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Alfred The Great

      No name in English history is so popular, and so justly popular, as that of Alfred the Great. That he taught his people to defend themselves and defeat their enemies, is the least of his many claims to our grateful admiration; he did much more than this; he gave the first impulse to the spirit of civilization, and taught a horde of wild barbarians that there were other and worthier pursuits than war or the pleasures of the table. In fact, he was one of those highly gifted men that would seem to be raised up especially by Providence to meet certain emergencies, or to advance the career of nations. Such was the hero, so beautifully recorded by the pen of Edmund Burke, and of whose history we now purpose to give a slight sketch for the amusement of those who might turn in weariness from a more ample record.

      Alfred the Great was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in the year 849, one of the most dreary and calamitous periods of English chronicle. He was the youngest son of Ethelwulph, a mild and virtuous prince, but full of a timid piety which utterly disqualified him for the circumstances in which he was placed. According to the historian Asser, young Alfred, being of a more comely person and sweeter disposition than his elder brothers, became the favorite of both his parents, and was sent by them to Rome, while yet a child, in order that he might be anointed king by the Pope himself. But though the feeble piety of Ethelwulph showed this especial instance of regard for his son, he altogether neglected his education, and the young prince in his twelfth year had not yet learned to read or write. Fortunately for himself, and still more so for the kingdom he was afterward to govern, he possessed a mind too active to be entirely subdued by the most unfavorable circumstances. If he could not read for himself, he nevertheless loved to listen to the rude but inspiring strains of Saxon poetry when recited by others, and had he not been a hero and a statesman, he might probably have been a poet. At length, as the old chronicler tells us--"on a certain day, his mother was shewing him and his brothers a Saxon book of poetry, which she held in her hand, and said, 'Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume, shall have it for his own.'" Thus stimulated, Alfred bent himself to the task with all that steady ardor which so strongly characterized him in after-life, and easily won the prize from his tardy competitors. This gave a fresh impulse to his natural appetite for learning; even his passion for the chase could not divert him from earnest study; nor was he to be deterred by what might have been a better excuse for indolence, the incessant tortures of the secret malady which had attacked him while yet a child, and which never left him but with life. What this secret disease was, the old chroniclers have forgotten, or for some reasons omitted, to explain.

      In 871, Alfred succeeded his brother in the sovereignty of Wessex, at a period when the whole country was suffering under the ravages of the Danes, who burnt, plundered, and destroyed without the least distinction of age, sex, or profession. Being still pagans, the convent was no more sacred to them than the palace or the cottage. They waged war upon all alike, and the general misery was yet farther increased by a raging pestilence, and the internal dissensions of the people.

King Alfred visiting a monastery school.

      Alfred now for the first time took the field against these brave, but ruthless, invaders. He was defeated; yet such was his skill and courage, that he was able to maintain the struggle till at length a peace, or rather a truce, was concluded between the combatants, for these intervals of calm seldom lasted beyond a year. Neither was this the worst of the evils that beset the Saxon prince. Any compact he might make with one party of the Danes was considered binding only upon that party, and had no influence whatever upon others of their countrymen, who had different leaders and different interests. Thus, upon the present occasion, Alfred had no sooner made terms with one piratical horde than he was invaded by a fresh body of them under Rollo; and when he had compelled these to abandon Wessex, and seek for an easier conquest on the shores of Normandy, he was attacked by fresh bodies of Danes already settled in the other parts of England. So long, however, as they ventured to meet him in the open field, his skill secured him the victory; till, taught by repeated defeats, they had recourse to another system of tactics. "They used," says Burke, "suddenly to land and ravage a part of the country; when a force opposed them they retired to their ships and passed to some other part, which in a like manner they ravaged, and then retired as before, until the country, entirely harassed, pillaged, and wasted by their incursions, was no longer able to resist them. Then they ventured safely to enter a desolated and disheartened country and to establish themselves in it."

      To meet this system of warfare it was necessary to create a navy at a time when the Saxons knew not how to build ships, or to manage them when built. But the genius of Alfred triumphed over every obstacle. He brought shipwrights from the Continent, himself assisted the workmen in their labors, and engaged Frisian seamen, the neighbors of the Danes, and, like them, pirates.

      The new armament being completed, Alfred fell upon a Danish fleet which was bringing round a large force from Wareham to the relief of their friends, besieged in Exeter. These he defeated at all points, taking or destroying no less than one hundred and twenty, already damaged by a previous storm, and perhaps, on that account, less capable of defence. The Danes, whom he held cooped up in Exeter, found themselves in consequence compelled to surrender, and, giving hostages not to trouble Wessex any longer, they settled themselves in Mercia, after the example of so many of their countrymen, and became occupants of the land they had before ravaged. Thus Alfred, in the seventh year of his reign, had lost nothing by the war waged under so many difficulties and disadvantages, enough to have overwhelmed a man of less energy and genius; he still retained that portion of the kingdom which lies south of the Thames, the only part ever belonging to him in separate sovereignty, while the Danes possessed all the country on the northern side of the river. The rest of the land was thus divided: Halfdane reigned in Northumberland; his brother in East Anglia; and Guthrum, Osketel, and Amund, governed with their subordinate king, Ceowulph, in Mercia.

      There now occurs a difficulty in the life of Alfred, unexplained by the most industrious of his historians from any satisfactory record. We have just seen him triumphant, and at peace with his defeated enemies. Suddenly, without the notice of any lost battle, we find him seeking refuge in the cottage of a herdsman in the Isle of Ethelingeye, or Island of Nobles, now called Athelney. This spot, scarcely comprising two acres of ground, was surrounded on all sides by marshes, so that it could be approached only in a boat, and in it flourished a considerable grove of alders, in which were stags, goats, and other animals. Here it is that the romantic incident of the burnt cake is supposed to have occurred; a story told by many of the old writers, but nowhere so fully as in the Latin life of St. Neot. There we read that "Alfred, a fugitive, and exiled from his people, came by chance and entered the house of a poor herdsman, and there remained some days in poverty, concealed and unknown.

      "Now it happened that on the Sabbath day, the herdsman, as usual, led his cattle to their accustomed pastures, and the king remained alone with the man's wife. She, as necessity required, placed a few loaves, which some call loudas, on a pan, with fire underneath, to be baked for her husband's repast on his return, as well as for her own.

      "While she was of need busied, peasant-like, upon other affairs, she went anxious to the fire, and found the bread burning on the other side. She immediately assailed the king with reproaches. 'Why, man, do you sit thinking there, and are too proud to turn the bread? Whatever be your family, with such manners and sloth, what trust can be put in you hereafter? If you were a nobleman, you will be glad to eat the bread which you neglect to attend to.' The king, though stung by her upbraidings, yet heard her with patience and mildness, and roused by her scolding, took care to bake her bread as she wished."

      This fable has been variously narrated; some accounts making the disguised prince busy in forming for himself a bow with arrows and other instruments of war, while the woman gives vent to her indignation in rhyme:

      "To turn the burning cakes you have forgot,
      Prompt as you are to eat them when they're hot."

      In a short time the king's retreat became known to his adherents, who flocking to him in numbers, he soon found himself enabled to carry on a sort of guerilla warfare upon the nearest Danes. Growing bolder from the general success of these sallies, he at length determined upon more decisive measures; but before making the attempt, it was expedient to learn the actual condition of his enemy. With this view he assumed the costume of a Saxon minstrel, and ventured into the Danish camp at Chippenham, about thirty miles distant from his stronghold among the marshes. In this disguise he went from tent to tent, and, as some of the chroniclers tell us, was admitted into the tent of Guthrum himself, the Danish leader, his quality of gleeman assuring safety even to a Saxon. Having obtained the necessary information, he returned to Athelney, which he finally left on the seventh week after Easter, and rode to Egbert's Stone, in the eastern part of Selwood, or the Great Wood. Here he was met by all the neighboring folk of Somersetshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, who had not, for fear of the pagans, fled beyond the sea. Once more he encountered his enemies, and with a success almost as marvellous as the vision of St. Neot, which announced it, he routed the Danes at Ethendune with so much slaughter that they were glad to obtain peace on such terms as he chose to dictate. Guthrum embraced Christianity, and became the adopted son of Alfred.

      The king's next care was to endeavor at amalgamating the Danes, who had settled in the country, with the victorious Saxons; a wise policy, and as wisely carried out. The result of it was, that when new hordes of invaders poured down upon England, they met with no encouragement from their countrymen already established in the island, and for want of this support were easily put to flight. Nor was it by land only that Alfred proved his superiority, being no less successful by sea against the Danes of East Anglia. These he defeated off their adopted coast, and captured thirteen of their ships, with all the treasure in them.

      Fearful as were the ravages committed by the Danes, they were yet, like many others of the evils of life, productive in the end of good. Before their invasion of the country, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumberland existed as four independent kingdoms. The last three they subdued in a little time to their own power, but being in turn defeated by Alfred, the conquered states fell to him, and this led the way to their final consolidation into a single kingdom. It was, however, a work of time, for the turbulent spirit of the Northmen required long and judicious treatment to make them lay down the sword, and take up the spade and sickle.

      Peace being at length restored, Alfred, who was a full century in advance of his people, commenced in earnest the arduous task of civilization. He called about him from all parts the most learned men of the day, and, setting the example in his own person, did more in a few years for the general advancement than had been previously effected in as many ages. Deficient himself in cultivation, but a giant in intellect, he devoted himself to study amid care, toil, and disease, mastered the Latin tongue, and--if we may believe William of Malmsbury--translated almost all that was known of Roman literature into Saxon. His clear and capacious mind was pious without bigotry, and while he reverenced the Pope as universal vicar, according to the doctrines of his age, he had yet none of the religious weakness of his father, but governed his kingdom in absolute independence of the Roman see. At the same time, no prince was more earnest in advancing the general interests of religion, which he considered, truly enough, essential to the well-being of the country. He rebuilt the ruined monasteries, added largely to the endowments of those that had escaped the barbarous invaders, and gave every encouragement to the ecclesiastics who came recommended to his favor by ability or virtue.

      While thus employed in the arts of peace, Alfred did not for an instant neglect the military defences of his kingdom, without which, indeed, he would have been like an improvident husbandman, who should carefully cultivate his land, but leave it unhedged and unprotected. One of his most efficient measures for this purpose, was the building of a new kind of galleys, which "were twice as long, twice as high, sailed more quickly, and were less unsteady than those of the Danes; some of these ships had sixty oars, some more." In addition to these naval improvements, his genius, which seemed to adapt itself alike to all arts, suggested a complete revolution in the existing state of military tactics, both in the field and in fortifications. He was, however, feebly seconded by his people; they had not yet arrived at that degree of practical wisdom which teaches men to endure a present pain for the sake of a future benefit, and could with difficulty be brought to make preparations against dangers which were still remote from them.

      Had Alfred done no more than what has been already mentioned, he would have deserved the lasting gratitude of his countrymen. But, in addition to all this, his services as a legislator must be taken into the account. If we judge of the system established by him, with reference to the age in which, and for which, it was produced, we shall find that in this respect also, the great Alfred stands without a rival. He had no help from the accumulated wisdom of ages; his enactments were to a great extent the result of his own mind and genius; or, at least, we may say of him, that he was the most original of legislators.

      Peace had lasted for what in those days must be held a very considerable period. But now the storm burst forth again as violently as ever. In the year 893 a famine visited the coast of France, and of so sweeping a kind, that the Danes, who had settled there under Hastings, determined to relieve themselves by a piratical attack upon Kent. Having landed without opposition, for Hastings had taken the English by surprise, he formed two encampments, the one at Appledore, the other at Milton, only twenty miles apart; there they were joined by many of their countrymen, who poured in from the north and east, notwithstanding their oaths, and that they had given hostages for their good conduct to the king of Wessex. Incredible as it may now seem, the invaders were allowed for a whole year to retain possession of the land thus acquired, without any attempt being made to dislodge them. The chroniclers of the time, however, tell us that this delay was occasioned by the necessity of providing against the faithlessness of their brethren, who, although they had not yet revolted, were hardly to be trusted without some farther security for their loyal adherence to the pledges already given. Having taken the necessary measures, Alfred then attacked Hastings, compelled him to sue for peace, and next turned his arms against a body of these pirates who had established themselves at Farnham. With them, too, he was no less successful; but while he was thus occupied, the East-Anglian and Northumbrian Danes seized the opportunity of revolt, and sailed in two fleets for the coast of Devonshire. These also he defeated, though even then it required no less than three years to drive these new invaders from the country.

      And now, in the year 901, having fulfilled his earthly mission as the defender and civilizer of his people, the great and good King Alfred expired, on October 26th, six days before the Mass of All Saints--not less beloved by his contemporaries than admired by after-ages.

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