| In the Days of Alfred the Great|
|by Eva March Tappan|
|Story of the life of Alfred the Great, how at twenty-two he inherited a land overrun by savage pirates,—a restless, ignorant, defenseless land, and how he fought the Danes and restored the country to a condition of peace and safety. Ages 11-15 |
THE DANES AT CROYLAND
OW was the time to show the value of Ethelbert's
making of arms and training of men. The fighting men of
Wessex were far better prepared than ever before, and
many who had never been called on to bear arms were now
filled with a great desire to engage in battle for the
first time. Some of them had lost their homes by the
onslaughts of the Danes in previous years. The wives
of some had been carried away into Danish slavery, and
the children put to death with the cruelties of
savages. Never was there an army more zealous to fight
or more sure of victory.
The Northmen had come in such numbers that the narrow
boundaries of Northumbria were too confined for them.
Food was giving out, and the harvest was still several
months distant. The vikings were growing restless,
 coming, they must have food, battle, conquest. Down the
"wide vale of Trent" they swept, under the oaks of
Sherwood Forest, devastating the land like a swarm of
locusts; and yet so swiftly, so silently did they move
that almost before the Saxons had begun their
enthusiastic march, they were in the very heart of the
Mercian kingdom and safely entrenched behind the
strong gray walls of Nottingham.
The forces of Wessex and of Mercia pressed on eagerly
to the city; but there before them stood the stronghold
perched on its precipitous cliffs. They had hoped to
intercept the enemy before they reached so safe a
retreat, but they were too late. The walls rose before
them as frowningly as if they had been the work of the
Danes; and over the top peered the mocking faces of
their foes, jeering at them and calling on them to come
and take back their city if they wanted it.
To the weapons of the Saxons the walls were
impregnable; they could not enter the city. The Danes
had never met in direct fight so great and apparently
so well-trained a force of Saxons; they dared not come
out. So matters rested for many days.
 "If we only had Alstan to advise us!" said the king;
but Alstan had died the year before. His attendant had
found the warrior bishop dead, sitting upright in his
chair, and looking calmly straight before him. He had
met death like a Christian soldier, trustfully and
A commander of far more experience than Alstan might
well have hesitated to advise in this case. To leave
the enemy safely fortified behind the city walls was to
have accomplished nothing; but Danish reënforcements
might come at any moment, and worse than this, the
Saxon soldiers were becoming restless. They had been
eager to fight, but to settle down in inaction and
spend their time gazing at an enemy who were as secure
as if in Denmark, and whose uproarious feasting might
be heard night after night, this was quite another
matter. It is hardly a wonder that they grumbled among
"Ethelbald would have known what to do," said one
"The heathen killed my wife. This is what I want to
do," said another, and he swung his sword around
fiercely. "I want to kill a Dane
 for every hair on her head, not to sit here while they
jeer at me." And in another group they were saying:—
"It is time for the harvest, and there is hardly a man
in our district to reap the grain. The crop will not be
large this year at best, and if we are starving, the
convents cannot help us, for the monks and the priests
have come with us to fight, and there is no one to reap
The Northmen, on the other hand, dwelling in safety
behind the thick walls of Nottingham, were by no means
at ease. Reënforcements might come, to be sure, but
they knew nothing of the abilities of the Saxons with
an army so carefully prepared for war as this one
seemed to be. Their noisy feasting and hilarious
merriment were sometimes feigned for the purpose of
deceiving their adversaries, for they were many and
food was none too abundant in the beleaguered city.
No other way seems to have been open to either side
than the one that they took. A parley was called. The
Northmen agreed to return to Northumbria, and the
Saxons promised to
 make no interference as they marched back with the
booty which they had carried into Nottingham with
them. The tiny stream of Idle was to be the line
between the two peoples. It was hardly a glorious
ending for Alfred's first campaign, but who can blame
him or Ethelred, or suggest a wiser course of action?
One short year of respite had they from the fury of the
north, and the poor, harassed land might have recovered
herself and strengthened herself for a greater
struggle, had it not been for a worse failure of the
crops than any one had anticipated; and as if the
famine was not enough, there came a pestilence upon the
cattle, so that after a year of rest, the Saxon
kingdoms were even less prepared than before to
encounter the foe.
The year 870 was a hard year for the Saxons. Then,
first, they began to realize that the Danes had other
plans in mind than the gathering of booty, however
rich, and sudden onslaughts, however fierce. Early in
the autumn the enemy fell upon eastern Mercia. Its king
made no effort to protect it; it is possible that the
Welsh on its western boundaries were keeping his hands
 more than full. But Algar, a brave young ealderman,
assembled the men of the district, some three hundred
in all. Two hundred more joined him, a great
acquisition, for they were led by a monk named Tolius
who, before entering the monastery of Croyland, had
been a famous soldier. More men came from the
neighboring country, and they went out bravely to meet
the foe. At first they were more successful than they
had dared to hope, for three Danish kings were slain;
the pagans fled, and the Saxons pursued them to their
There was great rejoicing, for only the coming of night
had prevented them from overpowering the invaders.
Weary and happy, they returned to their own camp, but
they were met by the report of the spies that many
hundreds of the heathen, perhaps thousands, were
pouring into the camp of the enemy. It was hopeless.
The battle in the morning would not be a victory, but a
slaughter. Should they die for naught? When early
morning came, three-fourths of Algar's enthusiastic
army had fled in the darkness of the night.
The others waited. What should they do?
 Who could blame them if they too had fled, for death
only could lie before them? But no; in the earliest
gray of the morning, Algar and Tolius went about from
group to group of the weary men, many of them suffering
from the wounds of the previous day, and tried, as best
they might, to strengthen and encourage them.
"The cowards who were among us have stolen away in the
darkness like foxes," said Algar. "Shall we be like
them? Shall your children tell to their children's
children that their fathers were among those that dared
not meet the foe? What will the heathen say? They will
say, 'These runaways who slink out of sight at the very
thought of a Dane, there is nothing in them to fear,'
and fiercer than ever before, they will fall upon our
homes. We perish if we flee. We can but perish if we
stay. Shall we stay?"
Shouts of renewed courage arose. Then there was quiet,
for the soldier monk Tolius had raised his hand for
silence. He stood erect with uncovered head, looking
straight into the faces of his soldiers.
"Do you see the tonsure?" said he. "That is in memory
of the crown of thorns of Him who
 died for us. Will you refuse to die for Him? You fight
the destroyers of your homes, the murderers of your
wives; but more than that, you fight the bands of the
heathen for the Christian faith. The Lord of Hosts is
with us. Our God is a God that can work miracles. He
will not desert His people. Trust in God—and fight
like demons," said the monk of many battle-fields.
The light grew less dim. A weird chanting was heard in
the Danish camp. It was the song of glory of the dead
kings, recounting their many victories, their joy in
the fight, and the seats of honor that they would hold
in the halls of Odin. All the long, bright day they
would find happiness in battle, sang the harpers; and
when the night came, the Valkyrs would heal their
wounds, and they would feast with the gods. Then came a
wild lamentation, for the bodies of the kings had been
placed on the ground with their weapons and bracelets,
and the first earth was being sprinkled upon them.
Quickly a great mound was built up and the Danes rode
around it seven times, slowly and with downcast faces.
Then came again the weird chanting: Men
 should see this mound, and as long as there were any
heroes or children of heroes on the earth, they would
point out the burial-place of the great kings and do
Meanwhile the priests in the camp of the Saxons were
praying at the altars that they had built, and the men
who were that day to fight for their land and for their
God were receiving the sacrament, most of them for the
last time. "The peace of God be with you," said the
priest, as the men went forth to the battle that was to
help to bring that peace.
Algar showed himself a skilful commander. He arranged
his little company of heroes in the shape of a wedge,
Tolius at the right, the sheriff of Lincoln at the
left, while he and his men were in the centre. The men
on the outside held their shields so close together
that they made a wall impenetrable to the spears of
their foes. The men behind them held their spears
pointed out far beyond the men on the outside, who
could use only their swords and pikes to protect
themselves. This was a new scheme. The Danes rushed
upon the little phalanx with fearful war-cries, but the
Saxons stood firm. The horses were afraid of the
 bristling spear-points. The swords of the Danes and
their heavy battle-axes were as harmless as feathers,
for they could not come near enough to use them. They
beat the air in their rage, but the little invincible
phalanx, obedient to the word of the leader, turned now
right, now left, and wherever it went, there were
wounds and there was death.
The Danes were angry. The shadows were fast
lengthening, and still the handful of Saxons drove them
hither and thither as they would. The Danes made one
more attack, then turned to flee as if routed. This was
the supreme test of the Saxons, and they failed. They
could fight like heroes, but when they saw their foes
running from them, they ran after them like children.
The commands and entreaties of their leaders were alike
powerless. There was no more order or discipline. Every
man was for himself. Madly they pursued. The enemies
fled; but when the Saxons were crossing a little
hollow, then, in the flash of a sword, the Danes came
together—faced about—divided to the right—to the
left. The brave little company was surrounded, and but
three of the heroes of the morning survived.
 These three had hurriedly consulted almost between the
blows of their adversaries.
"Croyland," said they. "We can do nothing here. Let us
warn the convent;" and as the shadows grew darker, they
fled. They took three different directions that there
might be three chances instead of one to warn the
Croyland was no common monastery. Its rich, fertile
lands were separated from the country about them by
four rivers. Given by a king, Ethelbald of Mercia, it
had been a favorite of other kings, and many and rich
were the gifts that had been showered upon it. One king
had sent to it his purple coronation robe to be made
into priestly vestments, and the curtain that had hung
at the door of his chamber, a marvellous piece of gold
embroidery picturing the fall of Troy.
Ethelbald of Mercia in his persecuted youth had been
guarded and instructed by Saint Guthlac, and it was
over his grave that the grateful pupil had reared this
convent. A visit to his tomb would heal the sick, and
it was so favorite a resort for the suffering that,
according to the legend, more than one hundred were
 in one day. Pilgrims returning from Croyland were free
from tolls and tribute throughout the Mercian kingdom.
It was also a kind of city of refuge; and any accused
man who had made his way to the monks of Croyland was
safe from his pursuers as long as he remained within
the space bounded by the further shores of the four
rivers. Jewels and golden vessels and other gifts
costly and rare were brought to this convent by its
visitors until it had become one of the richest spots
in the land.
It was the hour of matins, and the monks were assembled
in the convent chapel, when the door was thrown open,
and there stood three young men, exhausted with hunger,
wounds, and their toilsome journey through the forest,
over the stony hills and across soft, wet meadow land.
Accustomed as the monks were to the coming of
fugitives, they saw that this was something different.
"The blessing of God be with us—and may God save us,"
murmured the abbot as he left the altar.
What they had feared had come upon them. The abbot
Theodore took command. The treasures of the convent
must be saved; they were
 God's property, not theirs. With a burning eagerness to
do what might be their last service, the monks set to
work. Gold and silver, and brazen vessels were dropped
into the well. The table of the great altar was covered
with plates of gold, and that, too, was sunk into the
water; but it was too long to be hidden, and so it was
returned to the chapel. Chalices of gold, hanging lamps
set with precious stones and hung with heavy chains of
gold, jewels, muniments, charters, were piled into the
boats, and then most reverently they bore to the
landing-place the embalmed body of Saint Guthlac and
with it his little well-worn psalter.
"Row to the south and hide yourselves and our treasures
in the wood of Ancarig," said the abbot as quietly as
if this was but an everyday proceeding.
"We will return swiftly," said the rowers, seizing the
"You will not return," said the abbot in a tone of
command. The young men sprang to their feet and leaped
"Then we stay to die with you," they said firmly. The
abbot stood unmoved.
 "I command you to go. The convent will be razed. You
who are young and strong must rebuild it. The church
needs you, the land needs you. Go." Not a man stirred.
"I and the old and helpless and the little children of
the choir will remain. Perchance the heathen will spare
those who offer no defense," said the abbot, with a
faint smile. The young men only turned their steps
toward the convent gate.
"Back!" thundered the abbot. "I am your superior. Where
are your vows of obedience? I command you to leave me.
Do you dare to disobey?" Slowly, one by one, the young
men entered the boats and grasped the oars. The abbot
raised his hand in blessing. He looked after them with
one long, tender look, as they rowed away silently and
with downcast faces. Then he hid his face in his robe
"My children, O my children!"
It was only a moment that he could give to his grief,
for much remained to be done. He and the old men and
the little boys of the choir put on their vestments.
The service of the day was completed; they had partaken
 the consecrated bread. Then they sang, old men with
faint, quavering voices, and little boys with their
fearless treble. High rose the chant as the courage of
God filled their hearts.
"I will not be afraid for ten thousands of the people
that have set themselves against me round about;" and
"I will lay me down in peace and take my rest; for it
is thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety."
The safety was not the safety of this world, for long
before the psalter was ended, the Danes had burst in at
the open doors. For a moment even they were awed by the
calmness of the old men and the unearthly sweetness of
the voices of the children; but it was only a moment.
"Where are the jewels of the altar?" cried one. "They
have hidden them from us. Kill them! Torture them!
Where are your treasures?" he shouted, striking down
with one blow the abbot as he knelt at the altar. It
seemed hardly the twinkling of an eye before every monk
had fallen, and the marble floors were slippery with
their blood. The little children were cut down as
ruthlessly as were the old men.
 Hubba, one of the sons of Lodbrog, had struck down the
prior. Beside the dead man knelt one of the children of
the convent weeping bitterly. Jarl Sidroc raised his
sword to kill the child, the only one in the convent
that still lived.
"Kill me, if you will," said the boy, looking
fearlessly up into his face. "You killed my prior." The
Dane swept his sword within a hand's breadth of the
boy's face, but the child did not flinch.
"The Saxon cub is brave enough to be a Dane," muttered
the jarl. "Get out of that thing, and I'll make a
viking of you," and he tore off the boy's convent dress
and threw over him his own tunic. "Stay by me, whatever
happens," he whispered. "And keep out of that man's
way," and he pointed to Hubba, who was fiercely
swinging his axe around his head in a mad fury of
"There are no more living. Take the dead!" shouted
Hubba, and with bars and ploughshares and mattocks they
broke open the tombs of the saints, piled up their
embalmed bodies and set fire to them.
Many days later, while the ruins of Croyland
 were still smoking, a half-famished child wearing a
Danish tunic painfully climbed the hill from the river.
The monks who had departed at the abbot's command had
made their way back. They were toiling to extinguish
the flames and searching for the maimed bodies of their
friends, that they might bury them reverently as
martyrs for their faith. They were too sadly busy to
notice his approach, until the child fell with a sob
into the arms of the one that was nearest, and fainted.
The monks gathered around in wonder.
"It is little Brother Turgar," said one, in amazement.
"It is his spirit come back to help us and guide us,"
"Could it be a wile of Satan?" whispered one fearfully.
"The heathen have many dealings with evil spirits." The
little boy opened his eyes.
"I am Brother Turgar," he said, and then he closed them
After he had eaten and rested, he told his story. The
slaughter of Croyland had been repeated at the convents
of Peterborough and
 Ely. Timidly the child had followed his captors, fearing them, but fearing
the woods with their wild beasts. As the Danes were
crossing the river that lay between them and the
convent at Huntingdon, driving the great herds of
cattle from the convents that they had already
devastated, two of the heavy wagons of spoils were
overturned in a deep place in the stream. Jarl Sidroc
was in command, and in the confusion his little captive
softly crept away and hid in the reeds that bordered
the river. Hardly daring to breathe, he lay there till
even his straining ears could not hear a sound of the
Danes on their march.
Then he sprang up and ran to the woods. A day and a
night the child of ten years was alone in the forest
with only the wild beasts about him. No wonder that the
monks looked upon him reverently as upon one to whom a
miracle had been shown. Through the wilderness, over
rough, stony ground, in the midst of briers and
nettles, over long stretches of meadow land so soft
that the water oozed out around his naked feet as he
went, on the child ran; on, on, would it never end? Had
he always been running? He hardly
 knew. It was like some terrible dream. At last he began
to come to places that he recognized. It was his own
river. It was not wide, he swam across. That was all.
A sad confirmation of his story came a day later, when
the hermits of Ancarig with whom the monks of Croyland
had taken refuge with their convent treasures, came to
implore their aid in burying the dead of Peterborough.
The wolves were upon them, they said; would their
brothers help to give them Christian burial?
Never satiated with blood and pillage, the Danes
pressed on into the land of East Anglia. Neither
forests nor morasses delayed them in their terrible
work. Soon they were in the very heart of the kingdom.
Edmund, the king, was greatly beloved by his people,
but he was not a warrior. Death and destruction had
been around him for months, but he had made no
preparations for defense; and when the Danes came upon
his land, it was his ealderman who called out the
people to battle. The brave resistance was of no avail.
The Danes pushed on to the very abode of the king,
where he sat in patient serenity, refusing to flee,
 to be a martyr, but with no thought of being a soldier.
Thinking, perhaps, that the king who would not fight
would readily become their tool, they seem to have
offered him a continuance of royal power if he would
yield to them. He refused, and the king who would not
fight could meet torture so calmly that Inguar in a
rage cut off his head at a blow. Godrun, the Dane, was
placed on the throne.
The Northmen were now masters of northern and eastern
Britain. Part of Mercia remained, which could stand by
the aid of Wessex. Wessex remained, but Wessex, if it
stood at all, must stand alone; and there was now no
barrier between the Danish strongholds and the land of
the West Saxons.
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