Who Shall Be King?
E THELBALD had intended that Alfred should live with him, but here Bishop Swithin interposed and to some purpose.
"King Ethelbald," he said, "you well know the feeling of your people. It is no stronger in Wessex than it is in Kent. The people of Kent love the child and are proud of having him among them. Take him away and they will—"
"Revolt?" said the king contemptuously. "Against whom? My brother Ethelbert has done nothing to arouse their anger. Let them attack me if they choose; I can crush any outbreak that the little realm of Kent can make."
"True," said the bishop, "you can, if you think it wise to try to subdue a domain that is not yours. You can lay the land of your brother waste, if you will; but in so doing you destroy the eastern bulwark against the Danes and open the way for them to march without let or hindrance into the heart of the country."
Ethelbald was quick to see where he must yield. "Have your own way then," he said. "Alfred is a child now, but when he is twelve, he comes to me. Understand that, will you? and if you have not made him into a psalm-singing churchman like yourselves, I will teach him how to be a prince and a soldier."
"There is a psalm-singing churchman called Alstan who once showed himself the best soldier in England," said the bishop quietly. "And there was once a psalm-singing Pope who fortified Rome and saved her from the attacks of the heathen."
"You priests always have the last word," sneered Ethelbald, "but the boy comes to me at twelve; there's no power in England to prevent that."
"There is a Power above England," said the bishop reverently, as Ethelbald strode away.
It was fortunate, perhaps, that Alfred was not asked with which one of his brothers he preferred to live, for it would have been very hard for him to choose. Ethelbald, who had fought in a real battle had always been looked upon with wonder and admiration by the little boy, who was so much younger than he; and Judith, the lovable, fascinating Judith, was with him in Wessex. Nothing would make up for the loss of Judith. But Alfred believed every word that Bishop Swithin said, and the bishop told him that Judith had done wrong, and that she would teach him to be a wicked man. Then, too, he had become very fond of Ethelbert, who seemed to him rather like a father than a brother, for Ethelbert's own children were not so many years younger than Alfred himself. Alfred loved these children and was happy with them, and in spite of his longing for Judith, he became before many days had passed the same cheerful little boy that he had always been.
Their life in Kent went on peacefully and quietly until the year 860 came and Alfred was nearly twelve years of age. Although Alfred knew nothing about it, Ethelbald had never given up his intention to have the boy come to him, and in every communication from the king of the West Saxons there was some mention made of the plan. Ethelbald had no child, and he had taken a dislike to Ethelred. The mild, wavering, undecided disposition of the younger brother had always annoyed Ethelbald, and he was determined that he would prevent Ethelred from succeeding to the throne of the West Saxons, and would train Alfred to be a prince after his own heart and to govern the kingdom as he himself governed it.
Bishop Swithin was greatly troubled about the matter. It was bad enough to have his little favorite put into the hands of a usurper, but to have the child himself taught to usurp the throne of the West Saxons when it belonged of right to his older brother would bring on revolt and disaster. The Danes would pounce down upon a country divided and at strife. Fire and rapine and murder, a devastated land, a king fleeing for his life or else become a victim of the Danish onslaught, churches torn down, convents burned, the land become a wilderness through which the wild beasts roamed fearlessly—when the bishop pictured all this to himself, it is no wonder that his heart sank. It was night. Hour after hour he lay awake. At last he rose, went into the chapel, and flung himself down before the altar.
"O God," he prayed, "the child is Thine, save him from those that would lead him astray. The land is Thine, save it for Thyself and Thy truth. Let not the child bring darkness and wrong upon his country; let him bring light and—" There was a thundering knock at the door, but the bishop in his anguish of soul did not heed it.
"The bishop! We must see the bishop," a loud voice cried.
"The bishop is at prayer," said the keeper of the door. "I shall not disturb him unless you come from the king."
"Tell him," cried the messenger, "that we come from the dead body of him that was king of the West Saxons." The bishop had heard the last words.
"God be thanked," said he, and then stopped in horror. "A wicked man has died in his sins. God pardon him," he said. "There is, indeed, a Power that rules over England," and he went forth to meet the messenger.
Ethelbald had fallen from his horse and had died almost instantly, and the counselors were in a difficulty. By Ethelwulf's will Ethelbert was to remain king of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex; and Ethelred was to follow Ethelbald as king of the West Saxons. Now in Ethelbald's plans that Alfred should succeed him, Ethelred had never been allowed to take his proper position as crown prince. To the people at large he was almost unknown. Alstan was far away on a journey. What to do for the best good of the land lay in the hands of the bishop and the company of counselors that followed hard upon the messenger. There at midnight in the bishop's chapel the fate of the kingdom was discussed.
"By the king's will to which we agreed," said one, "Ethelred should be king of the West Saxons."
"True," said another, "but matters are changed. When Ethelwulf died, the land was at peace. A child could have ruled the country. It is different now. There are rumors of the restlessness of the Danes. Should they come down upon our shores again, no gentle hand can defend us. We need a strong arm and a wise head. Bishop Swithin, you know the princes. Is Ethelred strong and wise and brave and fearless? Will he dare to give us justice in peace? Will he lead us worthily against our foes?"
"Ethelred—" began the bishop slowly, but the sound of hurrying horsemen was heard. A man who had been on guard rushed in breathlessly.
"I heard their words," he gasped. "They go to tell the princes of the death of the king."
"What we do must be done quickly," said one, with an impatient glance at the bishop, who stood silent, his eyes bent on the ground. At last the bishop spoke.
"The king must be one of the three," he said. "Alfred is too young, Ethelred is not the strong hand that should rule the land. I know, perhaps even more than you, of her dangers. We break the letter of Ethelwulf's will to favor no usurper, but to keep its spirit rather than its letter. I counsel that Ethelbert be made king of the West Saxons."
In a moment the counselors were on their horses and pressing onward to overtake those who were in advance of them. The sun was fully overhead when they reached the palace of King Ethelbert. The two parties of riders had chanced to take different roads in the forest and approached the palace from nearly opposite directions.
"We would see King Ethelbert," cried the counselors that had gone to the bishop.
"We demand to see Ethelred, our king," shouted the others.
In the presence of the three brothers there was a stormy scene. One party demanded the literal execution of the king's will; the other pleaded the needs of the kingdom. Ethelbert was thoughtful; Ethelred irresolute, at one moment ready to seize the throne that had been willed to him, and the next drawing back from the dangers and difficulties that lay before him who should rule the West Saxons. Many looked upon Alfred, the prince who had made the pilgrimage to Rome and who had been blessed by the Pope, and wished that he was older; but Alfred thought only of the death of his brother, his warrior brother, who had been his ideal of all that was strong and bold and warlike.
"They all go away from me," he said to himself, "my mother, my father, my sister, Judith, and now my brother—" but Ethelbert was speaking.
"There has never been discord among the sons of Ethelwulf," he said. "My brothers and myself will withdraw to an inner chamber and consult. Do you agree to await our decision and to abide by it?" One party said "Yes" frankly and willingly, the other slowly and doubtfully, but all felt that nothing better could be done. When the brothers were alone, Ethelbert said:—
"Ethelred, the kingdom of the West Saxons is yours by our father's will. Do you take it? Will you rule the people in peace and lead them in war?"
"Yes," said Ethelred, "I will take it."
"You know," said Ethelbert, "that it is a divided kingdom. Some would have you for king, some would have me, and some look with affection upon our younger brother and wish that it might fall into his hands before many years have passed. Can you meet this opposition?" Ethelred hesitated.
"This is not a new question to me," said Ethelbert. "Many weeks ago, two trusty counselors came to me and said that Ethelbald was in danger of his life as much from his own recklessness as from secret enemies. They told me that it would be the wish of many that I, who had had some experience in ruling, should take the throne of the West Saxons as well as that of Kent and the eastern districts, and hold it as a trust, not for my children, but for you, and after you, Alfred: that so the two kingdoms might gain in strength by union and that you who are younger might have years and experience before meeting your time of danger and responsibility. Do you agree to that, Ethelred?"
"I agree," said Ethelred, always ready to agree to the last speech.
"Alfred, do you agree that I shall take the throne of the West Saxons and that you shall not rule until after I and Ethelred are dead?"
"My father told me never to wish to be king before my brothers," said Alfred simply.
And so a parchment was written saying that Ethelred and Alfred waived their right to the rule of the West Saxons during the life of their older brother. When the parchment was passed to Alfred and he was told to make his mark, he said:—
"But I can write my name," and as the gray old counselors pressed near to see the wonderful thing, the boy slowly and laboriously wrote his name, "as well as a clerk could have done it," the counselors said.
There was great sorrow in the land of Kent when it was known that Ethelbert, though still their king, was to dwell chiefly in the region of the West Saxons, for his mild and just rule had made him very dear to them in the two years that he had held the kingdom. They were still more sorry because Alfred must go with him, for they had become very fond of the child; but there was no help for it, and Ethelbert and his two brothers removed to Alfred's old home at Wantage in Berkshire.
They had the long, pleasant sail on the river that Alfred remembered so well at the beginning of his great journey to Rome. He knew the very place where his father had spurred on his horse and dashed away into the woods; but perhaps the most vivid picture in his mind was of his mother as she stood in the door of the palace and bade him her last farewell; and as they rode up to the house, he felt for the jewel which hung on a light golden chain around his neck. As he touched it, he could almost believe that Osburga was with him, and was glad to have him return to the house that was so closely associated with her memory.
Little was changed about the place. Alfred wandered about, over the bridge where he used to fear the nixyman, to see the horses and dogs, to the bakery and to the smithy. Everywhere was a warm greeting for him.
"And have you lost the sword that I made you?" asked the smith.
"No, surely," said Alfred, "but it is too small now. Will you make me a larger one? And I want a spear too, for Ethelbert says I may go on a real boar-hunt when I am fourteen."
"And will you have a rune on your sword?" asked the smith with a sly twinkle in his eye.
"Bishop Swithin says that prayers are better than runes," said Alfred, "and he gave me this and told me to carry it with me always," and he drew forth from the bosom of his tunic a tiny parchment book of psalms and prayers.
"And can you really tell what the marks say?" asked the old blacksmith, gazing eagerly at the marvel.
"Judith taught me to read English," said Alfred, "and I can read the Latin a very little, but I know all this by heart. But when will you make me the spear? Will you do it right away? See how tall I am. I shall be fourteen before very long."
"Yes," said the smith. "And I'll put a rune on it too," he muttered as the child went away, "though I'm afraid that all this praying will spoil it."
Ethelbert had no time to think of boar-hunts, for there was much to be done in his new kingdom. First, he gave to the cathedral at Sherborne, where Ethelbald was buried, forty pounds of silver, three golden crosses, and land enough to feed one thousand swine. This gift for the repose of his brother's soul was from his own private property; and he also promised to give every year one hundred marks that prayers might be offered for Ethelbald and psalms sung once a week through the year.
The churches had suffered throughout Wessex, for Ethelbald had no interest in them, and he had taken as large a portion of their revenues as he dared to apply to other purposes. Ethelbert felt that his next business must be to right the wrongs that had been done them.
The defenses of the realm were in good order, for Ethelbald had strengthened them continually. In some respects his fighting men had been well prepared for fighting. They had weapons of one kind or another, and they knew how to use them. Even those who most disliked Ethelbald were proud of him, for he had taught them how to fight and how to follow a leader, and they were ready to plunge into any kind of danger, if there was but one brave man to go before them.
Even in the first few months of Ethelbert's reign, danger was nearer than any one thought, for a fleet of Danish boats had silently made their way down the English Channel. The Danes had meant to land boldly on Thanet, but a dense fog came up that suggested their passing by the eastern coast in the darkness, and then landing either on the Frankish shores or in southern England, as the wind might blow them. Storm or sunshine, it was all the same to them. They did not care for conquest and settlement, but only to burn and kill and go away laden with booty. They boasted that they slept under no roof and sat by no hearth. One son must stay at home to inherit and care for the ancestral property, but the others took the sea for their kingdom. The ship and the sword were their riches, and bracelets set with many jewels, which stood to them for bravery rather than for beauty, for they were the spoils of fighting, and on them their most solemn oaths were sworn. Their unwritten law was that a Dane must attack two and stand firm against three. He might retire one pace from four, but he must not fly for fewer than five. They knew no fear, and sought eagerly for a violent death, for he who would enter the halls of Odin must have died in battle, and his rank among the dead heroes depended upon the number of men that he had slain.
These were the people that under cover of the fog glided along the southern coast of England as far as the Isle of Wight. At the mouth of the Itchen River a pause was made.
"I have heard," said Weland, their leader, "that not many miles up this stream is a town with churches and convents and treasures of gold and silver and jewels and—" Shouts of delight from his followers interrupted him. "There are black-robed monks who pray against us to their gods till even Thor himself could not give us the victory. There are books with magical marks, and even our greatest runes have no power against them. Burn the books, kill the monks, and win your place in the halls of Odin. The coward falls to the realm of death and to the ninth world below death, to the darkness of the forgotten; but when the brave man dies, the Valkyrs go forth to meet him, and bear him with song and the clangor of sword and shield to Valhalla, and there he feasts with the gods forever and forever. Will ye be cowards or heroes? Will ye feast with the gods, or will ye go to the land of the forgotten and be as if ye never were? Let every man lay his hand upon the bracelets that he won by his valor and swear to be braver than ever before, or let him never dream of the joys of Valhalla, for with my own hand I will fling him off yonder cliff that he may die the death of the coward that he is."
Wild shouts of eagerness for the attack and defiance of their enemies rang through the foggy air.
"Then hear my words," said Weland. "Keep close to the shore under the shadow of the trees until we are in sight of the town. Then let not a word be spoken. Let not a sound be heard. Let no dry twig break under foot. Let no bird be disturbed in her nest as we go through the woods. When we come to the town, take your stand as I shall bid you; and then let no man stir from his place until Balder smiles upon our quest for glory. When I give the signal at the first ray of the sun, shout defiance, sing the song of Odin, the lord of battles, and follow the leader. Burn, kill, seize treasures, win your seats in the halls of the mighty."
The fog lifted, but protected by the night, the pirates rowed silently up the stream in their light boats. In the early gray of the morning, they could see vaguely against the eastern sky the outlines of the highest buildings. Forests were here and there in gloomy masses wherein no ray of light had penetrated. Beyond them were low-lying hills. There were rich pasture lands and cultivated fields, and in the midst of it was the quiet little town through which the river peacefully flowed.
Not a sound was heard; the village was sleeping fearlessly. Silently as a pestilence the Danes made their way up from the grassy shores of the river. Under the whispered commands of their leader, they divided into two parties. One party went softly around the town to the extreme west; the other took their stand on the little bridge that Bishop Swithin had built, little thinking that it would ever serve as a vantage ground for their foes.
There was a moment of stillness. Even a fiend might have pitied the little village sleeping so trustfully in the first gray glimmerings of the morning. Light mists showed the course of the river winding gently through the meadows. The willows bending over it took on a tinge of green. A gentle breeze brought the freshness of the forest to the men standing like statues on the bridge and at the western side of the town. A bird chirped sleepily. The church towers grew more distinct every moment. Far away on the hills a cock crowed, and from a still more distant hill an answer came. A dog barked, but his master only grumbled sleepily at being disturbed. The light grew stronger; the east was all aglow. The first ray of the sun shot over the hills.
"The gods be with us!" cried the Danes, and with shrieks of fiendish ecstasy they fell upon the defenseless village.