Изображения страниц

A D. 837-872.]


of future events. He was thrown into a dungeon, and exposed to the assaults of the venomous snakes that had made their nests in the cave. In a very short time the death-song of Regner Lodbrog was sung all over the hills and valleys of Scandinavia. Popular enthusiasm attributed the lines to the sufferer himself; but it was enough that they were put into his mouth, and dramatically represented his feelings:

We have struck with our swords!

In my youth, when we rushed like a storm on the East,
And the wolf licked its maw at the bloody feast,
When Helting lay desert, her people all slain,
And lances and swords gleamed on Yfer's plain! Hurra!

We have struck with our swords!
Ah! little I thought, when I launch'd my prow,
That a coward like Ella would triumph as now;
But I'm gladdened with thoughts of the joy shall befal
When I drain the skull-goblet in Odin's Hall! Hurra!

We have struck with our swords!

The serpents cling round me, they bite at my breast;
There's a sting in my heart, I am faint for my rest;
But my sons shall revenge me, and tell how I died,'
When Ella expires with their points in his side! Hurra!


We have struck with our swords!

In fifty fierce battles my blade has been shown,

No name than old Regner's more proudly is known;

I have longed for a death like the death I am dying,

And I smile when I feel how the moments are flying! Hurra!

No man can over-estimate the importance of a popular song. Even in later times we have known Ireland driven nearly frantic by "Lillibullero" and "Croppies lie down," and two revolutions in France consummated to the tune of the Marseillaise. But in a wild, imaginative, bloodthirsty land like Norway, where the whole genius of the people had condensed itself into a burning excitement, which only found vent in passionate words and stirring melodies, the effect was instantaneous and immense. The death of the aged buccaneer

became a religious offering to the gods of the northern faith. He was a son and victim of Odin; and all the fiery aspirations of the north took the double form of patriotism and religion. The same spirit, however, was roused on the other side. To be slain by a heathen was to be sacrificed for the cross as well as slaughtered for fatherland. And we accordingly find a long list of Anglo-Saxon martyrs, and even saints, who showed no sign of their Christianity except being murdered by the idolater's sword.

§ 3. Ella is reported, whether truly or not, to have fallen into the hands of Regner's sons, and to have atoned for his cruelty to their father by a death of equal pain. The flood of savagery and vengeance still swept on, no longer, however, directed by the desultory wishes of individual adventurers, but guided by higher authorities, till it assumed the magnitude and solidity of a national invasion. The city and territory of York fell into the hands of the Danish army in 870, and after fortifying their position, and constituting the city the base of their operations, the eight chiefs who headed the expedition began their southward march, and never ceased their advance till the whole of East Anglia and the greater part of Mercia submitted to their power. A Danish king was accepted by the wretched survivors of the ancient inhabitants, who were speedily reduced to slavery by their insatiable lords, and there seemed little chance of putting a stop to the ambition of the innumerable warriors who kept pouring into the country. All to the north of Essex was held by Danish rulers. The small remains, therefore, of the Heptarchy consisted of Wessex, which had long absorbed the tributary states of Kent and Sussex; and all that for a short time could properly be called England was contained between the Thames and the mouth of the Severn.

§ 4. It was in this year that Alfred the Great succeeded, not so much to the throne, as to the struggles and dangers of his ancestors. A king of two-and-twenty (he was born in

A.D. 872-900.]

849), without assistance from his neighbours or union among his subjects, he showed as much policy as courage, and procrastinated while he was weak, that he might collect his forces for a final blow. He entered into treaties with the Danes, binding them to leave his patrimonial Wessex undisturbed, and applied all his faculties to the consolidation of his power at home. In this at first he was unsuccessful, for he had none of the generous cordiality of manner or tenderness of disposition which characterized his later years. He was harsh and self-willed, always anxious to pursue the best course, but always offending the feelings of his people by the sternness and severity of his actions. They did not comprehend a policy which put a judge to death for misbehaviour in his trust, a freeman's life being at that time more valuable in Saxon eyes than impartiality in legal causes; and Alfred, after seven years of conflict with his Danish enemies and disagreements with his subjects, was driven to find a refuge among the swamps and morasses which surrounded a muddy island in the lower part of Somerset, called Athelney, and from that secure retreat watched the proceedings of the enemy. Here a great change was operated on his disposition; he threw off the prejudices of his education, and presented, on his next appearance on the public stage, the spectacle of a character which all ages have agreed in accepting as nearly the supreme perfection to which humanity can aspire. Liberal, just, and true, thoughtful of others' feelings, neglectful of his own, a man who could obey as well as govern, religious without fanaticism or credulity, and learned beyond the learning of his time and country, it is no wonder that the admiration of his subjects and contemporaries, who saw the result of these noble qualities in the restoration of the nation's freedom, and the civilization even of the unenlightened enemies who were ranged against him, has been ratified by an impartial posterity, which sees clearly a lofty nature and a life of heroic endeavour in a person surrounded by so few ad



vantages, and at a period when barbarism seemed on the point of settling once more over all the land.

We will leave out the story of the old woman scolding him for inattention to the cake she was baking on the hearth, and also of his visit to the Danish camp disguised as a harper, and these at best are but exemplifications of the good-natured kindliness and personal activity for which he was afterwards. famous. We will pass on to the victory he won over Guthrum, the Danish king, at Athenden, near Westbury, in Wiltshire, and the treaty he forced the vanquished leader to enter into, confirmed by his oath on the "holy ring," that he would be content with the territories assigned him on the north of the Thames, and that he would be baptized with all the captains of his host. The oath on the holy ring of Odin was so binding that the heathens became Christians to avoid the pains of perjury. A curious instance of the communication which must have existed between the Danes and Saxons; for it is impossible to believe that the ceremony can have been proposed to the followers of Guthrum for the first time, or that they would have accepted it, if they had not been prepared for the rite by a previous knowledge of what it implied.

§ 5. This is the first legal and formal division of any part of the old Anglo-Saxon monarchy with the Danish immigra tion. Other districts had been seized and held by force, but now there was the authoritative sanction of the English king to the Danish possession of all the country on the east or right-hand side of the great Roman road called Watling Street, and extending from the mouth of the river Lea, near London, as far north as the old barrier between the Tyne and Solway. This whole district was called Danelagh, or the country ruled by the Danish laws.

§ 6. That it was ruled by any laws at all was a great improvement on the former state of affairs. When a large fine is exacted for the slaughter of an unoffending neighbour, murder becomes too expensive an amusement to be indulged

A.D. 872-900.]



in so often as when no punishment follows the deed. Theft also ceases to be a sign of superior cleverness, as in the old Spartan customs, when it is instantly rewarded by a whipping and a fourfold restitution of the goods abstracted. The laws which had been brought over from Denmark were not different in their principles or institutions from those which had been imported by the Saxons four hundred years before. The languages were still so similar that the peoples could understand each other, and a very few years' residence in the same village must have gone far to assimilate the late arrivals to the former occupiers of the realm. We hear even of towns divided so equally between the nations that one half was under the Saxon law and the other under the Danish. And when property desired still further security, and life grew to be considered of more value, and justice required to be more freely and more minutely administered, recourse was had to partitions of the country into easily managed portions (as had been the case in the ancient seats both of Danes and Angles), and new vitality was given by Alfred to the ancient demarcations, when he confirmed the divisions of the whole kingdom into tythings, hundreds, and shires.

The first consisted of ten families, the second of a hundred. The members of these were held to be jointly and severally responsible for any crime or outrage committed within their lands, and were bound, under what was called "frank pledge," to produce any one of their number who might be accused of any delinquency before the proper court. That proper court in no long time became an impannelled jury of his equals, in presence of a legally appointed official. But at first it was merely the audience hall of an administrator of the law, before whom it was competent for the accused person to bring ten or more of his neighbours-inhabitants of the same tything-who from their knowledge of his acts on the day specified, or their general confidence in his honesty, swore that they did not believe him guilty of the crime laid to his

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »