A Child s History of England
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knew the stories of the youthful kings too well, and would not be
persuaded from the convent where she lived in peace; so, Dunstan
put Ethelred on the throne, having no one else to put there, and
gave him the nickname of THE UNREADY - knowing that he wanted
resolution and firmness.
At first, Elfrida possessed great influence over the young King,
but, as he grew older and came of age, her influence declined. The
infamous woman, not having it in her power to do any more evil,
then retired from court, and, according, to the fashion of the
time, built churches and monasteries, to expiate her guilt. As if
a church, with a steeple reaching to the very stars, would have
been any sign of true repentance for the blood of the poor boy,
whose murdered form was trailed at his horse's heels! As if she
could have buried her wickedness beneath the senseless stones of
the whole world, piled up one upon another, for the monks to live
About the ninth or tenth year of this reign, Dunstan died. He was
growing old then, but was as stern and artful as ever. Two
circumstances that happened in connexion with him, in this reign of
Ethelred, made a great noise. Once, he was present at a meeting of
the Church, when the question was discussed whether priests should
have permission to marry; and, as he sat with his head hung down,
apparently thinking about it, a voice seemed to come out of a
crucifix in the room, and warn the meeting to be of his opinion.
This was some juggling of Dunstan's, and was probably his own voice
disguised. But he played off a worse juggle than that, soon
afterwards; for, another meeting being held on the same subject,
and he and his supporters being seated on one side of a great room,
and their opponents on the other, he rose and said, 'To Christ
himself, as judge, do I commit this cause!' Immediately on these
words being spoken, the floor where the opposite party sat gave
way, and some were killed and many wounded. You may be pretty sure
that it had been weakened under Dunstan's direction, and that it
fell at Dunstan's signal. HIS part of the floor did not go down.
No, no. He was too good a workman for that.
When he died, the monks settled that he was a Saint, and called him
Saint Dunstan ever afterwards. They might just as well have
settled that he was a coach-horse, and could just as easily have
called him one.
Ethelred the Unready was glad enough, I dare say, to be rid of this
holy saint; but, left to himself, he was a poor weak king, and his
reign was a reign of defeat and shame. The restless Danes, led by
SWEYN, a son of the King of Denmark who had quarrelled with his
father and had been banished from home, again came into England,
and, year after year, attacked and despoiled large towns. To coax
these sea-kings away, the weak Ethelred paid them money; but, the
more money he paid, the more money the Danes wanted. At first, he
gave them ten thousand pounds; on their next invasion, sixteen
thousand pounds; on their next invasion, four and twenty thousand
pounds: to pay which large sums, the unfortunate English people
were heavily taxed. But, as the Danes still came back and wanted
more, he thought it would be a good plan to marry into some
powerful foreign family that would help him with soldiers. So, in
the year one thousand and two, he courted and married Emma, the
sister of Richard Duke of Normandy; a lady who was called the
Flower of Normandy.
And now, a terrible deed was done in England, the like of which was
never done on English ground before or since. On the thirteenth of
November, in pursuance of secret instructions sent by the King over
the whole country, the inhabitants of every town and city armed,
and murdered all the Danes who were their neighbours.
Young and old, babies and soldiers, men and women, every Dane was
killed. No doubt there were among them many ferocious men who had
done the English great wrong, and whose pride and insolence, in
swaggering in the houses of the English and insulting their wives
and daughters, had become unbearable; but no doubt there were also
among them many peaceful Christian Danes who had married English
women and become like English men. They were all slain, even to
GUNHILDA, the sister of the King of Denmark, married to an English
lord; who was first obliged to see the murder of her husband and
her child, and then was killed herself.
When the King of the sea-kings heard of this deed of blood, he
swore that he would have a great revenge. He raised an army, and a
mightier fleet of ships than ever yet had sailed to England; and in
all his army there was not a slave or an old man, but every soldier
was a free man, and the son of a free man, and in the prime of
life, and sworn to be revenged upon the English nation, for the
massacre of that dread thirteenth of November, when his countrymen
and countrywomen, and the little children whom they loved, were
killed with fire and sword. And so, the sea-kings came to England
in many great ships, each bearing the flag of its own commander.
Golden eagles, ravens, dragons, dolphins, beasts of prey,
threatened England from the prows of those ships, as they came
onward through the water; and were reflected in the shining shields
that hung upon their sides. The ship that bore the standard of the
King of the sea-kings was carved and painted like a mighty serpent;
and the King in his anger prayed that the Gods in whom he trusted
might all desert him, if his serpent did not strike its fangs into
And indeed it did. For, the great army landing from the great
fleet, near Exeter, went forward, laying England waste, and
striking their lances in the earth as they advanced, or throwing
them into rivers, in token of their making all the island theirs.
In remembrance of the black November night when the Danes were
murdered, wheresoever the invaders came, they made the Saxons
prepare and spread for them great feasts; and when they had eaten
those feasts, and had drunk a curse to England with wild
rejoicings, they drew their swords, and killed their Saxon
entertainers, and marched on. For six long years they carried on
this war: burning the crops, farmhouses, barns, mills, granaries;
killing the labourers in the fields; preventing the seed from being
sown in the ground; causing famine and starvation; leaving only
heaps of ruin and smoking ashes, where they had found rich towns.
To crown this misery, English officers and men deserted, and even
the favourites of Ethelred the Unready, becoming traitors, seized
many of the English ships, turned pirates against their own
country, and aided by a storm occasioned the loss of nearly the
whole English navy.
There was but one man of note, at this miserable pass, who was true
to his country and the feeble King. He was a priest, and a brave
one. For twenty days, the Archbishop of Canterbury defended that
city against its Danish besiegers; and when a traitor in the town
threw the gates open and admitted them, he said, in chains, 'I will
not buy my life with money that must be extorted from the suffering
people. Do with me what you please!' Again and again, he steadily
refused to purchase his release with gold wrung from the poor.
At last, the Danes being tired of this, and being assembled at a
drunken merry-making, had him brought into the feasting-hall.
'Now, bishop,' they said, 'we want gold!'
He looked round on the crowd of angry faces; from the shaggy beards
close to him, to the shaggy beards against the walls, where men
were mounted on tables and forms to see him over the heads of
others: and he knew that his time was come.
'I have no gold,' he said.
'Get it, bishop!' they all thundered.
'That, I have often told you I will not,' said he.
They gathered closer round him, threatening, but he stood unmoved.
Then, one man struck him; then, another; then a cursing soldier
picked up from a heap in a corner of the hall, where fragments had
been rudely thrown at dinner, a great ox-bone, and cast it at his
face, from which the blood came spurting forth; then, others ran to
the same heap, and knocked him down with other bones, and bruised
and battered him; until one soldier whom he had baptised (willing,
as I hope for the sake of that soldier's soul, to shorten the
sufferings of the good man) struck him dead with his battle-axe.
If Ethelred had had the heart to emulate the courage of this noble
archbishop, he might have done something yet. But he paid the
Danes forty-eight thousand pounds, instead, and gained so little by
the cowardly act, that Sweyn soon afterwards came over to subdue
all England. So broken was the attachment of the English people,
by this time, to their incapable King and their forlorn country
which could not protect them, that they welcomed Sweyn on all
sides, as a deliverer. London faithfully stood out, as long as the
King was within its walls; but, when he sneaked away, it also
welcomed the Dane. Then, all was over; and the King took refuge
abroad with the Duke of Normandy, who had already given shelter to
the King's wife, once the Flower of that country, and to her
Still, the English people, in spite of their sad sufferings, could
not quite forget the great King Alfred and the Saxon race. When
Sweyn died suddenly, in little more than a month after he had been
proclaimed King of England, they generously sent to Ethelred, to
say that they would have him for their King again, 'if he would
only govern them better than he had governed them before.' The
Unready, instead of coming himself, sent Edward, one of his sons,
to make promises for him. At last, he followed, and the English
declared him King. The Danes declared CANUTE, the son of Sweyn,
King. Thus, direful war began again, and lasted for three years,
when the Unready died. And I know of nothing better that he did,
in all his reign of eight and thirty years.
Was Canute to be King now? Not over the Saxons, they said; they
must have EDMUND, one of the sons of the Unready, who was surnamed
IRONSIDE, because of his strength and stature. Edmund and Canute
thereupon fell to, and fought five battles - O unhappy England,
what a fighting-ground it was! - and then Ironside, who was a big
man, proposed to Canute, who was a little man, that they two should
fight it out in single combat. If Canute had been the big man, he
would probably have said yes, but, being the little man, he
decidedly said no. However, he declared that he was willing to
divide the kingdom - to take all that lay north of Watling Street,
as the old Roman military road from Dover to Chester was called,
and to give Ironside all that lay south of it. Most men being
weary of so much bloodshed, this was done. But Canute soon became
sole King of England; for Ironside died suddenly within two months.
Some think that he was killed, and killed by Canute's orders. No
CHAPTER V - ENGLAND UNDER CANUTE THE DANE
CANUTE reigned eighteen years. He was a merciless King at first.
After he had clasped the hands of the Saxon chiefs, in token of the