Young Folks' History of England HTML version

4. The Northmen, A.D. 858—958
There were many more of the light-haired, blue-eyed people on the further
side of the North Sea who worshiped Thor and Woden still, and thought that
their kindred in England had fallen from the old ways. Besides, they liked to
make their fortunes by getting what they could from their neighbors. Nobody
was thought brave or worthy, in Norway or Denmark, who had not made
some voyages in a "long keel," as a ship was called, and fought bravely, and
brought home gold cups and chains or jewels to show where he had been.
Their captains were called Sea Kings, and some them went a great way, even
into the Mediterranean Sea, and robbed the beautiful shores of Italy. So
dreadful was it to see the fleet of long ships coming up to the shore, with a
serpent for the figure-head, and a raven as the flag, and crowds of fierce
warriors with axes in their hands longing for prey and bloodshed, that where
we pray in church that God would deliver us from lightning and tempest, and
battle and murder, our forefathers used to add, "From the fury of the
Northmen, good Lord deliver us."
To England these Northmen came in great swarms, and chiefly from
Denmark, so that they were generally call "the Danes." They burnt the
houses, drove off the cows and sheep, killed the men, and took away the
women and children to be slaves; and they were always most cruel of all
where they found an Abbey with any monks or nuns, because they hated the
Christian faith. By this time those seven English kingdoms I told you of had all
fallen into the hands of one king. Egbert, King of the West Saxons, who
reigned at Winchester, is counted as the first king of all England. His four
grandsons had dreadful battles with the Danes all their lives, and the three
eldest all died quite young. The youngest was the greatest and best king
England ever had—Alfred the Truth-teller. As a child Alfred excited the hopes
and admiration of all who saw him, and while his brothers were busy with
their sports, it was his delight to kneel at his mother's knee, and recite to her
the Saxon ballads which his tutor had read to him, inspiring him, at that early
age, with the ardent patriotism and the passionate love of literature which
rendered his character so illustrious. He was only twenty-two years old when
he came to the throne, and the kingdom was overrun everywhere with the
Danes. In the northern part some had even settled down and made
themselves at home, as the English had done four hundred years before, and
more and more kept coming in their ships: so that, though Alfred beat them
in battle again and again, there was no such thing as driving them away. At
last he had so very few faithful men left him, that he thought it wise to send
them away, and hide himself in the Somersetshire marsh country. There is a
pretty story told of him that he was hidden in the hut of a poor herdsman,
whose wife, thinking he was a poor wandering soldier as he sat by the fire
mending his bow and arrows, desired him to turn the cakes she had set to
bake upon the hearth. Presently she found them burning, and cried out