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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE VIKINGS

[54] CHARLES the Bald began to reign in 843 A.D. At first his eldest brother laid plots against him, as he had done against their father, to take his kingdom away.

But Charles the Bald made friends with his brother Louis, and together they fought at Fontanet in 841 A.D. against their cruel and ambitious eldest brother.

It was a terrible battle, lasting from dawn until midday, when Charles and Louis were victorious. But so many soldiers had been slain that all over France there were sad and empty homes.

"Accursed be this day," wrote one of the officers who fought at the battle of Fontanet:

"Be it unlit by the light of the sun,

Be it without either dawn or twilight . . .

Eye ne'er hath seen more fearful slaughter . . .

The linen vestments of the dead did whiten the field

Even as it is whitened by the birds of Autumn."

Two years after the battle of Fontanet the brothers agreed to fight no more, but to divide the great kingdom between them. Accordingly, at the Treaty of Verdun in 848 A.D., Charles received the kingdom of France, Louis Germany, while to Lothair was given Italy and the name of Emperor.

After this battle Charles the Bald was really King of France, but he had not much power except in the city of Paris; for the lords and barons were kings on their own lands, and were used to make their own laws and impose [55] taxes on their people. Indeed, there was no limit to their power.

The king gave lands and castles to the barons on what was called the feudal system.

The feudal system meant that the barons became vassals to the king. They were bound to do homage to him for their lands and to fight for him in time of war.

In the same way the barons gave portions of their land to the people who became their vassals, and in time of war had to follow their lord to the battlefield, even as the lords followed the king.

When they were not fighting, the barons were hunting or feasting. They never dreamed of working, that was fit only for the serfs or slaves, who were bought or sold with the land as though they were tools.

These slaves were badly clothed and badly fed. Often, when the harvest was poor, they were starved. Yet the barons still feasted in their halls, heedless of the hunger and misery of the people who were huddled together in the huts that stood at their very doors.

After Charles the Bald had conquered his eldest brother at the battle of Fontanet, his greatest troubles were caused by the Vikings or Northmen.

Even in the time of Charlemagne these wild sea-rovers had reached the coast of France, only however to set their sails, and disappear as suddenly as they had come, when they heard that the great emperor was near. For Charlemagne was the only name the Northmen feared.

Charlemagne himself had foreseen what would happen when he was no longer alive to guard his kingdom from these fierce Vikings.

As he sat at dinner one day in a seaport town, the emperor saw vessels at anchor in the harbour.

"These are trading vessels" cried his lords, "from Africa, from Britain, or elsewhere!"

[56] "Nay," answered Charlemagne, "these vessels be not laden with merchandise, but manned with cruel foes."


[Illustration]

"THESE VESSELS BE NOT LADEN WITH MERCHANDIZE, BUT MANNED WITH CRUEL FOES."

Then getting up from the table, he went to the window and watched the red sails of the Northmen's ships as they took to flight.

Tears fell from the emperor's eyes as he turned to his followers. "Know ye, my lieges, why I weep so bitterly," he asked. "Of a surety, I fear not lest these fellows should succeed in injuring me by their miserable piracies; but it grieveth me deeply that whilst I live they should have been nigh enough to touch at this shore. I am a prey to violent sorrow when I foresee what evils they will heap upon my descendants and their people."

In the reign of Louis the Good-natured, what Charlemagne had foreseen came to pass.

The terrible Northmen from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden descended upon the coast of France, and laid waste all the towns and villages to which they came. In the time of Charles the Bald the red sails of the Viking ships were known and feared not only in France, but all over Europe.

More than once, in this reign, the Vikings reached Paris, and the citizens, fearing lest their homes and churches should be plundered and destroyed, offered the Northmen large sums of money if they would but sail away and leave their homes and sanctuaries unharmed.

This, as you can easily believe, made the Vikings return again and again, in the hope of being paid a heavy ransom to depart.

These fierce sea-rovers had no respect for church or priest.

Hasting was the name of one of the chief leaders of the Northmen. Wonderful tales were told of this man, of his cruelty and his craft, so that when he actually landed on the coast of France the people were full of fear.

[57] This is one of the stories that the French folk had heard of Hasting.

It was not often that this chief found a town too strongly guarded to be taken by his rough followers. But once upon a time, finding he could not take a certain city by assault, he determined to enter it by craft, or, as you would say, by a trick.

He sent to the bishop of the town, saying that he was very ill and wished to be baptized in the name of the Holy Christ.

The bishop, pleased with such a wish from a Viking chief, hastened to baptize Hasting as he desired.

Soon after this his comrades spread the tidings that their chief was dead. They then went to the bishop, and begged that he might be buried as a Christian, and have a solemn service held over his coffin.

To this also the bishop willingly agreed, and the coffin of the great Viking was carried into church, followed closely by a band of Northmen.

Picture the good bishop's dismay when, in the middle of the service, Hasting, strong and fierce as ever, suddenly leaped from his coffin, sword in hand. His followers at once drew their swords from beneath their cloaks and closed the church doors.

Then the kind bishop and all the priests who were present at the service were slain. The band of robbers seized the rich treasures of the sanctuary, and escaped to their ships and sailed away before the horrified citizens, who had also come to the burial service of the Viking chief, had found time or courage to stop them.

After hearing such a tale, it was little wonder that the French dreaded this Viking chief.

When Hasting arrived at Paris, Charles the Bald sent the Abbot of St. Denis, "the which was an exceeding wise man," to talk with the Viking. This worthy abbot, after promising Hasting large sums of money, actually succeeded [58] in persuading him to give up his roving life and to become a Christian.

Charles the Bald thereupon made him a count, and gave him gifts of land and castles, and for many years the Viking chief kept faith with the kings of France.

Soon after this Charles the Bald was in Italy, and as he was crossing the Alps on his way home he was taken ill. His servants could find no shelter on the mountains for the king, save in a comfortless hut, and there Charles the Bald died, at the age of fifty-four.

His son Louis the Stammerer, who succeeded him, was a delicate prince who reigned only about a year. He was followed by his brother Carloman, of whom there is nothing to tell, save that after reigning for two years he was gored to death by a boar as he was hunting in the royal forests.


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