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England-Alfred's Early Days

king was certain to receive the loyal support of the others.

973

When Æthelbald

died in 860, Æthelbert was called from Kent, and his rule extended over both that province and Wessex. Six years later, Æthelred, his brother, succeeded. Alfred was at that time seventeen years old, and was emphatically the right-hand man of the king, serving as his chief of staff in war, as chief minister in peace, and signing all royal warrants next to the king,—and all this without a taint of envy or lukewarmness. Fortunate indeed it was that such was the case, for a momentous crisis in the history of England was at hand. During the first three years of Æthelred's reign, the Danes swarmed over Northumbria and East Anglia, and were preparing to overrun Mercia and Wessex.

The first encounter of Alfred with the Danes took place in 868, before he was yet king, and when he was in his twentieth year. About the same time he was married to the daughter of Ethelred Mucil, Earl of the Gainas, the people whose name still appears in that of the town of Gainsborough.

At Alfred's wedding he was seized with a distressing affliction which was beyond the skill of the best physicians of the time. Most probably the ailment was epilepsy, so that through the most trying years of his trying life, when engaged upon his grand work, he was liable at any moment to be taken with an epileptic fit. The affliction cannot fail to stir our sympathy and deepen

our admiration of the wonderful man.

In this same year of 868, the Danes withdrew from Northumberland and invaded Mercia, whose people in their panic appealed to Wessex for help. Æthelred and Alfred lost no time in responding, but the campaign brought nothing conclusive. The Danes clung to the fortified town of Nottingham, but accepted a bribe to let Mercia alone for the time, while they pushed into East Anglia, which was conquered in 870. A year later, the Danes, uniting with some Norwegian Vikings or "Sea Kings," sailed up the Thames and besieged Reading. The royal brothers led the brave men of Wessex to the defence of the place, but, though successful at first, were decisively overcome in a great battle. Before long, however, the Danes were disastrously defeated to the westward. They rallied and advanced against Winchester, the capital of Wessex. They were successful at Basing, but met such determined resistance that they advanced no farther into Hampshire. In the next battle Æthelred was mortally wounded, and, the West Saxon forces withdrawing, the Danes remained masters of the field.

A few weeks after the accession of Alfred, he encountered the Danes again. He surprised them at first, but in the end was repulsed. The enemy, however, had never faced such sturdy resistance, nor suffered such severe losses. Indeed, they were as tired of the fighting as were the English, and it did not take long to agree upon terms of peace. Alfred had to pay a heavy price, for

he was obliged to debase the coinage, and to lay so grievous a tax upon landowners that many of them surrendered their lands to the King in preference to paying the tax. The Danes withdrew from Reading and turned their attention to London, which at that time was looked upon as belonging to Mercia rather than to Wessex. The three years' respite that followed was enjoyed by Wessex only, and London remained in the hands of the Danes until finally reconquered by Alfred.

The Danes divided Mercia among them in 877. The culmination of Danish influence in Midland England was in the five Danish boroughs, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln, and Stanford, which appear to have formed some sort of a confederation. In the Norse settlement of Northumbria, Halfdene, a Norwegian king, son of Lodroc, drove out the Picts and Strathclyde Britons, who were becoming aggressive on the Northumbrian borders. Perhaps it was fear of these people that prevented his settling in Bernicia, the country now known as the Eastern Lowlands of Scotland, but in southern Northumbria Halfdene divided the lands among his followers, and all the province of Deira became Scandinavian.

Alfred saw that his little kingdom could be saved only by sea, and that the relentless invaders of his country must be defeated upon the water or not at all. He must be able to watch their coming, so as to give warning, and must intercept their supplies and cut off their retreat. So it came about that, during the three years' breathing spell, he called into existence the first English navy.

Where he obtained the vessels is not known, for the evidence points to the last of his reign as the beginning of shipbuilding in England. He may have hired the ships from the Northmen or from the Frisians, whom he employed later. Be that as it may, he was able to stop a Danish fleet heading for the Thames, and to send it scurrying away. Stealing along the coast, the enemy found a landing-place at Wareham in Dorsetshire. The alert Alfred immediately set to work to blockade them, and the frightened Danes were glad to make a treaty by which they promised "speedily to depart his kingdom." But they found pretexts for breaking their pledge, and, seizing Exeter, held it throughout the winter of 876-877. In the following spring, a Danish fleet of more than a hundred vessels sailed round the coast with the intention of reinforcing their countrymen blockaded in Exeter. But at Swanade a severe tempest dashed all the ships upon the rocks. This wrested the control of the Channel from the invaders, and the garrison at Exeter were helpless before Alfred. The Danes saw they were defeated, and surrendered on the promise of being permitted to leave Wessex. They passed into Mercia and divided some of the choicest lands in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire among themselves.

According to the rules of warfare of those days, this was the end for a time

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