Cameos from English History

By Charlotte Mary Yonge, 1899
Cameos from English History


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"Cameos from English History" by Charlotte Mary Yonge is a collection of historical stories that provide a glimpse into the lives of prominent figures in English history, such as King Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, and Queen Elizabeth I. The book is written in a narrative style that engages readers in the lives of these influential figures, highlighting their triumphs and struggles. Yonge also explores the impact of these historical figures on English culture and society.

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CAMEO I. ROLF GANGER. (900-932.)

  Kings of England.
   901. Edward the Elder.
   924. Athelstan.

  Kings of France.
   898. Charles
          the Simple.
   923. Rudolf.

  Emperors of Germany.
   899. Ludwig IV.
   912. Konrad.

If we try to look back at history nine hundred years, we shall see a world very unlike that in which we are now moving. Midway from the birth of our Lord to the present era, the great struggle between the new and old had not subsided, and the great European world of civilized nations had not yet settled into their homes and characters.

Christianity had been accepted by the Roman Emperor six hundred years previously, but the Empire was by that time too weak and corrupt to be renewed, even by the fresh spirit infused into it; and, from the 4th century onward, it had been breaking up under the force of the fierce currents of nations that rushed from the north-east of Europe. The Greek half of the Empire prolonged its existence in the Levant, but the Latin, or Western portion, became a wreck before the 5th century was far advanced. However, each conquering tribe that poured into the southern dominions had been already so far impressed with the wisdom and dignity of Rome, and the holiness of her religion, that they paused in their violence, and gradually allowed themselves to be taught by her doctrine, tamed by her manners, and governed by her laws. The Patriarch of Rome—Papa, or Father—was acknowledged by them, as by the subjects of Rome of old; they accepted the clergy, who had already formed dioceses and parishes, and though much of horrible savagery remained to be subdued in the general mass, yet there was a gradual work of amelioration in progress.

This was especially the case with the Franks, who had overspread the northern half of Gaul. Their first race of kings had become Christians simultaneously with their conquest; and though these soon dwindled away between crime and luxury, there had grown up under them a brave and ambitious family, whose earlier members were among the most distinguished persons in history.

Charles Martel turned back the Saracens at Tours, and saved Europe from Mahometanism, and his grandson, Charles the Great, rescued the Pope from the Lombards, and received from him in return the crown of a new Empire of the West—the Holy Roman Empire, which was supposed to be the great temporal power. As the Pope, or Patriarch, was deemed the head of all bishops, so the Emperor was to be deemed the head of all kings of the West, from the Danube and Baltic to the Atlantic Ocean—the whole country that had once been held by Rome, and then had been wrested from her by the various German or Teutonic races. The island of Great Britain was a sort of exception to the general rule. Like Gaul, it had once been wholly Keltic, but it had not been as entirely subdued by the Romans, and the overflow of Teutons came very early thither, and while they were yet so thoroughly Pagan that the old Keltic Church failed to convert them, and the mission of St. Augustine was necessary from Rome.

A little later, when Charles the Great formed his empire of Franks, Germans, Saxons, and Gauls, Egbert gathered, in like manner, the various petty kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons under the one dominant realm of Wessex, and thus became a sort of island Emperor.

It seems, however, to be a rule, that nations and families recently emerged from barbarism soon fade and decay under the influence of high civilization; and just as the first race of Frankish kings had withered away on the throne, so the line of Charles the Great, though not inactive, became less powerful and judicious, grew feeble in the very next generation, and were little able to hold together the multitude of nations that had formed the empire.

Soon the kingdom of France split away from the Empire; and while a fresh and more able Emperor became the head of the West, the descendants of the great Charles still struggled on, at their royal cities of Laon and Soissons, with the terrible difficulties brought upon them by restless subjects, and by the last and most vigorous swarm of all the Teutonic invaders.

The wild rugged hills and coasts of Scandinavia, with their keen climate, long nights, and many gulfs and bays, had contributed to nurse the Teuton race in a vigor and perfection scarcely found elsewhere—or not at least since the more southern races had yielded to the enervating influences of their settled life. Some of these had indeed been tamed, but more had been degraded. The English were degenerating into clownishness, the Franks into effeminacy; and though Christianity continually raised up most brilliant lights—now on the throne, now in the cathedral, now in the cloister—yet the mass of the people lay sluggish, dull, inert, selfish, and half savage.

They were in this state when the Norseman and the Dane fitted out their long ships, and burst upon their coasts. By a peculiar law, common once to all the Teuton nations, though by that time altered in the southern ones, the land of a family was not divided among its members, but all possessed an equal right in it; and thus, as it was seldom adequate to maintain them all, the more enterprising used their right in it only to fell trees enough to build a ship, and to demand corn enough to victual their crew, which was formed of other young men whose family inheritance could not furnish more than a sword or spear.

Kings and princes—of whom there were many—were exactly in the same position as their subjects, and they too were wont to seek their fortunes upon the high seas. Fleets coalesced under the command of some chieftain of birth or note, and the Vikings, or pirates, sailed fearlessly forth, to plunder the tempting regions to the south of them.

Fierce worshippers were they of the old gods, Odin, Frey, Thor; of the third above all others, and their lengthy nights had led to their working up those myths that had always been common to the whole race into a beauty, poetry, and force, probably not found elsewhere; and that nerved them both to fight vehemently for an entrance to Valhalla, the hall of heroes, and to revenge the defection of the Christians who had fallen from Odin. They plundered, they burnt, they slew; they specially devastated churches and monasteries, and no coast was safe from them from the Adriatic to the furthest north—even Rome saw their long ships, and, "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us," was the prayer in every Litany of the West.

England had been well-nigh undone by them, when the spirit of her greatest king awoke, and by Alfred they were overcome: some were permitted to settle down and were taught Christianity and civilization, and the fresh invaders were driven from the coast. Alfred's gallant son and grandson held the same course, guarded their coasts, and made their faith and themselves respected throughout the North. But in France, the much-harassed house of Charles the Great, and the ill-compacted bond of different nations, were little able to oppose their fierce assaults, and ravage and devastation reigned from one end of the country to another.

However, the Vikings, on returning to their native homes, sometimes found their place filled up, and the family inheritance incapable of supporting so many. Thus they began to think of winning not merely gold and cattle, but lands and houses, on the coasts that they had pillaged. In Scotland, the Hebrides, and Ireland, they settled by leave of nothing but their swords; in England, by treaty with Alfred; and in France, half by conquest, half by treaty, always, however, accepting Christianity as a needful obligation when they accepted southern lands. Probably they thought that Thor was only the god of the North, and that the "White Christ," as they called Him who was made known to them in these new countries, was to be adored in what they deemed alone His territories.

Of all the sea-robbers who sailed from their rocky dwelling-places by the fiords of Norway, none enjoyed higher renown than Rolf, called the ganger, or walker, as tradition relates, because his stature was so gigantic that, when clad in full armor, no horse could support his weight, and he therefore always fought on foot.

Rolf's lot had, however, fallen in what he doubtless considered as evil days. No such burnings and plunderings as had hitherto wasted England, and enriched Norway, fell to his share; for Alfred had made the bravest Northman feel that his fleet and army were more than a match for theirs. Ireland was exhausted by the former depredations of the pirates, and, from a fertile and flourishing country, had become a scene of desolation; Scotland and its isles were too barren to afford prey to the spoiler; and worse than all, the King of Norway, Harald Harfagre, desirous of being included among the civilized sovereigns of Europe, strictly forbade his subjects to exercise their old trade of piracy on his own coasts, or on those of his allies. Rolf, perhaps, considered himself above this new law. His father, Earl Rognwald, as the chief friend of the King, had been chosen to cut and comb the hair which Harald had kept for ten years untrimmed, in fulfilment of a vow, that his locks should never be clipped until the whole of Norway was under his dominion. He had also been invested with the government of the great Earldom of Möre, where the sons of Harald, jealous of the favor with which he was regarded by their father, burnt him and sixty of his men, in his own house. The vengeance taken by his sons had been signal, and the King had replaced Thorer the Silent, one of their number, in his father's earldom.

Rolf, presuming on the favor shown to his family, while returning from an expedition on the Baltic, made a descent on the coast of Viken, a part of Norway, and carried off the cattle wanted by his crew. The King, who happened at that time to be in that district, was highly displeased, and, assembling a council, declared Rolf Ganger an outlaw. His mother, Hilda, a dame of high lineage, in vain interceded for him, and closed her entreaty with a warning in the wild extemporary poetry of the North:

  "Bethink thee, monarch, it is ill
  With such a wolf, at wolf to play,
  Who, driven to the wild woods away,
  May make the king's best deer his prey."

Harald listened not, and it was well; for through the marvellous dealings of Providence, the outlawry of this "wolf" of Norway led to the establishment of our royal line, and to that infusion of new spirit into England to which her greatness appears to be chiefly owing.

The banished Rolf found a great number of companions, who, like himself, were unwilling to submit to the strict rule of Harald Harfagre, and setting sail with them, he first plundered and devastated the coast of Flanders, and afterward turned toward France. In the spring of 896, the citizens of Rouen, scarcely yet recovered from the miseries inflicted upon them by the fierce Danish rover, Hasting, were dismayed by the sight of a fleet of long low vessels with spreading sails, heads carved like that of a serpent, and sterns finished like the tail of the reptile, such as they well knew to be the keels of the dreaded Northmen, the harbingers of destruction and desolation. Little hope of succor or protection was there from King Charles the Simple; and, indeed, had the sovereign been ever so warlike and energetic, it would little have availed Rouen, which might have been destroyed twice over before a messenger could reach Laon.

In this emergency, Franco, the Archbishop, proposed to go forth to meet the Northmen, and attempt to make terms for his flock. The offer was gladly accepted by the trembling citizens, and the good Archbishop went, bearing the keys of the town, to visit the camp which the Northmen had begun to erect upon the bank of the river. They offered him no violence, and he performed his errand safely. Rolf, the rude generosity of whose character was touched by his fearless conduct, readily agreed to spare the lives and property of the citizens, on condition that Rouen was surrendered to him without resistance.

Entering the town, he there established his head-quarters, and spent a whole year there and in the adjacent parts of the country, during which time the Northmen so faithfully observed their promise, that they were regarded by the Rouennais rather as friends than as conquerors; and Rolf, or Rollo, as the French called him, was far more popular among them than their real sovereign. Wherever he met with resistance, he showed, indeed, the relentless cruelty of the heathen pirate; but where he found submission, he was a kind master, and these qualities contributed to gain for him an easy and rapid conquest of Neustria, as the district of which Rouen was the capital was then called.

In the course of the following year, he advanced along the banks of the Seine as far as its junction with the Eure. On the opposite side of the river, there were visible a number of tents, where slept a numerous army which Charles had at length collected to oppose this formidable enemy. The Northmen also set up their camp, in expectation of a battle, and darkness had just closed in on them when a shout was heard on the opposite side of the river, and to their surprise a voice was heard speaking in their own language, "Brave warriors, why come ye hither, and what do ye seek?"

"We are Northmen, come hither to conquer France," replied Rollo. "But who art thou who speakest our tongue so well?"

"Heard ye never of Hasting?" was the reply.

Hasting was one of the most celebrated of the Sea-Kings. He had fought with Alfred in England, had cruelly wasted France, and had even sailed into the Mediterranean and made himself dreaded in Italy; but with him it had been as with the old pirate in the poem:

  "Time will rust the sharpest sword,
  Time will consume the strongest cord;
  That which moulders hemp and steel,
  Mortal arm and nerve must feel.
  Of the Danish band, whom 'Earl Hasting' led,
  Many wax'd aged, and many were dead;
  Himself found his armor full weighty to bear,
  Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair;
  He leaned on a staff when his step went abroad,
  And patient his palfrey, when steed he bestrode.
  As he grew feebler, his wildness ceased,
  He made himself peace with prelate and priest;
  He made himself peace, and stooping his head,
  Patiently listen'd the counsel they said.

  "'Thou hast murder'd, robb'd, and spoil'd,
  Time it is thy poor soul were assoil'd;
  Priests didst thou slay and churches burn,
  Time it is now to repentance to turn;
  Fiends hast thou worshipp'd with fiendish rite,
  Leave now the darkness and wend into light;
  Oh, while life and space are given,
  Turn thee yet, and think of heaven.'

  "That stern old heathen, his head he raised,
  And on the good prelate he steadfastly gazed,
  'Give me broad lands on the "Eure and the Seine,"
  My faith I will leave, and I'll cleave unto thine.'
  Broad lands he gave him on 'Seine and on Eure,'
  To be held of the king by bridle and spear,

  "For the 'Frankish' King was a sire in age,
  Weak in battle, in council sage;
  Peace of that heathen leader he sought,
  Gifts he gave and quiet he bought;
  And the Earl took upon him the peaceful renown,
  Of a vassal and liegeman for 'Chartres' good town:
  He abjured the gods of heathen race,
  And he bent his head at the font of grace;
  But such was the grizzly old proselyte's look,
  That the priest who baptized him grew pale and shook."

Such had been the history of Hasting, now Count of Chartres, who without doubt expected that his name and example would have a great effect upon his countrymen; but the answer to his question, "Heard ye never of Hasting?" met with no such answer as he anticipated.

"Yes," returned Rollo; "he began well, but ended badly."

"Will ye not, then," continued the old pirate, "submit to my lord the King? Will ye not hold of him lands and honors?"

"No!" replied the Northmen, disdainfully, "we will own no lord; we will take no gift; but we will have what we ourselves can conquer by force." Here Hasting took his departure, and returning to the French camp, strongly advised the commander not to hazard a battle; but his counsel was overruled by a young standard-bearer, who, significantly observing, "Wolves make not war on wolves," so offended the old sea-king, that he quitted the army that night, and never again appeared in France. The wisdom of his advice was the next morning made evident, by the total defeat of the French, and the advance of the Northmen, who in a short space after appeared beneath the walls of Paris.

Failing in their attempt to take the city, they returned to Rouen, where they fortified themselves, making it the capital of the territory they had conquered.

Fifteen years passed away, the summers of which were spent in ravaging the dominions of Charles the Simple, and the winters in the city of Rouen, and in the meantime a change had come over their leader. He had been insensibly softened and civilized by his intercourse with the good Archbishop Franco; and finding, perhaps, that it was not quite so easy as he had expected to conquer the whole kingdom of France, he declared himself willing to follow the example which he had once despised, and to become a vassal of the French crown for the duchy of Neustria.

Charles, greatly rejoiced to find himself thus able to put a stop to the dreadful devastations of the Northmen, readily agreed to the terms proposed by Rollo, appointing the village of St. Clair-sur-Epte, on the borders of Neustria, as the place of meeting for the purpose of receiving his homage and oath of fealty. It was a strange meeting which there took place between the degenerate and almost imbecile descendant of the great Charles, with his array of courtly followers and his splendor and luxury, and the gigantic warrior of the North, the founder of a line of kings, in all the vigor of the uncivilized native of a cold climate, and the unbending pride of a conqueror, surrounded by his tall warriors, over whom his chieftainship had hitherto depended only on their own consent, gained by his acknowledged superiority in wisdom in council and prowess in battle.

The greatest difficulty to be overcome in this conference, was the repugnance felt by the proud Northman to perform the customary act of homage before any living man, especially one whom he held so cheap as Charles the Simple. He consented, indeed, to swear allegiance, and declare himself the "King's man," with his hands clasped between those of Charles; but the remaining part of the ceremony, the kneeling to kiss the foot of his liege lord, he absolutely refused, and was with difficulty persuaded to permit one of his followers to perform it in his name. The proxy, as proud as his master, instead of kneeling, took the King's foot in his hand, and lifted it to his mouth, while he stood upright, thus overturning both monarch and throne, amid the rude laughter of his companions, while the miserable Charles and his courtiers felt such a dread of these new vassals that they did not dare to resent the insult.

On his return to Rouen, Rollo was baptized, and, on leaving the cathedral, celebrated his conversion by large grants to the different churches and convents in his new duchy, making a fresh gift on each of the days during which he wore the white robes of the newly baptized. All of his warriors who chose to follow his example, and embrace the Christian faith, received from him grants of land, to be held of him on the same terms as those by which he held the dukedom from the King; and the country, thus peopled by the Northmen, gradually assumed the appellation of Normandy.

Applying themselves with all the ardor of their temper to their new way of life, the Northmen quickly adopted the manners, language, and habits which were recommended to them as connected with the holy faith which they had just embraced, but without losing their own bold and vigorous spirit. Soon the gallant and accomplished Norman knight could scarcely have been recognized as the savage sea-robber, once too ferocious and turbulent even for his own wild country in the far North, while, at the same time, he bore as little resemblance to the cruel and voluptuous French noble, at once violent and indolent. The new war-cry of Dieu aide was as triumphant as that of Thor Hulfe had been of old, and the Red Cross led to as many victories as the Raven standard.

It is said that the word "Exchequer" is derived from the court of justice established by Rollo, so called from the word "Schicken" signifying, in his native tongue, to send, because from it judges were sent to try causes throughout the dukedom. It is also said that the appeal from them to the Duke himself, made in these terms, "J'appelle a Rou," is the origin of the cry "Haro" by which, for centuries after his descendants had passed away from Normandy, the injured always called for justice. This was for many centuries believed in Normandy, but in fact the word Haro is only the same as our own "hurrah," the beginning of a shout. There is no doubt, however, that the keen, unsophisticated vigor of Rollo, directed by his new religion, did great good in Normandy, and that his justice was sharp, his discipline impartial, so that of him is told the famous old story bestowed upon other just princes, that a gold bracelet was left for three years untouched upon a tree in a forest.