In the Days of Alfred the Great - E. M. Tappan

The Danes at Croyland

Now was the time to show the value of Ethelbert's making of arms and training of men. The fighting men of Wessex were far better prepared than ever before, and many who had never been called on to bear arms were now filled with a great desire to engage in battle for the first time. Some of them had lost their homes by the onslaughts of the Danes in previous years. The wives of some had been carried away into Danish slavery, and the children put to death with the cruelties of savages. Never was there an army more zealous to fight or more sure of victory.

The Northmen had come in such numbers that the narrow boundaries of Northumbria were too confined for them. Food was giving out, and the harvest was still several months distant. The vikings were growing restless, others were coming, they must have food, battle, conquest. Down the "wide vale of Trent" they swept, under the oaks of Sherwood Forest, devastating the land like a swarm of locusts; and yet so swiftly, so silently did they move that almost before the Saxons had begun their enthusiastic march, they were in the very heart of the Mercian kingdom and safely entrenched behind the strong gray walls of Nottingham.

The forces of Wessex and of Mercia pressed on eagerly to the city; but there before them stood the stronghold perched on its precipitous cliffs. They had hoped to intercept the enemy before they reached so safe a retreat, but they were too late. The walls rose before them as frowningly as if they had been the work of the Danes; and over the top peered the mocking faces of their foes, jeering at them and calling on them to come and take back their city if they wanted it.

To the weapons of the Saxons the walls were impregnable; they could not enter the city. The Danes had never met in direct fight so great and apparently so well-trained a force of Saxons; they dared not come out. So matters rested for many days.

"If we only had Alstan to advise us!" said the king; but Alstan had died the year before. His attendant had found the warrior bishop dead, sitting upright in his chair, and looking calmly straight before him. He had met death like a Christian soldier, trustfully and fearlessly.

A commander of far more experience than Alstan might well have hesitated to advise in this case. To leave the enemy safely fortified behind the city walls was to have accomplished nothing; but Danish reënforcements might come at any moment, and worse than this, the Saxon soldiers were becoming restless. They had been eager to fight, but to settle down in inaction and spend their time gazing at an enemy who were as secure as if in Denmark, and whose uproarious feasting might be heard night after night, this was quite another matter. It is hardly a wonder that they grumbled among themselves.

"Ethelbald would have known what to do," said one soldier.

"The heathen killed my wife. This is what I want to do," said another, and he swung his sword around fiercely. "I want to kill a Dane for every hair on her head, not to sit here while they jeer at me." And in another group they were saying:—

"It is time for the harvest, and there is hardly a man in our district to reap the grain. The crop will not be large this year at best, and if we are starving, the convents cannot help us, for the monks and the priests have come with us to fight, and there is no one to reap their fields."

The Northmen, on the other hand, dwelling in safety behind the thick walls of Nottingham, were by no means at ease. Reënforcements might come, to be sure, but they knew nothing of the abilities of the Saxons with an army so carefully prepared for war as this one seemed to be. Their noisy feasting and hilarious merriment were sometimes feigned for the purpose of deceiving their adversaries, for they were many and food was none too abundant in the beleaguered city.

No other way seems to have been open to either side than the one that they took. A parley was called. The Northmen agreed to return to Northumbria, and the Saxons promised to make no interference as they marched back with the booty which they had carried into Nottingham with them. The tiny stream of Idle was to be the line between the two peoples. It was hardly a glorious ending for Alfred's first campaign, but who can blame him or Ethelred, or suggest a wiser course of action?

One short year of respite had they from the fury of the north, and the poor, harassed land might have recovered herself and strengthened herself for a greater struggle, had it not been for a worse failure of the crops than any one had anticipated; and as if the famine was not enough, there came a pestilence upon the cattle, so that after a year of rest, the Saxon kingdoms were even less prepared than before to encounter the foe.

The year 870 was a hard year for the Saxons. Then, first, they began to realize that the Danes had other plans in mind than the gathering of booty, however rich, and sudden onslaughts, however fierce. Early in the autumn the enemy fell upon eastern Mercia. Its king made no effort to protect it; it is possible that the Welsh on its western boundaries were keeping his hands more than full. But Algar, a brave young ealderman, assembled the men of the district, some three hundred in all. Two hundred more joined him, a great acquisition, for they were led by a monk named Tolius who, before entering the monastery of Croyland, had been a famous soldier. More men came from the neighboring country, and they went out bravely to meet the foe. At first they were more successful than they had dared to hope, for three Danish kings were slain; the pagans fled, and the Saxons pursued them to their very camp.

There was great rejoicing, for only the coming of night had prevented them from overpowering the invaders. Weary and happy, they returned to their own camp, but they were met by the report of the spies that many hundreds of the heathen, perhaps thousands, were pouring into the camp of the enemy. It was hopeless. The battle in the morning would not be a victory, but a slaughter. Should they die for naught? When early morning came, three-fourths of Algar's enthusiastic army had fled in the darkness of the night.

The others waited. What should they do? Who could blame them if they too had fled, for death only could lie before them? But no; in the earliest gray of the morning, Algar and Tolius went about from group to group of the weary men, many of them suffering from the wounds of the previous day, and tried, as best they might, to strengthen and encourage them.

"The cowards who were among us have stolen away in the darkness like foxes," said Algar. "Shall we be like them? Shall your children tell to their children's children that their fathers were among those that dared not meet the foe? What will the heathen say? They will say, 'These runaways who slink out of sight at the very thought of a Dane, there is nothing in them to fear,' and fiercer than ever before, they will fall upon our homes. We perish if we flee. We can but perish if we stay. Shall we stay?"

Shouts of renewed courage arose. Then there was quiet, for the soldier monk Tolius had raised his hand for silence. He stood erect with uncovered head, looking straight into the faces of his soldiers.

"Do you see the tonsure?" said he. "That is in memory of the crown of thorns of Him who died for us. Will you refuse to die for Him? You fight the destroyers of your homes, the murderers of your wives; but more than that, you fight the bands of the heathen for the Christian faith. The Lord of Hosts is with us. Our God is a God that can work miracles. He will not desert His people. Trust in God—and fight like demons," said the monk of many battle-fields.

The light grew less dim. A weird chanting was heard in the Danish camp. It was the song of glory of the dead kings, recounting their many victories, their joy in the fight, and the seats of honor that they would hold in the halls of Odin. All the long, bright day they would find happiness in battle, sang the harpers; and when the night came, the Valkyrs would heal their wounds, and they would feast with the gods. Then came a wild lamentation, for the bodies of the kings had been placed on the ground with their weapons and bracelets, and the first earth was being sprinkled upon them. Quickly a great mound was built up and the Danes rode around it seven times, slowly and with downcast faces. Then came again the weird chanting: Men should see this mound, and as long as there were any heroes or children of heroes on the earth, they would point out the burial-place of the great kings and do them honor.

Meanwhile the priests in the camp of the Saxons were praying at the altars that they had built, and the men who were that day to fight for their land and for their God were receiving the sacrament, most of them for the last time. "The peace of God be with you," said the priest, as the men went forth to the battle that was to help to bring that peace.

Algar showed himself a skilful commander. He arranged his little company of heroes in the shape of a wedge, Tolius at the right, the sheriff of Lincoln at the left, while he and his men were in the centre. The men on the outside held their shields so close together that they made a wall impenetrable to the spears of their foes. The men behind them held their spears pointed out far beyond the men on the outside, who could use only their swords and pikes to protect themselves. This was a new scheme. The Danes rushed upon the little phalanx with fearful war-cries, but the Saxons stood firm. The horses were afraid of the bristling spear-points. The swords of the Danes and their heavy battle-axes were as harmless as feathers, for they could not come near enough to use them. They beat the air in their rage, but the little invincible phalanx, obedient to the word of the leader, turned now right, now left, and wherever it went, there were wounds and there was death.

The Danes were angry. The shadows were fast lengthening, and still the handful of Saxons drove them hither and thither as they would. The Danes made one more attack, then turned to flee as if routed. This was the supreme test of the Saxons, and they failed. They could fight like heroes, but when they saw their foes running from them, they ran after them like children. The commands and entreaties of their leaders were alike powerless. There was no more order or discipline. Every man was for himself. Madly they pursued. The enemies fled; but when the Saxons were crossing a little hollow, then, in the flash of a sword, the Danes came together—faced about—divided to the right—to the left. The brave little company was surrounded, and but three of the heroes of the morning survived.

These three had hurriedly consulted almost between the blows of their adversaries.

"Croyland," said they. "We can do nothing here. Let us warn the convent;" and as the shadows grew darker, they fled. They took three different directions that there might be three chances instead of one to warn the monks.

Croyland was no common monastery. Its rich, fertile lands were separated from the country about them by four rivers. Given by a king, Ethelbald of Mercia, it had been a favorite of other kings, and many and rich were the gifts that had been showered upon it. One king had sent to it his purple coronation robe to be made into priestly vestments, and the curtain that had hung at the door of his chamber, a marvellous piece of gold embroidery picturing the fall of Troy.

Ethelbald of Mercia in his persecuted youth had been guarded and instructed by Saint Guthlac, and it was over his grave that the grateful pupil had reared this convent. A visit to his tomb would heal the sick, and it was so favorite a resort for the suffering that, according to the legend, more than one hundred were often healed in one day. Pilgrims returning from Croyland were free from tolls and tribute throughout the Mercian kingdom. It was also a kind of city of refuge; and any accused man who had made his way to the monks of Croyland was safe from his pursuers as long as he remained within the space bounded by the further shores of the four rivers. Jewels and golden vessels and other gifts costly and rare were brought to this convent by its visitors until it had become one of the richest spots in the land.

It was the hour of matins, and the monks were assembled in the convent chapel, when the door was thrown open, and there stood three young men, exhausted with hunger, wounds, and their toilsome journey through the forest, over the stony hills and across soft, wet meadow land. Accustomed as the monks were to the coming of fugitives, they saw that this was something different.

"The blessing of God be with us—and may God save us," murmured the abbot as he left the altar.

What they had feared had come upon them. The abbot Theodore took command. The treasures of the convent must be saved; they were God's property, not theirs. With a burning eagerness to do what might be their last service, the monks set to work. Gold and silver, and brazen vessels were dropped into the well. The table of the great altar was covered with plates of gold, and that, too, was sunk into the water; but it was too long to be hidden, and so it was returned to the chapel. Chalices of gold, hanging lamps set with precious stones and hung with heavy chains of gold, jewels, muniments, charters, were piled into the boats, and then most reverently they bore to the landing-place the embalmed body of Saint Guthlac and with it his little well-worn psalter.

"Row to the south and hide yourselves and our treasures in the wood of Ancarig," said the abbot as quietly as if this was but an everyday proceeding.

"We will return swiftly," said the rowers, seizing the oars.

"You will not  return," said the abbot in a tone of command. The young men sprang to their feet and leaped ashore.

"Then we stay to die with you," they said firmly. The abbot stood unmoved.

"I command you to go. The convent will be razed. You who are young and strong must rebuild it. The church needs you, the land needs you. Go." Not a man stirred.

"I and the old and helpless and the little children of the choir will remain. Perchance the heathen will spare those who offer no defense," said the abbot, with a faint smile. The young men only turned their steps toward the convent gate.

"Back!" thundered the abbot. "I am your superior. Where are your vows of obedience? I command you to leave me. Do you dare to disobey?" Slowly, one by one, the young men entered the boats and grasped the oars. The abbot raised his hand in blessing. He looked after them with one long, tender look, as they rowed away silently and with downcast faces. Then he hid his face in his robe and sobbed.

"My children, O my children!"

It was only a moment that he could give to his grief, for much remained to be done. He and the old men and the little boys of the choir put on their vestments. The service of the day was completed; they had partaken of the consecrated bread. Then they sang, old men with faint, quavering voices, and little boys with their fearless treble. High rose the chant as the courage of God filled their hearts.

"I will not be afraid for ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about;" and again:—

"I will lay me down in peace and take my rest; for it is thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety."

The safety was not the safety of this world, for long before the psalter was ended, the Danes had burst in at the open doors. For a moment even they were awed by the calmness of the old men and the unearthly sweetness of the voices of the children; but it was only a moment.

"Where are the jewels of the altar?" cried one. "They have hidden them from us. Kill them! Torture them! Where are your treasures?" he shouted, striking down with one blow the abbot as he knelt at the altar. It seemed hardly the twinkling of an eye before every monk had fallen, and the marble floors were slippery with their blood. The little children were cut down as ruthlessly as were the old men.

Hubba, one of the sons of Lodbrog, had struck down the prior. Beside the dead man knelt one of the children of the convent weeping bitterly. Jarl Sidroc raised his sword to kill the child, the only one in the convent that still lived.

"Kill me, if you will," said the boy, looking fearlessly up into his face. "You killed my prior." The Dane swept his sword within a hand's breadth of the boy's face, but the child did not flinch.

"The Saxon cub is brave enough to be a Dane," muttered the jarl. "Get out of that thing, and I'll make a viking of you," and he tore off the boy's convent dress and threw over him his own tunic. "Stay by me, whatever happens," he whispered. "And keep out of that man's way," and he pointed to Hubba, who was fiercely swinging his axe around his head in a mad fury of slaughter.

"There are no more living. Take the dead!" shouted Hubba, and with bars and ploughshares and mattocks they broke open the tombs of the saints, piled up their embalmed bodies and set fire to them.

Many days later, while the ruins of Croyland were still smoking, a half-famished child wearing a Danish tunic painfully climbed the hill from the river. The monks who had departed at the abbot's command had made their way back. They were toiling to extinguish the flames and searching for the maimed bodies of their friends, that they might bury them reverently as martyrs for their faith. They were too sadly busy to notice his approach, until the child fell with a sob into the arms of the one that was nearest, and fainted. The monks gathered around in wonder.

"It is little Brother Turgar," said one, in amazement.

"It is his spirit come back to help us and guide us," said another.

"Could it be a wile of Satan?" whispered one fearfully. "The heathen have many dealings with evil spirits." The little boy opened his eyes.

"I am Brother Turgar," he said, and then he closed them in exhaustion.

After he had eaten and rested, he told his story. The slaughter of Croyland had been repeated at the convents of Peterborough and Ely. Timidly the child had followed his captors, fearing them, but fearing the woods with their wild beasts. As the Danes were crossing the river that lay between them and the convent at Huntingdon, driving the great herds of cattle from the convents that they had already devastated, two of the heavy wagons of spoils were overturned in a deep place in the stream. Jarl Sidroc was in command, and in the confusion his little captive softly crept away and hid in the reeds that bordered the river. Hardly daring to breathe, he lay there till even his straining ears could not hear a sound of the Danes on their march.

Then he sprang up and ran to the woods. A day and a night the child of ten years was alone in the forest with only the wild beasts about him. No wonder that the monks looked upon him reverently as upon one to whom a miracle had been shown. Through the wilderness, over rough, stony ground, in the midst of briers and nettles, over long stretches of meadow land so soft that the water oozed out around his naked feet as he went, on the child ran; on, on, would it never end? Had he always been running? He hardly knew. It was like some terrible dream. At last he began to come to places that he recognized. It was his own river. It was not wide, he swam across. That was all.

A sad confirmation of his story came a day later, when the hermits of Ancarig with whom the monks of Croyland had taken refuge with their convent treasures, came to implore their aid in burying the dead of Peterborough. The wolves were upon them, they said; would their brothers help to give them Christian burial?

Never satiated with blood and pillage, the Danes pressed on into the land of East Anglia. Neither forests nor morasses delayed them in their terrible work. Soon they were in the very heart of the kingdom.

Edmund, the king, was greatly beloved by his people, but he was not a warrior. Death and destruction had been around him for months, but he had made no preparations for defense; and when the Danes came upon his land, it was his ealderman who called out the people to battle. The brave resistance was of no avail. The Danes pushed on to the very abode of the king, where he sat in patient serenity, refusing to flee, ready to be a martyr, but with no thought of being a soldier. Thinking, perhaps, that the king who would not fight would readily become their tool, they seem to have offered him a continuance of royal power if he would yield to them. He refused, and the king who would not fight could meet torture so calmly that Inguar in a rage cut off his head at a blow. Godrun, the Dane, was placed on the throne.

The Northmen were now masters of northern and eastern Britain. Part of Mercia remained, which could stand by the aid of Wessex. Wessex remained, but Wessex, if it stood at all, must stand alone; and there was now no barrier between the Danish strongholds and the land of the West Saxons.