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Heroes Every Child Should Know

 King Alfred 
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NOW IS THERE any truth in all this story? I think there is thus much, that Alfred, for some reason or other, thought he was under the special protection of Saint Cuthberht. For several years after 880 there was peace in the land, and for a good many more years still there was much less fighting than there had been before. It was no doubt at this time that Alfred was able to do all those things for the good of his people of which we hear so much. He had now more time than either before or after for making his laws, writing his books, founding his monasteries, and doing all that he did. You may wonder how he found time to do so much; but it was by the only way by which anybody can do anything, namely, by never wasting his time, and by having fixed times of the day for everything. Alfred did not, like most other writers of that time, write in Latin, so that hardly anybody but the clergy could read or understand what he wrote. He loved our own tongue, and was especially fond of the Old-English songs, and all that he wrote he wrote in English that all his people might understand. His works were chiefly translations from Latin books; what we should have valued most of all, his notebook or handbook, containing his remarks on various matters, is lost. He translated into English the History of Basda, the History of Orosius, some of the works of Pope Gregory the Great, and the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Perhaps you will ask why he did not rather translate some of the great and famous Greek and Latin writers of earlier times. Now we may be sure that King Alfred did not understand Greek at all; very few people in those days in the West of Europe knew any Greek, except those who needed to use the language for dealing with the men in the Eastern Empire who still spoke it. Indeed Alfred complains that, when he came to the Crown, very few people, even among the clergy, understood even Latin at all well. And as for Latin books, no doubt Alfred thought that the writings of Christians would be more edifying to his people than those of the old heathens. He chose the History of Orosius, as a general history of the world, and that of Basda, as a particular history of England. Boethius was a Roman Consul in the beginning of the sixth century, who was put to death by the great Theodoric, King of the East-Goths, who then ruled over Italy. While he was in prison he wrote the book which King Alfred translated. He seems not to have been a Christian; at least there is not a single Christian expression in his book. But people fancied that he was not only a Christian, but a saint and a martyr, most likely because Theodoric, who put him to death, was not an orthodox Christian, but an Arian. Alfred, in translating his books, did not always care to translate them quite exactly, but he often altered and put in things of his own, if he thought he could thus make them more improving. So in translating Boethius, he altered a good deal, to make the wise heathen speak like a Christian. So in translating Orosius, where Orosius gives an account of the world, Alfred greatly enlarged the account of all the northern part of Europe, of which Alfred naturally knew much more than Orosius did.
      Alfred was also very careful in the government of his Kingdom, especially in seeing that justice was properly administered. So men said of him in their songs, much as they had long before said of King Edwin in Northumberland, that he hung up golden bracelets by the roadside, and that no man dared to steal them. In his collection of laws, he chiefly put in order the laws of the older Kings, not adding many of his own, because he said that he did not know how those who came after him might like them.
      King Alfred was very attentive to religious matters, and gave great alms to the poor and gifts to churches. He also founded two monasteries; one was for nuns, at Shaftesbury in Dorsetshire, of which he made his own daughter, Aethelgifu, abbess. The other was for monks at Athelney; you can easily see why he should build it there. He also sent several embassies to Rome, where he got Pope Marinus to grant certain privileges to the English School at Rome; the Pope also sent him what was thought to be a piece of the wood of the True Cross, that on which our Lord Jesus Christ died. He also sent an embassy to Jerusalem, and had letters from Abel the Patriarch there. And what seems stranger than all, he sent an embassy all the way to India, with alms for the Christians there, called the Christians of Saint Thomas and Saint Bartholomew.
      Lastly, there seems some reason to think that the Chronicle began to be put together in its present shape in Alfred's time, and that it was regularly gone on with afterward, so that from the time of Alfred onward we have a history which was regularly written down as things happened.
      All these things happened mainly in the middle years of the reign of Alfred, when there was so much less fighting than there was before and after, and when some years seem to have been quite peaceable. Guthorm Aethelstan and his Danes in East-Anglia were for some years true to the treaty of Wedmore, and the other Danes seem just now to have been busy in invading Gaul and other parts of the continent rather than England. Also King Alfred had now got a fleet, so that he often met them at sea and kept them from landing. This he did in 882, and we do not find that any Danes landed again in England till 885. In that year part of the army which had been plundering along the coast of Flanders and Holland came over to England, landed in Kent, and besieged Rochester. But the citizens withstood them bravely, and Alfred gathered an army and drove the Danes to their ships. They seem then to have gone to Essex and to have plundered there with their ships, getting help from the Danes who were settled in East-Anglia, or at least from such of them as still were heathens. Alfred's fleet however quite overcame them and took away their treasure, but his fleet was again attacked and defeated by the East-Anglian Danes. It would seem that in some part of this war Guthorm Aethelstan was helped by Hrolf, otherwise called Rollo, the great Northern chief.
      The Danish wars began again in 893. For years now there was a great deal of fighting. Two large bodies of Danes, one of them under the famous chief Hasting, landed in Kent in 893 and fixed themselves in fortresses which they built. And the Danes who had settled in Northumberland and East-Anglia helped them, though they had all sworn oaths to King Alfred, and those in East-Anglia had also given hostages. There was fighting all over the south of England throughout 894, and the King had to go constantly backward and forward to keep up with the Danes. One time Alfred took a fort in Kent, in which were the wife and two sons of Hasting. Now Hasting had not long before given oaths and hostages to Alfred, and the two boys had been baptised, the King being godfather to one of them and Alderman Aethelred to the other. But Hasting did not at all keep to his oath, but went on plundering all the same. Still, when the boys and their mother were taken, Alfred would not do them any harm, but gave them up again to Hasting.
      In 897 we read that Alfred made some improvements in his ships. "They were full-nigh twice as long as the others; some had sixty oars, some more; they were both swifter and steadier and eke higher than the others; they were neither on the Frisian shape nor on the Danish, but as himself thought that they useful might be." These new ships seem to have done good service, though one time they got aground, seemingly because they were so large, and the Danes were therefore able to sail out before them. These sea-fights along the south coast were nearly the last things that we hear of in Alfred's reign. The crews of two Danish ships were brought to Winchester to Alfred and there hanged. One cannot blame him for this, as these Danes were mere pirates, not engaged in any lawful war, and many of them had been spared, and had made oaths to Alfred, and had broken them, over and over again.
      This was in 897; the rest of King Alfred's reign seems to have been spent in peace. In 901 the great King died himself. He was then only fifty-two years old. Alfred's wife, the Lady Ealhswyth, lived a little while after her husband, till 903 or 905. King Alfred was buried at Winchester in the New Minster which he himself began to found and which was finished by his son Edward. It then stood close to the Old Minster, that is, the cathedral church. Afterward it was moved out of the city and was called Hyde Abbey. But you cannot see King Alfred's grave there now, because everything has been destroyed, and the bones of the great King have been turned out, to make room for a prison.
      (Adapted from "Old English History," by E. A. Freeman)

      THE END.

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