Page 1205

1205 THE AGE OF CHARLEMAGNE-ALFRED AND HIS SUCCESSORS.

divided Northumbria among his followers, who

mingling with the Anglo-Saxons, were, in

the course of some generations, united into

a single people. Another army of Northmen captured Cambridge, which they fortified and converted into a camp. Having thus overrun the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, the Danes

again looked to the West Saxons and their

king, between whom and themselves a contest was now to be waged for the mastery of

England.

The prudent Alfred, having now had the

advantages of a three years' truce, had employed the interval in preparations. Especially had his wisdom been revealed in the

construction of a fleet, which, though small

and rude, may be regarded as the beginning

of England's greatness on the sea. Originally the Anglo-Saxons had been as skillful

and courageous seamen as the Danes themselves But in the course of four centuries

from the coming of Hengist and Horsa their

followers had given over the maritime life,

forgotten the management of ships, and degenerated into swineherds and peasants. Not,

indeed, that the warlike valor of the race was

in any wise abated, but the settled life had

superseded the piratical habit, and the mastery of the sea had passed to their kinsmen of

the North.

Meanwhile the Danes, breaking from their

winter camp at Cambridge, swore by their

golden bracelets that they would drive the

West Saxons from the land. In Dorsetshire they surprised the castle of Wareham

and devastated the surrounding country.

Soon afterwards, however, the Danish squadron was attacked and destroyed by Alfred's

rude flotilla. The effect was electrical upon

both parties, being inspiration to the Saxons

and paralysis to the Danes. The latter

speedily agreed to make peace and evacuate

the kingdom. King Alfred made his enemy

swear upon the relics of the saints that they

would abstain from further injury. But on

the very next night, as the king was journeying with a small band of followers towards

Winchester, the oath-breaking pagans fell

upon him, and he narrowly escaped with

his life. The Danes then retired to Exeter,

where they were joined by others of their

nation, and , the war was renewed with more

violence than ever.

It now became the policy of the Northmen

to incite the people of Cornwall to revolt.

In order to strengthen the insurrection

in the West a Danish fleet put to sea from

the mouth of the Thames. But Alfred's

courageous navy attacked and destroyed the

hostile squadron. The army of the king

had in the mean time marched against Exeter. Here Guthrun, king of the Danes, was

besieged; but learning that his flotilla had

been destroyed, he gladly capitulated, and,

giving hostages to Alfred, retired with his

army into Mercia.

In these fierce conflicts between Alfred

and his antagonist it soon became apparent that the faith of the Danes even when

supported by the most solemn oaths, was

utterly valueless as a basis of trust or action. No sooner had King Guthrun returned into Mercia than he prepared to renew the war. His maneuvers exhibited

such skill as in a civilized ruler would have

indicated a chief of diplomacy. He advanced his head-quarters to Gloucester, a

position as near as practicable to that of

Alfred. At this place his followers rallied in

great numbers, and their presence was a

source of constant alarm to the kingdom of

Wessex.

The time had now come for a new departure by King Guthrun. Hitherto the devastating excursions of the Danes had always

been conducted in summer. In winter they

shut themselves up in some fortified town and

spent the frozen season in drinking and carousing, after the manner of the men of the North.

On the first day of January, 878, the king of

the Danes issued to his followers a secret order

to meet him on horseback at a certain rendezvous. King Alfred was at that time in his

capital at Chippenham, little anticipating the

impending attack. While he and his Saxons

were observing the feast of the Epiphany the

Danes suddenly burst through the gates with

an overwhelming force, and the king barely

saved himself by flight. Accompanied by a

small band of faithful followers, he fled into

the woods and concealed himself in the

somber moorlands of the West. Chippenham

was pillaged by the victorious marauders,

who then rode in triumph from one end of

Wessex to the other. Some of the inhabitants made their way to the Isle of Wight.

Some escaped to the continent. Most of