THE palace in which Alfred the Great was born was hardly what we should call a palace in these days. It was a long, low, wooden house, or rather a group of houses; for whenever more room was needed, a new building was put up, and joined to the old ones wherever it seemed most convenient, so that the palace looked much like a company of one-story houses that had drifted together in a flood. There had to be room for a large family, for the king's counsellors and many of the church dignitaries lived with him. All around the house were many smaller houses for the fighting and the working men. Those were the days when at any moment a messenger might come flying on a panting horse and say:—
"O King Ethelwulf, the Danes are upon us! Their ships are in the offing, and they are driving toward Thanet."
Then the king would send horsemen in hot haste to all his underchiefs, and he himself, at the head of the soldiers of his household, would march toward the coast, sometimes to fight and sometimes, if fighting failed, to buy them off by a ransom of money and jewels and vessels of gold and of silver.
The priests, with the women and children, would hasten into the church and throw themselves down before the altar and pray:—
"From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us."
They had good reason for their alarm; for perhaps even before the king and his men could reach the eastern shore, another fleet would come to land on the southern coast, and the fierce Danes would sweep like a whirlwind through the land, burning the homes of the people, carrying away the women, and tossing the little children back and forth on the points of their spears.
There were many workingmen about the king's palace, for almost everything that was needed had to be made on the premises. Not only must the grain be raised, wheat or barley or oats or corn, but it must be ground, sometimes by many small hand-mills, and sometimes by one large mill that belonged to the king. For drink, there was a kind of mead, or ale, and that must be brewed in the king's brewery. When it came to the question of clothes, there was still more work to do; for leather must be tanned for the shoes as well as for the harnesses, and flax and wool must be spun and woven. Then, too, there were blacksmiths, who not only made the simple implements needed to carry on the farm, but who must be skilful enough to make and repair the metal network of the coats of mail, and to keep the soldiers well supplied with spears and swords and battle-axes and arrowheads.
A king who was willing to "rough it" a little could live on his royal domain very comfortably without sending away for many luxuries. If his land did not border on the seashore, he would have to send for salt that was made by evaporating sea-water; and whenever he needed a mill-stone, he would send to France, for the best ones were found in quarries near Paris. For iron, King Ethelwulf sent to Sussex, not a very long journey, to be sure, but by no means an easy one, for some of the roads were of the roughest kind. If he had lived on the coast, it would have been almost as easy to send to Spain for iron, and sometimes men did make the long voyage rather than go a much shorter distance by land and bring home the heavy load. When the millstones were landed from France, the laborers had to take their cattle, and make the slow, tiresome journey to the shore to bring them home.
All these things were very interesting for the little Prince Alfred to see, though he was not quite five years old at the time when this story begins. He was the youngest child of King Ethelwulf and Queen Osburga, and a favorite with everybody on the great estate. The blacksmith had made him a tiny coat of mail and a spear, and he and the other children would play "Fight the Danes," and the soldiers would look on and say, "There's a prince for you," and often one of them would take him up before him on his horse for a mad gallop through the forest. The half-wild swine would scatter before them, and sometimes the soldier, holding the little boy firmly with one hand, would charge upon them, and leaning far over the saddle, would run his spear through one; and back they would ride to the palace, dragging the pig behind them, and the little prince, his long, yellow hair streaming in the wind, would shout, "A Dane, father! We have killed a Dane!"
Nobody troubled the little boy about learning to read. Priests must read, of course, both English and Latin, for the service of the church was in Latin, and they must know how to pronounce the words, though very few of them were quite sure what the words meant. Kings seldom learned anything of books, but King Ethelwulf could read, for when he was a young man he had wished to become a priest and had studied a little with this plan in mind. His father had opposed the scheme; for after the older brother's death Ethelwulf was his only son, and there was no one else to whom he could leave the kingdom. He was greatly troubled, for he was afraid that a king who could read would not be a good warrior, but he finally decided to test him by giving him a small kingdom to practise on; so he put Kent into his hands, and for ten years Ethelwulf ruled under his father's eye. He was so attentive to his duties as a king, that his father concluded that learning how to read had not hurt him, and so at his death he left him the whole kingdom.
Even if no one made the little boy learn to read, the days were never long enough for him. The great domain was a busy place. Everybody was making something, and everybody was glad to have the little prince look on and ask questions. There were hives of bees, and there were hunting dogs and hawks. People were coming and going from morning till night. The king rented much of his land to different families. He was bound to care for them, and they were bound to fight under him and to work for him, to make hedges and ditches, to plough, to shear the sheep, and to help make roads. Besides this, they were to pay him rent, and this rent seldom came in money, but rather in produce of the land. There was a steward whose business it was to receive the rent, and a boy would be interested to keep by his side all day long and watch what the people brought. There might be cheese or bacon or honey or home-brewed ale; and often there was quite a lively time when a man appeared with hens or ducks or geese, cackling or quacking or hissing, as the case might be, and all making as much noise as their throats would permit. Sometimes this rent was paid only as a token that the land belonged to the king, and had no real value. One man was bound to present three fishes fresh from the river four times a year, and another had only to bring a sheaf of wheat on a certain day of each year.
At the regular times for paying rent, these people were coming and going all day long, and often they brought besides their rent some special gift for the boy—a bag of apples or of nuts, or a particularly yellow honeycomb on a great platter of bark covered with fresh green leaves. There were all these things going on as a matter of course, but sometimes there would be heard the trampling of hoofs and a great cry, and all the men who had been paying their rent, and all the men who were working in the fields, and all the servants of the house would run out and cry:—
"Hillo! What ho?" and the men who had been hunting would ride into the little settlement, dragging behind them a wild boar or a deer to be roasted on the great hearth in the hall.
Alfred was, as I said, the youngest of King Ethelwulf's five children. His sister, Ethelswitha, was only eleven years older than he, and she was his special friend. He was not very strong, and there were days when he liked better to stay in the house and listen to her stories than even to be among all the interesting things that were going on outside. One day she began:—
"Once there was a king, and he built a great hall—"
"My father's a king," said the little boy. "Was the hall like ours?"
"Oh, it was larger and much finer; but when the men were asleep in it, a monster used to come and carry them off to a cave under the water and eat them. At last a great warrior came, and he killed the dragon, and the water was all red with his blood."
"My brother Ethelbald would kill a dragon; he fought in a real battle," said Alfred. "Tell me more about the man that killed the dragon."
"The king gave him rings and bracelets and spears and shields, and he went home to his own people; and by and by some one told him of another dragon that lived in a cave in the land, and had gold vases and spears and bronze shields and gold rings for the neck and for the arms; and he went out to kill this dragon so as to give the gold to the men."
"Did he go alone?"
"No, his fighting men went with him; but when the dragon came, it breathed out fire, and they were afraid, and all but one of them ran away from him."
"I would have stayed," said the little prince.
"And so I believe you would," said King Ethelwulf, who had been listening to their talk. "You would fight; but women do not fight; and what would you do, Ethelswitha, for a brave man?"
"I would pass him the mead as my mother does, and when you gave him great gifts, I would put the rings on his arms and the necklace about his neck, and he would say: 'It is the daughter of my king that gives me this, and I will fight for my king. My body and blood shall be his.' "
"Good, my girl. That you have done for many of my brave men; but if it was a great warrior who had fought beside your father, a warrior who was a king? Could you do no more for him?" And he looked closely into the eyes of the young girl.
"What else could I do, father?" she asked. "You never told me to do anything more for your thegns, and no one can be braver than they."
The king looked a little puzzled, then he said:—
"Come here, Alfred, and I'll tell you a story, and Ethelswitha may listen."
"About the brave king?" asked Alfred.
"Yes, about the brave king," said his father. "The brave king lives to the north of us, in Mercia. His name is Buhred. The Welsh people who live beyond him kept coming into his country, and when they came they would steal the treasures and kill the people."
"Did they eat them, too?"
"No," said the king, "but they tormented them, and shot them with arrows, and stabbed them with short, strong knives. This king was very brave, but he had not men enough to drive them away, so he sent to me and asked if I would help him. I think you can remember when we rode away from here."
"Mother and you and I went to the church, Alfred," said his sister, "to pray that they might come home safely."
"Yes, I remember," and the little boy nodded wisely.
"Well, this king had not any wife, but his sister went to their church and prayed for him to come back to her. He was very strong and killed a great many men, and the bad Welsh were all driven away, and then he went home. He wished that he had a wife at home to greet him, and he asked me if I would give him my daughter."
Alfred had slipped down from his father's knee, but the king put his arm about his daughter, who was sitting on the bench beside him, and said:—
"Do you see now what you can do for him?"
The young girl looked straight into her father's eyes, and said:—
"Is he as brave a man as you?"
"Yes," said the king.
"Then I will be his wife," said she.
This was a few months before the time of our story, and the little boy had, of course, forgotten the conversation, but the wedding and the wedding feast even so little a fellow as he was could not forget.
Ever since Ethelswitha was a little child, the queen and the maidens of the household had been preparing for her marriage. They had spun and woven great chests full of linen and woolen. They had made beautifully embroidered tapestries and rich coverings for the benches of the hall. They had made gowns of blue and red and yellow and green, whose deep borders were worked with silk and with threads of gold. Then there were wide mantles of all the colors of the rainbow for her to wear over her gown. They were wound about the waist and thrown over the left shoulder, and they were so long that they would fall down nearly to the ground. These, too, were richly embroidered with gold thread. Both Queen Osburga and King Ethelwulf were descendants of Cerdic, who had conquered the Isle of Wight three hundred years before this. Some of their kinsfolk still dwelt near the island, and were skilful workers in gold and silver. From there had been brought beautiful ornaments, clasps for the cloak, necklaces, and ear-rings. One of the clasps was circular in shape, made of a fine gold filigree work. The centre was filled by a double star set with garnets. Another clasp was of silver in the shape of a Maltese cross, with green enamel around the edges and a ruby in the centre. Then there was a necklace with many gold pendants and a blue stone in each. There were "stick-pins" of red and blue enamel, and there were ear-rings of precisely the crescent shape that our grandmothers used to wear.
The king had houses in several places and went from one to another as the needs of his kingdom demanded. Sometimes there would be fear of an attack by the Danes or the Welsh, for which the presence of the king might help his people to prepare. Sometimes there was a new church to be dedicated in some distant part of the kingdom, and then the furniture, the tapestries, and the valuable dishes were put on pack-horses, and thither the king and his great family would go, and stay for a few weeks or months, as the case might be. Then there was another reason, perhaps the strongest of all. The king was really "boarded around." There was not a great deal of money in the kingdom, and the easiest way to collect rent was to eat it in the shape of the grain and vegetables that the tenants brought in; so the king and his court would stay till they had eaten the products of the land in one place, and would then move on to another. The queen liked especially the house at Chippenham in Wiltshire, and so it was decided that there the marriage should be celebrated. The palace was in a beautiful valley through which the Avon flowed. Other streams were near, and the rolling country around was rich with fresh green forests.
King Buhred came marching up with a great company of his men at arms, and King Ethelwulf stood ready to receive him. It was a brilliant sight, with the background of the woods and the river and the low-lying hills. King Ethelwulf was in advance of his men and was mounted on a great white horse. He wore a rich purple tunic, and over it a short blue cloak with a gold border. This was fastened at the shoulder with a gold brooch flashing with red stones. Bands of bright-colored cloth were wound about his legs, and ended in tassels at the knee.
On the saddle before him was the little prince, his yellow hair flying over a scarlet tunic; and next behind them came the three older sons of the king, wearing yellow tunics and blue cloaks.
Then came the bishops and priests with their vestments of white and gold, and behind them were King Ethelwulf's fighting men, with their light blue tunics, whose borders were embroidered with leaves and circles. Their short cloaks were fastened on the right shoulder or under the chin by a clasp. They carried shields and spears that flashed in the sun as they marched.
The queen wore a long red gown with wide-hanging sleeves. Her mantle of purple hung over her left shoulder in graceful folds.
The young bride, who was only fifteen, wore a white gown and white mantle, and her hair was bound by a narrow gold fillet set with blue stones. It must have been a gorgeous scene in the great hall of feasting. Iron lamps hung from the rafters and shone down upon the bright spears and helmets and chain armor that hung upon the walls. Brave deeds of their ancestors were pictured in the tapestry. In the centre of the hall was a great fireplace, or hearth, made of burnt clay, where the meat was roasted. Long tables were spread down the hall, and at the upper end was a platform where the royal family sat, and a few of the thegns whom the king wished to honor.
All day and far into the night was the feasting kept up, till even in the midst of the rejoicing little Alfred fell asleep in his father's arms. He was awakened by a sudden silence, and then came the sound of singing and of playing on the harp; for the harpers were come in their long green gowns and gay mantles, and all the brave warriors were silent listening to their music, for the one thing that they enjoyed most was to have a harper come in after the feast was well begun and sing to them the ballads of their people.
Long it lasted, but the time came when even the merriest of them had had enough of merriment, and the feast was ended.
Queen Osburga was sad at losing her only daughter, and she clasped the little Alfred more closely than ever to her breast, and kissed him again and again. The king was silent, and as she looked up, she saw his eyes fixed upon her and Alfred with a strange expression of pity and suffering and determination.
"What is it, my husband?" she asked, fearful of something she knew not what.
"Perhaps it is nothing. They say that the thought is clearer in the morning light. We will sleep now, and when the sun rises, I will think. Sleep well, my own true wife."
The king looked sad and troubled, and Osburga lay with a burden on her heart, she knew not what, even till the sun rose over the forest.