All the Wends of Saxo Grammaticus – Book XIII

Chapter 2

1. Now Henry, the son of Gottschalk and Sigrid, had been unwarrantably deprived of his mother’s property by Niels, and therefore began to be so passionate to reclaim his inheritance that he menaced the Danes unwearyingly, so much so that he forced their monarch to guard his own safety by locating sentinel posts within the boundaries of Schleswig. Henry left the territory between there and the Elbe without one farmer. In order to exact vengeance for this behaviour, Niels brought out his fleet and landed at Luitjenburg, after ordering Eliv, who controlled the Schleswig district, to lead forward a company of cavalry to meet him. The Danes, in fact, had not yet learnt how to settle foreign conflicts by taking in mounted troops. But the fickle governor, bribed with an agreed sum from Henry, with his greedy mind had a higher regard for gain than for the king’s command. Consequently Niels had to deploy his host over the Wendish plains without using horses.

2. Then the Wends, considering it a safer policy to tire out our infantry by dashing at them on horseback rather than by joining battle with their whole army, circled round our wings and our flanks, attacked these sectlons at different points with their missiles, and harried their foes with assaults from various angles. Indeed, as soon as Niels launched a straight charge at them, they were carried back into flight and withdrew as energetically as they had struck; but to avoid a direct confrontation with our men, whose weight posed a greater threat than their agility, the Wends wheeled round and bore down on our troops from the rear, retaliating against our awesome pugnacity by an underhand method, what might be termed a robbers ambush. So the Danish battle line, crumbling and weakened because it had fared rather badly on level soil, occupied the foothill of a nearby mountain; inasmuch as they had been unable to protect their lives with weapons, they wished to defend themselves through the lie of the land, and after gaming the advantage of the summit, looked down from their safe position on the enemy below.

3. The following day, loath to let it appear that the strength of his position afforded more security than his army’s own might, Niels preferred to repeat the uncertain outcome on the plain instead of taking comfort in the sure protection of the mountains. Nevertheless his footsoldiers were incapable of withstanding the vitality of cavalry forces. Hence, by endeavouring to regain the honour lost in battle, Aey increased the humiliation of their previous defeat with a second one. I could have imagined that the issue of this engagement sprang from inadequate resources than lack of spirit, for, while their courageous hearts gave too casual attention to prime military advantages, the Danes paid the penalty, not of fear, but of unskillfulness, and, trampled down, fell, not beneath the power of their opponents, but through their own heedlessness.

4. Though he fought nobly, Harald is said to have been so seriously hurt that he could not manage to walk, but had to be lifted on to his shield by his followers and assisted back to camp by the helping hands of others. Cnut, too, was unable to stand owing to the acute severity of his wounds, and found a most ready devotion in one of his soldiers. This man, not wanting his lord to be seized by their adversaries, did not flinch from dispelling the hazard to Cnut by endangering himself. Purposely bidding his comrades run off, he feigned numbness by adopting a slower pace and offered his hands to be tied by a Wend who loomed over him; suddenly, however, he grabbed at this fellow’s nearby reins as he rode past and with help brought by his companions robbed the barbarian of his mount. Once he had gained possession of the horse, he immediately used it to go to the rescue ofCnut, who was in the extremities of weakness. So his bravery, as cunning as it was risky, met with a happy outcome.

5. As twilight drew on, the remnant of our warriors, who had suffered a miserable setback in this conflict, again sought the mountain top, their sole refuge and defence. They had also run out of food and drink, so that, quite apart from their injuries and fatigue, they were tortured by the need for sustenance. Almost reduced to utter starvation, they perceived dangers everywhere around them with no relief forthcoming from any quarter, for stormy weather had delayed the Scanians5 arrival and Eliv, bribed by Henry, had neglected to bring reinforcements and proffered only excuses for his tardiness; therefore, despairing of human aid, they had recourse to the assistance of heaven, choosing to set the remainder of their crushed hopes in God’s rather than human strength. The next day was the eve of that on which the holy rites of St Lawrence came round for celebration once more; because the Danes believed they could take no better vow to appease divine power than that of fasting, they held a sad meeting and made this solemn promise: whenever in the yearly calendar that day returned which precedes the feast special to St Lawrence, or before the general one of All Saints, or that which we customarily dedicate to the memory of Christ’s passion, it should be marked with the strictest and most conscientious abstinence by every Dane, young and old. This pledge, offered under the compulsion of national distress, was confirmed with the most scrupulous attention by their descendants, who thought it discreditable to break a vow of restraint agreed upon by their forefathers merely because of the stomach’s pressing demands and their greed for food.

6. But when at dawn our troops started to make for the ships once more, banded together in companies, they met the Scanians, who had just made land with their fleet. Buoyed up by the encouragement of their arrival, they told the Scanians, whose bodies and energies were as good as new, to prevent the enemy cavalry falling upon them from the rear. Then they moved onward in an orderly column until, as it happened, they were obliged to cross the yawning depths of a slimy marsh that lay in their path; as soon as they had begun to traverse it there was no way of making a detour, and they were quickly stuck fast in the boggy mire, their feet clamped and sinking in the ooze, so that once their forward passage had been thrown into confusion, there was nothing so much as a frenzy to escape. The majority, sucked down into the swamp’s slithery mass, were slaughtered by their foes like cattle. As they were so desperate to reach the other side, this obstruction became perilous for them as they tumbled on in blind and reckless haste. Eventually they just managed to regain the coast and effect their departure.

7. Inasmuch as they were confident of victory, the Wends shouted vaunts and praises of their own might; they disparaged the Danes’ vitality and impudently abused them for their spinelessness, while trumpeting their own prowess; Henry, who well knew the true mettle of our men, said he had a different understanding and assessment of his enemies’ hardihood: a clear parallel could be drawn between their king and a vigorous steed; if it were aware of its own strength, it would scorn all the horseman’s directions, but since it had no realization of this, it readily submitted to its rider’s will. Should Niels trust in his own powers, everything- would go his way, but, being diffident, he would never achieve success. Afterwards Eliv was condemned as a traitor by the king because he had tried to sell his country’s fate; he was humiliatingly stripped of his governor’s Privileges as well as his family inheritance, and paid satisfaction for his squalid profits with the most abject poverty.

Chapter 5

2. When he conceived a desire to marry, Magnus fulfilled this inclination by asking Boleslav, duke of Poland, for the hand of his daughter. After she had been betrothed to him through intermediaries, he shortly gathered a fleet on his father’s orders and brought it to Wendish territory. The king of the Wends, Vartislav, had long been at odds with both Danes and Poles. Niels now proceeded to attack the city of Osna and compelled Vartislav to buy off the siege under a pact. Sailing from there to Julin, he met Boleslav, who had furnished himself with a large detachment. Strengthened by the latter’s troops, Niels executed a swift assault on Osna [Uznam/Usedom]. Later, leaving behind his companion in victory, he escorted away his son’s betrothed, who had been brought to him there. Because Vartislav observed that the lands of the Wends had gone to waste under the unbearable weight of depredation, he begged for a peace conference. This was held, but with scant success, and he therefore approached the Danes again with a similar entreaty as they were embarking from Strela. Relying on their pledges of non-aggression, he entered King Niels’s ship on the latter’s invitation but at the malicious instigation of the king’s bodyguard was prevented from leaving again and held like a prisoner.

3. Cnut raised a complaint about this incident at the assembly and and began to issue a strong warning to the king that he should give to treachery through the forcefulness of others when he ought to be exercising personal restraint; by taking prisoner an enemy who had followed his guarantee of trust he was not only depriving Vartislav of freedom, but himself of permanent honour and renown. Unless he released the captive, his individual crime would become a matter of collective shame for the country. With these effective arguments Cnut delivered a friend from bondage and his lord from ill-repute. This eminently fair proposal of his, which met with the approval and support of the whole assembly, nonetheless gave a great stimulus to others’ resentfulness.

9. Cnut then rose, his gaze long fixed intently on the ground and for a while nothing but sighs and sweat preceded his speaking. Finally, his eyes and his spirits lifting, he leant in his usual manner on the hilt of his sword and said: “These persons are acting foully, Father, who provoke your self-restraint and make you transgress what befits your royalty and years; any who stir the calm of your peaceful nature with blustering falsehoods are using their slanderous whisperings to create trouble. I find it extremely depressing when I see the virtuous sobriety of your mind taking on an aspect of ill-temper that is totally alien to you, and being carried astray by what might be termed a perverse steering of your reason. Please, I beg you, reject those loudmouthed, lying purveyors of tittle-tattle, spew away this false fictitious charge! I cannot bear to be given a name that is dangerous to you. “My liege is what my followers call me, not “king”. Since, therefore, I have been habitually greeted as “Lord” by the Wends, these detractors have put an unfavourable construction on the high courtesy of that race and been bent on turning an instance of foreign affability into a matter for incrimination; such fellows, indifferent to the respect owed to yourself, even defame the rightful obedience shown by others. However, I do not lay claim to the appellation of sovereign, as you assert, but, qualifying the grandeur of my title, actually shun any haughty distinction in the way I am addressed and have no concern with the envied peak of glory. In this fashion the goodwill of barbarians echoes my name without any detriment to your majesty.

10. The esteem I enjoy among outsiders is suffered badly only by those who are eager to bereave me of my life and pluck a loyal warrior from your side. I consider such creatures just as hostile to your interests as they are to my person. But let us suppose that I am called “king”; we know that your son there, Magnus, recently acquired the marks of regal status and a royal name among the Gotar. If I had been favoured with a similar piece of luck with the Wends, you ought to have considered it pleasant indeed to possess the allegiance of twin monarchs. and reckoned it an amelioration of your fortunes as well as mine. Everything won by my labour I would now be putting without hesitation at the service of your exalted dignity, so that you might gather the fruits of subjection, where otherwise you would have to endure opposition and losses. As a result you would have been in a position to invest more love than hatred in my prosperity. Over and above that I believed it more joyful than any other lot, more splendid than any other pursuit, to stand guard over your security and that of our fatherland.’You know yourself whether or not I have been an efficient soldier. Danes, farm your coastline, if you so wish! Build your houses as close to the seas as you want! You can shun the waves yourselves! I shall keep you safe from sea raiders!… [this speech continues]”


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March 8, 2018

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