Discovery of New Worlds - M. B. Synge
"The sea is their school of war, and the storm their friend."
The great Charlemagne was still ruling wisely and well over his mighty province, when a trouble arose on the coasts destined to have far-reaching results.
Away in the far north of the country we now call Norway, Sweden, and Denmark lived a hardy rugged race known as the Northmen or Danes. They were closely connected with the Angles and Saxons who had set sail for Britain years before and overrun it in the days of King Arthur. Like the Greeks of old, these people had passed through an age of legend. They had worshipped their god Odin or Woden, from whom we get the day of the week called Wednesday; the god Thor, from whom we get Thursday; and the god Frigga, from whom we get Friday.
In appearance these Northmen were broad, deep-chested, tall men, with the fair hair and blue eyes of the Saxons. Dressed in long stockings, high shoes, shirts, loose drawers, and low hats, they carried in times of war long shields, axes, spears, and swords.
But the sea was the home of these people—Vikings, as they were often called, from the word vic, meaning a bay or fiord. The stern climate and barren soil of their inhospitable northern home drove them forth over the stormy waters to get a livelihood by pillage and plunder. Their black ships, standing high above the water, prow and stern ending in the head and tail of some strange animal, struck terror into the hearts of all who saw them, as they swept over the stormy seas in search of plunder and pillage.
So much did they trouble Charlemagne that an old story tells us how he took the young children of the Northmen and slew all those who were taller than his sword. Another story says he was sitting one day in his palace near the sea-side, when from his window he saw the flash of Viking sails far out at sea.
"These are no merchants," he cried, rising from his seat.
He watched till the ships were out of sight, then shedding bitter tears, he added: "I am very sorrowful, for I see what woes these men will bring on my subjects."
Charlemagne was right: they were to become a terror to all, and to play a large part in the history of the world. Little did he dream that they would conquer a large part of his kingdom, to be called, after themselves, Normandy. Little did Alfred the Great, King of England, dream that these very Northmen should one day sweep over his country, and that from these Vikings of olden times the English race should spring. Not since the Phœnicians had there been such a sea-going race of men, fearless and free, with a spirit of daring and a love of adventure that neither Greeks nor Romans had ever possessed.
Wondrous are the stories of these old Viking heroes, who would set forth with a few followers to discover new lands, fight strange people, and return home with rich plunder to their bleak north country. They soon sailed over to the islands of Orkney and Shetland at the north of Scotland, and away beyond to Iceland, and beyond that again to Greenland.
CHARLEMAGNE SAW THE VIKING SAILS.
After the death of Charlemagne in 814 the Northmen became bolder. They sailed up the large rivers, and actually laid siege to Paris. One of their leaders was called Rollo, and many are the stories told of this famous old Viking. So stout was he that no horse could carry him, and he had to walk everywhere. When quite young he left his home and sailed about the seas, leading the life of a pirate.
The King of Norway wished to stop these sea rovers and robbers, and made strict laws against them. Rollo broke all these, and he was exiled for life from his native land. He collected a band of wild young men like himself, and sailed away from the home he was never to see again. The company of adventurers landed in France, and the king went forth with his army to meet them.
"Why have you come to France?" he asked them.
"To conquer it," was the stout reply.
"Would you not rather do homage to the king?" was the next question.
"No," shouted the whole band as one man.
So a battle was fought, in which the French were beaten, and the Vikings marched victoriously to Rouen, where Rollo was chosen to be chief.
After a time Rollo planned an expedition into the heart of France, and the king was so much alarmed that he offered to give Rollo that northern part of France called Normandy—the land of the Northmen. And from this time a change came over the wild Viking. He divided the new land among his followers, in return for which they were to follow him to battle when he summoned them. He became a Christian and a good ruler. He adopted the language of the country, and after a time there was no need for the terror-stricken people of the north to sob out their despairing petition—
"From the fury of the Northmen, save us, Lord."