The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5

Author: T. Hughes  | Date: A.D. 371-901

Career of Alfred the Great

A.D. 371-901


Alfred the Great was the grandson of Egbert, King of the West Saxons, who during a reign of thirty-seven years consolidated in the Saxon heptarchy the seven Teutonic kingdoms into which Anglia or England had been divided, since the expulsion of the Britons by the Saxons about 585. In the latter part of Egbert’s reign the Danish Northmen appeared in the estuaries and rivers of England, sacking and burning the towns along their banks. Ethelwulf who had been made King of Kent in 828, and succeeded his father Egbert as King of Anglia in 837, was early occupied in resisting and repelling attacks along his coasts, and by several successful pitched battles with the Danish invaders obtained comparative freedom from their visits for eight years. Ethelwulf had married Osburga, the daughter of Oslac his cupbearer, and had a daughter and five sons, of whom Alfred, the youngest, was born in 849. Part of Alfred’s childhood was spent in Rome. At Compiègne and Verberie among his playmates were Charles, the boy king of Aquitaine, and Judith, children of the French king Charles the Bald. Judith at fourteen years of age became Ethelwulf’s second wife, and when the old King died two years later, to the amazement and scandal of the nation married her stepson Ethelbald.

According to Ethelwulf’s will, Ethelbald became King of Wessex, Ethelbert, the second son, King of Kent, while Ethelred and Alfred were to be in the line of succession to Ethelbald. Ethelbald died in 860, and Judith returned to France, subsequently marrying Baldwin, Count of Flanders. Ethelbert as successor joined the kingdoms of Wessex and Kent. Alfred lived at the Court of Ethelbert, and became noted for the intelligence and studious activities which were to make his future reign the conspicuous epoch in English history, so brilliantly commemorated a thousand years after his death in 901, in the millenary celebrated in Winchester and its neighborhood in 1901.

Ethelbert died in 866 and was succeeded by Ethelred. In 868 Alfred married Elswitha, the daughter of Ethelred Mucil of Mercia. Meanwhile the Danes had resumed their predatory excursions, and in the winter of 870-871 Ethelred accompanied by Alfred attacked them at Reading, but after an initial victory was repulsed. Four days later, Ethelred and Alfred with their forces were attacked on Ashdown near White Horse Hill; after a heavy slaughter the Danes were put to flight. The Danes, however, reinforced by Guthrum with new troops from over the sea, within a fortnight resumed offensive operations, and at Merton, two months later, Ethelred was mortally wounded. He died almost immediately after the battle, and "at the age of twenty-three Alfred ascended the throne of his fathers, which was tottering, as it seemed, to its fall."


The throne of the West Saxons was not an inheritance to be desired in the year 871, when Alfred succeeded his gallant brother. It descended on him without comment or ceremony, as a matter of course. There was not even an assembly of the witan to declare the succession as in ordinary times. With Guthrum and Hinguar in their intrenched camp at the confluence of the Thames and Kennet, and fresh bands of marauders sailing up the former river, and constantly swelling the ranks of the pagan army during these summer months, there was neither time nor heart among the wise men of the West Saxons for strict adherence to the letter of the constitution, however venerable. The succession had already been settled by the Great Council, when they formally accepted the provisions of Ethelwulf’s will, that his three sons should succeed, to the exclusion of the children of any one of them.

The idea of strict hereditary succession has taken so strong a hold of us English in later times that it is necessary constantly to insist that our old English kingship was elective. Alfred’s title was based on election; and so little was the idea of usurpation, or of any wrong done to the two infant sons of Ethelred, connected with his accession, that even the lineal descendant of one of those sons, in his chronicle of that eventful year, does not pause to notice the fact that Ethelred left children. He is writing to his "beloved cousin Matilda," to instruct her in the things which he had received from ancient traditions, "of the history of our race down to these two kings from whom we have our origin." "The fourth son of Ethelwulf," he writes, "was Ethelred, who, after the death of Ethelbert, succeeded to the kingdom, and was also my grandfather’s grandfather. The fifth was Alfred, who succeeded after all the others to the whole sovereignty, and was your grandfather’s grandfather." And so passes on to the next facts, without a word as to the claims of his own lineal ancestor, though he had paused in his narrative at this point for the special purpose of introducing a little family episode.

When Alfred had buried his brother in the cloisters of Wimborne Minster, and had time to look out from his Dorsetshire resting-place, and take stock of the immediate prospects and work which lay before him, we can well believe that those historians are right who have told us that for the moment he lost heart and hope, and suffered himself to doubt whether God would by his hand deliver the afflicted nation from its terrible straits. In the eight pitched battles which we find by the Saxon Chronicle (Asser giving seven only) had already been fought with the pagan army, the flower of the youth of these parts of the West Saxon kingdom must have fallen. The other Teutonic kingdoms of the island, of which he was overlord, and so bound to defend, had ceased to exist except in name, or lay utterly powerless, like Mercia, awaiting their doom. Kent, Sussex, and Surrey, which were now an integral part of the royal inheritance of his own family, were at the mercy of his enemies, and he without a hope of striking a blow for them. London had been pillaged, and was in ruins. Even in Wessex proper, Berkshire and Hampshire, with parts of Wilts and Dorset, had been crossed and recrossed by marauding bands, in whose track only smoking ruins and dead bodies were found. "The land was as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness." These bands were at this very moment on foot, striking into new districts farther to the southwest than they had yet reached. If the rich lands of Somersetshire and Devonshire, and the yet unplundered parts of Wilts and Dorset, are to be saved, it must be by prompt and decisive fighting, and it is time for a king to be in the field. But it is a month from his brother’s death before Alfred can gather men enough round his standard to take the field openly. Even then, when he fights, it is "almost against his will," for his ranks are sadly thin, and the whole pagan army are before him, at Wilton near Salisbury. The action would seem to have been brought on by the impetuosity of Alfred’s own men, whose spirit was still unbroken, and their confidence in their young King enthusiastic. There was a long and fierce fight as usual, during the earlier part of which the Saxons had the advantage, though greatly outnumbered.

But again we get glimpses of the old trap of a feigned flight and ambuscade, into which they fell, and so again lose "possession of the place of death, "the ultimate test of victory. "This year," says the Saxon Chronicle, "nine general battles were fought against the army in the kingdom south of the Thames; besides which Alfred, the king’s brother, and single aldermen and king’s thanes, oftentimes made attacks on them, which were not counted; and within the year one king and nine jarls [earls] were slain." Wilton was the last of these general actions, and not long afterward, probably in the autumn, Alfred made peace with the pagans, on condition that they should quit Wessex at once.

They were probably allowed to carry off whatever spoils they may have been able to accumulate in their Reading camp, but I can find no authority for believing that Alfred fell into the fatal and humiliating mistake of either paying them anything or giving hostages or promising tribute. This young King, who, as crown prince, led the West Saxons up the slopes at Ashdown, when Bagsac, the two Sidrocs, and the rest were killed, and who has very much their own way of fighting—going into the clash of arms "when the hard steel rings upon the high helmets," and "the beasts of prey have ample spoil," like a veritable child of Odin—is clearly one whom it is best to let alone, at any rate so long as easy plunder and rich lands are to be found elsewhere, without such poison-mad fighting for every herd of cattle and rood of ground. Indeed, I think the careful reader may trace from the date of Ashdown a decided unwillingness on the part of the Danes to meet Alfred, except when they could catch him at disastrous odds. They succeeded, indeed, for a time in overrunning almost the whole of his kingdom, in driving him an exile for a few wretched weeks to the shelter of his own forests; but whenever he was once fairly in the field they preferred taking refuge in strong places, and offering treaties and hostages to the actual arbitrament of battle.

So the pagan army quitted Reading, and wintered in 872 in the neighborhood of London, at which place they received proposals from Buhred, King of the Mercians, Alfred’s brother-in-law, and for a money payment pass him and his people contemptuously by for the time, making some kind of treaty of peace with them, and go northward into what has now become their own country. They winter in Lincolnshire, gathering fresh strength during 873 from the never-failing sources of supply across the narrow seas. Again, however, in this year of ominous rest they renew their sham peace with poor Buhred and his Mercians, who thus manage to tide it over another winter. In 874, however, their time has come. In the spring, the pagan army under the three kings, Guthrum, Oskytal, and Amund, burst into Mercia. In this one only of the English Teutonic kingdoms they find neither fighting nor suffering hero to cross their way, and leave behind for a thousand years the memory of a noble end, cut out there in some half-dozen lines of an old chronicler, but full of life and inspiration to this day for all Englishmen. The whole country is overrun, and reduced under pagan rule, without a blow struck, so far as we know, and within the year.

Poor Buhred, titular King of the Mercians, who has made believe to rule this English kingdom these twenty-two years—who in his time has marched with his father-in-law Ethelwulf across North Wales—has beleaguered Nottingham with his brothers-in-law, Ethelred and Alfred, six years back, not without show of manhood—sees for his part nothing for it under such circumstances but to get away as swiftly as possible, as many so-called kings have done before him, and since. The West Saxon court is no place for him, quite other views of kingship prevailing in those parts. So the poor Buhred breaks away from his anchors, leaving his wife Ethelswitha even, in his haste, to take refuge with her brother; or is it that the heart of the daughter of the race of Cerdic swells against leaving the land which her sires had won, the people they had planted there, in the moment of sorest need? In any case Buhred drifts away alone across into France, and so toward the winter to Rome, There he dies at once—about Christmas—time, 874—of shame and sorrow probably, or of a broken heart as we say; at any rate having this kingly gift left in him, that he cannot live and look on the ruin of his people, as St. Edmund’s brother Edwold is doing in these same years, "near a clear well at Carnelia, in Dorsetshire," doing the hermit business there on bread and water.

The English in Rome bury away poor Buhred, with all the honors, in the Church of St. Mary’s, to which the English schools rebuilt by his father-in-law Ethelwulf were attached. Ethelswitha visited, or started to visit, the tomb years later, we are told, in 888, when Mercia had risen to new life under her great brother’s rule. Through these same months Guthrum, Oskytal, and the rest are wintering at Repton, after destroying there the cloister where the kingly line of Mercia lie; disturbing perhaps the bones of the great Offa, whom Charlemagne had to treat as an equal.

Neither of the pagan kings is inclined at this time to settle in Mercia; so, casting about what to do with it, they light on "a certain foolish man," a king’s thane, one Ceolwulf, and set him up as a sort of King Popinjay. From this Ceolwulf they take hostages for the payment of yearly tribute—to be wrung out of these poor Mercians on pain of dethronement—and for the surrender of the kingdom to them on whatever day they would have it back again. Foolish king’s thanes, turned into King Popin-jays by pagans, and left to play at government on such terms, are not pleasant or profitable objects in such times as these of one thousand years since—or indeed in any times, for the matter of that. So let us finish with Ceolwulf, just noting that a year or two later his pagan lords seem to have found much of the spoil of monasteries, and the pickings of earl and churl, of folkland and bookland, sticking to his fingers, instead of finding its way to their coffers. This was far from their meaning in setting him up in the high places of Mercia. So they strip him and thrust him out, and he dies in beggary.

This, then, is the winter’s work of the great pagan army at Repton, Alfred watching them and their work doubtless with keen eye—not without misgivings too at their numbers, swollen again to terrible proportions since they sailed away down Thames after Wilton fight. It will take years yet before the gaps in the fighting strength of Wessex, left by those nine pitched battles, and other smaller fights, will be filled by the crop of youths passing from childhood to manhood. An anxious thought, that, for a young king.

The pagans, however, are not yet ready for another throw for Wessex; and so when Mercia is sucked dry for the present, and will no longer suitably maintain so great a host, they again sever. Halfdene, who would seem to have joined them recently, takes a large part of the army away with him northward. Settling his head-quarters by the river Tyne, he subdues all the land, and "ofttimes spoils the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons." Among other holy places in those parts, Halfdene visits the Isle of Lindisfarne, hoping perhaps in his pagan soul not only to commit ordinary sacrilege in the holy places there, which is everyday work for the like of him, but even to lay impious hands on, and to treat with indignity, the remains of that holy man St. Cuthbert, who has become, in due course, patron and guardian saint of hunters, and of that scourge of pagans, Alfred the West Saxon. If such were his thoughts, he is disappointed of his sacrilege; for Bishop Eardulf and Abbot Eadred—devout and strenuous persons—having timely warning of his approach, carry away the sainted body from Lindisfarne, and for nine years hide with it up and down the distracted northern counties, now here, now there, moving that sacred treasure from place to place until this bitterness is overpast, and holy persons and things, dead or living, are no longer in danger, and the bodies of saints may rest safely in fixed shrines; the pagan armies and disorderly persons of all kinds having been converted or suppressed in the mean time; for which good deed the royal Alfred—in whose calendar St. Cuthbert, patron of huntsmen, stands very high—will surely warmly befriend them hereafter, when he has settled his accounts with many persons and things. From the time of this incursion of Halfdene, Northumbria may be considered once more a settled state, but a Danish, not a Saxon one.

The rest and greater part of the army, under Guthrum, Oskytal, and Amund, on leaving Repton, strike southeast, through what was "Landlord" Edmund’s country, to Cambridge, where, in their usual heathen way, they pass the winter of 875.

The downfall, exile, and death of his brother-in-law in 874 must have warned Alfred, if he had any need of warning, that no treaty could bind these foemen, and that he had nothing to look for but the same measure as soon as the pagan leaders felt themselves strong enough to mete it out to him and Wessex. In the following year we accordingly find him on the alert, and taking action in a new direction. These heathen pirates, he sees, fight his people at terrible advantage by reason of their command of the sea. This enables them to choose their own point of attack, not only along the sea-coast, but up every river as far as their light galleys can swim; to retreat unmolested, at their own time, whenever the fortune of war turns against them; to bring reinforcements of men and supplies to the scene of action without fear of hindrance. His Saxons have long since given up their seafaring habits. They have become before all things an agricultural people, drawing almost everything they need from their own soil. The few foreign tastes they have are supplied by foreign traders. However, if Wessex is to be made safe the seakings must be met on their own element; and so, with what expenditure of patience and money and encouraging words and example we may easily conjecture, the young King gets together a small fleet, and himself takes command of it. We have no clew to the point on the south coast where the admiral of twenty-five fights his first naval action, but know only that in the summer of 875 he is cruising with his fleet, and meets seven tall ships of the enemy. One of these he captures, and the rest make off after a hard fight—no small encouragement to the sailor King, who has thus for another year saved Saxon homesteads from devastation by fire and sword.

The second wave of invasion had now at last gathered weight and volume enough, and broke on the King and people of the West Saxons.

The year 876 was still young when the whole pagan army, which had wintered at and about Cambridge, marched to their ships and put to sea. Guthrum was in command, with the other two kings, Anketel and Amund, as his lieutenants, under whom was a host as formidable as that which had marched across Mercia through forest and waste, and sailed up the Thames five years before to the assault of Reading. There must have been some few days of harassing suspense, for we cannot suppose that Alfred was not aware of the movements of his terrible foes. Probably his new fleet cruised off the south coast on the watch for them, and all up the Thames there were gloomy watchings and forebodings of a repetition of the evil days of 871. But, the suspense was soon over. Passing by the Thames’ mouth, and through Dover Straits, the pagan fleet sailed, and westward still past many tempting harbors and rivers’ mouths, until they came off the coast of Dorsetshire. There they land at Wareham, and seize and fortify the neck of land between the rivers Frome and Piddle, on which stood, when they landed, a fortress of the West Saxons and a monastery of holy virgins. Fortress and monastery fell into the hands of the Danes, who set to work at once to throw up earthworks and otherwise fortify a space large enough to contain their army, and all spoil brought in by marauding bands from this hitherto unplundered country. This fortified camp was soon very strong, except on the western side, upon which Alfred shortly appeared with a body of horsemen and such other troops as could be gathered hastily together. The detachment of the pagans, who were already out pillaging the whole neighborhood, fell back apparently before him, concentrating on the Wareham camp. Before its outworks Alfred paused. He is too experienced a soldier now to risk at the outset of a campaign such a disaster as that which he and Ethelred had sustained in their attempt to assault the camp at Reading in 871. He is just strong enough to keep the pagans within their lines, but has no margin to spare. So he sits down before the camp, but no battle is fought, neither he nor Guthrum caring to bring matters to that issue. Soon negotiations are commenced, and again a treaty is made.

On this occasion Alfred would seem to have taken special pains to bind his faithless foe. All the holy relics which could be procured from holy places in the neighborhood were brought together, that he himself and his people might set the example of pledging themselves in the most solemn manner known to Christian men. Then a holy ring or bracelet, smeared with the blood of beasts sacrificed to Woden, was placed on a heathen altar. Upon this Guthrum and his fellow kings and earls swore on behalf of the army that they would quit the King’s country and give hostages. Such an oath had never been sworn by Danish leader on English soil before. It was the most solemn known to them. They would seem also to have sworn on Alfred’s relics, as an extra proof of their sincerity for this once, and their hostages "from among the most renowned men in the army" were duly handed over. Alfred now relaxed his watch, even if he did not withdraw with the main body of his army, leaving his horse to see that the terms of the treaty were performed, and to watch the Wareham camp until the departure of the pagan host. But neither oath on sacred ring, nor the risk to their hostages, weighed with Guthrum and his followers when any advantage was to be gained by treachery. They steal out of the camp by night, surprise and murder the Saxon horsemen, seize the horses, and strike across the country, the mounted men leading, to Exeter, but leaving a sufficient garrison to hold Wareham for the present. They surprise and get possession of the western capital, and there settle down to pass the winter. Rollo, fiercest of the vikings, is said by Asser to have passed the winter with them in their Exeter quarters on his way to Normandy; but whether the great robber himself were here or not, it is certain that the channel swarmed with pirate fleets, who could put in to Wareham or Exeter at their discretion, and find a safe stronghold in either place from which to carry fire and sword through the unhappy country.

Alfred had vainly endeavored to overtake the march to Exeter in the autumn of 876, and, failing in the pursuit, had disbanded his own troops as usual, allowing them to go to their own homes until the spring. Before he could be afoot again in the spring of 877 the main body of the pagans at Exeter had made that city too strong for any attempt at assault, so the King and his troops could do no more than beleaguer it on the land side, as he had done at Wareham. But Guthrum could laugh at all efforts of his great antagonist, and wait in confidence the sure disbanding of the Saxon troops at harvest time, so long as his ships held the sea.

Supplies were running short in Exeter, but the Exe was open and communications going on with Wareham. It is arranged that the camp there shall be broken up, and the whole garrison with their spoil shall join head-quarters. One hundred and twenty Danish war-galleys are freighted, and beat down channel, but are baffled by adverse winds for nearly a month. They and all their supplies may be looked for any day in the Exe when the wind changes. Alfred, from his camp before Exeter, sends to his little fleet to put to sea. He cannot himself be with them as in their first action, for, he knows well that Guthrum will seize the first moment of his absence to sally from Exeter, break the Saxon lines, and scatter his army in roving bands over Devonshire, on their way back to the eastern kingdom. The Saxon fleet puts out, manned itself, as some say, partly with sea-robbers, hired to fight their own people. However manned, it attacks bravely a portion of the pirates. But a mightier power than the fleet fought for Alfred at this crisis. First a dense fog and then a great storm came on, bursting on the south coast with such fury that the pagans lost no less than one hundred of their chief ships off Swanage, as mighty a deliverance perhaps for England—though the memory of it is nearly forgotten—as that which began in the same seas seven hundred years later, when Drake and the sea-kings of the sixteenth century were hanging on the rear of the Spanish armada along the Devon and Dorset coasts, while the beacons blazed up all over England and the whole nation flew to arms.

The destruction of the fleet decided the fate of the siege of Exeter. Once more negotiations are opened by the pagans; once more Alfred, fearful of driving them to extremities, listens, treats, and finally accepts oaths and more hostages, acknowledging probably in sorrow to himself that he can for the moment do no better. And on this occasion Guthrum, being caught far from home, and without supplies or ships, "keeps the peace well," moving as we conjecture, watched jealously by Alfred, on the shortest line across Devon and Somerset to some ford in the Avon, and so across into Mercia, where he arrives during harvest, and billets his army on Ceolwulf, camping them for the winter about the city of Gloster. Here they run up huts for themselves, and make some pretense of permanent settlement on the Severn, dividing large tracts of land among those who cared to take them.

The campaigns of 876-77 are generally looked upon as disastrous ones for the Saxon arms, but this view is certainly not supported by the chroniclers. It is true that both at Wareham and Exeter the pagans broke new ground, and secured their position, from which no doubt they did sore damage in the neighboring districts, but we can trace in these years none of the old ostentatious daring and thirst for battle with Alfred. Whenever he appears the pirate bands draw back at once into their strongholds, and, exhausted as great part of Wessex must have been by the constant strain, the West Saxons show no signs yet of falling from their gallant King. If he can no longer collect in a week such an army as fought at Ashdown, he can still, without much delay, bring to his side a sufficient force to hem the pagans in and keep them behind their ramparts.

But the nature of the service was telling sadly on the resources of the kingdom south of the Thames. To the Saxons there came no new levies, while from the north and east of England, as well as from over the sea, Guthrum was ever drawing to his standard wandering bands of sturdy Northmen. The most important of these reinforcements came to him from an unexpected quarter this autumn. We have not heard for some years of Hubba, the brother of Hinguar, the younger of the two vikings who planned and led the first great invasion in 868. Perhaps he may have resented the arrival of Guthrum and other kings in the following years, to whom he had to give place. Whatever may have been the cause, he seems to have gone off on his own account: carrying with him the famous raven standard, to do his appointed work in these years on other coasts under its ominous shade.

This "war flag which they call raven" was a sacred object to the Northmen. When Hinguar and Hubba had heard of the death of their father, Regnar Lodbrog, and had resolved to avenge him, while they were calling together their followers, their three sisters in one day wove for them this war-flag, in the midst of which was portrayed the figure of a raven. Whenever the flag went before them into battle, if they were to win the day the sacred raven would rouse itself and stretch its wings; but if defeat awaited them, the flag would hang round its staff and the bird remain motionless. This wonder had been proved in many a fight, so the wild pagans who fought under the standard of Regnar’s children believed. It was a power in itself, and Hubba and a strong fleet were with it.

They had appeared in the Bristol Channel in this autumn of 877, and had ruthlessly slaughtered and spoiled the people of South Wales. Here they propose to winter; but, as the country is wild mountain for the most part, and the people very poor, they will remain no longer than they can help. Already a large part of the army about Gloster are getting restless. The story of their march from Devonshire, through rich districts of Wessex yet unplundered, goes round among the new-comers. Guthrum has no power, probably no will, to keep them to their oaths. In the early winter a joint attack is planned by him and Hubba on the West Saxon territory. By Christmas they are strong enough to take the field, and so in midwinter, shortly after Twelfth Night, the camp at Gloster breaks up, and the army "stole away to Chippenham," recrossing the Avon once more into Wessex, under Guthrum. The fleet, after a short delay, crosses to the Devonshire coast, under Hubba, in thirty warships.

And now at last the courage of the West Saxons gives way. The surprise is complete. Wiltshire is at the mercy of the pagans, who, occupying the royal burgh of Chippenham as head-quarters, overrun the whole district, drive many of the inhabitants "beyond the sea for want of the necessaries of life," and reduce to subjection all those that remain. Alfred is at his post, but for the moment can make no head against them. His own strong heart and trust in God are left him, and with them and a scanty band of followers he disappears into the forest of Selwood, which then stretched away from the confines of Wiltshire for thirty miles to the west. East Somerset, now one of the fairest and richest of English counties, was then for the most part thick wood and tangled swamp, but miserable as the lodging is it is welcome for the time to the King. In the first months of 878 Selwood Forest holds in its recesses the hope of England.

It is at this point, as is natural enough, that romance has been most busy, and it has become impossible to disentangle the actual facts from monkish legend and Saxon ballad. In happier times Alfred was in the habit himself of talking over the events of his wandering life pleasantly with his courtiers, and there is no reason to doubt that the foundation of most of the stories still current rests on those conversations of the truth-loving King, noted down by Bishop Asser and others.

The best known of these is, of course, the story of the cakes. In the depths of the Saxon forests there were always a few neatherds and swineherds, scattered up and down, living in rough huts enough, we may be sure, and occupied with the care of the cattle and herds of their masters. Among these in Selwood was a neatherd of the King, a faithful man, to whom the secret of Alfred’s disguise was intrusted, and who kept it even from his wife. To this man’s hut the King came one day alone, and, sitting himself down by the burning logs on the hearth, began mending his bow and arrows. The neatherd’s wife had just finished her baking, and having other household matters to attend to, confided her loaves to the King, a poor tired-looking body, who might be glad of the warmth, and could make himself useful by turning the batch, and so earn his share while she got on with other business. But Alfred worked away at his weapons, thinking of anything but the good housewife’s batch of loaves, which in due course were not only done, but rapidly burning to a cinder. At this moment the neatherd’s wife comes back, and flying to the hearth to rescue the bread, cries out: "Drat the man! never to turn the loaves when you see them burning. I’ze warrant you ready enough to eat them when they are done." But besides the King’s faithful neatherd, whose name is not preserved, there are other churls in the forest, who must be Alfred’s comrades just now if he will have any. And even here he has an eye for a good man, and will lose no opportunity to help one to the best of his power. Such a one he finds in a certain swineherd called Denewulf, whom he gets to know, a thoughtful Saxon man, minding his charge there in the oak woods. The rough churl, or thrall, we know not which, has great capacity, as Alfred soon finds out, and desire to learn. So the King goes to work upon Denewulf under the oak trees, when the swine will let him, and is well satisfied with the results of his teaching and the progress of his pupil.

But in those miserable days the commonest necessaries of life were hard enough to come by for the King and his few companions, and for his wife and family, who soon joined him in the forest, even if they were not with him from the first. The poor foresters cannot maintain them, nor are this band of exiles the men to live on the poor. So Alfred and his comrades are soon out foraging on the borders of the forest, and getting what subsistence they can from the pagans, or from the Christians who had submitted to their yoke. So we may imagine them dragging on life till near Easter, when a gleam of good news comes up from the west, to gladden the hearts and strengthen the arms of these poor men in the depths of Selwood.

Soon after Guthrum and the main body of the pagans moved from Gloster, southward, the viking Hubba, as had been agreed, sailed with thirty ships-of-war from his winter quarters on the South Welsh coast, and landed in Devon. The news of the catastrophe at Chippenham, and of the disappearance of the King, was no doubt already known in the West; and in the face of it Odda the alderman cannot gather strength to meet the pagan in the open field. But he is a brave and true man, and will make no terms with the spoilers; so, with ether faithful thanes of King Alfred and their followers, he throws himself into a castle or fort called Cynwith, or Cynuit, there to abide whatever issue of this business God shall send them. Hubba, with the war-flag Raven, and a host laden with the spoil of rich Devon vales, appear in due course before the place. It is not strong naturally, and has only "walls in our own fashion," meaning probably rough earthworks. But there are resolute men behind them, and on the whole Hubba declines the assault, and sits down before the place. There is no spring of water, he hears, within the Saxon lines, and they are otherwise wholly unprepared for a siege. A few days will no doubt settle the matter, and the sword or slavery will be the portion of Odda and the rest of Alfred’s men; meantime there is spoil enough in the camp from Devonshire homesteads, which brave men can revel in round the war-flag Raven, while they watch the Saxon ramparts. Odda, however, has quite other views than death from thirst, or surrender. Before any stress comes, early one morning he and his whole force sally out over their earthworks, and from the first "cut down the pagans in great numbers": eight hundred and forty warriors—some say twelve hundred—with Hubba himself are slain before Cynuit fort; the rest, few in number, escape to their ships. The war-flag Raven is left in the hands of Odda and the men of Devon.

This is the news which comes to Alfred, Ethelnoth the alderman of Somerset, Denewulf the swineherd, and the rest of the Selwood Forest group, some time before Easter. These men of Devonshire, it seems, are still stanch, and ready to peril their lives against the pagan. No doubt up and down Wessex, thrashed and trodden out as the nation is by this time, there are other good men and true, who will neither cross the sea nor the Welsh marches nor make terms with the pagan; some sprinkling of men who will yet set life at stake, for faith in Christ and love of England. If these can only be rallied, who can say what may follow? So, in the lengthening days of spring, council is held in Selwood, and there will have been Easter services in some chapel or hermitage in the forest, or, at any rate, in some quiet glade. The "day of days" will surely have had its voice of hope for this poor remnant. Christ is risen and reigns; and it is not in these heathen Danes, or in all the Northmen who ever sailed across the sea, to put back his kingdom or to enslave those whom he has freed.

The result is that, far away from the eastern boundary of the forest, on a rising ground—hill it can scarcely be called—surrounded by dangerous marshes formed by the little rivers Thone and Parret, fordable only in summer, and even then dangerous to all who have not the secret, a small fortified camp is thrown up under Alfred’s eye, by Ethelnoth and the Somersetshire men, where he can once again raise his standard. The spot has been chosen by the King with the utmost care, for it is his last throw. He names it the Etheling’s eig or island, "Athelney." Probably his young son, the Etheling of England, is there among the first, with his mother and his grandmother Eadburgha, the widow of Ethelred Mucil, the venerable lady whom Asser saw in later years, and who has now no country but her daughter’s. There are, as has been reckoned, some two acres of hard ground on the island, and around vast brakes of alder-bush, full of deer and other game.

Here the Somersetshire men can keep up constant communication with him, and a small army grows together. They are soon strong enough to make forays into the open country, and in many skirmishes they cut off parties of the pagans and supplies. "For, even when overthrown and cast down," says Malmesbury, "Alfred had always to be fought with; so, then when one would esteem him altogether worn down and broken, like a snake slipping from the hand of him who would grasp it, he would suddenly flash out again from his hiding-places, rising up to smite his foes in the height of their insolent confidence, and never more hard to beat than after a flight."

But it was still a trying life at Athelney. Followers came in slowly, and provender and supplies of all kinds are hard to wring from the pagan, and harder still to take from Christian men. One day, while it was yet so cold that the water was still frozen, the King’s people had gone out "to get them fish or fowl, or some such purveyance as they sustained themselves withal." No one was left in the royal hut for the moment but himself, and his mother-in-law Eadburgha. The King—after his constant wont whensoever he had opportunity—was reading from the Psalms of David, out of the Manual which he carried always in his bosom. At this moment a poor man appeared at the door and begged for a morsel of bread "for Christ his sake." whereupon the King, receiving the stranger as a brother, called to his mother-in-law to give him to eat. Eadburgha replied that there was but one loaf in their store, and a little wine in a pitcher, a provision wholly insufficient for his own family and people. But the King bade her nevertheless to give the stranger part of the last loaf, which she accordingly did. But when he had been served the stranger was no more seen, and the loaf remained whole, and the pitcher full to the brim. Alfred, meantime, had turned to his reading, over which he fell asleep, and dreamt that St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne stood by him, and told him it was he who had been his guest, and that God had seen his afflictions and those of his people, which were now about to end, in token whereof his people would return that day from their expedition with a great take of fish. The King awakening, and being much impressed with his dream, called to his mother-in-law and recounted it to her, who thereupon assured him that she too had been overcome with sleep and had had the same dream. And while they yet talked together on what had happened so strangely to them, their servants come in, bringing fish enough, as it seemed to them, to have fed an army.

The monkish legend goes on to tell that on the next morning the King crossed to the mainland in a boat, and wound his horn thrice, which drew to him before noon five hundred men. What we may think of the story and the dream, as Sir John Spelman says, "is not here very much material," seeing that, whether we deem it natural or supernatural, "the one as well as the other serves at God’s appointment, by raising or dejecting of the mind with hopes or fears, to lead man to the resolution of those things whereof he has before ordained the event."

Alfred, we may be sure, was ready to accept and be thankful for any help, let it come from whence it might, and soon after Easter it was becoming clear that the time is at hand for more than skirmishing expeditions. Through all the neighboring counties word is spreading that their hero King is alive and on foot again, and that there will be another chance for brave men ere long of meeting once more these scourges of the land under his leading.

A popular legend is found in the later chroniclers which relates that at this crisis of his fortunes Alfred, not daring to rely on any evidence but that of his own senses as to the numbers, disposition, and discipline of the pagan army, assumed the garb of a minstrel and with one attendant visited the camp of Guthrum. Here he stayed, "showing tricks and making sport," until he had penetrated to the King’s tents, and learned all that he wished to know. After satisfying himself as to the chances of a sudden attack, he returns to Athelney, and, the time having come for a great effort, if his people will but make it, sends round messengers to the aldermen and king’s thanes of neighboring shires, giving them a tryst for the seventh week after Easter, the second week in May.

On or about the 12th of May, 878, King Alfred left his island in the great wood, and his wife and children and such household gods as he had gathered round him there, and came publicly forth among his people once more, riding to Egbert’s Stone—probably Brixton—on the east of Selwood, a distance of twenty-six miles. Here met him the men of the neighboring shires—Odda, no doubt, with his men of Devonshire, full of courage and hope after their recent triumph; the men of Somersetshire, under their brave and faithful alderman Ethelnoth; and the men of Wilts and Hants, such of them at least as had not fled the country or made submission to the enemy. "And when they saw their King alive after such great tribulation, they received him, as he merited, with joy and acclamation." The gathering had been so carefully planned by Alfred and the nobles who had been in conference or correspondence with him at Athelney that the Saxon host was organized and ready for immediate action on the very day of muster. Whether Alfred had been his own spy we cannot tell, but it is plain that he knew well what was passing in the pagan camp, and how necessary swiftness and secrecy were to the success of his attack.

Local traditions cannot be much relied upon for events which took place a thousand years ago, but where there is clearly nothing improbable in them they are at least worth mentioning. We may note, then, that according to Somersetshire tradition, first collected by Dr. Giles—himself a Somersetshire man, and one who, besides his Life of Alfred and other excellent works bearing on the time, is the author of the Harmony of the Chroniclers, published by the Alfred Committee in 1852—the signal for the actual gathering of the West Saxons at Egbert’s Stone was given by a beacon lighted on the top of Stourton hill, where Alfred’s Tower now stands. Such a beacon would be hidden from the Danes, who must have been encamped about Westbury, by the range of the Wiltshire hills, while it would be visible to the west over the low country toward the Bristol Channel, and to the south far into Dorsetshire.

Not an hour was lost by Alfred at the place of muster. The bands which came together there were composed of men well used to arms, each band under its own alderman, or reeve. The small army he had himself been disciplining at Athelney, and training in skirmishes during the last few months, would form a reliable centre on which the rest would have to form as best they could. So after one day’s halt he breaks up his camp at Egbert’s Stone and marches to AEglea, now called Clay hill, an important height, commanding the vale to the north of Westbury, which the Danish army were now occupying. The day’s march of the army would be a short five miles. Here the annals record that St. Neot, his kinsman, appeared to him, and promised that on the morrow his misfortunes would end.

There are still traces of rude earthworks round the top of Clay hill, which are said to have been thrown up by Alfred’s army at this time. If there had been time for such a work, it would undoubtedly have been a wise step, as a fortified encampment here would have served Alfred in good stead in case of a reverse. But the few hours during which the army halted on Clay hill would have been quite too short time for such an undertaking, which, moreover, would have exhausted the troops. It is more likely that the earthworks, which are of the oldest type, similar to those at White Horse hill, above Ashdown, were there long before Alfred’s arrival in May, 878. After resting one night on Clay hill, Alfred led out his men in close order of battle against the pagan host, which lay at Ethandune. There has been much doubt among the antiquaries as to the site of Ethandune, but Dr. Giles and others have at length established the claims of Edington, a village seven miles from Clay hill, on the northeast, to the spot where the strength of the second wave of pagan invasion was utterly broken and rolled back weak and helpless from the rock of the West Saxon kingdom.

Sir John Spelman, relying apparently only on the authority of Nicholas Harpesfeld’s Ecclesiastical History of England, puts a speech into Alfred’s mouth, which he is supposed to have delivered before the battle of Edington. He tells them that the great sufferings of the land had been yet far short of what their sins had deserved. That God had only dealt with them as a loving Father, and was now about to succor them, having already stricken their foe with fear and astonishment, and given him, on the other hand, much encouragement by dreams and otherwise. That they had to do with pirates and robbers, who had broken faith with them over and over again; and the issue they had to try that day was whether Christ’s faith or heathenism was henceforth to be established in England.

There is no trace of any such speech in the Saxon Chronicle or Asser, and the one reported does not ring like that of Judas Maccabaeus. That Alfred’s soul was on fire that morning, on finding himself once more at the head of a force he could rely on, and before the enemy he had met so often, we may be sure enough, but shall never know how the fire kindled into speech, if indeed it did so at all. In such supreme moments many of the strongest men have no word to say—keep all their heat within.

Nor have we any clew to the numbers who fought on either side at Ethandune, or indeed in any of Alfred’s battles. In the Chronicles there are only a few vague and general statements, from which little can be gathered. The most precise of them is that in the Saxon Chronicle, which gives eight hundred and forty as the number of men who were slain, as we heard, with Hubba before Cynuit fort, in Devonshire, earlier in this same year. Such a death-roll, in an action in which only a small detachment of the pagan army was engaged, would lead to the conclusion that the armies were far larger than one would expect. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine how any large bodies of men could find subsistence in a small country, which was the seat of so devastating a war, and in which so much land remained still unreclaimed. But whatever the power on either side amounted to we may be quite sure that it had been exerted to the utmost to bring as large a force as possible into line at Ethandune.

Guthrum fought to protect Chippenham, his base of operations, some sixteen miles in his rear, and all the accumulated plunder of the busy months which had passed since Twelfth Night; and it is clear that his men behaved with the most desperate gallantry. The fight began at noon—one chronicler says at sunrise, but the distance makes this impossible unless Alfred marched in the night—and lasted through the greater part of the day. Warned by many previous disasters the Saxons never broke their close order, and so, though greatly outnumbered, hurled back again and again the onslaughts of the Northmen. At last Alfred and his Saxons prevailed, and smote his pagan foes with a very great slaughter, and pursued them up to their fortified camp on Bratton hill or Edge, into which the great body of the fugitives threw themselves. All who were left outside were slain, and the great spoil was all recovered. The camp may still be seen, called Bratton Castle, with its double ditches and deep trenches, and barrow in the midst sixty yards long, and its two entrances guarded by mounds. It contains more than twenty acres, and commands the whole country side. There can be little doubt that this camp, and not Chippenham, which is sixteen miles away, was the last refuge of Guthrum and the great northern army on Saxon soil.

So, in three days from the breaking up of his little camp at Athelney, Alfred was once more King of all England south of the Thames; for this army of pagans, shut up within their earthworks on Bratton Edge, are little better than a broken and disorderly rabble, with no supplies and no chance of succor from any quarter. Nevertheless he will make sure of them, and above all will guard jealously against any such mishap as that of 876, when they stole out of Wareham, murdered the horsemen he had left to watch them, and got away to Exeter. So Bratton camp is strictly besieged by Alfred with his whole power.

Guthrum, the destroyer, and now the King of East Anglia, the strongest and ablest of all the Northmen who had ever landed in England, is now at last fairly in Alfred’s power. At Reading, Wareham, Exeter, he had always held a fortified camp, on a river easily navigable by the Danish warships, where he might look for speedy succor or whence at the worst he might hope to escape to the sea. But now he, with the remains of his army, is shut up in an inland fort with no ships on the Avon, the nearest river, even if they could cut their way out and reach it, and no hopes of reinforcements overland. Halfdene is the nearest viking who might be called to the rescue, and he, in Northumbria, is far too distant. It is a matter of a few days only, for food runs short at once in the besieged camp. In former years, or against any other enemy, Guthrum would probably have preferred to sally out and cut his way through the Saxon lines, or die sword in hand as a son of Odin should. Whether it were that the wild spirit in him is thoroughly broken for the time by the unexpected defeat at Ethandune, or that long residence in a Christian land and contact with Christian subjects have shaken his faith in his own gods, or that he has learned to measure and appreciate the strength and nobleness of the man he had so often deceived, at any rate for the time Guthrum is subdued. At the end of fourteen days he sends to Alfred, suing humbly for terms of any kind; offering on the part of the army as many hostages as may be required, without asking for any in return; once again giving solemn pledges to quit Wessex for good; and, above all, declaring his own readiness to receive baptism. If it had not been for the last proposal, we may doubt whether even Alfred would have allowed the ruthless foes with whom he and his people had fought so often, and with such varying success, to escape now. over and over again they had sworn to him, and broken their oaths the moment it suited their purpose; had given hostages, and left them to their fate. In all English kingdoms they had now for ten years been destroying and pillaging the houses of God and slaying even women and children. They had driven his sister’s husband from the throne of Mercia, and had grievously tortured the martyr Edmund. If ever foe deserved no mercy, Guthrum and his army were the men.

When David smote the children of Moab, he "measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive." When he took Rabbah of the children of Ammon, "he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln." That was the old Hebrew method, even under King David, and in the ninth century Christianity had as yet done little to soften the old heathen custom of "woe to the vanquished." Charlemagne’s proselytizing campaigns had been as merciless as Mahomet’s. But there is about this English King a divine patience, the rarest of all virtues in those who are set in high places. He accepts Guthrum’s proffered terms at once, rejoicing over the chance of adding these fierce heathen warriors to the church of his Master, by an act of mercy which even they must feel. And so the remnant of the army are allowed to march out of their fortified camp, and to recross the Avon into Mercia, not quite five months after the day of their winter attack and the seizing of Chippenham. The northern army went away to Cirencester, where they stayed over the winter, and then returning into East Anglia settled down there, and Alfred and Wessex hear no more of them. Never was triumph more complete or better deserved; and in all history there is no instance of more noble use of victory than this. The West Saxon army was not at once disbanded. Alfred led them back to Athelney, where he had left his wife and children; and while they are there, seven weeks after the surrender, Guthrum and thirty of the bravest of his followers arrive to make good their pledge.

The ceremony of baptism was performed at Wedmore, a royal residence which had probably escaped the fate of Chippenham, and still contained a church. Here Guthrum and his thirty nobles were sworn in, the soldiers of a greater King than Woden, and the white linen cloth, the sign of their new faith, was bound round their heads. Alfred himself was godfather to the viking, giving him the Christian name of Athelstan; and the chrism-loosing, or unbinding of the sacramental cloths, was performed on the eighth day by Ethelnoth, the faithful alderman of Somersetshire. After the religious ceremony there still remained the task of settling the terms upon which the victors and vanquished were hereafter to live together side by side in the same Island; for Alfred had the wisdom, even in his enemy’s humiliation, to accept the accomplished fact, and to acknowledge East Anglia as a Danish kingdom. The Witenagemot had been summoned to Wedmore, and was sitting there, and with their advice the treaty was then made, from which, according to some historians, English history begins.

We have still the text of the two documents which together contain Alfred and Guthrum’s peace, or the treaty of Wedmore; the first and shorter being probably the articles hastily agreed on before the capitulation of the Danish army at Chippenham; the latter the final terms settled between Alfred and his witan, and Guthrum and his thirty nobles, after mature deliberation and conference at Wedmore, but not formally executed until some years later.

The shorter one, that made at the capitulation, runs as follows:

"ALFRED AND GUTHRUM’S PEACE.—This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of ail the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia have all ordained, and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and their descendants, as well for born as unborn, who reck of God’s mercy or of ours.

"First, concerning our land boundaries. These are upon the Thames, and then upon the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street.

"Then there is this: if a man be slain we reckon all equally dear, English and Dane, at eight half marks of pure gold, except the churl who dwells on gavel land and their leisings, they are also equally dear at two hundred shillings. And if a king’s thane be accused of manslaughter, if he desire to clear himself, let him do so before twelve king’s thanes. If any man accuse a man who is of less degree than king’s thane, let him clear himself with eleven of his equals and one king’s thane. And so in every suit which be for more than four mancuses; and if he dare not, let him pay for it threefold, as it may be valued.

"Of Warrantors.—And that every man know his warrantor, for men, and for horses, and for oxen.

"And we all ordained, on that day that the oaths were sworn, that neither bondman nor freeman might go to the army without leave, nor any of them to us. But if it happen that any of them from necessity will have traffic with us, or we with them, for cattle or goods, that is to be allowed on this wise: that hostages be given in pledge of peace, and as evidence whereby it may be known that the party has a clean book."

By the treaty Alfred is thus established as King of the whole of England south of the Thames; of all the old kingdom of Essex south of the Lea, including London, Hertford, and St. Albans; of the whole of the great kingdom of Mercia, which lay to the west of Watling Street, and of so much to the east as lay south of the Ouse. That he should have regained so much proves the straits to which he had brought the northern army, who would have to give up all their new settlements round Gloster. That he should have resigned so much of the kingdom which had acknowledged his grandfather, father, and brothers as overlords proves how formidable his foe still was, even in defeat, and how thoroughly the northeastern parts of the island had by this time been settled by the Danes.

The remainder of the short treaty would seem simply to be provisional, and intended to settle the relations between Alfred’s subjects and the army while it remained within the limits of the new Saxon kingdom. Many of the soldiers would have to break up their homes in Glostershire; and, with this view, the halt at Cirencester is allowed, where, as we have already heard, they rest until the winter. While they remain in the Saxon kingdom there is to be no distinction between Saxon and Dane. The were-gild, or life-ransom, is to be the same in each case for men of like rank; and all suits for more than four mancuses (about twenty-four shillings) are to be tried by a jury of peers of the accused. On the other hand, only necessary communications are to be allowed between the northern army and the people; and where there must be trading, fair and peaceful dealing is to be insured by the giving of hostages. This last provision, and the clause declaring that each man shall know his warrantor, inserted in a five-clause treaty, where nothing but what the contracting parties must hold to be of the very first importance would find place, are another curious proof of the care with which our ancestors, and all Germanic tribes, guarded against social isolation—the doctrine that one man has nothing to do with another—a doctrine which the great body of their descendants, under the leading of Schultze, Delitzsch, and others, seem likely to repudiate with equal emphasis in these latter days, both in Germany and England.

Thus, in July, 878, the foundations of the new kingdom of England were laid, for new it undoubtedly became when the treaty of Wedmore was signed. The Danish nation, no longer strangers and enemies, are recognized by the heir of Cerdic as lawful owners of the full half of England. Having achieved which result, Guthrum and the rest of the new converts leave the Saxon camp and return to Cirencester at the end of twelve days, loaded with such gifts as it was still in the power of their conquerors to bestow: and Alfred was left in peace, to turn to a greater and more arduous task than any he had yet encountered.


Alfred was the noblest as he was the most complete embodiment of all that is great, all that is lovable, in the English temper. He combined as no other man has ever combined its practical energy, its patient and enduring force, its profound sense of duty, the reserve and self-control that steady in it a wide outlook and a restless daring, its temperance and fairness, its frank geniality, its sensitiveness to action, its poetic tenderness, its deep and passionate religion. Religion, indeed, was the groundwork of Alfred’s character. His temper was instinct with piety. Everywhere throughout his writings that remain to us the name of God, the thought of God, stir him to outbursts of ecstatic adoration.

But he was no mere saint. He felt none of that scorn of the world about him which drove the nobler souls of his day to monastery or hermitage. Vexed as he was by sickness and constant pain, his temper took no touch of asceticism. His rare geniality, a peculiar elasticity and mobility of nature, gave color and charm to his life. A sunny frankness and openness of spirit breathe in the pleasant chat of his books, and what he was in his books he showed himself in his daily converse. Alfred was in truth an artist, and both the lights and shadows of his life were those of the artistic temperament. His love of books, his love of strangers, his questionings of travellers and scholars, betray an imaginative restlessness that longs to break out of the narrow world of experience which hemmed him in. At one time he jots down news of a voyage to the unknown seas of the north. At another he listens to tidings which his envoys bring back from the churches of Malabar.

And side by side with this restless outlook of the artistic nature he showed its tenderness and susceptibility, its vivid apprehension of unseen danger, its craving for affection, its sensitiveness to wrong. It was with himself rather than with his reader that he communed as thoughts of the foe without, of ingratitude and opposition within, broke the calm pages of Gregory or Boethius.

"Oh, what a happy man was he," he cries once," that man that had a naked sword hanging over his head from a single thread; so as to me it always did!" "Desirest thou power?" he asks at another time. "But thou shalt never obtain it without sorrows—sorrows from strange folk, and yet keener sorrows from thine own kindred." "Hardship and sorrow!" he breaks out again; "not a king but would wish to be without these if he could. But I know that he cannot!"

The loneliness which breathes in words like these has often begotten in great rulers a cynical contempt of men and the judgments of men. But cynicism found no echo in the large and sympathetic temper of Alfred. He not only longed for the love of his subjects, but for the remembrance of "generations" to come. Nor did his inner gloom or anxiety check for an instant his vivid and versatile activity. To the scholars he gathered round him he seemed the very type of a scholar, snatching every hour he could find to read or listen to books read to him. The singers of his court found in him a brother singer, gathering the old songs of his people to teach them to his children, breaking his renderings from the Latin with simple verse, solacing himself in hours of depression with the music of the Psalms.

He passed from court and study to plan buildings and instruct craftsmen in gold work, to teach even falconers and dog-keepers their business. But all this versatility and ingenuity was controlled by a cool good sense. Alfred was a thorough man of business. He was careful of detail, laborious, methodical. He carried in his bosom a little handbook in which he noted things as they struck him—now a bit of family genealogy, now a prayer, now such a story as that of Ealdhelin playing minstrel on the bridge. Each hour of the day had its appointed task; there was the same order in the division of his revenue and in the arrangement of his court.

Wide, however, and various as was the King’s temper, its range was less wonderful than its harmony. Of the narrowness, of the want of proportion, of the predominance of one quality over another which go commonly with an intensity of moral purpose Alfred showed not a trace. Scholar and soldier, artist and man of business, poet and saint, his character kept that perfect balance which charms us in no other Englishman save Shakespeare. But full and harmonious as his temper was, it was the temper of a king. Every power was bent to the work of rule. His practical energy found scope for itself in the material and administrative restoration of the wasted land.

His intellectual activity breathed fresh life into education and literature. His capacity for inspiring trust and affection drew the hearts of Englishmen to a common centre, and began the upbuilding of a new England. And all was guided, controlled, ennobled by a single aim. "So long as I have lived," said the King as life closed about him, "I have striven to live worthily." Little by little men came to know what such a life of worthiness meant. Little by little they came to recognize in Alfred a ruler of higher and nobler stamp than the world had seen. Never had it seen a king who lived solely for the good of his people. Never had it seen a ruler who set aside every personal aim to devote himself solely to the welfare of those whom he ruled. It was this grand self-mastery that gave him his power over the men about him. Warrior and conqueror as he was, they saw him set aside at thirty the warrior’s dream of conquest; and the self-renouncement of Wedmore struck the keynote of his reign. But still more is it this height and singleness of purpose, this absolute concentration of the noblest faculties to the noblest aim, that lifts Alfred out of the narrow bounds of Wessex.

If the sphere of his action seems too small to justify the comparison of him with the few whom the world owns as its greatest men, he rises to their level in the moral grandeur of his life. And it is this which has hallowed his memory among his own English people. "I desire," said the King in some of his latest words, "I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works."

His aim has been more than fulfilled. His memory has come downs to us with a living distinctness through the mists of exaggeration and legend which time gathered round it. The instinct of the people has clung to him with a singular affection. The love which he won a thousand years ago has lingered round his name from that day to this. While every other name of those earlier times has all but faded from the recollection of Englishmen, that of Alfred remains familiar to every English child.

The secret of Alfred’s government lay in his own vivid energy. He could hardly have chosen braver or more active helpers than those whom he employed both in his political and in his educational efforts. The children whom he trained to rule proved the ablest rulers of their time. But at the outset of his reign he stood alone, and what work was to be done was done by the King himself. His first efforts were directed to the material restoration of his realm. The burnt and wasted country saw its towns built again, forts erected in positions of danger, new abbeys founded, the machinery of justice and government restored, the laws codified and amended. Still more strenuous were Alfred’s efforts for its moral and intellectual restoration. Even in Mercia and Northumbria the pirate’s sword had left few survivors of the schools of Egbert or Bede, and matters were even worse in Wessex, which had been as yet the most ignorant of the English kingdoms.

"When I began to reign," said Alfred, "I cannot remember one priest south of the Thames who could render his service-book into English." For instructors indeed he could find only a few Mercian prelates and priests, with one Welsh bishop, Asser.

"Formerly," the King writes bitterly, "men came hither from foreign lands to seek for instruction, and now when we desire it we can only obtain it from abroad." But his mind was far from being prisoned within his own island. He sent a Norwegian shipmaster to explore the White Sea, and Wulfstan to trace the coast of Esthonia; envoys bore his presents to the churches of India and Jerusalem, and an annual mission carried Peter’s pence to Rome.

But it was with the Franks that his intercourse was closest, and it was from them that he drew the scholars to aid him in his work of education. A scholar named Grimbald came from St, Omer to preside over his new abbey at Winchester; and John, the old Saxon, was fetched from the abbey of Corbey to rule a monastery and school that Alfred’s gratitude for his deliverance from the Danes raised in the marshes of Athelney. The real work, however, to be done was done, not by these teachers, but by the King himself. Alfred established a school for the young nobles in his court, and it was to the need of books for these scholars in their own tongue that we owe his most remarkable literary effort.

He took his books as he found them—they were the popular manuals of his age—the Consolation of Boethius, the Pastoral of Pope Gregory, the compilation of Orosius, then the one accessible handbook of universal history, and the history of his own people by Bede. He translated these works into English, but he was far more than a translator, he was an editor for the people. Here he omitted, there he expanded. He enriched Orosius by a sketch of the new geographical discoveries in the north. He gave a West Saxon form to his selections from Bede. In one place he stops to explain his theory of government, his wish for a thicker population, his conception of national welfare as consisting in a due balance of priest, soldier, and churl. The mention of Nero spurs him to an outbreak on the abuses of power. The cold providence of Boethius gives way to an enthusiastic acknowledgment of the goodness of God.

As he writes, his large-hearted nature flings off its royal mantle, and he talks as a man to men. "Do not blame me," he prays with a charming simplicity, "if any know Latin better than I, for every man must say what he says and do what he does according to his ability."

But simple as was his aim, Alfred changed the whole front of our literature. Before him, England possessed in her own tongue one great poem and a train of ballads and battle-songs. Prose she had none. The mighty roll of the prose books that fill her libraries begins with the translations of Alfred, and above all with the chronicle of his reign. It seems likely that the King’s rendering of Bede’s history gave the first impulse toward the compilation of what is known as the English or Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was certainly thrown into its present form during his reign. The meagre lists of the kings of Wessex and the bishops of Winchester, which had been preserved from older times, were roughly expanded into a national history by insertions from Bede; but it is when it reaches the reign of Alfred that the chronicle suddenly widens into the vigorous narrative, full of life and originality, that marks the gift of a new power to the English tongue. Varying as it does from age to age in historic value, it remains the first vernacular history of any Teutonic people, and, save for the Gothic translations of Ulfilas, the earliest and most venerable monument of Teutonic prose.

But all this literary activity was only a part of that general upbuilding of Wessex by which Alfred was preparing for a fresh contest with the stranger. He knew that the actual winning back of the Danelagh must be a work of the sword, and through these long years of peace he was busy with the creation of such a force as might match that of the Northmen. A fleet grew out of the little squadron which Alfred had been forced to man with Frisian seamen.

The national fyrd or levy of all freemen at the King’s call was reorganized. It was now divided into two halves, one of which served in the field while the other guarded its own burhs (burghs or boroughs) and townships, and served to relieve its fellow when the men’s forty days of service were ended. A more disciplined military force was provided by subjecting all owners of five hides of land to "thane-service," a step which recognized the change that had now substituted the thegn for the eorl and in which we see the beginning of a feudal system. How effective these measures were was seen when the new resistance they met on the Continent drove the Northmen to a fresh attack on Britain.

In 893 a large fleet steered for the Andredsweald, while the sea-king Hasting entered the Thames. Alfred held both at bay through the year till the men of the Danelagh rose at their comrades’ call. Wessex stood again front to front with the Northmen. But the King’s measures had made the realm strong enough to set aside its old policy of defence for one of vigorous attack. His son Edward and his son-in-law Ethelred, whom he had set as ealdorman,1

over what remained of Mercia, showed themselves as skilful and active as the King.

The aim of the Northmen was to rouse again the hostility of the Welsh, but while Alfred held Exeter against their fleet, Edward and Ethelred caught their army near the Severn and overthrew it with a vast slaughter at Buttington. The destruction of their camp on the Lea by the united English forces ended the war; in 897 Hasting again withdrew across the Channel, and the Danelagh made peace. It was with the peace he had won still about him that Alfred died in 901; and warrior as his son Edward had shown himself, he clung to his father’s policy of rest.

1Primitive of alderman; in this period, a chieftain, lord, or earl; subsequently, the chief magistrate of a territorial district, as of a county or province.


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Chicago: T. Hughes and John Richard Green, "Career of Alfred the Great," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: Hughes, T., and John Richard Green. "Career of Alfred the Great." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Hughes, T, Green, JR, 'Career of Alfred the Great' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from