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 angrily, "Lazy rogue! you can't turn the cakes, though you can eat them fast enough."
However, that same spring, the brave English gained more victories; Alfred came out of his hiding place and gathered them all together, and beat the Danes, so that they asked for peace. He said he would allow those who had settled in the North of England to stay there, provided they would become Christians; and he stood godfather to their chief, and gave him the name of Ethelstane. After this, Alfred had stout ships built to meet the Danes at sea before they could come and land in England; and thus he kept them off, so that for all the rest of his reign, and that of his son and grandsons, they could do very little mischief, and for a time left off coming at all, but went to rob other countries that were not so well guarded by brave kings.
But Alfred was not only a brave warrior. He was a most good and holy man, who feared God above all things, and tried to do his very best for his people. He made good laws for them, and took care that every one should be justly treated, and that nobody should do his neighbor wrong without being punished. So many Abbeys had been burnt and the monks killed by the Danes, that there were hardly any books to be had, or scholars to read them. He invited learned men from abroad, and wrote and translated books himself for them; and he had a school in his house, where he made the young nobles learn with his own sons. He built up the churches, and gave alms to the poor; and he was always ready to hear the troubles of any poor man. Though he was always working so hard, he had a disease that used to cause him terrible pain almost every day. His last years were less peaceful than the middle ones of his reign, for the Danes tried to come again; but he beat them off by his ships at sea, and when he died at fifty-two years old, in the year 901, he left England at rest and quiet, and we always think of him as one of the greatest and best kings who ever reigned in England, or in any other country. As long as his children after him and his people went on in the good way he had taught them, all prospered with them, and no enemies hurt them; and this was all through the reigns of his son, his grandson, and great-grandsons. Their council of great men was called by a long word that is in our English, "Wise Men's Meeting," and there they settled the affairs of the kingdom. The king's wife was not called queen, but lady; and what do you think lady means? It means "loaf-giver"—giver of bread to her household and the poor. so a lady's great work is to be charitable.