This is a chapter of The Pirates of the Saxon Shore, by Henry Gilbert.
Wind and tide served Elphin well in that swift flight southward. One after the other he warned the prefects at the forts upon the coast, and quickly the commanders there prepared for any orders that should come to them.
Elphin asked Wulf what he proposed to do, since he could hardly land at Rutupiae except as a prisoner. For some time, Wulf had been silent as if depressed by thought.
“I will join the legions,” he replied. “I have made up my mind now.”
“Why did you leave us?” asked Elphin. “Did you not run back to warn the Saxons that day, seven years ago?”
“I did,” was the reply. “It suddenly came to me that these pirates, as you called them, were kin o’ mine, and I could not bear to think that I should stand by and let them be destroyed. I ran back and told them they had been discovered; I told them who I was — Wulf Froddoson. They had heard of my father and they took me with them. But when I got to Frisia I found my elder brothers wanted me not and looked upon me as half a Roman and an interloper. I joined myself to my uncle Thorlak, who is a good man, but he is too old now to go seafaring anymore. Those seven years at Rutupiae have spoiled me. I think my brothers must be right: I am half Roman, and I will leave my kindred and henceforth fight for the emperor somewhere away from Britain.”
When Elphin swung his boat beside the wharf at Othona (which we now know as Bradwell, in Essex) and leaped ashore, he found gloomy and scared faces all about him. One or two marines leaned against a wall nursing wounds, and others stood over some half a dozen galleys which seemed to have been in a fight, for they were splintered and battered and their boards were stained with blood.
“Why, what’s happened?” asked Elphin as an optio of marines —the Fortensians— who guarded the wharf hurried forward.
“Much that is bad,” was the reply. “The count has been slain in a sea fight with the pirates and we have been soundly beaten.”
“Great Jove!” cried Elphin; “this is evil tidings indeed. I bear a dispatch to the count from the tribune at Segedunum. The barbarians and the pirates have joined forces and have broken through the Wall. Besides, the duke Fullofaudes has been slain in an ambush.”
“Disaster on disaster!” said the optio, and his weather-bitten face went sallow. “Then it behooves us to bring up all our forces, for ’twill be hard to make head against the savages both from the north and from the sea.”
Elphin told his news to the prefect in command at Othona, from whom he heard fuller details of the disastrous defeat of the British fleet. It seems that Nectarides had received news of an intended descent of pirates who were gathering their squadrons off the mouth of the Rhine. Either the spy who brought the news was a traitor or he had been woefully misinformed. He said that the vessels of the pirates numbered but a few, and Nectarides conceived the idea of attacking and destroying their fleet before it became larger. He set out, therefore, with some fifty galleys, and found the pirates in small numbers, as it appeared, but, on delivering his attack, other hostile galleys loomed up over the misty seas from the shelter of the land where they had been hiding.
Desperate had been the battle on the rocking galleys; to and fro the fight had waged; pirate galley and Roman ship had been sunk or had drifted away with their loads of dead and wounded, until, finding their commander slain and their forces outnumbered, the Roman-British captains had withdrawn as best they could, losing many of their men as prisoners, and with more dead and wounded than sound men in their crews. The Saxons had not pursued them far, as they themselves were somewhat crippled.
“But,” ended Portumnus, the prefect, “we may expect them at any shift of wind now, and hard will it be, with half my fellows slain or wounded, to beat the fierce dogs off, elated as they will be with their victory.”
The same tale met Elphin when he reached Rutupiae, but with the added grief of hearing that this or that friend had met his death in the battle. He handed his dispatch to the legate of Nectarides, and, having reported himself to his immediate chief, Varro Rufinus, who had escaped alive, though wounded, he was appointed to be captain or naval prefect of a galley, which meant that henceforth he would fight his galley and pilot it only in case of need.
A few days after entering the port, Wulf bade goodbye to Elphin. He had taken the oath of fidelity to Caesar, and was going with a draft of reserves to Treves, there to join a cohort fighting under the emperor himself against the Germans. Wulf had the air of a man who had lost all he cared for in the world. He was without kin, without race. Elphin tried to cheer him up and told him how happy many time-expired veterans became when, their fighting days over, they took the land given to them by a grateful emperor and settled down with a native wife in some land secure in the Pax Romana. But at the end, the young men shook hands sadly, for neither felt that they would see each other in life again. And such was the case, for Wulf fell in battle two years later, fighting against the Alemanni in the forest of Elphental.
And now, one and all, the garrison of Rutupiae, both military and marine, threw themselves energetically into the work of preparing for the attack which they knew would soon be made upon their coasts.
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
The summer of 367 was a terrible time in Britain. To the men of the Caint (Kent) in peaceful days the Wall and its garrison had seemed as remote as if it were in the moon, and they had got to think that somehow it was no concern of theirs, being so far off; but now they realized what its strength had meant for themselves and all Britain. Ill news traveled apace in those days, and one disaster tripped over another’s heels. Soon it was told that no part of the garrison was holding the Wall; that the barbarians had swept right along its line of strong forts and populous villages, cutting off or starving out the brave men who strove to hold a fort here and there. All they could put to the flames the barbarians had fired; they had battered down gateways and posterns, smashed the catapults and the guardrooms on the wall, looted the villas of officers, and slain all whom they had found in hiding.
Of the twelve or fifteen thousand soldiers who had garrisoned the Wall, perhaps half had been slain or had been wounded and found death later; of the others, some had fled to the garrisons in the country south of the Wall, while many had disbanded and had sought refuge with their wives and children in remote places, throwing off all signs of having once been Roman soldiers. Some, it was even said, had become bandits themselves.
Men sighed and shook their heads as they heard all this news. Was there no general there who had brains and energy enough to grasp the situation, gather the scattered soldiers, and beat back the insolent barbarians? A little later and the news ran like fire through the land that the Saxon pirates were landing in large numbers, were joining their fellows who had helped the Picts to break down the Wall, and together they were spreading terror, ruin, and death through all the northern districts. Troopers, covered with the foam from their panting horses, dashed into Rutupiae, Regulbium, Lemanis, and Dubris with orders from the chief general in the north to send all available forces to aid in beating back the pagans, who were threatening York itself. The soldiers trooped away up the dusty roads, and men waited to hear that at length the tide of barbarism which was blackening the fair face of the rich province was rolled back in blood and disaster, but no such news came.
Then there came hurrying from Gaul a general —Severus, Master-General of Cavalry— sent, with his suite of richly dressed officers, by the emperor Valentinian, then with his court at Treves, on the Rhine. Severus landed at Rutupiae, and after a day or two rode out with his staff toward Londinium and the north. Men said that now things would come right again. But they did not. Still the barbarians, Picts, Scots, and Attacotti, and the Saxon pirates, swarmed over the northern districts and now threatened even the middle parts, the rich and densely populated valleys of what we call the Trent, the Mersey, and the rivers of the Fenlands. Presently Jovinus, another general, hurried over from Gaul, with some more richly dressed and haughty officers in his suite, and Severus, a little tarnished both in his own dress and that of his suite, came back and recrossed the strait. The Rutupians, watching from their massive walls with keen eyes on the tumbling seas, saw before the year was out the galley of still a third general, with a squadron of transports carrying troops in aid of the distressed province. The guard at the gate and the commander of the garrison received this general also with the dignity and ceremony which befitted his high rank, but they did not expect that he would be more successful than the others.
The winter came, snow and frost forcing both barbarians and Roman legionaries to keep to their quarters. But when the season relaxed a little down flooded the invaders into the midlands, and men heard with terror that the strong towns of York and Deva (Chester) had been deserted by their legions and sacked and fired by the barbarians, many poor citizens, their wives and children, finding death by the sword, by fire, or by the bitter weather, that was not more cruel than the savage Pict or Saxon.
Then came the news to Rutupiae that a fourth general was being sent, of whom the Western Empire spoke well. But the British Romans were not impressed by rumor now. In a little while, up from a fleet of transports, rank upon rank in an endless stream, came fair-haired, great-limbed Batavians and Herulians, and then the veteran legions named the Jovians and the Victors. As they swung with a clatter of arms through the watergate, the soldiers and citizens standing to watch them confessed that these seemed to show that at length the emperor of the West was determined to win back the province of Britain. These men who now tramped through the street were of the pick of his troops — men who had gained the emperor his victories against the fierce Alemanni themselves.
Then came the general, Theodosius, a short, wiry, dark man, with eyes that pierced through him to whom he spoke; a man sparing of his words, stern, almost harsh of aspect, with a jaw of granite, and every movement of his head and limbs speaking of resolution and energy.
So far south had the ravaging bands of pagans come that they had already sacked and burned villages and villas near London, and had even passed the river and reached the wide road running from Rutupiae to Durobrivae, which we now call Rochester. But a few days sufficed for Theodosius to make ready his troops, and then, marching out he rounded up several bands of the marauders, slew them or crucified them, and released the captives they had roped together. A part of their spoil he distributed among his soldiers and gained a name for fair dealing by restoring what was left to the rightful owners.
Where the straight Roman road, now known as the Old Kent Road, crossed the marshy lands of what we now call Newington, a deputation from the citizens of Londinium met Theodosius and his legions and welcomed him to their city. They told him how, from their thick, high walls, they had seen the murderous bands of Picts and Scots and pirates pass by, laden with spoil, and with lines of wretched captives, and how the barbarians had shaken their fists at the citizens, and shouted threats that they would come back and burn and sack Londinium itself.
Theodosius stayed in the city for some time, sending out scouts and spies into the midlands, learning the strength and whereabouts of the enemy, and what had become of the disbanded soldiers who had left their camps and stations in the north and were now vagrants. He issued a proclamation recalling the fugitives to their duty, promising that they would not be punished for their flight if they returned; and very soon, as the news of the strong forces which he had brought was bruited through the land, public confidence was restored, the soldiers by twos and threes came back to their banners, and the citizens began to hope that the flood of barbarism would soon be swept from the land.
The task of Theodosius was a heavy one, and only to be accomplished by energy and patience. It took him two years. The scattered Picts and pirates avoided set battles with his forces, so that he was reduced to fighting them by means of strong columns sent out in various directions, whose task it was to hunt down, ambush, and destroy the cruel raiders. So unwearied was he, and so well did he infuse his sleepless spirit into his lieutenants and soldiery, that by the end of the summer of 368 he had cleared the country south of the Humber and the Dee; and next year, by the same relentless methods, he freed the northern lands right up to the Wall, which he repaired and regarrisoned.
Not only did he give the barbarians no rest on land, but he chased and harried them upon the sea. He got new galleys from Gaul, and, having built up a large fleet, he reorganized the crews and sent them against the Saxon pirates on their own element.
During these two years, Elphin had seen much service, and being cautious yet bold he had added to the reputation which he possessed of being a good leader as well as an excellent seaman. Many had been the fights in which he had taken part, both on sea and on land, and not always had he been on the victorious side. The garrisons at the sea forts had been weakened in the efforts to check the raids inland, and the odds were often heavily against the defenders, with whom, nevertheless, it was a point of honor to attack the foe under any conditions. Thus there was often for the brave men of the sea forts the bitter experience of defeat and of wounds suffered in vain.
Gradually, however, as Theodosius triumphed inland, he could afford to give more men to make up the sea garrisons, and then the tables began to be turned. The fleets of the British did not wait to be attacked, but under the bold and skillful leadership of Elphin’s chief, Varro Rufinus, they sallied out and sought the Saxon galleys, and now it was the pirates who often had to flee, their ships wrecked or sunk, and most of their men slain or wounded or taken prisoners.
Soon the British felt that they had the mastery of their enemy: they were the equal of the pirates in seamanship and in daring, and they had the quality of dash and fire which was lacking in the colder nature of the Saxons. Toward the end of the summer of 369 hardly a pirate craft would show its nose upon the waters of the Northern Sea or in the narrows of the Channel.
One day, at this time, Elphin was called to the quarters of Varro and found him in conversation with a Saxon who had been captured in a recent sea fight. He had formerly been a legionary, but had “turned wild” again, as the soldiers said, and gone back to his people.
“Prefect,” said Varro, “this man tells me that the pirates have a secret place in an island off the coast of Frisia, where they take their prisoners and their booty, before shipping them to the mainland. He says they will not be in great force there, and that three galleys’ crews could destroy them. Take six galleys and this man to guide you. If he proves false, kill him; if he proves true, he shall get his former rank as optio in the Fortensians.”
Thus it was that, four days later, Elphin found himself in the misty dawn of an autumn morning creeping up in his galley to the bare, sandy island where, as Warsa, the deserter, who sat beside him, declared, there was a certainty of rich spoils and an unsuspecting foe. Five other galleys loomed in the mist behind him, each crammed with men. At length, the boats grounded at a point which Warsa said no one from the pirate huts ever visited. Noiselessly the men disembarked and, under the leadership of Elphin, crept off among the hummocky dunes towards the village of the Saxons. The galleys were left under a strong guard.
Elphin believed that Warsa, the deserter, was not deceiving him, but to make sure of him he had him chained by the waist to two of his strongest marines, who had orders to dispatch the spy should Elphin so command them. As they went forward, they could hear the sound of hammering upon wood, as if the pirates, early astir, were building a hut or store booth. At length, Warsa gave a sign that they should stop, and he explained that a few steps around a group of dunes before them would bring them in sight of the huts. Elphin immediately detached four of his best scouts and sent them forward to reconnoiter.
In a little while, they came back and said that the pirates, to the number of perhaps a hundred, were gathered about four new galleys which it seemed they were about to launch, and that there were some two hundred prisoners —British provincials by their dress, men, women, and children— who were being brought out from several big huts.
After speaking with Warsa, Elphin ordered his lieutenant, a Spaniard named Herro, to take fifty men and go around behind the huts, so as to take the enemy in the rear. When these had stolen off, Elphin crept forward himself with two centurions to a spot whence, from behind a hummock of sand, he could see the open space before the huts of the pirates. Here he found that the prisoners had been ranged in regular lines of twenty or thirty along the beach, and he wondered for what reason this was done. The four new galleys were big vessels and were standing one behind the other on a wooden slipway, down which they would rush when the wedges were knocked out and they were given an initial push.
Hey! I hope you’re enjoying this free content.
Would you consider contributing to the cause of Latin and Classics?
Just a few sestertii will buy you some cool books!
Some of the pirates —great hairy men, with cruel faces— stood with axes in hand guarding the captives, while others were ranged about the boats as if to help in pushing them down. On the shore before the captives, whose wan faces spoke of hunger, ill-treatment, and terror, stood one old Saxon, of a great stature, lavishly adorned with gold chains about his neck and upon his shirt of mail, while his huge arms were encircled by rings of the same material. On his head he wore a steel cap, from beneath which his white hair hung to his shoulders. With this man were three others, and one of them seemed to be counting the prisoners. Elphin counted with him and saw that every tenth person was drawn out and thrust aside. Thus there was soon a little group of some twenty persons, men, women, and children, who looked at each other and at their captors in a kind of wondering terror, fearful of what this choosing should mean.
They were not long kept in doubt. The white-haired chief took off his steel headpiece and, raising his face to the dull heavens, uttered something in a loud tone, as if it were a prayer. Then he turned to the misty sea, the waves of which lapped at his feet, and spoke to it, gesturing with his hand to the captives as he did so. When he had done, the other pirates raised a great shout as if in assent to what had been said, and each made a curious gesture with his two hands.
Then, several men went forward to the captives and pinioned the arms of the twenty who had been set apart. When this had been done, they took hold of them and pushed them forward to the slipway, on reaching which they forced them to lie down across the wood and began to bind them there. The unhappy victims now realized that the heavy boats were to be made to run over their prostrate bodies, which would be maimed and crushed in sacrifice to the god of the sea, on whose element the vessels were so soon to float. At this, some broke loose from their captors and rushed with cries of terror this way and that, but the pirates pursued and caught them; others ran and tried to hide among the other prisoners, but were dragged forth again; while many from the main body of the captives threw themselves at the feet of the Saxons praying that their dear ones who were among the chosen should not be slain. Here a woman clung to her husband, sweetheart, or son, while there a mother tried to push herself in the place of a beloved daughter — all amid terrible cries of grief and tears of despair.
There was a woman who by her dress seemed to Elphin to have lately been the mistress of some rich villa. She had been chosen for sacrifice, and when others wailed and strove to fly she only turned to someone in the main body of prisoners and gave one look. Instantly a young girl sprang forth, threw her arms passionately about her mother’s neck, and seemed for a moment about to burst into a madness of grief. But next instant she had run to the old Saxon chief with her wrists close together in token of her wish to take the place of her mother. But he thrust her aside: her mother had been chosen by chance, as the rite required, and no substitute could be taken. Nevertheless, a victim was acceptable if she were willing, and the old pirate gestured to her to take her place beside her mother, who had already been forced to lie along the slipway. Elphin’s heart. was moved to see how the young girl, having bowed in gratitude to the Saxon chief, walked quickly as if with gladness, and with a beautiful smile upon her face, toward her mother. He saw the lips of the two women meet in a long kiss; then the young girl, laying her arm across her mother as if to protect her, sank down quietly as if now she were quite content.
Suddenly there came the cry of a seabird — “twee wee wee” — from behind the huts, and Elphin knew that Herro and his men were ready. He whispered swift instructions to the centurions by his side, who crept quickly and silently away. In the meantime, the Saxons were catching the rest of the fleeing victims and forcing them to the slipway. But now the last were being dragged to the place, which soon would be a welter of crushed bodies, when suddenly into the thick of the men who were just getting ready to knock away the wedges under the boats there buzzed a cloud of javelins. At the same moment, with a roar which terrified and confused the pirates, a body of men seemed to rush upon them from all sides. Taken utterly unawares and surrounded by superior numbers, the pirates, though they fought desperately, were overwhelmed, and soon not one remained alive.
The British prisoners, their terror changed to gladness, surrounded their rescuers, kissing their hands and garments and shedding tears of gratitude. Some, overcome with the sudden change from fear of death to a sense of safety, clung to their dear ones in a passion of speechless thankfulness and joy.
Elphin went to the young girl who had laid herself down beside her mother and found her bending over the body of the elder woman, who was in a swoon.
“She will soon be herself again,” said Elphin cheerily, bending beside her. The young girl lifted grey eyes welling with tears and clutched and pressed his hand.
“Oh,” she said, “how can I ever tell you how grateful I am for your brave help!”
“The gods have led us!” replied Elphin. “I fear you have suffered much. But see, your mother moves. She will soon be herself again.”
“Nay, sir,” said the young girl; “she will never be as of old, I fear. She has seen my father and my two brothers slain by the barbarians while trying to defend us, and we prayed them in vain to kill us also.”
The girl hid her face in her hands in a sudden storm of grief.
“But now you must take cheer,” said Elphin. “Life and liberty are now before you, and soon we shall be at home again.”
Elphin now directed food to be shared among the prisoners, a strong guard was set all around the little island, and the bodies of the dead pirates were taken away. For two days Elphin stayed on the island, collecting the large amount of booty stored there, and resting the poor captives. Then, after having burnt down the huts of the robbers, he sailed away with a fair wind and made the port of Rutupiae on the next day. With the four new galleys and three other galleys belonging to the pirates, his little fleet made quite a sensation as it came to anchor beside the seawall. Elphin received an enthusiastic welcome from the guard, whose jolly faces laughed down at him from the watergate, and the words of appreciation which his chief spoke to him made his heart swell with pride.
Thus was Roman law and order restored throughout Britain. Cities and fortresses which had been injured or destroyed were repaired; the great frontier Wall in the north was renewed, and soon its forts resounded with the tramp of soldiers, the call of guards, the ring of the mason’s trowel, and the cries of children at play. All through the Northlands the noise of life began again as men had known it before. But many were those who never came back to dig up the hoard of hard-earned riches which, at the rumor of the invading barbarians, they had buried in some secret place. The bones of the owners whitened on the wold, or the fugitives, still living, suffered slavery in some distant land. The coins remained to be turned up by the plow or the spade of later generations, to be squabbled over by workmen, or ticketed and laid away in our museums, where we may see them to this day.
For five years the fear of the fighters of Rome was fresh in the minds of the Saxon pirates, but at the end of that time they issued once more from their windy islands and marshy hamlets, and swept down in a great raid, only to be thrust back and beaten again by the vigilant and doughty fighters of the British fleet. At that time Elphin fought with even greater force than before in his strong right arm, for he fought to defend a wife and a little baby boy. He had become the esteemed friend of Lucilla the young girl, and her mother, Julia, whom he had rescued from the pirates, and when they had reached their villa home on the pleasant shores by Port Lemanis (Lympne) he had often gone to see them. Three years after their rescue from the pirates, when the mother was on her deathbed, she gave the two young people the greatest wish of their lives by joining their hands in betrothal.
For many years Elphin kept his post as a trusted and successful leader under his chief, the count of the Saxon Shore. Then he retired and lived with his wife at Lemanis. There he died in 403, at the ripe age of sixty, a few years after his wife Lucilla. Though the times were full of gloom, happily he did not foresee the universal ruin that within the next generation was to come upon the Roman Empire, in whose downfall his own beloved country was to share.
As the years went by after the opening of the fifth century the raids of the pirates became fiercer and fiercer and the power of Rome declined more and more until at length, when every Roman soldier in the provinces had been called back to Italy to save the Eternal City from the Gothic hordes and Britain seemed to lie defenseless at the mercy of her foes, the Saxon pirates began to look upon the country as a desirable one in which to settle. Continually after this did they come in war bands, and where they could they seized land in the remoter parts of the north-east coast, between the Humber and the Forth, and settled down there with captured wives or with kinswomen from their homelands. Thus began those long years of blood-stained history called the Conquest of Britain by the English, during which pirate Saxon and half-civilized Briton began between them the creation of the British race as we know it today.