Story of the English - Helene Guerber
About four hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons first came to settle in Britain, other men from the north began to appear on their coasts. These, too, made part of the great Teutonic race, and came from the shores of the Baltic Sea; but they were far less civilized than the Anglo-Saxons, and still worshipped heathen gods.
HOW THE DANES CAME UP THE CHANNEL A THOUSAND YEARS AGO.
Their main object was to plunder, and, landing from their skiffs, they would attack the peaceful Anglo-Saxon villages, and destroy all the property which they did not carry away. They came when least expected, and sometimes sailed off with their plunder before the terrified inhabitants could arm to resist them. These pirates were called, from their nationality, Danes or Northmen; and, from the bays where their ships sought shelter, Vikings or bay-men.
The Northmen not only ravaged the coasts of England, Scotland, and Ireland from the seventh to the tenth century, but they also visited the coasts of the Continent. Such was the terror they inspired in England that a sentence was added to the Litany, and the people daily prayed, "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us."
Some of the chiefs of the Northmen were so brave and daring that their names have come down to us in history. One of the best-known among them is Ragnar Lodbrog, a Danish king who invaded England in the days when Ella was head of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
When Ragnar's fleet appeared, with the big vessels called "dragons" and the little ones "snails," the people fled; but Ella promptly assembled a large army to repulse the enemy. The two forces met in a bloody battle, in which Ragnar was defeated and fell into the hands of his enemies.
To punish the captive king for all the harm he had done to the English, "Ella thrust him into a pit filled with venomous serpents, which crawled all over him and bit him to death. But even while the serpents were torturing him, Ragnar remained calm and showed no fear.
As his hands were tied, and he could not use them to play on his harp, which had been flung into the pit after him, we are told that the dauntless old Northman began to play upon it with his toes. Then, to show the English how little he cared for their tortures, he began a song, in which he boasted how bravely he had fought, how many foes he had slain, and how he scorned his conquerors.
Singing thus, he died; but his death did not put an end to the Northmen's raids, for Ragnar's sons came over to England to avenge him. They captured King Ella in battle, sacrificed him on one of the heathen altar-stones, and took possession of a large part of the country.
For many years after the death of Ella, the Saxons and the Danes were always at war; and as more and more of these Northmen came over the sea, they took up more and more room. The part of the land occupied by the Danes was called the Danelagh, and the Saxon kings, weary of fighting, sometimes bribed them to keep peace. But, as the Danes delighted in warfare, the truce never lasted long, and bloodshed and destruction were soon renewed.
In these wars the Danes not only burned the wooden houses of the Saxons, but they also ruined the stone churches, which had been built at great cost by workmen brought from the Continent. These churches were decorated with beautiful paintings, and some of them even had stained-glass windows, which were then very rare.
The Danes destroyed these beautiful buildings because they hated the Christian religion, and because they wanted to secure the gold and silver vessels used for mass, and the large sums of money often kept in the churches. This money was collected by the priests, who always accepted all the gifts the people brought them, and claimed, besides, one penny from each household. As the money was sent to the pope to help build the beautiful church of St. Peter's in Rome, the tax has been called "Peter's pence."
King Ethelwulf, who first gave the priests permission to collect Peter's pence in his realm, was so pious a king that he made several journeys to Rome to visit the pope. Once he took with him his youngest son, Alfred, a prince who lived to be one of the most remarkable kings the world has ever seen.