The effort after a national sovereignty had hardly been begun, when the Dane struck down the short-lived greatness of Wessex. While Britain was passing through her ages of conquest and settlement, the dwellers in the Scandinavian peninsula and the isles of the Baltic had lain hidden from Christendom, waging their battle for existence with a stern climate, a barren soil, and stormy seas. Forays and plunder-raids over sea eked out their scanty livelihood, and as the eighth century closed, these raids found a wider sphere than the waters of the north. Ecgberht had not yet brought all Britain under his sway when the Wi-kings or "creek-men," as the adventurers were called, were seen hovering off the English coast, and growing in numbers and hardihood as they crept southward to the Thames. The first sight of the northmen is as if the hand on the dial of history had gone back three hundred years. The Norwegian fiords, the Frisian sandbanks, poured forth pirate fleets such as had swept the seas in the days of Hengest and Cerdic There was the same wild panic as the black boats of the invaders struck inland along the river-reaches, or moored around the river islets, the same sights of horror, firing of homesteads, slaughter of men, women driven off to slavery or shame, children tossed on pikes or sold in the market-place, as when the English invaders attacked Britain. Christian priests were again slain at the altar by worshippers of Woden; letters, arts, religion, government disappeared before these northmen as before the northmen of old.
But when the wild burst of the storm was over, land, people, government reappeared unchanged. England still remained England; the conquerors sank quietly into the mass of those around them; and Woden yielded without a struggle to Christ. The secret of this difference between the two invasions was that the battle was no longer between men of different races. It was no longer a fight between Briton and German, between Englishman and Welshman. The life of these northern folk was in the main the life of the earlier Englishmen. Their customs, their religion, their social order were the same; they were in fact kinsmen bringing back to an England that had forgotten its origins the barbaric England of its pirate forefathers. Nowhere over Europe was the fight so fierce, because nowhere else were the combatants men of one blood and one speech. But just for this reason the fusion of the northmen with their foes was nowhere so peaceful and so complete.
[Authorities. - Our history here rests mainly on the English (or Anglo-Saxon) Chronicle. The earlier part of this is a compilation, and consists of (1) Annals of the conquest of South Britain, (2) Short notices of the kings and bishops of Wessex, expanded into larger form by copious insertions from Baeda, and after his death by briefer additions from some northern sources. (3) It is probable that these materials were thrown together, and perhaps translated from Latin into English, in aelfred's time, as a preface to the far fuller annals which begin with the reign of aethelwulf, and widen into a great contemporary history when they reach that of aelfred himself. Of their character and import as a part of English literature, I have spoken in the text. The "Life of aelfred " which bears the name of Asser is probably contemporary, or at any rate founded on contemporary authority. There is an admirable modern life of the king by Dr. Pauli. For the Danish wars, see "The Conquest of England " by J R. Green. ]
Britain had to meet a double attack from its new assailants. The northmen of Norway had struck westward to the Shetlands and Orkneys, and passed thence by the Hebrides to Ireland; while their kinsmen who now dwelt in the old Engle-land steered along the coasts of Frisia and Gaul. Shut in between the two lines of their advance, Britain lay in the very centre of their field of operations; and at the close of Ecgberht's reign, when the decisive struggle first began, their attacks were directed to the two extremities of the West-Saxon realm. After having harried East Anglia and slain in Kent, they swept up the Thames to the plunder of London; while the pirates in the Irish Channel roused all Cornwall to revolt. It was in the alliance of the northmen with the Britons that the danger of these earlier inroads lay. Ecgberht indeed defeated the united forces of these two enemies in a victory at Hengest-dun, but an unequal struggle was carried on for years to come in the Wessex west of Selwood. King aethelwulf, who followed Ecgberht in 839, fought strenuously in the defence of his realm; in the defeat of Charmouth, as in the victory at Aclea, he led his troops in person against the sea-robbers; and he drove back the Welsh of North Wales, who were encouraged by the invaders to rise in arms.
Northmen and Welshmen were beaten again and again, and yet the peril grew greater year by year. The dangers to the Christian faith from these heathen assailants roused the clergy to his aid. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, became taethelwulfs minister; Ealhstan, Bishop of Sherborne, was among the soldiers of the Cross, and with the ealdormen led the fyrds of Somerset and Dorset to drive the invaders from the mouth of the Parret. At last hard fighting gained the realm a little respite; in 858 aethelwulf died in peace, and for eight years the Northmen left the land in quiet. But these earlier forays had been mere preludes to the real burst of the storm. When it broke in its full force upon the island, it was no longer a series of plunder-raids, but the invasion of Britain by a host of conquerors who settled as they conquered. The work was now taken up by another people of Scandinavian blood, the Danes. At the accession of aethelred, the third of aethelwulf's sons, who had mounted the throne after the short reigns of his brothers, these new assailants fell on Britain. As they came to the front, the character of the attack wholly changed.