Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of Alfred the Great by Eva March Tappan
In the Days of Alfred the Great by  Eva March Tappan

In Time of Peace

H OWEVER fully Alfred may have trusted the Danes, he was wise enough to know that his first duty was to make himself able to defend his country if they should prove unworthy of his trust. The Saxon fortifications were in ruins, and they had never been of any real value unless strengthened by the Danes, for not once had the heathen been repulsed from them. They must be repaired. He laid his plans before his counselors.

"Let us," he said, "if it seems good to you, let us build a line of forts around our coast, that we may be protected against our foes if they come by sea." Alfred well knew the slowness of his people to take in a new idea, but yet he was surprised at not receiving the eager encouragement that he had expected. At last one counselor said:—

"Men ought to look after their land and their homes; the harvest time is near."

"But if the Danes should come upon us and destroy the harvest?" said Alfred. "I have some confidence that Guthrum is sincere, but there are many other leaders. There is a rumor even now that Hasting will try to persuade him to join in another attack."

"Then we can meet them as we met Guthrum," said one.

"Can we?" asked Alfred quietly. "We brought out the whole strength of our land. The Danes have men without number to call on. Could we have won if their forces had been doubled?"

Slowly the counselors agreed, and slowly but surely the whole body of the people came around to the king's ideas. On his own lands forts rose rapidly, on the lands of the kingdom more slowly; for Alfred's notion of the duty of a king was that as far as possible he should lead his people and not drive them. Then too, he was anxious to introduce the use of stone in building, and for this he must hire men from abroad to teach his workmen, and it could not be done in a day or in a year; but the king was patient and persevering, and when the time of need came again, Wessex was safe.

London had long been in the hands of the Danes, and it was eight years after the conquest of Guthrum before Alfred felt it wise to rebuild it. It had been pillaged and burned, and among the ruins and in such huts as they had built for themselves lived wild crowds of adventurers and lawless men of every nation. Alfred really had to march out with a band of soldiers to capture his own city; but it yielded easily, and in the hands of the royal force of native and foreign builders, it soon lost its desolate appearance.

There must be a strong navy, and with the ideas that Alfred had adopted from the Danes and the Frisians, he could now make many improvements upon his earlier attempts at ship-building, and it was not many years before there were at least one hundred war-galleys fully equal to those of his enemies.

Alfred formed a code of laws for his people, a combination of the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the laws of Moses, and the ancient laws of the land, modified and adapted to the circumstances of his people. He had a way of inquiring into the decisions of his judges that must have been discouraging to an unjust magistrate, and once he even hanged one of his own judges for condemning a man without the consent of the jury. His justice was so well known that it was almost sure proof of a man's innocence if he begged for a trial before the king.

Besides forts and ships and cities, there was other "edifying" that he must attend to, for while in his great distress on Athelney he had vowed that if he was ever restored to his kingdom, he would build a monastery on the island. Then he built a convent in Shaftesbury for women, and when it was known that the king's daughter was to be its abbess, there were many noble ladies ready to enter its gates with her. Many churches he rebuilt and repaired; but this was much easier than to find clergy for them, for Alfred's teachers of the people must not be ignorant men. He himself says that when he came to the throne, there was not a priest south of the Thames who could translate a page of Latin into Saxon, and there had been no opportunity for matters to improve.

The only way was to persuade learned men from other countries to come to him. Among these was one Grimbald, a French priest of high repute, and to his archbishop Alfred sent an embassy with generous gifts, praying that he would permit Grimbald to come to England. The archbishop was much flattered by the request, and sent a letter agreeing to the king's wishes. In this letter he thanks his royal petitioner for his gift of hounds to "control" the wolves that were such a pest in France; and then delights himself in manufacturing an elaborate comparison between the protecting hounds and the priest who was to become a spiritual watchdog to keep evil from the English church.

Alfred's well-known love of justice was the means of bringing to him the friend whom he seems to have found most congenial, Asser, a Welsh priest. Now a certain bishop of western Wales had been driven out of his diocese and his monastery plundered by a Welsh prince who had sworn allegiance to Alfred. This bishop was sure that the just king would punish such conduct if it was known to him, and he persuaded his kinsman, Asser, to undertake the wearisome journey of more than two hundred miles, for Alfred and his court were then in Sussex.

There was no delay in getting access to the king, and Asser well knew how to tell a story briefly and clearly. Hardly interrupting their conversation, Alfred sent an emphatic message by a swift courier to the Welsh prince.

"If you wish for the aid of the king of the Saxons against the six sons of Rotri, restore Novis to his diocese, and repay him two-fold for all injury done to his church or to his monastery."

Question after question the king asked of the priest, about Wales, the people, the churches, what treasures of books they possessed; and then Asser must tell him of the books that he had read and what they were about. In this eager conversation the whole day passed. The shadows began to lengthen, and still the king questioned. Suddenly he said:—

"You are weary and you shall rest, but first tell me one thing more. You are the man that I want. Will you stay with me and be my friend and help me to help my people? I will give you far more than you possess beyond the Severn. Will you stay?" Alfred was used to judging men and to making his decisions in a moment on the battlefield, and he knew his man at a glance; but Asser was used to solitude and quiet and plenty of time to think over matters.

"Do not think that I am ungrateful," he said, "but I cannot change my life in a moment. You offer me greater honors and greater wealth than I ever thought of possessing, but my people are in Wales. There I was brought up and educated, and there I received the tonsure and was ordained. I cannot think that I ought to abandon my home." The king looked disappointed, but in a moment he said eagerly:—

"Then come to me for six months in each year," but the cautious Asser replied:—

"I must consult my friends. I cannot promise even that so hastily." Alfred urged, and at last Asser agreed to return after six months with a reply which the king was shrewd enough to see would probably be satisfactory.

Poor Asser was taken ill on the way home, and could not return to the king as he had promised. Alfred had been impatiently waiting, and when the day came and did not bring the priest, royal messengers were sent to hasten his journey. More than six months longer passed before Asser could leave his sick-bed, but then he went directly to Alfred; for the Welsh priests had decided, as Alfred expected, that it would be of advantage to their church to have one of their number at the king's court.

The six months passed all too rapidly for the king and too slowly for the priest; for in spite of the king's kindness and the lavish presents that he was every day giving to the priest, and in spite of the learned man's pleasure in reading and conversing with so eager a pupil, the poor exile was undeniably homesick. The six months were gone. Week after week went by. Many times Asser begged to go, but always the king put him off with some excuse. At last Christmas was near, and Asser made up his mind to demand leave to go home, and when the king sent for him on Christmas Eve, he went with his speech all prepared. He had no chance to deliver it, for the king met him with a smile and held out two sheets of parchment for him to read. On them were long lists of the treasures in two monasteries, one in Wilts and one in Wessex.

"This is your Christmas gift," said the king; and he added a silken pall of great value and as much incense as a strong man could carry.

"I have many more gifts for you," said Alfred, "but now visit your monasteries and your own country, and then come back to me. An escort is waiting to attend you. Farewell, and do not fail me."

Long before this Alfred had established schools and restored convents, so that his people might have the advantages that had been denied to him. He insisted that all the free young folk of his kingdom should learn to read Saxon, and that all who had ability and could give more time to study should go on and learn Latin, which was the book-language of the day. Doubtless some of Alfred's people were a little shocked when they found that the king's son was taught to read even before he learned to hunt. The poor old ealdermen who had fought so bravely with Alfred had rather a hard time of it, for, as they acted as judges in their districts, it would not do to have them ignorant of the laws and their meaning. The old fighters strove courageously and would often lament that they had not had in their youth the opportunities that their sons were having. Many of them gave up the terrible struggle with the alphabet. They could conquer the Danes, but not the a, b, c; and for them Alfred appointed teachers to read and talk to them and tell them the wonderful things that were in books.

But Alfred was to do much more to teach his people than even to open schools. Few would ever go further in their education than to learn to read Saxon, and there were not many Saxon books. The king must not only build the schools, he must prepare the books, and the way it came about was this. Some three years after Alfred's first acquaintance with Asser, the two men were sitting in the king's chamber holding one of their long talks about all sorts of things, and Asser chanced to read the king a sentence that he particularly liked.

"I must remember that," said Alfred. "Will you write it in my book?" and he drew forth the little book of psalms that Swithin had given him so long ago, and that he had always carried with him. The few pages were full of psalms and prayers, and there was no room for more, so Asser hurried away to get another parchment, and folded it into convenient form.

"Write it fast," said the impatient king, for poor Asser was too anxious to give a good specimen of the writing done in the book-room of his monastery.

"Why can't I translate this into Saxon and give it to my people?" asked the king eagerly; and before Asser could answer, Alfred was saying over the Latin to himself and putting it, word by word, into simple, everyday Saxon.

"Now read me more," he said, and in the course of that one day he found three other quotations that pleased him. The priest must write these in the little book "fast," and the king would hardly wait till they had been written before he began to translate them from Latin to Saxon. So it was that Alfred began to be an author.

Asser's love had been won very slowly, but when the king had once gained it, the Welsh priest was his friend forever, and it is Asser himself who has told us this story of Alfred's first beginning of book-making for his people.

Alfred does not seem to have hesitated about which books were of most value. First he translated a letter of Pope Gregory's that was written to teach bishops how to do the most that they could for their dioceses. Then came a book about the Saxons' own land, written by a monk named Bede. It was two hundred years old in Alfred's time, and he added to it whenever he knew more of any subject than Bede had known. This is the famous old book that says there are no snakes in Ireland, and it goes even farther, for it says that if any one is bitten by a serpent and is given to drink a little of the scrapings of an Irish book put into water, he will recover.

The book that must have taken him longest, and which, I fancy, is the one that interested him most, is a work by a Spaniard called Orosius, who lived about five hundred years before Alfred. It is a kind of history and geography combined. Alfred translates and explains. When he comes to the description of Sweden, he leaves Orosius and writes what Othere, one of his own sea-captains, has told him of the country. Longfellow has made a poem of the story:—

"Othere, the old sea-captain,

Who dwelt in Helgoland,

To King Alfred the Lover of Truth,

Brought a snow-white walrus tooth,

Which he held in his brown right hand.

*     *     *     *     *

"And Alfred, King of the Saxons,

Had a book upon his knees,

And wrote down the wondrous tale

Of him who was first to sail

Into the arctic seas."

Then Longfellow goes on and tells the story of Othere's wonderful voyage to the North Cape, almost in the sea-captain's own words.

Alfred translated other books and persuaded his bishops to follow his example. In his translating, he never forgot that he was working to teach his people, and if the passage was not clear he would write a little more to explain it. If there was an illustration that he thought they would not understand, he would leave it out and put in one of his own. To one of his books there is a little preface which seems to have been written by some one else at his dictation. It ends by asking that, if any read it who know more than he, they will not blame him for his mistakes, for he has done as well as he could.

Alfred was performing the duties of king, warrior, statesman, teacher, author, builder of forts and churches and convents and ships. With his instinct for seizing upon what was of value to him in everything, he made up his mind to imitate the systematic life of the cloister not only in dividing his time, but in the use that he made of his money. He determined that half his time and half his money should go to the special service of God. To divide his money was not difficult, to divide his time in those clockless days was not so easy; but when a thing was to be done, Alfred, king of the Saxons, could always find a way. On clear days there was no trouble, for he could tell the progress of time by the progress of the sun; so he found how long a candle must be in order to burn four hours. Six candles, then, would burn just one day and night, and by marking each candle into twelve spaces, he could divide his time into periods of twenty minutes each.

There was one difficulty which he had not foreseen. Even the king's palace was so full of draughts that no corner of it could be found sufficiently sheltered to prevent the candles from burning unequally, and the king saw that he was not dividing his time as exactly as he had thought. His next idea was to surround the candles with thin sheets of horn, making a sort of lantern, and poor, admiring Asser, ignorant of the merits of plate glass, says with enthusiasm that the candles shone just as brightly without as within.

Once more the Danish pirates made an attempt to subdue the king. In 893 a leader named Hasting came to Kent with a great force. He made one camp in northern Kent and another near the southern shore. His plan seems to have been to slip through the forest and attack Winchester or Reading. The king was well prepared, and for one year the enemy did little but to send out an occasional marauding party.

The Danes of northern and eastern England had been growing more and more uneasy, and the second year of the war Hasting determined to take refuge in East Anglia and collect more troops. He hoped not to meet Alfred, but the king and Prince Edward pursued, and Hasting lost a great battle. All the old love of fighting had been aroused in the Danes of the eastern coast, and crowds of them joined the pirate leader. On the east and south and west, the enemy attacked the Saxon kingdom. At every point Alfred or his son Edward or his brave son-in-law Ethelred, ealderman of Mercia, was ready for them. Twice Hasting's wife and children fell into the hands of Alfred, and twice, in spite of the protests of his ealdermen, he restored them to his foe, laden with gifts; but this generosity seems to have been lost on the pirate.

Finally, Hasting went with his fleet up the Thames and the river Lea, and built a strong fort twenty miles from London. Unfortunately for him, he was fighting with a man of inventive mind; and to this king who could make a clock of candles, the thought occurred that he could easily obstruct the river or turn it out of its course, and leave the Danish fleet on dry land. He set to work at once, but this prospect was too much for even the Danes. They saw that they were beaten, and fled, leaving their ships to the mercy of the Saxons. There were small uprisings after this, but practically the land was at peace.

Four years of quiet happiness in the kingdom that he had built up remained to the king. His dearly loved sister Ethelswitha had gone over sea and land that she might spend her last days in Rome and be buried beside her husband. Before reaching Rome she died, but save for this loss there was not a shadow over the family life of the king. His wife was all that he could ask, and his children were worthy of their parents. His oldest daughter became the wife of the brave Ethelred, ealderman of Mercia; the second was abbess of a great convent; the third married a son of the Count of Flanders and the king's playmate stepmother Judith. Of Alfred's two sons, the younger showed a love of learning that was a delight to his father; and the older proved for many years before the king's death his ability to govern and protect the land of the Saxons.

In 901 Alfred died and was buried with his father at Winchester. At twenty-two he inherited a land overrun by savage pirates,—a restless, ignorant, defenseless land. The king was not safe in his palace, the priest in his church. There was little opportunity for agriculture; laws were not executed; schools had disappeared, the very wish to learn had disappeared; the whole land was rapidly sinking into ignorance and barbarism, and was exhausted by its sickening dread of the horrors that the next moment might bring.

To restore a land in such a condition to peace and quiet and safety and freedom from fear of harm, to establish churches and schools, to make just laws, and see to it that they were justly executed—a man might well have been proud to have succeeded in doing any one of these things; and for the man who brought about all these good results, no praise can be too high. To him who, in the midst of all the fighting and the weariness and the anxiety and the temptation and the responsibility, lived a calm, simple, unselfish, blameless life, to him of all the sovereigns of England who have served their country well, may the title, "The Great," most justly be given.

"I have sought to live my life worthily."

—Alfred the Great.

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