Edmund spent a month on his lands, moving about among his vassals and dwellin_n their abodes. He inspired them by his words with fresh spirit an_onfidence, telling them that this state of things could not last, and that h_as going to join the king, who doubtless would soon call them to take part i_ fresh effort to drive out their cruel oppressors. Edmund found that althoug_one knew with certainty the hiding-place of King Alfred, it was generall_eported that he had taken refuge in the low lands of Somersetshire, an_thelney was specially named as the place which he had made his abode.
"It is a good omen," Edmund said, "for Athelney lies close to the Parrot, where my good ship the Dragon is laid away."
After visiting all the villages in his earldom Edmund started with Egbert an_our young men, whom he might use as messengers, for the reported hiding-plac_f the king. First they visited the Dragon, and found her lying undisturbed; then they followed the river down till they reached the great swamps whic_xtended for a considerable distance near its mouth. After much wandering the_ame upon the hut of a fisherman. The man on hearing the footsteps came to hi_oor with a bent bow. When he saw that the new-comers were Saxons he lowere_he arrow which was already fitted to the string.
"Can you tell us," Edmund said, "which is the way to Athelney? We know that i_s an island amidst these morasses, but we are strangers to the locality an_annot find it."
"And you might search for weeks," the man said, "without finding it, s_hickly is it surrounded by deep swamps and woods. But what want ye there?"
"Men say," Edmund replied, "that King Alfred is hidden there. We are faithfu_ollowers of his. I am Ealdorman Edmund of Sherborne, and have good news fo_he king."
"If ye are indeed the Ealdorman of Sherborne, of whose bravery I have hear_uch, I will right willingly lead you to Athelney if you will, but no kin_ill you find there. There are a few fugitives from the Danes scattered her_nd there in these marshes, but none, so far as I know, of any rank o_tation. However, I will lead you thither should you still wish to go."
Edmund expressed his desire to visit the island even if the king were no_here. The man at once drew out a small boat from a hiding-place near his hut.
It would hold four at most. Edmund and Egbert stepped in with one of thei_ollowers, charging the others to remain at the hut until they receive_urther instructions. The fisherman with a long pole took his place in the bo_f the boat and pushed off. For some hours they made their way through th_abyrinth of sluggish and narrow channels of the morass. It was a gloom_ourney. The leafless trees frequently met overhead; the long rushes in th_etter parts of the swamp rustled as the cold breezes swept across them, and _light coating of snow which had fallen the previous night added to the drear_spect of the scene. At last they came upon sharply rising ground.
"This is Athelney," the fisherman said, "a good hiding-place truly; for, a_ou see, it rises high over the surrounding country, which is always swamp_rom the waters of the Parrot and Theme, and at high tides the salt water o_he sea fills all these waterways, and the trees rise from a broad sheet o_ea. No Dane has ever yet set foot among these marshes; and were there bu_rovisions to keep them alive, a safe refuge might be found on this island fo_undreds of fugitives. Will you be returning to-night?"
"That I cannot tell you," Edmund replied; "but at any rate I will hire you an_our boat to remain at my service for a week, and will pay you a far highe_rice than you can obtain by your fishing."
The fisherman readily agreed, and Edmund and his companions made their wa_nto the heart of the island. It was of some extent, and rose above the tree- tops of the surrounding country. Presently they came to a cottage. A man cam_ut.
"What do you seek?" he asked.
"You have fugitives in refuge here," Edmund said. "Know you if among them i_ur good King Alfred?" The man looked astonished.
"A pretty place to seek for a king!" he replied. "There are a few Saxons i_iding here. Some live by fishing, some chop wood; but for the most part the_re an idle and thriftless lot, and methinks have fled hither rather to escap_rom honest work or to avoid the penalties of crimes than for any othe_eason."
"How may we find them?" Edmund asked.
"They are scattered over the island. There are eight or ten dwellers here lik_yself, and several of them have one or more of these fellows with them; others have built huts for themselves and shift as they can; but it is a har_hift, I reckon, and beech-nuts and acorns, eked out with an occasional fis_aught in the streams, is all they have to live upon. I wonder that they d_ot go back to honest work among their kinsfolk."
"Ah!" Edmund said, "you do not know here how cruel are the ravages of th_anes; our homes are broken up and our villages destroyed, and every forest i_he land is peopled with fugitive Saxons. Did you know that you would spea_ess harshly of those here. At any rate the man I seek is young and fair- looking, and would, I should think"—and he smiled as he remembered Alfred'_tudious habits—"be one of the most shiftless of those here."
"There is such a one," the man replied, "and several times friends of his hav_een hither to see him. He dwells at my next neighbour's, who is often drive_ell-nigh out of her mind—for she is a dame with a shrewish tongue and shar_emper—by his inattention. She only asks of him that he will cut wood and kee_n eye over her pigs, which wander in the forest, in return for his food; an_et, simple as are his duties, he is for ever forgetting them. I warrant me, the dame would not so long have put up with him had he not been so fair an_elpless. However bad-tempered a woman may be, she has always a tender corne_n her heart for this sort of fellow. There, you can take this path throug_he trees and follow it on; it will take you straight to her cottage."
The description given by the man tallied so accurately with that of the kin_hat Edmund felt confident that he was on the right track. The fact, too, tha_rom time to time men had come to see this person added to the probability o_is being the king. Presently they came upon the hut. A number of pigs wer_eeding under the trees around it; the door was open, and the shrill tones o_ woman's voice raised in anger could be heard as they approached.
"You are an idle loon, and I will no longer put up with your ways, and you ma_eek another mistress. You are worse than useless here. I do but ask you t_atch these cakes while I go over to speak with my neighbour, and inquire ho_he and the child born yestereven are getting on, and you go to sleep by th_ire and suffer the case to burn.
"You were not asleep, you say? then so much the worse. Where were your eyes, then? And where was your nose? Why, I smelt the cakes a hundred yards away, and you sitting over them, and as you say awake, neither saw them burning no_melt them! You are enough to break an honest woman's heart with your moonin_ays. You are ready enough to eat when the meal-time comes, but are too laz_ven to watch the food as it cooks. I tell you I will have no more of you. _ave put up with you till I am verily ashamed of my own patience; but this i_oo much, and you must go your way, for I will have no more of you."
At this moment Edmund and Egbert appeared at the door of the hut. As he ha_xpected from the nature of the colloquy Edmund saw King Alfred standin_ontrite and ashamed before the angry dame.
"My beloved sovereign!" he cried, running in and falling on his knees.
"My trusted Edmund," Alfred exclaimed cordially, "right glad am I to see you, and you too, my valiant Egbert; truly I feared that the good ship Dragon ha_ong since fallen into the hands of our enemy."
"The Dragon lies not many miles hence, your majesty, in the hole in which sh_as built, by the river Parrot; she has done bravely and has brought home _ich store of booty, a large share of which has been hidden away for you_ajesty, and can be brought here in a few hours should you wish it."
"Verily I am glad to hear it, Edmund, for I have long been penniless; and _ave great need of something at least to pay this good woman for all th_rouble she has been at with me, and for her food which my carelessness ha_estroyed, as you may have heard but now."
Edmund and Egbert joined in the king's merry laugh. The dame looked a pictur_f consternation and fell upon her knees.
"Pardon me, your majesty," she cried; "to think that I have ventured to abus_ur good King Alfred, and have even in mine anger lifted my hand against him!"
"And with right good-will too," the king said laughing. "Never fear, goo_ame, your tongue has been rough but your heart has been kindly, or neve_ould you have borne so long with so shiftless a serving-man. But leave u_ow, I pray ye, for I have much to say to my good friends here. And now, Edmund, what news do you bring? I do not ask after the doings of the Dragon, for that no doubt is a long story which you shall tell me later, but how fare_t with my kingdom? I have been in correspondence with several of my thanes, who have from time to time sent me news of what passes without. From what the_ay I deem that the time for action is at last nigh at hand. The people ar_verywhere desperate at the oppression and exactions of the Danes, and ar_eady to risk everything to free themselves from so terrible a yoke. I fle_ere and gave up the strife because the Saxons deemed anything better tha_urther resistance. Now that they have found out their error it is time to b_tirring again."
"That is so," Edmund said; "Egbert and I have found the people desperate a_heir slavery, and ready to risk all did a leader but appear. My own peopl_ill all take up arms the instant they receive my summons; they have befor_ow proved their valour, and in my crew of the Dragon you have a body whic_ill, I warrant me, pierce through any Danish line."
"This tallies with what I have heard," Alfred said, "and in the spring I wil_gain raise my banner; but in the meantime I will fortify this place. Ther_re but two or three spots where boats can penetrate through the morasses; were strong stockades and banks erected at each landing-place we might hol_he island in case of defeat against any number of the enemy."
"That shall be done," Edmund said, "and quickly. I have a messenger here wit_e, and others waiting outside the swamp, and can send and bring my crew o_he Dragon here at once."
"Let that be one man's mission," the king said; "the others I will send of_ith messages to the thanes of Somerset, who are only awaiting my summons t_ake up arms. I will bid them send hither strong working parties, but to mak_o show in arms until Easter, at which time I will again spread the Golde_ragon to the winds. The treasure you speak of will be right welcome, for al_re so impoverished by the Danes that they live but from hand to mouth, and w_ust at least buy provisions to maintain the parties working here. Arms, too, must be made, for although many have hidden their weapons, the Danes hav_eized vast quantities, having issued an order that any Saxon found with arm_hall be at once put to death. Money will be needed to set all the smithies t_ork at the manufacture of pikes and swords. Hides must be bought for th_anufacture of shields. It will be best to send orders to the ealdormen an_hanes to send hither privately the smiths, armourers, and shield-makers i_he villages and towns. They cannot work with the Danes ever about, but mus_et up smithies here. They must bring their tools and such iron as they ca_arry; what more is required we must buy at the large towns and brin_rivately in carts to the edge of the morass. The utmost silence and secrec_ust be observed, that the Danes may obtain no news of our preparations unti_e are ready to burst out upon them."
A fortnight later Athelney presented a changed appearance. A thousand men wer_athered there. Trees had been cut down, a strong fort erected on the highes_round, and formidable works constructed at three points where alone a landin_ould be effected. The smoke rose from a score of great mounds, wher_harcoal-burners were converting timber into fuel for the forges. Fifty smith_nd armourers were working vigorously at forges in the open air, roof_hatched with rushes and supported by poles being erected over them to kee_he rain and snow from the fires. A score of boats were threading the mazes o_he marshes bringing men and cattle to the island. All was bustle an_ctivity, every face shone with renewed hope. King Alfred himself and hi_hanes moved to and fro among the workers encouraging them at their labours.
Messengers came and went in numbers, and from all parts of Wessex King Alfre_eceived news of the joy which his people felt at the tidings that he wa_gain about to raise his standard, and of the readiness of all to obey hi_ummons. So well was the secret kept that no rumour of the storm about t_urst upon them reached the Danes. The people, rejoicing and eager as the_ere, suffered no evidence of their feelings to be apparent to their crue_asters, who, believing the Saxons to be finally crushed, were lulled into _alse security. The king's treasure had been brought from its hiding-place t_thelney, and Edmund and Egbert had also handed over their own share of th_ooty to the king. The golden cups and goblets he had refused to take, but ha_ladly accepted the silver.
Edmund and Egbert had left Athelney for a few days on a mission. The king ha_escribed to them minutely where he had hidden the sacred standard with th_olden Dragon. It was in the hut of a charcoal-burner in the heart of th_orests of Wiltshire. Upon reaching the hut, and showing to the man the king'_ignet-ring, which when leaving the standard he had told him would be th_ignal that any who might come for it were sent by him, the man produced th_tandard from the thatch of his cottage, in which it was deeply buried, an_earing that it was again to be unfurled called his two stalwart sons fro_heir work and at once set out with Edmund and Egbert to join the army.
Easter came and went, but the preparations were not yet completed. A vas_upply of arms was needed, and while the smiths laboured at their work Edmun_nd Egbert drilled the fighting men who had assembled, in the tactics whic_ad on a small scale proved so effective. The wedge shape was retained, an_dmund's own band claimed the honour of forming the apex, but it had no_wollen until it contained a thousand men, and as it moved in a solid body, with its thick edge of spears outward, the king felt confident that it woul_e able to break through the strongest line of the Danes.
From morning till night Edmund and Egbert, assisted by the thanes of Somerse_ho had gathered there, drilled the men and taught them to rally rapidly fro_cattered order into solid formation. Unaccustomed to regular tactics the eas_nd rapidity with which these movements came to be carried out at the notes o_dmund's bugle seemed to all to be little less than miraculous, and the_waited with confidence and eagerness their meeting with the Danes on th_ield.
At the end of April messengers were sent out bidding the Saxons hol_hemselves in readiness, and on the 6th of May Alfred moved with his forc_rom Athelney to Egbertesstan (now called Brixton), lying to the east of th_orest of Selwood, which lay between Devonshire and Somerset. The Golde_ragon had been unfurled. On the fort in Athelney, and after crossing th_arshes to the mainland it was carried in the centre of the phalanx.
On the 12th they reached the appointed place, where they found a grea_ultitude of Saxons already gathered. They had poured in from Devonshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire, from Dorset and Hants. In spite of the vigorou_dicts of the Danes against arms a great proportion of them bore weapons, which had been buried in the earth, or concealed in hollow trees or othe_iding-places until the time for action should again arrive.
As they saw the king approaching at the head of his band, with the Golde_ragon fluttering in the breeze, a great shout of joy arose from th_ultitude, and they crowded round the monarch with shouts of welcome at hi_eappearance among them, and with vows to die rather than again to yield t_he tyranny of the Northmen. The rest of the day was spent in distributing th_ewly fashioned arms to those who needed them, and in arranging the men i_ands under their own thanes, or, in their absence, such leaders as the kin_ppointed.
Upon the following morning the army started, marching in a north-easterl_irection against the great camp of the Danes at Chippenham. That night the_ested at Okeley, and then marched on until in the afternoon they came withi_ight of the Danes gathered at Ethandune, a place supposed to be identica_ith Edington near Westbury.
As the time for Alfred's reappearance approached the agitation and movement o_he part of the people had attracted the attention of the Danes, and the new_f his summons to the Saxons to meet him at Egbertesstan having come to thei_ars, they gathered hastily from all parts under Guthorn their king, who wa_y far the most powerful viking who had yet appeared in England, and who rule_ast Anglia as well as Wessex. Confident of victory the great Danish arm_eheld the approach of the Saxons. Long accustomed to success, and superior i_umbers, they regarded with something like contempt the approach of thei_oes.
In the centre Alfred placed the trained phalanx which had accompanied him fro_thelney, in the centre of which waved the Golden Dragon, by whose side h_laced himself. Its command he left in the hands of Edmund, he himsel_irecting the general movements of the force. On his right were the men o_omerset and Hants; on the left those of Wilts, Dorset, and Devon.
His orders were that the advance was to be made with regularity; that th_hole line were to fight for a while on the defensive, resisting the onslaugh_f the Danes until he gave the word for the central phalanx to advance an_urst through the lines of the enemy, and that when these had been thrown int_onfusion by this attack the flanks were to charge forward and complete th_out. This plan was carried out. The Danes advanced with their usua_mpetuosity, and for hours tried to break through the lines of the Saxo_pears. Both sides fought valiantly, the Danes inspired by their pride i_heir personal prowess and their contempt for the Saxons; the Saxons by thei_atred for their oppressors, and their determination to die rather than agai_ubmit to their bondage. At length, after the battle had raged some hours, an_oth parties were becoming wearied from their exertions, the king gave Edmun_he order.
Hitherto his men had fought in line with the rest; but at the sound of hi_ugle they quitted their places, and, ere the Danes could understand th_eaning of this sudden movement, had formed themselves into their wedge, raised a mighty shout, and advanced against the enemy. The onslaught wa_rresistible. The great wedge, with its thick fringe of spears, burst its wa_traight through the Danish centre carrying all before it. Then at anothe_ote of Edmund's bugle it broke up into two bodies, which moved solidly to th_ight and left, crumpling up the Danish lines.
Alfred now gave the order for a general advance, and the Saxon ranks, with _hout of triumph, flung themselves upon the disordered Danes. Their succes_as instant and complete. Confounded at the sudden break up of their line, bewildered by these new and formidable tactics, attacked in front and i_lank, the Danes broke and fled. The Saxons pursued them hotly, Edmund keepin_is men well together in case the Danes should rally. Their rout, however, wa_oo complete; vast numbers were slain, and the remnant of their army did no_ause until they found themselves within the shelter of their camp a_hippenham.
No quarter was given by the Saxons to those who fell into their hands, an_ressing upon the heels of the flying Danes the victorious army of King Alfre_at down before Chippenham. Every hour brought fresh reinforcements to th_ing's standard. Many were already on their way when the battle was fought; and as the news of the victory spread rapidly every man of the West Saxon_apable of bearing arms made for Chippenham, feeling that now or never must _omplete victory over the Danes be obtained.
No assault was made upon the Danish camp. Confident in his now vastly superio_umbers, and in the enthusiasm which reigned in his army, Alfred was unwillin_o waste a single life in an attack upon the entrenchments, which must er_ong surrender from famine. There was no risk of reinforcements arriving t_elieve the Danes. Guthorn had led to the battle the whole fighting force o_he Danes in Wessex and East Anglia. This was far smaller than it would hav_een a year earlier; but the Northmen, having once completed their work o_illage, soon turned to fresh fields of adventure. Those whose disposition le_hem to prefer a quiet life had settled upon the land from which they ha_ispossessed the Saxons; but the principal bands of rovers, finding tha_ngland was exhausted and that no more plunder could be had, had either gon_ack to enjoy at home the booty they had gained, or had sailed to harry th_hores of France, Spain, and Italy.
Thus the position of the Danes in Chippenham was desperate, and at the end o_ourteen days, by which time they were reduced to an extremity by hunger, the_ent messengers into the royal camp offering their submission. They promise_f spared to quit the kingdom with all speed, and to observe this contrac_ore faithfully than those which they had hitherto made and broken. The_ffered the king as many hostages as he might wish to take for the fulfilmen_f their promises. The haggard and emaciated condition of those who came ou_o treat moved Alfred to pity.
So weakened were they by famine that they could scarce drag themselves along.
It would have been easy for the Saxons to have slain them to the last man; an_he majority of the Saxons, smarting under the memory of the cruel oppressio_hich they had suffered, the destruction of home and property, and th_laughter of friends and relations, would fain have exterminated their foes.
King Alfred, however, thought otherwise.
Guthorn and the Danes had effected a firm settlement in East Anglia, and live_t amity with the Saxons there. They had, it is true, wrested from them th_reatest portion of their lands. Still peace and order were now established.
The Saxons were allowed liberty and equal rights. Intermarriages were takin_lace, and the two peoples were becoming welded into one. Alfred the_onsidered that it would be well to have the king of this country as an ally; he and his settled people would soon be as hostile to further incursions o_he Northmen as were the Saxons themselves, and their interests and those o_essex would be identical.
Did he, on the other hand, carry out a general massacre of the Danes now i_is power he might have brought upon England a fresh invasion of Northmen, who, next to plunder, loved revenge, and who might come over in great hosts t_venge the slaughter of their countrymen. Moved, then, by motives of policy a_ell as by compassion, he granted the terms they asked, and hostages havin_een sent in from the camp he ordered provisions to be supplied to the Danes.
The same night a messenger of rank came in from Guthorn saying that h_ntended to embrace Christianity. The news filled Alfred and the Saxons wit_oy. The king, a sincere and devoted Christian, had fought as much for hi_eligion as for his kingdom, and his joy at the prospect of Guthorn'_onversion, which would as a matter of course be followed by that of hi_ubjects, was deep and sincere.
To the Saxons generally the temporal consequence of the conversion had n_oubt greater weight than the spiritual. The conversion of Guthorn and th_anes would be a pledge far more binding than any oaths of alliance betwee_he two kingdoms. Guthorn and his followers would be viewed with hostility b_heir countrymen, whose hatred of Christianity was intense, and East Angli_ould, therefore, naturally seek the close alliance and assistance of it_hristian neighbour.
Great were the rejoicings in the Saxon camp that night. Seldom, indeed, has _ictory had so great and decisive an effect upon the future of a nation a_hat of Ethandune. Had the Saxons been crushed, the domination of the Danes i_ngland would have been finally settled. Christianity would have been stampe_ut, and with it civilization, and the island would have made a backward ste_nto paganism and barbarism which might have delayed her progress fo_enturies.
The victory established the freedom of Wessex, converted East Anglia into _ettled and Christian country, and enabled King Alfred to frame the wise law_nd statutes and to establish on a firm basis the institutions which raise_axon England vastly in the scale of civilization, and have in no small degre_ffected the whole course of life of the English people.