M ANY kings have been selfish, heartless, cruel masters of men, caring for nothing except their own pleasure or glory. Many have been weal-minded, useless creatures, serving no purpose in the world except to be the tools of designing men wiser and more wicked than themselves. It is pleasing to remember, however, that among the monarchs who ruled over our early English forefathers, there was one who understood his real duties and tried earnestly to perform them—one true king who cared more for the happiness of his people than for his own comfort and renown.
The name of that king was Alfred, and he has been truthfully described as "the noblest embodiment of all that is great, all that is lovable in the English temper." For this reason, and because he so faithfully labored for the betterment of mankind and of his country, he is and has been, always and everywhere, known as Alfred the Great. No other king of England has ever borne so noble a title; few kings in all the world have merited it.
When Alfred came to the throne, more than four hundred years had passed since the first of our early kinsmen had crossed the North Sea to make homes for themselves in Britain. These years had been a period of great unrest and many changes. Everywhere, in every country, there were turmoil and lawlessness and fighting. Men who hated war and violence had little time or opportunity for the pursuits that make for peace and nobler ways of living.
England was still a wild, half-settled land. Everywhere, there were great forests and broad tracts of lonely marshes where no man lived. Here and there, in the midst of the general wildness, were cleared places with ill-kept farms, or perhaps a village of poor huts clustered around the stronghold of some warrior chief or mighty eorl. In places, also, there were thriving settlements of kinsmen and comrades, as there had been in the older Angle-land between the seas. Each of these settlements was encircled by its sacred landmarks, by giant trees carved with mystic figures, or by poles set up in the midst of a trackless marsh. In other places one might find, surrounded by fields and orchards, a flourishing abbey or a monastery in which men and women of religious minds found safe shelter from the lawlessness and terror that filled the world.
In spite of the barbarism that prevailed, the people still held quite generally to the ancient English ideas of truth and honor, courage and liberty. They had little knowledge of the world beyond their own narrow neighborhoods. There were no schools for young people. A few monks and priests in the monasteries could read a little Latin. Still fewer could make out the words in an English book—and of such books there were scarcely a dozen in the whole world. Learning was an accomplishment too great for common minds, and not many kings could so much as name the letters of the alphabet.
Such was England when Alfred was chosen to be its king. He was only twenty-three years of age; but in the entire island there was no man better fitted to rule than he. In his childhood he had been taken on two separate visits to Rome, and once he had spent several months in Paris. He had thus learned many things about the peoples of other lands, their manners and customs and achievements, and his mind had been broadened by contact with people of culture and refinement. Moreover, he had early learned to read, and his passion for books had inspired him with ambitions and desires quite unusual in the England of his time.
The first years of his reign were years of conflict and discouragement. Great bands of Danes from Denmark and Norway—sea rovers and pirates—had invaded the island, were pillaging the coast settlements and threatening to conquer the whole of the land. Alfred, with his little army of patriot Englishmen, fought many battles with these marauders. Sometimes he was victorious; sometimes he was sorely beaten and obliged to save himself by hiding in the forest or by taking refuge in some remote stronghold; but his true Saxon grit never yielded to discouragement nor became faint through fear, and each successive defeat only strengthened his determination to succeed.
Finally, after a long, fierce struggle, the Danes were defeated and forced to beg for peace. Then it was that Alfred showed the true nobility of his heart. He might easily have made an example of his conquered foes by crushing and destroying them. But he followed a better plan: he gave to such as chose, lands in the unsettled northern parts of the country, where they might make themselves homes. He only required of them that they should abandon their old marauding ways and their heathenish religion, and live thereafter as good, honest Englishmen.
It was in peace rather than in war that King Alfred proved himself most truly great. His constant aim was to improve his people by helping them to become wiser and better. He was never idle, but spent all his leisure time in reading or in talking with men of knowledge and experience. He established schools in different parts of his kingdom, and sent far and near for the best teachers to come and conduct them. He made just laws for rich and poor alike; and dishonest judges were punished as they deserved. He loved freedom as every true Englishman loves it; and his greatest desire was that liberty, truth, and justice should prevail throughout the world.
During many years of peace, the king did not neglect to keep prepared for a possible uprising by the Danes or a later invasion by marauding Northmen from over the sea. Towards the end of his reign such an uprising and invasion did actually occur. A strong fleet under a famous Danish sea king attacked the eastern coast towns and even sailed into the River Thames. But while Alfred, with a squadron of fishing boats, bravely withstood this invasion, his sons Edward and Ethelred, with a well-disciplined army, met the rebellious Danes in battle and so worsted them that they were glad to make peace on any terms. The Northmen, sorely defeated, sailed away, not to return for many a year. King Alfred's little squadron of boats which had done such good service was improved and strengthened, and finally grew into the great British navy, the pride of every loyal English heart.
King Alfred Launching a Ship
Notwithstanding his constant attention to public affairs, the king was never so busy as to forget the more common duties of life. Each hour of the day had its appointed task; in everything that he did he was methodical, orderly, painstaking. Man of business though he was, he found time for both study and recreation. In order that the common people might know the great good to be derived from reading, he translated a number of Latin books into easy English. He made a collection of old folk songs for the amusement of children. He loved outdoor life and the sports and pastimes common in his day.
We find him at one time an architect, drawing plans for public buildings; at another, he is an inventor, constructing a clock to tell the passage of time by the burning of candles; at another, he is a musician, playing upon his harp and singing in chorus with the gleemen of his court. At all times, however burdened with duties he may be, we find him genial, kind, helpful—true to himself, his country, and the world of mankind.
Part of a Leaf of King Alfred's Laws
"So long as I have lived," he said, when the shadows were beginning to fall—"I have striven to live worthily."
And again, in one of his best and most noted books, he wrote, "I desire to leave to the men who come after me a remembrance of me in good works."
His wish has been fulfilled Wherever the English race survives, whether in Britain or in America, in India or in Australia, amid the Arctic snows or under the burning equator, his good works still live in the preservation of whatever is best and noblest in the minds and hearts of true Englishmen.
King Alfred, still a young man, died in the year 900. For a century and a half thereafter, Anglo-Saxon rule, tempered by his wise and patriotic influence, continued in England. Some of the kings who succeeded him were weak, others were bad; but the liberties and rights of the common people were safeguarded by wise laws established by the people themselves. In the year 1066, Harold, the last of the Saxon kings chosen by the witenagemot, was overcome and dethroned by William the Norman, and a new set of rulers came into possession of the throne. Nevertheless, England remained the land of the English.
It has been said that King Alfred's spirit still inspires some of the best laws of England—and if of England, then of America also. And if this is true, let us trust that it may also animate our hearts at least to this:—To cherish above all other passions the passion of patriotism, which consists not only in love for one's country and one's kinsfolk, but in supreme devotion to truth and freedom and humanity. This and undying hatred of all forms of oppression and injustice is the lesson that King Alfred is handing down to the youth of both England and America now more than a thousand years after his glorious reign.
Learn all that you can about William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest of England. For this purpose refer to any standard or popular history of the period. The following books will also prove instructive and interesting:
Besant, The Story of Alfred the Great
Guerber, The Story of the English (first chapters)
Green, The Conquest of England
Freeman, Short History of the Norman Conquest
Kingsley, Hereward, the Wake (romance, time of William the Conqueror)
Bulwer-Lytton, Harold, the Last of the Saxons (romance, 1066).
Skinner, Tales and Plays of Robin Hood
Scott, Ivanhoe (romance, about 1194)
Note. — The lands of the Saxons were quite generally confiscated by the Conqueror and awarded to his favorites and helpers; but the laws, the customs, and the aspirations of the people continued without much change. The old English devotion to liberty could not be quenched; the ancient methods of local self-government by town meetings and courts of justice still survived; but the strong central government, then so essential to a nation, was supplied by the Norman king. The common law, inherited from our earliest forefathers and to this day recognized and observed in both the British Empire and the United States, was acknowledged supreme; and trial by jury became firmly established. It was then that what is now known as the English Constitution had its small beginnings, not in any written form but in the minds and memories of men.
The English language was enriched by the addition of many words from the French and Latin, which the Normans had brought with them across the Channel; and the brusque Saxon manners of the common people were softened and improved by contact with the broader culture of the conquerors. Slowly, very slowly, and yet with no uncertain steps, the English race was moving towards a full realization of the blessings of liberty.