The heroic deeds of Highlanders, both in these islands and elsewhere, have been told in verse and prose, and not more often, nor more loudly, than they deserve. But we must remember, now and then, that there have been heroes likewise in the lowland and in the fen. Why, however, poets have so seldom sung of them; why no historian, save Mr. Motley in his “Rise of the Dutch Republic,” has condescended to tell the tale of their doughty deeds, is a question not difficult to answer.
In the first place, they have been fewer in number. The lowlands of the world, being the richest spots, have been generally the soonest conquered, the soonest civilized, and therefore the soonest taken out of the sphere of romance and wild adventure, into that of order and law, hard work and common sense, as well as — too often — into the sphere of slavery, cowardice, luxury, and ignoble greed. The lowland populations, for the same reasons, have been generally the first to deteriorate, though not on account of the vices of civilization. The vices of incivilization are far worse, and far more destructive of human life; and it is just because they are so, that rude tribes deteriorate physically less than polished nations. In the savage struggle for life, none but the strongest, healthiest, cunningest, have a chance of living, prospering, and propagating their race. In the civilized state, on the contrary, the weakliest and the silliest, protected by law, religion, and humanity, have chance likewise, and transmit to their offspring their own weakliness or silliness. In these islands, for instance, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the average of man was doubtless superior, both in body and mind, to the average of man now, simply because the weaklings could not have lived at all; and the rich and delicate beauty, in which the women of the Eastern Counties still surpass all other races in these isles, was doubtless far more common in proportion to the numbers of the population.
Another reason — and one which every Scot will understand — why lowland heroes “carent vate sacro,” is that the lowlands and those who live in them are wanting in the poetic and romantic elements. There is in the lowland none of that background of the unknown, fantastic, magical, terrible, perpetually feeding curiosity and wonder, which still remains in the Scottish highlands; which, when it disappears from thence, will remain embalmed forever in the pages of Walter Scott. Against that half-magical background his heroes stand out in vivid relief; and justly so. It was not put there by him for stage purposes; it was there as a fact; and the men of whom he wrote were conscious of it, were moulded by it, were not ashamed of its influence. Nature among the mountains is too fierce, too strong, for man. He cannot conquer her, and she awes him. He cannot dig down the cliffs, or chain the storm-blasts; and his fear of them takes bodily shape: he begins to people the weird places of the earth with weird beings, and sees nixes in the dark linns as he fishes by night, dwarfs in the caves where he digs, half-trembling, morsels of copper and iron for his weapons, witches and demons on the snow-blast which overwhelms his herd and his hut, and in the dark clouds which brood on the untrodden mountain-peak. He lives in fear: and yet, if he be a valiant-hearted man, his fears do him little harm. They may break out, at times, in witch-manias, with all their horrible suspicions, and thus breed cruelty, which is the child of fear; but on the whole they rather produce in man thoughtfulness, reverence, a sense, confused yet precious, of the boundless importance of the unseen world. His superstitions develop his imagination; the moving accidents of a wild life call out in him sympathy and pathos; and the mountaineer becomes instinctively a poet.
The lowlander, on the other hand, has his own strength, his own “virtues,” or manfulnesses, in the good old sense of the word: but they are not for the most part picturesque or even poetical.
He finds out, soon enough for his weal and his bane, that he is stronger than Nature; and right tyrannously and irreverently he lords it over her, clearing, delving, diking, building, without fear or shame. He knows of no natural force greater than himself, save an occasional thunder-storm; and against that, as he grows more cunning, he insures his crops. Why should he reverence Nature? Let him use her, and eat. One cannot blame him. Man was sent into the world (so says the Scripture) to fill and subdue the earth. But he was sent into the world for other purposes, which the lowlander is but too apt to forget. With the awe of Nature, the awe of the unseen dies out in him. Meeting with no visible superior, he is apt to become not merely unpoetical and irreverent, but somewhat of a sensualist and an atheist. The sense of the beautiful dies out in him more and more. He has little or nothing around him to refine or lift up his soul, and unless he meet with a religion and with a civilization which can deliver him, he may sink into that dull brutality which is too common among the lowest classes of the English lowlands, and remain for generations gifted with the strength and industry of the ox, and with the courage of the lion, and, alas! with the intellect of the former, and the self-restraint of the latter.
But there may be a period in the history of a lowland race when they, too, become historic for a while. There was such a period for the men of the Eastern Counties; for they proved it by their deeds.
When the men of Wessex, the once conquering race of Britain, fell at Hastings once and for all, and struck no second blow, then the men of the Danelagh disdained to yield to the Norman invader. For seven long years they held their own, not knowing, like true Englishmen, when they were beaten; and fought on desperate, till there were none left to fight. Their bones lay white on every island in the fens; their corpses rotted on gallows beneath every Norman keep; their few survivors crawled into monasteries, with eyes picked out, or hands and feet cut off, or took to the wild wood as strong outlaws, like their successors and representatives, Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John, Adam Bell, and Clym of the Cleugh, and William of Cloudeslee. But they never really bent their necks to the Norman yoke; they kept alive in their hearts that proud spirit of personal independence, which they brought with them from the moors of Denmark and the dales of Norway; and they kept alive, too, though in abeyance for a while, those free institutions which were without a doubt the germs of our British liberty.
They were a changed folk since first they settled in that Danelagh; — since first in the days of King Beorhtric, “in the year 787, three ships of Northmen came from Haeretha land, and the King’s reeve rode to the place, and would have driven them up to the King’s town, for he knew not what men they were: but they slew him there and then”; and after the Saxons and Angles began to find out to their bitter bale what men they were, those fierce Vikings out of the dark northeast.
But they had long ceased to burn farms, sack convents, torture monks for gold, and slay every human being they met, in mere Berserker lust of blood. No Barnakill could now earn his nickname by entreating his comrades, as they tossed the children on their spear-points, to “Na kill the barns.” Gradually they had settled down on the land, intermarried with the Angles and Saxons, and colonized all England north and east of Watling Street (a rough line from London to Chester), and the eastern lowlands of Scotland likewise. Gradually they had deserted Thor and Odin for “the White Christ”; had their own priests and bishops, and built their own minsters. The convents which the fathers had destroyed, the sons, or at least the grandsons, rebuilt; and often, casting away sword and axe, they entered them as monks themselves; and Peterborough, Ely, and above all Crowland, destroyed by them in Alfred’s time with a horrible destruction, had become their holy places, where they decked the altars with gold and jewels, with silks from the far East, and furs from the far North; and where, as in sacred fortresses, they, and the liberty of England with them, made their last unavailing stand.
For a while they had been lords of all England. The Anglo–Saxon race was wearing out. The men of Wessex, priest-ridden, and enslaved by their own aristocracy, quailed before the free Norsemen, among whom was not a single serf. The God-descended line of Cerdic and Alfred was worn out. Vain, incapable, profligate kings, the tools of such prelates as Odo and Dunstan, were no match for such wild heroes as Thorkill the tall, or Olaf Trygvasson, or Swend Forkbeard. The Danes had gradually colonized, not only their own Danelagh and Northumbria, but great part of Wessex. Vast sums of Danegelt were yearly sent out of the country to buy off the fresh invasions which were perpetually threatened. Then Ethelred the Unready, Ethelred Evil-counsel, advised himself to fulfil his name, and the curse which Dunstan had pronounced against him at the baptismal font. By his counsel the men of Wessex rose against the unsuspecting Danes, and on St. Brice’s eve, A. D. 1002, murdered them all with tortures, man, woman, and child. It may be that they only did to the children as the fathers had done to them: but the deed was “worse than a crime; it was a mistake.” The Danes of the Danelagh and of Northumbria, their brothers of Denmark and Norway, the Orkneys and the east coast of Ireland, remained unharmed. A mighty host of Vikings poured from thence into England the very next year, under Swend Forkbeard and the great Canute; and after thirteen fearful campaigns came the great battle of Assingdown in Essex, where “Canute had the victory; and all the English nation fought against him, and all the nobility of the English race was there destroyed.”
That same year saw the mysterious death of Edmund Ironside, the last man of Cerdic’s race worthy of the name. For the next twenty-five years, Danish kings ruled from the Forth to the Land’s End.
A noble figure he was, that great and wise Canute, the friend of the famous Godiva, and Leofric, Godiva’s husband, and Siward Biorn, the conqueror of Macbeth; trying to expiate by justice and mercy the dark deeds of his bloodstained youth; trying (and not in vain) to blend the two races over which he ruled; rebuilding the churches and monasteries which his father had destroyed; bringing back in state to Canterbury the body of Archbishop Elphege — not unjustly called by the Saxons martyr and saint — whom Tall Thorkill’s men had murdered with beef bones and ox-skulls, because he would not give up to them the money destined for God’s poor; rebuking, as every child has heard, his housecarles’ flattery by setting his chair on the brink of the rising tide; and then laying his golden crown, in token of humility, on the high altar of Winchester, never to wear it more. In Winchester lie his bones unto this day, or what of them the civil wars have left: and by him lie the bones of his son Hardicanute, in whom, as in his half-brother Harold Harefoot before him, the Danish power fell to swift decay, by insolence and drink and civil war; and with the Danish power England fell to pieces likewise.
Canute had divided England into four great earldoms, each ruled, under him, by a jarl, or earl — a Danish, not a Saxon title.
At his death in 1036, the earldoms of Northumbria and East Anglia — the more strictly Danish parts — were held by a true Danish hero, Siward Biorn, alias Digre “the Stout”, conqueror of Macbeth, and son of the Fairy Bear; proving his descent, men said, by his pointed and hairy ears.
Mercia, the great central plateau of England, was held by Earl Leofric, husband of the famous Lady Godiva.
Wessex, which Canute had at first kept in his own hands, had passed into those of the famous Earl Godwin, the then ablest man in England. Possessed of boundless tact and cunning, gifted with an eloquence which seems, from the accounts remaining of it, to have been rather that of a Greek than an Englishman; himself of high — perhaps of royal — Sussex blood (for the story of his low birth seems a mere fable of his French enemies), and married first to Canute’s sister, and then to his niece, he was fitted, alike by fortunes and by talents, to be the king-maker which he became.
Such a system may have worked well as long as the brain of a hero was there to overlook it all. But when that brain was turned to dust, the history of England became, till the Norman Conquest, little more than the history of the rivalries of the two great houses of Godwin and Leofric.
Leofric had the first success in king-making. He, though bearing a Saxon name, was the champion of the Danish party and of Canute’s son, or reputed son, Harold Harefoot; and he succeeded, by the help of the “Thanes north of Thames,” and the “lithsmen of London,” which city was more than half Danish in those days, in setting his puppet on the throne. But the blood of Canute had exhausted itself. Within seven years Harold Harefoot and Hardicanute, who succeeded him, had died as foully as they lived; and Godwin’s turn had come.
He, though married to a Danish princess, and acknowledging his Danish connection by the Norse names which were borne by his three most famous sons, Harold, Sweyn, and Tostig, constituted himself the champion of the men of Wessex and the house of Cerdic. He had murdered, or at least caused to be murdered, horribly, Alfred the Etheling, King Ethelred’s son and heir-apparent, when it seemed his interest to support the claims of Hardicanute against Harefoot. He now found little difficulty in persuading his victim’s younger brother to come to England, and become at once his king, his son-in-law and his puppet.
Edward the Confessor, if we are to believe the monks whom he pampered, was naught but virtue and piety, meekness and magnanimity — a model ruler of men. Such a model ruler he was, doubtless, as monks would be glad to see on every throne; because while he rules his subjects, they rule him. No wonder, therefore, that (according to William of Malmesbury) the happiness of his times (famed as he was both for miracles and the spirit of prophecy) “was revealed in a dream to Brithwin, Bishop of Wilton, who made it public”; who, meditating in King Canute’s time on “the near extinction of the royal race of the English,” was “rapt up on high, and saw St. Peter consecrating Edward king. His chaste life also was pointed out, and the exact period of his reign (twenty-four years) determined; and, when inquiring about his posterity, it was answered, ‘The kingdom of the English belongs to God. After you, He will provide a king according to his pleasure.’” But those who will look at the facts will see in the holy Confessor’s character little but what is pitiable, and in his reign little but what is tragical.
Civil wars, invasions, outlawry of Godwin and his sons by the Danish party; then of Alfgar, Leofric’s son, by the Saxon party; the outlaws on either side attacking and plundering the English shores by the help of Norsemen, Welshmen, Irish, and Danes — any mercenaries who could be got together; and then — “In the same year Bishop Aldred consecrated the minster at Gloucester to the glory of God and of St. Peter, and then went to Jerusalem with such splendor as no man had displayed before him”; and so forth. The sum and substance of what was done in those “happy times” may be well described in the words of the Anglo–Saxon chronicler for the year 1058. “This year Alfgar the earl was banished; but he came in again with violence, through aid of Griffin (the king of North Wales, his brother-in-law). And this year came a fleet from Norway. It is tedious to tell how these matters went.” These were the normal phenomena of a reign which seemed, to the eyes of monks, a holy and a happy one; because the king refused, whether from spite or superstition, to have an heir to the house of Cerdic, and spent his time between prayer, hunting, the seeing of fancied visions, the uttering of fancied prophecies, and the performance of fancied miracles.
But there were excuses for him. An Englishman only in name — a Norman, not only of his mother’s descent (she was aunt of William the Conqueror), but by his early education on the Continent — he loved the Norman better than the Englishman; Norman knights and clerks filled his court, and often the high dignities of his provinces, and returned as often as expelled; the Norman–French language became fashionable; Norman customs and manners the signs of civilization; and thus all was preparing steadily for the great catastrophe, by which, within a year of Edward’s death, the Norman became master of the land.
Perhaps it ought to have been so. Perhaps by no other method could England, and, with England, Scotland, and in due time Ireland, have become partakers of that classic civilization and learning, the fount whereof, for good and for evil, was Rome and the Pope of Rome: but the method was at least wicked; the actors in it tyrannous, brutal, treacherous, hypocritical; and the conquest of England by William will remain to the end of time a mighty crime, abetted — one may almost say made possible, as too many such crimes have been before and since — by the intriguing ambition of the Pope of Rome.
Against that tyranny the free men of the Danelagh and of Northumbria rose. If Edward, the descendant of Cerdic, had been little to them, William, the descendant of Rollo, was still less. That French-speaking knights should expel them from their homes, French-chanting monks from their convents, because Edward had promised the crown of England to William, his foreign cousin, or because Harold Godwinsson of Wessex had sworn on the relics of all the saints to be William’s man, was contrary to their common-sense of right and reason.
So they rose and fought: too late, it may be, and without unity or purpose; and they were worsted by an enemy who had both unity and purpose; whom superstition, greed, and feudal discipline kept together, at least in England, in one compact body of unscrupulous and terrible confederates.
But theirs was a land worth fighting for — a good land and large: from Humber mouth inland to the Trent and merry Sherwood, across to Chester and the Dee, round by Leicester and the five burghs of the Danes; eastward again to Huntingdon and Cambridge (then a poor village on the site of an old Roman town); and then northward again into the wide fens, the land of the Girvii and the Eormingas, “the children of the peat-bog,” where the great central plateau of England slides into the sea, to form, from the rain and river washings of eight shires, lowlands of a fertility inexhaustible, because ever-growing to this day.
They have a beauty of their own, these great fens, even now, when they are diked and drained, tilled and fenced — a beauty as of the sea, of boundless expanse and freedom. Much more had they that beauty eight hundred years ago, when they were still, for the most part, as God had made them, or rather was making them even then. The low rolling uplands were clothed in primeval forest: oak and ash, beech and elm, with here and there, perhaps, a group of ancient pines, ragged and decayed, and fast dying out in England even then; though lingering still in the forests of the Scotch highlands.
Between the forests were open wolds, dotted with white sheep and golden gorse; rolling plains of rich though ragged turf, whether cleared by the hand of man or by the wild fires which often swept over the hills. And between the wood and the wold stood many a Danish “town,” with its clusters of low straggling buildings round the holder’s house, stone or mud below, and wood above; its high dikes round tiny fields; its flocks of sheep ranging on the wold; its herds of swine in the forest; and below, a more precious possession still — its herds of mares and colts, which fed with the cattle in the rich grass-fen.
For always, from the foot of the wolds, the green flat stretched away, illimitable, to an horizon where, from the roundness of the earth, the distant trees and islands were hulled down like ships at sea. The firm horse-fen lay, bright green, along the foot of the wold; beyond it, the browner peat, or deep fen; and among it, dark velvet alder beds, long lines of reed-rond, emerald in spring, and golden under the autumn sun; shining river-reaches; broad meres dotted with a million fowl, while the cattle waded along their edges after the rich sedge-grass, or wallowed in the mire through the hot summer’s day. Here and there, too, upon the far horizon, rose a tall line of ashen trees, marking some island of firm rich soil. Here and there, too, as at Ramsey and Crowland, the huge ashes had disappeared before the axes of the monks, and a minster tower rose over the fen, amid orchards, gardens, cornfields, pastures, with here and there a tree left standing for shade. “Painted with flowers in the spring,” with “pleasant shores embosomed in still lakes,” as the monk-chronicler of Ramsey has it, those islands seemed to such as the monk terrestrial paradises.
Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such “effects” of cloudland, of sunrise, and sunset, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles. They might well have been star worshippers, those Girvii, had their sky been as clear as that of the East: but they were like to have worshipped the clouds rather than the stars, according to the too universal law, that mankind worship the powers which do them harm, rather than the powers which do them good.
And therefore the Danelagh men, who feared not mortal sword, or axe, feared witches, ghosts, Pucks, Will-o’-the-Wisps, werewolves, spirits of the wells and of the trees, and all dark, capricious, and harmful beings whom their fancy conjured up out of the wild, wet, and unwholesome marshes, or the dark wolf-haunted woods. For that fair land, like all things on earth, had its darker aspect. The foul exhalations of autumn called up fever and ague, crippling and enervating, and tempting, almost compelling, to that wild and desperate drinking which was the Scandinavian’s special sin. Dark and sad were those short autumn days, when all the distances were shut off, and the air choked with foul brown fog and drenching rains from off the eastern sea; and pleasant the bursting forth of the keen north-east wind, with all its whirling snowstorms. For though it sent men hurrying out into the storm, to drive the cattle in from the fen, and lift the sheep out of the snow-wreaths, and now and then never to return, lost in mist and mire, in ice and snow; — yet all knew that after the snow would come the keen frost and the bright sun and cloudless blue sky, and the fenman’s yearly holiday, when, work being impossible, all gave themselves up to play, and swarmed upon the ice on skates and sledges, and ran races, township against township, or visited old friends full forty miles away; and met everywhere faces as bright and ruddy as their own, cheered by the keen wine of that dry and bracing frost.
Such was the Fenland; hard, yet cheerful; rearing a race of hard and cheerful men; showing their power in old times in valiant fighting, and for many a century since in that valiant industry which has drained and embanked the land of the Girvii, till it has become a very “Garden of the Lord.” And the Scotsman who may look from the promontory of Peterborough, the “golden borough” of old time; or from the tower of Crowland, while Hereward and Torfrida sleep in the ruined nave beneath; or from the heights of that Isle of Ely which was so long “the camp of refuge” for English freedom; over the labyrinth of dikes and lodes, the squares of rich corn and verdure — will confess that the lowland, as well as the highland, can at times breed gallant men. 1
1 The story of Hereward (often sung by minstrels and old-wives in succeeding generations) may be found in the “Metrical Chronicle of Geoffrey Gaimar,” and in the prose “Life of Hereward” (paraphrased from that written by Leofric, his house-priest), and in the valuable fragment “Of the family of Hereward.” These have all three been edited by Mr. T. Wright. The account of Hereward in Ingulf seems taken, and that carelessly, from the same source as the Latin prose, “De Gestis Herewardi.” A few curious details may be found in Peter of Blois’s continuation of Ingulf; and more, concerning the sack of Peterborough, in the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle. I have followed the contemporary authorities as closely as I could, introducing little but what was necessary to reconcile discrepancies, or to illustrate the history, manners, and sentiments of the time. — C. K.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56