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Chapter 11 THE ISLE OF ATHELNEY

  • 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.