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TRACES OF THE
DANES IN ENGLAND
The antiquities and literature of Northern Europe have had increased attention drawn to them, of late years, from various quarters; while also greater familiarity has resulted from Travels in Norway with the customs and institutions of its primitive people,-the best remaining type of the old Scandinavian character. From these sources of information materials have been supplied for forming a very different estimate from that which has been long and generally accepted, of the civilization of the Northmen, when, during a century before and after the reign of ALFRED THE GREAT, they invaded and colonized great part of England, as well as conquered some of the fairest provinces of continental Europe. The effects, also, of this settlement of the Northmen in England on its internal polity have been hitherto very imperfectly appreciated.
According to popular ideas, which even the best of our historians have contributed to form, these northern invaders were only remarkable for their unmitigated ferocity, and an ignorance and barbarism which had scarcely any tincture of civilization. Such writers appear to have been as ill-acquainted with the antecedents of this formidable race as the Anglo-Saxon monks on whose Chronicles their accounts are based, and who describe in horrid, but doubtlessly faithful colours, the ravages of the northern pagans who overspread the land, sparing neither age, sex nor condition,-church nor convent. When at length, as we are told, the roving bands settled quietly down in the territories they had conquered, they were gradually reclaimed from their native barbarism by the superior civilization of the Anglo-Saxon people with whom eventually they fused. Finally, it is said, in the decay of the Danish supremacy, their national character was quickly lost; and their memory passed away, without leaving
any permanent traces of their influence on the character, the language, or the institutions of the English people.
It is now some years since Mr Samuel Laing took the lead in the attempt to place the claims of the Northmen to the consideration of the English student of history in a very different light; and though his hypothesis may be somewhat startling to those who pride themselves on their purely Anglo-Saxon traditions, Mr Laing's peculiar talent, 'his large acquaintance with the remains of the antient Saga literature, and a residence of some length in the interior of Norway, enabled him to support it with great force of argument.
In a dissertation prefixed to his historical work on the antient kings of Norway, Mr Laing finds reason to conclude, from a review of the Icelandic Chronicles and an examination of long prevailing customs and institutions still existing in Norway, that the invaders of England in the 9th and 10th centuries "surpassed the cognate Saxon people they were plundering and subduing" (both being branches of the Teutonic race) "in literature as much as in arms;-that poetry, history, laws, social institutions and usages, many of the useful arts, and all the elements of civilization and freedom were existing among them in those ages in much greater vigour than among the Anglo-Saxous themselves :" and that, in fact, the Northmen conferred on the country they colonized, benefits at least equivalent to those which they derived themselves from their settlement in England.
More recently, an agreeable Danish writer, starting from an opposite point of view, has drawn from a careful examination of existing memorials, as well as from historical notices, of the Danes and Norwegians in England, evidence not only for vindicating their claims to the possession, from the earliest period of their settlement, of a very considerable degree of culture and civilization, irrespective of what they acquired by their new position, but exhibiting their predominance in large and important sections of Anglo-Saxon England: a predominance not merely transient but exercising a permanent influence on the national character, habits and language, and to which M. Warsaae considers himself justified in attributing some of those cherished in
"The Heimskringla; or Chronicle of the kings of Norway, by Samuel Laing Esq.” Longmans. 1844.
stitutions which, in common acceptance, are peculiarly esteemed to be of Anglo-Saxon origin.†
An examination of this theory, which has been so ably devoloped, both from a foreign and domestic quarter, forms a fitting branch of our present enquiries; and its progress will bring under our notice many of those interesting memorials of the Danes and Norwegians in England which have been collected from historical and antiquarian researches.
The power of the Northmen in the 9th and 10th centuries was mainly owing to their maritime superiority. But the skill required for building and fitting out numerous fleets and navigating them through the storms and currents of the northern seas argues a very considerable progress in the arts of civilization. Ferocious and sanguinary as they were, the piratical bands who in those centuries landed on the coasts of England and France must have been far in advance of the barbarous hordes which in the decline and fall of the Western empire migrated in successive swarms from the deserts of central Europe, and after long marches threw themselves on the frontier of civilized states. For such enterprises brute courage only was wanting; no preparations were necessary; the nomad tribes found subsistence in pasture and plunder as they moved onward. But in reference to the invasions of the Northmen, we are reminded how much of art and skilful workmanship were required in the frame, the cordage, the sails, the ironwork,-in provisioning, arming and equipping fleets capable of transporting large bodies of men even to the shores of England and France. It may be said that such a flotilla consisted chiefly of large boats, decked perhaps fore and aft, while the midship was open for stowage and the benches of the rowers. But even such a craft as this could not be fitted out without the resources just enumerated; while squadrons of the Northmen sometimes included vessels of large burthen and dimensions. From very early times we find them building and equipping sea-going ships. We are told that Charlemagne wept
+ "An account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland and Ireland, by I. I. A. Warsaae." Murray, 1852.
when he saw a fleet of these Northern pirates on the waters of the Mediterranean; and shortly afterwards the Norwegians discovered Iceland;—a century later their colonists extended their discoveries to Greenland, and even to some parts of the coast of America.
What is more to the present purpose, it appears that the maritime expeditions of the Scandinavians were not exclusively directed to objects of plunder or conquest; but we find them from a very early period engaged in the peaceful pursuits of commerce. Annual fairs were held on the shores of the Baltic to which trading ships resorted from all parts of the Scandinavian peninsula. While the Romans occupied Britain, an active trade was carried on from the opposite coast of Jutland, which after the Saxon invasion continually increased; and we shall presently find good reason to believe that soon after the time of Alfred the Great, when the Danes and Norwegians became settled in England, the greater part of the trade of the North was in the hands of Scandinavian merchants."
It is impossible at this day to draw any accurate distinction between the Scandinavian colonies in England which were of Norwegian, and those which were of Danish origin. The former probably prevailed most in the northern districts, while the Danes occupied in great numbers the eastern coast of England contiguous to Jutland, from which the passage across the North Sea in the smallest class of vessels was easily made. From this circumstance and from the Scandinavian kings who mounted the throne of England being of Danish origin, it may perhaps have happened that the invasion of the Northmen, and all the relics and traces of it, are popularly attributed to the Danes. We are however rather inclined to think that even if the Danes preponderated in numbers, the Norwegians, the boldest and the purest race, formed the most influential element in the mixed population. They were certainly the most daring and enterprising sailors; for the coasts of Denmark are flat and without harbours its eastern shores are washed by an inclosed sea, and the voyages of the Danes were confined to the comparatively neighbouring countries of England, Holland and France. But no one can have visited the western districts of Norway-the cradle of the adventurers who