Read CHAPTER V: A DISCIPLINED BAND of The Dragon and the Raven / The Days of King Alfred, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on

The construction of the ship went on steadily. King Alfred, who was himself building several war vessels of ordinary size, took great interest in Edmund’s craft and paid several visits to it while it was in progress.

“It will be a fine ship,” he said one day as the vessel was approaching completion, “and much larger than any in these seas. It reminds me, Edmund, not indeed in size or shape, but in its purpose, of the ark which Noah built before the deluge which covered the whole earth. He built it, as you know, to escape with his family from destruction. You, too, are building against the time when the deluge of Danish invasion will sweep over this land, and I trust that your success will equal that of the patriarch.”

“I shall be better off than Noah was,” Edmund said, “for he had nothing to do, save to shut up his windows and wait till the floods abated, while I shall go out and seek my enemies on the sea.”

The respite purchased by the king from the Danes was but a short one. In the autumn of 875 their bands were again swarming around the borders of Wessex, and constant irruptions took place. Edmund received a summons to gather his tenants, but he found that these no longer replied willingly to the call. Several of his chief men met him and represented to him the general feeling which prevailed.

“The men say,” their spokesman explained, “that it is useless to fight against the Danes. In 872 there were ten pitched battles, and vast numbers of the Danes were slain, and vast numbers also of Saxons. The Danes are already far more numerous than before, for fresh hordes continue to arrive on the shores, and more than fill up the places of those who are killed; but the places of the Saxons are empty, and our fighting force is far smaller than it was last year. If we again go out and again fight many battles, even if we are victorious, which we can hardly hope to be, the same thing will happen. Many thousands will be slain, and the following year we shall in vain try to put an army in the field which can match that of the Danes, who will again have filled up their ranks, and be as numerous as ever. So long as we continue to fight, so long the Danes will slay, burn, and destroy wheresoever they march, until there will remain of us but a few fugitives hidden in the woods. We should be far better off did we cease to resist, and the Danes become our masters, as they have become the masters of Northumbria, Mercia, and Anglia.

“There, it is true, they have plundered the churches and thanes’ houses and have stolen all that is worth carrying away; but when they have taken all that there is to take they leave the people alone, and unmolested, to till the ground and to gain their livelihood. They do not slay for the pleasure of slaying, and grievous as is the condition of the Angles they and their wives and children are free from massacre and are allowed to gain their livings. The West Saxons have showed that they are no cowards; they have defeated the Northmen over and over again when far outnumbering them. It is no dishonour to yield now when all the rest of England has yielded, and when further fighting will only bring ruin upon ourselves, our wives, and children.”

Edmund could find no reply to this argument. He knew that even the king despaired of ultimately resisting the Danish invasion, and after listening to all that the thanes had to say he retired with Egbert apart.

“What say you, Egbert? There is reason in the arguments that they use. You and I have neither wives nor children, and we risk only our own lives; but I can well understand that those who have so much to lose are chary of further effort. What say you?”

“I do not think it will be fair to press them further,” Egbert answered; “but methinks that we might raise a band consisting of all the youths and unmarried men in the earldom. These we might train carefully and keep always together, seeing that the lands will still be cultivated and all able to pay their assessment, and may even add to it, since you exempt them from service. Such a band we could train and practise until we could rely upon them to defeat a far larger force of the enemy, and they would be available for our crew when we take to the ship.”

“I think the idea is a very good one, Egbert; we will propose it to the thanes.” The proposition was accordingly made that all married men should be exempt from service, but that the youths above the age of sixteen and the unmarried men should be formed into a band and kept permanently under arms. Landowners who lost the services of sons or freemen working for them should pay the same assessment only as before, but those who did not contribute men to the levy should pay an additional assessment. Edmund said he would pay the men composing the band the same wages they would earn in the field, and would undertake all their expenses. “So long as the king continues the struggle,” he said, “it is our duty to aid him, nor can we escape from the dangers and perils of invasion. Should the Danes come near us all must perforce fight, but so long as they continue at a distance things can go on here as if we had peace in the land.”

The proposal was, after some discussion, agreed to, and the news caused gladness and contentment throughout the earldom. The younger men who had been included in the levy were quite satisfied with the arrangement. The spirit of the West Saxons was still high, and those without wives and families who would suffer by their absence or be ruined by their death were eager to continue the contest. The proposal that they should be paid as when at work was considered perfectly satisfactory.

The men of Sherborne had under their young leader gained great credit by their steadiness and valour in the battles four years before, and they looked forward to fresh victories over the invader. The result was that ninety young men assembled for service. Edmund had sent off a messenger to the king saying that the people were utterly weary of war and refused to take up arms, but that he was gathering a band of young men with whom he would ere long join him; but he prayed for a short delay in order that he might get them into a condition to be useful on the day of battle.

After consultation with Egbert, Edmund drew up a series of orders somewhat resembling those of modern drill. King Alfred had once, in speaking to him, described the manner in which the Thebans, a people of Northern Greece, had fought, placing their troops in the form of a wedge. The formation he now taught his men. From morning to night they were practised at rallying from pursuit or flight, or changing from a line into the form of a wedge. Each man had his appointed place both in the line and wedge. Those who formed the outside line of this formation were armed with large shields which covered them from chin to foot, and with short spears; those in the inner lines carried no shields, but bore spears of increasing length, so that four lines of spears projected from the wedge to nearly the same distance. Inside the four lines were twenty men armed with shields, bows, and arrows. The sides of the wedge were of equal length, so that they could march either way.

Egbert’s place was at the apex of the wedge intended generally for attack. He carried no spear, nor did those at the other corners, as they would be covered by those beside and behind them; he was armed with a huge battle-axe. The other leaders were also chosen for great personal strength. Edmund’s place was on horseback in the middle of the wedge, whence he could overlook the whole and direct their movements.

In three weeks the men could perform their simple movements to perfection, and at a sound from Edmund’s horn would run in as when scattered in pursuit or flight, or could form from line into the wedge, without the least confusion, every man occupying his assigned place.

The men were delighted with their new exercises, and felt confident that the weight of the solid mass thickly bristling with spears would break through the Danish line without difficulty, or could draw off from the field in perfect order and safety in case of a defeat, however numerous their foes. The two front lines were to thrust with their pikes, the others keeping their long spears immovable to form a solid hedge. Each man carried a short heavy sword to use in case, by any fatality, the wedge should get broken up.

When assured that his band were perfect in their new exercise Edmund marched and joined the king. He found on his arrival that the summons to arms had been everywhere disregarded. Many men had indeed come in, but these were in no way sufficient to form a force which would enable him to take the field against the Danes.

Edmund therefore solicited and obtained permission to march with his band to endeavour to check the plundering bands of Danes, who were already committing devastations throughout the country.

“Be not rash, Edmund,” the monarch said, “you have but a handful of men, and I should grieve indeed did aught of harm befall you. If you can fall upon small parties of plunderers and destroy them you will do good service, not only by compelling them to keep together but by raising the spirits of the Saxons; but avoid conflict with parties likely to defeat you.”

“You shall hear of us soon, I promise you,” Edmund replied, “and I trust that the news will be good.”

The little party set out towards the border, and before long met numbers of fugitives, weeping women carrying children, old men and boys, making their way from the neighbourhood of the Danes. The men had for the most part driven their herds into the woods, where they were prepared to defend them as best they could against roving parties. They learned that Haffa, a Danish jarl, with about 600 followers, was plundering and ravaging the country about twelve miles away. The force was a formidable one, but after consultation with Egbert, Edmund determined to advance, deeming that he might find the Danes scattered and cut off some of their parties.

As they neared the country of which the Danes were in possession the smoke of burning villages and homesteads was seen rising heavily in the air. Edmund halted for the night in a wood about a mile distant from a blazing farm, and the band lay down for some hours.

Before daybreak three or four of the swiftest-footed of the men were sent out to reconnoitre. They learned, from badly wounded men whom they found lying near the burning farms, that the Danes had been plundering in parties of twenty or thirty, but that the main body under Haffa lay five miles away at the village of Bristowe.

A consultation was held, and it was agreed that the party should remain hidden in the wood during the day, and that upon the following night they should fall upon the Danes, trusting to the surprise to inflict much damage upon them, and to be able to draw off before the enemy could recover sufficiently to rally and attack them.

Accordingly about nine o’clock in the evening they started, and marching rapidly approached Bristowe an hour and a half later. They could see great fires blazing, and round them the Danes were carousing after their forays of the day. Great numbers of cattle were penned up near the village.

Edmund and Egbert having halted their men stole forward until close to the village in order to learn the nature of the ground and the position of the Danes. Upon their return they waited until the fires burned low and the sound of shouting and singing decreased. It was useless to wait longer, for they knew that many of the Danes would, according to their custom, keep up their revelry all night. Crawling along the ground the band made for the great pen where were herded the cattle which the Danes had driven in from the surrounding country, and over which several guards had been placed. Before starting Egbert assigned to each man the special duties which he was to fulfil.

The Saxons crept up quite close to the Danish guards unobserved. To each of these three or four bowmen had been told off, and they, on nearing the sentries lay prone on the ground with bows bent and arrows fixed until a whistle from Edmund gave the signal. Then the arrows were loosed, and the distance being so short the Danish sentries were all slain. Then a party of men removed the side of the pen facing the village; the rest mingled with the cattle, and soon with the points of their spears goaded them into flight. In a mass the herd thundered down upon the village, the Saxons keeping closely behind them and adding to their terror by goading the hindermost.

The Danes, astonished at the sudden thunder of hoofs bearing down upon them, leaped to their feet and endeavoured to turn the course of the herd, which they deemed to have accidentally broken loose, by loud shouts and by rattling their swords against their shields. The oxen, however, were too terrified by those in their rear to check their course, and charged impetuously down upon the Danes.

Numbers of these were hurled to the ground and trampled under foot, and the wildest confusion reigned in the camp. This was increased when, as the herds swept along, a number of active men with spear and sword fell suddenly upon them. Scores were cut down or run through before they could prepare for defence, or recover from their surprise at the novel method of attack.

At last, as the thunder of the herd died away in the distance, and they became aware of the comparative fewness of their foes, they began to rally and make head against their assailants. No sooner was this the case than the note of a horn was heard, and as if by magic their assailants instantly darted away into the night, leaving the superstitious Danes in some doubt whether the whole attack upon them had not been of a supernatural nature.

Long before they recovered themselves, and were ready for pursuit, the Saxons were far away, no less than 200 of the Danes having been slain or trampled to death, while of Edmund’s band not one had received so much as a wound.

The Saxons regained the wood in the highest state of exultation at their success, and more confident than before in themselves and their leader.

“I am convinced,” Edmund said, “that this is the true way to fight the Danes, to harry and attack them by night assaults until they dare not break up into parties, and become so worn out by constant alarms that they will be glad to leave a country where plunder and booty are only to be earned at so great a cost.”

Knowing that Haffa’s band would for some time be thoroughly on the alert Edmund moved his party to another portion of the country, where he inflicted a blow, almost as heavy as he had dealt Haffa, upon Sigbert, another of the Danish jarls. Three or four more very successful night attacks were made, and then the Danes, by this time thoroughly alarmed, obtained from some Saxon country people whom they took prisoners news as to the strength of Edmund’s band.

Furious at the heavy losses which had been inflicted upon them by so small a number, they determined to unite in crushing them. By threats of instant death, and by the offers of a high reward, they succeeded in persuading two Saxon prisoners to act as spies, and one day these brought in to Haffa the news that the band had that morning, after striking a successful blow at the Danes ten miles away, entered at daybreak a wood but three miles from his camp.

The Northman, disdaining to ask for assistance from one of the other bands against so small a foe, moved out at once with 300 of his men towards the wood. The Saxons had posted guards, who on the approach of the Danes roused Edmund with the news that the enemy were close at hand. The Saxons were soon on their feet.

“Now, my friends,” Edmund said to them, “here is the time for trying what benefit we have got from our exercise. We cannot well draw off, for the Danes are as fleet-footed as we; therefore let us fight and conquer them.”

The men formed up cheerfully, and the little body moved out from the wood to meet the Danes. The latter gave a shout of triumph as they saw them. The Saxon force, from its compact formation, appeared even smaller than it was, and the Norsemen advanced in haste, each eager to be the first to fall upon an enemy whom they regarded as an easy prey. As they arrived upon the spot, however, and saw the thick hedge of spears which bristled round the little body of Saxons, the first comers checked their speed and waited till Haffa himself came up, accompanied by his principal warriors.

Without a moment’s hesitation the jarl flung himself upon the Saxons. In vain, however, he tried to reach them with his long sword. As he neared them the front line of the Saxons dropped on one knee, and as the Danes with their shields dashed against the spears and strove to cut through them, the kneeling men were able with their pikes to thrust at the unguarded portions of the bodies below their shields, and many fell grievously wounded. After trying for some time in vain, Haffa, finding that individual effort did not suffice to break through the Saxon spears, formed his men up in line four deep, and advanced in a solid body so as to overwhelm them.

The Saxons now rose to their feet. The spears, instead of being pointed outwards, were inclined towards the front, and the wedge advanced against the Danes. The Saxon war cry rose loud as they neared the Danish line, and then, still maintaining their close formation, they charged upon it. The assault was irresistible. The whole weight was thrown upon a point, and preceded, as it was, by the densely-packed spears, it burst through the Danish line as if the latter had been composed of osier twigs, bearing down all in its way.

With shouts of surprise the Danes broke up their line and closed in a thick mass round the Saxons, those behind pressing forward and impeding the motions of the warriors actually engaged. The Saxons no longer kept stationary. In obedience to Edmund’s orders the triangle advanced, sometimes with one angle in front, sometimes with another, but whichever way it moved sweeping away the Danes opposed to it, while the archers from the centre shot fast and strong into the mass of the enemy.

Haffa himself, trying to oppose the advance of the wedge, was slain by a blow of Egbert’s axe, and after half an hour’s fierce fighting, the Danes, having lost upwards of fifty of their best men, and finding all their efforts to produce an impression upon the Saxons vain, desisted from the attack and fled.

At once the wedge broke up, and the Saxons followed in hot pursuit, cutting down their flying enemies. Obedient, however, to Edmund’s repeated shouts they kept fairly together, and when the Danes, thinking them broken and disordered, turned to fall upon them, a single note of the horn brought them instantly together again, and the astonished Danes saw the phalanx which had proved so fatal to them prepared to receive their attack. This they did not attempt to deliver, but took to flight, the Saxons, as before, pursuing, and twice as many of the Danes were slain in the retreat as in the first attack.

The pursuit was continued for many miles, and then, fearing that he might come across some fresh body of the enemy, Edmund called off his men. Great was the triumph of the Saxons. A few of them had suffered from wounds more or less serious, but not one had fallen. They had defeated a body of Danes four times their own force, and had killed nearly half of them, and they felt confident that the tactics which they had adopted would enable them in future to defeat any scattered bodies of Danes they might meet.

For a week after the battle they rested, spending their time in further improving themselves in their drill, practicing especially the alterations of the position of the spears requisite when changing from a defensive attitude, with the pikes at right angles to each face, to that of an attack, when the spears of both faces of the advancing wedge were all directed forward. A messenger arrived from the king, to whom Edmund had sent the news of his various successes, and Alfred sent his warmest congratulations and thanks for the great results which had been gained with so small a force, the king confessing that he was unable to understand how with such disproportionate numbers Edmund could so totally have routed the force of so distinguished a leader as Haffa.

For some weeks Edmund continued the work of checking the depredations of the Danes, and so successful was he that the freebooters became seized with a superstitious awe of his band. The rapidity of its maneuvering, the manner in which men, at one moment scattered, were in another formed in a serried mass, against which all their efforts broke as waves against a rock, seemed to them to be something superhuman. In that part of Wessex, therefore, the invaders gradually withdrew their forces across the frontier; but in other parts of the country, the tide of invasion being unchecked, large tracts of country had been devastated, and the West Saxons could nowhere make head against them. One day a messenger reached Edmund telling him that a large Danish army was approaching Sherborne, and urging him to return instantly to the defence of his earldom.

With rapid marches he proceeded thither, and on arriving at his house he found that the Danes were but a few miles away, and that the whole country was in a state of panic. He at once sent off messengers in all directions, bidding the people hasten with their wives and families, their herds and valuables, to the fort. His return to some extent restored confidence. The news of the victories he had gained over the Danes had reached Sherborne, and the confidence of their power to defeat the invaders which his followers expressed as they scattered to their respective farms again raised the courage of the people.

All through the night bands of fugitives poured into the fort, and by morning the whole of the people for many miles round were assembled there. Egbert and Edmund busied themselves in assigning to each his duty and station. All the men capable of bearing arms were told off to posts on the walls. The old men and young boys were to draw water and look after the cattle; the women to cook and attend to the wounded. The men of his own band were not placed upon the walls, but were held in readiness as a reserve to move to any point which might be threatened, and to take part in sorties against the enemy.

Soon smoke was seen rising up in many directions, showing that the enemy were at their accustomed work. Cries broke from the women, and exclamations of rage from the men, as they recognized by the direction of the smoke that their own homesteads and villages were in the hands of the spoilers. About mid-day a party of mounted Danes rode up towards the fort and made a circuit of it. When they had satisfied themselves as to the formidable nature of its defences they rode off again, and for the rest of the day none of the enemy approached the fort.