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however, shortly afterwards took place, in which Ethelred received wound that produced his death, A.D. 872, having worn the crown for five years. He was buried in Wimborne monastery, Dorset.
We have refrained from relating all the Danish engagements which occurred in this reign, partly on account of their number, and partly because it would be but repeating an oft-told tale of barbarity, of the destruction of monasteries and edifices of ancient and beautiful architecture, of treasures plundered, of the spoilation of libraries, of monks tortured, and abbots killed at the altar. Foremost in these scenes of devastation and cruelty were the Danish nobles; yet from the same race arose in subsequent ages, the warriors, the statesmen, the philosophers, and the writers, whose victories, political actions, scientific labours, and literary performances, have conferred on them a universal celebrity.
But we now enter upon a most eventful section of English history, the life of Alfred. Although the principal circumstances must already be familiar to our readers, yet the subject cannot be so completely exhausted as to leave no incidents touching such a singular career by re-perusing which we shall not derive amusement and instruction. The love that he ever manifested for his people, the intellectual power, the fortitude, the well-regulated ambition, the extensive military knowledge, and the correct idea of justice, of which he was the favoured possessor, were all devoted to the reformation of his kingdom; and when we look at its condition at the commencement and close of his reign, we perceive the magnitude of the obstacles which he surmounted, and the happy results which followed the application of his legislative wisdom.
In the history of every country there have been periods from which a new era and a different order of things date their existence. In the reigns of Egbert, Alfred, Henry VIII., Elizabeth, Cromwell, and Anne, great and important changes occurred. Egbert modified the Anglo-Saxon form of Government; Alfred, while he introduced still further improvements into this system, implanted in his subjects a desire for learning, and effectually accelerated the march of civilisation ; Henry VIII. unconsciously aided the Reformation, by which the fetters were broken that had bound England as well as Europe in superstition and ignorance for centuries; Elizabeth, by the talents of her ministry, the wisdom of her policy, raised her country to a position of eminence and power to which it had never previously attained; and lastly, the era of Queen Anne was distinguished as the Augustan age of literature, a period in which flourished Newton, Addison, Saunderson, Young, Halley, Somers, Wren, Pope, and Thomson, besides a long list of literary and scientific persons of lesser note. The fame of Shakespeare and Milton, the splendour of Elizabeth's administration, cannot eclipse the blaze of intellectual light which illumined the commencement of the 18th century, or surpass the vigorous, welldirected government of the beloved and humane Queen Anne.
But to return to our narrative. Alfred, the last son of Ethelwulf, was born at Wantage in the year 849. At the age of five he was sent to Rome to receive the Pope's unction, and in 855 accompanied his father on his pilgrimage to that city. Across the stormy ocean, over the ice-bound Alps, through the dominions of foreign potentates, the infant prince passes safely; Leo IV. blesses the future king; he returns home through France, and after his arrival bears off the prize which Osburga, his mother, promises to give to whichever of her sons should first learn to read a volume of Saxon ballad poetry, that had excited the eager curiosity of Alfred. From the day on which he achieved this mental victory, literature became a favourite pursuit ; but a long succession of cir. cumstances intervened to retard his progress in the acquisition of knowledge. At the age of twenty he married Elswitha, a branch of the Mercian royal family, and in 872 ascended the throne of Wessex. The state of the country was truly deplorable. The Danes had grown more determined by their late successes, so that eight battles occurred in about twelve months; but at last
, becoming tired of such repeated conflicts, a treaty of peace was concluded, which, however, the invaders violated, and thus caused renewed outbreaks. To oppose their attacks Alfred built large_vessels, manned them with experienced mariners, and then encountered the Danes both on sea and on land. His efforts were crowned with success; the enemy, repeatedly defeated, engaged to suspend hostilities, and gave hostages as an earnest of their willingness. But the northern tribes, ever true to their character, the following year (877) again appeared with strong reinforcements; their presence struck gloom into the hearts of the English, so that the latter offered but feeble opposition. Besides having overrun the island, they settled in Wessex; the inhabitants had lost nearly all wish to exterminate them; and Alfred, almost deserted, his hope of immediate victory dissipated, his power gone, found himself a wanderer in the land which he had been appointed to protect. The gloomy prospect, however, did not dishearten him; for, adapting himself to his circumstances, he dismissed his servants, relinquished the insignia of royalty, and sought refuge in a herdsman's cottage. The incident is no doubt familiar to our readers, of the noble-minded prince (his dignity then unknown) having been ordered by his hostess to bake some cakes which were lying on the hearth, but the fugitive Alfred, engaged in making bows and arrows, neglected his instructions, and thus incurred the anger of his entertainer, who reminded him that he willingly eat the cakes, though he did nothing towards supplying them. The importance of this tradition has probably been much magnified by the monks, still it possesses great interest as indicating the troubles and vicissitudes experienced during the early part of his reign. The herdsman's cottage however, was not long tenanted by such a distinguished person ; for attended by his family, and a few faithful followers, he selected as his retreat a marshy locality near Taunton. Here, in the year 878, he built a fortress, the situation of which rendered it almost impregnable, while it afforded him an opportunity of frequently harassing the Danes, and returning to his place of refuge with great ease. The spot long afterwards bore the name of Athelney, or the Isle of Nobles. But in the mean time the Earl of Devon had conquered a division of the enemy, slain Hubba, their general, and obtained possession of the celebrated Danish standard “The Raven,” the loss of which is represented to have been in no slight degree the cause of their defeat. The Northmen attached great virtue to this standard; but of course we must ascribe its supposed efficacy to the delusion under which they laboured; for when their imagination led them to believe that the bird clapped his wings, then victory ensued-if he drooped his head, the reverse would be their lot.
Though Alfred was not engaged in the late battle, he soon heard of the success, collected his adherents—who, thinking he had been long dead, received him with enthusiasm—and enjoined them to be in readiness to march against their assailants at a moment's notice. It was after this occurrence that he adopted the hazardous expedient of visiting the Danish camp, in order to ascertain its position, the number of troops, and the opposition which it would be likely they might array against the English. Habited in a minstrel's dress, he entered the enemy's territory, remained there several days, procured the requisite information, and then returned to his retreat at Athelney. He apprised his followers of the indolence and insecurity of the Danish camp-reanimated them with hope, and appointed Selwood Forest, in Somersetshire, as the head-quarters. From this point his army marched to Eddington, where they encountered and routed the Danes, A.D. 880. The latter fought with great courage, but never suspected that Alfred would appear at the head of so brave and numerous a body of soldiers, or that their recently-acquired dominions would so soon be wrested from them.
The King, now in a position to dictate terms to the conquered, compelled all the Danes who refused to embrace Christianity instantly to leave the country; and in order to uce those who remained to abandon a rover's life for the cultivation of the peaceful arts, he granted them East Anglia and Northumberland, and invested Guthrum (their commander since the death of Hubba), with the title of monarch, on condition of the latter being his vassal. The Danes accepted and abided by these terms. Such was the nature of the treaty thus concluded; the mildness, humanity, and wisdom of which reflect great credit upon Alfred. Would that the Northmen had shown their gratitude by promoting the welfare of their adopted country. Long years of anarchy and disquietude elapsed ere the British, Saxon, and Danish races lost their nationality in their efforts for the public and social improvement of the whole.
The interval of peace that now followed was employed in fortifying the coasts, and rendering the army more efficient. In 884, however, the Danes landed in Kent, but owing to the vigilance of Alfred and his soldiers, the invaders were repulsed before any serious depredation had been committed, and the plunder which they had just obtained from France, consisting chiefly of a large number of horses, fell into the hands of the English. Yet, notwithstanding the posture of defence that the island presented, in 893, after a rather protracted period of tranquillity, the Danes disembarked in strong force on the same coast as before-entrenched themselves near Milton, in Kent, from whence they carried their ravages over the neighbouring districts. But Alfred hastened with his troops to the protection of his people, and in spite of their attacks on several parts of the coast almost simultaneously, and the death of Guthrum, which prompted the East Anglian Danes to revolt, and deliver themselves from the English sway, he reduced them to submission, captured the family of Hastings, their chief-whom, however, he generously restored, provided he left the country; and defeated by the superior form of his vessels the piratical Northmen that infested the coasts. In one of these naval battles he destroyed twenty of their ships, tried the prisoners, and hung them for piracy ; an act of well-timed severity that conduced very materially to the re-establishment of peace. The English vessels used at this period were very long, and propelled by about forty oars (sometimes more)—with nine of these the victory was gained to which reference has just been made.
The Danes, after this signal defeat, left the kingdom unmolested; those inhabiting East Anglia and Northumberland tendered anew their allegiance to Alfred; the Welsh, for a long time a refractory people, likewise submitted to his authority; while his own subjects, attached to him because of his regard for them, and the tranquil state to which he had brought his dominions, seconded his exertions in the cause of reform.
But we must now advert more especially to his private life, literary attainments, and the nature of his administration ; and truly there are few themes on which we could dilate with greater pleasure. Endowed with intellectual talents of a high order, possessed of unceasing activity and industry, actuated by a noble and virtuous motive to stem the tide of ignorance and to waft into his country the breath of civilisation, he not only shone in the senate and on the battle-field, but added to the glory with which mankind has encircled his name, by his charitable deeds and the purity of his life.
The multiplicity of his engagements, however, rendered a systematic use of his time essentially requisite. He divided the day into three equal portionsone of which he dedicated to study and devotional exercises, another to the discharge of his regal duties, and the third to repose and necessary relaxation. In order exactly to measure these periods, and as clocks had not then been introduced into Britain, he adopted the plan of burning candles in a lantern, each one of which was twelve inches long, and lasted four hours. The revenue derivable from his hereditary property he distributed in the same methodical manner; one-half was allotted to the support of monasteries, professors, and scholars at Oxford, and to relieving the wants of destitute monks; the other half was expended upon his household, encouraging the pursuits of clever artizans and in gifts to the numerous strangers who frequented his court. The poor and necessitous found him their best and most constant friend; the rich and the powerful retained his regard only while they avoided oppression and injustice.
The imperial diadem has seldom adorned the brow of a monarch so distinguished as Alfred for unostentatious benevolence and virtuous conduct.
But a still more remarkable feature in his life was the extent of his literary acquirements. Though rare as are the instances in which we find intellectual eminence combined with the exalted rank of a sovereign, yet in Alfred's case mental accomplishments formed a very considerable part of his greatness; and, considering the scanty education that he received, the time occupied in military duties and in adjusting the affairs of the empire, we feel astonished at the rapid progress he made in learning and the practical purpose to which he devoted it. His
could have been no ordinary mind, to have commenced acquiring a knowledge of Latin at the age of thirty-nine! The principal works he translated, some of which, however, are now little known, were Bede's “ Ecclesiastical History,” “Boethius on the Consolation of Philosophy,” “ Æsop's Fables," and Gregory's “ Pastoral ;” besides which, he commenced an English version of the Bible, but was unable to complete the undertaking. Poetry, to which he was very partial, he continued to write to the close of his days. In his preface to Gregory's “ Pastoral” (a book that he much prized, and a copy of which he constantly carried about with him), he states : " when I took the kingdom, very few on this side of the Humber, very few beyond, not one that I recollect south of the Thames, could understand their prayers in English, or could translate a letter from Latin into English." With a view to enlighten this general ignorance, and to excite a desire in the people for mental culture, he founded colleges at Oxford, invited men noted for their intellectual attainments from distant parts of his dominions as well as from abroad, to preside over them, as also to instruct in the schools of which he, too, was the originator.
Among the most famous literary characters thus attracted to his court, were Asser, afterwards Bishop of Sherborne, his faithful friend and valuable biographer, and Johannes Scotus. The former lived with him on terms of the closest intimacy, and, it is said, suggested the building of the Oxford University; while the latter (sometimes called John the Scot) received from Alfred generous treatment, and found in England a peaceful asylum. He long enjoyed the king's friendship. His extensive knowledge, the power of his eloquence, and the cause of his death are cursorily referred to in the following epitaph, inscribed on his tomb. As a specimen of the poetic skill of the ninth century, it possesses more merit than might have been anticipated, from the darkness in which the literature of Parnassus was then shrouded.
“Here lies a saint the sophist John, whose days
On earth, were graced with deepest learning's praise;
Christ's kingdom, where the saints for ever reign."*
progress of architecture, commerce, and navigation received an effective impulse. Some historians state that he fitted out an expedition to convey presents to the Christians of St. Thomas, in the East Indies, and that the vessels returned freighted with the products of that clime. We presume, however, that it proceeded principally by land; inasmuch as the mariner's compass was not invented till the year 1302, previously to which, sailing was inevitably restricted to the coast. In addition to this enterprise, Alfred maintained frequent communication with the Pope, who presented him, as a mark of esteem and honour, with several religious relics, and conferred considerable privileges upon the Saxon school at Rome.
With regard to the nature of his administration, we regret that the length to which we have already extended our article will preclude us from entering into detail upon this admirable trait in his character. He found the kingdom almost destitute of institutions calculated to maintain public orderhe left it in a state of the most perfect security and tranquility. Of course this
* William of Malmesbury's “English Chronicles.”
result was not produced without a mighty organisation of the internal affairs of the empire. He divided England into counties, hundreds, and tythings ; in the last of which the system of Frank-pledge was observed-that is, the reciprocal liability of each householder for the good conduct of his neighbours
. He established four courts of law : one for the settlement of minor differences arising in the tithings, in which the decennary, or ten householders, dispensed justice; another, comprising ten decennaries, convened every month for the trial of more weighty matters; the third, consisting of the same persons as the former, who, however, appeared under arms, was held annually, chiefly for the purpose of inquiring into military and judicial affairs; the fourth, or county court, that assembled at Michaelmas and Easter, was composed of the freeholders of the shire, and presided over by the bishop, assisted by sheriffs and other officers. This court adjusted such disputes as might arise between the inhabitants of different hundreds, and took cognisance of appeals from the two first courts. But in order to render the administration of the law as equitable as possible, Alfred rigidly scrutinised the magistrates' qualifications, reprimanded and removed those who neglected their duties; and finally any person who deemed the verdict awarded in these tribunals unjust, had the privilege of appealing to the highest court—to the king himself. The people were not tardy in appreciating this inestimable boon.
The form of trial by jury (with the merits of which every one must be conversant) is another institution ascribed to Alfred's comprehensive mind. But with respect to the laws existing previously to his reign, he does not appear to have effected any very serious alteration, either in their nature or number; being apprehensive that his enactments might not be consonant with the wishes of his successors. Such, however, was the excellent manner in which the law was administered, that articles of great value, though exposed on the public roads, remained perfectly secure; and, notwithstanding the rigorous observance of the penal statutes, no undue limits were placed upon the people's liberty-in this particular, as well as in all others, he acted on an enlightened policy far in advance of his era.
He paid considerable attention, also, to the increase and improvement of England's naval resources—to the introduction of experienced, clever workmen -to the fortification of his kingdom, and to the repairing of such towns as had been desolated by the Danes. In every county he retained a body of troops, which in case of any sudden outbreak were ready to protect his dominions ; and for the purpose of furnishing him with information, a statistical survey was taken of the whole island. This register was preserved at Winchester.
Besides these important measures, he established for the consideration of matters affecting the public, three councils ; in the first of which he and his favourite ministers weighed the subjects to be submitted to the second council, formed of bishops, earls, viscounts, judges, barons, and those only whom the king requested to attend. The third, convened annually in London, was denominated the National Assembly (or in Saxon, the Witena-gemot), and comprised the nobility as well as representatives from the middle ranks. Succeeding ages have materially modified the features of these Germanic institutions, but there can be no question that it formed the basis upon which the cabinet and privy council and parliament of the present day have been founded.
Alfred's death occurred on the 28th of October, 901, after a glorious reign of twenty-nine years and six months. He left two sons and three daughters; to the former of whom he bequeathed various lands and five hundred pounds each ; to his Queen Elswithà, and each of his daughters, certain villages and one hundred pounds; the rest of his property being devised to the clergy, and other individuals. He was buried in somewhat of a patriarchal mode in Winchester Cathedral, where Edward, his son and successor, purchased from the ecclesiastical authorities a piece of ground at the rate of half-a-crown a foot! His other son, Ethelwerd, followed a recluse life, and is said to have been a man of considerable learning.