The Story of England Part II: King Alfred and the Danes

In these extracts Arthur Bryant describes the glorious reign of King Alfred, 871-99

From the fiords of Norway to the Jutland flats, the Scandinavian peoples were on the move. The soil they tilled could not sustain any longer their rising population, nor a pastoral life satisfy their more turbulent members who were in revolt against their rulers. They were vigorous, picturesque, flamboyant rascals, younger sons of petty fiord jarls for whom there was no place at home, with long, flaxen hair, bright burnished spears and two-handed battle-axes. They delighted in silver-bound swords and jewels, golden bracelets and scarlet cloaks with brilliant borders. And, like all their race, they had a passionate love of independence and self-help. Around them they gathered bands of bloodthirsty followers, who feasted and drank in their halls in winter, sallying forth each spring “to play the game of Freyr.” Berserks and wolf-coats, they called themselves; where-ever they went, they boasted, the ravens followed.

Accustomed to using the sea as a highway— the only communication between their scattered settlements—these adventurers were now offered a wonderful prize.... Every spring the young pirate seamen of Norway and Denmark —Vikings as they were called from the viks or creeks they haunted—set out in fleets of long, narrow, open-decked war-boats, with carved dragon-heads, raven banners and bright, striped sails. Following the mountainous island fringe of the Atlantic southwards from Norway they plundered in turn the Shetlands, Orkneys, Sutherland and Hebrides. In 802—two years after Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome— they sacked the monastery of Iona. Then they fell on Ireland... .

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