Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

King Alfred The Great

It was about 449 when the Teutons landed on the island of Thanet. More and more of them came, until finally not the Britons, but the Teutons, ruled England. Each company tried to make their settlement a little kingdom by itself. Sometimes a little group of these kingdoms were allies for a while, then they were enemies. Gradually the West Saxons became more powerful than the others, and at length their king, Eg'bert, induced seven of these kingdoms to make a sort of union.


Hilts of Danish Iron Swords.

It would have been far better if this union could have been strong and lasting, for all England was now in dreadful peril. The reason was that still more tribes were pushing on to the westward. These tribes were Teutons who lived in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; but the English called them all Danes. The Danes thought it a disgrace to live quietly on the land, and they dashed off in the fiercest tempests and over the stormiest seas in search of treasure. They would steal up to a church or a convent or a village in the mist and darkness. Then with wild shouts to Odin and Thor they would kill, burn, and plunder. They destroyed bridges, they set fire to the growing crops, they tossed little babies to and fro on the points of their spears, they tortured the helpless dogs and horses. Then they set off for their homeland to display the treasures they had won. Their law of battle was that a Dane who fled from fewer than five disgraced himself. The warriors had no fear of death, for they believed that the Valkyries would come and carry them to all the delights of Valhalla.


Alfred the Great.

These were the enemies whom the grandson of Egbert, the Saxon king Al'fred, a young man of twenty-three, had to meet. At the death of his brother he had become king, but just at that time the Danes were coming in throngs and there were no rejoicings in honor of the new sovereign. There was no feasting, there was not even a meeting of the councilors of the kingdom to declare that they accepter him as their ruler. The Danes landed first on one shore, then of another. Alfred built warships and won a battle on the sea Then he was surprised by the Danes and most of his people were subdued. Their king, however, had no thought of yielding. He and some of his faithful followers withdrew to Ath'el-ney, a sort of island in a swampy forest, where they made themselves a fort. A few people lived in this wilderness who cared for the swine of some landholder. Their homes were tiny huts of brushwood plastered with mud.

Two legends of his stay at Athelney have been handed down to us. One is that he once took refuge in one of these tiny huts, much to the wrath of the housewife, for her husband had not told her who was his guest. The story says that she bade the visitor sit by the fire and turn her cakes when they were done on one side. The anxious king forgot all about them, and the angry housewife scolded. According to an old ballad, she cried,—

"There, don't you see the cakes are burnt?

Then wherefore turn them not?

You're quick enough to eat them

When they are good and hot."


Alfred the Great Letting the Cakes Burn.

The second legend is that in order to find out the number of the Danes he put on the dress of a harper and went to the Danish camp. There he sang old ballads, perhaps even part of Beowulf. The Danes were delighted, and never guessed that they were applauding the king of the English. Alfred went back to his friends with a good knowledge of the Danish camp and a heart full of courage. When the spring came, he surprised his enemies and forced them to promise to be baptized as Christians. He was not strong enough to drive them from the country, but it was agreed that they should remain in their settlements in the eastern and northern parts of England, while Alfred should rule the southern and western parts. Then Alfred set to work to do what he could for his kingdom.


An Early English Church.
(Church of St. Lawrence, Wiltshire, built probably in the 7th century)

The king of England was in a hard position. Much of the country had been burned over again and again. Churches, libraries, and convents had been destroyed. Alfred built a line of forts around the southeastern coast, for he knew that other Danes would be likely to come. He built at least one hundred warships. He made a code of laws for his people. He appointed judges, who were punished if they were not just. One judge was hanged because he condemned a man unlawfully. Alfred built churches and convents. He brought learned men to his kingdom, as Charlemagne had done in earlier times. He established schools, and he commanded that every freeborn boy in the kingdom should learn to read English, and that if he showed ability, he should go on and learn to read Latin. Now arose a difficulty. In those times books were written in Latin as a matter of course, and there were very few in English. So the busy king set to work to translate books for his people. One of them was a sort of history and geography combined. In this is the story which Longfellow has put into his poem, "The Discoverer of the North Cape,"—the story of

"O-the're the old sea-captain

Who dwelt in Hel'go-land."

Alfred had received a barren land, overrun by enemies. He left it a peaceful, prosperous kingdom with schools, churches, just laws, vessels, and fortifications. It is no wonder that he is called Alfred the Great.


King Egbert unites the kingdoms. — The Danes. — Alfred becomes king. — Withdraws to Athelney. — The story of the cakes. — The story of the harper. — Alfred's treaty with the Danes. — Alfred's work for his country.

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