A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. — Alexander Tytler

Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press




Alfred the Royal Harper

In this chapter we shall read of one of the best kings that ever lived, king Alfred the great. It is more than a thousand years since he lived; but we still like to hear the story of his great and beautiful life.

For some years before he was born, our country had been troubled by a fierce race of heathens, known as the Northmen, or Danes. These men, like the English many years before, came over the North sea.

They rowed up the mouths of rivers, and, as soon as they landed, at once made a strong camp. From this safe place they would go out into the country round about, burning churches and houses, putting men, women and children to cruel deaths, and stealing everything worth having.

Alfred
STATUE OF KING ALFRED, WINCHESTER


Alfred began to rule over a part of England, known as Wessex, when he was twenty-two years old. All the country north of the river Thames was over-run by the Danes, and now they came into Wessex also.

Alfred fought very bravely for several years, sometimes winning a battle, at another time losing one. It was hard work, for, as fast as the Danes were killed, others took their places. At last they came in such large numbers, that Alfred was forced to flee for his life. With a few of his men, he hid on a small island in Somersetshire. All around were wide marshes not easy to cross, and so Alfred felt quite safe there.

In his hiding-place, he was ever thinking of how he could beat his fierce foes. Now, not far away, the Danes had made a strong camp. They thought they had nothing to fear from Alfred; so they spent their days in feasting and drinking, and did not keep a very good watch.

In his younger days, Alfred had learned to play on the harp, and could sing as he played. The Northmen, like the English, were very fond of music: so the thought came into the king's mind, "Why should I not go into the Danish camp, as a minstrel? I may hear what they are going to do next, and I shall be more ready to fight them, if I know that."

He put on a minstrel's dress, and, like the brave man that he was, went boldly into the camp of the Danes. Now, Alfred had always been fond of learning poetry, for in those days the stories of brave deeds were always told in verse.

Alfred's jewels
KING ALFRED'S JEWEL


So he sang to the Danes the songs of Woden the god of war and Thor the god of thunder, and of the brave men of northern lands. This pleased them very much, and very soon he was asked to play before king Guthrum and his chiefs, as they sat at meat.

Of course, Alfred was quite ready to do this, and he pleased them very much with his playing. They gave him plenty to eat and drink, and it is said that Guthrum gave him a gold cup which had once been Alfred's own, but which had been stolen by the Danes.

He was also allowed to go about the camp just as he pleased, and, in doing so, he heard all about their plans. When he thought he had learned enough, he quietly left the camp and returned to his men. He quickly got a little army to¬gether, and fell upon the Danes, when they were not at all ready to fight. This time, as you may suppose, he gave them a good beating.

Now, what do you think Alfred did after this? He might have put all the Danes to death; but, instead of that, he tried to make them his friends. So he said that, if they would become Christians, he would give them a part of England where they could live.

Guthrum and most of his men agreed to this, and promised to live in peace. The part of England in which they lived was known as the Dane-law. Only once, during the rest of Alfred's life, did the Danes break their word; so Alfred's plan of turning enemies into friends was a very good one.

Now that most of the fighting was over, this wise king at once set to work to prevent other Danes coining to England, and to do all he could to make his people happy. He built a great number of ships—much bigger than those of the Danes—and these were always sailing round our coasts on the look out for the Northmen.

Then, too, he had schools built, and asked clever men to come from other lands to teach his people. He also found time to teach himself a great deal; and it is said he always carried a book in his bosom, so that, when he had a spare moment, he might read.

It would make a very long story to tell of all the wise and good things that Alfred did. He did not live to be very old, and you will understand how sorry his people were when he died.

A thousand years have passed away, but, in all that time, we have not had any better king than Alfred the truth-teller, England's darling, Alfred the Great.