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A Saxon Chronicle
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A Saxon Chronicle






The founders of the English nation were a maritime people. Before they
settled in the British Isles they had to dare the dangers of the deep,
and though for nearly four hundred years after their first arrival they
were too much occupied with internal strife to think of external
enterprise, no sooner had they apparently completed the subjugation of
the Britons and effected a settlement of their own differences by
uniting the country under one crown, than they were called upon to give
vigorous attention to maritime affairs.

Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who, by the conquest of Mercia and
Northumbria, became the first overlord of all England, A.D. 828, was
soon compelled to deal seriously with the Danes. According to old
chroniclers, threatened with invasion in the south, he engaged these
formidable foes at Charmouth in Dorsetshire, but sustained defeat. Two
years later, however, when they returned and landed on the coast of
Wales, uniting with the disaffected Britons in a powerful armament,
Egbert proved equal to the occasion, met them in a general engagement at
the Battle of Hengestesdun, routed their entire forces, and compelled
the Britons to seek safety in their mountains and the Danes to return to
their ships. Desultory warfare supervened for some time with
ever-varying success until, according to the Saxon Chronicle, the Danes
were defeated off Sandwich in a desperate battle in which nine of their
ships were taken by the English, and the rest compelled to seek safety
in flight. After this they again returned, this time with a fleet of
three hundred and fifty sail, devastated the south country and took
Canterbury and London by storm.

Hitherto the English had made the fatal mistake of allowing their
enemies to land before attempting to grapple with them, and even the
disasters which followed naturally upon such a policy did not arouse
them to a sense of the necessity of maintaining an efficient fleet. On
the contrary, dispirited by their failures, the English seem to have
abandoned all thoughts of naval armament, and to have contented
themselves with fortifying their cities and defending them against
enemies whom they passively allowed to land. This unhappy condition of
things continued through the reigns of Ethelbald, Ethelbert and
Ethelred; during which time the Danes conquered Northumbria and East
Anglia, and invaded Wessex. In A.D. 867 they took York, and in the
following year Nottingham. In 870 they defeated and put to death Edmund,
king of East Anglia, whose burial-place was named St. Edmundsbury--Bury
St. Edmunds--and during the same year fought no less than nine battles
in Wessex. Abbeys, churches and monasteries were burnt, and the whole
country was given up to fire and the sword.

In the year 871 Alfred came to the throne and found himself a monarch
without a people, a king without a country. The long-continued struggle
with the Danes, who, like locusts, "came without number and devoured the
fruits of the land," had reduced the people to a state of despairing
servitude. The wealth, strength, and spirits of the English, who had
sometimes been compelled to fight as many as ten or twelve battles in
the course of a year, had become exhausted, and instead of attempting to
defend themselves further, they began everywhere to submit to the Danes;
preferring a settled slavery to a precarious freedom. Although the
country had been brought to this low condition, the young king did not
despair of its restoration, but with equal vigour and prudence applied
himself to the prosecution of the war and the conduct of public affairs.
Encouraged by his example and inspired by his spirit, the English at
length took heart again, and ultimately--led by his skill and
wisdom--defeated the Danes at Exeter in 877, and at Edington in the
following year, securing the peace of Wedmore, which, while it gave them
little more than the kingdom of Wessex as a possession, ensured them
what they needed much more than land, a period of rest and repose,
which, but for one short interval, lasted for fifteen years. This period
Alfred employed in pursuing the arts of peace and preparing himself for
the eventualities of war. In the year A.D. 883 he sent envoys to Rome
and India; and in 886 he took and re-fortified the city of London. From
893 to 897 he was once more engaged with his old enemies the Danes. This
protracted campaign was by no means a light undertaking. Hasting, the
Danish leader, pitched his camp on the hills gently sloping above
Benfleet, in Essex, and sent two hundred and fifty Danish ships cruising
along the south-west coast of Kent; while he proceeded himself with
eighty ships along the Thames estuary. Having formed a camp at Milton,
near Sittingbourne, he ventured up the River Lea where he found himself
unexpectedly entrapped; for Alfred hit upon the expedient of draining
the river, and by this means left the Danish ships high and dry.
Retreating to Benfleet, Hasting discovered that in his absence his camp
had been attacked and captured by one of Alfred's aldermen. Alfred drove
Hasting out of Wessex in 894, and out of Essex in 896, after which the
Danish leader appears to have had enough of English hospitality; for he
returned to Denmark in the following year.

From 897 to the end of his reign, Alfred devoted much time to the
construction of ships and the equipment of a fleet; a purpose which he
effected with so much success that he earned for himself the title of
"The Father of the British Navy." Alfred seems to have been the first of
the English kings to realise that the true principle of insular defence
is to meet one's enemies upon the sea, and destroy them before they have
time to effect a landing. Once realised, however, he made every effort
to carry out this sagacious and far-sighted policy, a policy in which,
for a thousand years, he has been followed by the wisest and best of his
successors. To do this, the creation and maintenance of a national fleet
became an imperative necessity. According to Dr. Campbell, Alfred
reflected that, as the fleets of his enemies were frequently built in a
hurry, hastily drawn together, meanly provided with victuals and rigging
and overcrowded with men, a few ships of a larger size, built in a new
manner of well-seasoned materials, thoroughly supplied with food and
arms, and manned by expert seamen must, at first sight, surprise, and,
in the course of an engagement destroy many with but little danger to
themselves; and with this view he constructed a number of ships in most
points twice the size of the largest ships then in use, and furnished
with accommodation for double the number of rowers. These vessels were
longer, higher, and yet swifter than the vessels in common use among the
Danes; so that Alfred was able always to engage his enemies at
advantage, and, when necessary, to escape them by flight. As, moreover,
these vessels were built upon a new model, they were wholly strange to
the enemy, who were a long time learning the way to board them; hence
their courage and seamanship did not avail them much.

Alfred was not long in finding employment for his infant navy. Soon
after the earlier of these ships were built, six large pirate ships of
unusual size appeared off the Isle of Wight and the coast of Devonshire.
The king immediately despatched nine of his new vessels in quest of
them, with orders to get, if possible, between them and the shore, and
to give and take no quarter. On sighting the king's ships three of the
pirates ran aground, while the others stood out to sea and boldly
offered battle. Of these, two were taken and the whole of their crews
destroyed, while the third escaped with five men only. Turning their
attention to the ships that had grounded, the king's men destroyed the
greater part of their crews, and when the tide floated them, brought the
ships to the coast of the South Saxons, where the remainder of their
crews endeavoured to escape. They were, however, captured and carried to
Winchester, where they were hanged by order of the king. This may be
regarded as one of the first engagements of the British navy--that is,
of ships built on purpose for defensive warfare; though of course there
were many famous sea fights of earlier dates. "If," says Dr. Campbell,
"it should be asked how this superiority at sea was lost, we must
observe that it was very late in the king's life before his experience
furnished him with light sufficient for this noble design, which very
probably his successors wanted skill to prosecute; though, as history
shows, they were moved by his example to make great efforts for
preserving their territories on shore by maintaining the sovereignty of
the sea."

Alfred the Great died in the year 901, and was succeeded by Edward the
Elder. Opposed by his cousin Ethelwald, who laid claim to the crown and
who invited the Danes over to help him in securing it, Edward was unable
to prevent the Northmen from landing; but marching into Kent he engaged
the united forces of his enemies in a desperate battle in which his
cousin Ethelwald and Eric, the King of the Danes, were slain. Still
troubled by successive hordes of Northmen, who--like the heads of the
fabled giants--seemed to multiply as they were destroyed, Edward had
recourse to his fleet, and gathering a hundred ships upon the coast of
Kent, totally defeated the invaders; forcing most of their ships upon
the shore, and destroying their commanders on the spot. Athelstan, who
succeeded his brother in 925, was also a wise and powerful ruler. Called
upon to defend himself against a confederacy which included Constantine,
King of the Scots, Anlaff, a Danish prince, settled in Ireland, and a
host of disaffected Britons, he attacked them both by sea and land at
the same time with equal valour and success. In this battle, fought in
938, there fell five kings and seven Danish chiefs. It is said to have
been the bloodiest engagement which up to that time had ever taken place
in England; and, as a result, Athelstan became the most absolute monarch
that had ever reigned in Britain. Edmund, Edred, and Edwy followed in
lineal succession, but without adding anything of importance to our
naval annals.

In Edgar, who came to the throne in 958, Alfred had a successor who
proved himself worthy of carrying on his great traditions. He thoroughly
understood and successfully pursued the maxims of his great ancestor,
and applied himself from the beginning of his reign to the raising of an
efficient maritime force. It is said that his fleet was far superior to
those of any of his predecessors, as well as much more powerful than
those of all the other European princes put together. This
navy--variously estimated by the monkish chroniclers to number from
three thousand to four thousand ships--he is said to have divided into
three fleets each of twelve hundred sail, which he stationed
respectively on the north, the east, and the west coasts of England. Not
content with making these provisions, it is said that "every year after
Easter, he went on board the fleet stationed on the eastern coast, and,
sailing west, scoured all the channels, looked into every creek and bay,
from the Thames mouth to Land's End in Cornwall; there, quitting these
ships, he went on board the western fleet, with which, steering his
course northward, he did the like not only on the English and Scotch
coasts, but also on those of Ireland and the Hebrides--which lie between
them and Britain; then meeting the northern fleet, he sailed in it to
the mouth of the Thames. Thus surrounding the island every summer, he
rendered invasion impracticable, kept his sailors in continual exercise,
and effectually asserted his sovereignty over the sea."

In the winter, Edgar is said to have travelled by land through all parts
of his dominion to see that justice was duly administered, to prevent
his nobles from becoming oppressors, and to protect the meanest people
from suffering wrong. By these arts he secured tranquillity at home
while he engendered respect abroad. By being always ready for war he
avoided it, so that in his whole reign there happened but one
disturbance, and that through the Britons, who, while he was in the
north, committed disorder in the west. It is further said of this prince
that "he reigned sixteen years without a thief being found in his
dominions on land, or a pirate being heard of at sea."

Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by Edward the Martyr, who reigned
three years, and then gave place to Ethelred the Unready. Then followed
the period of decadence which prepared the way for Danish supremacy.
Ethelred adopted the fatal plan of buying off his invaders, the effect
of which policy was to increase the numbers and the demands of his
enemies. Accordingly, in 994, Sweyn, son of the King of Denmark, and
Olaf, King of Norway, made a descent upon London and devastated Kent,
Sussex, and Hampshire. Olaf was bought off with a payment of L16,000,
but the Danes were insatiable. A truce, purchased by Ethelred in 1002,
was brought to an abrupt conclusion by his own weakness and cruelty; for
in that year he planned and effected the massacre of all the Danes in
his dominions, on St. Brice's day. Among the victims was a sister of
Sweyn of Denmark, and Sweyn's revenge was sharp and swift. In 1003 he
laid Exeter waste, and in 1004 destroyed Norwich; and when two years
later the "great fleet" of the Danes arrived off Sandwich, Ethelred was
obliged to purchase peace with a supply of provisions and a sum of
thirty thousand pounds.

Great efforts were made during this truce to reconstruct the navy. The
king commanded ships to be built throughout the country and levied taxes
to pay for them. Within a year it is said that eight hundred ships,
equipped with thirty thousand men, were ready for the national defence.
But no armament can be strong that is directed by weak hands, and the
want of a wise and vigorous leader led to internal quarrels, which
effectually destroyed Ethelred's chances of successfully resisting the
Danes. In 1013 Sweyn was practically king of England, and Ethelred fled
to Normandy. In 1016 the death of Ethelred left Edmund Ironside his son,
and Canute, the son of Sweyn of Denmark, rival candidates for the
throne. After fighting two battles, they agreed to divide the kingdom
between them; but the death of Edmund the same year left Canute the
master of the whole. Under Canute, peace prevailed and commerce began to
thrive. "Men from the Rhineland and from Normandy moored their vessels
along the Thames, on whose rude wharves were piled a strange medley of
goods: pepper and spices from the far East, crates of gloves and gay
cloths, it may be from the Lombard looms, sacks of wool; ironwork, from
Liege, butts of French wine and vinegar, and with them the rural
products of the country itself--cheese, butter, lard and eggs, with live
swine and fowls." Such was Canute's influence that it became unnecessary
to maintain more than forty ships for the protection of the coast, and
this number was afterwards reduced to sixteen. With the death of Canute
the Danish rule began to collapse, and with the accession of Edward the
Confessor the Danes resumed their aggressive expeditions, though with
but little success. William of Normandy found England without a fleet,
for Harold had been compelled to disband the navy from want of supplies;
and, as he destroyed his own ships after he had effected a landing, he
began his reign without means of maritime defence.





Next: The Story Of The Cinque Ports




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