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Chapter 5 A DISCIPLINED BAND

  • The construction of the ship went on steadily. King Alfred, who was himsel_uilding several war vessels of ordinary size, took great interest in Edmund'_raft and paid several visits to it while it was in progress.
  • "It will be a fine ship," he said one day as the vessel was approachin_ompletion, "and much larger than any in these seas. It reminds me, Edmund, not indeed in size or shape, but in its purpose, of the ark which Noah buil_efore the deluge which covered the whole earth. He built it, as you know, t_scape with his family from destruction. You, too, are building against th_ime when the deluge of Danish invasion will sweep over this land, and I trus_hat your success will equal that of the patriarch."
  • "I shall be better off than Noah was," Edmund said, "for he had nothing to do, save to shut up his windows and wait till the floods abated, while I shall g_ut and seek my enemies on the sea."
  • The respite purchased by the king from the Danes was but a short one. In th_utumn of 875 their bands were again swarming around the borders of Wessex, and constant irruptions took place. Edmund received a summons to gather hi_enants, but he found that these no longer replied willingly to the call.
  • Several of his chief men met him and represented to him the general feelin_hich prevailed.
  • "The men say," their spokesman explained, "that it is useless to fight agains_he Danes. In 872 there were ten pitched battles, and vast numbers of th_anes were slain, and vast numbers also of Saxons. The Danes are already fa_ore numerous than before, for fresh hordes continue to arrive on the shores, and more than fill up the places of those who are killed; but the places o_he Saxons are empty, and our fighting force is far smaller than it was las_ear. If we again go out and again fight many battles, even if we ar_ictorious, which we can hardly hope to be, the same thing will happen. Man_housands will be slain, and the following year we shall in vain try to put a_rmy in the field which can match that of the Danes, who will again hav_illed up their ranks, and be as numerous as ever. So long as we continue t_ight, so long the Danes will slay, burn, and destroy wheresoever they march, until there will remain of us but a few fugitives hidden in the woods. W_hould be far better off did we cease to resist, and the Danes become ou_asters, as they have become the masters of Northumbria, Mercia, and Anglia.
  • "There, it is true, they have plundered the churches and thanes' houses an_ave stolen all that is worth carrying away; but when they have taken all tha_here is to take they leave the people alone, and unmolested, to till th_round and to gain their livelihood. They do not slay for the pleasure o_laying, and grievous as is the condition of the Angles they and their wive_nd children are free from massacre and are allowed to gain their livings. Th_est Saxons have showed that they are no cowards; they have defeated th_orthmen over and over again when far outnumbering them. It is no dishonour t_ield now when all the rest of England has yielded, and when further fightin_ill only bring ruin upon ourselves, our wives, and children."
  • Edmund could find no reply to this argument. He knew that even the kin_espaired of ultimately resisting the Danish invasion, and after listening t_ll that the thanes had to say he retired with Egbert apart.
  • "What say you, Egbert? There is reason in the arguments that they use. You an_ have neither wives nor children, and we risk only our own lives; but I ca_ell understand that those who have so much to lose are chary of furthe_ffort. What say you?"
  • "I do not think it will be fair to press them further," Egbert answered; "bu_ethinks that we might raise a band consisting of all the youths and unmarrie_en in the earldom. These we might train carefully and keep always together, seeing that the lands will still be cultivated and all able to pay thei_ssessment, and may even add to it, since you exempt them from service. Such _and we could train and practise until we could rely upon them to defeat a fa_arger force of the enemy, and they would be available for our crew when w_ake to the ship."
  • "I think the idea is a very good one, Egbert; we will propose it to th_hanes." The proposition was accordingly made that all married men should b_xempt from service, but that the youths above the age of sixteen and th_nmarried men should be formed into a band and kept permanently under arms.
  • Landowners who lost the services of sons or freemen working for them shoul_ay the same assessment only as before, but those who did not contribute me_o the levy should pay an additional assessment. Edmund said he would pay th_en composing the band the same wages they would earn in the field, and woul_ndertake all their expenses. "So long as the king continues the struggle," h_aid, "it is our duty to aid him, nor can we escape from the dangers an_erils of invasion. Should the Danes come near us all must perforce fight, bu_o long as they continue at a distance things can go on here as if we ha_eace in the land."
  • The proposal was, after some discussion, agreed to, and the news cause_ladness and contentment throughout the earldom. The younger men who had bee_ncluded in the levy were quite satisfied with the arrangement. The spirit o_he West Saxons was still high, and those without wives and families who woul_uffer by their absence or be ruined by their death were eager to continue th_ontest. The proposal that they should be paid as when at work was considere_erfectly satisfactory.
  • The men of Sherborne had under their young leader gained great credit by thei_teadiness and valour in the battles four years before, and they looke_orward to fresh victories over the invader. The result was that ninety youn_en assembled for service. Edmund had sent off a messenger to the king sayin_hat the people were utterly weary of war and refused to take up arms, bu_hat he was gathering a band of young men with whom he would ere long joi_im; but he prayed for a short delay in order that he might get them into _ondition to be useful on the day of battle.
  • After consultation with Egbert, Edmund drew up a series of orders somewha_esembling those of modern drill. King Alfred had once, in speaking to him, described the manner in which the Thebans, a people of Northern Greece, ha_ought, placing their troops in the form of a wedge. The formation he no_aught his men. From morning to night they were practised at rallying fro_ursuit or flight, or changing from a line into the form of a wedge. Each ma_ad his appointed place both in the line and wedge. Those who formed th_utside line of this formation were armed with large shields which covere_hem from chin to foot, and with short spears; those in the inner line_arried no shields, but bore spears of increasing length, so that four line_f spears projected from the wedge to nearly the same distance. Inside th_our lines were twenty men armed with shields, bows, and arrows. The sides o_he wedge were of equal length, so that they could march either way.
  • Egbert's place was at the apex of the wedge intended generally for attack. H_arried no spear, nor did those at the other corners, as they would be covere_y those beside and behind them; he was armed with a huge battle-axe. Th_ther leaders were also chosen for great personal strength. Edmund's place wa_n horseback in the middle of the wedge, whence he could overlook the whol_nd direct their movements.
  • In three weeks the men could perform their simple movements to perfection, an_t a sound from Edmund's horn would run in as when scattered in pursuit o_light, or could form from line into the wedge, without the least confusion, every man occupying his assigned place.
  • The men were delighted with their new exercises, and felt confident that th_eight of the solid mass thickly bristling with spears would break through th_anish line without difficulty, or could draw off from the field in perfec_rder and safety in case of a defeat, however numerous their foes. The tw_ront lines were to thrust with their pikes, the others keeping their lon_pears immovable to form a solid hedge. Each man carried a short heavy swor_o use in case, by any fatality, the wedge should get broken up.
  • When assured that his band were perfect in their new exercise Edmund marche_nd joined the king. He found on his arrival that the summons to arms had bee_verywhere disregarded. Many men had indeed come in, but these were in no wa_ufficient to form a force which would enable him to take the field agains_he Danes.
  • Edmund therefore solicited and obtained permission to march with his band t_ndeavour to check the plundering bands of Danes, who were already committin_evastations throughout the country.
  • "Be not rash, Edmund," the monarch said, "you have but a handful of men, and _hould grieve indeed did aught of harm befall you. If you can fall upon smal_arties of plunderers and destroy them you will do good service, not only b_ompelling them to keep together but by raising the spirits of the Saxons; bu_void conflict with parties likely to defeat you."
  • "You shall hear of us soon, I promise you," Edmund replied, "and I trust tha_he news will be good."
  • The little party set out towards the border, and before long met numbers o_ugitives, weeping women carrying children, old men and boys, making their wa_rom the neighbourhood of the Danes. The men had for the most part drive_heir herds into the woods, where they were prepared to defend them as bes_hey could against roving parties. They learned that Haffa, a Danish jarl, with about 600 followers, was plundering and ravaging the country about twelv_iles away. The force was a formidable one, but after consultation wit_gbert, Edmund determined to advance, deeming that he might find the Dane_cattered and cut off some of their parties.
  • As they neared the country of which the Danes were in possession the smoke o_urning villages and homesteads was seen rising heavily in the air. Edmun_alted for the night in a wood about a mile distant from a blazing farm, an_he band lay down for some hours.
  • Before daybreak three or four of the swiftest-footed of the men were sent ou_o reconnoitre. They learned, from badly wounded men whom they found lyin_ear the burning farms, that the Danes had been plundering in parties o_wenty or thirty, but that the main body under Haffa lay five miles away a_he village of Bristowe.
  • A consultation was held, and it was agreed that the party should remain hidde_n the wood during the day, and that upon the following night they should fal_pon the Danes, trusting to the surprise to inflict much damage upon them, an_o be able to draw off before the enemy could recover sufficiently to rall_nd attack them.
  • Accordingly about nine o'clock in the evening they started, and marchin_apidly approached Bristowe an hour and a half later. They could see grea_ires blazing, and round them the Danes were carousing after their forays o_he day. Great numbers of cattle were penned up near the village.
  • Edmund and Egbert having halted their men stole forward until close to th_illage in order to learn the nature of the ground and the position of th_anes. Upon their return they waited until the fires burned low and the soun_f shouting and singing decreased. It was useless to wait longer, for the_new that many of the Danes would, according to their custom, keep up thei_evelry all night. Crawling along the ground the band made for the great pe_here were herded the cattle which the Danes had driven in from th_urrounding country, and over which several guards had been placed. Befor_tarting Egbert assigned to each man the special duties which he was t_ulfil.
  • The Saxons crept up quite close to the Danish guards unobserved. To each o_hese three or four bowmen had been told off, and they, on nearing th_entries lay prone on the ground with bows bent and arrows fixed until _histle from Edmund gave the signal. Then the arrows were loosed, and th_istance being so short the Danish sentries were all slain. Then a party o_en removed the side of the pen facing the village; the rest mingled with th_attle, and soon with the points of their spears goaded them into flight. In _ass the herd thundered down upon the village, the Saxons keeping closel_ehind them and adding to their terror by goading the hindermost.
  • The Danes, astonished at the sudden thunder of hoofs bearing down upon them, leaped to their feet and endeavoured to turn the course of the herd, whic_hey deemed to have accidentally broken loose, by loud shouts and by rattlin_heir swords against their shields. The oxen, however, were too terrified b_hose in their rear to check their course, and charged impetuously down upo_he Danes.
  • Numbers of these were hurled to the ground and trampled under foot, and th_ildest confusion reigned in the camp. This was increased when, as the herd_wept along, a number of active men with spear and sword fell suddenly upo_hem. Scores were cut down or run through before they could prepare fo_efence, or recover from their surprise at the novel method of attack.
  • At last, as the thunder of the herd died away in the distance, and they becam_ware of the comparative fewness of their foes, they began to rally and mak_ead against their assailants. No sooner was this the case than the note of _orn was heard, and as if by magic their assailants instantly darted away int_he night, leaving the superstitious Danes in some doubt whether the whol_ttack upon them had not been of a supernatural nature.
  • Long before they recovered themselves, and were ready for pursuit, the Saxon_ere far away, no less than 200 of the Danes having been slain or trampled t_eath, while of Edmund's band not one had received so much as a wound.
  • The Saxons regained the wood in the highest state of exultation at thei_uccess, and more confident than before in themselves and their leader.
  • "I am convinced," Edmund said, "that this is the true way to fight the Danes, to harry and attack them by night assaults until they dare not break up int_arties, and become so worn out by constant alarms that they will be glad t_eave a country where plunder and booty are only to be earned at so great _ost."
  • Knowing that Haffa's band would for some time be thoroughly on the aler_dmund moved his party to another portion of the country, where he inflicted _low, almost as heavy as he had dealt Haffa, upon Sigbert, another of th_anish jarls. Three or four more very successful night attacks were made, an_hen the Danes, by this time thoroughly alarmed, obtained from some Saxo_ountry people whom they took prisoners news as to the strength of Edmund'_and.
  • Furious at the heavy losses which had been inflicted upon them by so small _umber, they determined to unite in crushing them. By threats of instan_eath, and by the offers of a high reward, they succeeded in persuading tw_axon prisoners to act as spies, and one day these brought in to Haffa th_ews that the band had that morning, after striking a successful blow at th_anes ten miles away, entered at daybreak a wood but three miles from hi_amp.
  • The Northman, disdaining to ask for assistance from one of the other band_gainst so small a foe, moved out at once with 300 of his men towards th_ood. The Saxons had posted guards, who on the approach of the Danes rouse_dmund with the news that the enemy were close at hand. The Saxons were soo_n their feet.
  • "Now, my friends," Edmund said to them, "here is the time for trying wha_enefit we have got from our exercise. We cannot well draw off, for the Dane_re as fleet-footed as we; therefore let us fight and conquer them."
  • The men formed up cheerfully, and the little body moved out from the wood t_eet the Danes. The latter gave a shout of triumph as they saw them. The Saxo_orce, from its compact formation, appeared even smaller than it was, and th_orsemen advanced in haste, each eager to be the first to fall upon an enem_hom they regarded as an easy prey. As they arrived upon the spot, however, and saw the thick hedge of spears which bristled round the little body o_axons, the first comers checked their speed and waited till Haffa himsel_ame up, accompanied by his principal warriors.
  • Without a moment's hesitation the jarl flung himself upon the Saxons. In vain, however, he tried to reach them with his long sword. As he neared them th_ront line of the Saxons dropped on one knee, and as the Danes with thei_hields dashed against the spears and strove to cut through them, the kneelin_en were able with their pikes to thrust at the unguarded portions of th_odies below their shields, and many fell grievously wounded. After trying fo_ome time in vain, Haffa, finding that individual effort did not suffice t_reak through the Saxon spears, formed his men up in line four deep, an_dvanced in a solid body so as to overwhelm them.
  • The Saxons now rose to their feet. The spears, instead of being pointe_utwards, were inclined towards the front, and the wedge advanced against th_anes. The Saxon war cry rose loud as they neared the Danish line, and then, still maintaining their close formation, they charged upon it. The assault wa_rresistible. The whole weight was thrown upon a point, and preceded, as i_as, by the densely-packed spears, it burst through the Danish line as if th_atter had been composed of osier twigs, bearing down all in its way.
  • With shouts of surprise the Danes broke up their line and closed in a thic_ass round the Saxons, those behind pressing forward and impeding the motion_f the warriors actually engaged. The Saxons no longer kept stationary. I_bedience to Edmund's orders the triangle advanced, sometimes with one angl_n front, sometimes with another, but whichever way it moved sweeping away th_anes opposed to it, while the archers from the centre shot fast and stron_nto the mass of the enemy.
  • Haffa himself, trying to oppose the advance of the wedge, was slain by a blo_f Egbert's axe, and after half an hour's fierce fighting, the Danes, havin_ost upwards of fifty of their best men, and finding all their efforts t_roduce an impression upon the Saxons vain, desisted from the attack and fled.
  • At once the wedge broke up, and the Saxons followed in hot pursuit, cuttin_own their flying enemies. Obedient, however, to Edmund's repeated shouts the_ept fairly together, and when the Danes, thinking them broken and disordered, turned to fall upon them, a single note of the horn brought them instantl_ogether again, and the astonished Danes saw the phalanx which had proved s_atal to them prepared to receive their attack. This they did not attempt t_eliver, but took to flight, the Saxons, as before, pursuing, and twice a_any of the Danes were slain in the retreat as in the first attack.
  • The pursuit was continued for many miles, and then, fearing that he might com_cross some fresh body of the enemy, Edmund called off his men. Great was th_riumph of the Saxons. A few of them had suffered from wounds more or les_erious, but not one had fallen. They had defeated a body of Danes four time_heir own force, and had killed nearly half of them, and they felt confiden_hat the tactics which they had adopted would enable them in future to defea_ny scattered bodies of Danes they might meet.
  • For a week after the battle they rested, spending their time in furthe_mproving themselves in their drill, practicing especially the alterations o_he position of the spears requisite when changing from a defensive attitude, with the pikes at right angles to each face, to that of an attack, when th_pears of both faces of the advancing wedge were all directed forward. _essenger arrived from the king, to whom Edmund had sent the news of hi_arious successes, and Alfred sent his warmest congratulations and thanks fo_he great results which had been gained with so small a force, the kin_onfessing that he was unable to understand how with such disproportionat_umbers Edmund could so totally have routed the force of so distinguished _eader as Haffa.
  • For some weeks Edmund continued the work of checking the depredations of th_anes, and so successful was he that the freebooters became seized with _uperstitious awe of his band. The rapidity of its maneuvering, the manner i_hich men, at one moment scattered, were in another formed in a serried mass, against which all their efforts broke as waves against a rock, seemed to the_o be something superhuman. In that part of Wessex, therefore, the invader_radually withdrew their forces across the frontier; but in other parts of th_ountry, the tide of invasion being unchecked, large tracts of country ha_een devastated, and the West Saxons could nowhere make head against them. On_ay a messenger reached Edmund telling him that a large Danish army wa_pproaching Sherborne, and urging him to return instantly to the defence o_is earldom.
  • With rapid marches he proceeded thither, and on arriving at his house he foun_hat the Danes were but a few miles away, and that the whole country was in _tate of panic. He at once sent off messengers in all directions, bidding th_eople hasten with their wives and families, their herds and valuables, to th_ort. His return to some extent restored confidence. The news of the victorie_e had gained over the Danes had reached Sherborne, and the confidence o_heir power to defeat the invaders which his followers expressed as the_cattered to their respective farms again raised the courage of the people.
  • All through the night bands of fugitives poured into the fort, and by mornin_he whole of the people for many miles round were assembled there. Egbert an_dmund busied themselves in assigning to each his duty and station. All th_en capable of bearing arms were told off to posts on the walls. The old me_nd young boys were to draw water and look after the cattle; the women to coo_nd attend to the wounded. The men of his own band were not placed upon th_alls, but were held in readiness as a reserve to move to any point whic_ight be threatened, and to take part in sorties against the enemy.
  • Soon smoke was seen rising up in many directions, showing that the enemy wer_t their accustomed work. Cries broke from the women, and exclamations of rag_rom the men, as they recognized by the direction of the smoke that their ow_omesteads and villages were in the hands of the spoilers. About mid-day _arty of mounted Danes rode up towards the fort and made a circuit of it. Whe_hey had satisfied themselves as to the formidable nature of its defences the_ode off again, and for the rest of the day none of the enemy approached th_ort.