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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 4 - Gregory of Scotland and Alfred of England; Norsemen


We fail to discover in succeeding Pictish sovereigns that excess of proselytising zeal which turned King Nectan into a persecutor. We read of no second act of bigotry similar to that which disgraced his reign. His successors on the throne could hardly fail to see that Nectan had committed a great error. The proofs of this were but too visible. He had created a great void at the heart of his kingdom. He had weakened the moral power and endangered the civil order of the nation; he had kindled the flames of war after they had been extinct for a century and a half; in fine, he had brought revolution on himself, and been fain in the end of his days to seek the shelter of a convent, and after having worn a crown, die in a monk’s cowl.

These evil consequences had followed the tyrannical act which the Pictish king, influenced by the flattery of Abbot Ceolfrid, and the persuasions of the Roman missionaries, and impelled moreover by his own fanatical zeal, had been driven to commit. His successors, warned by his example, would learn not to be enamoured of Roman novelties, or open their ear to readily to monkish counsellors. Still, though they saw Nectan’s error, they might not be in a position to rectify it. To revoke the edict and recall those whom it had driven into banishment might not now be in their power. They had a war on their hands with the Scots, which demanded all their attention. While that war lasted it would not be a wise policy to recall the Columban clergy. They were mostly Scotch, and might have difficulty in maintaining the attitude of neutrals during hostilities. They would at least be liable to be suspected of secretly favouring the triumph of the Scotch arms. The correction of Nectan’s error must lie over for the present. And hence it was that, although there is no evidence that the Roman innovations meanwhile made much progress beyond the court of Nectan, or found favour with the Pictish people, farther than the royal edict might compel them to an outward uniformity in the Easter celebration, the return of the Columban clergy to the Pictish dominions did not take place till the war between the two races had ended in their union into one nation. The return of the Columbites, as we have seen, was under Kenneth Macalpin: their full restoration to their ancient liberties was half a century later in the reign of King Grig, or Gregory, to whom we now return.

The strong hand of Gregory on the helm, Scotland began again to make headway (883). It had stood still, or gone back, during the troubled but, happily, short reign of the "Swift Food," whose policy had nothing of the progressive quality with which nature had so largely endowed his limbs. While he sat on the throne the gloom kept thickening above the country, but with the new ruler there came a new dawn. Gregory had opened his reign with a measure of good augury, and not less of wise policy" for it is not necessary to support that in relaxing the bonds of the Columban clergy he was actuated solely by religious considerations. He had respect, no doubt, to the benefit which himself and his nation would reap from this act of justice. If, as is strongly suspected, his title to the throne was doubtful, he did well to make sure that so influential a body as the Columbites should be on his side and in favour of his government.

Having by one and the same act enlarged the liberties of the "Scottish Church," and strengthened his own throne, Gregory addressed himself to the task of correcting the disorders in which the defeat at Crail and the reign of "Swift Foot" had involved the kingdom. A portion of the Pictish nation had brought their loyalty into suspicion. Their behaviour in the late disastrous battle had been equivocal. Their treachery or cowardice was believed to have led to the loss of the day, and the many calamities that followed thereon. Gregory did not choose that so grave a dereliction of duty on so critical an occasion should go without chastisement. Since the battle other circumstances had come to light which tended still farther to strengthen the doubt entertained respecting the thorough devotion of a section of the Picts to the cause of the union. The Danes, on quitting the country after the battle of Crail, left this part of the coast in the possession of the Picts. This looked like keeping open the door for the return of the enemy. Gregory could not permit the keys of his kingdom to be in the hands of men who were disaffected to his government, and who seemed not unwilling to sacrifice the union between the two races provided they recovered thereby their standing as a separate and independent nation. He drove this body of disaffected Picts out of Fife across the Forth. He pursued them through the Lothians to Berwick, in which they shut themselves up, and were Gregory made them captive, the citizens having opened their gates to him.

These successes at home would seem to have tempted the Scottish monarch to venture on exploits outside his own kingdom. Instead of returning within the limits of Alban, which were already considerably overpassed, he led his army farther into Northumbria. These parts were then much infested by the Danes. When repulsed from the coast of Scotland they not unfrequently turned their galleys in the direction of England, and overspreading the northern counties, then almost defenceless, they gathered no end of spoil, and shed very much blood. Gregory doubtless reckoned that if he could clear out these invaders from the northern counties of England the chance was so much the less of having to fight them on the soil of Scotland. As an acknowledgment of the services Gregory had rendered them by ridding them, for the time at least, of these troublesome visitors, the petty sovereigns which then ruled in England, seem to have given him some sort of authority or dominion over the border counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmoreland, happy to commit their defence against foreign invasion to the sword of Gregory.

The Scottish monarch is described as pursuing his triumphant career further west. We next find him with his army in Strathclyde. The Britons of the Kingdom of Cumbria had offended by appropriating a narrow strip of Scottish territory which lay on the northern banks of the Clyde, and which included that famous rock (Dumbarton) at the foot of which the great apostle of Ireland had passed his youth. The stolen territory was all the more likely to have interest to the man who had "Given liberty to the Scottish Church," inasmuch as it was the birthplace of that great Scotsman who had been the founder of the "Scottish Church," first by christianising Ireland, and in the next place by putting the evangelical torch into the hands of Columba that he might carry it across and light with its sacred flame the dark land of Caledonia. Having rescued this hallowed spot, for such doubtless it was to Gregory, and have chastised the Britons for appropriating it, it was given back to Scotland.

Not yet had Gregory finished his victorious course, if we are to believe his Scotch chroniclers. He next crossed to Ireland, where he is said to have waged a campaign with great glory, quelling an insurrection which had broken out against the King of Dublin, an ally of Gregory’s, and restoring him to his throne. It must be added, however, that the record of these wars is somewhat dubious, and we despatch them with brevity. The English and Irish chroniclers are silent respecting them. We hear of them only from Fordun and other Scotch historians. That, however, is no sufficient reason for regarding them as altogether apocryphal. The "Registry of the Priory of St Andrews" says expressly "that Gregory conquered Ireland and the greater part of England,"1 by which we understand it to be meant that his conquests in these two countries were extensive, and had a decisive effect on the governments of both kingdoms. Those who maintain that these campaigns were never waged, and that their record is illusory, defend their allegation by saying that Gregory was a munificent patron of the church, and that the monks of St Andrews, to show their gratitude, carved out this brilliant career for the Scottish king, and exalted him to the rank of a hero. But it does not appear that Gregory surpassed other Scotch kings of his age in the gifts he bestowed on churchmen, his one well known act of grace excepted. Besides, the benefactions of Gregory were bestowed in the end of the ninth century, whereas his apotheosis as a great warrior, which it is insinuated was done in recompence of his liberality to the church, did not take place till the middle of the thirteenth century, the Registry of St Andrews having been written in 1251. It is truly refreshing to find the gratitude of the monks remaining fresh and green after four centuries. Seldom is it found that the sense of obligation to be benefactors is so deep and lasting on the part of corporate bodies whether lay or cleric, as to call forth warm expressions of thanks centuries after the authors of these good gifts have exchanged their thrones for their stone coffins. Long before this wreath was placed on his tomb by the monks of St Andrews, Gregory was nothing more than a handful of ashes.

In that age it was difficult to keep England and Scotland apart, so as that their affairs should not intermingle. The same terrible people from beyond the sea were the enemies of both, and made their hostile descent now on the coast of the one country and now on the coast of the other. This drew England and Scotland together, and helped to maintain the peace betwixt them. If so be the Danish hordes were driven back, and their galleys chased off the coast, it mattered little whether the feat had been achieved by Scotch or by English valour, since both countries shared in nearly equal measure in the benefits of the victory. So did it happen in this instance. Gregory on arriving in Northumbria, whither his pursuit of the fleeing Picts had led him found the Danes, under their leader Hardnute, laying waste the country and slaughtering the inhabitants. The England of that day was miserably distracted and torn. The Danes were inflicting upon the Saxons all the horrors which the Saxons had inflicted on the Britons at a former epoch. The throne of Wessex was filled by one of the bravest and wisest princes of his age, nevertheless a great part of the reign of Alfred was passed on the battlefield to prevent his dominions being overrun and devastated by these northern marauders. Occupied with these greater cares, the remote Northumbria was left largely to take care of itself. It was here that the barbarian leader and his merciless followers were now ravaging. Although he found them on English soil, Gregory not the less recognised in Hardnute and his warriors the enemies of his own country, and gladly seized the opportunity now offered him of avenging upon them in Northumbria the injuries they had inflicted upon his nation in Fife. If a brother sovereign should be the first to reap advantage from the success of his arms, this consideration, so far from making the Scottish king hold back, made him only the more eager to effect the expulsion of the Danes. Gregory inflicted such a slaughter upon them that it broke their power in the north of England, and delivered the petty sovereigns that then ruled in that land, as well as the great prince of Wessex, from their terror. The bonds of amity betwixt the two nations and their rulers were strengthened by this interchange of friendly acts. The bloody fields of the borderland were effaced from the memories of men by the bloodier fields of the Dane. Northumberland was placed under the suzerainty, if not the formal sovereignty, of the man whose sword had redeemed it from the spoiler. Alfred appears to have felt no alarm at the nearer approach of the Scottish border to his own dominions. What stronger defence could he have on his northern frontier than the arms of Gregory? He rightly judged, doubtless, that ruled by him Northumbria would a protecting wall to himself against the tempests from the German Sea. And as regards the Anglo-Saxons now professedly Christian, how much more preferable, as allies and neighbors, were the Scots to the Danes, in whom the wolfish instincts of paganism were yet unbroken and rampant. The Saxons of the north of England, says Fordun, "thought it better willingly to submit to the Catholic Scots, though enemies, than unwillingly to the Pagan infidels."

In the dark sky of the ninth century there is seen a star of pure and brilliant radiance, on which we love to fix our eyes. We cannot come within the proximity of its orbit without pausing to admire and speak of it. In no age would a creation so lovely have failed to attract and fascinate our gaze, but shining out amid the clouds and tempests of this age, we hail it with wonder and delight. Alfred, Prince of Wessex, exhibited the rare union of the scholar, the legislator, the warrior, and the patriot. To these he would have added, had his days been longer, the Christian reformer. Such, indeed, he was, but only in limited measure, for hardly had he begun to develop his enlightened plans for the reformation of his realm when the grave closed over him, and with Alfred went down into the tomb the hopes of England for four centuries. Till the days of Wyckliffe there came no second dawn to Christendom.

Few princes—not one in an hundred—have had the inestimable privilege of the same training and discipline through which Alfred passed. The range of his education extended far beyond the science and philosophy of his day. His instruction in the liberal arts was not overlooked: not only was he a patron of men of letters, he himself cultivated letters, and the success with which he did so is seen in his translation of the Pastoral of Gregory I. and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. But to these accomplishments Alfred added a higher wisdom than that of the schools. His great qualities were rooted in a piety which was drawn from the Sacred Writings, rather than from the precepts and traditions of churchmen. Moreover, Adversity had taken him to school, and for some terrible years that stern instructress made him give good heed to her lessons. At one time the Danes had well nigh wrested his kingdom from him. He was obliged to flee in disguise and hire himself out as a cowherd. In the quiet of the woods and fields thoughts would arise which had not come into his mind amid courts and armies. When he recovered his throne and had rest from war, these thoughts bore fruit. He gave himself to the work of establishing order, promoting industry, cultivating commerce, and extending the maritime powers of England. His son and Grandson, Edward and Athelstan, followed in their father’s steps, and these three princes were among the first to show the world that the road to fame is open to the man of peace not less than to the man of the sword. In the successful voyages of Other and Ulfstan into the then unknown northern seas, the English nation under Alfred early displayed their natural bent, and gave prognostication of what they were destined to accomplish in the field of discovery in after ages.2

But these were not the highest of the labors of Alfred. He panted above all things to effect a religious reform of his realm. What instrumentality did Alfred employ for effecting his grand purpose? Did he send to Rome for instructors? Did he multiply his "celebrations"? A dogma, till then unheard of, was just beginning to be broached by Paschasius Radbertus in France, that in the eucharist the communicant receives the literal flesh and blood of Christ for his eternal life. Shall Alfred illuminate his realm with this new gospel? What England needed was not more mystery, but more light. The dark ness was thick enough already, and there was no need to turn twilight into midnight by promulgating the Cimmerian dogma of transubstantiation.

Alfred took up his position on ground which no churchman of his century had courage to occupy. Turning away from priest and sacrament he went to the Word of God. He conceived the great idea of translating the Scriptures into the vernacular of the Saxon people. He assembled a select body of learned men at his court, and set them to the work of translating the Bible: he put his own hand to the work, so much was his heart set upon it, and like Columba, he was engaged in translating the Psalms at the time of his death.3

Alfred stands at the head of the noble army of Bible translators. It is a higher glory than his fifty battles by land and sea. The work in which he led the way can know no termination till the Word of Life has been translated into the tongue of every people on earth, and its light has shone round and round the globe.

It would be interesting to know the personal relations that subsisted betwixt Gregory and Alfred. If the character of the first approximated the portrait which the Scottish chroniclers have left of him, these two princes must have been drawn to one another by a warmer sentiment than mere conventional friendship. Both, we are permitted to believe, were magnanimous, princely, and patriotic; and it is interesting to see two such men occupying contemporaneously the thrones of Scotland and England. Alfred was surrounded by men who loved and admired him, and who have painted him in colours that remain fresh to this day. We are sure we see the true likeness of the great English prince of the ninth century. His Scottish contemporary enjoyed no such advantage, and we are not certain that we have the real features of Gregory. But it corroborates what has been transmitted to us concerning him to know that, like Alfred, he aimed at effecting a religious reform, more or less extensive. For no other interpretation can we put upon the statement that Gregory gave freedom to the Scottish Church which till his time had been kept bondage among the Picts.

During the century and a half going before, great deadness, doubtless, overspread the east and north of Scotland, the ancient territory of the Picts. The Columban Church in those parts had been all but rooted out. The Sabbath services in many places had ceased; and where they were still continued it was with great inefficiency and coldness by the poor substitutes which had been found for the expelled Columbites; men from the north of England, were the influence of Rome was now dominant, or monks from the houses of Adamnan foundation, ion which, as in the case of Adamnan himself, the spirit of the Roman Egbert was struggling with the spirit of Columba for the mastery. The schools had been closed, and the instruction of the youth was neglected. There is no evidence to show that the Roman ideas and customs had infected the people to any great extent. It was religious apathy and Pictish coercion, rather than Papal propagandism that weighed upon the land. In the old days when Columba directed the evangelisation of Scotland from Iona, no royal will circumscribed his plans or fettered the steps of the missionaries he sent forth. The land was before them, and they might to whither they would and kindle their light at all the great centres. They did so, and in a generation or two the country was dotted with evangelical beacon-fires, and the Aryan darkness of the Druid was dispelled. This was a freedom of action which had been unknown to the Columban Church in Pictland for a century and a half. The consequence was that, denied the liberty of evangelistic enterprise, the inclination to enter upon it departed. The Columban Church in Pictland lay down and sunk into slumber, leaving her lamp untrimmed, and the region around immersed in spiritual gloom. With her release from thraldom there came, doubtless, to the church in Pictland, and, perhaps, also in the ancient territory of the Scots, a reawakening of zeal and a revival of the light. That light, it is true, burned less brightly now than when it was first kindled on Iona, four centuries before. But the old lamp was not to be permitted to go out. The appearance of the Roman tonsure on the heads of certain of the Columbite clergy gave emphatic warning that years, and it might be centuries, of darkness were yet in store for Scotland. In presence of these gathering shades, what could the friends of the gospel do, except watch around their lamp and feed its flame, and if they could not bring back its pristine brightness, they could keep it alive, till the night had numbered its watches, and the hour had struck for that great dawn to appear for which the world was waiting.


FOOTNOTES

1. Hic subjugavit sibi Hyberniam totam et fere Angliam."—Innes’ Critical Essay, pp. 801, 802.

2. John Von Muller, Universal History, vol. ii. p. 134. Lond., 1818.

3. Wilkins (Concilia, i. p. 186, et seq.) has given us a specimen of Alfred’s labours in a portion of the law of God translated by him.