The Northern Way

Early Kings of Norway

CHAPTER VIII.

JARLS ERIC AND SVEIN.

Jarl Eric, splendent with this victory, not to speak of that over the Jomsburgers with his father long ago, was now made Governor of Norway: Governor or quasi-sovereign, with his brother, Jarl. Svein, as partner, who, however, took but little hand in governing;--and, under the patronage of Svein Double-Beard and the then Swedish king (Olaf his name, Sigrid the Proud, his mother's), administered it, they say, with skill and prudence for above fourteen years. Tryggveson's death is understood and laboriously computed to have happened in the year 1000; but there is no exact chronology in these things, but a continual uncertain guessing after such; so that one eye in History as regards them is as if put out;--neither indeed have I yet had the luck to find any decipherable and intelligible map of Norway: so that the other eye of History is much blinded withal, and her path through those wild regions and epochs is an extremely dim and chaotic one. An evil that much demands remedying, and especially wants some first attempt at remedying, by inquirers into English History; the whole period from Egbert, the first Saxon King of England, on to Edward the Confessor, the last, being everywhere completely interwoven with that of their mysterious, continually invasive "Danes," as they call them, and inextricably unintelligible till these also get to be a little understood, and cease to be utterly dark, hideous, and mythical to us as they now are.

King Olaf Tryggveson is the first Norseman who is expressly mentioned to have been in England by our English History books, new or old; and of him it is merely said that he had an interview with King Ethelred II. at Andover, of a pacific and friendly nature,--though it is absurdly added that the noble Olaf was converted to Christianity by that extremely stupid Royal Person. Greater contrast in an interview than in this at Andover, between heroic Olaf Tryggveson and Ethelred the forever Unready, was not perhaps seen in the terrestrial Planet that day. Olaf or "Olaus," or "Anlaf," as they name him, did "engage on oath to Ethelred not to invade England any more," and kept his promise, they farther say. Essentially a truth, as we already know, though the circumstances were all different; and the promise was to a devout High Priest, not to a crowned Blockhead and cowardly Do-nothing. One other "Olaus" I find mentioned in our Books, two or three centuries before, at a time when there existed no such individual; not to speak of several Anlafs, who sometimes seem to mean Olaf and still oftener to mean nobody possible. Which occasions not a little obscurity in our early History, says the learned Selden. A thing remediable, too, in which, if any Englishman of due genius (or even capacity for standing labor), who understood the Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon languages, would engage in it, he might do a great deal of good, and bring the matter into a comparatively lucid state. Vain aspirations,--or perhaps not altogether vain.

At the time of Olaf Tryggveson's death, and indeed long before, King Svein Double-Beard had always for chief enterprise the Conquest of England, and followed it by fits with extreme violence and impetus; often advancing largely towards a successful conclusion; but never, for thirteen years yet, getting it concluded. He possessed long since all England north of Watling Street. That is to say, Northumberland, East Anglia (naturally full of Danish settlers by this time), were fixedly his; Mercia, his oftener than not; Wessex itself, with all the coasts, he was free to visit, and to burn and rob in at discretion. There or elsewhere, Ethelred the Unready had no battle in him whatever; and, for a forty years after the beginning of his reign, England excelled in anarchic stupidity, murderous devastation, utter misery, platitude, and sluggish contemptibility, all the countries one has read of. Apparently a very opulent country, too; a ready skill in such arts and fine arts as there were; Svein's very ships, they say, had their gold dragons, top-mast pennons, and other metallic splendors generally wrought for them in England. "Unexampled prosperity" in the manufacture way not unknown there, it would seem! But co-existing with such spiritual bankruptcy as was also unexampled, one would hope. Read Lupus (Wulfstan), Archbishop of York's amazing Sermon on the subject, [8] addressed to contemporary audiences; setting forth such a state of things,--sons selling their fathers, mothers, and sisters as Slaves to the Danish robber; themselves living in debauchery, blusterous gluttony, and depravity; the details of which are well-nigh incredible, though clearly stated as things generally known,--the humor of these poor wretches sunk to a state of what we may call greasy desperation, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." The manner in which they treated their own English nuns, if young, good-looking, and captive to the Danes; buying them on a kind of brutish or subter-brutish "Greatest Happiness Principle" (for the moment), and by a Joint-Stock arrangement, far transcends all human speech or imagination, and awakens in one the momentary red-hot thought, The Danes have served you right, ye accursed! The so-called soldiers, one finds, made not the least fight anywhere; could make none, led and guided as they were, and the "Generals" often enough traitors, always ignorant, and blockheads, were in the habit, when expressly commanded to fight, of taking physic, and declaring that nature was incapable of castor-oil and battle both at once. This ought to be explained a little to the modern English and their War-Secretaries, who undertake the conduct of armies. The undeniable fact is, defeat on defeat was the constant fate of the English; during these forty years not one battle in which they were not beaten. No gleam of victory or real resistance till the noble Edmund Ironside (whom it is always strange to me how such an Ethelred could produce for son) made his appearance and ran his brief course, like a great and far-seen meteor, soon extinguished without result. No remedy for England in that base time, but yearly asking the victorious, plundering, burning and murdering Danes, "How much money will you take to go away?" Thirty thousand pounds in silver, which the annual Danegelt soon rose to, continued to be about the average yearly sum, though generally on the increasing hand; in the last year I think it had risen to seventy-two thousand pounds in silver, raised yearly by a tax (Income-tax of its kind, rudely levied), the worst of all remedies, good for the day only. Nay, there was one remedy still worse, which the miserable Ethelred once tried: that of massacring "all the Danes settled in England" (practically, of a few thousands or hundreds of them), by treachery and a kind of Sicilian Vespers. Which issued, as such things usually do, in terrible monition to you not to try the like again! Issued, namely, in redoubled fury on the Danish part; new fiercer invasion by Svein's Jarl Thorkel; then by Svein himself; which latter drove the miserable Ethelred, with wife and family, into Normandy, to wife's brother, the then Duke there; and ended that miserable struggle by Svein's becoming King of England himself. Of this disgraceful massacre, which it would appear has been immensely exaggerated in the English books, we can happily give the exact date (A.D. 1002); and also of Svein's victorious accession (A.D. 1013), [9]--pretty much the only benefit one gets out of contemplating such a set of objects.

King Svein's first act was to levy a terribly increased Income-Tax for the payment of his army. Svein was levying it with a stronghanded diligence, but had not yet done levying it, when, at Gainsborough one night, he suddenly died; smitten dead, once used to be said, by St. Edmund, whilom murdered King of the East Angles; who could not bear to see his shrine and monastery of St. Edmundsbury plundered by the Tyrant's tax-collectors, as they were on the point of being. In all ways impossible, however,--Edmund's own death did not occur till two years after Svein's. Svein's death, by whatever cause, befell 1014; his fleet, then lying in the Humber; and only Knut, [10] his eldest son (hardly yet eighteen, count some), in charge of it; who, on short counsel, and arrangement about this questionable kingdom of his, lifted anchor; made for Sandwich, a safer station at the moment; "cut off the feet and noses" (one shudders, and hopes not, there being some discrepancy about it!) of his numerous hostages that had been delivered to King Svein; set them ashore;--and made for Denmark, his natural storehouse and stronghold, as the hopefulest first thing he could do.

Knut soon returned from Denmark, with increase of force sufficient for the English problem; which latter he now ended in a victorious, and essentially, for himself and chaotic England, beneficent manner. Became widely known by and by, there and elsewhere, as Knut the Great; and is thought by judges of our day to have really merited that title. A most nimble, sharp-striking, clear-thinking, prudent and effective man, who regulated this dismembered and distracted England in its Church matters, in its State matters, like a real King. Had a Standing Army (House Carles), who were well paid, well drilled and disciplined, capable of instantly quenching insurrection or breakage of the peace; and piously endeavored (with a signal earnestness, and even devoutness, if we look well) to do justice to all men, and to make all men rest satisfied with justice. In a word, he successfully strapped up, by every true method and regulation, this miserable, dislocated, and dissevered mass of bleeding Anarchy into something worthy to be called an England again;--only that he died too soon, and a second "Conqueror" of us, still weightier of structure, and under improved auspices, became possible, and was needed here! To appearance, Knut himself was capable of being a Charlemagne of England and the North (as has been already said or quoted), had he only lived twice as long as he did. But his whole sum of years seems not to have exceeded forty. His father Svein of the Forkbeard is reckoned to have been fifty to sixty when St. Edmund finished him at Gainsborough. We now return to Norway, ashamed of this long circuit which has been a truancy more or less.

Footnotes :

[8] This sermon was printed by Hearne; and is given also by Langebek in his excellent Collection, Rerum Danicarum Scriptores Medii AEri. Hafniae. 1772-1834. [Back]

[9] Kennet, i. 67; Rapin, i. 119, 121 (from the Saxon Chronicle both). [Back]

[10] Knut born A.D. 988 according to Munch's calculation (ii. 126). [Back]

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