Sometimes small incidents, rather than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are more exact in doing the face, I must give particular attention to the marks of the souls of men. — Plutarch

Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

King Alfred

We have heard in the last two chapters of several kingdoms, Kent, for instance, Deira, East Anglia, Mercia, Wessex. There were others which I need not name, two or even three more, so that this time, roughly the two hundred and fifty years between 577 and 827, has been called the "Time of the Seven Kingdoms," or the "Time of the Eight Kingdoms." But there never were eight or even seven kingdoms at once. One rose and another fell. But in 823 Egbert, King of Wessex, made himself over-lord over all the kingdoms of England; we may say, in fact, that he was King of England. He died in 836, but before the end of his reign the Danes, people from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, began to come into England, and to fight against the English, just as the English had come and fought against the Britons. King Alfred, whose story I have now to tell you, was a great defender of England against the Danes.

Alfred was the youngest of the four sons of King Ethelwulf, the son of Egbert. Of all the sons he was the most fair to look at, and the most gracious in speech and act, and the most obedient to his elders. He was strong of body, though troubled to the end of his life with frequent sickness, and skilful in the use of arms, and in hunting. It happened by some chance that he was never taught to read. Teachers were few in those days, and the times were full of trouble; yet he would listen to the minstrels and others when they sang or repeated poems, and this with so much attention that though he had read nothing he could remember much. At last he learnt to read, and in this way. When he was about thirteen years old his mother showed to him and his brothers a book of poetry which she had in her hand and said, "I will give this book to him who shall most quickly learn it." These words greatly moved him, especially as he was much delighted by the beauty of the first letter, which was finely painted in colours and gold. "Will you really give this book," he said to his mother, "to him who will soonest understand it and repeat it to you?" She was glad to hear him speak in this way, for before she thought that he did not care to learn. "Yes," she said, "I will give it." So the young Alfred took the book, and did actually learn to read it, and to repeat it. The man who tells this story was a Welshman, Asser by name, who had been brought up in the school which was kept by the monks of St. David's. He was a friend of Alfred's, and wrote, for the most part, of his own knowledge. Among other things, he tells us how Alfred used to lament that when he was young and had both time and ability to learn, he could find no teachers, and that afterwards he was so much troubled by frequent sickness, and by the cares of his kingdom, and by continual attacks from the heathen, that is to say the Danes, that he could find no leisure. Nevertheless it is true that he both read and wrote more than any of the kings that were before him or that came after him.

Danish Warriors

The Danes gave the English folk but little peace in those days. When Alfred was twenty years old—it was the very year in which he married his wife Alcswith, a noble lady of East Anglia—they came to Nottingham, which was one of the chief towns of Mercia, and took it, whereupon the King of Mercia sent to King Ethelred praying for help. This the King willingly gave, marching thither with a great army of West Saxons, and Alfred, who was his brother, went with him. The Danes would not come forth from the town to fight, nor were the English able to break down the wall. So peace was made, and the two brothers returned to their own country.

Two years afterwards there was a great slaughter of the English in the East country. Edmund, who was King of those parts under Ethelred, fought against the Danes, and was defeated, and many of his people were slain. When the day was lost, the King, having escaped from the field, hid himself under a bridge. But one passing by espied him, for his spurs, which were of gold, shone in the moonlight; so he was taken to the camp of the Danes. And the chiefs of the heathen would have given him his life and kingdom if he would deny his Lord Christ. The King, refusing, was first scourged, and then set up as a mark for the archers to shoot at, and so died. The place where he suffered for his faith is called St. Edmundsbury to this day, and his name is remembered on the 10th day of November in every year. These things happened when Alfred was twenty-two years of age.

King Edmund

In the year following the heathen came into the West country and took the town of Reading, from which one part of their army went forth to plunder the land, while another built for defence a great rampart between the Thames and the Kennet, for the Kennet flows through Reading town. Three times within the space of ten days did the Englishmen and the Danes fight together. The first battle was at Englefield; there a certain Ethelwulf, who was Alderman of Berkshire, led the Englishmen and won a great victory, slaying one of the Danish earls and the greater part of their army. Four days afterwards the second battle was fought hard by Reading town; the King was there, and Alfred, and the Alderman. First the English had the better, slaying such of the heathen as they found outside the walls; but when those that were within sallied forth, then the English fled, and many were slain, and among them the Alderman. And again, after four days, there was yet a third battle. The Danes had made for themselves a camp on the top of a hill that was named Ashdown, or the Hill of the Ash. By this time many of their countrymen from other parts had joined them, so that now they had a very great army, with two kings and many earls to lead them. The kings were with one part of the army, and the earls with the other. On the other hand, the English also divided their army into two parts; one of these was led by King Ethelred and the other by Alfred. The English were on the lower ground, and marched up the hill to attack the Danes, Alfred leading the way, for the King tarried long in his tent till the priest had finished saying mass. Then the Danes came out of their camp to meet them, and there was a fierce battle, more especially round a certain stunted thorn, which Asser, who tells the story, says he had seen with his own eyes. At last the Englishmen won the day; one of the kings was slain, and five earls, and all the hill was covered with dead bodies. As for them that were left, they fled to their stronghold at Reading, the English pursuing them and slaying them on the way till it was dark. Nevertheless the Danes gathered together another army within fourteen days after this battle of Ashdown, and fought with Ethelred and Alfred near to Basing, and won a victory over them. After Easter in this year Ethelred died, and Alfred became king in his stead, being then twenty-three years of age. Nor had he been king for more than a month when he had to fight with his enemies again. This time also he was beaten. Nor was this the end. Ten battles in all did he fight—so say the chroniclers—in this first year of his reign.

After this the land had rest for a while. For Alfred, seeing that he could not stand against the Danes, and that his people were worn out by war and other troubles, made peace with his enemies. They made an agreement with him that they would not come again into his kingdom. Doubtless he persuaded them so far by giving them money. However this may be, there was peace in the land for four years. Then the troubles began again, and increased year by year till, when Alfred was twenty-nine years old, they came to their height. The Danes sailed up the Severn with a fleet carrying a great army of men, till they came to the town of Gloucester. There they landed, and marching across Gloucestershire and Wiltshire came to Chippenham. So strong were they, that the King could not even gather an army to meet them. Some of the English fled over the sea to France; most of them submitted themselves to the invaders. Only Alfred himself was left with a few of his nobles. With these he fled far into the West country, to a place between the two rivers Parret and Tone. It was an island in those days, and men called it the "Isle of the Nobles," because Alfred's companions, though they were of noble birth, worked with spade and pickaxe to fortify the place. There he abode with his few faithful followers for a year.

The island itself did not furnish food sufficient for the King and his company, so that they were constrained to seek it from the country round about. On one of his journeys, Alfred took shelter in the house of a certain cowherd. The cowherd's wife was baking cakes on the fire, while the King sat by the hearth mending his bows and arrows. While she was busy about other matters, the cakes began to burn, the King taking no heed of them. Then the woman turned and rebuked him—

"Ca'sn thee mind the ke-aks, mon, an' doossen zee 'em burn?

I'm boun thee 's eat 'em vast enough, az zoon az tiz tha turn."

At the year's end, Alfred felt that the time was come to make a struggle for freedom. The men of three shires, Wiltshire, Somersetshire, and Hampshire, met together at a place called Egbert's Stone

Two days afterwards a great battle was fought, and the Danes were beaten. Many were slain on the field; the rest fled into a fort which they had made. Then Alfred besieged them, keeping them so close that at the end of fourteen days they asked for peace. The conditions of peace were these—"Guthrum, the leader of the Danes, was to become a Christian, and his chief nobles with him. The Danes were to depart from Alfred's dominion, but they were to have a large region in East Anglia for their own. For the time to come, the two nations were to live together as friends, and to be governed by equal laws." These conditions were fulfilled. King Guthrum and thirty men, who were the chief nobles of the army, were baptized. For the King, Alfred himself stood godfather, giving him the name of Athelstan. This done, the Danes marched away, and for fifteen years the land had peace.

What King Alfred did for his people during this quiet time it would take long to tell; nor indeed do we know all for certain. He made good that which the Danes had destroyed. He caused the roads to be restored, and the bridges that had been broken down to be built again. Towns and cities that had been wasted by war he repaired, and caused the fields to be cultivated again. The laws that the kings before him had made, he considered with care, keeping such as seemed to him to be wise, and rejecting such as were not good. He built or restored many churches, and put clergy into them that they might teach the people. And because there were no learned men in his own kingdom, he brought such from other countries. Not a few books did he write with his own hand, for all the cares of his kingdom could not hinder him from study. Nor did he forget to provide, so far as it was possible, for the better defence of the kingdom. He took care that when the people were called together to fight against an enemy, they should do so quickly and in good order; and he built better and swifter ships of war than had ever been known in England before.

For the last eight years of his reign, the King had to fight many battles both by land and sea with his old enemies. But he had done so much in making both his soldiers and his ships better, that not once did he fail to overcome his enemies. And the kings that came after him, Edward the Elder, who was his son, and Athelstan his grandson, continued with even more success to drive back the Danish invaders. Alfred died "six nights before All-Hallow Mass," that was on October 26, in the year 901 (All-Hallow Mass is All Saints' Day), worn out with toil and sickness. All his life he had suffered grievously in his body. He was but fifty-two years of age.