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Alfred The Great

ALFRED-THE-GREAT

 

 

ALFRED-THE-GREATAlfred The Great has always been regarded by the English people as their ideal king and is pronounced by the eminent historian, Edward A. Freeman, the most perfect character in history. Yet he lived in a rude, barbarous age when might made right, when the violence of savage enemies compelled every man constantly to resort to arms to protect his person and possessions, and allowed little opportunity to cultivate the arts of peace. When war was necessary to defend his country, Alfred proved himself a valiant soldier and skiltful military leader. When peace was established be devoted himself to the promotion of justice and the welfare of his people. In the midst of the turmoil of war alld battle he retained the love of learning which his pious mother had inculcated, and when happier times came at last, he endeavored, by writing books and founding institutions of learning, to transmit to posterity the means of enlightenment.

 

Alfred was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, 85o A. D. Hisfather, Ethelwulf, before coming to the throne, had been a monk. Ethelwulf married Osberga, the daughter of his cupbearer, and by her he had four sons, of whom Alfred was the youngest. When he was twelve years old, his mother offered a handsomely illuminated book of Saxon poems to the son who first should be able to read them. Alfred obtained the prize, and henceforth he showed a studious disposition and great love for li terature. While still a boy he was taken by his father on a pilgrimage to Rome, and undoubtedly received deep impressions from the splendid monuments of the Eternal City.

 

At his accession to the throne of Wessex, the country ofthe West Saxons, in 871 A.D., Alfred was twenty-one years of age. The infant son of his elder brother, Ethelwald, being alive, Alfred was not the rightful heir j but owing to the troublous state of the country at that period, the nobles requested him to take the crown, as being more capable of guarding its rights. He had already been married to Alswithu, the daughter of a Mercian nobleman. The Danes, who from the time of Egbert, had been constantly making depredations in England, now invaded Wessex, and defeated Alfred in battle at Wilton, in Wiltshire. The Danes, on receiving a large Slttll of money, withdrew from Wessex.They, however, continued their ravages in the North of England, slaughtering the people without mercy, and laying waste the country. Alfred retired south of the Thames and equipped a Beet, which, in some measure, checked the attacks of the Danes. While Alfred was residing at Chippeuham, on the river Avon, Guthrum, a Danish leader, attacked this town at night, in the middle of winter, and the King had to flee for his life. He wandered through the country for SOUle time in disguise. It is related by the chroniclers of that day, that the King sought shelter in the house of a swineherd. The wife of his humble host, being engaged in her homely duties, requested the stranger to tunl some cakes, which she was baking, to prevent them burning. The thoughts of Alfred were far away, considering the best means of defeating his enemies. The cakes were burned, and thc woman, on discovering his neglect, soundly berated her guest, saying that he would be glad enough to eat the cakes, but was too lazy to turn them.

 

In the county of Somerset, at the junction of the rivers Parret aud Tone, was a marshy island, now called Athelney. This, for many mouths, was Alfred's hiding place and here
he was frequently visited by his nobles, who were secretly preparing to make one great and final struggle to overthrow the Danes. Alfred, in the disguise of a harper, now left his
hiding place, and boldly visited the camp of Guthrum. His enemies were captivated with his music, and kept him there for seveml days, during which l1e overheard them discussing their plans of further attack on the Saxons. Quietly leaving their camp, he joined his nobles, who were assembled in Selwood Forest An anny was quickly gotten together and marched against the Danes, meeting them at Elilalldune, in Wiltshire j a battle ensued, 878 A..D., ill which the Saxons were completely victorious. Alfred at once attacked the camp of Guthnllll, and in fourteen days the Danish leader was forced to capitulate. Gulhmm himself, and many of his chiefs, embraced the Christian faith. They werc given a wrrow tract of land lying between the rivers Thames and 'fwcecl, which receivcd the name of Danelagh. The scttle· meut of the Dalles in England is shown at the prescnt day by many geographicalllames, such as those ending ill 'by,' the Danish for ' town.

 

For a time England had rest from foreign invaders, and her people were able to tum without distraction to their do-mestic affairs. Alfred summoned the Witenagemot, or II as· sembly of the wise men,n to assist him in providing for the welfare of the kingdom. This great national councilor parliament was composed of the higher clergy and the nobles.
The Commons, who now bold the reins of power, had not then attained sufficient importauce or prominence in the State to be asked for advice. The Anglo--Saxon Parliameut not only assisted in making those laws which are consccrated with the name of Alfred, but were the judges of all state criminals and had the general superintendence of the courts of justice throughout the land.

 

But the peace was of short duration. Once more, in 890 A. D., the irrepressible Danes, with a fleet of 330 ships, crossed the German Ocean, and landed on the Kentish shore. Their leader was Hastings, a man of such vigor and skill, that, but for the precautions taken by King Alfred, and the general. ship he now displayed, all England must speedily have become Danish. The Danes ravaged the south of the island for three years; Hastings even established a camp within twenty miles of London. The Saxon king went to reconnoitre the Danish camp, and saw the river covered with the ships of the enemy. Summoning his men, be ordered them to dig tllree deep channels from the Lea to the Thames, thus diverting the course of the formcr river. Very soon the Danish ships were all aground. Hastings and his army fled.

 

The rest of Alfred's reign was peace. He spent his latter years in carrying out plans for the welfare of his people. Thongh the victim of au internal disease which left him few painless hours during twenty four years, his euergies never drooped through all the changes of a toilsome life. For the safety of the country, he built strong castles in advantageous position where the attack of an enemy could most easily be withstood. He was the organizer of the militia system, and divided all men capable of bearing anns into three divisions, one body garrisoned the towns, while the other two acted as a sort of reserve, being engaged in military duty and agriclll. tural pursuits by turns.

 

This great king was untiring in his efforts to acquire knowledge and convey it to his people. He sent intelligent men to Russia, Jerusalem, and eveu, it is said, to India, to obtain geographical and other learning. His court was the home of many distinguished scholars. He is honored as the founder of Oxford University, which dates from 886 A.D. He promulgated a law compelling the nobles to have their children educated, and he himself provided books for their instruction. "Jesop's Fables," Bede's" Latin History of the Anglo-Saxon Church and the Psalms were translated into Saxon by this book-loving king.

 

Bishop Asser relates that Alfred measured the time by candles, so as not to neglect any of his duties. These candles were made all of Olle length, burning one inch in twenty minutes. He divided his day into three parts,One he devoted to business of state a second, to religious exercises and the pursuit of knowledge and a third, to sleep, meals and recreation.

 

Alfred framed a code of laws, in which the chief enact· ments of Ethelbert and Offa had place i and by the execution of these with stern impartiality, crime became rare. Trial by jury is traced to this code, though its original form had little resemblance to the institution as now known. The execution of the laws was vested in officers called Reeves, of whom the chief in each connty was called Shire-reeve, and was the original of our Sheriff. The land was divided into counties, bundreds, all things or tenths, making the administration of justice the easier.

 

Alfred died at Farringdon, in Berkshire, 901 A.D., being fifty-one years of age. He was buried in the new Minster, which he himself had founded in Winchester, the capital of his kingdom.

 

Alfred the Great was the best of English kings. The pages of history can nowhere produce a purer portion than those which record his life. His remark, "It is just that the English should forever remain as free as their own thoughts," showed his patriotism and noble nature. He devoted his life to the good of his subjects, and II we can justly bestow on him the t.riple crown of Virtue, Heroism, and Culture. "

 

Alfred the Great, says Freeman, "is a singular instance of a prince who has become a hero of romance, who, as such, has had countless imaginary exploits attributed to him, but to whose character romance bas done no more than justice, and who appears in exactly the saule light in history and in fable. No other man on record has ever so thoroughly united all the virtues both of the ruler and of the private man. In no other man on record were so many virtues disfigured by so little alloy. A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior whose wars were all fought in the defence of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained by cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, never lifted up to insolence in the day of triumph, there is no other name ill history to compare with his.

 

 

ALFRED'S TRIUMPH OVER GUTHRUM.
Guthrum, the leader of the Danes, had fixed his residence at Gloucester, and rewarded the services of his veterans by dividing alilong them the lands in the neighborhood. But while this peaceful occupation seemed to absorb his attention, his mind was actively employed in arranging a plan of warfare which threatened to extinguish the last of the Saxon govenments in Britain. A winter campaign had hitherto been unknown in the annals of Danish devastation i after their summer expeditious the invaders had always devoted the succeeding months to festivity and repose, and it is probable that the followers of Gnthrum were as ignorant as the Saxons of the real design of their leader. On the first day of the year 878 they received an unexpected summous to meet him on horseback at un appointed place on the night of the 6th of Jauuary they were in possession of Chippcuham, a royal villa on the left bank of the Avon. There is reason to believe that Alfred was ill the place when the alarm was given i it is certain that he could not be at auy great distance.From ChippenllaUl, Guthrum dispersed bis cavalry ill different directions over the neighboring counties i the Saxons were surprised by the enemy before they had heard of the war; and the king saw himself surrounded by the barbarians, without horses, and almost without attendants. At first he coilceived the rash design of ntshing on the multitude of his enemies i but his temerity was restrained by the more considerate suggestions of his friends i and he consented to reserve himself for a less dangerous and more hopeful experi. ment. To elude suspicion he dismissed the few thanes who were still near his person, and endeavored alone and ou foot to gain the centre of Somersetshire. There he found a secure retreat in a small island situated in a morass fonned by the conflux of the TOile and the Parrel, which was afierwards distinguished by the name of Etheliugey, or Prince's Island.

 

Trhough the escape of Alfred had disappointed the hopes of the Danes, they followed up their success with indefatigable activity. The men of Hampshire, Dorset, Wilts, and Berkshire, separated from each other, ignorant of the fate of their prince, and unprepared for any rational system of defence, themsclves compelled to crOllch beneath the storm. Those who dwelt ncar the coast crossed with their families and treasure to the opposite shores of Gaul  the others sought to mitigate by submissiou the ferocity of the invaders, and by the surrender of a part to preserve the remainder of their property. One county alone, that of Somerset, is said to have continued faithfnl to the fortunes of Alfred; and yet in the couuty of Somerset he was compelled to conceal himself at Ethelingey, while the ealderman '£theluoth, with a few adherents, wandered in the woods. By degrees the secret of the royal retreat was revealed; Alfred was joined by the more tmsty of his subjects; and in their company he occasionally issued from his concealment, intercepted the straggling parties of the Danes, and returned, loaded with the spoils, often of the enemy, sometimes (such was his hard necessity) of his own people. As his associates multiplied, these excursions were morc frequent and successful i and at Easter, to facilitate the access to the island, he ordered a communication to be made witlt the land by a wooden bridge, of which he secured the entrance by the erection of a fort.

 

While the attention of Alfred was thus fixed on the enemy who held seized the eastern provinces of his kingdom, he was uncouscious of the storm which threatened to burst ou him from the West. A brother of GIlthru1l1, probably the sanguinary Ubbo, with three-and-twenty sail, had lately ravaged the shores of South Wales; and, crossing to the northern coast of Devonshire, had landed his troops in the vicinity of Aplcdore. It appears as if the two brothers had previously agreed to crush the king between the pressure of their respective annics. Alanned at this new debarkation,Odun, the ealderlllan, with several thanes, fled for security to the castle of Kynwith. It had no other fortification than a loose wall erected after the manner of the Britous; but its position on the summit of the lofty rock rendered it impreguable. The Danish leader was too wary to hazard an assault; and calmly pitched his tent at the foot of the mountain, in the confident expectation that the waut of water wouldforce the garrison to surrender. But Odn, gathering courage from despair, silently left his enlrenchments at the dawn of morning, burst into the enemy's camp, slew the Danish chief with twelve hundred of his followers, and drove the remainder to their fleet. 'rhe bravery of the Saxons was rewarded with the plunder of Wales i and among the trophies of their victory was the Reafan, the mysterious Standard of the Raven, woven ill one noon· tide by the hands of the three daughters of Ragnar. The superstition of the Dancs was accustomed to observe the bird as they marched to battle. )f it appeared to flap its wings, it was a sure omen of victory if it hung motionless in the air, they anticipated nothiog but defeat.

 

The news of this success infused courage ioto the hearts of the most pusillanimous. Alfred watched the reviving spirit of his people, and by trusty messengers invited them to meet him in the seventh week after Easter at the stone oi Egbert, in the eastern extremity of Selwood forest On the appointed day the men of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Somerset cheerfully obeyed the summons. At the appearance of Alfred they hailed the avenger of their conntry j the wood echoed their acclamations i and every heart beat with the confidence of victory. But the place was too confined to receive the lllultitudes that hastened to the royal standard and the next morning the camp was removed to Icglea, a spacious plain lying on the skirts of tIle wood, and covered by marshes in its front. The day was spent in making preparations for the conflict, and in assigning their places to the volunteers that hourly arrived j at thedawll of the next morning Alfred marshaled his forces, and occupied the summit of Ethandune, a neighboring and lofty eminence.

 

In the meanwhile Guthrum had not been an idle spectator of the motions of his adversary. He had recalled his scattered detachments, and was advancing with hasty steps to chastise the insolence of the insurgents. As the annies mel, they vociferated shouts of mutual defiance j and after the discharge of their missive weapons, rushed to a closer and more sanguinary combat. The shock of the two nations, the efforts of their leaders, the fluctuations of victory, and the alternate hopes and fears of the contending annies, must be left to the imagination of the reader. The Danes displayed a courage worthy of their fonner renown and their repeated conquests. The Saxons were stimulated by every motive that could influence the heart of man. Shame, revenge, the dread of subjugation, and the hope of independence, impelled them forward j their perseverance bore down all opposition j and the Northmen, after a most obstinate but unavailing resistance, Bed in crowds to their camp. The pursuit was uot less murderous than the engagement j the Saxons immolated to their resentment every fugitive who fell into their hands. Immediately, by the king's orders, lines were drawn round the encampment i and the escape of the survivors was rendered impracticable by the vigilancc and the multitude of their enemies. Famine and despair sulxlued the obstinacy of Guthrum, who on the fourteenth day offered to capitUlate. The tenus imposed by the conqueror were: that the King and principal chieftains should embrace Christiauity i that they should entirely evacuate his dominious i and that they should bind themselves to the fulfilment of the treaty by the surrender of hostages, and by their oaths. After a few weeks Guthrum, with thirty of his officers, was baptized at Aulre, near Athelney. He took the surname of Athelstan, aud Alfred was his sponsor. After the ceremony both princes removed '''edmore, where on the eighth day Guthrum put off the white robe and christmal fillet, and on the twelfth bade adien to his adopted father, whose generosity he had now learned to admire as much as he had before respected his valor. - J. LINGARD.

 

ALFRED-THE-GREAT

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