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As the spring came on, the king gathered ro him a little band of faithful friends, and took up abode at Athelney, in Somersetshire. It was the little woody islet, surrounded by marshes. From place, the king and his friends often came forth attacked small parties of Danes, who could never fi out where their assailants came from. As for Alfre they thought he was dead, or gone away to som foreign country.
The people of Wessex often lamented now that they had forsaken their king, for the Danes used them very badly. Alfred heard how sorry they were, and he thought they would help him now to drive away their enemies; so he sent secret messages to the chief men, bidding them arm themselves, and come to him. But before he attacked the Danish encampment, he wished to find out how they had fortified it. He put on the dress of a minstrel, took a harp in his hand, and ventured boldly into the midst of his enemies. They were delighted with his music, and suffered him to come and go when he pleased, and to see everything-for they little suspected who the harper was. And now Alfred returned to his friends, led them against the Danes, and gained a complete victory. He wanted to turn his enemies into friends if he could, so he persuaded the Danish chief to leave off worshipping Odin, and gave nim a great tract of land in the east of England, that he might live there peaceably with his followers.
A great many Danes had already settled in the north, but they all obeyed Alfred now, and England was in peace at last. The Northmen came with great fleets more than once, but they were always
EDWARD THE ELDER.
driven away by the wise king, who taught the English to build good ships, that they might have a fleet of their own to guard the coasts, and prevent the enemy from coming near them. And before Alfred died, there were a hundred vessels which bore his flag, and Englishmen were learning to make long voyages, and to trade with foreign countries.
Alfred did many things for his people besides teaching them to be good seamen. He worked day and night to make England wise, and free, and happy. He gave his subjects good laws, and just judges. He encouraged every one to learn something useful, wrote excellent books for them, built schools, and sought out the best and wisest men to be teachers.
All this while, Alfred was afflicted with a most painful disease, which wasted his strength day by day. But he looked to God for help, and laboured on till his death, never losing heart. He died in 901, leaving the kingdom to his son, Edward the Elder.
EDWARD THE ELDER, 901-ATHELSTAN, 925-BATTLE OF BRUNANBURG, 937-EDGAR, 958-ETHELRED THE UNREADY, 979-MASSACRE OF THE DANES, 1002-ENGLAND CONQUERED BY SWEYN THE DANE, 1013.
(From 901 to 1017 a. D.)
EDWARD the Elder was a brave and clever prince. He ruled for twenty-four years, and was succeeded by his son Athelstan, who reigned with more glory than any of the Saxon kings, excepting Alfred.
Athelstan followed in the steps of Alfred, by encouraging learning, and trade with foreign countries. He made a law that every one who built a ship, and crossed the seas in it three times, should become a nobleman, and have a right to sit in the Witan. The Witan was the Great Council of England, which helped the kings to make laws; and sometimes, when the king died, the Witan chose who should succeed him.
When Athelstan had reigned twelve years, the country was invaded by an immense army of Danes and Scots, but they were utterly routed by the king at Brunanburg, in Northumberland. A famous poem was made about this battle. It describes the dreadful field covered with the dead, and the wolves and ravens which came and feasted on the bodies of the slain. But Athelstan was very kind to his prisoners, and sent them away in peace when they had promised not to invade England again. Three years afterwards, in 940, Athelstan died.
The Danes kept their promise, and did not molest the country for a great many years after his death ; yet England was not very peaceful or prosperous, for the kings who reigned during the next seventy years were not nearly so wise as Athelstan had been. The most powerful of them was Edgar, who reigned from 958 to 975; he is famous for having tried to destroy the wolves and other fierce beasts which lived in the woods and mountains. The princes of Wales had agreed to pay him a yearly tribute; but Edgar said that instead of money they should bring him three hundred wolves' heads every year, until they could find no more.
Edgar's eldest son was murdered by his wicked stepmother, that she might place her own child, a little boy called Ethelred, on the throne. The curse of that evil deed seemed to rest on all Ethelred's reign. He grew up to be a bad man, idle, cruel, and fond of eating and drinking. He was never ready to drive away the enemies of England, or to do anything for the good of the kingdom; and his subjects named him in contempt "Ethelred the Unready."
The Danes came back now, and began to harass the people as they had done in the old times before Alfred. Ethelred tried to bribe them to go away, and made his subjects pay heavy taxes that he might give the money to the Danes. The Danes always took Ethelred's bribes, and promised to go away, and then they came back again, and demanded more money. So Ethelred tried to rid himself of them in another way, which was more shameful still. He gave secret orders that all the Danes in England should be put to death; and on the 13th of November, 1002, thousands of men and women were treacherously murdered, even the little children were not spared. But this great crime could only bring more misery both to the king and the people.
Sweyn, King of Denmark, came with a great fleet and army, and ravaged all the land till the people were driven to despair. Their houses were burnt, and their crops destroyed, and so many persons perished by famine or by the sword, that England did not now contain nearly so many people as had inhabited it before. At last the whole country submitted to own Sweyn for king, and Ethelred fled for refuge to the Duke of Normandy, whose sister he had married. Sweyn
lived but a few weeks after he had become King of England, and Ethelred came back, but he found a powerful enemy in Sweyn's son, Canute; and after Ethelred's death, Canute became king.
CANUTE, 1017-EDWARD THE CONFESSOR.
CANUTE reigned over England for nineteen years, and was much liked by the people, because he treated them kindly, and did justice to all alike, whether they were Danes or Englishmen. He tried to repair the mischief which had been done by his father's army, and rebuilt the churches and schools which had been destroyed. He was very kind to learned men, yet there were few persons in England who cared to learn; for the English had been growing more ignorant instead of becoming wiser than their fathers. Very few of them could read and write, and even the priests scarcely knew anything at all.
Canute was King of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as of England, and now that there was peace between all these countries, the ships of the merchants went freely to and fro, and the citizens of London, and other English towns,, began to grow rich by trade.
Canute made several voyages himself, and liked to have very fine ships. They were curiously adorned with carved work and gilding, the sails were of purple embroidered with gold, and large figures, like birds