| 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 |
ON THE ISLAND OF THANET
N the northeast coast of Thanet, at the very edge of
the chalk-cliffs, two men were pacing up and down.
They bore light arms, but evidently their dress was
arranged for speed rather than for fighting, for their
tunics were short, their cloaks were warm but light,
and they wore no coats of mail. Apparently they were on
guard, for they kept close watch of the sea from the
long lines of breakers that rolled up at the base of
the cliff to the far northern horizon.
"What do you think of that cloud far to the northeast?"
asked the older.
"As you yourself say, that it is a cloud," responded
the other lightly, "or it may be a great school of fish
that ripple the surface and darken it. It is the time
of year for sudden flaws and changes of the wind, and
by the chill in the air it may be one of the northern
 snowstorms that has lost its way and is coming down
"It is too far away for either fish or a gust of wind
to darken the water," replied the other. "Perhaps I am
too fearful of danger, but it is a lesson that I have
learned through hard experience."
"I know," said the younger man, with quick sympathy,
"that you have suffered sorely from them. What a land
we might have if we were free from fear of the heathen!
It was at a time of feasting, was it not, that they
came down upon you?"
"Yes," said the older. "It was in the autumn, Our corn
had been harvested, our fruits and vegetables stored
for the winter. Even the children were happy in the
nuts that they had gathered, and the berries that they
had dried for the colder months. We had asked our
kinsfolk to come to us for a feast. We sat at the
table, we ate and we drank and we were happy. The
brother of my father was a thegn of King Ethelwulf, a
brave man whom the king delighted to honor, and out of
respect to him the king had sent his own harper to the
 He was singing to us the old song of Beowulf and the
fire-breathing dragon that our forefathers used to sing
centuries ago in the days when they lived across the
water, when there were dragons and caves of treasures
and dens of monsters under the sea. In those times a
man might go forth and fight his foes, and know that
his wife and children were safe at home; but now it is
the wife and children who are tortured and slain, while
the man lies helpless."
"Every one sympathizes with the sufferings of Eardwulf,
and there is not a man in the land of the Saxons who
does not honor you for your bravery," said the younger
"I killed six. Would that it had been sixty," said
Eardwulf "but then my sword failed me. I do not know
why. Perhaps the old gods were angry that we had left
them, and perhaps the Christian God was angry because
we did not come sooner,—you know my people were among
the last to follow the new religion,—and perhaps the
new God was not pleased that I still kept the rune on
my sword. I do not know, but the sword broke, and I was
carried to the Danish camp, a captive. I struck down
one of my
 captors, and the others said that it was a brave deed,
and that my life should be spared, and that I should
feast with them. While they drank, I sang to them. I
was wild in my agony; my only thought was revenge. I
sang, I jested, I made their orgies last as long as I
could, that they might be the more wearied and sleep
the more heavily."
"And then you cut your way out?" said the other.
"Yes, but that was not so hard as the waiting. At last
one after another had fallen asleep. Even the sentinels
were stupefied. I grasped the nearest sword. Heathen or
not, this sword did not fail me. I have avenged my
"That was many years ago?" asked his friend.
"Yes, twelve or thirteen. My little son would have
been a man, and would have stood by my side, should
they come again. Here, where you see these two high
mounds, they fought, the heathen and the Saxons. I have
seen red blood trickle over the edge of that cliff,"
and as he gazed absently at the mound, his eyes grew
dim, and he was forgetful of all but the past.
Almost as absently his companion looked out
 over the water. He started. "Eardwulf," he said, "my
eyes are younger than yours, but yours can see a Dane
farther than those of any other man. Is that a cloud or
a Danish fleet?"
In a moment Eardwulf was an eager warrior.
"It is the Danes," he cried. "They may be coming here.
Kindle the wood that is on top of the mound. Throw on
damp moss and make a smoke. Our people will see it and
prepare as best they can to defend themselves. We will
make our way to the boats and be with them as soon as
may be to help them. Oh, I could meet the whole army
The fleet came nearer and nearer. The people of Kent
were aroused to their danger. They did what they could
to fortify their homes, and many sought refuge in the
cathedral at Canterbury, only partially rebuilt since
its previous sack by the Danes. Men were on every hill
that commanded a view of the sea, watching anxiously
the approach of the foe. Women caught up their children
and clasped them in what they feared might be almost a
Nearer and nearer came the fleet. It sailed past the
white cliffs of Thanet, south, west.
 The Saxons nearest the shore could see the dreaded flag
of the pirates. They could hear the wild shouts and
songs of their foes. From the column of smoke the Danes
had guessed that their arrival was known, and they had
no care to keep silence. Around the southern coast of
Thanet they sailed. The Saxons trembled, as they seemed
to hesitate for a moment. Then the boats were turned
toward the island. The Danes sprang ashore. From the
careful way in which they moored their vessels, the
Saxons reasoned that there would be no immediate
attack, and they were grateful for even a small
Word had been sent to King Ethelbert, and he and his
counselors were discussing what was best to do.
Eardwulf, the noble thegn who had begged to be
permitted to act as coast guard that he might be the
first to see the enemy, had been sent to the king to
beg for his aid and protection. Alstan, the warrior
bishop, was there, though so feeble that he had to be
helped into the room. He was an old man, but his dark
eyes were as fiery as ever, and his voice was clear and
strong. He was seated in a great
 arm-chair with a high carved back. Much against his
will, a footstool had been brought, and cushions had
been piled around him. Ethelbert sat in the middle of
the royal seat, and on either side of him were the
princes, Ethelred and Alfred. The high back of the
throne was draped with a rich purple silk, whose edges
were embroidered with a heavy tracery of gold,
flashing here and there with amethysts. The walls of
the room were draped with dark red cloth, a necessary
precaution in those days when even kings' palaces were
full of draughts. In an irregular half-circle around
the sons of Ethelwulf were the trusted counselors of
the king, though Eardwulf's impatience would not allow
him to sit quietly, and every few minutes he would
leave his seat and pace restlessly back and forth in
front of the dais.
"You have heard the story of Eardwulf," said the king.
"Do you advise that we do as he urges, march
straightway to the eastern coast and attack the Danes
on the island?"
"I have seen the water that lies between Thanet and the
mainland red with blood, and it was not all the blood
of the heathen," said one.
 "The Danes are few; they do not expect a night attack.
We could surprise them, and when morning came, their
dead bodies would have been thrown over the cliffs,"
Ethelred nodded acquiescence. Ethelwulf looked serious
and thoughtful. Alfred was intently listening, bending
forward to catch every word of the speaker. Ethelred
was crown prince, and it was not customary to permit a
second heir to the throne to have any share in the
deliberations of the king's council; but Alfred, though
he was not yet sixteen, had inspired far more respect
than his years would seem to warrant. He could read and
write, he had made a pilgrimage to Rome and had been
blessed by the Pope and anointed with the holy oil.
Ethelbert held the kingdom in trust for his younger
brothers, and Ethelred had manifested so little
interest in the affairs of state that some had begun to
feel that it would be wise to pass him by in the
succession to the throne, and to hope that he would of
his own accord retire to a convent before any question
of his accession should arise. Alfred had already shown
his bravery and his good judgment, and the chief
anxiety felt on his account was lest his health should
 fail, for it was known that he was afflicted with some
painful disease that no one understood. No wonder that
more than one of the gray-haired counselors watched
with intense interest to see what the boy would say.
"His blue eyes are as keen as Alstan's black ones,"
"Yes," said another; "but do you see how his lips
tremble when the pain comes to him?"
"If they would only bleed him and give him saffron,"
whispered the first. "That is good for the lungs and
the liver and the eyes and the stomach and—" but the
king was speaking.
"Ethelred," he said, "do you advise waiting to see what
the Danes will do?"
"Yes," said Ethelred. "If they do no harm to us, why
should we attack them?" Eardwulf stopped short in his
walk and looked upon the heir to the throne with but
half-concealed scorn. Then he turned eagerly to the
"Ought the men of Wessex to leave their own land?" said
Alfred. "Is there not danger of raids by the heathen on
our own coast?" Eardwulf's face fell, and he
involuntarily grasped his
 sword; but the prince went on as simply as if he was
"Would it not be well before they offer any harm to try
to make peace with them, to gain time to train our men,
and to bring together so many of them that part could
defend Wessex and part be ready to help the men of
The keen, piercing eyes of Alstan were fixed upon the
face of the youth, and now in response to a look from
the king, he spoke, rising slowly and painfully to his
feet and leaning on the back of the great chair.
"King Ethelbert," he said, "to my mind the voice of the
youngest at the council advises well. We are not strong
enough, alas, to make a successful attack upon the
Danes and to defend our own land of Wessex at the same
time, should need arise. Let us, then, make a treaty
with our foes, that they may some day be glad to beg
for a treaty with us; and let us teach and train our
men so that workingmen who have never borne a sword may
know how to wield one, and drive the heathen from our
land forever. Let us make all men see that he who
oppresses one man oppresses all; then, and then alone,
 hope to become free. What is your will, O king?"
"When the voice of the oldest and of the youngest are
as one, the king must agree," said Ethelbert. "I think
that you are right. We will try to make the treaty, and
we will train the men. Eardwulf, my noble thegn," he
added, "do not be so downcast. The day of reckoning is
not past. It will surely come. We but delay it a little
that it may be the more crushing."
Eardwulf was but half satisfied, but he returned to
Kent to report the king's will. A treaty was made with
the Danes, by which they promised to do no harm to the
Saxons. The Saxons gave them a great weight of silver,
and promised them an equal amount of gold if the men of
Kent were unmolested during the winter.
All knew that little confidence could be placed in the
word of the Danes, and a close watch was kept of their
movements. At first they seemed undecided what to do.
Almost every day they would go out with their boats. If
they sailed to the south, the men of Kent would
tremble; if to the north, there was joy, for
 there was always hope that they would not return.
Sometimes they would sail past Essex or even as far as
the coast of East Anglia; and everywhere men would send
their women and children into hiding, and grasp their
spears and swords and battle-axes, and stand ready to
meet the dreaded heathen. Once they sailed into the
mouth of the Thames, and fleet horsemen galloped to
give warning to London; but the invaders landed on the
island of Sheppey, and remained there for several days,
as harmless as any company of picnickers; but wherever
they went there was fear. Some thought that this
landing on Sheppey might signify that they would spend
the winter on one island or the other, and recalled the
fact that some ten years previously a band of Danes had
wintered on Sheppey and had done little damage to their
At last they seemed to have settled down for the
winter. They put up a rude shelter for their boats, and
even built some rough, half-open huts of branches of
trees with a clumsy thatching of twigs and rushes and
The few boats that were left unprotected and
 ready for use were rather of the heavier, more
substantial kind than the light skiffs with which they
could so easily glide up even the most shallow streams
or land on low-lying shores.
These were better adapted to deep-sea fishing, and when
the Saxons found that they seemed to be taken out only
at such times as it would be necessary to provide food,
the long-suffering people began to breathe more freely,
even though the blazing camp-fires that shone out at
night on the high land of Thanet were a continual
threat and menace.
Meanwhile King Ethelbert was not idle. Each ealderman
could call out all the free men of his district to form
a fighting force. They could fight, but they had little
training for battle. Indeed, a regular battle was a
thing almost unheard of. Thus far the attacks of the
Danes had almost always been sudden and upon small
bodies. They would glide up the rivers in their boats,
or they would land at some distant point and make their
way through the wilderness as silently as the snake,
and in the early gray of the morning pounce down upon
the sleeping men; or they would come
 just before the sunset, when men were scattered in the
fields and wearied with the labors of the day, and the
women were alone in their homes preparing the evening
meal. They were always expected, and their coming was
always unexpected. To oppose this kind of attack,
regular drill would count for little. The first thing
to be done was to provide plenty of weapons and
practise as many men in their use as possible.
Naturally enough, men were unwilling to leave their own
homes where they might be needed at any moment in order
to defend other parts of the country; and this feeling
was the stronger from the fact that travel, even from
one shire to another, was not common. Where a man was
born, that was his place. There was his land, his home.
If he was well, the lord of his district must give him
work and protect him; if he was sick, his lord must
care for him. If he left his home, there was nothing
for him to do, and nowhere for him to go. Every one of
the great farms had men enough to cultivate it. There
were no manufactures; little work of any kind could be
found. The man who
 abandoned his home had neither work, food, nor
protection. He must starve or become a vagabond and
robber. Kent and Wessex were nominally one kingdom, but
with such difficulties as these in the way of sending
men from the west to help men of the east, the
experience of Alstan and the wise instinct of Alfred
had both pointed to the only course open to them, to
try to make a treaty to gain time in the hope that
things would change for the better.
The smiths were busy. Night and day the forges were
ablaze, and swords, axes, spearheads, arrowheads, and
coats of mail were made in great numbers. Following the
example of the king, men practised athletic exercises,
and skilled themselves in the use of arms as they had
never done before. What this might have accomplished we
do not know, for before the spring came, the blow fell.
A winter of so complete inactivity was a thing almost
unknown to the Danes. Cramped up on the little island
of Thanet, they grew wild and restless.
"This is no life for a sea king," said one of
 them, "to gather rushes for the roof and wood for the
camp-fire. Bah! One might as well be a Saxon."
"My brother stays at home to care for the inheritance,"
said another. "My country is the sea. The land is for
our plunder, not to live on."
"And just across the water is the fair country of Kent.
We can see the high towers of the churches, and—"
"And that is where the priests and monks live, and
where they make charms against us," broke in another.
"Who knows whether we shall be able to go from the
island or not? They have magic, these priests, in their
books, and they may bewitch our vessels so that they
will float before their eyes, helpless forever, and we
ourselves be fixed as firmly to the island as that
"The blood of my father trickled over that cliff," said
another, "and I catch fish and sleep under a roof while
he is unavenged!"
"If we wait till spring, they will give us gold," said
"And where will their gold come from?"
 demanded another indignantly. "From their churches and
their convents. There they are before us. The land lies
open. The gold is there. Shall the sons of Odin and
Thor wait for what their swords will give them until it
is the pleasure of these puny islanders to say, 'You
may have it'? We do not give gifts to our little
children in that way. We say, 'Take it, and if another
child is the stronger, let him take it from you if he
can.' The sword of the Danes is the will of the gods."
The camp-fires were built up brighter than ever, that
the Saxons might not suspect their plans, and in a
fiendish glee the Danes went to the moorings, but as
softly as if their steps could be heard on the opposite
shore where the Saxons lay sleeping. Without a sound
the boats were made free, and soon the invaders were on
the other side and gliding softly up the river Stour.
For some reason they did not go as far as Canterbury.
Perhaps they were too jubilant in their new liberty to
unite in anything like an organized attack upon a
larger place, but they ran through eastern Kent like a
whirlwind of fire, bursting down upon the smaller
 all the horrors of a midnight onslaught, tearing down
the wooden churches, seizing the treasures, and setting
fire to the ruins. It was like a mad frolic of fiends.
They sought gold and silver, but for the joys of
bloodshed and torture they would gleefully turn aside
from the richest treasure. Blood rather than gold was
their delight; they were ravenous beasts, not men, and
they reveled in the agonies of their victims.
Before the morning came, they had departed. Those that
had survived the terrors of the night were too full of
suffering and too sick at heart to question whither.
When the news of the massacre and the ravaging of the
country of Kent was brought to the king, he turned
pale, but said not one word; and his efforts were
redoubled to make his men better and better prepared
"The day of revenge will come, King Ethelbert," said
one of his thegns.
"It is not revenge," answered the king, sternly, "it is
not revenge. The day for revenge is past. It is for
freedom, not revenge, that we must fight. The
murderers must be driven
 from our shores. On the sea they are greater than we;
but they must be made to fear to step on Saxon soil."
"But they have gone," said Ethelred. "Why do you work
so hard to make ready to fight against them? Perhaps
they will never come back."
The king turned away wearily, and answered nothing.
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