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questions, cursed one another in the heartiest manner.


and (uncommonly like the old Druids) cursed all the people
whom they could not persuade. So altogether the Britons were
very badly otf, you may believe.

They were in such distress, in short, that they sent a letter
to Rome, entreating help (which they called the groans of the
Britons), and in which they said, "The barbarians chase us
into the sea; the sea throws us back upon the barbarians; and
we have only the hard choice left us of perishing by the sword,
or perishing by the waves. " But the Romans could not help
them, even if they were so inclined ; for they had enough to do
to defend themselves against their own enemies, who were then
very fierce and strong. At last the Britons, unable to bear their
hard condition any longer, resol/ed to make peace with the
Saxons, and to invite the Saxons to come into their country and
help them to keep out the Picts and Scots.

It was a British prince named Vortigern who took this res-
olution, and who made a treaty of friendship with Hengist and
Horsa, two Saxon chiefs. Both of these names, in the old
Saxon language, signify horse; for the Saxons, like many other
nations in a rough state were fond of giving men the names of
animals, as horse, wolf, bear, hound. The Indians of North
America — a very inferior people to the Saxons, though — do the
same to this day.

Hengist and Horsa drove out the Picts and Scots; and
Vortigern, being grateful to them for that service, made no op-
position to their settling themselves in that part of England
which is called the Isle of Thanet, or to their inviting over
more of their countrymen to join them. But Hengist had a
beautiful daughter named Rowena; and when at a feast she
filled a golden goblet to the brim with wine, and gave it to
Vortigern, saying in a sweet voice, " Dear king thy health !"
the king fell in love with her. My opinion is, that the cunning
Hengist meant him to do so, in order that the Saxons might
have greater influence with him ; and that the fair Rowena
came to that feast, golden goblet and all, on purpose.

At any rate they were married; and long afterwards, when-
ever the king was angry with the Saxons, or jealous of their
enroachments, Rowena would put her beautiful arms round
his neck, and sottly say, "Dear king, they are my people! Be
favorable to them, as you loved that Saxon girl who gave you
the golden goblet of wine at the feast !" And really I don't see
how the king could help himself.

Ah? We must all die! In the course of years, Vortigern
died (he was dethroned, and put in prison first, I am afraid);


and Rowena died ; and generations of Saxons and Britons
died : and events that happened during a long, long time,
would have been quite forgotten but for the tales and songs of
the old bards, who used to go about from feast to feast, with
their white beards, recounting the deeds of their forefathers.
Among the histories of which they sang and talked, there was
a famous one concerning the bravery and virtues of King
Arthur, supposed to have been a British prince in those old
rimes. But whether such a person really lived, or whether there
were several persons whose histories came to be confused to-
gether under that one name, or whether all about him was in-
vention, no one knows.

I will tell you shortly what is most interesting in the eany
Saxon times, as they are described in these songs and stories
of the bards.

In and long after the days of Vortigern, fresh bodies of
Saxons, under various chiefs, came pouring into Britain.
One body, conquering the Britons in the East and settling
there, called their kingdom Essex ; another body settled in the
West, and called their kingdom Wessex ; the Northfolk, or
Norfolk people, established themselves in one place ; the
Southfolk, or Suffolk people, established themselves in another ;
and gradually seven kingdoms, or states, arose in England,
which were called the Saxon Heptarchy. The poor Britons,
falling back before these crowds of fighting men whom they had
innocently invited over as friends, retired into Wales and the
adjacent country, into Devonshire and into Cornwall. Those
parts of England long remained unconquered. And in Corn-
wall now, — where the sea-coast is very gloomy, steep, and
rugged ; where, ir; the dark winter-time, ships have often been
wrecked close to the land, and every soul on board has per-
ished j where the winds and waves howl drearily, and split the
solid rocks into arches and caverns, — there are very ancient
ruins, which the people call the ruins of King Arthur's Castle.

Kent is the most famous of the seven Saxon kingdoms, be-
cause the Christian religion was preached to the Saxons there
(who domineered ovr.r the Britons too much to care for what
they said about th? religion, or anything else) by Augustine, a
monk from Rom;. King Ethelbert of Kent was soon con-
verted ; and :he moment he said he was a Christian his
courtiers all said they were Christians ; after which, ten thou-
sand of his sub; .ccs said they were Christians too. Augustine
built a little ci ■•:h close to this king's palace, on the ground
now occupied "; , .^e beai tiful cathedral of Canterbury. Sebert,


the king's nephew, built on a muddy, manliy place near Lon-
don, where there had been a temple to Apollo, a church dedi*
catcd to Saint Peter, which is now Westminster Abbey. And
in London itself, on the foundation of a temple to Diana, he
built another little church which has risen up since that old
time to be Saint Paul's.

After the death of Ethelbert, Edwin, King of Northumbrin,
who was such a good king that it was said a woman or child
might openly carry a purse of gold in his reign without fear,
allowed his child to be baptized, and held a great council lo
consider whether he and his people should all be Christians or
not. It was decided that they should be. Coifi, the chief
priest of the old religion, made a great speech on the occasion.
In this discourse, he told the people that he had found out ti;e
old gods to be impostors. " I am quite satisfied of it," he said.
" Look at mc ! I have been serving them all my life, and they
have done nothing for me ; whereas, if they had been really
powerful, they could not have decently done less, in return for
all I have done for them, than make my fortune. As they have
never made my fortune, I am quite convinced they are im-
postors." When this singular priest had finished speaking, he
hastily armed himself with sword and lance, mounted a war-
horse, rode at a furious gallop in sight of all the people to the
temple, and flung his lance against it as an insult. From that
time the Christian religion spread itself among the Saxons, and
became their faith.

The next very famous prince was Egbert. He lived about
a hundred and fifty years afterwards, and claimed to have a
better right to the throne of Wessex than Beortric, another
Saxon prince who was at the head of that kingdom, and who
married Edburga, the daughter of Offa, king of another of the
seven kingdoms. This Queen Edburga was a handsome
murderess, who poisoned people when they offended her. One
day she mixed a cup of poison for a certain noble belonging to
the court; but her husband drank of it too, by mistake, and
died. Upon this, the people revolted in great crowds ; and
running to the palace, and thundering at the gates, cried,
" Down with the wicked queen who poisons men t " They
drove her out of the country, and abolished the title she had
disgraced. When years had passed away, some travellers came
home from Italy, and said that in the town of Pavia they had
seen a ragged beggar-woman — who had once been handsome,
but was then shrivelled, bent, and yellow — wandering about the
Streets, crying for bread ; and that this beggar-woman was the


poisoning English queen. It was, indeed, Edburga ; and so
she died, without a shelter for her wretched head.

Egbert, not considering himself safe in England, in conse-
quence of his having claimed the crown of Wessex (for he
thought his rival might take him prisoner and put him to death)
sought refuge at the court of Charlemagne, King of France.
On the death of Beortric, so unhappily poisoned by mistake,
E:;bert came back to Britain, succeeded to the throne of
Wessex, conquered some of the other monarchs of the seven
kingdoms, added their territories to his own, and, for the first
time, called the country over which he ruled England.

And now new enemies arose, who for a long time, troubled
England sorely. These were the Northmen, — the people of
Denmark and Norway ; whom the English called the Danes.
They were a warlike people, quite at home upon the sea ; not
Christians ; very daring and cruel. They came over in ships,
and plundered and burned wheresoever they landed. Once
they beat Egbert in battle. Once Egbert beat them. But they
cared no more for being beaten than the English themselves.
In the four following short reigns, of Ethelwulf and his sons
Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred, they came back again, over
and over again, burning and plundering, and laying England
waste. In the last mentioned reign, they seized Edmund, king
of East England, and bound him to a tree. Then they proposed
to him that he should change his religion ; but he, being a good
Christian, steadily refused. Upon that they beat him ; made
cowardly jests upon him, all defenceless as he was ; shot arrows
at him ; and finally struck off his head. It is impossible to say
whose head they might have struck off next, but for the death
of King Ethelred from a wound he had received in fighting
against them, and the succession to his throne of the best and
wisest king that ever lived in England



Alfred the Great was a young man three-and-twenty years
of age when he became king. Twice in' his childhood he had
been taken to Rome, where the Saxon nobles were in the habit



of going on journeys which they supposed to be religious ; and
once he had stayed for some time in Paris. Learning, however,
was so little cared for then, that at twelve years old he had not
been taught to read ; although, of the sons of King Ethelwult,
he, the youngest, was the favorite. But he had — as most men
who grow up to be great and good are generally found to have
had — an excellent mother : and one day this lady, whose name
was Osburga, happened, as she was sitting among her sons, to
read a book of Saxon poetry. The art of printing was not known
until long and long after that period ; and the book, which was
written, was what is called " illuminated " with beautiful bright
letters, richly painted. The brothers admiring it very much,
their mother said, " I will give it to that one of you four princes
who first learns to read." Alfred sought out a tutor that very
day, applied himself to learn with great diligence, and soon won
the book. He was proud of it all his life.

This great king, in the first year of his reign, fought nine
battles with the Danes. He made some treaties with them too,
by which the false Danes swore that they would quit the country.
They pretended to consider that they had taken a very solemn
oath, in swearing this upon the holy bracelets that they wore,
and which were always buried with them, when they died. But
they cared little for it ; for they thought nothing of breaking
oaths, and treaties too, as soon as it suited their purpose, and
coming back again to fight, plunder, and burn, as usual. One
fatal winter, in the fourth year of King Alfred's reign, they
spread themselves in great numbers over the whole of England ;
and so dispersed and routed the king's soldiers, that the king
was left alone, and was obliged to disguise himself as a common
peasant, and to take refuge in the cottage of one of his cow-
herds, who did not know his face.

Here King Alfred, while the Danes sought him far and near,
was left alone one day by the cowherd's wife, to watch some
cakes which she put to bake upon the hearth. But being ai
work upon his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to punish
the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking
deeply of his poor unhappy subjects, whom the Danes chased
througii liie land, his noble mind forgot the cakes ; and they
were burnt. *' What ! " said the cowherd's wife, who scolded
him well when she came back, and little thought she was scold-
ing the king, " You will be ready enough to eat them by and
by ; and yet you cannot Vvatch them, idle dog ! "

At length the Devonshire men made head against a new host
of Danes who landed on their coast; killed their cnief, and


captured their flag (on which was represented the likeness of a
raven, — a very fit bird foi a thievish army like that, I think).
The loss of their standard troubled the Danes greatly ; for they
believed it to be enchanted, — woven by the three daughters of
one father in a single afternoon. And they had a story among
themselves, that when they were victorious in battle, the raven
stretched his wings, and seemed to fly; and that when they were
defeated, he would droop. He had good reason to droop now,
if he could have done anything half so sensible ; for King Alfred
joined the Devonshire men, made a camp with them on a piece
of firm ground in the midst of a bog in Somersetshire, and pre-
pared for a great attempt for vengeance on the Danes, and the
deliverance of his oppressed people.

But first, as it was important to know how numerous those
pestilent Danes were, and how they were fortified, King Alfred,
being a good musician, disguised himself as a glee-man or min-
strel, and went with his harp to the Danish camp. He played
and sang in the very tent of Guthrum the Danish leader, and
entertained the Danes as they caroused. While he seen-ed to
think of nothing but his music, he was watchful of li.eir "ji.ts,
iheir arms, their discipline, — ever}^thing that he desired to ki,ow.
And right soon did this great king entertain them to a difTerent
[une ; for, summoning all his true followers to meet him at an
appointed place, where they received him with joyful shouts and
tears as the monarch whom many of them had given up for lost
or dead, he put himself at their head, marched on the Danish
camp, defeated the Danes with great slaughter, and besieged
:hem for fourteen days to prevent their escape. But, being as
mercifu] as he was good and brave, he then, instead of killing
ihem, proposed peace, — on condition that they should altogether
depart from that western part of England, and settle in the East ;
and that Guthrum should become a Christian, in remembrance
of the divine religion which now taught his conqueror, the noble
\lfred, to forgive the enemy who had so often injured him.
This Guthrum did. At his baptism. King Alfred was his god-
.ather. And Guthrum was an honorable chief, who well deserved
that clemency ; for ever afterwards he was loyal and faithful to
the king. The Danes under him were faithful too. They
plundered and burned no more, but worked like honest men.
They ploughed and sowed and reaped, and led good, honest
English lives. And I hope the children of those Danes played
many a time with Saxon children in the sunny fields ; and that
Danish young men fell in love with Saxon girls, and married
them ; and that English travellers, benighted at the doors of


Danish cottages, often went in for shelter until morning ; and
that Danes and Saxons sat by the red fire, friends, talking of
King Alfred the Great.

All the Danes were not like these under Guthrum ; for, after
some years, more of them came over in the old plundering and
burning way, — among them a fierce pirate of the name of Hast-
ings, who had the boldness to sail up the Thames to Gravesend
with eighty ships. For three years there was a war with these
Danes ; and there was a famine in the country, too, and a plague,
both upon human creatures and beasts. But King Alfred, whose
mighty heart never failed him, built large ships, nevertheless,
with which to pursue the pirates on the sea ; and he encouraged
his soldiers, by his brave example, to fight valiantly against them
on the shore. At last he drove them all away ; and then there
was repose in England.

As great and good in peace as he was great and good in
w^ar, King Alfred never rested from his labors to improve his
people. He loved to talk with clever men, and with travellers
from foreign countries, and to write down what they told him,
for his people to read. He had studied Latin after learning to
read English ; and now another of his labors was, to translate
Latin books into the English-Saxon tongue, that his people might
be interested and improved by their contents. He made just
laws, that they might live more happily and freely ; he turned
away all partial judges, that no wrong might be done them ;
he was so careful of their property, and punished robbers so
severely, that it was a common thing to say, that, under the
great King Alfred, garlands of golden chains and jewels might
have hung across the streets, and no man would have touched
one. He founded schools ; he patiently heard causes himself
in his court of justice. The great desires of his heart were, to
do right to all his subjects, and to leave England better, wiser,
happier in all ways, than ho found it. His industry in these
efforts was quiet astonishing. Every day he divided into
certain portions, and in each portion devoted himself to a
certain pursuit. That he might divide his time exactly, he had
wax-torches or candles made, which were all of the same size,
were notched across at regular distances, and were always kept
burning. Thus, as the candles burnt down, he divided the day
into notches, almost as accurately as we now divide it into
hours upon the clock. But when the candles were first in-
vented, it was found that the wind and draughts of air, blowing
into the palace through the doors and windows, and through
the chinks in the walls, caused them to gutter and burn un-


equally. To prevent this, the king had them put into cases
formed of wood and white horn. And these were the first
lanterns ever made in England.

All this time he was afflicted with a terrible, unknown dis-
ease ; which caused him violent and frequent pain that nothing
could relieve. He bore it, as he had borne all the troubles of
his life like a brave good man, until he was fifty-three years
old ; and then, having reigned thirty years, he died. He died
in the year 901 ; but, long ago as that is, his fame and the
love and gratitude with which his subjects regarded him, are
freshly remembered to the present hour.

In the next reign, which was the reign of Edward, surnamed
the Elder, who was chosen in council to succeed, a nephew of
King Alfred troubled the country by trying to obtain the
throne. The Danes in the east of England took part with
this usurjDer (perhaps because they had honored his uncle so
much, and honored him for his uncle's sake), and there was
hard fighting ; but the king, with the assistance of his sister,
gained the day, and reigned in peace for four-and-twenty years.
He gradually extended his power over the whole of England ;
and so the seven kingdoms were united into one.

When England thus became one kingdom, ruled over by
one Saxon kirrg, the Saxons had been settled in the country
more than four hundred and fifty years. Great changes had
taken place in its customs during that time. The Saxons were
still greedy eaters and great drinkers, and their feasts were
often of a noisy and drunken kind ; but many new comforts,
and even elegancies, had become known, and were fast increas-
ing. Hangings for the walls of rooms (where, fn these modern
days, we paste up paper) are known to have been sometimes
made of silk, ornamented with birds and flowers in needlework.
Tables and chairs were curiously carved in different woods ;
were somf.lin' s decorated with gold or silver; sometimes even
made of those precious metals. Knives and spoons were used
at table \ golden ornaments were worn, — with silk and cloth
and golden tissues and embroideries ; dishes were made of
gold and silver, brass and bone. There were varieties of
drinking-horns, bedsteads, musical instruments. A harp was
passed round at a feast, like the drinking-bowl, from guest to
guest ; and each one usually sang or played when his turn
came. The weapons of the Saxons were stoutly made ; and
among them was a terrible iron hammer that gave deadly
blows, and was long remembered. The Saxons themselves
irere a handsome i^^ople. The men were proud of their long,


fair hair, parted on the forehead ; their ample beards ; their
fresh complexions and clear eyes. The beauty of the Saxon
women filled all England with a new delight and grace.

I have more to tell of the Saxons yet ; but I stop to say
this now, because, under the great Alfred, all the best points
of the English-Saxon character were first encouraged, and in
him first shown. It has been the greatest character among
the nations of the earth. Wherever the descendants of the
Saxon race have gone, have sailed, or otherwise made their
way, even to the remotest regions of the world, they have been
patient, persevering, never to be broken in spirit, never to be
turned aside from enterprises on which they have resolved.
In Europe, Asia, Africa, America, the whole world over ; in
the desert, in the forest, on the sea ; scorched by a burning
sun, or frozen by ice that never melts, — the Saxon blood re-
mains unchanged. Wheresoever that race goes, there law and
industry, and safety for life and property, and all the great
results of steady perseverance, are certain to arise.

I pause to think with admiration of the noble king, who, in
his single person, possessed all the Saxon virtues ; whom mis-
fortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil,
whose perseverance nothing could shake ; who was hopeful in
defeat, and generous in success ; who loved justice, freedom,
truth and knowledge ; who, in his care to instruct his people,
probably did more to preserve the beautiful old Saxon language
than I can imagine ; without whom the English tongue in
which I tell this story might have wanted half its meaning.
As it is said that his spirit still inspires some of our best
English laws, so let you and I pray that it may animate our
English hearts, at least to this, — to resolve, when we see any
of our fellow-creatures left in ignorance, that we will do our
best, while life is in us, to have them taught ; and to tell those
rulers whose duty it is to teach them, and who neglect their
duty, that they have profited very little by all the years that
have rolled away since the year 901, and that they are far be-
hind the bright example of King Alfred the Great.




Athelstan, the son of Edward the Elder, succeeded that
king. He reigned only fifteen years ; but he remembered the
glory of his grandfather, the great Alfred, and governed Eng-
land well. He reduced the turbulent people of Wales, and
obliged them to pay him a tribute in money and in cattle, and
to send him their best hawks and hounds. He was victorious
over the Cornish men, who were not yet quite under the Saxon
government. He restored such of the old laws as were good
and had fallen into disuse ; made some wise new laws and took
care of the poor and weak. A strong alliance, made against
him by Adlaf, a Danish prince, Constantine King of the Scots,
and the people of North Wales, he broke- and defeated in one
great battle, long famous for the vast numbers slain in it.
After that he had a quiet reign ; the lords and ladies about
him had leisure to become polite and agreeable ; and foreign
princes were glad (as they have sometimes been since) to come
to England on visits to the English court.

When Athelstan died, at forty-seven years old, his brother
Edmund, who was only eighteen, became king. He was the
first of six boy-kings, as you will presently know.

They called him the Magnificent, because he showed a taste
for improvement and refinement. But he was beset by the
Danes, and had a short and troubled reign, which came to a
troubled end. One night, when he was feasting in his hall, and

Online LibraryCharles DickensA child's history of England → online text (page 2 of 38)