Book 2, Chapter 9, Edward 975 AD to 1016 AD – Sweyn’s Revenge
After having often tried the shameful expedient of bribing their enemies, by great sums of money, to desist from their depredations, and finding that this, like throwing oil into a fire, increased instead of diminished their violence, the English became sensible of their error in neglecting their fleet, the wily impenetrable bulwark of their country. To correct this error, a law was made A.D. 1008, obliging the proprietors of every three hundred and ten hides of land to furnish a ship for the royal navy, and the holder of every eight hides was to furnish a helmet and breastplate for the use of the mariners. In consequence of this law, a very great fleet was raised, consisting of nearly eight hundred ships, which, says the Saxon Chronicle, was greater than any that had ever been seen in England in the reign of any former king.
This is a sufficient proof that the merchants and mariners of England, in the midst of all the miseries of their country, had not abandoned the sea, or neglected foreign trade, for so great a fleet could not have been raised by any but a commercial people. Of this there are some other evidences. In this reign, several wise and humane laws were made for the security of the persons, ships, and effects of merchants, when they were driven into an English harbour by stress of weather, or were wrecked upon the coast, which show, that it was the intention of the legislators to encourage foreign trade. By other laws made in a witenagemot, held at Wantage, the rates of the customs to be paid on the importation of various kinds of goods at the wharf of Billingsgate, in the port of London, were settled. It is quite impossible at this distance of time, to discover the numbers or the tonnage of the ships belonging to England at this period, and down to the Norman conquest, but there is sufficient evidence that they were both considerable.
To lay no stress on the exaggerated accounts of the prodigious fleet of Edgar the Peaceable, that of king Ethelred, which was raised after the English had suffered many losses both by sea and land, consisted, as has been already stated, of nearly eight hundred ships, besides which there were, no doubt, many employed in trade at the same time. After this, the shipping of England continued to increase to the very conclusion of this period, when it is not improbable they might amount to two or three thousand vessels, of from twenty to one hundred tons.
From the representation of many of these ships in the famous tapestry of Bayeux, it appears, that they were a kind of galleys with one mast, on which was spread one very large sail, by means of a yard raised to the top of it with pullies. Their shape was not inelegant, their stems adorned with the heads of men, lions, or other animals, which (if we may believe historians) were sometimes gilded. Though the following description of the ships of that great fleet, with which king Canute invaded England, is evidently too poetical to be strictly true, yet as it was composed by a contemporary writer, who was probably an eyewitness of what he describes, it merits some attention: So great was the splendour and beauty of the ships of his mighty fleet, that they dazzled the eyes, and struck terror into the hearts of the beholders: for the rays of the sun reflected from the bright shields and polished arms of the soldiers, and the sides of the ships gilded with gold and silver, exhibited a spectacle equally terrible and magnificent. On the top of the mast of every ship was the gilded figure of some bird, which, turning on a spindle with the winds, discovered from whence they blew. The stems of the ships were adorned with various figures east in metal, and gilded with gold and silver, on one you might behold the stature of a man, with a countenance as fierce and menacing as if he had been alive, on another a most terrible golden lion, on a third a dragon of burnished brass, and on a fourth a furious bull with gilded horns, in act to rush on the terrified spectators.
In a word the appearance of this fleet was at once so grand and formidable, that it filled all who saw it with dread and admiration of the prince to whom it belonged, and his enemies were more than half Vanquished by their eyes, before they came to blows.” If we could depend on the truth of this description, we should be inclined to think, that the Danes and Saxons had made much greater progress in several arts than is commonly imagined.
Chapter 9, Edward the Martyr
Chapter 9, Ethelred
Chapter 9, Sweyn’s Revenge
Levy for a Fleet
Chapter 9, Thurkill Ravages England
Chapter 9, Edmund Ironside
Categories: Book 2