64. Alfred the Great Withstands the Danes. The country of Europe which suffered most from the Northmen was England. It was right in the path of these savage sea-rovers, and offered an easy prey. The AngloSaxons who had formerly cohquered the country were not all at first subject to one ruler. On the contrary, they had founded numerous little kingdoms which engaged in constant warfare with each other and with the Britons. Because seven of these little states were especially important, this far-away time of bloodshed and confusion has sometimes been called the period of the Saxon "Heptarchy," or seven kingdoms.

Not until after more than two centuries of savage conflict was the whole country brought under control of one king. But finally Egbert, originally ruler only of the little state of Wessex, conquered all his rivals and made himself first king of all England. Before the new nation could grow really strong, however, the Northmen appeared with their long ships and shining weapons. Since most of the Vikings who attacked that country were from Denmark, the English usually called them "the Danes." That they did not destroy the English utterly was due partly to a wise and strong king named Alfred.

To this day Englishmen love the stories which have come down regarding him, for he was good and clever, as well as brave. Even when he was a little fair-haired prince Alfred loved learning, but to his great sorrow he could have no good teachers, for the Danes had destroyed nearly all the monasteries. Yet he learned all he could, and when his mother offered a beautiful book of poems as a prize to the one of her children who could first recite them, Alfred, though he was the youngest prince, easily won. He learned also to play well on musical instruments, and, since all his life he loved to read and to think, he finally became an excellent scholar.

When he grew up Alfred helped his elder brother, who had now become king, to fight the cruel Danes. Again and again they, struggled bravely in battle, but they were often beaten. When the brother died and Alfred became king (871 A.D.), the Danes were masters of the whole country and Alfred had to take refuge in the woods and swamps. Another man might have fled from the land, but Alfred, with true English pluck, would not give up the struggle.

Some amusing stories are told of Alfred at this time. One tells how the king once took refuge in the hut of a poor peasant. The peasant woman, who of course did not know him, set him to watch the cakes she was cooking. But Alfred, busy repairing his trusty weapons, forgot all about the cakes and soon she smelled them burning. Whereupon the peasant’s wife scolded the great king soundly, telling him that though he would not mind the cakes he was ready to eat them fast enough.

Another story tells how Alfred, disguised as a wandering musician, went boldly into the camp of the Danes and amused them by playing on his harp, while he saw how their fortifications were built.

At last Alfred’s time came. Raising aloft the old banner of his people, with its figure of the white horse, he summoned all true Englishmen to his side. Overjoyed to see their king, whom many had thought dead, they eagerly rallied about him. Speedily they marched against the Vikings, and before the fury of their attack the hitherto unconquered Danes gave way. They fled to their fortified camp, but Alfred besieged it and starved them into surrender.

The Danes had to acknowledge Alfred as their overlord and be baptized Christians. He allowed them to settle peaceably in the northern part of England, but there was to be no more plundering or bloodshed. Because it was occupied by the Danes this region was known at that time as the Danelagh, and many of its present people are descended from the Vikings.

In spite of this victory England was not yet secure. Later other Viking armies came. But Alfred got the better of them all. This wise king saw that the proper thing to do was to fight the Danes on the sea, forif they once landed in England they would do great harm, even though beaten in the end. So he had war vessels built, and sometimes conquered them in naval battles. Even to this day, when England is so proud of her great fleet of battleships, Englishmen like to remember that it was Alfred who built their first navy.

65. Alfred’s Works of Peace. Alfred is remembered for many other reasons than because he was a great soldier. When peace came he thought again of schools and education. Because he had had so much trouble himsell to learn, he wanted to make things easier for others, so like Charles the Great he invited scholars to come to England and had schools established. He did even more. Up to that time men had thought that all books should be in Latin, since it was the language of Rome. But Alfred held that English, too, was a noble tongue, and he felt that even those who did not understand Latin should know as much as possible. So he encouraged the writing of books in English, and himself helped to translate writings from Latin into his own language.

Alfred not only ruled kindly and justly but revised the laws of the kingdom and made them much better, He was interested in all that went on, and even sent two bold sea captains to make new discoveries in geography.

But Alfred is remembered most of all because he was a good man. He never willingly injured even his meanest subject; he always thought of the good of his people before his own advantage; he labored constantly that England might be happy. No wonder that even one thousand years after his death the grateful English people set up to his memory a beau-. tiful statue. It stands in Winchester, his ancient capital city, and represents the brave old king,-. sword in hand, just as he led his faithful people in their struggle for freedom. What George Washington is to us Americans, Alfred the Great is to our English cousins.

After Alfred was gone, the Danes came again and brought new destruction. They even conquered England and ruled it for a short time. But in the end the English got back the power and reestablished their own kings.

66. The Normans Conquer England. Thus England had in turn been conquered by the Romans, the AngloSaxons, and the Danes. Each had brought with them many new things.

Though the Romans were the most civilized, they had, owing to circumstances, left little to tell of their visit,—only here and there a crumbling wall, or a ruined building. The Anglo-Saxons had given England most. They had brought their race to people the country in place of the Britons, their language to be the beginning of our modernEnglish, and their free German notions about how people should choose their king and govern themselves. The Danes had not ruled long, yet many Danes settled in northern England. They intermarried with the English and made the race still more sturdy and warlike. But before England could become the modem country which we know she had to be conquered yet again.

We have seen how it was that the Normans came to live in northern France. Here they soon learned French civilization and French customs, but they remained a restless, energetic people, always looking for some new exploit. Normandy was just across the British Channel from England, and the Normans knew how weak the country still was.

When one of the English kings died without a son, the leading men of England chose Harold, a powerful noble, to be their ruler. But William, Duke of Normandy, whom men have always called William the Conqueror, declared the late king had promised him the throne. He gathered an army of adventurous Normans, and sailing across the channel, just as Julius Caesar had done so long before, landed near Hastings (1066 A.D.).

Here was fought a famous battle. The Normans had many advantages over the English. They understood how to fight on horseback and how to make skillful use of archery. Moreover, they had William to lead them. Yet all day long the English stood stubbornly together on a hilltop and beat back every attack with their swords and axes. At last William made use of a trick. He had his men pretend to retreat. Harold had been wounded, and there was no one to direct the English. They

foolishly broke their ranks and rushed in wild disorder after their enemies. Then, at a signal from William, the Normans wheeled about and rode down their scattered foes. When night came the English army was destroyed, and Harold lay dead upon the field. All England speedily submitted to William.

William richly rewarded his followers. He made many of them nobles, and gave them great estates in the conquered country. Here they built castles and lorded it over the Anglo-Saxons. Though the latter often rose in rebellion, they could never get rid of William and his descendants. The Normans had come to England to stay and to rule.

In spite of the cruelty which they sometimes practiced, the Norman conquest was really a good thing for England. The Normans knew more than the English. They brought with them from France architects and masons who knew how to build stone churches and castles to take the place of the old wooden buildings of the AngloSaxons. Their merchants traded back and forth with France and other parts of Europe. Moreover, the Normans were more lively and quick-witted than the slow, plodding English. Thus when, in the course of years, the two nations were merged into one, the new English people were a brighter and more clever race of people than the old Anglo-Saxons.

The Normans also brought into England a new language, for they spoke a kind of French. This fact for a long while kept the two peoples apart. But gradually the descendants of the Normans learned to speak like the other people of the country, and the Anglo-Saxons began to use a great many Norman words. The new language made in this way is the English which we speak. It is irery different from the old tongue spoken by Alfred the Great, or by Harold.

The Normans were so restless that even after the Conquest they wanted to keep on fighting. But William was a stern man who knew how to keep his unruly people in order.

The Conqueror was of moderate height only, but very heavily built and so strong of arm that no man could draw his bow. He was dignified in manner, but his appearance was marred by his stoutness, for as he grew older he became fatter and fatter. William’s countenance was fierce. Though to good men he was mild and just, his temper was so terrible that when he was aroused no one dared oppose him. Those who tried to withstand him, he punished with awful cruelty.

In most respects William was a good king. He tried to rule justly, and in his time no man dared slay another or do him wrong. But the king had great faults. Money he loved so much that he sometimes did wicked things to gain it, and he was so fond of hunting that he laid waste a whole district of the country that his deer and other game might not be disturbed. A quaint old writer said of William, "As greatly did he love the tall deer as if he were their father."

67. How Henry II Kept Order in England. When William was gone, England had cause for sorrow. His sons could not keep order with the same firmness and strength. When they too died, terrible times came. While the Conqueror’s grandson and granddaughter contended for the crown, the fierce Norman nobles did as they pleased. Riding forth. from the strong castles which they had built, they robbed and murdered the people. It seemed almost as if the dreadful days of the Danes had come again.

But when England was almost ruined, Henry II great. grandson of the old Norman, became king (i 154 A.D). He was the right man for the times. Stockily built, with florid face, red hair, bull neck, and bow legs, Henry was not handsome. His eyes, always shifting from one thing to another, showed how restless and active was his mind. He cared little for dress, but loved work, never being happier than when actively carrying out some new plan. Though Henry could fight well he did not love war, but preferred to gain his purposes by other means. To have his way he would stoop to any trick. Yet if Henry was not noble in appearance and character, still he was one of England’s greatest kings. Better than any one of his day he saw what England needed, and knew how to bring order and justice to his country.

First he put down the Norman barons with a strong hand. He destroyed their castles and sent away the soldiers they had hired. Then England had peace.

Among, any people it is of great importance how wrongdoers are found out, brought to trial, and punished. To Henry it seemed that great improvements could be made in the methods employed in England.

Very childish indeed were the methcds men used in those rough days. If a man were accused of a crime, he must bring all the people he could to swear he was innocent. If he could not bring enough to satisfy the court he must stand what was called the "ordeal."

There were many kinds of ordeals. Sometimes the accused man must plunge his arm into a kettle of boiling water and take out a ring. Then his arm was tied up and if, after three days, it was seen to be healing, he was declared innocent. If the wound was inflamed he was held guilty. Another ordeal was that of cold water. The accused person was bound hand and foot and cast into a pond. If he floated, his guilt was regarded as proved; if he sank, he was drawn out as innocent.

Another form was to build two great fires and make the person on trial run between them. He proved the charge false by escaping with his life. A very simple ordeal was sometimes used when it was said a person had told a falsehood. He was made to swallow a huge piece of bread and cheese. If it stuck in his throat the lie was proved.

But the fierce Norman nobles loved best "trial by battle." Accuser and accused were given equal weapons and, while the judges stood by to see fair play, fought out their quarrel foot to foot and eye to eye. Priests, women, and others who could not fight were allowed to choose "champions" to do battle for them. The defeated party was declared guilty, and if he was not slain in the combat, was punished.

Men thought that God would protect the innocent and give them strength to conquer their adversaries. But we can see now that the ordeals were cruel and often unjust. Only very ignorant people could believe in them.

Henry II improved methods greatly. He sent his royal judges to travel about England and hold court in all the chief cities. When the royal judge arrived, sixteen worthy men of the place were chosen, who gave him the names of any, persons who they believed had broken the law. These sixteen were called the "Grand Jury." Those whom they "indicted" were arrested and brought before the judge to be tried.

The king did not indeed forbid ordeals, in which everybody believed, but he sometimes allowed another kind of trial. Twelve other men of the neighborhood were then chosen to examine into all the facts and decide whether the accused man had done wrong or not. Wise people soon found "trial by jury" much better than the old way.

The courts in England and America now generally use trial by jury. We should think it very wicked to let some bad man escape punishment simply because he was strong and a good fighter. All thoughtful people are grateful to wise old Henry II because he did so much to give us better ways of securing justice.

But not all the people of England liked so strong a king. The officers

of the church had previously had the right to be tried only in the courts of the church. They therefore felt that they ought not to be tried, like other people, before the royal judges. Chief among those who objected to the king’s policy was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, the highest officer in the Church of England. So angry did Henry become with him that one day he said in fury that he wished some one would rid him of that insolent man. Four of his soldiers, hearing his words, leaped upon their horses and galloped off in a cloud of dust to Canterbury. They found Becket before one of the altars of his church, and cut him down with their great swords.

How bitterly did Henry regret what he had said! To show his sorrow he went to Canterbury, knelt before the tomb of the archbishop, and bad men beat him on the bare back. Too late he saw that even a great king, carried away by passion, can do a terrible wrong.

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© 2001 by Lynn Waterman