Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

King Alfred and the Danes

In his royal villa at Chippenham, on the left bank of the gently flowing Avon, sat King Alfred, buried in his books. It was the evening of the 6th of January, in the year 878, a thousand years and more backward in time. The first of English kings to whom a book had a meaning,—and the last for centuries afterwards,—Alfred, the young monarch, had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a thirst then difficult to quell, for books were almost as rare as gold-mines in that day. When a mere child, his mother had brought to him and his brothers a handsomely illuminated book, saying,—

"I will give this to that one of you four princes who first learns to read."

Alfred won the book; so far as we know, he alone sought to win it, for the art of reading in those early times was confined to monks, and disdained by princes. Ignorance lay like a dismal cloud over England, ignorance as dense as the heart of the Dark Ages knew. In the whole land the young prince was almost alone in his thirst for knowledge; and when he made an effort to study Latin, in which language all worthy literature was then written, we are told that there could not be found throughout the length and breadth of the land a man competent to teach him that sealed tongue This, however, loses probability in view of the fact that the monks were familiar with Latin and that Alfred succeeded in acquiring a knowledge of that language.

When little more than a boy Alfred became king. There was left him then little time for study, for the Danes, whose ships had long been descending in annual raids on England's shores, gave the youthful monarch an abundance of more active service. For years he fought them, yet in his despite Guthrum, one of their ablest chiefs, sailed up the Severn, seized upon a wide region of the realm of Wessex, made Gloucester his capital, and defied the feebly-supported English king.

It was midwinter now, a season which the Danes usually spent in rest and revelry, and in which England gained some relief from their devastating raids. Alfred, dreaming of aught but war, was at home with his slender store of much-beloved books in his villa at Chippenham. With him were a few of his thanes and a small body of armed attendants, their enjoyment the pleasures of the chase and the rude sports of that early period. Doubtless, what they deemed the womanish or monkish tastes of their young monarch were objects of scorn and ridicule to those hardy thanes, upon whom ignorance lay like a thick garment. Yet Alfred could fight as well as read. They might disdain his pursuits; they must respect his prowess.

While the king lay thus in ease at Chippenham, his enemies at Gloucester seemed lost in enjoyment of their spoils. Guthrum had divided the surrounding lands among his victorious followers, the Saxons had been driven out, slain, or enslaved, and the brutal and barbarous victors dwelt in peace and revelry on their new lands, spending the winter in riot and wassail, and waiting for the spring time budding of the trees to renew the war with their Saxon foes.

Not so with Guthrum. He had sworn revenge on the Saxons. Years before, his father, a mighty chieftain, Ragnar by name, had fallen in a raid on England. His sons had vowed to Odin to wash out the memory of his death in English blood, and Guthrum now determined to take advantage of the midwinter season for a sudden and victorious march upon his unsuspecting enemy. If he could seize Alfred in his palace, the war might be brought to an end, and England won, at a single blow.

If we can take ourselves back in fancy to New Year's day of 878, and to an open plain in the vicinity of Gloucester, we shall see there the planted standard of Guthrum floating in the wind, while from every side armed horsemen are riding into the surrounding space. They know not why they come. A hasty summons has been sent them to meet their chieftain here on this day, armed and mounted, and, loyal to their leader, and ever ready for war, they ride hastily in, until the Danish champion finds himself surrounded by a strong force of hardy warriors, eager to learn the cause of this midwinter summons.

"It is war," said Guthrum to his chiefs. "I have sworn to have England, and England shall be mine. The Saxons are scattered and at rest, not dreaming of battle and blood. Now is our time. A hard and sudden blow will end the war, and the fair isle of England will be the Raven's spoil."

We may still hear in fancy the wild shouts of approval with which this stirring declaration was heard. Visions of slaughter, plunder, and rich domains filled the souls of chiefs and men alike, and their eagerness to take to the field was such that they could barely wait to hear their leader's plans. "Alfred, the Saxon king, must be ours," said Guthrum. "He is the one man I dread in all the Saxon hosts. They have many hands, but only one head. Let us seize the head, and the hands are useless. Alfred is at Chippenham. Thither let us ride at speed."

Their bands were mustered, their arms examined, and food for the expedition prepared, and then to horse and away! Headlong over the narrow and forest-bordered roads of that day rode the host of Danes, in triumphant expectation of victory and spoil.

In his study sat Alfred, on the night of January 6, poring over an illuminated page; or mayhap he was deep in learned consultation with some monkish scholar, mayhap presiding at a feast of his thanes: we may fancy what we will, for history or legend fails to tell us how he was engaged on that critical evening of his life. But we may imagine a wide eyed Saxon sentinel, scared and hasty, breaking upon the monarch's leisure with the wild alarm cry,—

"Up and away, my king! The Danes are coming! hosts of them, armed and horsed! Up and away!"

Hardly had he spoken before the hoof beats of the advancing foe were heard. On they came, extending their lines as they rode at headlong speed, hoping to surround the villa and seize the king before the alarm could be given.

They were too late. Alfred was quick to hear, to heed, and to act. Forest bordered the villa; into the forest he dashed, his followers following in tumultuous haste. The Danes made what haste the obstructions in their way permitted. In a few minutes they had swept round the villa, with ringing shouts of triumph. In a few minutes more they were treading its deserted halls, Guthrum at their head, furious to find that his hoped-for prey had vanished and left him but the empty shell of his late home.

"After him!" cried the furious Dane. "He cannot be far. This place is full of signs of life. He has fled into the forest. After him! A king's prize for the man who seizes him."

In vain their search, the flying king knew his own woods too well to he overtaken by the Danes. Yet their far cries filled his ears, and roused him to thoughts of desperate resistance. He looked around on his handful of valiant followers.

"Let us face them!" he cried, in hot anger. "We are few, but we fight for our homes. Let us meet these baying hounds!"

"No, no," answered the wisest of his thanes. "It would be worse than rash, it would be madness. They are twenty—a hundred, mayhap—to our one. Let us fly now, that we may fight hereafter. All is not lost while our king is free, and we to aid him."

Alfred was quick to see the wisdom of this advice. He must bide his time. To strike now might be to lose all. To wait might be to gain all. He turned with a meaning look to his faithful thanes.

"In sooth, you speak well," he said. "The wisdom of the fox is now better than the courage of the lion. We must part here. The land for the time is the Danes'. We cannot hinder them. They will search homestead and woodland for me. Before a fortnight's end they will have swarmed over all Wessex, and Guthrum will be lord of the land. I admire that man; he is more than a barbarian, he knows the art of war. He shall learn yet that Alfred is his match. We must part."

"Part?" said the thanes, looking at him in doubt. "Wherefore?"

"I must seek safety alone and in disguise. There are not enough of you to help me; there are enough to betray me to suspicion. Go your ways, good friends. Save yourselves. We will meet again before many weeks to strike a blow for our country. But the time is not yet."

History speaks not from the depths of that woodland whither Alfred had fled with his thanes. We cannot say if just these words were spoken, but such was the purport of their discourse. They separated, the thanes and their followers to seek their homes; Alfred, disguised as a peasant, to thread field and forest on foot towards a place of retreat which he had fixed upon in his mind. Not even to the faithfulest of his thanes did he tell the secret of his abode. For the present it must be known to none but himself.

Meanwhile, the cavalry of Guthrum were raiding the country far and wide. Alfred had escaped, but England lay helpless in their grasp. News travelled slowly in those days. Everywhere the Saxons first learned of the war by hearing the battle cry of the Danes. The land was overrun. England seemed lost. Its only hope of safety lay in a man who would not acknowledge defeat, a monarch who could bide his time.

The lonely journey of the king led him to the centre of Somersetshire. Here, at the confluence of the Tone and the Parret, was a small island, afterwards known as Ethelingay, or Prince's Island. Around it spread a wide morass, little likely to be crossed by his pursuers. Here, still disguised, the fugitive king sought a refuge from his foes.

For several months Alfred remained in this retreat, his place of refuge during part of the time being in the hut of a swineherd; and thereupon hangs a tale. Whether or not the worthy herdsman knew his king, certainly the weighty secret was not known to his wife. One day, while Alfred sat by the fire, his hands busy with his bow and arrows, his head mayhap busy with plans against the Danes, the good woman of the house was engaged in baking cakes on the hearth.

Having to leave the hut for a few minutes, she turned to her guest, and curtly bade him watch the cakes, to see that they did not get overdone.

"Trust me for that," he said.

She left the room. The cakes smoked on the hearth, yet he saw them not. The good wife returned in a brief space, to find her guest buried in a deep study, and her cakes burned to a cinder.

"What!" she cried, with an outburst of termagant spleen, "I warrant you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, you idle dog! and yet you cannot watch them burning under your very eyes."

What the king said in reply the tradition which has preserved this pleasant tale fails to relate. Doubtless it needed some of the swineherd's eloquence to induce his irate wife to make a fresh supply for their careless guest.

It had been Guthrum's main purpose, as we may be assured, in his rapid ride to Chippenham, to seize the king. In this he had failed; but the remainder of his project went successfully forward. Through Dorset, Berkshire, Wilts, and Hampshire rode his men, forcing the people everywhere to submit. The country was thinly settled, none knew the fate of the king, resistance would have been destruction, they bent before the storm, hoping by yielding to save their lives and some portion of their property from the barbarian foe. Those near the coast crossed with their families and movable effects to Gaul. Elsewhere submission was general, except in Somersetshire, where alone a body of faithful warriors, lurking in the woods, kept in arms against the invaders.

Alfred's secret could not yet be safely revealed. Guthrum had not given over his search for him. Yet some of the more trusty of his subjects were told where he might be found, and a small band joined him in his morass-guarded isle. Gradually the news spread, and others sought the isle of Ethelingay, until a well-armed and sturdy band of followers surrounded the royal fugitive. This party must be fed. The island yielded little subsistence. The king was obliged to make foraging raids from his hiding place. Now and then he met and defeated straggling parties of Danes, taking from them their spoils. At other times, when hard need pressed, he was forced to forage on his own subjects.

Day by day the news went wider through Saxon homes, and more warriors sought their king. As the strength of his band increased, Alfred made more frequent and successful forays. The Danes began to find that resistance was not at an end. By Easter the king felt strong enough to take a more decided action. He had a wooden bridge thrown from the island to the shore, to facilitate the movements of his followers, while at its entrance was built a fort, to protect the island party against a Danish incursion.

Such was the state of Alfred's fortunes and of England's hopes in the spring of 878. Three months before, all southern England, with the exception of Gloucester and its surrounding lands, had been his. Now his kingdom was a small island in the heart of a morass, his subjects a lurking band of faithful warriors, his subsistence what could be wrested from the strong hands of the foe.

While matters went thus in Somerset, a storm of war gathered in Wales. Another of Ragnar's sons, Ubbo by name, had landed on the Welsh coast, and, carrying everything before him, was marching inland to join his victorious brother.

He was too strong for the Saxons of that quarter to make head against him in the open field. Odun, the valiant ealderman who led them, fled, with his thanes and their followers, to the castle of Kwineth, a stronghold defended only by a loose wall of stones, in the Saxon fashion. But the fortress occupied the summit of a lofty rock, and bade defiance to assault. Ubbo saw this. He saw, also, that water must be wanting on that steep rock. He pitched his tents at its foot, and waited till thirst should compel a surrender of the garrison.

He was to find that it is not always wise to cut off the supplies of a beleaguered foe. Despair aids courage. A day came in the siege in which Odun, grown desperate, left his defences before dawn, glided silently down the hill with his men, and fell so impetuously upon the Danish host that the chief and twelve hundred of his followers were slain, and the rest driven in panic to their ships. The camp, rich with the spoil of Wales, fell into the victors' hands, while their trophies included the great Raven standard of the Danes, said to have been woven in one noontide by Ragnar's three daughters. This was a loss that presaged defeat to the Danes, for they were superstitious concerning this standard. If the raven appeared to flap its wings when going into battle, victory seemed to them assured. If it hung motionless, defeat was feared. Its loss must have been deemed fatal.

Tidings of this Saxon victory flew as if upon wings throughout England, and everywhere infused new spirit into the hearts of the people, new hope of recovering their country from the invading foe. To Alfred the news brought a heart-tide of joy. The time for action was at hand. Recruits came to him daily; fresh life was in his people; trusty messengers from Ethelingay sought the thanes throughout the land, and bade them, with their followers, to join the king at Egbert, on the eastern border of Selwood forest, in the seventh week after Easter.

Guthrum, meanwhile, was not idle. The frequent raids in mid-Somersetshire had taught him where his royal enemy might be found. Action, immediate and decisive, was necessary, or Alfred would be again in the field with a Saxon army, and the fruits of the successful midwinter raid be lost. Messengers were sent in haste to call in the scattered Danish bands, and a fortified camp was formed in a strong place in the vicinity of Ethelingay, whence a concerted movement might be made upon the lurking foe.

The time fixed for the gathering of the Saxon host was at hand. It was of high importance that the numbers and disposition of the Danes should be learned. The king, if we may trust tradition, now undertook an adventure that has ever since been classed among the choicest treasures of romance. The duty demanded was too important to trust to any doubtful hands. Alfred determined himself to venture within the camp of the Danes, observe how they were fortified and how arranged, and use this vital information when the time for battle came.

The enterprise was less desperate than might seem. Alfred's form and face were little known to his enemies. He was a skilful harper. The glee-man in those days was a privileged person, allied to no party, free to wander where he would, and to twang his harp-strings in any camp. He might look for welcome from friend and foe.

Dressed in Danish garb, and bearing the minstrel's harp, the daring king boldly sought and entered the camp of the invaders, his coming greeted with joy by the Danish warriors, who loved martial music as they loved war.

Songs of Danish prowess fell from the disguised minstrel's lips, to the delight of his audience. In the end Guthrum and his chiefs heard report of the coming of this skilled glee-man, and ordered that he should be brought to the great tent, where they sat carousing, in hopeful anticipation of coming victory.

Alfred, nothing loath, sought Guthrum's tent, where, with stirring songs of the old heroes of their land, he flattered the ears of the chiefs, who applauded him to the echo, and at times broke into wild refrains to his warlike odes. All that passed we cannot say. The story is told by tradition only, and tradition is not to be trusted for details. Doubtless, when the royal spy slipped from the camp of his foes he bore with him an accurate mind picture of the numbers, the discipline, and the arrangement of the Danish force, which would be of the highest value in the coming fray.

Meanwhile, the Saxon hosts were gathering. When the day fixed by the king arrived they were there: men from Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devonshire, and Somerset; men in smaller numbers from other counties; all glad to learn that England was on its feet again, all filled with joy to see their king in the field. Their shouts filled the leafy alleys of the forest, they hailed the king as the land's avenger, every heart beat high with assurance of victory. Before night of the day of meeting the woodland camp was overcrowded with armed men, and at dawn of the next day Alfred led them to a place named Icglea, where, on the forest's edge, a broad plain spread with a morass on its front. All day long volunteers came to the camp; by night Alfred had an army in open field, in place of the guerilla band with which, two days before, he had lurked in the green aisles of Selwood forest, like a Robin Hood of an earlier day, making the verdant depths of the greenwood dales his home.

At dawn of the next day the king marshalled his men in battle array, and occupied the summit of Ethandune, a lofty eminence in the vicinity of his camp. The Danes, fiery with barbaric valor, boldly advanced, and the two armies met in fierce affray, shouting their war-cries, discharging arrows and hurling javelins, and rushing like wolves of war to the closer and more deadly hand-to-hand combat of sword and axe, of the shock of the contending forces, the hopes and fears of victory and defeat, the deeds of desperate valor, the mighty achievements of noted chiefs, on that hard-fought field no Homer has sung, and they must remain untold. All we know is that the Danes fought with desperate valor, the English with a courage inspired by revenge, fear of slavery, thirst for liberty, and the undaunted resolution of men whose every blow was struck for home and fireside.

In the end patriotism prevailed over the baser instinct of piracy; the Danes were defeated, and driven in tumultuous hosts to their intrenched camp, falling in multitudes as they fled, for the incensed English laid aside all thought of mercy in the hot fury of pursuit.

Only when within the shelter of his works was Guthrum able to make head against his victorious foe. The camp seemed too strong to be taken by assault, nor did Alfred care to immolate his men while a safer and surer expedient remained. He had made himself fully familiar with its formation, knew well its weak and strong points and its sparseness of supplies, and without loss of time spread his forces round it, besieging it so closely that not a Dane could escape. For fourteen days the siege went on, Alfred's army, no doubt, daily increasing, that of his foe wasting away before the ceaseless flight of arrows and javelins.

Guthrum was in despair. Famine threatened him. Escape was impossible. Hardly a bird could have fled unseen through the English lines. At the end of the fortnight he yielded, and asked for terms of surrender. The war was at an end. England was saved.

In his moment of victory Alfred proved generous. He gave the Danes an abiding-place upon English soil, on condition that they should dwell there as his vassals. To this they were to bind themselves by oath and the giving of hostages. Another condition was that Guthrum and his leading chiefs should give up their pagan faith and embrace Christianity.

To these terms the Danish leader acceded. A few weeks after the fight Aubre, near Athelney, was the scene of the baptizing of Guthrum and thirty of his chiefs. To his heathen title was added the Saxon name of Athelstan, Alfred standing sponsor to the new convert to the Christian faith. Eight days afterwards Guthrum laid off the white robe and chrysmal fillet of his new faith, and in twelve days bade adieu to his victorious foe, now, to all seeming, his dearest friend. What sum of Christian faith the baptized heathen took with him to the new lands assigned him it would be rash to say, but at all events he was removed from the circle of England's foes.

The treaty of Wedmore freed southern England from the Danes. The shores of Wessex were teased now and then by after-descents, but these incursions were swept away like those of stinging hornets. In 894 a fleet of three hundred ships invaded the realm, but they met a crushing defeat. The king was given some leisure to pursue those studies to which his mind so strongly inclined, and to carry forward measures for the education of his people by the establishment of schools which, like those of Charlemagne in France, vanished before he was fairly in the grave. This noble knight died in 901, nearly a thousand years ago, after having proved himself one of the ablest warriors and most advanced minds that ever occupied the English throne.