More about Alfred the Great
S OON, Alfred was joined in his hiding-place in Somerset by his wife and children and a few of his nobles. They chose a hill which rose above the surrounding marshes for their camp, and there Alfred and his nobles worked like common men, building a strong fort. Because of this, the place was called Athelney, which means the Isle of Nobles.
While Alfred worked on the Isle of Nobles, he sent messengers secretly among his people, telling them where he was. Soon a small but faithful band gathered round him. Then, one day, some of Alfred's friends suddenly attacked the Danes, won a victory, and seized the great Danish banner called the Raven.
The Danes were very sad at the loss of this banner, for they believed it to be a magic one. They said that when they were going to win a battle the Raven would spread its wings as if to fly, but when they were going to lose, the Raven drooped its wings in sorrow. Now that their precious banner had been taken, they were always afraid of losing.
This victory cheered the English very much, and when the people heard of it, more and more of them gathered round their king.
Alfred now began to feel that the time for striking a blow had come. But first he wanted to find out exactly how many Danes there were and what plans they had. So he dressed himself like a minstrel or singer, and taking his harp, he went to the Danish camp. There he began to play upon his harp and to sing the songs he had learned when he was a boy.
The Danes were a fierce, wild people, yet they loved music and poetry. They were delighted with Alfred's songs, and he was allowed to wander through the camp wherever he liked.
Alfred stayed in the Danish camp for several days, singing his songs and playing sweet music, and all the time watching and listening. He found out how many Danes there were, and where the camp was strong and where it was weak. He listened to the king as he talked to his captains and, when he had found out everything he could, he slipped quietly away and went back to the Isle of Nobles.
The Danes were sorry when they found that the gentle minstrel had gone. And little did they think that it was the great and brave King Alfred who had been singing and playing to them.
Alfred now knew that his army was strong enough to fight the Danes. So he left his fort on the Isle of Nobles and boldly marched against them. A battle was fought in which the Danes were defeated, and from that time onwards Alfred was victorious. The dark days were over. The power of the Danes was crushed. Their king, Guthorm, submitted to Alfred, and even became a Christian. When he was baptized, Alfred stood as godfather to him, and changed his name from Guthorm to the English name of Æthelstan.
Then Alfred made a peace with the Danes, called the peace of Wedmore. And although the Danes did not leave England, they did not fight any more, and they left Wessex and kept within the land which was given to them in the north. Afterwards, this part was called the Danelagh or Daneland.
And now it was, in the time of peace, that Alfred began to do great things for his people, the things by which he earned his name of Alfred the Great. He collected the laws and wrote them out so that people could understand them. He did away with the laws which he thought were bad, and made others. One law he made was, that a man who had done wrong could not be punished unless twelve men agreed that he really had been wicked, and ought to be punished. This was called trial by jury, and means trial by those who have promised to do justly. Our word jury comes from a Latin word which means to promise or swear.
It was a very good law, for sometimes if a man hated another man he would say he had done something wicked in order to have him punished. But when twelve men had to agree about it, it was not easy to have an innocent person unjustly punished.
Alfred was much loved. He made good laws, and the people kept them. They kept them so well, that it is said that golden chains and bracelets might be hung upon the hedges and no one would touch them.
King Alfred was fond of reading and learning, and he tried to make his people fond of learning too. In those days the monasteries were the chief places to which people went to learn. But the Danes had destroyed nearly all the monasteries, so Alfred began to build them again, and he also founded schools. Then, as nearly all the books which were worth reading were written in Latin, he translated into English several of the best he had read. He did this because he saw how much more difficult it was for people to learn to read when they had to do so in a foreign language.
Alfred built more great ships, and sent people into far countries to bring back news of them to England. He encouraged the English to make all kinds of things, in order to trade with these far-off countries. In fact, during all his life Alfred was thinking only of his people and of what was best for them.
You will wonder how he found time to do all these things, and indeed it is wonderful, especially in those days when there were no clocks to strike the hours and remind people how time was flying.
Yet Alfred divided the day into three parts: eight hours for work, eight hours for study, and eight hours for rest. He invented a kind of clock for himself. He had great candles made which were marked off into parts, each part burning for an hour. A man watched the candle and, when the flame burned down to the mark, he went to the King, and said, "O king, another hour has fled."
Alfred was good, and wise and kind. There never was a better king in England. He had to fight many battles, and war is terrible and cruel, but he did not fight for love of conquering, as other kings did. He fought only to save his country and his people. We never hear of him doing one unjust or unkind act. He was truthful and fearless in everything. It is no wonder, then, that we call him Alfred the Great, Alfred the Truthteller, England's Darling.