King Alfred in the Cowherd's Cottage
W HEN Ethelwulf, Alfred's father, died, each of his sons became king in turn. During these reigns the Danes became more and more troublesome. Nearly all the time was spent in fighting, so that the country came to be in a very sad state indeed.
When Ethelred (who was the last of Ethelwulf's sons except Alfred) came to the throne, Alfred had grown to be a man, and although he was still very young, he helped his brother a great deal. And when Ethelred died, the people chose Alfred to be their king. For although Ethelred had two sons, they were little boys, and no one thought of making either of them king. The people knew that a strong and wise man was needed to rule in England, and Alfred was both strong and wise.
No king has ever had to fight more bravely for his kingdom than Alfred had. When he came to the throne, the Danes were growing more and more bold. They did not now only come in their ships to plunder and rob, and then sail away again. They came now to live in the land, killing the people, and then taking their houses for themselves.
So all the first years of Alfred's reign were spent in fighting these fierce enemies. But Alfred did not only fight bravely, he thought too.
The Danes were brave and daring sailors, just as the English had been before they came to live in England. But somehow after the English settled down, they seem to have forgotten about how to build ships and how to sail upon the sea.
But Alfred was wise and saw how much better it would be to stop the Danes before they landed at all. So he built ships and went in them to fight the Danes on the sea.
In the year 875 A.D., King Alfred and his ships met the Danes and their ships and fought a great battle and won a great victory. That was the first of many, many sea-victories which the English have won, and ever since the days of Alfred, England has had a navy and Britannia has ruled the waves.
But even although Alfred gained this battle at sea, the Danes were not beaten altogether. Again and again Alfred had to fight, but at last he forced the Danes to make peace. They swore by a most solemn and dreadful oath that they would go away and never make war against the English again. This vow was taken with great ceremony. Sheep and cattle were killed and offered in sacrifice to the heathen gods, for the Danes, you remember were heathen. A beautiful ring of gold, called the holy bracelet, was dipped in the blood of the animals. The bracelet was then placed upon an altar and, laying their hands upon it, the Danish chiefs swore to fight no more against the English.
This was not the first time that the Danes had promised to go away and fight no more, but they had always broken their promises. Now Alfred thought they would be sure to keep their word, because of the very solemn vow they had taken.
But the Danes did not mean to keep this promise any more than the others. Very soon they came back again as bold as before, or bolder. Once more fierce battles raged, till at last, weary of fighting, and forsaken by nearly all his followers, Alfred was forced to hide for a time in the marshes of Somerset.
This was the saddest part of Alfred's life. He was a king, yet he had neither crown nor royal robes, neither palace nor servants. He was so poor that he went to live in the cottage of a cowherd called Denewulf. His clothes were so old and worn that the cowherd's wife thought that he was a friend of her husband, and so she treated him as if he had been a common man and not a great king.
One day Denewulf's wife was very busy. She had been baking cakes, and had still many things to do. Alfred meanwhile was sitting by the fire. He had been mending his bow and arrows, but they had dropped from his hand, for, thinking deeply about his kingdom and his people, and of how he could free them from the Danes, he had forgotten all else.
It seemed to Denewulf's wife that Alfred was a lazy sort of fellow. She did not know the great matters he had to think of, and she wondered how any one could sit for hours by the fire doing nothing, while she and her husband had to work so hard.
Now, she said to herself, this lazy fellow can at least look after my cakes, while I go to do something else.
"Here, good man," she said to him, "just mind my cakes for me. And don't let them burn. When they are nice and brown on one side, turn them over on to the other side, like this—" and she showed him how to do it.
"All right, good wife, I will look after your cakes for you," replied Alfred.
But when the good woman had gone, Alfred sank once more deep in thought. As he watched the cakes, he looked into the fire. Soon, in the red glow of the burning ashes, he saw wonderful things. The cakes and the cowherd's cottage vanished. Once again he was leading his army, his banner with its golden dragons fluttered in the breeze, his spear was in his hand, his crown upon his head. He heard the shout of his soldiers as they charged the Danes. The ranks of the enemy broke, they fled—to their ships they fled. Fast behind them came the English. They set fire to the Danish ships. He smelt the smoke as it rolled upward, heard the crackle of the flames, the shrieks of the dying, the shouts of victory. England was saved.
Then suddenly he was awakened out of his dream by a blow to his shoulder, and an angry voice in his ear,
Alas! the cakes, and not the Danish ships, were burning. Alfred was a great king, but he had proved a poor cook; and the good wife was very angry.
She scolded him well, little thinking that she was scolding her King. She was still rating when Denewulf came in.
"Hush thee, woman, hush thee," he said, ashamed and frightened.
"Hush, shall I?" she cried angrily. "The lazy loon, the idle good-for-naught, to sit by the fire, and see the cakes burn, and never stir a finger."
"Hush thee, woman," said Denewulf again in despair. "It is the King."
"The King!" cried the good wife, astonished, and a little frightened too. "Well, king or no king," she added grumblingly after a minute, "he ought to have minded the cakes."
Alfred was not angry, as Denewulf feared he would be, and afterwards, when he came to his kingdom again, Alfred made the cowherd a bishop, for he had found out while hiding in his cottage that Denewulf was a good and wise man. So his wife became a great lady, and perhaps never baked any more cakes. Certainly she never again had a king to watch them for her.