« PreviousContinue »
but the great king of the east had a sacred cause, the interests of the world, in common with the great king of the west, as Charlemagne styles his neighbour with a certain stately condescension. Yet the relations between the two sovereigns were always difficult; English exiles were sheltered at Charlemagne's court; English merchants, wishing to evade the revenue duties as pilgrims, were imprisoned by the Frank custom-house officers; and at last Charlemagne, indignant at the demand of his daughter's hand for Offa's son, broke off all communication between the two countries.2 Friendship was restored, in part by the good offices of Alcuin, a scholar and divine, who had been attracted from Northumbria to live like an ancient Greek sophist in the court of the Frank emperor, teaching king and courtiers to think. It is among the strangest phenomena of the times, that religion and learning were now flowing back on the continent from the west, and that missionaries like Gall and Boniface, thinkers like Alcuin and Scotus Erigena, were keeping alive the divine flame which had almost been crushed out in the ruins of the Latin world. This flux and reflux between east and west is among the causes of that wonderful unity, which the civilization of different countries exhibits during the very centuries in which they seem most isolated.
Partly perhaps in penitence for the death of Ethelbert, partly as a resting-place for travellers on the high road from York to London, the magnificent king, as Offa is called, had founded the monastery of St. Albans. It was the last great work of his life; he died A.D. 796, only four years after his victim. The chapel built over his body, was swept away by the Ouse; and might be seen, men said, long afterwards, deep down in the river's bed. As the earth did not suffer him to rest, so a
'Malmesbury, lib. i., p. 129.
2 Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium, c. 16.-Pertz. Mon. Germ., vol. i., p. 291. Eginhard indirectly confirms the story, saying of Charlemagne, nullam earum, (sc. filiarum,) cuiquam aut suorum aut exterorum nuptum dare voluit.-Vita Kar., c. 19.
• Wendover, vol. i., pp. 261, 262.
mysterious fate visited his crimes in his family. His only son, Ecgferth, died without issue a few months after his father; the blood-stained sceptre passed into another line. Of his daughters, one became an early widow, a second died in a cloister, and the third, Eadburga, had perhaps the most tragical fate any English princess has known. She had married Brihtric, the reigning, though not the lawful, king of Wessex. Jealous of one of her husband's favourites, and frenzied with the hereditary taint of murder in her veins, Eadburga poisoned a cup for her rival, which her lord accidently drained. The west Saxons, in their grim horror of the crime, divested by a prospective law all queens to come of the honours of royalty. But Eadburga escaped from their justice to the continent. Appointed by Charlemagne abbess of a convent, she became a scandal by her life, and was expelled; the second disgrace was irretrievable, and she died a beggar in the streets of Pavia.1
1 Asser, M.B., pp. 471-472.
EGBERT'S SUZERAINTY.—ATHELWULF.-FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE DANES.-
THE Consequences of Offa's death were soon felt by the Mercians. The ascendancy passed from them to Wessex, where the crown, left heirless by the death of the usurper Brihtric, had devolved on the rightful heir, Egbert, who had passed his years of exile at Charlemagne's court. Yet more than twenty years elapsed between Egbert's accession (800 A.D.) and the battle of Ellendune, 821 A.D., in which the supremacy of Wessex as the dominant state of the English name was established. A revolt of the East Angles against their oppressors contributed to this success, and Egbert, after six years' warfare, penetrated to the borders of Northumbria and received the submission of their princes, 828 A.D. But his power over the subjectpeoples did not differ in kind from that which Offa had exercised; the different provinces were still governed by their own laws, administered by their own kings; they perhaps paid a nominal tribute; they were bound to contribute troops against the foes of their suzerain; and in the case of Kent, at least, an important public grant would be made by Egbert's authority, and only subscribed by the local prince. But although in sanctioning the acts of his Anglian vassals,
1 Quando Ecgbertus Rex exercitum Gewissorum movit contra Brittones.— Cod. Dip, 1035.
2 Cod. Dip., 223, 224.
CHARACTER OF ETHELWULF.
Egbert called himself king of the Angles,' to indicate his title to authority, he usually preserved the style of his ancestors, and subscribed himself king of the West Saxons; king of England or king of Britain, are titles expressing facts which belong to a later age. Monarchy in the ninth century was the headship of a people, not the government of a territory.3
Neither Egbert nor his successor Ethelwulf, who had been withdrawn from the service of the church to discharge the difficult duties of royalty, are of any high importance in English history. Both seem to have been competent generals and popular with their subjects; Ethelwulf's devout liberality, which imposed a rent charge on his kingdom for the church, his pilgrimage to Rome, and his marriage late in life to a Frankish princess only twelve years old, make his portrait a little more life-like, and explain why he failed to push forward the limits of the kingdom. But the times were not such as allowed either king or people to rest on the advance of their predecessors with impunity. Already. under Offa the Danes had settled colonies in Ireland, where they were known as Ostmen; they thus came into intercourse with the British tribes of the west, and cast as it were their arm round England, before they proceeded to strangle
1 I only find this title in two charters, one relating to Kent, the other to the Isle of Wight.-Cod. Dip., 223, 1037.
2 The fiction that Egbert called himself king of England, was invented at a very late period. Its first mention is in terms that ought to have shown its spuriousness: -Egbertus rex totius Britanniæ in Parliamento apud Wintoniam mutavit nomen regni de consensu populi sui et jussit illud de cœtero vocari Angliam.-Hist. fund. hosp. S. Leon. Monasticon, vol. vi., p. 608. It would seem, however, that Egbert has been confounded with Alfred in this deed, which is much later than Stephen's time. The name Brittannia is always used for the island in early charters; tamdiu fides Christiana in Brittanniâ perduret, or, apud Anglos in Brittanniâ.-Cod. Dip., 140, 166, 242, 258, 261.
* Professor Maine observes, "The descendants of Clovis were not kings of France, they were kings of the Franks. The alternative to this peculiar notion of sovereignty appears to have been-and this is the important point-the idea of universal dominion."-Ancient Laws, p. 104. There are some exceptions to this rule in Kentish charters, possibly to distinguish the king from the regulus.-Cod. Dip., 108, 113, 114, 135, 160, 190, 234.
APPEARANCE OF THE DANES.
it. A few adventurers even sailed to Dorchester, 787 A.D., and slew the town-reeve when he sought to call them to account. But they were routed by the local forces, and their prisoners dismissed contemptuously by the king. Ten years later we hear of their ravaging the Anglian coasts,1 encouraged by the civil anarchy which desolated Kent, Anglia, and Northumbria, where the native line of kings was altogether or nearly extinct. Then came an interval of quiet, the result of their occupation elsewhere. But in 828 A.D. they appeared again in Somersetshire and on the east coast of Kent. At length in 851 A.D., having sailed up the Thames, and plundering, as was their wont, they received a tremendous overthrow at Ockley in Surrey, and withdrew broken and dismayed, leaving the land a respite of a few short years.
It was not possible that this quiet should endure. The feud of Saxon and Angle still rent the land, at a time when unity was imperative. Ethelwulf's last years were distracted by a rebellion, in which his hereditary dominion, Wessex, took part with his eldest son against him; and Æthelbald on his accession, 858 A.D., put himself in feud with the church by reviving the pagan custom, and marrying his young and imperial step-mother. Northumbria was in its normal state of anarchy, and Anglia was governed by a prince who ought to have worn the tonsure rather than the crown. On the other hand, the piracy of Denmark was animated by an idea, and organized by a code of laws, which framed the profession of murder and rapine into a civil polity. The Norse paganism had not originally been a conquering faith, like Islam; it did not seek to impose its doctrines upon the world; but when it was attacked in its shrines, when its feasts were proscribed, and its sacred days blotted out or transferred to another god, the rude instinct of the worshipper was quickened into fanaticism and revenge. Even the Christian missionaries
1 Populus paganus solet vastare piratico latrocinio littora nostra; et illi ipsi populi Anglorum et regna et reges dissentiunt inter se.-Alcuini Opera, p. 78, Ep. 74.