How King Alfred Learned to Read
W HEN the Saxons first came to England, they came only to fight and kill, but soon they began to love their new home and, when two or three hundred years had passed, they forgot that they had ever lived in any other country. So, instead of fighting against England, they began to fight for and love the land as their own.
Then English kings arose who tried to make good laws and rule the people well, as some of the British kings had done. But just as the Romans had come to conquer Britain, and as the Saxons themselves had come, so now another people came.
These new enemies were the Northmen or Danes. They came from the countries which we now call Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
These Danes, as we shall call them all, were fierce, wild men. They loved to sail upon the sea; they loved to fight. They were heathen too, just as the Saxons had been when they first came to England.
Many and long were the battles which were fought between the English and the Danes, but year by year the Danes grew stronger, and the English weaker, till it seemed as if the land was going to be conquered once again. But at last a great English king, called Alfred, began to rule. He beat the Danes in many battles, and nearly drove them out of the country.
Alfred was the youngest son of Ethelwulf, who was King of Wessex, one of the seven kingdoms into which England was divided. He was also the grandson of Egbert, that king who changed the name of Britain to England.
Although Ethelwulf was really king only of Wessex, he was "over-lord" over all the rulers of the other seven kingdoms of England. So you must remember, when we speak of the King of England at this time, that we do not mean that he was the only king in the land. But Wessex was the chief of the seven kingdoms, and the King of Wessex was the chief of the seven kings. In the end the King of Wessex became real king of all England, while the other kingdoms disappeared and their kings were forgotten.
King Ethelwulf's wife was called Osburga. She was a good and wise woman, and a very kind mother to her little children. She was clever, too, and fond of reading, which was rather uncommon in those days when very few people could read or cared about it.
In the time of the Romans, you remember, books were written on strips of parchment, and rolled up like maps. Now they were shaped and bound just like our books, only as there was no paper and no printing, they were still written on parchment and the pictures were all painted by hand. It took a long time to make a book, and required a great deal of money to buy one.
One day when Alfred, the youngest son of King Ethelwulf, was quite a tiny boy, he was playing with his big brothers, while Osburga, his mother, sat watching them, and reading.
The book she read was one of old English songs. Osburga was very fond of these songs, and used to say them to her little boys when they were tired of play. It was a pretty book, full of pictures and bright letters in gold, and blue, and red.
As Osburga turned the pages Alfred saw the pretty pictures, so he left his play, and came to lean against his mother's knee, to look at them.
"What a pretty book it is, mother!" he said.
"Do you like it, little one?" said Osburga.
"Yes, mother, I do," replied Alfred.
Then all the other boys came crowding round their mother to see the pretty book too. They pressed against her, and leaned over her shoulder till nothing was to be seen but five curly heads close together.
"Oh, isn't it lovely!" they said, as Osburga slowly turned the pages, explaining the pictures, and letting them look at the beautiful colored letters at the beginnings of the songs.
When Osburga saw how they all liked the book, she was very much pleased. She pushed them all away from her a little, and looked round their happy eager faces. You see in those days even kings' sons had no picture-books, such as every child has now, and it was quite a treat for these princes to be allowed to look at this beautiful one.
"Do you truly like this book?" asked Osburga.
"Oh yes, mother, we do," they all answered at once.
"Then, boys," she said, "I will give it to the one who first learns to read it."
"O mother, do you mean it? May I try too?" asked Alfred.
"Yes, I do mean it, and, of course, you may try," answered Osburga, smiling at him. And perhaps she hoped that he would win the prize, for both his father and his mother loved Alfred best of all their children.
And Alfred did win the prize. He was so eager to have the book that he worked hard all day long. And one morning, while his big brothers were still trying to read the book, he came to his mother and read it without making any mistakes.
Then Osburga kissed him and gave him the prize, as she had promised. All his life afterwards Alfred was fond of books; and even when he became king, and had many, many other things to do, he still found time not only to read, but to write them.