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

On the Island of Thanet

On the northeast coast of Thanet, at the very edge of the chalk-cliffs, two men were pacing up and down. They bore light arms, but evidently their dress was arranged for speed rather than for fighting, for their tunics were short, their cloaks were warm but light, and they wore no coats of mail. Apparently they were on guard, for they kept close watch of the sea from the long lines of breakers that rolled up at the base of the cliff to the far northern horizon.

"What do you think of that cloud far to the northeast?" asked the older.

"As you yourself say, that it is a cloud," responded the other lightly, "or it may be a great school of fish that ripple the surface and darken it. It is the time of year for sudden flaws and changes of the wind, and by the chill in the air it may be one of the northern snowstorms that has lost its way and is coming down upon us."

"It is too far away for either fish or a gust of wind to darken the water," replied the other. "Perhaps I am too fearful of danger, but it is a lesson that I have learned through hard experience."

"I know," said the younger man, with quick sympathy, "that you have suffered sorely from them. What a land we might have if we were free from fear of the heathen! It was at a time of feasting, was it not, that they came down upon you?"

"Yes," said the older. "It was in the autumn, Our corn had been harvested, our fruits and vegetables stored for the winter. Even the children were happy in the nuts that they had gathered, and the berries that they had dried for the colder months. We had asked our kinsfolk to come to us for a feast. We sat at the table, we ate and we drank and we were happy. The brother of my father was a thegn of King Ethelwulf, a brave man whom the king delighted to honor, and out of respect to him the king had sent his own harper to the feast. He was singing to us the old song of Beowulf and the fire-breathing dragon that our forefathers used to sing centuries ago in the days when they lived across the water, when there were dragons and caves of treasures and dens of monsters under the sea. In those times a man might go forth and fight his foes, and know that his wife and children were safe at home; but now it is the wife and children who are tortured and slain, while the man lies helpless."

"Every one sympathizes with the sufferings of Eardwulf, and there is not a man in the land of the Saxons who does not honor you for your bravery," said the younger man earnestly.

"I killed six. Would that it had been sixty," said Eardwulf "but then my sword failed me. I do not know why. Perhaps the old gods were angry that we had left them, and perhaps the Christian God was angry because we did not come sooner,—you know my people were among the last to follow the new religion,—and perhaps the new God was not pleased that I still kept the rune on my sword. I do not know, but the sword broke, and I was carried to the Danish camp, a captive. I struck down one of my captors, and the others said that it was a brave deed, and that my life should be spared, and that I should feast with them. While they drank, I sang to them. I was wild in my agony; my only thought was revenge. I sang, I jested, I made their orgies last as long as I could, that they might be the more wearied and sleep the more heavily."

"And then you cut your way out?" said the other.

"Yes, but that was not so hard as the waiting. At last one after another had fallen asleep. Even the sentinels were stupefied. I grasped the nearest sword. Heathen or not, this sword did not fail me. I have avenged my people."

"That was many years ago?" asked his friend.

"Yes, twelve or thirteen. My little son would have been a man, and would have stood by my side, should they come again. Here, where you see these two high mounds, they fought, the heathen and the Saxons. I have seen red blood trickle over the edge of that cliff," and as he gazed absently at the mound, his eyes grew dim, and he was forgetful of all but the past.

Almost as absently his companion looked out over the water. He started. "Eardwulf," he said, "my eyes are younger than yours, but yours can see a Dane farther than those of any other man. Is that a cloud or a Danish fleet?"

In a moment Eardwulf was an eager warrior.

"It is the Danes," he cried. "They may be coming here. Kindle the wood that is on top of the mound. Throw on damp moss and make a smoke. Our people will see it and prepare as best they can to defend themselves. We will make our way to the boats and be with them as soon as may be to help them. Oh, I could meet the whole army alone!"

The fleet came nearer and nearer. The people of Kent were aroused to their danger. They did what they could to fortify their homes, and many sought refuge in the cathedral at Canterbury, only partially rebuilt since its previous sack by the Danes. Men were on every hill that commanded a view of the sea, watching anxiously the approach of the foe. Women caught up their children and clasped them in what they feared might be almost a last embrace.

Nearer and nearer came the fleet. It sailed past the white cliffs of Thanet, south, west. The Saxons nearest the shore could see the dreaded flag of the pirates. They could hear the wild shouts and songs of their foes. From the column of smoke the Danes had guessed that their arrival was known, and they had no care to keep silence. Around the southern coast of Thanet they sailed. The Saxons trembled, as they seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then the boats were turned toward the island. The Danes sprang ashore. From the careful way in which they moored their vessels, the Saxons reasoned that there would be no immediate attack, and they were grateful for even a small respite.

Word had been sent to King Ethelbert, and he and his counselors were discussing what was best to do. Eardwulf, the noble thegn who had begged to be permitted to act as coast guard that he might be the first to see the enemy, had been sent to the king to beg for his aid and protection. Alstan, the warrior bishop, was there, though so feeble that he had to be helped into the room. He was an old man, but his dark eyes were as fiery as ever, and his voice was clear and strong. He was seated in a great arm-chair with a high carved back. Much against his will, a footstool had been brought, and cushions had been piled around him. Ethelbert sat in the middle of the royal seat, and on either side of him were the princes, Ethelred and Alfred. The high back of the throne was draped with a rich purple silk, whose edges were embroidered with a heavy tracery of gold, flashing here and there with amethysts. The walls of the room were draped with dark red cloth, a necessary precaution in those days when even kings' palaces were full of draughts. In an irregular half-circle around the sons of Ethelwulf were the trusted counselors of the king, though Eardwulf's impatience would not allow him to sit quietly, and every few minutes he would leave his seat and pace restlessly back and forth in front of the dais.

"You have heard the story of Eardwulf," said the king. "Do you advise that we do as he urges, march straightway to the eastern coast and attack the Danes on the island?"

"I have seen the water that lies between Thanet and the mainland red with blood, and it was not all the blood of the heathen," said one.

"The Danes are few; they do not expect a night attack. We could surprise them, and when morning came, their dead bodies would have been thrown over the cliffs," said another.

Ethelred nodded acquiescence. Ethelwulf looked serious and thoughtful. Alfred was intently listening, bending forward to catch every word of the speaker. Ethelred was crown prince, and it was not customary to permit a second heir to the throne to have any share in the deliberations of the king's council; but Alfred, though he was not yet sixteen, had inspired far more respect than his years would seem to warrant. He could read and write, he had made a pilgrimage to Rome and had been blessed by the Pope and anointed with the holy oil. Ethelbert held the kingdom in trust for his younger brothers, and Ethelred had manifested so little interest in the affairs of state that some had begun to feel that it would be wise to pass him by in the succession to the throne, and to hope that he would of his own accord retire to a convent before any question of his accession should arise. Alfred had already shown his bravery and his good judgment, and the chief anxiety felt on his account was lest his health should fail, for it was known that he was afflicted with some painful disease that no one understood. No wonder that more than one of the gray-haired counselors watched with intense interest to see what the boy would say.

"His blue eyes are as keen as Alstan's black ones," whispered one.

"Yes," said another; "but do you see how his lips tremble when the pain comes to him?"

"If they would only bleed him and give him saffron," whispered the first. "That is good for the lungs and the liver and the eyes and the stomach and—" but the king was speaking.

"Ethelred," he said, "do you advise waiting to see what the Danes will do?"

"Yes," said Ethelred. "If they do no harm to us, why should we attack them?" Eardwulf stopped short in his walk and looked upon the heir to the throne with but half-concealed scorn. Then he turned eagerly to the younger prince.

"Ought the men of Wessex to leave their own land?" said Alfred. "Is there not danger of raids by the heathen on our own coast?" Eardwulf's face fell, and he involuntarily grasped his sword; but the prince went on as simply as if he was thinking aloud.

"Would it not be well before they offer any harm to try to make peace with them, to gain time to train our men, and to bring together so many of them that part could defend Wessex and part be ready to help the men of Kent?"

The keen, piercing eyes of Alstan were fixed upon the face of the youth, and now in response to a look from the king, he spoke, rising slowly and painfully to his feet and leaning on the back of the great chair.

"King Ethelbert," he said, "to my mind the voice of the youngest at the council advises well. We are not strong enough, alas, to make a successful attack upon the Danes and to defend our own land of Wessex at the same time, should need arise. Let us, then, make a treaty with our foes, that they may some day be glad to beg for a treaty with us; and let us teach and train our men so that workingmen who have never borne a sword may know how to wield one, and drive the heathen from our land forever. Let us make all men see that he who oppresses one man oppresses all; then, and then alone, can we hope to become free. What is your will, O king?"

"When the voice of the oldest and of the youngest are as one, the king must agree," said Ethelbert. "I think that you are right. We will try to make the treaty, and we will train the men. Eardwulf, my noble thegn," he added, "do not be so downcast. The day of reckoning is not past. It will surely come. We but delay it a little that it may be the more crushing."

Eardwulf was but half satisfied, but he returned to Kent to report the king's will. A treaty was made with the Danes, by which they promised to do no harm to the Saxons. The Saxons gave them a great weight of silver, and promised them an equal amount of gold if the men of Kent were unmolested during the winter.

All knew that little confidence could be placed in the word of the Danes, and a close watch was kept of their movements. At first they seemed undecided what to do. Almost every day they would go out with their boats. If they sailed to the south, the men of Kent would tremble; if to the north, there was joy, for there was always hope that they would not return. Sometimes they would sail past Essex or even as far as the coast of East Anglia; and everywhere men would send their women and children into hiding, and grasp their spears and swords and battle-axes, and stand ready to meet the dreaded heathen. Once they sailed into the mouth of the Thames, and fleet horsemen galloped to give warning to London; but the invaders landed on the island of Sheppey, and remained there for several days, as harmless as any company of picnickers; but wherever they went there was fear. Some thought that this landing on Sheppey might signify that they would spend the winter on one island or the other, and recalled the fact that some ten years previously a band of Danes had wintered on Sheppey and had done little damage to their unwilling neighbors.

At last they seemed to have settled down for the winter. They put up a rude shelter for their boats, and even built some rough, half-open huts of branches of trees with a clumsy thatching of twigs and rushes and seaweed.

The few boats that were left unprotected and ready for use were rather of the heavier, more substantial kind than the light skiffs with which they could so easily glide up even the most shallow streams or land on low-lying shores.

These were better adapted to deep-sea fishing, and when the Saxons found that they seemed to be taken out only at such times as it would be necessary to provide food, the long-suffering people began to breathe more freely, even though the blazing camp-fires that shone out at night on the high land of Thanet were a continual threat and menace.

Meanwhile King Ethelbert was not idle. Each ealderman could call out all the free men of his district to form a fighting force. They could fight, but they had little training for battle. Indeed, a regular battle was a thing almost unheard of. Thus far the attacks of the Danes had almost always been sudden and upon small bodies. They would glide up the rivers in their boats, or they would land at some distant point and make their way through the wilderness as silently as the snake, and in the early gray of the morning pounce down upon the sleeping men; or they would come just before the sunset, when men were scattered in the fields and wearied with the labors of the day, and the women were alone in their homes preparing the evening meal. They were always expected, and their coming was always unexpected. To oppose this kind of attack, regular drill would count for little. The first thing to be done was to provide plenty of weapons and practise as many men in their use as possible.

Naturally enough, men were unwilling to leave their own homes where they might be needed at any moment in order to defend other parts of the country; and this feeling was the stronger from the fact that travel, even from one shire to another, was not common. Where a man was born, that was his place. There was his land, his home. If he was well, the lord of his district must give him work and protect him; if he was sick, his lord must care for him. If he left his home, there was nothing for him to do, and nowhere for him to go. Every one of the great farms had men enough to cultivate it. There were no manufactures; little work of any kind could be found. The man who abandoned his home had neither work, food, nor protection. He must starve or become a vagabond and robber. Kent and Wessex were nominally one kingdom, but with such difficulties as these in the way of sending men from the west to help men of the east, the experience of Alstan and the wise instinct of Alfred had both pointed to the only course open to them, to try to make a treaty to gain time in the hope that things would change for the better.

The smiths were busy. Night and day the forges were ablaze, and swords, axes, spearheads, arrowheads, and coats of mail were made in great numbers. Following the example of the king, men practised athletic exercises, and skilled themselves in the use of arms as they had never done before. What this might have accomplished we do not know, for before the spring came, the blow fell.

A winter of so complete inactivity was a thing almost unknown to the Danes. Cramped up on the little island of Thanet, they grew wild and restless.

"This is no life for a sea king," said one of them, "to gather rushes for the roof and wood for the camp-fire. Bah! One might as well be a Saxon."

"My brother stays at home to care for the inheritance," said another. "My country is the sea. The land is for our plunder, not to live on."

"And just across the water is the fair country of Kent. We can see the high towers of the churches, and—"

"And that is where the priests and monks live, and where they make charms against us," broke in another. "Who knows whether we shall be able to go from the island or not? They have magic, these priests, in their books, and they may bewitch our vessels so that they will float before their eyes, helpless forever, and we ourselves be fixed as firmly to the island as that white cliff."

"The blood of my father trickled over that cliff," said another, "and I catch fish and sleep under a roof while he is unavenged!"

"If we wait till spring, they will give us gold," said one, thoughtfully.

"And where will their gold come from?" demanded another indignantly. "From their churches and their convents. There they are before us. The land lies open. The gold is there. Shall the sons of Odin and Thor wait for what their swords will give them until it is the pleasure of these puny islanders to say, 'You may have it'? We do not give gifts to our little children in that way. We say, 'Take it, and if another child is the stronger, let him take it from you if he can.' The sword of the Danes is the will of the gods."

The camp-fires were built up brighter than ever, that the Saxons might not suspect their plans, and in a fiendish glee the Danes went to the moorings, but as softly as if their steps could be heard on the opposite shore where the Saxons lay sleeping. Without a sound the boats were made free, and soon the invaders were on the other side and gliding softly up the river Stour. For some reason they did not go as far as Canterbury. Perhaps they were too jubilant in their new liberty to unite in anything like an organized attack upon a larger place, but they ran through eastern Kent like a whirlwind of fire, bursting down upon the smaller villages with all the horrors of a midnight onslaught, tearing down the wooden churches, seizing the treasures, and setting fire to the ruins. It was like a mad frolic of fiends. They sought gold and silver, but for the joys of bloodshed and torture they would gleefully turn aside from the richest treasure. Blood rather than gold was their delight; they were ravenous beasts, not men, and they reveled in the agonies of their victims.

Before the morning came, they had departed. Those that had survived the terrors of the night were too full of suffering and too sick at heart to question whither.

When the news of the massacre and the ravaging of the country of Kent was brought to the king, he turned pale, but said not one word; and his efforts were redoubled to make his men better and better prepared for battle.

"The day of revenge will come, King Ethelbert," said one of his thegns.

"It is not revenge," answered the king, sternly, "it is not revenge. The day for revenge is past. It is for freedom, not revenge, that we must fight. The murderers must be driven from our shores. On the sea they are greater than we; but they must be made to fear to step on Saxon soil."

"But they have gone," said Ethelred. "Why do you work so hard to make ready to fight against them? Perhaps they will never come back."

The king turned away wearily, and answered nothing.