The Outrages of the Danes

It is thus shown, by numerous and incontestable proofs, that the Danes
held dominion in England for a short period, and that they also
exercised, in conjunction with the Normans, so important and lasting an
influence for centuries before and after the time of Canute the Great,
at all events in that portion of England lying to the north of Watlinga
Stræt, that even a great part of the population there may be safely
assumed to be of Danish extraction. Nevertheless, the generally received
opinion in England on this subject is expressed in the following passage
in a brief History of Denmark lately published in London (“Edda, or the
Tales of a Grandmother”), which states that after the suppression of the
Danish power in England, “_Both nations [the Danes and English]
separated soon after, and in a few years the Danish supremacy had
vanished like a vision of the night; so little did it leave any traces
in England, or produce any important political benefits to Denmark._”

It would, however, have been extremely astonishing, nay, utterly
inexplicable, if great effects had not manifested themselves in Denmark
from the expeditions towards the west, and from the complete conquest of
a country like England, which, in regard both to religious and political
development, stood so far above Scandinavia. History, also, sufficiently
shows of what great importance the conquest of England was, not only for
Denmark, but for the whole Scandinavian North. The Christianity of
Scandinavia arose, indeed, out of the smoking ruins of the English
churches and convents. Scandinavian kings and warriors were frequently
baptized during their Viking expeditions; and it was English priests who
proclaimed the doctrines of Christianity on the plains of Denmark and in
the rocky valleys of Sweden and Norway. Many of the first bishops in the
North were of English extraction, and even the style of the
ecclesiastical edifices attested the powerful influence of wealthy
England. The more advanced cultivation of science and art in general
which prevailed there, communicated itself in many directions to the
countries of Scandinavia; where it certainly contributed, just as much
as the great emigrations, to weaken heathenism, and thus, both in a
religious and political point of view, to found a new and better order
of things.

But for whatever benefits Denmark and the North received in this manner
from England, they did not fail to yield a full equivalent. It cannot
reasonably be reproached to the Danes exclusively that, in order to
obtain settlements in England, they made their way with fire and sword,
for this was no more than all other conquerors, and particularly the
Romans and Anglo-Saxons, had done before them. With regard to bloodshed,
and acts of violence and destruction, the Anglo-Saxon conquest of
England exceeded rather than fell short of the Danish. It annihilated
the civilization which had been so widely disseminated there by the
Romans, and subjugated or expelled the older inhabitants in the most
frightful manner. It is the circumstance of the Danish expeditions
having taken place at a far later time, when the monks wrote chronicles,
and when on the whole history was more circumstantial, that has alone
contributed to place the Danish expeditions in so prominent and so
hateful a light.

But even the present age, with its severe views, is scarcely justified
in condemning unconditionally the Scandinavian sea-king, who was not
instigated solely, or even chiefly, by a savage desire of plunder or
murder, but who valued deeds of arms, a glorious name, and the joys of
Valhalla, more than his life, and who therefore “went to death with a
laugh.” Even with him religion was a spur to his achievements in
Christian lands. He was combating for his own gods, in whom in general
he certainly believed as firmly as most of the Christians of that time
did in Christ. The ideas, too, which then prevailed respecting conquest,
slaughter, and rapine, were altogether different from ours. If the
heathen Viking regarded it as an honour to acquire lands and booty by
his sword, the same thought was also cherished not only by the early
Christians, but throughout the middle ages; when Christian citizens,
noblemen, and princes contended in mortal combat, with fire and sword,
for the possession of estates and lands. The Christian Anglo-Saxons of
those times felt no hesitation in secretly massacring the Danes who had
settled in England; and as many of these had been converted, one
Christian thus murdered another! To dismember general history into a
number of unconnected events, and then to pass judgment upon these
separately according to our moral feelings, would be an infamous act,
and more difficult to defend before the tribunal of morality than
perhaps all the expeditions of the heathen Danish Vikings put together.
Such a method of proceeding would lead to the most confined views of
history that can possibly be imagined. No correct conception can be
formed of any part of the history of the world if it be not examined in
its due connection, whereby both causes and effects become perceptible.
Many events, which the moralist would otherwise condemn, find in this
manner both excuse and defence in the superior historical necessity that
produced them. Viewed in this light, violent devastations, which have
for a time, perhaps, arrested the progressive development of a people,
will appear to have ultimately founded and educed purer and more
wholesome manners and customs. Severe shocks are now and then as useful
for the general welfare of a nation as a violent fit of sickness for the
health of an individual, or storms for the purification of an oppressive
atmosphere.

The germ of a higher civilization was first implanted in the rude and
warlike tribes, which then predominated throughout Europe, by the Greeks
and Romans. The bold expeditions of the latter, in particular,
introduced the arts and sciences into the countries north of the Alps;
and it was from the south that even the Christian religion began its
progress. But before Christianity could take firm root among the
European tribes, before a really Christian state could be founded, it
was necessary that an immense revolution should take place. Heathenism
and barbarism then collected all their strength in order to destroy
Roman power and Roman civilization. The Roman Empire, and with it almost
all the older states, was overthrown by the vast national migrations;
and a new and different population, with which a fresh civilization was
to begin, spread itself over Europe. It was these migrations that
brought the Anglo-Saxons into England, after they had abandoned their
ancient habitations on the south and south-west shores of the Baltic;
whence they were expelled by the advancing Slavonic tribes of the Wends,
or Vandals.

Contemporaneously with the diffusion of Christianity in the south and
west of Europe, larger Christian states gradually arose. Charlemagne had
already, about the year 800, founded an immense kingdom; and, in order
to strengthen it both against inward disturbances and outward attacks,
had established apparently durable institutions. But as it was too often
necessary, in those early times, to force Christianity on the people by
dint of arms, without seeking any real support for it in their
convictions and belief—a circumstance that rendered prevalent a very
great moral relaxation, and even wickedness—they were thus induced to
regard the political institutions which sprang from it as something
foreign, which neither proceeded from themselves, nor possessed any
intrinsic strength. Both Church and State tottered. The whole structure
of Christian communities was in its weak and early childhood; and it was
not till the people had been convinced of its necessity, by their
calamities and sufferings, that Christianity was able to gain a really
firm footing.

The Christian States were now attacked at once and on all sides by the
enemies of Christianity, the Mahometans and heathens. The Saracens,
towards the south; the Magyars, or Madjarers, the forefathers of the
Hungarians, towards the east; and the Northmen towards the north and
west, all invaded the Christian States. Europe long groaned under this
terrible scourge. Meanwhile, however, separate States grew stronger in
this combat with their exterior enemies; whilst great tribes of the
latter settled in the conquered districts, adopted Christianity, and
mingled with the natives. The destructive expeditions which for a time
indeed retarded, in certain directions, the commencements of
civilization, ended by exhausting all the strength of heathenism, in
preparing a complete victory for Christianity, and in producing in
Church and State a vigour hitherto unknown in those lands which had long
embraced the Christian faith. It was now that a period was put to the
throes which had given birth to a new and Christian Europe. The
descendants of the lawless Vikings became the most zealous champions of
Christianity. The Normans, who by degrees had raised themselves to be
the ruling people in several of the western and southern States of
Europe, and had thus brought a new and wholesome power to the helm,
broke many a doughty lance with the Mahometans and heathens. In these
crusades the knight was now accompanied by the troubadour, as the Viking
formerly had been by the bard or scald. It was among the Normans in
particular that the knightly and feudal system developed itself, which
was of such decided importance throughout the middle ages, and the
forerunner of the freer and more advanced state of society of modern
times.

Under the name of “Normans” are included all those swarms of Swedes,
Norwegians, and Danes, which, from the close of the eighth until far
into the eleventh century, either laid waste or settled on the eastern
and southern coasts of the Baltic, as well as the coasts of the west and
south of Europe. “Norman” signifies neither more nor less than a man
from the north. The Danish conquest of England was therefore just as
fully Normanic as the conquest, by the Norwegians and Danes, of a part
of France, called, after them, Normandy. Hence there was a natural
reason why the Danish conquerors, and Svend Tveskjæg in particular,
concluded an alliance with the dukes of Normandy, in order that they
might find a reception among these kinsmen in case they should not be
able to make themselves masters of England; and hence, in like manner,
Canute the Great obtained the more readily the hand of Emma, the
daughter of a Norman (and consequently nearly related) duke. But between
the above-mentioned conquests there was this difference, that the Danish
conquest of England, together with the Norwegian conquests in Scotland
and Ireland, was of far greater extent, and of quite a different and
more extensive importance for the British Isles, than the
Norwegian-Danish conquest of so small a district as Normandy was for
France. Whilst the Northmen principally brought thither only a number of
powerful chiefs, who, at the expense of the natives, constituted
themselves into an imperious feudal nobility, and who afterwards for the
most part went over with William the Conqueror into England, in search
of still greater feudal possessions, the Danish expeditions to and
conquest of England were, on the contrary, the means of bringing an
entirely new population into a very considerable portion, perhaps even
the half, of that kingdom.

All accounts attest what proud and energetic men the Norwegian-Danish
Normans were who settled in Normandy, and who afterwards became the
progenitors and founders of the English nobility. The chronicles of that
time cannot sufficiently praise their bravery and contempt of death,
whilst at the same time they highly extol their chivalric spirit. In but
a short time after their settlement in France they had readily acquired
its politer manners; and not only these, but that higher mental
cultivation which then raised the southern countries above those of the
far north. It was a distinguishing trait of the Normans that they very
quickly accommodated themselves to the manners and customs of the
countries where they settled; nay, even sometimes quite forgot their
Scandinavian mother tongue, without, however, losing their original and
characteristic Scandinavian stamp. But what the Normans in particular,
with all their French refinement, did not lose, was the ancient
Scandinavian feeling of freedom and independence. The descendants of
those powerful chiefs who had quitted the hearths of their forefathers
because they would not suffer themselves to be enslaved by kings—and who
on their arrival in Normandy, when the question was put to them, “What
title does your chief bear?” are said to have answered, “None, we are
all equal”—continued steadily to maintain their freedom against the
Norman dukes, and not least so against the despotic William the
Conqueror, even after he had distributed among them the rich estates of
conquered England. The later English nobility, whose power and influence
William’s conquest had thus founded, did not in any way degenerate from
their Norman forefathers. From the earliest period of the middle ages
the English barons were the stoutest protectors and defenders of freedom
against ambitious kings; and it is also their respect for the proper
liberties of the people that has alone insured to them the quiet
possession of the power which they still continue to retain. The English
nobility have in several other ways preserved to the present time traces
of their ancient origin. Thus among the English aristocracy we not only
find the old Scandinavian title of Jarl, or Earl, which in the North
itself has given way to the German one of Graf, or Greve, but a Northman
will easily discover many characteristic traits that remind him of his
own ancestors. It is truly remarkable that the love of bodily exercises,
games, hunting, and horse-racing, not to mention the predilection for
daring sea voyages so strongly prevalent amongst them, was likewise
manifested, according to the Sagas or legends, by the rich and powerful
in Iceland, and the rest of the Scandinavian fatherlands.

Under these circumstances it would, indeed, have been in the highest
degree surprising if the Danish-Norwegian Normans, who conquered England
at the same period that their near kinsmen, the Norwegian-Danish
Normans, conquered Normandy, who had migrated from the north for the
selfsame reasons as these kinsmen, and who were subject to the same
virtues and vices—if these Normans in England alone, I say, should have
been barbarous “robbers and plunderers,” trampling on and destroying all
that was “great and good,” whilst their brothers in Normandy
distinguished themselves by an early civilization, and particularly by a
lively feeling for poetry and for a further development both of social
and political life. It must be remembered that the Danish-Norwegian
Normans, who made conquests in England, did not go thither in one great
body, but in small divisions, which only by degrees, and in the course
of about three centuries, settled themselves in the districts inhabited
by the Anglo-Saxons; and that, though far less numerous than the latter,
they were not only able firmly to maintain their position among them,
but at length even to expel them from a great part of the country
north-east of Watling-Stræt. For this proves that the new Scandinavian
inhabitants of England, along with greater physical strength and more
martial prowess than the Anglo-Saxons possessed, must have been soon
able to acquire that skill in the employments of peace, as well as that
higher polish and refinement, which in the long run could alone insure
them the superiority and preponderance which they enjoyed over the
Anglo-Saxons, not only in the rural districts, but in many towns of the
north of England; and secure for them such an influence as they obtained
in England’s best and greatest city, even London itself.

Further, that those Northmen, who by the Danish conquests became the
progenitors of a great part, probably as much as half, of the present
population of England, were just as brave men, and just as great lovers
of liberty, as their Norman brethern, the ancestors of the English
nobility; and that they played a part not much inferior to theirs in the
development of England’s freedom and greatness, a closer examination
will probably place in a clearer light.

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