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Edmund and Egbert devoted most of their time to the building of the new fort, living very simply, and expended the whole of the revenues of the lands on the payment of the freemen and masons engaged upon the work. The Roman fort was a parallelogram, the sides being about 200 yards long, and the ends half that length. It was surrounded by two earthen banks with wide ditches. These were deepened considerably, and the slopes were cut down more sharply. The inner bank was widened until it was 15 feet across the top.
On this the wall was built. It was faced on both sides with square stones, the space between filled up with rubble and cement, the total thickness being 4 feet. The height of the wall was 8 feet, and at intervals of 30 yards apart towers were raised 10 feet above it, one of these being placed at either side of the entrance. Here the bank was cut away, and solid buttresses of masonry supported the high gates. The opening in the outer bank was not opposite to the gate in the inner, being fifty yards away, so that any who entered by it would have for that distance to follow the ditch between the two banks, exposed to the missiles of those on the wall before arriving at the inner gate.
Five hundred men laboured incessantly at the work. The stone for the walls was fortunately found close at hand, but, notwithstanding this, the work took nearly six months to execute; deep wells were sunk in the centre of the fort, and by this means an ample supply of water was secured, however large might be the number within it.
A very short time after the commencement of the work the news arrived that King Edmund of East Anglia had gathered his forces together and had met the Danes in a great battle near Thetford on Sunday the 20th of November, and had been totally defeated by them, Edmund himself having been taken prisoner. The captive king, after having been for a long time cruelly tortured by the Danes, was shot to death with arrows. It was not long after this that news came that the whole of East Anglia had fallen into the hands of the Danes.
Early in the month of February, 871,just as the walls of his fort had begun to rise, a messenger arrived from the king bidding Edmund assemble all the men in his earlship and march at once to join him near Devizes, as the news had come that a great Danish fleet had sailed up the Thames and had already captured the royal town of Reading.
Messengers were sent out in all directions, and early the next morning, 400 men having assembled, Edmund and his kinsman marched away with them towards Devizes. Upon their arrival at that town they found the king and his brother with 8000 men, and the following day the army moved east towards Reading.
They had not marched many miles before a messenger arrived saying that two of the Danish jarls with a great following had gone out to plunder the country, that they had been encountered by Aethelwulf, Earl of Berkshire, with his men at Englefield, and a fierce battle had taken place. The Saxons had gained the victory, and great numbers of the Danes had been slain, Sidroc, one of their jarls, being among the fallen.
Three days later the royal army arrived in sight of Reading, being joined on their march by Aethelwulf and his men. The Danes had thrown up a great rampart between the Thames and the Kennet, and many were still at work on this fortification. These were speedily slain by the Saxons, but their success was a short one. The main body of the invaders swarmed out from the city and a desperate engagement took place.
The Saxons fought valiantly, led by the king and Prince Alfred; but being wholly undisciplined and unaccustomed to war they were unable to withstand the onslaught of the Danes, who fought in better order, keeping together in ranks: after four hours' hard fighting the Saxons were compelled to fall back.
They rallied again a few miles from Reading. Ethelred and Alfred went among them bidding them be of good cheer, for that another time, when they fought in better order, they would gain the victory; and that their loss had not been greater than the Danes, only that unhappily the valiant Ealdorman Aethelwulf had been slain. Fresh messengers were sent throughout the country bidding all the men of Wessex to rally round their king, and on the fourth morning after the defeat Ethelred found himself at the head of larger forces than had fought with him in the last battle.
The Danes had moved out from Reading and had taken post at Ashdown, and as the Saxon army approached they were seen to be divided into two bodies, one of which was commanded by their two kings and the other by two jarls. The Saxons therefore made a similar division of their army, the king commanding one division and Prince Alfred the other.
Edmund with the men of Sherborne was in the division of Alfred. The Danes advanced to the attack and fell with fury upon them. It had been arranged that this division should not advance to the attack until that commanded by the king was also put in motion. For some time Alfred and his men supported the assaults of the Danes, and then, being hardly pressed, the prince sent a messenger to his brother to urge that a movement should be made. The Saxons were impatient at standing on the defensive, and Alfred saw that he must either allow them to charge the enemy or must retreat.
Presently the messenger returned saying that the king was in his tent hearing mass, and that he had given orders that no man should move or any should disturb him until mass was concluded. Alfred hesitated no longer; he formed his men into a solid body, and then, raising his battle cry, rushed upon the Danes. The battle was a furious one. The Danes were upon higher ground, their standard being planted by the side of a single thorn-tree which grew on the slopes of the hill. Towards this Alfred with his men fought their way.
The lesson of the previous battle had not been lost, the Saxons kept together in a solid body which made its way with irresistible weight through the ranks of the Danes. Still the latter closed in on all sides, and the fight was doubtful until the king, having finished his devotions, led his division into the battle. For a long time a desperate strife continued and great numbers on both sides were killed; but the Saxons, animated at once by love of their country and hatred of the invaders and by humiliation at their previous defeat, fought with such fury that the Danes began to give way. Then the Saxons pressed them still more hotly, and the invaders presently lost heart and fled in confusion, pursued in all directions by the exulting Saxons.
The Danish king Bergsecg and five jarls, the two Sidrocs, Osbearn, Frene, and Hareld, were slain, and many thousands of their followers. Great spoil of arms and armour fell into the hands of the victors.
Edmund had fought bravely in the battle at the head of his men. Egbert had kept beside him, and twice, when the lad had been smitten to his knees by the enemy, covered him with his shield and beat off the foe.
"You are over-young for such a fight as this, Edmund," he said when the Danes had taken to flight. "You will need another four or five years over your head before you can stand in battle against these fierce Northmen. They break down your guard by sheer weight; but you bore yourself gallantly, and I doubt not will yet be as famous a warrior as was your brave father."
Edmund did not join in the pursuit, being too much bruised and exhausted to do so; but Egbert with the men of Sherborne followed the flying Danes until nightfall.
"You have done well, my young ealdorman," Prince Alfred said to the lad after the battle. "I have been wishing much that you could be with me during the past month, but I heard that you were building a strong fort and deemed it better to let you continue your work undisturbed. When it is finished I trust that I shall have you often near me; but I fear that for a time we shall have but little space for peaceful pursuits, for the Danes are coming, as I hear, in great troops westward, and we shall have many battles to fight ere we clear the land of the them."
In those days a defeat, however severe, had not the same decisive effect as it has in modern warfare. There were no cannons to lose, no great stores to fall into the hands of the victors. The army was simply dispersed, and its component parts reassembled in the course of a day or two, ready, when reinforcements arrived, to renew the fight. Thus, decisive as was the victory of Ashdown, Prince Alfred saw that many such victories must be won, and a prolonged and exhausting struggle carried on before the tide of invasion would be finally hurled back from Wessex. The next few days were spent in making a fair distribution of the spoil and arms among the conquerors. Some of the thanes then returned home with their people; but the remainder, on the king's entreaty, agreed to march with him against the Danes, who after the battle had fallen back to Basing, where they had been joined by others coming from the coast. The royal army advanced against them, and fourteen days after the battle of Ashdown the struggle was renewed. The fight lasted for many hours, but towards nightfall the Saxons were compelled to retreat, moving off the field, however, in good order, so that no spoil fell into the hands of the Danes.
This check was a great disappointment to the Saxons, who after their late victory had hoped that they should speedily clear the kingdom of the Danes. These, indeed, taught prudence by the manner in which the West Saxons had fought, for a while refrained from plundering excursions. Two months later the Saxons were again called to arms. Somerled, a Danish chieftain, had again advanced to Reading, and had captured and burned the town. The king marched against him, and the two armies met at Merton. Here another desperate battle took place.
During the first part of the day the Saxons were victorious over both the divisions of the Danish army, but in the afternoon the latter received some reinforcements and renewed the fight. The Saxons, believing that the victory had been won, had fallen into disorder and were finally driven from the field. Great numbers were slain on both sides. Bishop Edmund and many Saxon nobles were killed, and King Ethelred so severely wounded that he expired a few days later, April 23d, 871, having reigned for five years. He was buried at Wimbourne Minster, and Prince Alfred ascended the throne.
Ethelred was much regretted by his people, but the accession of Alfred increased their hopes of battling successfully against the Danes. Although wise and brave, King Ethelred had been scarcely the monarch for a warlike people in troubled times. Religious exercises occupied too large a share of his thoughts. His rule was kindly rather than strong, and his authority was but weak over his nobles. From Prince Alfred the Saxons hoped better things. From his boyhood he had been regarded with special interest and affection by the people, as his father had led them to regard him as their future king.
The fact that he had been personally consecrated by the pope appeared to invest him with a special authority. His immense superiority in learning over all his people greatly impressed them. Though gentle he was firm and resolute, prompt in action, daring in the field. Thus, then, although the people regretted King Ethelred, there was a general feeling of hope and joy when Alfred took his place on the throne. He had succeeded to the crown but a month when the Danes again advanced in great numbers. The want of success which had attended them in the last two battles had damped the spirit of the people, and it was with a very small force only that Alfred was able to advance against them.
The armies met near Wilton, where the Danes in vastly superior numbers were posted on a hill. King Alfred led his forces forward and fell upon the Danes, and so bravely did the Saxons fight that for some time the day went favourably for them. Gradually the Danes were driven from their post of vantage, and after some hours' fighting turned to fly; but, as at Merton and Kesteven, the impetuosity of the Saxons proved their ruin. Breaking their compact ranks they scattered in pursuit of the Danes, and these, seeing how small was the number of their pursuers, rallied and turned upon them, and the Saxons were driven from the field which they had so bravely won.
"Unless my brave Saxons learn order and discipline," the king said to Edmund and some of his nobles who gathered round him on the evening after the defeat, "our cause is assuredly lost. We have proved now in each battle that we are superior man to man to the Danes, but we throw away the fruits of victory by our impetuosity. The great Caesar, who wrote an account of his battles which I have read in Latin, described the order and discipline with which the Roman troops fought. They were always in heavy masses, and even after a battle the heavy-armed soldiers kept their ranks and did not scatter in pursuit of the enemy, leaving this task to the more lightly armed troops,
"Would that we had three or four years before us to teach our men discipline and order, but alas! there is no time for this. The Danes have fallen in great numbers in every fight, but they are ever receiving reinforcements and come on in fresh waves of invasion; while the Saxons, finding that all their efforts and valour seem to avail nothing, are beginning fast to lose heart. See how small a number assembled round my standard yesterday, and yet the war is but beginning. Truly the look-out is bad for England."
The king made strenuous efforts again to raise an army, but the people did not respond to his call. In addition to the battles which have been spoken of several others had been fought in different parts of Wessex by the ealdormen and their followers against bodies of invading Danes. In the space of one year the Saxons had engaged in eight pitched battles and in many skirmishes. Great numbers had been slain on both sides, but the Danes ever received fresh accessions of strength, and seemed to grow stronger and more numerous after every battle, while the Saxons were dwindling rapidly. Wide tracts of country had been devastated, the men slaughtered, and the women and children taken captives, and the people, utterly dispirited and depressed, no longer listened to the voices of their leaders, and refused again to peril their lives in a strife which seemed hopeless. Alfred therefore called his ealdormen together and proposed to them, that since the people would no longer fight, the sole means that remained to escape destruction was to offer to buy off the Danes.
The proposal was agreed to, for although none of them had any hope that the Danes would long keep any treaty they might make, yet even a little respite might give heart and spirit to the Saxons again. Accordingly negotiations were entered into with the Danes, and these, in consideration of a large money payment, agreed to retire from Wessex. The money was paid, the Danes retired from Reading, which they had used as their headquarters, and marched to London. King Burhred, the feeble King of Mercia, could do nothing to oppose them, and he too agreed to pay them a large annual tribute.
From the end of 872 till the autumn of 875 the country was comparatively quiet. Alfred ruled it wisely, and tried to repair the terrible damages the war had made. Edmund looked after his earldom, and grew into a powerful young man of nineteen years old.
King Alfred had not deceived himself for a moment as to the future. "The Danes," he said, "are still in England. East Anglia and Northumbria swarm with them. Had this army, after being bought off by us and my brother of Mercia, sailed across the seas and landed in France there would have been some hope for us, but their restless nature will not allow them to stay long in the parts which they have conquered.
"In Anglia King Guthrum has divided the land among his jarls, and there they seem disposed to settle down; but elsewhere they care not for the land, preferring to leave it in the hands of its former owners to till, and after to wring from the cultivators the fruits of the harvest; then, as the country becomes thoroughly impoverished, they must move elsewhere. Mercia they can overrun whensoever they choose, and after that there is nothing for them to do but to sweep down again upon Wessex, and with all the rest of England at their feet it is hopeless to think that we alone can withstand their united power."
"Then what, think you, must be the end of this?" Edmund asked.
"'Tis difficult to see the end," Alfred replied. "It would seem that our only hope of release from them is that when they have utterly eaten up and ravaged England they may turn their thoughts elsewhere. Already they are harrying the northern coasts of France, but there are richer prizes on the Mediterranean shores, and it may be that when England is no longer worth plundering they may sail away to Spain and Italy. We have acted foolishly in the way we have fought them. When they first began to arrive upon our coasts we should have laboured hard to build great fleets, so that we could go forth and meet them on the seas.
"Some, indeed, might have escaped our watch and landed, but the fleets could have cut off reinforcements coming to them, and thus those who reached our shores could have been overwhelmed. Even now, I think that something might be done that way, and I purpose to build a fleet which may, when they again invade us, take its station near the mouth of the Thames and fall upon the vessels bringing stores and reinforcements. This would give much encouragement to the people, whose hopelessness and desperation are caused principally by the fact that it seems to be of no use killing the enemy, since so many are ready constantly to take their places."
"I will gladly undertake to build one ship," Edmund said. "The fort is now finished, and with the revenues of the land I could at once commence a ship; and if the Danes give us time, when she is finished I would build another. I will the more gladly do it, since it seems to me that if the Danes entirely overrun our country we must take to the sea and so in turn become plunderers. With this view I will have the ship built large and strong, so that she may keep the sea in all weathers and be my home if I am driven out of England. There must be plenty of ports in France, and many a quiet nook and inlet round England, where one can put in to refit when necessary, and we could pick up many a prize of Danish ships returning laden with booty. With such a ship I could carry a strong crew, and with my trusty Egbert and the best of my fighting men we should be able to hold our own, even if attacked by two or three of the Danish galleys."
"The idea is a good one, Edmund," the king said, "and I would that I myself could carry it into effect. It were a thousand times better to live a free life on the sea, even if certain at last to be overpowered by a Danish fleet, than to lurk a hunted fugitive in the woods; but I cannot do it. So long as I live I must remain among my people, ready to snatch any chance that may offer of striking a blow against the invader. But for you it is different."
"I should not, of course, do it," Edmund said, "until all is lost here, and mean to defend my fort to an extremity; still should it be that the Danes conquer all our lands, it were well to have such a refuge."
Edmund talked the matter over with Egbert, who warmly entered into the plan. "So long as I have life I will fight against the Danes, and in a ship at least we can fight manfully till the end. We must not build her on the sea-coast, or before the time when we need her she may be destroyed by the Danes. We will build her on the Parrot. The water is deep enough far up from the sea to float her when empty, and if we choose some spot where the river runs among woods we might hide her so that she may to the last escape the attention of the Danes.
"We must get some men crafty in ship-building from one of the ports, sending down a body of our own serfs to do the rough work. We will go to Exeter first and there choose us the craftsman most skilled in building ships, and will take council with him as to the best form and size. She must be good to sail and yet able to row fast with a strong crew, and she must have room to house a goodly number of rowing and fighting men. You, Edmund, might, before we start, consult King Alfred. He must have seen at Rome and other ports on the Mediterranean the ships in use there, which are doubtless far in advance of our own. For we know from the Holy Bible that a thousand years ago St. Paul made long voyages in ships, and doubtless they have learned much since those days."
Edmund thought the idea a good one, and asked the king to make him a drawing of the vessels in use in the Mediterranean. This King Alfred readily did, and Egbert and Edmund then journeyed to Exeter, where finding out the man most noted for his skill in building ships, they told him the object they had in view, and showed him the drawings the king had made. There were two of them, the one a long galley rowed with double banks of oars, the other a heavy trading ship.
"This would be useless to you," the shipwright said, laying the second drawing aside. "It would not be fast enough either to overtake or to fly. The other galley would, methinks, suit you well. I have seen a drawing of such a ship before. It is a war galley such as is used by the Genoese in their fights against the African pirates. They are fast and roomy, and have plenty of accommodation for the crews. One of them well manned and handled should be a match for six at least of the Danish galleys, which are much lower in the water and smaller in all ways. But it will cost a good deal of money to build such a ship."
"I will devote all the revenues of my land to it until it is finished," Edmund said. "I will place a hundred serfs at your service, and will leave it to you to hire as many craftsmen as may be needed. I intend to build her in a quiet place in a deep wood on the river Parrot, so that she may escape the eyes of the Danes."
"I shall require seasoned timber," the shipwright urged.
"That will I buy," Edmund replied, as you shall direct, and can have it brought up the river to the spot."
"Being so large and heavy," the shipwright said, "she will be difficult to launch. Methinks it were best to dig a hole or dock at some little distance from the river; then when she is finished a way can be cut to the river wide enough for her to pass out. When the water is turned in it will float her up level to the surface, and as she will not draw more than two feet of water the cut need not be more than three feet deep."
"That will be the best plan by far," Edmund agreed, "for you can make the hole so deep that you can build her entirely below the level of the ground. Then we can, if needs be, fill up the hole altogether with bushes, and cover her up, so that she would not be seen by a Danish galley rowing up the river, or even by any of the enemy who might enter the wood, unless they made special search for her; and there she could lie until I chose to embark."
The shipwright at once set to work to draw out his plans, and a week later sent to Edmund a messenger with an account of the quantity and size of wood he should require. This was purchased at once. Edmund and Egbert with their serfs journeyed to the spot they had chosen, and were met there by the shipwright, who brought with him twenty craftsmen from Exeter. The wood was brought up the river, and while the craftsmen began to cut it up into fitting sizes, the serfs applied themselves to dig the deep dock in which the vessel was to be built.
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