ND NOW WE come to the terrible year 878, the greatest and saddest and most glorious in all Alfred's life. In the very beginning of the year, just after Twelfth-night, the Danish host again came suddenly- -"bestole" as the Chronicle says--to Chippenham. Then "they rode through the West-Saxons' land, and there sat down, and mickle of the folk over the sea they drove, and of the others the most deal they rode over; all but the King Alfred; he with a little band hardly fared [went] after the woods and on the moor-fastnesses." This time of utter distress lasted only a very little while, for in a few months Alfred was again at the head of an army and able to fight against the Danes.
It was during this trouble that Alfred stayed in the hut of a neatherd or swineherd of his, who knew who he was, though his wife did not know him. One day the woman set some cakes to bake, and bade the King, who was sitting by the fire mending his bow and arrows, to tend them. Alfred thought more of his bow and arrows than he did of the cakes, and let them burn. Then the woman ran in and cried out, "There, don't you see the cakes on fire? Then wherefore turn them not? You are glad enough to eat them when they are piping hot."
We are told that this swineherd or neatherd afterwards became Bishop of Winchester. They say that his name was Denewulf, and that the King saw that, though he was in so lowly a rank, he was naturally a very wise man. So he had him taught, and at last gave him the Bishoprick.
I do not think that I can do better than tell you the next happening to Alfred, as it is in the Chronicle, only changing those words which you might not understand.
"And that ilk [same] winter was Iwer's and Healfdene's brother among the West-Saxons in Devonshire; and him there men slew and eight hundred men with him and forty men of his host. And there was the banner taken which they the Raven hight [call]. And after this Easter wrought King Alfred with his little band a work [fortress] at Athelney, and out of that work was he striving with the [Danish] host, and the army sold [gave] him hostages and mickle oaths, and eke they promised him that their King should receive baptism. And this they fulfilled. And three weeks after came King Guthrum with thirty of the men that in the host were worthiest, at Aller, that is near Athelney. And him the King received at his baptism, [Footnote: That is, was his godfather.] and his chrisom-loosing [Footnote: That is, he laid aside the chrisom or white garment which a newly baptised person wore.] was at Wedmore. And he was twelve nights with the King, and he honoured him and his feres [companions] with mickle fee [money]."
Thus you see how soon King Alfred's good luck came back to him again. The Raven was a famous banner of the Danes, said to have been worked by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrog. It was thought to have wonderful powers, so that they could tell by the way in which the raven held his wings whether they would win or not in battle.
You see the time of utter distress lasted only from soon after Twelfth-night to Easter, and even during that time the taking of the Raven must have cheered the English a good deal. After Easter things began to mend, when Alfred built his fort at Athelney and began to skirmish with the Danes, and seven weeks later came the great victory at Ethandun, which set Wessex free. Some say that the white horse which is cut in the side of the chalk hills near Edington was cut then, that men might remember the great battle of Ethandun. But it has been altered in modern times to make it look more like a real horse.
All this time Alfred seems to have kept his headquarters at Athelney. Thence they went to Wedmore. There the Wise Men came together, and Alfred and Guthorm (or, to give him the name by which he was baptised, Aethelstan) made a treaty. This treaty was very much better kept than any treaty with the Danes had ever been kept before. The Danes got much the larger part of England; still Alfred contrived to keep London. Some accounts say that only those of the Danes stayed in England who chose to become Christians, and that the rest went away into Gaul under a famous leader of theirs named Hasting. Anyhow, in 880 they went quite away into what was now their own land of East-Anglia, and divided it among themselves. Thus Alfred had quite freed his own Kingdom from the Danes, though he was obliged to leave so much of the island in their hands. And even through all these misfortunes, the Kingdom of Wessex did in some sort become greater. Remember that in 880, when Alfred had done so many great things, he was still only thirty-one years old.
We can see how much people always remembered and thought of Alfred, by there being many more stories told of him than of almost any other of the old Kings. One story is that Alfred, wishing to know what the Danes were about and how strong they were, set out one day from Athelney in the disguise of a minstrel or juggler, and went into the Danish camp, and stayed there several days, amusing the Danes with his playing, till he had seen all that he wanted, and then went back without any one finding him out. This is what you may call a soldier's story, while some of the others are rather what monks and clergymen would like to tell. Thus there is a tale which is told in a great many different ways, but of which the following is the oldest shape.
"Now King Alfred was driven from his Kingdom by the Danes, and he lay hid for three years in the isle of Glastonbury. And it came to pass on a day that all his folk were gone out to fish, save only Alfred himself and his wife and one servant whom he loved. And there came a pilgrim to the King, and begged for food. And the King said to his servant, 'What food have we in the house?' And his servant answered, 'My Lord, we have in the house but one loaf and a little wine.' Then the King gave thanks to God, and said, 'Give half of the loaf and half of the wine to this poor pilgrim.' So the servant did as his lord commanded him, and gave to the pilgrim half of the loaf and half of the wine, and the pilgrim gave great thanks to the King. And when the servant returned, he found the loaf whole, and the wine as much as there had been aforetime. And he greatly wondered, and he wondered also how the pilgrim had come into the isle, for that no man could come there save by water, and the pilgrim had no boat. And the King greatly wondered also. And at the ninth hour came back the folk who had gone to fish. And they had three boats full of fish, and they said, 'Lo, we have caught more fish this day than in all the three years that we have tarried in this island.' And the King was glad, and he and his folk were merry; yet he pondered much upon that which had come to pass. And when night came, the King went to his bed with Ealhswyth his wife. And the Lady slept, but the King lay awake and thought of all that had come to pass by day. And presently he saw a great light, like the brightness of the sun, and he saw an old man with black hair, clothed in priest's garments, and with a mitre on his head, and holding in his right hand a book of the Gospels adorned with gold and gems. And the old man blessed the King, and the King said unto him, 'Who art thou?' And he answered, 'Alfred, my son, rejoice; for I am he to whom thou didst this day give thine alms, and I am called Cuthberht the soldier of Christ. Now be strong and very courageous, and be of joyful heart, and hearken diligently to the things which I say unto thee; for henceforth I will be thy shield and thy friend, and I will watch over thee and over thy sons after thee. And now I will tell thee what thou must do. Rise up early in the morning, and blow thine horn thrice, that thy enemies may hear it and fear, and by the ninth hour thou shalt have around thee five hundred men harnassed for the battle. And this shall be a sign unto thee that thou mayest believe. And after seven days thou shalt have by God's gift and my help all the folk of this land gathered unto thee upon the mount that is called Assandun. And thus shalt thou fight against thine enemies, and doubt not that thou shalt overcome them. Be thou therefore glad of heart, and be strong and very courageous, and fear not, for God hath given thine enemies into thine hand. And He hath given thee also all this land and the Kingdom of thy fathers, to thee and to thy sons and to thy sons' sons after thee. Be thou faithful to me and to my folk, because that unto thee is given all the land of Albion. Be thou righteous, because thou art chosen to be the King of all Britain. So may God be merciful unto thee, and I will be thy friend, and none of thine enemies shall ever be able to overcome thee.' Then was King Alfred glad at heart, and he was strong and very courageous, for that he knew that he would overcome his enemies by the help of God and Saint Cuthberht his patron. So in the morning he arose, and sailed to the land, and blew his horn three times, and when his friends heard it they were glad, and when his enemies heard it they feared. And by the ninth hour, according to the word of the Lord, there were gathered unto him five hundred men of the bravest and dearest of his friends. And he spake unto them and told them all that God had said unto him by the mouth of his servant Cuthberht, and he told them that, by the gift of God and by the help of Saint Cuthberht, they would overcome their enemies and win back their own land. And he bade them as Saint Cuthberht had taught him, to fear God alway and to be alway righteous toward all men. And he bade his son Edward who was by him to be faithful to God and Saint Cuthberht, and so he should alway have the victory over his enemies. So they went forth to battle and smote their enemies and overcame them, and King Alfred took the Kingdom of all Britain, and he ruled well and wisely over the just and the unjust for the rest of his days."