Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

What the Boy Alfred Saw in London

[IN the year 853 Alfred the young prince, then a lad of five, was sent to Rome by his father and, on his way, passed through London, which he had never before visited.
The Editor. ]

LONDON was coming into view. They could see a great wall running along the river front, and going back from it up the gentle slope. Here and there was a building tall enough to peer over the top of the wall. There were many boats anchored in front of the city. At the angles of the wall were turrets for the archers, and places of shelter for the sentinels, where they were always watching, and fearing lest the Danes should return, for it was only two years since they had sacked and burned a part of the city.

They came nearer and nearer, and soon the little company of boats left the Thames and went north up the Fleet, which was then a rapid stream, flowing down not far west of the city wall. It was not so easy now, for the strong current was against them; but the rowers were strong, too, and it was not long before they were ready to land the prince and his followers near Lud Gate, a massive door in the great wall that surrounded the city.

There were many people waiting to receive them, the priests from St. Paul's Church, that was not far away, the commanders of the soldiers who were in the various strongholds, and all the other great men of the city. Some came on foot, and some came on horseback, and a few came in heavy wagons with wide, clumsy wheels; and all of them, no matter how they had come, were eager to do honor to the son of the king. There were women whose eyes were full of tears as they looked at the tiny, blue-eyed, fair-haired child who was so far from his mother, and who was so soon to make the great journey by sea and by land; and there were crowds of boys swarming up the posts and on top of the low-roofed cottages, every one of whom wished that he was the son of the king, and was going to make a wonderful journey.

Some of the ponderous wagons had been brought to convey the prince and his nobles to the palace, for Ethelwulf had a palace in London not far from St. Paul's Church. These were decorated with bright-colored cloth, and with flowers and green branches. The one in which Alfred was to go had a seat covered with cushions and drapings of bright blue, and built up so high that all the people could see him as he rode past. It made the boys more wildly envious than ever when they saw that he actually wore a coat of mail, and had a real sword hanging down by his side.

They were a little stolid and slow in their thinking, these Englishmen of the ninth century, but there was something in the sight of this little child that appealed to them, and aroused all their loyalty and enthusiasm; and they shouted for Alfred, and for Ethelwulf, and for Bishop Swithin, until they were hoarse, and they followed the wagons until the prince and his retinue had gone into the palace. The bishop stood on the steps a minute, and raised his hand and blessed them. Then he, too, went in, and the tired and excited little child could have the rest that he so much needed.

The palace was a little west of St. Paul's Church and not far from the river. Around it were fields and woods; and to the westward, beyond the last straggling houses, were pastures and forests and fens and moors and commons and low-lying hills, a beautiful, restful country for tired people to look upon.

The city was made up of small houses, hardly larger than huts, that seemed to have been dropped down anywhere; of convents and churches and fortresses; of rough, tumble-down sheds, and queer little dark shops in which were benches, a table, and some simple arrangements for cooking. Whatever there was to sell was put on a shelf that projected in front of the shop. Far to the east, just within the wall, one could see a fort that was higher and larger than the rest, for there the closest watch must be kept for the enemy, and there, too, if the enemy came, must the hardest fighting be done.

The streets, so far as there were any streets, ran any way, and every building seemed to have been set down without the least regard to any other building. Then, too, there were great vacant spaces, and these were gloomy enough, for here were blackened ruins of the city that used to be before the Danes had burned it. Under all this rubbish were fragments of beautiful mosaic pavement that the Romans had made centuries before.

Even then there was enough in London to interest one for a long time, but the first duty of the prince after he was thoroughly rested was to go to St. Paul's Church with the gifts that his father had sent. The church was at the top of a hill that rose gently from the Thames River. It could hardly have been more than a very simple chapel, built perhaps of stones that may have been part of a heathen temple in the old Roman times, but now the bell rang seven times a day for Christian prayer.

This little church was very rich, for it possessed the bones of St. Erkenwald, and wonderful were the miracles that they were said to have wrought, and generous were the gifts that pilgrims, nobles, warriors, and kings had laid on his shrine.

St. Paul's had had a hard struggle to get these relics, for St. Erkenwald had died when away from London, and both the clergy of St. Paul's and the monks of Chertsey, whose abbot he had been, contended for the bones. Both parties were very much in earnest. The Londoners seized the bier and held on. The monks protested. A tempest suddenly came upon them, and there they all stood, drenched and dripping, but neither would yield. The river rose, and then they were obliged to stand still, for there was neither bridge nor boat. They might have been standing there yet, had not one of the monks begun to intone the litany; and as he sang, the river sank, and the Londoners crossed with the precious relics, the monks giving up, either because they were satisfied that Providence had settled the question, or because the Londoners were the stronger party, the story does not tell. At any rate, the bones were in St. Paul's, and there it was that Alfred must go to carry his father's gifts, and to kneel before the shrine of the saint to say the prayers that the bishop had taught him.

And so Alfred and the bishop and the long train of followers set out for the church. The unwieldy wagons moved slowly, but Alfred would have liked to go even more slowly, for there was so much to see that was new to him. There were rough soldiers in leather tunics or in a kind of coat, or jacket, covered with scales that would protect them in battle almost as well as a coat of mail. They had heavy axes and spears and shields. Their beards were long and shaggy. Then there were half-savage men from the country, bringing great, rough carts of timber from the forests, or driving herds of oxen or swine, or carrying rude baskets of vegetables or fruit. They were stout, red-faced men who looked strong and well and ready for a good-natured wrestling match or a downright fight, as the case might be. They wore tunics of the coarsest woolen, and would stop with mouths wide open, and stare with wonder at the sight of the prince and his men with their finely wrought clothes and their jewels and banners.

The royal train went up the hill to the church, and Allred, taught by the bishop, presented the gifts that his father had sent, seven golden vases filled to the brim with roughly cut, but bright and shining silver coins. On the side of each one of these vases was a red stone, and below it was the inscription, "Ethelwulf the king sent me."

The service was ended. Alfred had said his prayer before St. Erkenwald's shrine, and had gazed half fearfully on the bones of the saint. The prince and his followers left the church. There were fragments of the old Roman pavement under their feet.

"See the soldier," said Alfred suddenly, "but he is n't like my father's soldiers." The bishop looked, and there in the pavement was the figure of a soldier done in mosaic.

"That is a Roman soldier," said the bishop, "and we shall start for Rome to-morrow. Look down to the river and you will see the ships that are to take us."

by Eva March Tappan

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