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

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.