Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Alfred the Great (846-901)

I am now going to tell you about one of the best and greatest of our English kings, and I think you will like him, for he was a very good man and did a great deal for his people.

Alfred was born in Berkshire. There is a story told of him, when he was twelve years old. Up to that age he had been very fond of hunting and other sports, but had never learnt to read. One day his mother had a beautiful book of English songs and pictures, so she called Alfred and his brothers and said, "I will give this beautiful book to the one of you who shall first be able to read it."

"Mother, will you really give me the book when I have learnt to read it?" asked Alfred.

"Yes, my son," replied his mother.

So Alfred went, found a master, and soon learnt to read. Then he came to his mother, read the songs in the beautiful book, and took it for his own.

When Alfred was a boy I dare say he heard his father and brothers talking about some cruel men, called Danes, who came from Denmark. These Danes wanted to have England for their own, and fought against the people. They came in bands, swooped down on the villages and towns, killed the poor people, and carried off the children. So you may imagine how the English hated them. They had first entered England more than fifty years before, and Alfred determined he would send them away if he was ever king.

Alfred grew up very brave, and the people were very fond of him. When his father and elder brothers died, he was made king, and all the people rejoiced.

The first thing Alfred did was to collect an army and go to fight against the Danes. He drove them away for a little time, but he felt sure they would soon come again.

So he set to work and built a great many new ships. He drilled the men for fighting, and encouraged them, for they had quite lost all hope of sending the Danes away.

Then, when the Danes came again, as they very soon did, Alfred sent out his new ships, which were long, swift, and steady, to meet them, and would not let them land. A great storm came on too, so they went away.

The next winter they came again and spread themselves in great numbers over Alfred's kingdom. They killed a great many of the king's soldiers, and Alfred was left alone and obliged to hide.

He dressed himself like a peasant, called himself Egbert, and hired himself out to a herdsman to tend cattle. In the evening he would sit over the cottage fire and talk about the Danes to the herdsman and his wife. The herdsman would often say, "I wonder what has become of the poor king," little thinking Alfred was sitting opposite him.

One night the herdsman's wife set some oaten cakes by the fire, and bade Egbert watch them. But what was her rage, when on returning to her room, she found her cakes burnt quite black, and Egbert sitting deep in thought.

"You lazy, good-for-nothing fellow!" she cried. "You have burnt my cakes! You are ready enough to eat them, when they are piping hot, but you cannot turn them!"

Alfred said he was very sorry, but nothing would quiet the woman's anger. Soon after this Alfred left.

One night the herdsman came in, and said to his wife, "You remember our man Egbert?"

"To be sure I do. Lazy fellow!" she replied.

"He was no less person than Alfred, King of England."

"King Alfred!" screamed his wife; "and I gave him that rare scolding about the cakes! He will surely punish me!" But I need not tell you the king did not punish her; he probably had a good laugh over it with his nobles.

After he left the cottage, Alfred went to a place called Athelney. Wishing to know what sort of army the Danes had, the king dressed up as a minstrel in a long cloak, and taking his harp, went into their camp.

The Danes were delighted with the way in which he played and sang, and begged him to stay; but Alfred had seen all he wanted, and returned to Athelney.

Then he called together all his true followers and nobles, placed himself at the head of an army, and soon gained a complete victory over the Danes.

Alfred the Great


Alfred then took the Danish leader, had him baptized a Christian, and made a peace called the Peace of Wedmore. They settled that Alfred should reign over one half of England and the Danes over the other half. When peace was made, Alfred had more time to devote to his people. I dare say he remembered what pleasure he had taken in reading when a boy, so he determined to make all his young subjects love it too.

He sent for some learned men to come from other countries to teach them, and built several schools, that his subjects might better learn. Alfred took the trouble to translate many books from Latin into English, and wrote many new ones. He was never idle. He divided his day into so many parts. There were no clocks in those days, so Alfred had wax candles made, and notched them across at regular distances. These candles were always kept burning, and at every notch the king would change his employment. One part of every day was spent in praying, reading, and writing; other parts in seeing that justice was done to his subjects, in making good laws, and in teaching the English how to keep away the Danes from their country.

He allowed himself very little time for his own rest, food, and amusement. Alfred was called the "Truth teller." He was very just, very strict, yet mild and forgiving.

Once when the Danish general was fighting against him, Alfred took his wife and two sons prisoners. He would not keep them, but sent them home again, having treated them very kindly.

One of the very best things King Alfred did for England, was to build a great many new ships. He saw that the best means of keeping the Danes away was to have ships better than theirs to go and meet them on the water and fight them there, instead of allowing then to land and do mischief.

Besides fighting the Danes, Alfred made other good uses of his ships. He sent some to Italy and France to get books and to bring back many things that the English did not know how to make at home.

King Alfred died when he had been king twenty-nine years. He had been ill a long time before he died, but he was very patient and bore great pain without complaining.

Just before he died he spoke to his son Edward and gave him good advice about taking care of the people when he came to be king.

The great desire of his heart was to make England better, wiser, and happier in all ways than he found it, and I think you will say he succeeded.

He was loved for his good heart, as well as for his clever head, and in later years, when the people were oppressed and badly treated, they often wished that the days of good King Alfred, "England's Darling," would come back again.