Laws are like spider-webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape. — Solon of Athens

Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding




England in the Middle Ages

The British Isles were among the lands which suffered most from the raids of the viking Northmen, and it was there also that the Normans of France made their greatest conquest.

In the days when Rome was spreading her rule about the Mediterranean Sea, the larger of these islands was called Britain, from its inhabitants, the Britons, who were akin to the Gauls of the Continent. Some time after the Romans had conquered Gaul, Britain also was added to their Empire and was ruled by the Romans for about three hundred and fifty years. But when the Empire had grown weak and the German barbarians began to over-run Italy, Rome was obliged to withdraw her legions from Britain, and that island was then left to govern and defend itself.

The Britons, however, had lived so long under Roman rule that, by this time, they had almost forgotten how to fight. So, when wild tribes from Ireland and Scotland came to attack them, the Britons were in an evil situation. At one time they wrote a letter to the Roman commander in Gaul, in which they said:

"The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians. Thus two modes of death await us: we are either slain, or drowned."

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding
AN EARLY ENGLISH CHURCH


Also, roving bands of Germans, called Angles and Saxons, now began to trouble the shores of Britain, coming in their swift pirate ships much as the Northmen were to do four hundred years later. When the Britons found that the Romans were not able to help them, they asked a band of these sea-rovers to aid them against their other enemies, promising them rich rewards (449 A.D.). When once the Angles and Saxons had secured a footing, they proceeded to conquer the island for themselves. In this way the Angles and Saxons won for themselves the fairest portion of the land. From the name of the first of these peoples, it came to be called "Angle-land" or England. It was only after two centuries of hard fighting, however, that the conquest was completed. In the western part of the island the Britons long kept their independence; and there, under the name of "Welsh," as they were styled by the new-comers (a word which meant foreigners), they continued for hundreds of years to use their own language, to follow their own laws, and to obey their own princes.

Meanwhile the "English," as the descendants of the Angles and Saxons are called, settled down into a num¬ber of little kingdoms. You have already read how captive boys from one of these kingdoms excited the pity of Pope Gregory when he saw them exposed for sale in the slave market at Rome, and how this led him to send the monk Au¬gustine to England, to convert these new-comers. The English became Christians and grew more civilized, and finally their little kingdoms were joined together under the rule of a single king.

But now they, in turn, were exposed to the danger of conquest; for like the Britons before them the English had, through long years of peace, lost much of their former warlike ability. The new enemy was the Northmen, whose deeds we have described in the preceding chapter. Little by little they overran the island, plundering and destroying monasteries and churches, until only the south-western part of the island was still unconquered. But there they were met by a young English King who stopped their conquests and saved his people from ruin at their hands.

This was the English national hero. Alfred, whom later ages called "Alfred the Truth-Teller" and "England's Darling." When he was a boy his mother one day said to him and his brothers:

"Do you see this little book, with its clear black writing, and the beautiful letter at the beginning, painted in red, blue, and gold? It shall belong to the one who first learns its songs."

Books were precious things in those days, for printing was not yet invented and they must be made slowly and painfully by writing the letters with a pen. So Alfred exclaimed eagerly:

"Mother, will you really give that beautiful book to me if I learn it first?"

"Yes," she replied, "I really will."

So Alfred set to work, with the aid of his teacher; and long before his brothers had mastered it, he learned to repeat the verses. He thus not only earned the prize, but in doing it he showed the love of learning and quickness of mind which made him noted in after years.

The first seven years of Alfred's rule as King were taken up with fighting the Northmen. At one time he was obliged to take refuge on a small island amid swamps, where he found shelter in a herdsman's hut, and was scolded by the herdsman's wife (who did not know who he was) for letting some coarse cakes burn which she was baking before the fire. An old song represents the woman as saying:

Can't you mind the cakes, man?

And don't you see them burnt?

I'm bound you'll eat them fast enough,

As soon as 'tis the turn.

In the end Alfred defeated the Northmen in a great battle, and forced their king to make peace. The remainder of his reign was given up to improving education and bettering the condition of his people. He was "the wisest, best, and greatest King that ever reigned in England," and the good effects of his rule lasted long after he was gone.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding
HOUSE OF AN ENGLISH NOBLEMAN


But, after a time, the rule came again into the hands of weak kings, and again Northmen overran the land.

Canute, King of Denmark and Norway, conquered England, and was recognized as King by all that land. Fortunately the Northmen were now Christians and more civilized than they had been in Alfred's day; and Canute ruled England as a strong and able King for nearly twenty years.

After Canute's death there was again trouble for a number of years. First his unworthy sons ruled after him; and when their short reigns were at an end, a well meaning but weak King of the old English line, named Edward, was placed on the throne. His mother was a Norman, and he himself had spent a part of his youth in Normandy, where the descendants of the Northmen were now the most energetic and enlightened people of France. King Edward was so fond of the Normans that he invited many of them to come over into his kingdom, where he showed them such favor that it aroused the jealousy of the English and led to many conflicts. When Edward died, in the year 1066, without leaving a son to succeed him, the English chose as King a nobleman named Harold, who had taken a chief part in resisting those Norman favorites.

Battle of Hasting
WILLIAM OF NORMANDY LANDING IN ENGLAND.


The Duke of Normandy at this time was a strong ruler named William, who had already done great things and was looking about for an opportunity to do greater ones. He claimed that King Edward had promised him the throne when, at one time, he had visited him in England; and also that Harold, who had taken Edward's place, had sworn never to become king. So, with a great army of Normans and Frenchmen, and with a banner blessed by the Pope, William landed on the shores of England to claim the throne.

At a hill called Senlac, not far from the town of Hastings, the Normans found King Harold and his Englishmen awaiting them. For a time it looked as though the Normans would be defeated, for the English ranks held firm and could not be broken. Three horses were killed under William, but he escaped without injury. At one time the cry was raised, "The Duke is down!" and the Normans began to give way. But William tore off his helmet that they might better see his face, and cried:

"I live, and by God's help shall have the victory!"

After a time William ordered his men to pretend to flee, in order to draw the English from their strong position. This move succeeded in part, but still the battle went on. William next ordered that a volley of arrows be shot high in the air, and one of these in falling struck Harold in the eye and slew him. Then the Normans easily won the battle.

After this William got possession of all England, and was accepted by the people as their King. He is known in history as William the Conqueror. He was a strong and able ruler, and he and his descendants knew how to keep what their energy and valor had won. From that day to this, every king or queen who has ruled over England has been a descendant of this Norman Duke. His Conquest was the greatest feat which the Normans accomplished, and it is one of the most important events in the history of the Middle Ages.