The Pirates in England

Notes on the text

by Peter Keating


[Title] The Pirates in England: These ‘pirates’ are the various peoples from northern Europe who came to England as plunderers and settlers after the Romans had withdrawn. There is no convenient single term to describe them, as the passage from the School History just quoted demonstrates clearly enough. In his Introductory History of England (1904), p.29, Fletcher refers to them, in the classification common at the time, as ‘Jutes, Angles, and Saxons.’ They are not to be confused with the Vikings who invaded England some two hundred years later. See the note below to line 15.

[subtitle]  A.D. 400-600: The dates, like the names of the various ‘pirates,’ were obviously difficult to give with any precision. What we have here is probably an approximation of the time it took to establish a relatively distinctive Anglo-Saxon England. It seems to be marked on one side by the final departure of the Romans in 407 and on the other by the advent of Christianity with the arrival of the missionary St Augustine in 597. One of Henry Ford’s line drawings at this point in the School History is of ‘St Augustine Preaching to Ethelbert.’  (right)

[line 1] Rome…rotten-ripe to her fall: The image of fruit rotting on a tree is used to stress that Rome was not suddenly overthrown but failed because of gradual inner decay. The relevant Puck stories are set some thirty years before the final withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, and by then the ‘rot’ is already well established. When Parnesius in ‘A Centurion of the Thirtieth’ complains to his father about decadent behaviour in the Empire’s capital, he is told:

‘They are only the fringe of the trouble. It began before your time or mine. Rome has forsaken her Gods, and must be punished…’ Puck of Pook’s Hill, p. 153.

C.E.Carrington’s argument that these words were generally interpreted as applying to Edwardian England as well as to Rome (‘Pedantry about Parnesius,’ KJ 166, June 1968, p. 8) is also true of ‘The Pirates in England.’

[line 2] sceptre:. here used simply as a general symbol of power and authority.

[line 3] pestilent Picts…leaped over the wall: There is still relatively little of substance known about the Picts. They are usually regarded as the indigenous inhabitants of Scotland, largely wiped out by the Scots who came originally from Ireland. Their name, given to them by the Romans, is taken from the Latin verb pingere, to paint. It refers to the Picts’ custom of painting their bodies. The adjective ‘pestilent’ is not chosen solely for its obvious alliterative purposes. Kipling always portrays the Picts as sly, devious, untrustworthy, ‘pestilential’ little men. The wall is Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans 120-123 A.D. with the specific purpose of keeping the Picts out of England. For further details, see the notes to “The Roman Centurion’s Song.”

[line 5] waste: uncultivated or uninhabitable land.

[line 6] So quick to laughter and tears: an easy stereotype of the Celtic personality – emotional and unreliable, very different from the stolid English.

[lines 9-10] They killed the trader, they sacked the shops/ They ruined temple and town: probably an unconscious echo, if an echo at all, but the sudden speeding up of the rhythm to convey the destructive bustle of the Picts is unavoidably reminiscent of Robert Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin”:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles..
(lines 11-12)

[lines 13-14] They wiped out…strength and worth: The Picts destroy whatever they can get their hands on but their power is feeble compared with the far stronger and more imaginative invaders who are being swept in on the ‘North-East gales’ [line 17].

[line 15-16] the Viking’s Wind …ships from the North: Early in this period, the name ‘Viking’ was often used generically to describe all pirates from Scandinavia and northern Europe. It was only later, c. 800, that ‘Viking’ came to have a more specific meaning. Kipling and Fletcher are probably using the word in its earlier sense, though, as with ‘pirates,’ there does seem to be some confusion at work.

In the Puck stories already referred to it is not only the Picts who are waiting for the Romans to leave. There are also the ‘Winged Hats’ who already possess many of the usual attributes of the Vikings, but are presumably Danes or Saxons. Here, Kipling seems to be making a sudden leap from Pict to Viking, leaving out the Saxons. He may have been simply catching up with Fletcher who does deal with the Vikings in this same second chapter. Interestingly, at this point, they are dubbed the ‘New Pirates from Denmark and Norway, 800-1100.’ A School History, p. 37.

Daniel Hadas adds: Viking” is an Old English (i.e. “Anglo-Saxon) word, of possible Norse origin, for referring to Norse invaders after AD 800. Kipling’s point is perhaps that what the Vikings were to the Anglo-Saxons, the Anglo-Saxons had already been to the Picts.   [D.H.]

[line 19] close-reefed sails: presumably a reference to the ability of the Vikings to adjust their topsails so that they were able to travel across rough seas and also to move swiftly into narrow English rivers.

[line 20]. shield-hung hull: The Viking warriors rowed their own ships. While doing so they hung their shields beside them over the ship’s side. The shields provided protection as well as being ready to use immediately after the ship landed.

[lines 25-26] The painted eyes … snake-headed stem: the bows or figureheads of the ships, elaborately and symbolically decorated.

[line 29] Count of the Saxon Shore: Fletcher explains that in the final days of the Roman occupation of Britain:

…an officer, called the “Count of the Saxon Shore,” was created to watch against the pirates. The cities of Britain, hitherto undefended by fortifications, hastily began to run up walls for themselves. One day even these walls were in vain. A School History, p. 22.

The fact that the reference here is to the absence of a Count of the Saxon Shore is a further indication that Kipling has moved on to the later ‘Viking’ invasions.

See also Wikipedia.

[lines 31-32] took the beach with a surge and a roar/ And the pirates rushed inland: One of the most terrifying aspects of the Vikings’ remarkable seamanship, captured poetically here, was the suddenness with which they were able to appear from the sea and ‘rush’ inland, ready armed for any resistance they might meet.

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2005 All rights reserved