Life In Old Cambridge – The Danes

BUT while Cambridge began to draw the life of the countryside round its two towns, the coast of Anglia was overhung by a worse form of the danger that had always threatened it since the Roman Count had watched for pirates on the Saxon shore.

In 787 A.D. three ships, better manned and longer than any of the Saxon or English ones, but built like them narrow and light with high carved beak and stern and steered by a fixed stern oar, came lifting and falling over the crests of the North Sea. Watchmen, who first espied the coloured sails and strange Raven banner, ran hot-foot to warn the Reeve, whom the King had chosen to rule that country.

” Then the Reeve rode to the place, and would have driven them to the King’s town, because he knew not what men they were.

And then and there did they slay him. These were the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of Angle-kin.”

So without warning or parley began the first of the Norse raids, which were once more to make East Anglia and Cambridgeshire desolate. Fleet after fleet came on before the North-east wind and raced up the river mouths, the ships rowed by 30 or 40 oars apiece. The crews hauled up their boats and built or seized a stronghold on the higher ground, where they could be secure through the winter months ; thence they would march out afoot or on captured horses, raid the great abbeys, sacking all their wealth and burning the fine stone and timber towers till they flared like beacons of disaster over the reddened water of the Fens.

Thetford was commonly the headquarters of this pagan army, and from there they must have marched by Cambridge every time they would go inland either to York or the Midlands or over the Chiltern Hills to harry Bucks. and Hertfordshire and the soft Thames Valley. In 870 A.D. they rode back and martyred St. Edmund at Bury, ” and trod down all the land and brake down all the Minsters that ever they came to,” even Ely not escaping. In 875 three of the Viking chiefs ” sat down ” in Cambridge ” one whole year,” until at last they were overpowered and had to ” steal away ” westwards into Dorsetshire. Three years later Alfred beat their host at Ethandune in the hills of Somerset near Athelney, baptized their leader, Guthrum, in the font at little Aller (pro- nounced Oiler) by the Parrot and so made peace, dividing the land between them.

Cambridge, lying just north of the boundary, the River Lea and Watling Street, fell to the share of the Lords Danes and was ruled by their Lagemen from the Moot place by the bridge.

In 905 A.D. Alfred’s son Edward took arms again and drove the Danes northward from the Watling Street boundary, and here in Cambridgeshire his Kentish men, lingering under Siwulf the Alderman, and Kenwulf the Abbot, fought to a standstill on the Dykes, slaying the Danish King but losing their own leaders and the field of battle.

Seven years later, Edward and his sister, Ethelfled, Lady of the Mercians, gathered their joint strength and laid down sound plans of conquest. Marching steadily northeast, they gave battle again and again and won back stretch after stretch of the country; built earthen strongholds to keep it secure ; planted new settlements of Wessex men as at St. Ives, and grouped the Hundreds in Counties round each of the reviving towns.

And so at last in 921 A.D. ” all the (Danish) host among the East Anglians swore to be at one with King Edward, that they would all that he would, and would hold peace toward all to whom the King should grant his peace, both by sea and land. And in especial did the host which owed fealty to Cambridge choose him to father and to lord ; and there-to swore oaths, even as he then bade it.”

Each hundred in the new county of Cambridgeshire held some ten villages or ” tithings,” where each man was known to his neighbours and answerable to the whole village for any misdeed, as was the ” tithing ” itself to its fellow-villages and to the Hundred moot.

Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk lay apart from the rest of England, cut off by the waters, all but an island and hard to come at even from the south. While loyal to Edward’s heirs, these counties lived a life of their own and their Hundred moots seem to have sent men to a Witan of their own,’ which every freeman might attend from all East Anglia, though few probably troubled to take long journeys to do so. At the Witan presided an Alderman for all three shires, the most famous being Brithnoth. The Ramsey Chronicler tells how this hero marched out to his last battle with the Danes at the Blackwater in Essex. On the way he refused to take food unless the men of his hearthward or bodyguard could share it. ” I cannot fight without my men, neither will I feed without them.” The battle is recorded in the famous saga called ” The song of Maldon.” They had reached the place of battle, and Brithnoth dismounted to fight among his men on foot as Saxons did, when the Vikings sent a messenger to demand ransom :—

” Thy realm mayest thou ransom By sending the Seamen,

To their own full doom (i.e. terms), Gear and gift.

Then back with our booty

To ship will we get us,

Fare forth on the flood

And pass you in peace.”

Brithnoth answered as a true Englishman :—

” Hear thou, sailor,

What saith this people,

For ransom we give you

Full freely our weapons,

Spear-edge and sword-edge

Of old renown.

This bode in return

Bear back to thy shipmates,

This word of high warning,

That here stand undaunted

A chief with his chosen :

This land will we fight for,

For Ethelred’s realm,

For our King, folk, and country.

Then waded the water

Those wolves of the slaughter

Nor stayed them the stream :

Pressed over Panta (Blackwater)

The Vikings’ war :

O’er the wan waterway

Weapons they waved,

Their shields to shore

The shipmen bore.”

The fight was bitter ; the Danes were so badly mauled that they made off without waiting for more ” ransom,” but Brithnoth fell, and his faithful hearthward bore his headless body back to Ely. There they had rested and feasted on their way out, and Brithnoth had repaid the Abbot’s hospitality by princely gifts, the grant of jurisdiction over many villages of his in Cambridgeshire. Among them were Trumpington, Teversham, Triplow, Fulbourn, Hardwicke, Impington, Croxton, Soham, and Papworth. His widow gave a golden collar and a tapestry record of his deeds to the abbey, and there his tomb can still be seen. It was King Alfred who had revived Ely after the Danish raids, sending eight monks to repair one aisle of the old church, and this served nineteen years later as a refuge to the whole country-side. King Sweyn had come to take vengeance for the treacherous massacre of his subjects on St. Brice’s Day.

The men of Cambridge made a heroic stand at Ringmere, and the King punished it by a merciless harrying of the whole district with fire and sword.

In 1010 A.D., ” while all England shook ” before Sweyn ” as a reedbed rustling before the wind,” Ulfeytel, ” the Ready,” Brithnoth’s successor as Alderman, rallied the forces of whom the Danes themselves had said in 1004 that ” never worse hand-play had they met in England ” ; he stood against them at Ringmere, but his forces broke; ” Soon fled the East English. Then stood fast Grantabrygshire alone ” ; so fast stood they and so worthily that ” while English kings rule, the praise of Cambridgeshire shall flourish.” But no one shire could long withstand a king’s host, and the Danes took the fiercer vengeance, riding throughout the district for three weary months, destroying all save Ely, safe behind her floods. Cambridge was sacked and burnt. ” And they even went into the wild fens, and there they destroyed men and cattle and burned throughout the fens. What could be moved that did they lift, what they might not carry that did they burn . . . and so marched they up and down the land.” Of all the villages none suffered more than Balsham, small and remote as it was. The old church tower still stands with the narrow winding stairway on which one man barricaded himself safely, only to find when the raiders rode off that all his kinsfolk were slain or enslaved, and he alone remained of the whole ham. At Barrington fierce fighting seems to have held the ford across the Cam, for there were found in 1875 skeletons of men and horses, a ” seaxe,” shield-bosses, swords, daggers, spearheads, a green glass brooch with the Danish snake-headed raven cut upon it, and a bronze charm with Saracenic characters such as the Danes wore, and which are still found from time to time in places where they lived in England. The final battle of Assandun, in which Edmund Ironside was defeated, was perhaps fought at Ashdon on the borders of Cambridgeshire.

The Danes, after harrying Mercia, had made off towards the ships they had left in the Thames estuary ; but Edmund, guided perhaps by the monks of Ely,’ who would have watched the line of smoking villages left in the enemy’s wake, made hard after them, and overtook them by the rising Bourne. There the king charged under his royal banner and the Golden Dragon flag of Wessex. ” Brandishing his good sword, he clove like a thunder-bolt the Danish battleline,” but some felon raised the cry ” Flet Engle,” Dead is Edmund,” and started a panic. ” Thus did he betray his King and Lord and the whole people of Angle-kin.

There did the whole English nation fight against him ; and there had Cnut the victory. There was slain Bishop Ednoth (of London) . . . and Ulfeytel of East Anglia. . . . And all the nobility of the English nation was there undone.” In 1020 A.D. Cnut built at Assandun ” a minster of stone and lime, for the souls of the men who were there slain.” For Cnut was Christian and a good king, and befriended Ely though the monks had gone against him at Assandun. Many stories are told of his love of Ely ; of his song :—

Merry sang the monks in

Ely As Cnut, king, rowed there by.

” Steer lads near the land

And hear we the monks chant.”

Merie sungen the Muneches binnen

Ely Da Cnut chin?: reu ther by.

” Roweth cnites noer the land

And here we ther Muneches saeng.”

Of his love of attending the services at Ely the quaintest tale is told.

The Feast of the Purification was at hand. Cnut was at Soham and could not get through to Ely by reason of the unusual frost and ice.

” The water of the marshes was frozen. His good mind would not change, but he was anxious and groaning. He thought, trusting in the Lord God, to cross the mere from Soham to Ely in a sledge if the hard frost did riot stop, but that he would make the rough journey with more safety and with less fear if someone should go before him. Now by chance there stood by in the crowd a great hulking man from the Isle, one Brihtmer Budde, so called from his thickness. He offered to go before the king. They crossed safely, and Cnut constantly told the story, and praised God for the wonder that so great and bulky a rustic should make not the least stumble on the way, so that he himself, being both active and of small size, could follow straight on without fear.” So pleased was he that he called Brihtmer to his presence and granted the serf freedom and possession of his hut and land for ever ; and the Ely monk who tells the tale says ” his children’s children live there free and in peaceable possession to this day.”

It was about this time that the burnt huts of Cambridge must have been rebuilt, for Cnut had a mint at the town, and the coins made here were marked with the old name of the place, ” Grant ” for ” Grantebrigge.”

It was perhaps soon after this that the first stone church, St. Benet’s, was built.

Most of the churches of those days were made of timber, and the masons who built St. Benet’s tried to make the stone they used into the round shape of turned logs to decorate the windows, as you may see in the tower of that church.

Of the life of Cambridge in later Saxon times we do not know much, though Domesday Book tells us that the Confessor’s Sheriff made each burgher or free householder in the town ” pay for his protection three days ploughing yearly or the value of it in money, as well as the ” heriot ” of 20s. paid when they came into their land. Somewhere about this time, too, the people of standing, called thanes, joined in a gild, partly to help each other in time of need, partly to keep order and put an end to bloodshed. It is one of the oldest gilds in all England, and Cambridge may well be glad to have the record of some of its rules.

” Here in this writing is the declaration of the laws which the members of the Gild of Thanes at Grantabrycge have resolved upon.

THE FIRST is that each give his oath to the others on the sacrament of fidelity before God and before the world, and the whole society shall (up)hold him that has most right. If any member die let the whole gildship bring him (for burial) to the place he chooses, and he who does not come thereto shall pay a syster of honey ; and the gild-ship shall pay half of the expense of the funeral feast of the departed ; and each shall give twopence in alms, and as much of the sum collected as is right shall be offered at St. Atheldritha’s.

And if any member have need of the assistance of his fellow members, and it be told the reeve nearest that member, in the case of the member not being near, and the reeve neglect it he shall pay a pound. And if the Lord (of the gild) neglect it he shall pay a pound, unless he be on Lord’s need or be very sick.

If anyone kill a member let the fine be not less than eight pounds. Then if the slayer refuse to pay the fine let all the gildship avenge the member and every one bear his share. If one do it let all bear equally. And if any member slay a man and he be needy and he must make compensation for his deed, and the slain man be a man of twelve hundred shillings,’ let each member give half a mark2 to help him. If the man slain be a ceorl let each give two oras, if a Welshman one ora. If the member slay any one by wrong and by folly let himself bear the consequence of what he has done. And if a member slay his fellow member by his own folly let him satisfy the kinsman himself, and buy again his place in the gild with eight pounds, or lose for ever the right of fellowship and fraternity. And if any member eat or drink with him who has slain his fellow member unless it be in the presence of the king,5 or of the bishop of the province, or of the aldermen, he shall pay a pound, unless he can make it appear by two witnesses that he did not know him. If any member abuse another let him pay a syster of honey, and if anyone abuse one not a member, let him pay one syster of honey, unless he can clear himself by his two witnesses.

If a servant draw his sword let his lord pay a pound and the lord may have it as he can, and let all the gildship help him that he recover his money. And if a servant wound another, let the lord (of the wounded) avenge it, and let the whole gildship inquire that he have not life. And if a servant waylay a man he shall pay a syster of thus gave sanctuary.

And if any member die or be sick abroad his fellow members shall fetch him and bring him dead or alive whither he wishes, under the same penalty as has been named. If ho die at home the member who does not go to fetch his body, and the member who does not attend his morrow speech, shall pay his syster of honey.”

Some of these rules are not easy to understand. ” Let the whole gildship inquire that he have not life ” seems to mean that they are to set justice to work to punish the crime with death. The word foot-setting is probably used for ” trap ” or ” snare ” ; and the ” morrow speech ” is no doubt a meeting held in praise of the dead. We do not know the later history of this gild, but it is tempting to guess that it was the germ of the ruling group known as ” the men of Cambridge ” since it was made up of the thanes.

Not long before this, about the year 930, a law had been made that ” If any man fare three times over the Wide Sea North Sea) by his own means, he shall be of thane-right worthy,” and it may be that some of these Cambridge thanes had risen in this way. A gild of water merchants ruled at this time in Paris, which still uses their seal of a sailing ship ; perhaps our gild of thanes did the same for Cambridge. Many gilds arose in the next three centuries, and every one of them was under the guardian-ship of some holy saint. For the Church took care to guide and help men in all their doings, and no man would have dared to do without its help, not even the king. In this way the Church had learned to make good rules and plans, and it is no doubt partly from such bodies as the gilds, and partly from having to judge of fair-play in the Moots that Saxon townsmen learned to manage their own town affairs. The Church had practised managing matters for nearly six hundred years in Italy and France and the countries of the Mediterranean before St. Augustine came to England, so his followers could aid the Saxon kings to write down their best customs as laws or ” dooms,” and to plan their councils. These little bands of peaceable townsfolk joining together against any troubles that might come upon them, illness or fire or raiding pirates or plundering barons must have learned that ” union is strength,” and the Church sanctioned and guided the clubs they formed, and encouraged them to meet in the churches.

Gilds were formed to do neighbourly work, to feast together or walk in procession in honour of their saint or founder ; to say services and hear masses for one who died, care for his burial, put together money for his widow, and look after his ehildren ; also they made rules that work should be carefully and honestly done, and no man defrauded of what was due to him.