would have driven them to the king's town, for he wist not what they were: and there men slew him. Those were the first ships of Danish men that ever sought English kin's land." In 795, "the harrying of heathen men wretchedly destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne isle, through rapine and manslaughter." In the succeeding year, "the heathen harried among the Northumbrians, and plundered Ecgberht's monastery at Wearmouth." In 832, "heathen men ravaged Sheppey"; and a year later, "King Ecgberht fought against the crews of thirty-five ships at Charmouth, and there was muckle slaughter made, and the Danes held the battle-field."[1] In 835, another host came to the West Welsh (now almost reduced to the peninsula of Cornwall): and the Welsh readily joined them against their West Saxon over-lord. Ecgberht met the united hosts at Hengestesdun and put them both to flight. It was his last success. In the succeeding year he died, and the kingdom descended to his weak son, Ęthelwulf. His second son, Ęthelstan, was placed over Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex, as under-king.

Next spring, the flood of wickings began to pour in earnest over England. Thirty-three piratical ships sailed up Southampton Water to pillage Southampton, perhaps with an ultimate eye to the treasures of royal Winchester, the capital and minster-town of the West Saxon over-lord himself. This was a bold attempt, but the West Saxons met it in full force. The ealdorman Wulfheard gathered together the levy of fighting men, attacked the host, and put it to flight with great slaughter. Shortly after a second Danish host landed near Portland, doubtless to plunder Dorchester: and the local ealdorman Ęthelhelm, falling upon them with the levy of Dorset men, was defeated after a sharp struggle, leaving the heathen in possession of the field. It was not in Wessex, however, that the wickings were to make their great success. The north had long suffered from terrible anarchy, and was a ready prey for any invader. Out of fourteen kings who had reigned in Northumbria during the eighth century, no less than seven were put to death and six expelled by their rebellious subjects. Christian Northumbria, which in Będa's days had been the most flourishing part of Britain, was now reduced to a mere agglomeration of petty princes and clans, dependent on the West Saxon over-lord, and utterly unconnected with one another in feeling or sympathy. Already we have seen how the Danes harried Northumbria without opposition. The same was probably the case with the whole Anglian coast on the east. In 840, the wickings fell on the fen country. "The ealdorman Hereberht was slain by heathen men, and many with him among the marsh-men." All down the east coast, the piratical fleet proceeded, burning and slaughtering as it went. "In the same year, in Lindsey, and in East Anglia, and among the Kent men, many men were slain by the host." A year later, the wickings returned, growing bolder as they found out the helplessness of the people. They sailed up the Thames, and ravaged Rochester and London, with great slaughter; after which they crossed the channel and fell upon Cwantawic, or Étaples, a commercial port in the Saxon land of the Boulonnais. In 842, a Danish host defeated Ęthelwulf himself at Charmouth in Dorset; and in the succeeding summer "the ealdorman Eanulf, with the Somerset levy, and Bishop Ealhstan and the ealdorman Osric, with the Dorset levy, fought at Parretmouth with the host, and made a muckle slaughter, and won the day."

The utter weakness of the first English resistance is well shown in these facts. A terrible flood of heathen savagery was let loose upon the country, and the people were wholly unable to cope with it. There was absolutely no central organisation, no army, no commissariat, no ships. The heathen host landed suddenly wherever it found the people unprepared, and fell upon the larger towns for plunder. The local authority, the ealdorman or the under-king, hastily gathered together the local levy in arms, and fell upon the pirates tumultuously with the men of the shire as best he might. But he had no provisions for a long campaign: and when the levy had fought once, it melted away immediately, every man going back again of necessity to his own home. If it won the battle, it went home to drink over its success: if it lost, it dissolved, demoralized, and left the burghers to fight for their own walls, or to buy off the heathen with their own money. But every shire and every kingdom fought for itself alone. If the Dorset men could only drive away the host from Charmouth and Portland, they cared little whether it sailed away to harry Sussex and Hants. If the Northumbrians could only drive it away from the Humber, they cared little whether it set sail for the Thames and the Solent. The North Folk of East Anglia were equally happy to send it off toward the South Folk. While there was so little cohesion between the parts of the same kingdoms, there was no cohesion at all between the different kingdoms over which Ęthelwulf exercised a nominal over-lordship. The West Saxon kings fought for Dorset and for Kent, but there is no trace of their ever fighting for East Anglia or for Northumbria. They left their northern vassals to take care of themselves. "It was never a war between the Danes and the national army," says Prof. Pearson, "but between the Danes and a local militia." It would have been impossible, indeed, to resist the wickings effectually without a strong central system, which could move large armies rapidly from point to point: and such a system was quite undreamt of in the half-consolidated England of the ninth century. Only war with a foreign invader could bring it about even in a faint degree: and that was exactly what the Danish invasion did for Wessex.

The year 851 marks an important epoch in the English resistance. The annual horde of wickings had now become as regular in its recurrence as summer itself; and even the inert West Saxon kings began to feel that permanent measures must be taken against them. They had built ships, and tried to tackle the invaders in the only way in which so partially civilised a race could tackle such tactics as those of the Danes—upon the sea. A host of wickings came round to Sandwich in Kent. The under-king Ęthelstan fell upon them with his new navy, and took nine of their ships, putting the rest to flight with great slaughter. But in the same year another great host of 250 sail, by far the largest fleet of which we have yet heard, came to the mouth of the Thames, and there landed, a step which marks a fresh departure in the wicking tactics. They took Canterbury by assault, and then marched on to London. There they stormed the busy merchant town, and put to flight Beorhtwulf, the under-king of the Mercians, with his local levy. Thence they proceeded southward into Surrey, doubtless on their way to Winchester. King Ęthelwulf met them at Ockley, with the West-Saxon levy, "and there made the greatest slaughter among the heathen host that we have yet heard, and gained the day." In spite of these two great successes, however, both of which show an increasing statesmanship on the part of the West Saxons, this year was memorable in another way, for "the heathen men for the first time sat over winter in Thanet." The loose predatory excursions were beginning to take the complexion of regular conquest and permanent settlement.

Yet so little did the English still realise the terrible danger of the heathen invasion, that next year Ęthelwulf was fighting the Welsh of Wales; and two years after he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, "with great pomp, and dwelt there twelve months, and then fared homeward." In that same year, "heathen men sat over winter in Sheppey."

After Ęthelwulf's death the English resistance grew fainter and fainter. In 860, under his second son, Ęthelberht, a Danish host took Winchester itself by storm. Five years later, a heathen army settled in Thanet, and the men of Kent agreed to buy peace of them—the first sign of that evil habit of buying off the Dane, which grew gradually into a fixed custom. But the host stole away during the truce for collecting the money, and harried all Kent unawares.

Meanwhile, we hear little of the North. The almost utter destruction of its records during the heathen domination restricts us for information to the West Saxon chronicles; and they have little to tell us about any but their own affairs. In 866, however, we learn that there came a great heathen host to East Anglia—an organised expedition under two chieftains—"and took winter quarters there, and were horsed; and the East Anglians made peace with them." Next year, this permanent host sailed northward to Humber, and attacked York. The Northumbrians, as usual, were at strife among themselves, two rival kings fighting for the supremacy. The burghers of York admitted the heathen host within the walls. Then the rival kings fell upon the town, broke the slender fortifications, and rushed into the city. The Danes attacked them both, and defeated them with great slaughter. Northumbria passed at once into the power of the heathen. Their chiefs, Ingvar and Ubba, erected Deira into a new Danish kingdom, leaving Bernicia to an English puppet; and Northumbria ceases to exist for the present as a factor in Anglo-Saxon history. We must hand it over for sixty years to the Scandinavian division of this series.

In 868, Ingvar and Ubba advanced again into Mercia and beset Nottingham. Then the under-king Burhred called in the aid of his over-lord, Ęthelred of Wessex, who came to his assistance with a levy. "But there was no hard fight there, and the Mercians made peace with the host." In 870, the heathen overran East Anglia, and destroyed the great monastery of Peterborough, probably the richest religious house in all England. Eadmund, the under-king, came against them with the levy, but they slew him; and the people held him for a martyr, whose shrine at Bury St. Edmunds grew in after days into the holiest spot in East Anglia. The Danes harried the whole country, burnt the monasteries, and annexed Norfolk and Suffolk as a second Danish kingdom. East Anglia, too, disappears for a while from our English annals.

Lastly, the Danes turned against Mercia and Wessex. In 871, a host under Bagsecg and Halfdene came to Reading, which belonged to the latter territory, when the local ealdorman engaged them and won a slight victory. Shortly afterward the West Saxon king Ęthelred, with his brother Ęlfred, came up, and engaged them a second time with worse success. Three other bloody battles followed, in all of which the Danes were beaten with heavy loss; but the West Saxons also suffered severely. For three years the host moved up and down through Mercia and Wessex; and the Mercians stood by, aiding neither side, but "making peace with the host" from time to time. At last, however, in 874, the heathens finally annexed the greater part of Mercia itself. "The host fared from Lindsey to Repton, and there sat for the winter, and drove King Burhred over sea, two and twenty years after he came to the kingdom; and they subdued all the land. And Burhred went to Rome, and there settled; and his body lies in St. Mary's Church, in the school of the English kin. And in the same year they gave the kingdom of Mercia in ward to Ceolwulf, an unwise thegn; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages that it should be ready for them on whatso day they willed; and that he would be ready with his own body, and with all who would follow him, for the behoof of the host." Thus Mercia, too, fades for a short while out of our history, and Wessex alone of all the English kingdoms remains.

This brief but inevitable record of wars and battles is necessarily tedious, yet it cannot be omitted without slurring over some highly important and interesting facts. It is impossible not to be struck with the extraordinarily rapid way in which a body of fierce heathen invaders overran two great Christian and comparatively civilised states. We cannot but contrast the inertness of Northumbria and the lukewarmness of Mercia with the stubborn resistance finally made by Ęlfred in Wessex. The contrast may be partly due, it is true, to the absence of native Northumbrian and Mercian accounts. We might, perhaps, find, had we fuller details, that the men of Bernicia and Deira made a harder fight for their lands and their churches than the West Saxon annals would lead us to suppose. Still, after making all allowance for the meagreness of our authorities, there remains the indubitable fact that a heathen kingdom was established in the pure English land of Będa and Cuthberht, while the Christian faith and the Saxon nationality held their own for ever in peninsular and half-Celtic Wessex.

The difference is doubtless due in part to merely surface causes. East Anglia had long lost her autonomy, and, while sometimes ruled by Mercia, was sometimes broken up under several ealdormen. For her and for Northumbria the conquest was but a change from a West Saxon to a Danish master. The house of Ecgberht had broken down the national and tribal organisation, and was incapable of substituting a central organisation in its place. With no roads and no communications such a centralising scheme is really impracticable. The disintegrated English kingdoms made little show of fighting for their Saxon over-lord. They could accept a Dane for master almost as readily as they could accept a Saxon.

But besides these surface causes, there was a deeper and more fundamental cause underlying the difference. The Scandinavians were nearer to the pure English in blood and speech than they were to the Saxons. In their old home the two races had lived close together,—in Sleswick, Jutland, and Scania,—while the Saxons had dwelt further south, near the Frankish border, by the lowlands of the Elbe. To the English of Northumbria, the Saxons of Wessex were almost foreigners. Even at the present day, when the existence of a recognised literary dialect has done so much to obliterate provincial varieties of speech in England, a Dorsetshire peasant, speaking in a slightly altered form the classical West Saxon of Ęlfred, has great difficulty in understanding a Yorkshire peasant, speaking in a slightly altered form the classical Northumbrian of Będa. But in the ninth century the differences between the two dialects were probably far greater. On the other hand, though Danish and Anglian have widely separated at the present day, and were widely distinct even in the days of Cnut, it is probable that at this earlier period they were still, to some extent, mutually comprehensible. Thus, the heathen Scandinavian may have seemed to the Northumbrian and the East Anglian almost like a fellow-countryman, while the West Saxon seemed in part like an enemy and an intruder. At any rate, the similarity of blood and language enabled the two races rapidly to coalesce; and when the cloud rises again from the North half a century later, the distinction of Dane and Englishman has almost ceased in the conquered provinces. It is worthy of note in this connection that the part of Mercia afterwards given over by Ęlfred to Guthrum, was the Anglian half, while the part retained by Wessex was mostly the Saxon half—the land conquered by Penda from the West Saxons two hundred years before.

Nor must we suppose that this first wave of Scandinavian conquest in any way swamped or destroyed the underlying English population of the North. The conquerors came merely as a "host," or army of occupation, not as a body of rural colonists. They left the conquered English in possession of their homes, though they seized upon the manors for themselves, and kept the higher dignities of the vanquished provinces in their own hands. Being rapidly converted to Christianity, they amalgamated readily with the native people. Few women came over with them, and intermarriage with the English soon broke down the wall of separation. The archbishopric of York continued its succession uninterruptedly throughout the Danish occupation. The Bishops of Elmham lived through the stormy period; those of Leicester transferred their see to Dorchester-on-the-Thames; those of Lichfield apparently kept up an unbroken series. We may gather that beneath the surface the North remained just as steadily English under the Danish princes as the whole country afterwards remained steadily English under the Norman kings.

There was, however, one section of the true English race which kept itself largely free from the Scandinavian host. North of the Tyne the Danes apparently spread but sparsely; English ealdormen continued to rule at Bamborough over the land between Forth and Tyne. Hence Northumberland and the Lothians remained more purely English than any other part of Britain. The people of the South are Saxons: the people of the West are half Celts; the people of the North and the Midlands are largely intermixed with Danes; but the people of the Scottish lowlands, from Forth to Tweed, are almost purely English; and the dialect which we always describe as Scotch is the strongest, the tersest, and the most native modern form of the original Anglo-Saxon tongue. If we wish to find the truest existing representative of the genuine pure-blooded English race, we must look for him, not in Mercia or in Wessex, but amongst the sturdy and hard-headed farmers of Tweedside and Lammermoor.
[1] This entry in the Chronicle, however, is probably erroneous, as an exactly similar one occurs under Ęthelwulf, seven years later.


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