Charlemagne was once, we are told, at Narbonne, when, in the midst of the banquet, some swift barks were seen putting into the harbor. The company started up, while some pronounced the crew to be Jewish, others African, others British traders, the keen eye of the great emperor discerned that they were bound on no peaceful errand.

Children of the North

“It is not with merchandise,” said he, “that yonder barks are laden; they are manned by most terrible enemies.” And then he advanced to the window, and stood there a long while in tears. No one dared to ask him the cause of his grief, but at length he explained it himself.

“It is not for myself,” said he, “that I am weeping, or for any harm that yon barks can do to me. But truly I am pained to think that even while I am yet alive they have dared to approach this shore; and still greater is my grief when I reflect on the evils they will bring on my successors.”

His words were only too truly fulfilled. The sight of those piratical banners told its own tale. The fleets he had built, the strong forts and towns he had erected at the mouths of the various rivers throughout his empire, were neglected by his successors, and what he foresaw came to pass.

Year after year, during the ninth century, the children of the North burst forth from their pine forests, their creeks, their fiords, and icebound lakes, and prowled along the defenceless shores of Germany, France, and England.

They laughed at the fiercest storms, landed on the most inaccessible coasts, and pushed up the shallowest rivers, while Charlemagne’s degenerate successors tamely beheld the fairest towns in their dominions sacked and burnt by the terrible crews of those terrible barks.

Faith Among Swords

“Take a map,” writes Sir Francis Palgrave, “and colour with vermilion the provinces, districts, and shores which the Northmen visited, as the record of each invasion. The colouring will have to be repeated more than ninety times successively before you arrive at the conclusion of the Carlovingian dynasty.

“Furthermore, mark by the usual symbol of war, two crossed swords, the localities where battles were fought by or against the pirates; where they were defeated or triumphant, or where they pillaged, burned, destroyed; and the valleys and banks of the Elbe, Rhine, and Moselle, Scheldt, Meuse, Somme, and Seine, Loire, Garonne, and Adour, the inland Allier, and all the coasts and coastlands between estuary and estuary, and the countries between the river-streams, will appear bristling as with cheveux-de-frise.

“The strongly-fenced Roman cities, the venerated abbeys, and their dependent bourgades, often more flourishing and extensive than the ancient seats of government, the opulent sea-ports and trading-towns, were all equally exposed to the Danish attacks, stunned by the Northmen’s approach, subjugated by their fury.”

But while the mind faintly strives to conceive the misery and desolation thus inflicted, on well-nigh every town and village of Germany and France, it finds satisfaction in the thought that even now missionary zeal did not falter; that while every estuary and river darkened under the sails of the Northmen’s barks, there were not lacking those who had the Christian bravery to penetrate into the dreary regions whence they issued forth, to seek them out amidst their pine forests and icebound lakes, and to plant amongst them the first germs of Christian civilization.

The First Mission

The first mission in Denmark was organized in the year a.d. 826, when Harold, king of Jutland, his queen, and a large retinue of Danes, were baptized with great pomp in the vast Dom of Mayence.

On this occasion, Harold solemnly did homage to Louis the Pious, and agreed to hold the Danish kingdom as a feudatory of the Carlovingian crown. On this occasion also, Ebbo, the primate of France, determined to seek out a monk who would be willing to accompany the newly-baptized king on his return to Denmark, and remain at his court as a priest and teacher.

But the well-known ferocity of the Northmen long deterred any one from offering himself for such a duty. At length the abbot of Corbey, near Amiens, announced that one of his monks was willing to undertake the arduous task.

The intrepid volunteer was Anskar, a native of a village not far from Corbey. Born in the year 801 AD, and early devoted by his parents to the monastic life, he had always evinced the deepest religious enthusiasm, and his ardent imagination taught him to believe that he often saw visions and heard voices from another world.

Elected at 25

When he was only five years of age, he lost his mother: and a dream, in which he saw her surrounded by a majestic choir of virgins, the fairest of whom bade him, if he would join his mother in bliss, flee the pomps and vanities of the world, exerted a profound impression upon him, and induced him to devote himself more than ever to prayer and meditation.

But when he was thirteen years of age, a.d. 814, an event occurred which exercised a still deeper influence over his susceptible mind. News reached the monastery that Charlemagne was dead. The greatest of great emperors had passed away, and now, in the sepulcher which he had made for himself, “he was sitting on his curule chair, clad in his silken robes, ponderous with broidery, pearls, and orfray, the imperial diadem on his head, his closed eyelids covered, his face swathed in the dead-clothes, girt with his baldric, the ivory horn slung in his scarf, his good sword ‘Joyeuse’ by his side, the Gospel-book open on his lap, musk and amber and sweet spices poured around.”

Anskar at this time had relaxed somewhat of his usual austerities, and now the thought that even that mighty prince, whom he himself had seen in all the plenitude of his power could not escape the hand of death, filled him with awe, and he gave himself up more unreservedly than ever to the severest discipline.

Meanwhile his talents had brought him into general notice, and when his abbot founded another monastic outpost in Westphalia, in a beautiful valley on the west bank of the Weser, and called it New Corbey, Anskar was removed to the new foundation, and at the age of twenty-five was elected, with the common consent of all, to superintend its conventual school, and to preach to the neighbouring population.

Evangelize the Vikings

He was on a visit to Old Corbey, when the news arrived that a monk was much needed to accompany the Danish Harold to his native land, and that the abbot Wala had nominated him to the emperor as a fit person to be entrusted with the arduous mission. Summoned to the court, Anskar calmly but resolutely announced his willingness to go. In dreams and visions, he said, he had heard the voice of Christ himself bidding him preach the word to the heathen tribes: and nothing could induce him to shrink from the plain path of duty.

In vain, therefore, on his return to the monastery, the brethren learning that he was about to resign all his hopes and prospects to preach amongst heathens and barbarians, warned, protested, and even mocked at him for his madness.

Immoveable in his resolution to brave all risks, he began to prepare himself for his great enterprise by prayer and study of the Scriptures; and so deep was the impression made by his evident sincerity and self-devotion, that Autbert, steward of the monastery, and a man of noble birth, when every one else hung back, declared that he could not find it in his heart to desert his friend, and was resolved to become his companion.

A foretaste of the difficulties that awaited them was experienced at the very outset. No one could possibly be prevailed on to accompany them as an attendant. The abbot himself shrank from interposing his authority, and they were fain to set out alone. Before starting, they had an interview with Louis, and received from him everything they were likely to need for their undertaking, in the shape of church vessels, tents, and books. From Harold, however, they met with but little encouragement, and neither he nor his nobles cared much for their company.

On their arrival at Cologne, whence they were to sail up the Rhine to Holland, and so to Denmark, Bishop Hadebold bestowed upon them a ship with two cabins. The better accommodation promised in such a vessel induced Harold to share it with Anskar; and the engaging manners of the missionary gradually won his respect, and inspired him with an interest in his undertaking.

Ruptured by Rebellion

On landing, Anskar fixed his head-quarters at Schleswig, and commenced the foundation of a school, purchasing, or receiving, from Harold, Danish boys, whom he tried to train, so as to form the nucleus of a native ministry.

Two years thus passed away, and some impression seemed to have been made upon the people, when Autbert sickened, and was obliged to return to Corbey, where he died. Meanwhile the baptism of Harold, and still more his destruction of the native temples, was bitterly resented by his subjects.

Before long a rebellion broke out, and the king was obliged to fly for refuge to a spot within the ancient Frisian territory, while Anskar finding it necessary to leave Schleswig, was consoled by an unexpected opportunity of commencing a similar work in Sweden.

In the year 829 AD, ambassadors from Sweden presented themselves at the court of Louis, and after arranging the political object of their mission, announced that many of their countrymen were favorably disposed towards Christianity. The commerce carried on at this period between Sweden and the port of Doerstadt, combined with the teaching of some Christian captives, whom the Swedes had carried off in their piratical excursions, had predisposed not a few towards lending a favorable ear to Christian teachers.

The emperor gladly embraced the opportunity thus afforded, and summoned Anskar to the palace, who, after an interview, declared his entire willingness to undertake the enterprise.

Empty-Handed in Birka

A monk named Gislema was therefore left with Harold, and Anaskar having found a new companion in Witmar, a brother monk of Corbey, set out in the year a.d. 831 with presents from Louis to the King of Sweden.

But the voyage was most disastrous. The missionaries had not proceeded far when they were attacked by pirates. A fierce battle ensued, and their crew, though first victorious, were overpowered in a second engagement, and barely escaped to land.

The pirates plundered them of everything, the presents for the king, their sacred books, and all their ecclesiastical vestments. In this forlorn and destitute condition they reached Birka, a haven and village on the Mälar lake, not far from the ancient capital Sigtuna, the residence of rich merchants, and the centre of the northern trade.

Here they were hospitably welcomed by the king, Biorn “of the Hill,” and received full permission to preach and baptize. The nucleus of a church was found already existing in the persons of many Christian captives, who had long been deprived of the consolation of Christian ordinances. The work, therefore, of the missionaries commenced under fair auspices, and before long Herigar, the king’s counsellor, announced himself a convert, and erected a church on his estate.

The Nations of the North

A year and a half was thus employed, and then Anskar returned to the court of Louis with a letter from the King of Sweden, and an account of all that had befallen him. Thereupon Louis resolved, without delay, to give effect to the ecclesiastical plans of his father, and to make Hamburg an archiepiscopal see, and the centre of operations for the northern missions.

Accordingly, Anskar was elevated to the archiepiscopal dignity, and was consecrated at Ingleheim by Drogo, Archbishop of Mayence, and other prelates. At the same time, because of the poverty of the diocese, and the dangers to which the mission would be inevitably exposed, the monastery of Thourout in Flanders, between Bruges and Ypres, was assigned to him as a place of refuge, and a source of revenue.

Then he was directed to repair to Rome, where he received the pall from Gregory IV., and was regularly authorized to preach the Gospel to the nations of the North.

These arrangements made, Anskar returned from Rome. Ebbo, who had been associated with him in the commission to evangelize the northern tribes, deputed his missionary duties to his nephew Gauzbert, who was raised to the episcopal dignity, and entrusted with the special care of the Swedish mission.

Thither, accordingly, Gauzbert set out, received a hearty welcome from Biorn and his people, and laid the foundation of a church at Sigtuna. Meanwhile Anskar had proceeded to Hamburg, and, in pursuance of his former plan, bought or redeemed from slavery a number of Danish youths, whom he either instructed himself, or sent for that purpose to the monastery of Thourout.

Reduced to Ashes

But the times were hardly ripe for successful operations. Three years had barely elapsed, when an enormous army of Northmen, led by Eric, king of Jutland, attacked Hamburg, and before relief could arrive, sacked and burnt it, together with the church and monastery which Anskar had erected with great trouble.

He himself had barely time to save the sacred vessels, and, before the sun went down, every external memorial of his mission was reduced to ashes. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” was the exclamation of the archbishop, as he surveyed the scene. Driven from Hamburg, he now wandered for a long time over his devastated diocese, followed by a few of his clergy and scholars, and at length sought refuge at Bremen.

But the envious Bishop Leutbert refusing to receive him, he was fain to avail himself of the hospitality of a noble lady in the district of Holstein. And, as if this was not enough, he now received intelligence that, owing to similar risings of Northmen, the hopes of the Swedish missions were utterly crushed.

Avenged for a Relic

The pagan party had conspired against Bishop Gauzbert, expelled him from the country, and murdered his nephew Nithard. But divine vengeance did not fail to pursue the conspirators. One of them had carried home some of the property of the missionaries. Before long he died, together with his mother and sister, and his father found his own property wasting from day to day.

Alarmed at this sudden reverse of fortune, he began to consider what God he could have offended, to bring all these troubles on his house. Unable to solve the difficulty himself, he had recourse to a soothsayer. The lots were cast, and it was found that none of the native deities bore him any ill will. At length the soothsayer explained the cause.

“It is the God of the Christians,” said he, “who is the author of thy ruin. There is something dedicated to Him concealed in thy house, and therefore all these evils have come upon thee, nor canst thou hope to prosper till the sacred thing is restored.”

After vainly trying, for some time, to comprehend what this could mean, he suddenly recollected the day when his son had brought home one of the sacred books from the spoil of the missionaries’ dwellings. Stricken with alarm, he immediately called together the inhabitants of the place, told them all that had occurred, and prayed their advice in the emergency.

Every one declined to receive the terrible relic, and at last, fearful of further vengeance if he retained it any longer in his house, the man covered it carefully, and then fastened it to a stake on the public road, with a notice that any one who wished might take it down, and that for the crime he had unwittingly been guilty of against the Christians’ God he was ready to offer any satisfaction that might be required. One of the native Christians took it down, and the man’s terrors were appeased.

A Brighter Era

Anskar meanwhile was still wandering over his desolated diocese. Even the monastery of Thourout, which Louis had bestowed upon him for the very purpose of being a covert from such storms as these, was closed against him, having been bestowed upon a layman by Charles the Bald. Under such accumulated misfortunes most men would have sunk, but Anskar waited patiently in the hope of some change, and comforted himself with the words addressed to him by Archbishop Ebbo before his death:

“Be assured, my dear brother, that what we have striven to accomplish for the glory of Christ will yet, by God’s help, bring forth fruit. For it is my firm and settled belief, nay, I know of a surety, that though the work we have undertaken among these nations is for a time subject to obstacles and difficulties on account of our sins, yet it will not be lost or perish altogether, but will, by God’s grace, thrive and prosper, until the Name of the Lord is made known to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

Before long, events occurred which seemed to promise that the clouds would roll away, and a brighter era be initiated. Mindful of the converted chief, Anskar sent to Sigtuna an anchoret named Ardgar, with directions to see how he fared, and to strengthen him against falling back into heathenism.

Thither Ardgar set out, and was rejoiced to find Herigar still remaining faithful to the faith he had embraced. The recollection of the Divine vengeance which had attended the previous outbreak, protected the missionary from injury, and the new king who had succeeded Biorn was persuaded by Herigar to permit Ardgar to preach the Gospel without fear of molestation.

Your Gods or our God!

That chief was no half-hearted believer, and openly confronted the malice of the pagan party. On one occasion, as they were boasting of the power of their gods, and of the many blessings they had received by remaining faithful to their worship, he bade them put the matter to an open and decisive proof.

“If there be so much doubt,” said he, “concerning the superior might of our respective gods, let us see whose power is greatest: whether that of the many whom ye call gods, or that of my one omnipotent Lord, Jesus Christ. Lo! the season of rain is at hand. Do ye call upon the names of your gods, that the rain may be restrained from falling upon you, and I will call upon the name of my Lord, Jesus Christ, that no drop may fall on me; and the god that answereth our prayers, let him be God.”

The heathen party agreed, and repairing to a neighboring field, took their seats in great numbers on one side, while Herigar, attended only by a little child, sat on the other. In a few moments the rain descended in torrents, drenched the heathens to the skin, and swept away their tents; while on Herigar and the little child no drop fell, and even the ground around them remained dry.

“Ye see,” he cried, “which is the true God; bid me not, then, desert the faith I have adopted, but rather lay aside your errors, and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Divine Will to Attack?

On another occasion the town of Birka was attacked by a piratical expedition of Danes and Swedes, under the command of a king of Sweden, who had been expelled from his realm. The place was closely invested, and there seemed to be no prospect of a successful defence. In their alarm, the townspeople offered numerous sacrifices to their gods, and when all other means failed, collected such treasures as they possessed, together with a hundred pounds of silver, and succeeded in coming to terms with the hostile chiefs.

But their followers, not satisfied with the amount, prepared to storm the town. Again the gods were consulted, the altars raised, the victims offered, but with results equally unpromising. Herigar now interposed, rebuked the people for their obstinate adherence to the worship of gods that could not give aid in trouble, and when they bade him suggest some device, and promised to follow his council, he urged them to make a solemn vow of obedience to the Lord of the Christians, assuring them that, if they turned to Him, He at any rate, would not fail them in the hour of danger.

The people took his advice, went forth to an open plain, and there solemnly vowed to keep a fast in honor of the God of the Christians, if He would rescue them from their enemies.

Help came in an unexpected fashion. The Swedish king, while the army was clamoring for the signal to attack, suggested that the gods should be consulted by lot, whether it was their will that Birka should be destroyed.

“There are many great and powerful deities there,” said he; “there also formerly a church was built, and even now the worship of the Great Christ is observed by many, and He is more powerful than any other god. We ought, then, to inquire first whether it is the divine will that we attack the place.”

Accordingly the lots were cast, and it was discovered that the auspices were not favorable for the assault; and thus Birka was spared. The arrival, therefore, of Ardgar was well timed, and he was not only welcomed by Herigar, but the Christians were strengthened in their adherence to the faith by his coming.

A Devastated Diocese

Nor was it in Sweden only that the prospects of the missionaries brightened. In 847 AD, Leutbert, bishop of Bremen, died. Anskar’s own see of Hamburg was now reduced, by the desolating inroads of the Northmen, to four baptismal churches. It was therefore proposed that the see of Bremen should be annexed to the archbishopric of Hamburg, and, after the plan was matured, Anskar no longer found himself hampered by want of means from devoting all his energies to the wider planting of the faith.

At the same time he was enabled to appoint a priest over the church at Sleswik, and from Horik, king of Jutland, he no longer experienced opposition in preaching the word amongst the people. This encouraged many who had been baptized at Hamburg and Doerstadt, but who had subsequently conformed to idolatrous practices, to publicly profess their adhesion to the Christian faith, and they rejoiced in the opportunity of joining in Christian fellowship.

The trade also of Doerstadt prospered by the change; Christian merchants flocked thither in greater numbers, and with greater confidence, and thus helped forward the work of Anskar and his colleagues.

At this juncture the hermit Ardgar returned from Sweden. Anskar, more than ever unwilling that the mission there should be allowed to drop, tried to prevail on Gauzbert to revisit the scene of his former labours. But the latter, discouraged by his previous failure, declined, and Anskar finding no one else willing to undertake the work once more girded up his loins, and encouraged by Horik, who gave him letters to Olaf king of Sweden, set out for Birka.

An Open Council

The time of his landing was unfortunate. The heathen party had been roused by the native priests, and a crusade was proclaimed against the strange doctrines.

Suborning a man who pretended to have received a message from the native deities, the priest announced it to be the will of heaven that, if the people wished for new gods, they should admit into their company the late king Eric, and allow divine honors to be paid to him. This wrought up the feelings of the populace to such a pitch, that the retinue of the archbishop pronounced it absolute madness to persevere in his undertaking.

But Anskar was not thus to be thwarted. He invited Olaf to a feast, set before him the presents sent by the king of Jutland, and announced the object of his visit. Olaf, on his part, was not indisposed to make the concessions he desired, but as former missionaries had been expelled from the country, he suggested that it would be well to submit the affair, once for all, to the solemn decision of the sacred lots, and consult in an open council the feelings of the people. Anskar agreed, and a day was fixed for deciding the question.

First, the council of the chiefs was formally asked, and their opinion requested. They craved the casting of the sacred lots. The lots were accordingly cast, and the result was declared to be favorable to the admission of the archbishop and his retinue.

Then the general assembly of the people of Birka was convened, and at the command of the king a herald proclaimed aloud the purport of the archbishop’s visit. This was the signal for a great tumult, in the midst of which an aged chief arose, and thus addressed the assembly:

“Hear me, O king and people. The God whom we are invited to worship is not unknown to us, nor the aid He can render to those that put their trust in Him. Many of us have already proved this by experience, and have felt His assistance in many perils, and especially in the sea. Why, then, reject what we know to be useful and necessary for us? Not long ago some of us went to Doerstadt, and believing that this new religion could profit us much, willingly professed ourselves its disciples. Now the voyage thither is beset with dangers, and pirates abound on every shore. Why, then, reject a religion thus brought to our very doors? Why not permit the servants of God, whose protecting aid we have already experienced, to abide amongst us? Listen to my counsel, then, O king and people, and reject not what is plainly for our advantage. We see our own deities failing us, and unable to aid us in time of danger. Surely it is a good thing to obtain the favour of a God who always can and will aid those that call upon Him.”

His words found favor with the people, and it was unanimously resolved that the archbishop should be permitted to take up his abode in the country, and should not be hindered in disseminating the Christian faith.

This resolution was announced to Anskar in person by the king, who further conceded a grant of land for building a church, and welcomed Erimbert, a colleague of the archbishop, whom he presented as the new director of the Swedish mission.

Erik “the Red”

Meanwhile matters had not been so prosperous in Denmark. Eric “the Red,” though not professedly a Christian, had, as we have seen, aided the archbishop materially in the introduction of Christianity. His apostasy provoked the inveterate hostility of the Northmen, and the sea-kings determined to avenge the insult offered to the national gods.

Rallying from all quarters under the banner of Guthrun, nephew of Eric, they attacked the apostate king near Flensburg, in Jutland. The battle raged for three days, and at its close Eric and Guthrun, and a host of kings and jarls lay dead upon the field; and so tremendous had been the slaughter, that the entire Viking nobility seemed to have been utterly exterminated.

The new king, Eric II., easily persuaded that the recent reverses were entirely due to the apostasy of his predecessor, ordered one of Anskar’s churches to be closed, and forbade all further missionary operations.

After a while, however, he was induced to change his policy, and Anskar, on his return from Sweden, was reinstated in the royal favor, and received a grant of land for the erection of a second church at Ripe, in Jutland, over which he placed Rembert, his favorite disciple, charging him to win the hearts of his barbarous flock by the sincerity and devotion of his life.

Anskar now returned to Hamburg, and devoted himself to the administration of his diocese.

Slave Trading

One of the latest acts of his life was a noble effort to check the infamous practice of kidnapping and trading in slaves. A number of native Christians had been carried off by the northern pirates, and reduced to slavery. Effecting their escape, they sought refuge in the territory of Northalbingia.

Instead of sheltering the fugitives, some of the chiefs retained a portion of them as their own slaves, and sold others to heathen, and even professedly Christian tribes around.

News of this reached Anskar, and at the risk of his life he sternly rebuked the chiefs and succeeded in inducing them to set the captives free, and to ransom as many as possible from the bondage into which they had sold them.

Ascetic Perfection

This noble act formed an appropriate conclusion to his life. He was now more than sixty-four years of age, and during more than half that period had laboured unremittingly in the mission field. His friend and biographer expatiates eloquently on his character, as exhibiting the perfect model of ascetic perfection.

Even when elevated to the episcopal dignity, he never exempted himself from the rigid discipline of the cloister. He wore a haircloth shirt by night as well as by day. He measured out his food and drink by an exact rule. He chanted a fixed number of Psalms, alike when he arose in the morning and when he retired to rest at night.

His charity knew no bounds. Not only did he erect a hospital at Bremen for the sick and needy, distribute a tenth of his income among the poor, and divide amongst them any presents he might receive, but every five years he tithed his income afresh, that he might be quite sure the poor had their proper share.

Whenever he went on a tour of visitation through his diocese, he would never sit down to dinner, without first ordering some of the poor to be brought in, and he himself would sometimes wash their feet, and distribute amongst them bread and meat.

Such a practical exhibition of Christian love could not fail to exercise a gradual influence even over the rough pirates of the North, which was increased by the many miracles he wrought. But he was not one to seek distinction of this kind. “One miracle,” he once said to a friend, “I would if worthy, ask the Lord to grant me; and that is, that by His grace, He would make me a good man.”

He employed his last days in arranging the affairs of his diocese, and calmly expired on the 3rd of February, 865 AD.

At Corbie is preserved one of his arms.

Courtesy of 'Lives of the Saints' by Rev. S. Baring-Gould

Background Mountains photo CC Les Haines | Flickr

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