The Danes at Exeter, being now cut off from all hope of relief, asked fo_erms, and the king granted them their lives on condition of their promisin_o leave Wessex and not to return. This promise they swore by their mos_olemn oaths to observe, and marching northward passed out of Wessex an_ettled near Gloucester. Some of the Saxons thought that the king had bee_rong in granting such easy terms, but he pointed out to the ealdormen wh_emonstrated with him that there were many other and larger bands of Danes i_ercia and Anglia, and that had he massacred the band at Exeter—and this h_ould not have done without the loss of many men, as assuredly the Danes woul_ave fought desperately for their lives—the news of their slaughter would hav_rought upon him fresh invasions from all sides.
By this time all resistance to the Danes in Mercia had ceased. Again and agai_ing Burhred had bought them off, but this only brought fresh hordes down upo_im, and at last, finding the struggle hopeless, he had gone as a pilgrim t_ome, where he had died. The Danes acted in Mercia as they had done i_orthumbria. They did not care, themselves, to settle down for any length o_ime, and therefore appointed a weak Saxon thane, Ceolwulf, as the King o_ercia. He ruled cruelly and extorted large revenues from the land-owners, an_obbed the monasteries, which had escaped destruction, of their treasures.
The Danes suffered him to pursue this course until he had amassed grea_ealth, when they swooped down upon him, robbed him of all he possessed, an_ook away the nominal kingship he had held. As there was now but little fres_cope for plundering in England many of the Danes both in Anglia and Merci_ettled down in the cities and on the lands which they had taken from th_axons.
The Danes who had gone from Exeter were now joined by another band which ha_anded in South Wales. The latter, finding but small plunder was to b_btained among the mountains of that country, moved to Gloucester, and joinin_he band there proposed a fresh invasion of Wessex. The Danes, in spite of th_aths they had sworn to Alfred, and the hostages they had left in his hands, agreed to the proposal; and early in the spring of 878 the bands, swollen b_einforcements from Mercia, marched into Wiltshire and captured the roya_astle of Chippenham on the Avon. From this point they spread over the countr_nd destroyed everything with fire and sword. A general panic seized th_nhabitants. The better class, with the bishops, priests, and monks, made fo_he sea-coasts and thence crossed to France, taking with them all thei_ortable goods, with the relics, precious stones, and ornaments of th_hurches and monasteries.
Another party of Danes in twenty-three ships had landed in Devonshire. Her_he ealdorman Adda had constructed a castle similar to that which Edmund ha_uilt. It was fortified by nature on three sides and had a strong rampart o_arth on another. The Danes tried to starve out the defenders of the fort; bu_he Saxons held out for a long time, although sorely pressed by want of water.
At last they sallied out one morning at daybreak and fell upon the Danes an_tterly defeated them, only a few stragglers regaining their ships.
A thousand Danes are said to have been slain at Kynwith; but this was a_solated success; in all other parts of the kingdom panic appeared to hav_aken possession of the West Saxons. Those who could not leave the countr_etired to the woods, and thence, when the Danes had passed by, leaving rui_nd desolation behind them, they sallied out and again began to till th_round as best they could. Thus for a time the West Saxons, formerly s_aliant and determined, sank to the condition of serfs; for when al_esistance ceased the Danes were well pleased to see the ground tilled, a_therwise they would speedily have run short of stores.
At the commencement of the invasion Edmund had marched out with his band an_ad inflicted heavy blows upon parties of plunderers; but he soon perceive_hat the struggle was hopeless. He therefore returned to Sherborne, an_ollecting such goods as he required and a good store of provisions he marche_o the place where the ship had been hidden. No wandering band of Danes ha_assed that way, and the bushes with which she had been covered wer_ndisturbed. These were soon removed and a passage three feet deep, and wid_nough for the ship to pass through, was dug from the deep hole in which sh_as lying to the river.
When the last barrier was cut the water poured in, and the Saxons had th_atisfaction of seeing the vessel rise gradually until the water in the doc_as level with that in the river. Then she was taken out into the stream, th_tores and fittings placed aboard, and she was poled down to the mouth of th_iver. Egbert had gone before and had already engaged fifteen sturdy sailor_o go with them. The Danes had not yet reached the sea-coast from th_nterior, and there was therefore no difficulty in obtaining the variou_quipments necessary. In a week her masts were up and her sails in position.
The Dragon, as she was called, excited great admiration at the port, al_aying that she was the finest and largest ship that had ever been seen there.
While her fitting out had been going on she was hove up on shore and receive_everal coats of paint. Edmund was loath to start on his voyage without agai_eeing the king, but no one knew where Alfred now was, he, on finding th_truggle hopeless, having retired to the fastnesses of Somerset to await th_ime when the Saxons should be driven by oppression again to take up arms.
At last all was ready, and the Dragon put out to sea. She was provided wit_ars as well as sails, but these were only to be used when in pursuit, or whe_lying from a superior enemy. As soon as she had been long enough at sea t_nable the band again to recover from the effects of sickness the oars wer_ot out and the men practised in their use.
As in the models from which she had been built, she rowed two banks of oars, the one worked by men upon deck, the others through small port-holes. Th_atter could only be used when the weather was fine; when the sea was hig_hey were closed up and fastened. The lower-deck oars were each rowed by on_an, while the upper bank, which were longer and heavier, had each two men t_ork it.
Before starting Edmund had increased the strength of his band to ninety men, that number being required for the oars, of which the Dragon had fifteen o_ach bank on each side. At first there was terrible splashing and confusion, but in time the men learned to row in order, and in three weeks after puttin_o sea the oars worked well in time together, and the Dragon, with her ninet_owers, moved through the water at a great rate of speed.
During this time she had never been far from land keeping but a short distanc_rom the port from which she had sailed, as Edmund did not wish to fall i_ith the Danes until his crew were able to maneuver her with the best effect.
When, at last, satisfied that all knew their duty he returned to port, took i_ fresh supply of provisions, and then sailed away again in search of th_nemy. He coasted along the shore of Hampshire and Sussex without seeing _oe, and then sailing round Kent entered the mouth of the Thames. The Drago_ept on her way until she reached the point where the river begins to narrow, and there the sails were furled and the anchor thrown overboard to wait fo_anish galleys coming down the river.
On the third day after they had anchored they perceived four black specks i_he distance, and these the sailors soon declared to be Danish craft. The_ere rowing rapidly, having ten oars on either side, and at their mast-head_loated the Danish Raven. The anchor was got up, and as the Danes approached, the Golden Dragon, the standard of Wessex, was run up to the mast-head, th_ails were hoisted, the oars got out, and the vessel advanced to meet th_pproaching Danes.
These for a moment stopped rowing in astonishment at seeing so large a shi_earing the Saxon flag. Then they at once began to scatter in differen_irections; but the Dragon, impelled both by the wind and her sixty oars, rapidly overtook them. When close alongside the galley nearest to them the me_n the upper deck, at an order from Edmund, ran in their oars, and seizin_heir bows poured a volley of arrows into the galley, killing most of th_owers. Then the Dragon was steered alongside, and the Saxons, sword in hand, leaped down into the galley. Most of the Danes were cut down at once; the res_lunged into the water and swam for their lives. Leaving the deserted galle_ehind, the Dragon continued the pursuit of the others, and overtook an_aptured another as easily as she had done the first.
The other two boats reached the shore before they were overtaken, and those o_oard leaping out fled. The Saxons took possession of the deserted galleys.
They found them, as they expected, stored full of plunder of all kinds—ric_earing apparel, drinking goblets, massive vessels of gold and silver whic_ad been torn from some desecrated altar, rich ornaments and jewels and othe_rticles. These were at once removed to the Dragon. Fire was applied to th_oats, and they were soon a mass of flames. Then the Dragon directed he_ourse to the two galleys she had first captured. These were also rifled o_heir contents and burned. The Saxons were delighted at the success which ha_ttended their first adventure.
"We shall have rougher work next time," Egbert said. "The Danes who escape_ill carry news to London, and we shall be having a whole fleet down to attac_s in a few days."
"If they are in anything like reasonable numbers we will fight them; if not, we can run. We have seen to-day how much faster we are than the Danish boats; and though I shall be in favour of fighting if we have a fair chance o_uccess, it would be folly to risk the success of our enterprise by contendin_gainst overwhelming numbers at the outset, seeing that we shall be able t_ick up so many prizes round the coast."
"We can beat a score of them," Egbert grumbled. "I am in favour of fightin_he Danes whenever we see them."
"When there is a hope of success, Egbert, yes; but you know even the fines_ull can be pulled down by a pack of dogs. The Dragon is a splendid ship, an_oes credit alike to King Alfred's first advice, to the plans of the Italia_hipbuilders, and to the workmanship and design of the shipwright of Exeter, and I hope she will long remain to be a scourge to the Danes at sea as the_ave been a scourge to the Saxons on shore; and it is because I hope she i_oing to do such good service to England that I would be careful of her. Yo_ust remember, too, that many of the Danish galleys are far larger than thos_e had to do with to-day. We are not going to gobble them all up as a pik_wallows minnows."
The Dragon had now anchored again, and four days elapsed before any Danis_alleys were seen. At the end of that time six large Danish war-ships wer_erceived in the distance. Edmund and Egbert from the top of the lofty poo_atched them coming.
"They row thirty oars each side," Egbert said, "and are crowded with men. Wha_ay you, Edmund, shall we stop and fight them, or shall the Dragon spread he_ings?"
"We have the advantage of height," Edmund said, "and from our bow and ster_astles can shoot down into them; but if they lie alongside and board us thei_umbers will give them an immense advantage. I should think that we might ru_own one or two of them. The Dragon is much more strongly built than thes_alleys of the Danes, and if when they close round us we have the oars lashe_n both sides as when we are rowing, it will be next to impossible for them t_et alongside except at the stern and bow, which are far too high for them t_limb."
"Very well," Egbert said, "if you are ready to fight, you may be sure I am."
The anchor was got up and the oars manned, and the Dragon quietly advance_owards the Danish boats. The men were instructed to row slowly, and it wa_ot until within a hundred yards of the leading galley that the order wa_iven to row hard.
The men strained at the tough oars, and the Dragon leapt ahead to meet th_oe. Her bow was pointed as if she would have passed close by the side of th_anish galley, which was crowded with men. When close to her, however, th_elmsman pushed the tiller across and the Dragon swept straight down upon her.
A shout of dismay rose from the Danes, a hasty volley of arrows and darts wa_urled at the Dragon, and the helmsman strove to avoid the collision, but i_ain. The Dragon struck her on the beam, the frail craft broke up like an egg- shell under the blow, and sank almost instantly under the bows of the Dragon.
Without heeding the men struggling thickly in the water, the Dragon continue_er course. Warned by the fate of the first boat, the next endeavoured t_void her path. Her commander shouted orders. The rowers on one side backe_hile those on the other pulled, but she was not quite quick enough. Th_ragon struck her a few feet from the stern, cutting her in two.
The other galleys now closed in alongside. The Saxons hastily fastened thei_ars as they had been rowing and then betook themselves to their posts, thos_ith spears and swords to the sides to prevent the enemy from climbing up, th_rchers to the lofty castles at either end. The Danes had the greates_ifficulty in getting alongside, the oars keeping the galleys at a distance.
For some time the combat was conducted entirely by the archers on both sides, the Danes suffering much the most heavily, as the Saxons were protected by th_ulwarks, while from their lofty positions they were enabled to fire down int_he galleys.
At last one of the Danish vessels rowed straight at the broadside of th_ragon, and breaking her way through the oars her bow reached the side. The_he Danes strove to leap on board, but the Saxons pursued the tactics whic_ad succeeded so well on land, and forming in a close mass where the Danis_essel touched the Dragon, opposed a thick hedge of spears to those who strov_o board her.
The Danes fought desperately. Several notable leaders, hearing that a grea_axon ship had appeared on the Thames, had come down to capture her, an_eading their followers, strove desperately to cut their way to the deck o_he Dragon. Taking advantage of the strife, the other galleys repeated th_aneuver which had succeeded, and each in turn ran their stem through th_axon oars, and reached the side of the Dragon. In this position, however, they had the immense disadvantage that only a few men at once could strive t_oard, while the Saxons were able to oppose all their strength at these fou_oints.
For a time the Saxons repulsed every effort, but as the lashings of the oar_ave way under the pressure of the Danish ships, these drifted alongside, an_hey were thus able to attack along the whole length of the bulwarks betwee_he castles. The Saxons were now hard put to it, but their superior heigh_till enabled them to keep the Danes in check.
All this time the five vessels had been drifting down the river together.
Presently, when the conflict was hottest, the chief of the sailors made hi_ay to Edmund.
"If we get up the sails we may be able to draw out from the galleys."
"Do so," Edmund said, "and at once, for we are hardly pressed; they are fou_o one against us."
The sailors at once sprang to the halliards, and soon the great sail rose o_he mast. Almost instantly the Dragon began to glide away from the galleys.
The Danes with ropes endeavoured to lash themselves to her sides, but thes_ere severed as fast as thrown, and in two or three minutes the Dragon ha_rawn herself clear of them. The Danes betook themselves to their oars, bu_any of these had been broken between the vessels, and rowing their utmos_hey could only just keep up with the Dragon, for the wind was blowing freely.
Fully half the oars of the Dragon were broken, but the rest were soon manned, and she then rapidly drew away from her pursuers.
"I am not going to run further," Edmund said. "Now that we have once shake_hem off, let us turn and meet them again."
As the vessel's head was brought up into the wind the Danes ceased rowing. Th_ate which had befallen their two galleys at the commencement of the fight wa_till before them. They had lost great numbers of men in the attempt to boar_rom the Saxon pikes and arrows, and their desire to renew the fight vanishe_hen they saw that the Saxons were equally ready. Therefore, as the Drago_pproached them, they sheered off on either side of her and rowed for th_outh of the Medway.
The Saxons did not pursue. They had lost eight men killed, and seventee_ounded by the Danish arrows, and were well content to be quit of thei_pponents, upon whom they had inflicted a severe blow, as each of the galley_unk had contained fully a hundred and fifty men, and great numbers of th_anes on board the other ships had fallen.
They now left the Thames and sailed to Sandwich. The town had been shortl_efore burned by the Danes, but these had left, and some of the inhabitant_ad returned. Here the Dragon waited for a week, by the end of which time th_races of the conflict had been obliterated, and new oars made. Edmund foun_o difficulty in filling up the vacancies caused in the fight, as many of th_oung Saxons were burning to avenge the sufferings which the Danes ha_nflicted, and could have obtained several times the number he required ha_here been room for them. He was therefore enabled to pick out sturdy fellow_ccustomed to the sea. When the Dragon again set sail her head was laid to th_orthward, as Edmund intended to cruise off East Anglia, from whose shore_leets were constantly crossing and recrossing to Denmark.
They picked up several prizes at the mouths of the eastern rivers, scarcel_aving to strike a blow, so surprised were the Danes at the appearances of th_reat Saxon galley. Whenever the Danes surrendered without resistance Edmun_ave them quarter and landed them in small boats on the shore; their ships, after being emptied of the booty they contained, were burned. When of_armouth, where they had captured four Danish vessels sailing out unsuspiciou_f danger, the wind veered round to the north-east and began to blow ver_trongly.
The long line of sandbanks off the coast broke somewhat the violence of th_ea, and the Dragon rode all night to her anchors; but in the morning the win_ontinued to rise. The sea became more and more violent, and the anchors bega_o drag. Edmund and Egbert, after a consultation, agreed that their onl_hance of saving the vessel was to enter the river. The tide was running in, but the sea was so heavy on the bar of the river that the efforts of the cre_t the oars barely sufficed to keep her on her course. At length, however, sh_ade her way safely between the posts which marked the entrance, and rowing u_ntil they passed a turn, and were sheltered from the force of the gale, the_gain anchored.
The oars were all lashed out firmly to keep any boats from approaching he_ides. Bales of goods with which her hold was filled were brought on deck, an_iled high along the bulwarks so as to afford a shelter from missiles. Even a_hey entered the harbour numbers of Danes had assembled at the point; for th_apture and destruction of their ships had of course been seen, and the crew_et ashore had spread the news that the strange vessel was a Saxon. Th_orfolk bank being somewhat higher than the Suffolk, the boat was anchore_ather nearer to the latter, as it was from the town of Yarmouth that a_ttack was anticipated.
As soon as the anchors were let go the Danes began to fire their arrows; bu_o powerful was the gale that the greater part of them were swept far away. A_he day went on the numbers of Danes on the bank increased largely, and vas_umbers of arrows were discharged at the Dragon. The crew kept under shelter, and although she was often struck no damage was done.
In the afternoon a fleet of galleys was seen coming down the river. The Dane_ossessed a large number of these boats at Yarmouth, and in these the_avigated the inland waters far into the interior. The wind had shifted unti_t was blowing nearly due east, and Edmund and Egbert had agreed upon the bes_ourse to be pursued. In case of attack they could hardly hope finally to bea_ff the assault of a large fleet of galleys, and would besides be exposed t_ttack by boats laden with combustibles. Therefore as soon as the galleys wer_een approaching the oars were unlashed, the great sail hoisted, and at he_est speed the Dragon advanced up the river to meet her foes. The Danes gave _hout of alarm as the vessel advanced to meet them with the water surging in _hite wave from her bows, and the greater part of them hurried towards on_ank or the other to escape the shock. Some, slower in movement or stouter i_eart, awaited the attack, while from all a storm of missiles was poured upo_he advancing boat.
Heedless of these she continued her way. Her sharp bow crashed right throug_he side of the Danish boats, and having destroyed seven of them on her wa_he passed through the flotilla and continued her course. The dragon wave_riumphantly from her mast as she passed under the walls of Yarmouth. Thes_ere crowded with Danes, who vainly showered arrows and javelins as she fle_ast, with the fleets of galleys rowing in her wake. A few minutes and she wa_ut on the broad sheet of water beyond. The Danish galleys paused at th_ntrance. In so wild a storm they would have had difficulty in keeping thei_oats straight, while the great galley with her sails and oars would be abl_o maneuver freely, and could strike and run them down one by one.
"What is that pile of buildings on the rising knoll of ground some three mile_way?" Edmund asked.
"It is Bamborough Castle," Egbert replied, "a Roman stronghold of immens_trength."
"Let us run up thither," Edmund said. "If, as is likely enough, it i_noccupied, we will land there and take possession. Are the walls complete?"
"Assuredly they are," Egbert said. "They are of marvellous strength, such a_e cannot build in our days. They run in a great semicircle from the edge o_he water round the crest of the knoll and down again to the water. There i_ut one gateway in the wall on the land side, and this we can block up. W_eed not fear an attack from the land, for between the river and the castl_here are wide swamps; so that unless they row up and attack us from the wate_e are safe."
"I think that they will not do that," Edmund said, "after the taste which th_ragon has given them of her quality. At any rate I think we are safe till th_torm abates."
By this time, running rapidly before the wind, the Dragon was approaching th_reat Roman fort, whose massive walls struck Edmund with astonishment. No on_as to be seen moving about in the space inclosed by them. The sail wa_owered and the vessel brought to the bank. The anchors were taken ashore an_he was soon solidly moored. Then the crew leapt on to the land and ascende_he bank to the great level inclosure.
The walls were, as Egbert had said, intact—and indeed, except on the sid_acing the river, remained almost unbroken to the present day. An hour'_abour sufficed to block the gateway, where a pair of massive doors were i_osition, for the place had been defended by the Saxons against the Danes a_heir first landing on the coast. A few men were placed as sentries on th_alls, and, feeling now perfectly safe from any attack on the land side, Edmund and his followers returned on board the Dragon for the night.