Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. — John Cardinal Newman

Story of the English - Helene Guerber




Alfred Conquers the Danes

Shortly after this accident with the cakes, Alfred went to join his followers in a fortified camp in the centre of a swamp. Here he made a bold plan to conquer the Danes. Before he could carry it out, however, he had to know just how many Danes he should have to fight, where their camp was situated, how it was guarded, and where the general's tent stood.

To find out these things, Alfred disguised himself as a bard, took his harp, and walked boldly into the Danish camp. The soldiers were glad to see a bard, and, gathering around him, called for song after song.

Alfred now sang and told them all the stories he knew; and as he sang and played on his harp, he glanced around him and noticed the number of men. The soldiers were so pleased with Alfred's songs and jests that they led him to their general, Guthrum, who, after hearing him sing and play, gave him some gold and praised his skill.

Alfred tarried in the Danish camp a few days, and made such good use of his eyes and ears that he found out enough to enable him to win a great victory over the Danes at Ethandun. He then signed the treaty of Wedmore with them, and gave them their choice, either to become Christians and keep the peace, or to leave England.

Most of the Danes preferred to stay, but a few of them joined a pirate chief named Hastings, and a few years later they came back with him, to try to recover their, lost ground. But Alfred again managed to defeat them, and made them promise to stay in the Danelagh, the part of the country which he said they might occupy. After this, the Danes lived on the northeast side of Watling Street, one of the old Roman roads which ran from Dover to Chester, passing through London, while the Anglo-Saxons occupied the land on the other side of it.

To frighten away the pirate Danes, and keep the Picts and Scots in order, Alfred built ships, and once a year he sailed all around the islands, to see that all was well. This is considered the beginning of the English navy, and by the time you have finished reading this book, you will see that England owes much of her prosperity to her fleet, and that she is justly known as the "Queen of the Sea."

The beginning of King Alfred's reign was mostly taken up in fighting; but when he had made peace with the Danes, he began to think how he could best help his people. To make the best use of his time, Alfred divided his days into three equal parts: one for sleeping, eating, and amusement; one for business; and one for study.

As there were no clocks in King Alfred's day, and as the sundials marked time only when the sun shone, Alfred had candles made of such size and thickness that they would burn a certain length of time. These candles were notched to divide the day into equal periods. But the king soon noticed that the candles burned unevenly, owing to draughts. When you hear that glass was used only in a few churches, and that the palace windows were closed only by rude wooden shutters, you can readily understand that there were many draughts, and that when the wind blew the candles flickered, went out, or burned too fast. To prevent this, King Alfred had boxes made of thin pieces of horn, in which to place the candles; so he may fairly be considered the inventor of the first lantern.

The time which Alfred spent in study was devoted in part to framing wise laws for his people; and we are told that he executed justice so carefully that no one dared steal in all his realm. It is even said that golden bracelets hung on a tree in a lonely spot for more than a year, and, although there was no one near to guard them, no thief ventured to lay a finger upon them.

King Alfred not only made good laws for his people, but he established the first real schools in England. As there were no books in Anglo-Saxon, Alfred patiently translated many of the Greek and Latin works into his own language. He encouraged teachers to come and settle in his kingdom, and bought many manuscripts. We are told that he once gave a whole estate for a work on geography—a work which was considered wonderful then, although it gave far less information on the subject than the poorest and cheapest book printed in our day.

In Alfred's time, people studied languages more than anything else. There was, indeed, little else to study. Science and history were sadly neglected. In arithmetic, only Roman numbers were used, so even learned men found it hard to work out simple sums; and said that the study was beyond human understanding! But when Arabic numbers were introduced, in the twelfth century, arithmetic became much easier so much easier that to-day children in the primary department can do sums that would have been almost impossible to the simple wise men of the ninth century.

You must not think, however, that the Saxons worked all the time. They liked to play, and when they could not run, or jump, or practise archery (shooting with a bow and arrow) outdoors, they sat by the fire, told stories, and sometimes played chess or backgammon.

King Alfred is remembered not only as a good general, a wise ruler, and a learned man; he is famous also for his patience, his perseverance, and most of all for his noble and truthful character. This is so well known that he is generally called Alfred the Great, or Alfred the Truth-teller. Although he always worked very hard, he was not strong, and after suffering for years from a terrible disease which none of the doctors of his time could cure, he died in the year 901. Just before he breathed his last, King Alfred said: "This I can now truly say: that so long as I have lived, I have striven to live worthily, and after my death to leave my memory to my descendants in good works."

It is because Alfred lived worthily that he has always been honoured as England's greatest king; and all the English-speaking race has reason to respect the man who, among many other benefits, translated all the gospels into the Anglo-Saxon language for his people's use.



Contents

Front Matter
Review

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
"Remember"
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee