5. The Danish Conquest, A.D. 958—1035
The last very prosperous king was Alfred's great-grandson, Edgar, who was owned as their over-lord by all the kings of the remains of the Britons in Wales and Scotland. Once, eight of these kings came to meet him at Chester, and rowed him in his barge along the river Dee. It was the grandest day a king of England enjoyed for many years. Edgar was called the peaceable, because there were no attacks by the Danes at all through his reign. In fact, the Northmen and Danes had been fighting among themselves at home, and these fights generally ended in some one going off as a Sea-King, with all his friends, and trying to gain a new home in some fresh country. One great party of Northmen under a very tall and mighty chief named Rollo, had some time before, thus gone to France, and forced the King to give them a great piece of his country, just opposite to England, which was called after them Normandy. There they learned to talk French, and grew like Frenchmen, though they remained a great deal braver, and more spirited than any of their neighbors.
There were continually fleets of Danish ships coming to England; and the son of Edgar, whose name was Ethelred, was a helpless, cowardly sort of man, so slow and tardy, that his people called him Ethelred the Unready. Instead of fitting out ships to fight against the Danes, he took the money the ships ought to have cost to pay them to go away without plundering; and as to those who had come into the country without his leave, he called them his guard, took them into his pay, and let them live in the houses of the English, where they were very rude, and gave themselves great airs, making the English feed them on all their best meat, and bread, and beer, and always call them Lord Danes. He made friends himself with the Northmen, or Normans, who had settled in France, and married Emma, the daughter of their duke; but none of his plans prospered: things grew worse and worse, and his mind and his people's grew so bitter against the Danes, that at last it was agreed that all over the South of England every Englishman should rise up in one night and murder the Dane who lodged in his house.
Among those Danes who were thus wickedly killed was the sister of the King of Denmark. Of course he was furious when he heard of it, and came over to England determined to punish the cruel, treacherous king and people, and take the whole island for his own. He did punish the people, killing, burning, and plundering wherever he went; but he could never get the king into his hands, for Ethelred went off in the height of the danger to Normandy, where he had before sent his wife Emma, and her children, leaving his eldest son( child of his first wife), Edmund Ironside, to fight for the kingdom as best he might.
The King of Denmark died in the midst of his English war; but his son Cnut went on with the conquest he had begun, and before long Ethelred, the Unready died, and Edmund Ironside was murdered, and Cnut became King of England, as well as of Denmark. He became a Christian, and married Emma, Ethelred's widow, though she was much older than himself. He had been a hard and cruel man, but he now laid aside his evil ways, and became a noble and wise and just king, a lover of churches and good men; and the English seem to have been as well off under him as if he had been one of their own kings. There is no king of whom more pleasant stories are told. One is of his wanting to go to church at Ely Abbey one cold Candlemas Day. Ely was on a hill in the middle of a great marsh. The marsh was frozen over; not strong enough to bear, and they all stood looking at it. Then out stepped a stout countryman, who was so fat, that his nickname was The Pudding. "Are you all afraid?" he said. "I will go over at once before the king." "Will you," said the king, "then I will come after you, for whatever bears you will bear me." Cnut was a little, slight man, and he got easily over, and Pudding got a piece of land for his reward.
These servants of the king used to flatter him. They told him he was lord of land and sea, and that every thing would obey him. "Let us try," said Cnut, who wished to show them how foolish and profane they were; "bring out my chair to the sea-side." He was at Southampton at the time, close to the sea, and the tide was coming in. "Now sea," he said, as he sat down, "I am thy lord, dare not to come near, nor wet my feet." Of course the waves rolled on, and splashed over him; and he turned to his servants, and bade them never say words that took away from the honor due to the only Lord of heaven and earth. He never put on his crown again after this, but hung it up in Winchester Cathedral. He was a thorough good king, and there was much grief when he died, stranger though he was.
A great many Danes had made their homes in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, ever since Alfred's time, and some of their customs are still left there, and some of their words. The worst of them was that they were great drunkards, and the English learnt this bad custom of them.