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A History of England Principally in the Seventeent

The inborn heathenism of the rest


Only

a part of the German peoples had been influenced by the idea of the Empire or the Church; the inborn heathenism of the rest, irritated by the losses it had sustained and the dangers that continually threatened it, roused itself for the most formidable onslaught that the civilised world has ever had to withstand from the heroic and barbarous children of Nature.

The mischief they wrought in Britain, from the middle of the ninth century onwards, is indescribable.

The Scoto-Irish schools, then in their most flourishing state (they trained John Scotus Erigena, of all the scholars of that time the man who had the widest intellectual range), fell before the Danish, not the Anglo-Saxon assaults; an element of intellectual activity which might have been of the greatest importance was thus lost to the Western world. But the Northmen persecuted the Romano-English forms as bitterly as they did the Irish. In the places where those Anglo-Saxon scholars had been trained, who then enlightened the West, the Northmen planted the banner which announced utter destruction; with twofold rapacity they threw themselves on the more remote abbeys which seemed to derive protection from their inaccessibility, and to guarantee it by their dignity; in searching for the treasures which they believed had been placed in them for security, they destroyed the monuments and means of instruction which were really there; in Medeshamstede, where

there was a rich library, the flames raged for fourteen days. The half-formed union of the various districts into one kingdom seems to have crippled rather than strengthened the power of local resistance: the Danes became masters of Kent and of East-Anglia, of Northumberland, and even of Mercia; at last Wessex too, after already suffering many losses, was invaded; from both sides at the same moment, from the inland and from the coast, the deluge of robber-hordes poured over its whole extent.

Things had come to such a point that the Anglo-Saxon community seemed inevitably devoted to the same ruin which had overtaken first the Britons and then the Romans, they seemed doomed to make way for another reconstruction. Britain would have become an outpost of the restored heathenism, which could then have been with difficulty repulsed from the Eastern and Western Frankish empires, afflicted as they were by similar attacks, and governed by the discordant and weak princes who then ruled them. At this moment of peril King Alfred appeared. It was not merely for his own interests, nor merely for those of England, but for those of the world, that he fought. He is rightly called 'the Great;' a title fairly due only to those who have maintained great universal interests, and not merely those of their own country.

The distress of the moment, and the deliverance from it, have been kept in imperishable remembrance by popular sagas and church legends. It is well worth the trouble to trace out in the authenticated traditions, brief as they are, the causes that decided the event. We may state them as follows:--Since the attacks of the Vikings were especially ruinous, from their occupation of the strong places whence they could command and plunder the open country, one step in the work of liberation was taken when Alfred, for the first time, wrested from them a stronghold which they had seized, deep in the west. Then he, too, occupied strong positions, and knew how to defend them. With the bravest and most devoted of his nobles, and of the population that had not yet submitted, he established a hill-fortress on a height rising like an island out of the standing waters and marshlands in the still only slightly cultivated land of Somersetshire; this not only served him as an asylum, but also as a central point from which he too ranged through the land far and wide, like the enemy, except that his object was to guard it, and make it ring once more with the already forgotten name of the King. Around his banners gathered, with reviving courage, the population of the neighbouring districts also: the Saxons could again appear in the open field; from their advancing shield-wall the disorderly onsets of the Vikings recoiled, the victory was theirs. Hereupon, moreover, as if the decision between the two religions depended on the result of the war, the leader of the heathens came over to Christianity, and took an Anglo-Saxon name. The Danes attached themselves to the principles and the powers which they had come forth to destroy.


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