And Rumours of War: The Long Peace Ends

The closing years of the sixteenth century were dark ones for the Norwegian Republic. The long peace had been broken at last, and a nation which had fought no major battle for a century was woefully unprepared for war. The French, on the other hand, had been schooled in the hard lessons of Byzantine occupation, reconquest, and religious war. When their armies poured across the southern border of the Norselaw, they met little resistance; the scattered garrisons withdrew to the Highlands and waited for reinforcements from the colonies, where most of the Ynglinga Hird was stationed to deal with Indian raids and bandits.

The reinforcements never arrived. The Norwegian navy – the power and the pride of the nation – was as large as the French; but it was dispersed to ports in the New World, away from prying eyes and close to the pirates that were its principal foe. Worse, the Admiralty were unaware of the French navy’s vast growth in the preceding decade, and also unaware that the new French ships were larger and better armed. Orders were given to concentrate in the Channel to cut off the French armies from reinforcements and supplies, and to pave the way for a blockade; the squadrons accordingly set sail across the Atlantic, and arrived piecemeal, straight into the maw of the waiting French galleons. In a disastrous battle off Land’s End, half the Norwegian navy faced the full power of the French – odds of two to one in hulls and rather worse in guns – and were sunk or taken to the last rowboat.

There could be no recovering from such a defeat, and no reinforcements across a French Atlantic. The negotiations were accordingly swift: Two months after Land’s End, the south of England was under French rule. Shock and grief ran like an epidemic through the Norwegian public, all the more so since French nobles publicly boasted of their intention to rule all the Isles. A second Diaspora, a flight across the Atlantic to the colonies, seemed possible, and was openly avowed as the goal of French foreign policy. Mention was made of compensation, offers of protection and trade were given; surely, the suave French ambassador pointed out, it was better to accept the inevitable gracefully, and reap at least the benefit of having a powerful friend.

The Norse polity united, for the first time in a century, in utter rejection. The exiles had put down roots in their new country, all the deeper perhaps for the memory of being uprooted once. Should the green fields of England join the mountains and the forests in the tales of bygone days, in the legends of an exiled people? Not if the sons and grandsons of the men who had fled across the North Sea had anything to say about it. In their thousands they joined the army, eagerly voted taxes for rebuilding the navy, built foundries for cannon, dug new mines for iron and coal.

Still there are limits to enthusiasm. France was counted a minor power in the councils of Europe; but it could draw on fields enormously more fertile than those of straitened England, and a war-hardened population six times that of Norway. When the war was renewed, fifty thousand regulars of the Armee d’Angleterre crossed the border, with fifty guns; the Ynglinga Hird could muster only thirty thousand to oppose them.

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