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The First Discovery Of America
by [?]

Appulus et Calaber, Siculus mihi servit et Afer.

Every island, says Sir Edmund Head, and truly–for the name of almost every island on the coast of England, Scotland, and Eastern Ireland, ends in either ey or ay or oe, a Norse appellative, as is the word “island” itself–is a mark of its having been, at some time or other, visited by the Vikings of Scandinavia.

Norway, meanwhile, was convulsed by war; and what perhaps was of more immediate consequence, Svend Fork-beard, whom we Englishmen call Sweyn–the renegade from that Christian Faith which had been forced on him by his German conqueror, the Emperor Otto II.–with his illustrious son Cnut, whom we call Canute, were just calling together all the most daring spirits of the Baltic coasts for the subjugation of England; and when that great feat was performed, the Scandinavian emigration was paralysed, probably, for a time by the fearful wars at home. While the king of Sweden, and St. Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, were setting on Denmark during Cnut’s pilgrimage to Rome, and Cnut, sailing with a mighty fleet to Norway, was driving St. Olaf into Russia, to return and fall in the fratricidal battle of Stiklestead–during, strangely enough, a total eclipse of the sun–Vinland was like enough to remain still uncolonised. After Cnut’s short-lived triumph–king as he was of Denmark, Norway, England, and half Scotland, and what not of Wendish Folk inside the Baltic–the force of the Norsemen seems to have been exhausted in their native lands. Once more only, if I remember right, did “Lochlin,” really and hopefully send forth her “mailed swarm” to conquer a foreign land; and with a result unexpected alike by them and by their enemies. Had it been otherwise, we might not have been here this day.

Let me sketch for you once more–though you have heard it, doubtless, many a time–the tale of that tremendous fortnight which settled the fate of Britain, and therefore of North America; which decided–just in those great times when the decision was to be made–whether we should be on a par with the other civilised nations of Europe, like them the “heirs of all the ages,” with our share not only of Roman Christianity and Roman centralisation–a member of the great comity of European nations, held together in one Christian bond by the Pope–but heirs also of Roman civilisation, Roman literature, Roman Law; and therefore, in due time, of Greek philosophy and art. No less a question than this, it seems to me, hung in the balance during that fortnight of autumn, 1066.

Poor old Edward the Confessor, holy, weak, and sad, lay in his new choir of Westminster–where the wicked ceased from troubling, and the weary were at rest. The crowned ascetic had left no heir behind. England seemed as a corpse, to which all the eagles might gather together; and the South-English, in their utter need, had chosen for their king the ablest, and it may be the justest, man in Britain–Earl Harold Godwinsson: himself, like half the upper classes of England then, of the all-dominant Norse blood; for his mother was a Danish princess. Then out of Norway, with a mighty host, came Harold Hardraade, taller than all men, the ideal Viking of his time. Half-brother of the now dead St. Olaf, severely wounded when he was but fifteen, at Stiklestead, when Olaf fell, he had warred and plundered on many a coast. He had been away to Russia to King Jaroslaf; he had been in the Emperor’s Varanger guard at Constantinople–and, it was whispered, had slain a lion there with his bare hands; he had carved his name and his comrades’ in Runic characters–if you go to Venice you may see them at this day–on the loins of the great marble lion, which stood in his time not in Venice but in Athens. And now, king of Norway and conqueror, for the time, of Denmark, why should he not take England, as Sweyn and Canute took it sixty years before, when the flower of the English gentry perished at the fatal battle of Assingdune? If he and his half-barbarous host had conquered, the civilisation of Britain would have been thrown back, perhaps, for centuries. But it was not to be.