Heroes Every Child Should Know - H. W. Mabie

King Alfred

We now come to the great King Alfred, the best and greatest of all English Kings. We know quite enough of his history to be able to say that he really deserves to be so called, though I must warn you that, just because he left so great a name behind him, people have been fond of attributing to him things which really belonged to others. Thus you may sometimes see nearly all English laws and customs attributed to Alfred, as if he had invented them all for himself. You will sometimes hear that Alfred founded Trial by Jury, divided England into Counties, and did all kinds of other things. Now the real truth is that the roots and beginnings of most of these things are very much older than the time of Alfred, while the particular forms in which we have them now are very much later. But people have a way of fancying that everything must have been invented by some particular man, and as Alfred was more famous than anybody else, they hit upon Alfred as the most likely person to have invented them.

But, putting aside fables, there is quite enough to show that there have been very few Kings, and very few men of any sort, so great and good as King Alfred. Perhaps the only equally good King we read of is Saint Louis of France; and though he was quite as good, we cannot set him down as being so great and wise as Alfred. Certainly no King ever gave himself up more thoroughly than Alfred did fully to do the duties of his office. His whole life seems to have been spent in doing all that he could for the good of his people in every way. And it is wonderful in how many ways his powers showed themselves. That he was a brave warrior is in itself no particular praise in an age when almost every man was the same. But it is a great thing for a prince so large a part of whose time was spent in fighting to be able to say that all his wars were waged to set free his country from the most cruel enemies.

And we may admire too the wonderful way in which he kept his mind always straight and firm, never either giving way to bad luck or being puffed up by good luck. We read of nothing like pride or cruelty or injustice of any kind either towards his own people or towards his enemies. And if he was a brave warrior, he was many other things besides. He was a lawgiver; at least he collected and arranged the laws, and caused them to be most carefully administered. He was a scholar, and wrote and translated many books for the good of his people. He encouraged trade and enterprise of all kinds, and sent men to visit distant parts of the world, and bring home accounts of what they saw. And he was a thoroughly good man and a devout Christian in all relations of life. In short, one hardly knows any other character in all history so perfect; there is so much that is good in so many different ways; and though no doubt Alfred had his faults like other people, yet he clearly had none, at any rate in the greater part of his life, which took away at all seriously from his general goodness. One wonders that such a man was never canonized as a Saint; most certainly many people have received that name who did not deserve it nearly so well as he did.

Alfred, or, as his name should really be spelled, Ælfred, was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf, and was born at Wantage in Berkshire in 849. His mother was Osburh daughter of Oslac the King's cup-bearer, who came of the royal house of the Jutes in Wight. Up to the age of twelve years Alfred was fond of hunting and other sports but he had not been taught any sort of learning, not so much as to read his own tongue. But he loved the old English songs; and one day his mother had a beautiful book of songs with rich pictures and fine painted initial letters, such as you may often see in ancient books. And she said to her children, "I will give this beautiful book to the one of you who shall first be able to read it." And Alfred said, "Mother, will you really give me the book when I have learned to read it?" And Osburh said, "Yes, my son." So Alfred went and found a master, and soon learned to read. Then he came to his mother, and read the songs in the beautiful book and took the book for his own.

In 868, when he was in his twentieth year, while his brother Æthelred was King, Alfred married. His wife's name was Ealhswyth; she was the daughter of Æthelred called the Mickle or Big, Alderman of the Gainas in Lincolnshire, and her mother Eadburh was of the royal house of the Mercians. It is said that on the very day of his marriage he was smitten with a strange disease, which for twenty years never quite left him, and fits of which might come on at any time. If this be true, it makes all the great things that he did even more wonderful.

Meanwhile the great Danish invasion had begun in the northern parts of England. There are many stories told in the old Northern Songs as to the cause of it. Some tell how Ragnar Lodbrog, a great hero of these Northern tales, was seized by Ælla, King of the Northumbrians, and was thrown into a dungeon full of serpents, and how, while he was dying of the bites of the serpents, he sang a wonderful death-song, telling of all his old fights, and calling on his sons to come and avenge him.

The year 871 the Danes for the first time entered Wessex. Nine great battles, besides smaller skirmishes, were fought this year, in some of which the English won and in others the Danes. One famous battle was at Ashdown, in Berkshire. We are told that the heathen men were in two divisions; one was commanded by their two Kings Bagsecg and Halfdene, and the other by five Earls, Sidroc the Old, Sidroc the Young, Osbeorn, Fræna, and Harold. And King Æthelred was set against the Kings and Alfred the Ætheling against the Earls. And the heathen men came on against them. But King Æthelred heard mass in his tent. And men said, "Come forth, O King, to the fight, for the heathen men press hard upon us." And King Æthelred said, "I will serve God first and man after, so I will not come forth till all the words of the mass be ended." So King Æthelred abode praying, and the heathen men fought against Alfred the Ætheling. And Alfred said, "I cannot abide till the King my brother comes forth; I must either flee, or fight alone with the heathen men." So Alfred the Ætheling and his men fought against the five Earls. Now the heathen men stood on the higher ground and the Christians on the lower. Yet did Alfred go forth trusting in God, and he made his men hold close together with their shields, and they went forth like a wild boar against the hounds. And they fought against the heathen men and smote them, and slew the five Earls, Sidroc the Old, Sidroc the Young, Osbeorn, Fræna, and Harold. Then the mass was over, and King Æthelred came forth and fought against the two Kings, and slew Bagsecg the King with his own hand and smote the heathen men with a great slaughter and chased them even unto Reading.

In 871, on Æthelred's death, Alfred became King of the West-Saxons and Over-lord of all England, as his father had appointed so long before with the consent of his Wise Men.

The Danes did not come again into Wessex till 876. But though the West-Saxons had no fighting by land during these years, things were not quite quiet, for in 875 King Alfred had a fight at sea against some of the Danish pirates. This sea-fight is worth remembering as being, I suppose, the first victory won by the Englishmen at sea, where Englishmen have since won so many victories. King Alfred then fought against seven Danish ships, of which he took one and put the rest to flight. It is somewhat strange that we do not hear more than we do of warfare by sea in these times, especially when we remember how in earlier times the Angles and Saxons had roved about in their ships, very much as the Danes and other Northmen were doing now. It would seem that the English, after they settled in Britain, almost left off being a seafaring people. We find Alfred and other Kings doing what they could to keep up a fleet and to stir up a naval spirit among their people. And in some degree they did so; still we do not find the English, for a long while after this time, doing nearly so much by sea as they did by land. This was a pity; for ships might then, as in later times, have been wooden walls. It is much better to meet an enemy at sea, and to keep him from landing in your country, than to let him land, even if you can beat him when he has landed.

But in 876 the Danes came again into Wessex; and we thus come to the part of Alfred's life which is at once the saddest and the brightest. It is the time when his luck was lowest and when his spirit was highest. The army under Guthorm or Guthrum, the Danish King of East-Anglia, came suddenly to Wareham in Dorsetshire. The Chronicle says that they "bestole"—that is, came secretly or escaped—from the West-Saxon army, which seems to have been waiting for them. This time Alfred made peace with the Danes, and they gave him some of their chief men for hostages, and they swore to go out of the land. They swore this on the holy bracelet, which was the most solemn oath in use among the heathen Northmen, and on which they had never before sworn at any of the times when they had made peace with the English. But they did not keep their oath any better for taking it in this more solemn way. The part of the host which had horses "bestole away." King Alfred rode after the Danish horse as far as Exeter, but he did not overtake them till they had got there, and were safe in the stronghold. Then they made peace, swearing oaths, and giving as many hostages as the King asked for.

And now we come to the terrible year 878, the greatest and saddest and most glorious in all Alfred's life. In the very beginning of the year, just after Twelfth-night, the Danish host again came suddenly—"bestole" as the Chronicle says—to Chippenham. Then "they rode through the West-Saxons' land, and there sat down, and mickle of the folk over the sea they drove, and of the others the most deal they rode over; all but the King Alfred; he with a little band hardly fared [went] after the woods and on the moor-fastnesses." This time of utter distress lasted only a very little while, for in a few months Alfred was again at the head of an army and able to fight against the Danes.

It was during this trouble that Alfred stayed in the hut of a neatherd or swineherd of his, who knew who he was, though his wife did not know him. One day the woman set some cakes to bake, and bade the King, who was sitting by the fire mending his bow and arrows, to tend them. Alfred thought more of his bow and arrows than he did of the cakes, and let them burn. Then the woman ran in and cried out, "There, don't you see the cakes on fire? Then wherefore turn them not? You are glad enough to eat them when they are piping hot."

We are told that this swineherd or neatherd afterwards became Bishop of Winchester. They say that his name was Denewulf, and that the King saw that, though he was in so lowly a rank, he was naturally a very wise man. So he had him taught, and at last gave him the Bishoprick.

I do not think that I can do better than tell you the next happening to Alfred, as it is in the Chronicle, only changing those words which you might not understand.

"And that ilk [same] winter was Iwer's and Healfdene's brother among the West-Saxons in Devonshire; and him there men slew and eight hundred men with him and forty men of his host. And there was the banner taken which they the Raven hight [call]. And after this Easter wrought King Alfred with his little band a work [fortress] at Athelney, and out of that work was he striving with the [Danish] host, and the army sold [gave] him hostages and mickle oaths, and eke they promised him that their King should receive baptism. And this they fulfilled. And three weeks after came King Guthrum with thirty of the men that in the host were worthiest, at Aller, that is near Athelney. And him the King received at his baptism, and his chrisom-loosing was at Wedmore. And he was twelve nights with the King, and he honoured him and his feres [companions] with mickle fee [money]."

Thus you see how soon King Alfred's good luck came back to him again. The Raven was a famous banner of the Danes, said to have been worked by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrog. It was thought to have wonderful powers, so that they could tell by the way in which the raven held his wings whether they would win or not in battle.

You see the time of utter distress lasted only from soon after Twelfth-night to Easter, and even during that time the taking of the Raven must have cheered the English a good deal. After Easter things began to mend, when Alfred built his fort at Athelney and began to skirmish with the Danes, and seven weeks later came the great victory at Ethandun, which set Wessex free. Some say that the white horse which is cut in the side of the chalk hills near Edington was cut then, that men might remember the great battle of Ethandun. But it has been altered in modern times to make it look more like a real horse.

All this time Alfred seems to have kept his headquarters at Athelney. Thence they went to Wedmore. There the Wise Men came together, and Alfred and Guthorm (or, to give him the name by which he was baptised, Æthelstan) made a treaty. This treaty was very much better kept than any treaty with the Danes had ever been kept before. The Danes got much the larger part of England; still Alfred contrived to keep London. Some accounts say that only those of the Danes stayed in England who chose to become Christians, and that the rest went away into Gaul under a famous leader of theirs named Hasting. Anyhow, in 880 they went quite away into what was now their own land of East-Anglia, and divided it among themselves. Thus Alfred had quite freed his own Kingdom from the Danes, though he was obliged to leave so much of the island in their hands. And even through all these misfortunes, the Kingdom of Wessex did in some sort become greater. Remember that in 880, when Alfred had done so many great things, he was still only thirty-one years old.

We can see how much people always remembered and thought of Alfred, by there being many more stories told of him than of almost any other of the old Kings. One story is that Alfred, wishing to know what the Danes were about and how strong they were, set out one day from Athelney in the disguise of a minstrel or juggler, and went into the Danish camp, and stayed there several days, amusing the Danes with his playing, till he had seen all that he wanted, and then went back without any one finding him out. This is what you may call a soldier's story, while some of the others are rather what monks and clergymen would like to tell. Thus there is a tale which is told in a great many different ways, but of which the following is the oldest shape.

"Now King Alfred was driven from his Kingdom by the Danes, and he lay hid for three years in the isle of Glastonbury. And it came to pass on a day that all his folk were gone out to fish, save only Alfred himself and his wife and one servant whom he loved. And there came a pilgrim to the King, and begged for food. And the King said to his servant, 'What food have we in the house?' And his servant answered, 'My Lord, we have in the house but one loaf and a little wine.' Then the King gave thanks to God, and said, 'Give half of the loaf and half of the wine to this poor pilgrim.' So the servant did as his lord commanded him, and gave to the pilgrim half of the loaf and half of the wine, and the pilgrim gave great thanks to the King. And when the servant returned, he found the loaf whole, and the wine as much as there had been aforetime. And he greatly wondered, and he wondered also how the pilgrim had come into the isle, for that no man could come there save by water, and the pilgrim had no boat. And the King greatly wondered also. And at the ninth hour came back the folk who had gone to fish. And they had three boats full of fish, and they said, 'Lo, we have caught more fish this day than in all the three years that we have tarried in this island.' And the King was glad, and he and his folk were merry; yet he pondered much upon that which had come to pass. And when night came, the King went to his bed with Ealhswyth his wife. And the Lady slept, but the King lay awake and thought of all that had come to pass by day. And presently he saw a great light, like the brightness of the sun, and he saw an old man with black hair, clothed in priest's garments, and with a mitre on his head, and holding in his right hand a book of the Gospels adorned with gold and gems. And the old man blessed the King, and the King said unto him, 'Who art thou?' And he answered, 'Alfred, my son, rejoice; for I am he to whom thou didst this day give thine alms, and I am called Cuthberht the soldier of Christ. Now be strong and very courageous, and be of joyful heart, and hearken diligently to the things which I say unto thee; for henceforth I will be thy shield and thy friend, and I will watch over thee and over thy sons after thee. And now I will tell thee what thou must do. Rise up early in the morning, and blow thine horn thrice, that thy enemies may hear it and fear, and by the ninth hour thou shalt have around thee five hundred men harnassed for the battle. And this shall be a sign unto thee that thou mayest believe. And after seven days thou shalt have by God's gift and my help all the folk of this land gathered unto thee upon the mount that is called Assandun. And thus shalt thou fight against thine enemies, and doubt not that thou shalt overcome them. Be thou therefore glad of heart, and be strong and very courageous, and fear not, for God hath given thine enemies into thine hand. And He hath given thee also all this land and the Kingdom of thy fathers, to thee and to thy sons and to thy sons' sons after thee. Be thou faithful to me and to my folk, because that unto thee is given all the land of Albion. Be thou righteous, because thou art chosen to be the King of all Britain. So may God be merciful unto thee, and I will be thy friend, and none of thine enemies shall ever be able to overcome thee.' Then was King Alfred glad at heart, and he was strong and very courageous, for that he knew that he would overcome his enemies by the help of God and Saint Cuthberht his patron. So in the morning he arose, and sailed to the land, and blew his horn three times, and when his friends heard it they were glad, and when his enemies heard it they feared. And by the ninth hour, according to the word of the Lord, there were gathered unto him five hundred men of the bravest and dearest of his friends. And he spake unto them and told them all that God had said unto him by the mouth of his servant Cuthberht, and he told them that, by the gift of God and by the help of Saint Cuthberht, they would overcome their enemies and win back their own land. And he bade them as Saint Cuthberht had taught him, to fear God alway and to be alway righteous toward all men. And he bade his son Edward who was by him to be faithful to God and Saint Cuthberht, and so he should alway have the victory over his enemies. So they went forth to battle and smote their enemies and overcame them, and King Alfred took the Kingdom of all Britain, and he ruled well and wisely over the just and the unjust for the rest of his days."

Now is there any truth in all this story? I think there is thus much, that Alfred, for some reason or other, thought he was under the special protection of Saint Cuthberht. For several years after 880 there was peace in the land, and for a good many more years still there was much less fighting than there had been before. It was no doubt at this time that Alfred was able to do all those things for the good of his people of which we hear so much. He had now more time than either before or after for making his laws, writing his books, founding his monasteries, and doing all that he did. You may wonder how he found time to do so much; but it was by the only way by which anybody can do anything, namely, by never wasting his time, and by having fixed times of the day for everything. Alfred did not, like most other writers of that time, write in Latin, so that hardly anybody but the clergy could read or understand what he wrote. He loved our own tongue, and was especially fond of the Old-English songs, and all that he wrote he wrote in English that all his people might understand. His works were chiefly translations from Latin books; what we should have valued most of all, his note-book or handbook, containing his remarks on various matters, is lost. He translated into English the History of Bæda, the History of Orosius, some of the works of Pope Gregory the Great, and the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Perhaps you will ask why he did not rather translate some of the great and famous Greek and Latin writers of earlier times. Now we may be sure that King Alfred did not understand Greek at all; very few people in those days in the West of Europe knew any Greek, except those who needed to use the language for dealing with the men in the Eastern Empire who still spoke it. Indeed Alfred complains that, when he came to the Crown, very few people, even among the clergy, understood even Latin at all well. And as for Latin books, no doubt Alfred thought that the writings of Christians would be more edifying to his people than those of the old heathens. He chose the History of Orosius, as a general history of the world, and that of Bæda, as a particular history of England. Boethius was a Roman Consul in the beginning of the sixth century, who was put to death by the great Theodoric, King of the East-Goths, who then ruled over Italy. While he was in prison he wrote the book which King Alfred translated. He seems not to have been a Christian; at least there is not a single Christian expression in his book. But people fancied that he was not only a Christian, but a saint and a martyr, most likely because Theodoric, who put him to death, was not an orthodox Christian, but an Arian. Alfred, in translating his books, did not always care to translate them quite exactly, but he often altered and put in things of his own, if he thought he could thus make them more improving. So in translating Boethius, he altered a good deal, to make the wise heathen speak like a Christian. So in translating Orosius, where Orosius gives an account of the world, Alfred greatly enlarged the account of all the northern part of Europe, of which Alfred naturally knew much more than Orosius did.

Alfred was also very careful in the government of his Kingdom, especially in seeing that justice was properly administered. So men said of him in their songs, much as they had long before said of King Edwin in Northumberland, that he hung up golden bracelets by the roadside, and that no man dared to steal them. In his collection of laws, he chiefly put in order the laws of the older Kings, not adding many of his own, because he said that he did not know how those who came after him might like them.

King Alfred was very attentive to religious matters, and gave great alms to the poor and gifts to churches. He also founded two monasteries; one was for nuns, at Shaftesbury in Dorsetshire, of which he made his own daughter, Æthelgifu, abbess. The other was for monks at Athelney; you can easily see why he should build it there. He also sent several embassies to Rome, where he got Pope Marinus to grant certain privileges to the English School at Rome; the Pope also sent him what was thought to be a piece of the wood of the True Cross, that on which our Lord Jesus Christ died. He also sent an embassy to Jerusalem, and had letters from Abel the Patriarch there. And what seems stranger than all, he sent an embassy all the way to India, with alms for the Christians there, called the Christians of Saint Thomas and Saint Bartholomew.

Lastly, there seems some reason to think that the Chronicle began to be put together in its present shape in Alfred's time, and that it was regularly gone on with afterward, so that from the time of Alfred onward we have a history which was regularly written down as things happened.

All these things happened mainly in the middle years of the reign of Alfred, when there was so much less fighting than there was before and after, and when some years seem to have been quite peaceable. Guthorm-Æthelstan and his Danes in East-Anglia were for some years true to the treaty of Wedmore, and the other Danes seem just now to have been busy in invading Gaul and other parts of the continent rather than England. Also King Alfred had now got a fleet, so that he often met them at sea and kept them from landing. This he did in 882, and we do not find that any Danes landed again in England till 885. In that year part of the army which had been plundering along the coast of Flanders and Holland came over to England, landed in Kent, and besieged Rochester. But the citizens withstood them bravely, and Alfred gathered an army and drove the Danes to their ships. They seem then to have gone to Essex and to have plundered there with their ships, getting help from the Danes who were settled in East-Anglia, or at least from such of them as still were heathens. Alfred's fleet however quite overcame them and took away their treasure, but his fleet was again attacked and defeated by the East-Anglian Danes. It would seem that in some part of this war Guthorm-Æthelstan was helped by Hrolf, otherwise called Rollo, the great Northern chief.

The Danish wars began again in 893. For years now there was a great deal of fighting. Two large bodies of Danes, one of them under the famous chief Hasting, landed in Kent in 893 and fixed themselves in fortresses which they built. And the Danes who had settled in Northumberland and East-Anglia helped them, though they had all sworn oaths to King Alfred, and those in East-Anglia had also given hostages. There was fighting all over the south of England throughout 894, and the King had to go constantly backward and forward to keep up with the Danes. One time Alfred took a fort in Kent, in which were the wife and two sons of Hasting. Now Hasting had not long before given oaths and hostages to Alfred, and the two boys had been baptised, the King being godfather to one of them and Alderman Æthelred to the other. But Hasting did not at all keep to his oath, but went on plundering all the same. Still, when the boys and their mother were taken, Alfred would not do them any harm, but gave them up again to Hasting.

In 897 we read that Alfred made some improvements in his ships. "They were full-nigh twice as long as the others; some had sixty oars, some more; they were both swifter and steadier and eke higher than the others; they were neither on the Frisian shape nor on the Danish, but as himself thought that they useful might be." These new ships seem to have done good service, though one time they got aground, seemingly because they were so large, and the Danes were therefore able to sail out before them. These sea-fights along the south coast were nearly the last things that we hear of in Alfred's reign. The crews of two Danish ships were brought to Winchester to Alfred and there hanged. One cannot blame him for this, as these Danes were mere pirates, not engaged in any lawful war, and many of them had been spared, and had made oaths to Alfred, and had broken them, over and over again.

This was in 897; the rest of King Alfred's reign seems to have been spent in peace. In 901 the great King died himself. He was then only fifty-two years old. Alfred's wife, the Lady Ealhswyth, lived a little while after her husband, till 903 or 905. King Alfred was buried at Winchester in the New Minster which he himself began to found and which was finished by his son Edward. It then stood close to the Old Minster, that is, the cathedral church. Afterward it was moved out of the city and was called Hyde Abbey. But you cannot see King Alfred's grave there now, because everything has been destroyed, and the bones of the great King have been turned out, to make room for a prison.