Story of the English - Helene Guerber
Like all the Saxon youths of his time, Alfred soon learned how to handle the arms of a soldier, but he knew nothing of what even the smallest children now learn in school. One day, when he was twelve years old, he and his brothers noticed that the queen was reading a book of Saxon poetry. You must not imagine that this book was a printed work, like those we have now. It was carefully written on parchment, or sheepskin, which was then used instead of paper, and the initial letters were painted in bright colours and surrounded by fancy designs.
Written books are called manuscripts, and as soon as the young princes caught sight of this illuminated, or painted, manuscript, they crowded around their mother to see and admire it. The queen, who was much more learned than many women of her time, told them it contained delightful stories, and promised that she would make a present of it to the first who could read it to her.
You may not think that this was a very great reward, as you can get a gaily painted book for a few pennies; but books in those days were so costly that they were worth more than a large farm.
Alfred was so anxious to win the prize, and especially to know what the book could tell him, that he lost no time in seeking a teacher and in beginning to learn to read. In those days, when there were no primers or readers, often no division between the words, and very little punctuation, it was much harder to learn how to read than it is now.
But Alfred was the kind of boy that would not give up; and although no one forced him to go to school, he kept at his self-appointed task, and tried so hard that he soon learned how to read. Then he went to his mother with the manuscript, and not only read, but also recited, the greater part of the poems it contained; and she was so delighted that she gladly gave him his hard-earned prize.
Having learned a little, Alfred was now eager to know more; and, hearing that nearly all manuscripts were written in Greek or Latin, he learned both languages, although he had no grammars, or dictionaries, or easy books such as you have now.
King Ethelwulf wanted Alfred to be king in his place when he died; but the Witenagemot decided that the three elder princes should reign first. These rulers were obliged to war against the Danes, who would not stay in the Danelagh; and we are told that Alfred laid aside his books and helped them fight eight battles in one year.
In spite of all this, the Danes spread farther and farther; and when Alfred became King of England, at the age of twenty-two, he found he had very little land left. Besides that, the Danes had destroyed so much property that all the Saxons were very poor. Even the king had hardly enough to eat; but Alfred was as generous as he was poor, and when one of his subjects once came to beg at his door, he bade his wife give the man half of the last loaf of bread in the house.
The Danes grew so bold that the king was forced, at one time, to assume a disguise and take refuge in the hut of a poor herdsman. Although these poor people had no idea that the wanderer was the king, they asked him to come into their little house, and gave him a seat near the fire. All the Saxons were noted for being good to strangers, and they would have considered it very wrong not to treat them as well as they could.
KING ALFRED IN THE HERDSMAN'S COTTAGE.
One day Alfred was sitting near the fire, either mending his bow and thinking how he could drive the Danes out of the realm, or reading a book which he had hidden in the bosom of his dress. The herdsman's wife, who was baking flat cakes of bread on the hearthstone, bade her guest watch and turn them while she was busy elsewhere.
Alfred, thinking of more important matters, forgot all about the cakes, and let them burn. When the woman came back, she was angry with the king, and scolded him roundly, saying that, although he was too lazy to turn the cakes, he was ready enough to eat them.
Instead of punishing the woman for speaking so to him, Alfred said he was sorry to have let the cakes burn, and promised to do better another time. You see, although he was a king, he was not afraid to acknowledge that he had done wrong; and we are told that the next time the woman bade him watch her cakes, he did it very well.