E NOW COME to the great King Alfred, the best and greatest of all English Kings. We know quite enough of his history to be able to say that he really deserves to be so called, though I must warn you that, just because he left so great a name behind him, people have been fond of attributing to him things which really belonged to others. Thus you may sometimes see nearly all English laws and customs attributed to Alfred, as if he had invented them all for himself. You will sometimes hear that Alfred founded Trial by Jury, divided England into Counties, and did all kinds of other things. Now the real truth is that the roots and beginnings of most of these things are very much older than the time of Alfred, while the particular forms in which we have them now are very much later. But people have a way of fancying that everything must have been invented by some particular man, and as Alfred was more famous than anybody else, they hit upon Alfred as the most likely person to have invented them.
But, putting aside fables, there is quite enough to show that there have been very few Kings, and very few men of any sort, so great and good as King Alfred. Perhaps the only equally good King we read of is Saint Louis of France; and though he was quite as good, we cannot set him down as being so great and wise as Alfred. Certainly no King ever gave himself up more thoroughly than Alfred did fully to do the duties of his office. His whole life seems to have been spent in doing all that he could for the good of his people in every way. And it is wonderful in how many ways his powers showed themselves. That he was a brave warrior is in itself no particular praise in an age when almost every man was the same. But it is a great thing for a prince so large a part of whose time was spent in fighting to be able to say that all his wars were waged to set free his country from the most cruel enemies.
And we may admire too the wonderful way in which he kept his mind always straight and firm, never either giving way to bad luck or being puffed up by good luck. We read of nothing like pride or cruelty or injustice of any kind either towards his own people or towards his enemies. And if he was a brave warrior, he was many other things besides. He was a lawgiver; at least he collected and arranged the laws, and caused them to be most carefully administered. He was a scholar, and wrote and translated many books for the good of his people. He encouraged trade and enterprise of all kinds, and sent men to visit distant parts of the world, and bring home accounts of what they saw. And he was a thoroughly good man and a devout Christian in all relations of life. In short, one hardly knows any other character in all history so perfect; there is so much that is good in so many different ways; and though no doubt Alfred had his faults like other people, yet he clearly had none, at any rate in the greater part of his life, which took away at all seriously from his general goodness. One wonders that such a man was never canonized as a Saint; most certainly many people have received that name who did not deserve it nearly so well as he did.
Alfred, or, as his name should really be spelled, Aelfred, [Footnote: That is, the rede or councel of the elves. A great many Old-English names are called after the elves or fairies.] was the youngest son of King Aethelwulf, and was born at Wantage in Berkshire in 849. His mother was Osburh daughter of Oslac the King's cup-bearer, who came of the royal house of the Jutes in Wight. Up to the age of twelve years Alfred was fond of hunting and other sports but he had not been taught any sort of learning, not so much as to read his own tongue. But he loved the old English songs; and one day his mother had a beautiful book of songs with rich pictures and fine painted initial letters, such as you may often see in ancient books. And she said to her children, "I will give this beautiful book to the one of you who shall first be able to read it." And Alfred said, "Mother, will you really give me the book when I have learned to read it?" And Osburh said, "Yes, my son." So Alfred went and found a master, and soon learned to read. Then he came to his mother, and read the songs in the beautiful book and took the book for his own.
In 868, when he was in his twentieth year, while his brother Aethelred was King, Alfred married. His wife's name was Ealhswyth; she was the daughter of Aethelred called the Mickle or Big, Alderman of the Gainas in Lincolnshire, and her mother Eadburh was of the royal house of the Mercians. It is said that on the very day of his marriage he was smitten with a strange disease, which for twenty years never quite left him, and fits of which might come on at any time. If this be true, it makes all the great things that he did even more wonderful.
Meanwhile the great Danish invasion had begun in the northern parts of England. There are many stories told in the old Northern Songs as to the cause of it. Some tell how Ragnar Lodbrog, a great hero of these Northern tales, was seized by Aella, King of the Northumbrians, and was thrown into a dungeon full of serpents, and how, while he was dying of the bites of the serpents, he sang a wonderful death-song, telling of all his old fights, and calling on his sons to come and avenge him. The year 871 the Danes for the first time entered Wessex. Nine great battles, besides smaller skirmishes, were fought this year, in some of which the English won and in others the Danes. One famous battle was at Ashdown, in Berkshire. We are told that the heathen men were in two divisions; one was commanded by their two Kings Bagsecg and Halfdene, and the other by five Earls, Sidroc the Old, Sidroc the Young, Osbeorn, Fraena, and Harold. And King Aethelred was set against the Kings and Alfred the Aetheling against the Earls. And the heathen men came on against them. But King Aethelred heard mass in his tent. And men said, "Come forth, O King, to the fight, for the heathen men press hard upon us." And King Aethelred said, "I will serve God first and man after, so I will not come forth till all the words of the mass be ended." So King Aethelred abode praying, and the heathen men fought against Alfred the Aetheling. And Alfred said, "I cannot abide till the King my brother comes forth; I must either flee, or fight alone with the heathen men." So Alfred the Aetheling and his men fought against the five Earls. Now the heathen men stood on the higher ground and the Christians on the lower. Yet did Alfred go forth trusting in God, and he made his men hold close together with their shields, and they went forth like a wild boar against the hounds. And they fought against the heathen men and smote them, and slew the five Earls, Sidroc the Old, Sidroc the Young, Osbeorn, Fraena, and Harold. Then the mass was over, and King Aethelred came forth and fought against the two Kings, and slew Bagsecg the King with his own hand and smote the heathen men with a great slaughter and chased them even unto Reading.
In 871, on Aethelred's death, Alfred became King of the West-Saxons and Over-lord of all England, as his father had appointed so long before with the consent of his Wise Men.
The Danes did not come again into Wessex till 876. But though the West-Saxons had no fighting by land during these years, things were not quite quiet, for in 875 King Alfred had a fight at sea against some of the Danish pirates. This sea-fight is worth remembering as being, I suppose, the first victory won by the Englishmen at sea, where Englishmen have since won so many victories. King Alfred then fought against seven Danish ships, of which he took one and put the rest to flight. It is somewhat strange that we do not hear more than we do of warfare by sea in these times, especially when we remember how in earlier times the Angles and Saxons had roved about in their ships, very much as the Danes and other Northmen were doing now. It would seem that the English, after they settled in Britain, almost left off being a seafaring people. We find Alfred and other Kings doing what they could to keep up a fleet and to stir up a naval spirit among their people. And in some degree they did so; still we do not find the English, for a long while after this time, doing nearly so much by sea as they did by land. This was a pity; for ships might then, as in later times, have been wooden walls. It is much better to meet an enemy at sea, and to keep him from landing in your country, than to let him land, even if you can beat him when he has landed.
But in 876 the Danes came again into Wessex; and we thus come to the part of Alfred's life which is at once the saddest and the brightest. It is the time when his luck was lowest and when his spirit was highest. The army under Guthorm or Guthrum, the Danish King of East-Anglia, came suddenly to Wareham in Dorsetshire. The Chronicle says that they "bestole"--that is, came secretly or escaped--from the West-Saxon army, which seems to have been waiting for them. This time Alfred made peace with the Danes, and they gave him some of their chief men for hostages, and they swore to go out of the land. They swore this on the holy bracelet, which was the most solemn oath in use among the heathen Northmen, and on which they had never before sworn at any of the times when they had made peace with the English. But they did not keep their oath any better for taking it in this more solemn way. The part of the host which had horses "bestole away." King Alfred rode after the Danish horse as far as Exeter, but he did not overtake them till they had got there, and were safe in the stronghold. Then they made peace, swearing oaths, and giving as many hostages as the King asked for.