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A History of England

England Under The Good Saxon, Alfred

Author:      Dickens, Charles

 

Chapter III 

 

 

     Alfred the Great was a young man three-and-twenty years of age when he

became king.  Twice in his childhood he had been taken to Rome, where the

Saxon nobles were in the habit of going on journeys which they supposed to be

religious; and once he had stayed for some time in Paris.  Learning, however,

was so little cared for then, that at twelve years old he had not been taught

to read; although, of the sons of King Ethelwulf, he, the youngest, was the

favorite.  But he had - as most men who grow up to be great and good are

generally found to have had - an excellent mother; and one day this lady,

whose name was Osburga, happened, as she was sitting among her sons, to read a

book of Saxon poetry.  The art of printing was not known until long and long

after that period; and the book, which was written, was what is called

"illuminated" with beautiful bright letters, richly painted. The brothers

admiring it very much, their mother said, "I will give it to that one of you

four princes who first learns to read." Alfred sought out a tutor that very

day, applied himself to learn with great diligence, and soon won the book.  He

was proud of it all his life.

 

     This great king, in the first year of his reign, fought nine battles with

the Danes.  He made some treaties with them too, by which the false Danes

swore they would quit the country.  They pretended to consider that they had

taken a very solemn oath, in swearing this upon the holy bracelets that they

wore, and which were always buried with them, when they died.  But they cared

little for it; for they thought nothing of breaking oaths, and treaties too,

as soon as it suited their purpose, and coming back again to fight, plunder,

and burn, as usual.  One fatal winter, in the fourth year of King Alfred's

reign, they spread themselves in great numbers over the whole of England; and

so dispersed and routed the king's soldiers, that the king was left alone, and

was obliged to disguise himself as a common peasant, and to take refuge in the

cottage of one of his cowherds, who did not know his face.

 

     Here King Alfred, while the Danes sought him far and near, was left alone

one day by the cowherd's wife, to watch some cakes which she put to bake upon

the hearth.  But being at work upon his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to

punish the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking deeply

of his poor, unhappy subjects, whom the Danes chased through the land, his

noble mind forgot the cakes; and they were burnt.  "What!" said the cowherd's

wife, who scolded him well when she came back, and little thought she was

scolding the king, "You will be ready enough to eat them by and by; and yet

you cannot watch them, idle dog!"

 

     At length the Devonshire men made head against a new host of Danes who

landed on their coast; killed their chief, and captured their flag (on which

was represented the likeness of a raven, - a very fit bird for a thievish army

like that, I think).  The loss of their standard troubled the Danes greatly;

for they believed it to be enchanted, - woven by the three daughters of one

father in a single afternoon.  And they had a story among themselves, that

when they were victorious in battle, the raven stretched his wings, and seemed

to fly; and that when they were defeated, he would droop.  He had good reason

to droop now, if he could have done anything half so sensible; for King Alfred

joined the Devonshire men, made a camp with them on a piece of firm ground in

the midst of a bog in Somersetshire, and prepared for a great attempt for

vengeance on the Danes, and the deliverance of his oppressed people.

 

     But first, as it was important to know how numerous those pestilent Danes

were, and how they were fortified, King Alfred, being a good musician,

disguised himself as a glee-man or minstrel, and went with his harp to the

Danish camp.  He played and sang in the very tent of Guthrum, the Danish

leader, and entertained the Danes as they caroused.  While he seemed to think

of nothing but his music, he was watchful of their tents, their arms, their

discipline, - everything that he desired to know.  And right soon did this

great king entertain them to a different tune; for, summoning all his true

followers to meet him at an appointed place, where they received him with

joyful shouts and tears as the monarch whom many of them had given up for lost

or dead, he put himself at their head, marched on the Danish camp, defeated

the Danes with great slaughter, and besieged them for fourteen days to prevent

their escape.  But, being as merciful as he was good and brave, he then,

instead of killing them, proposed peace, - on condition that they should

altogether depart from that western part of England, and settle in the East;

and that Guthrum should become a Christian, in remembrance of the divine

religion which now taught his conqueror, the noble Alfred, to forgive the

enemy who had so often injured him.  This Guthrum did.  At his baptism, King

Alfred was his godfather.  And Guthrum was an honorable chief, who well

deserved that clemency; for ever afterwards he was loyal and faithful to the

king.  The Danes under him were faithful too.  They plundered and burned no

more, but worked like honest men.  They ploughed and sowed and reaped, and led

good, honest English lives.  And I hope the children of those Danes played

many a time with Saxon children in the sunny fields; and that Danish young men

fell in love with Saxon girls, and married them; and that English travellers,

benighted at the doors of Danish cottages, often went in for shelter until

morning; and that Danes and Saxons sat by the red fire, friends, talking of

King Alfred the Great.

 

     All the Danes were not like these under Guthrum; for, after some years,

more of them came over in the old plundering and burning way, - among them a

fierce pirate of the name of Hastings, who had the boldness to sail up the

Thames to Gravesend with eighty ships.  For three years there was a war with

these Danes; and there was a famine in the country, too, and a plague, both

upon human creatures and beasts.  But King Alfred, whose mighty heart never

failed him, built large ships, nevertheless, with which to pursue the pirates

on the sea; and he encouraged his soldiers, by his brave example, to fight

valiantly against them on the shore.  At last he drove them all away; and then

there was repose in England.

 

     As great and good in peace as he was great and good in war, King Alfred

never rested from his labors to improve his people.  He loved to talk with

clever men, and with travellers from foreign countries, and to write down what

they told him for his people to read.  He had studied Latin after learning to

read English; and now another of his labors was, to translate Latin books into

the English-Saxon tongue, that his people might be interested and improved by

their contents.  He made just laws, that they might live more happily and

freely; he turned away all partial judges, that no wrong might be done them;

he was so careful of their property, and punished robbers so severely, that it

was a common thing to say, that, under the great King Alfred, garlands of

golden chains and jewels might have hung across the streets, and no man would

have touched one.  He founded schools; he patiently heard causes himself in

his court of justice.  The great desires of his heart were, to do right to all

his subjects, and to leave England better, wiser, happier in all ways, than he

found it.  His industry in these efforts was quite astonishing.  Every day he

divided into certain portions, and in each portion devoted himself to a

certain pursuit.  That he might divide his time exactly, he had wax-torches or

candles made, which were all of the same size, were notched across always kept

burning.  Thus, as the candles burnt down, he divided the day into notches,

almost as accurately as we now divide it into hours upon the clock.  But when

the candles were first invented, it was found that the wind and draughts of

air, blowing into the palace through the doors and windows, and through the

chinks in the walls, caused them to gutter and burn unequally.  To prevent

this, the king had them put into cases formed of wood and white horn.  And

these were the first lanterns ever made in England.

 

     All this time he was afflicted with a terrible, unknown disease; which

caused him violent and frequent pain that nothing could relieve.  He bore it,

as he had borne all the troubles of his life, like a brave, good man, until he

was fifty-three years old; and then, having reigned thirty years, he died. He

died in the year 901; but, long ago as that is, his fame, and the love and

gratitude with which his subjects regarded him, are freshly remembered to the

present hour.

 

     In the next reign, which was the reign of Edward, surnamed The Elder, who

was chosen in council to succeed, a nephew of King Alfred troubled the country

by trying to obtain the throne.  The Danes in the east of England, took part

with this usurper (perhaps because they had honored his uncle so much, and

honored him for his uncle's sake), and there was hard fighting; but the king,

with the assistance of his sister, gained the day, and reigned in peace for

four-and-twenty years.  He gradually extended his power over the whole of

England; and so the seven kingdoms were united into one.

 

     When England thus became one kingdom, ruled over by one Saxon king, the

Saxons had been settled in the country more than four hundred and fifty years

Great changes had taken place in its customs during that time.  The Saxons

were still greedy eaters and great drinkers, and their feasts were often of a

noisy and drunken kind; but many new comforts, and even elegances, had become

known, and were fast increasing.  Hangings for the walls of rooms (where, in

these modern days, we paste up paper) are known to have been sometimes made of

silk, ornamented with birds and flowers in needlework. Tables and chairs were

curiously carved in different woods; were sometimes decorated with gold or

silver; sometimes even made of those precious metals. Knives and spoons were

used at table; golden ornaments were worn, - with silk and cloth, and golden

tissues and embroideries; dishes were made of gold and silver, brass and bone.

There were varieties of drinking-horns, bedsteads, musical instruments.  A

harp was passed round at a feast, like the drinking- bowl, from guest to

guest; and each one usually sang or played when his turn came.  The weapons of

the Saxons were stoutly made; and among them was a terrible iron hammer that

gave deadly blows, and was long remembered.  The Saxons themselves were a

handsome people.  The men were proud of their long, fair hair, parted on the

forehead; their ample beards; their fresh complexions and clear eyes.  The

beauty of the Saxon women filled all England with a new delight and grace.

 

     I have more to tell of the Saxons yet; but I stop to say this now,

because, under the Great Alfred, all the best points of the English-Saxon

character were first encouraged, and in him first shown.  It has been the

greatest character among the nations of the earth.  Wherever the descendants

of the Saxon race have gone, have sailed, or otherwise made their way, even to

the remotest regions of the world, they have been patient, persevering, never

to be broken in spirit, never to be turned aside from enterprises on which

they have resolved.  In Europe, Asia, Africa, America, the whole world over;

in the desert, in the forest, on the sea; scorched by a burning sun, or frozen

by ice that never melts, - the Saxon blood remains unchanged. Wheresoever that

race goes, there law and industry, and safety for life and property, and all

the great results of steady perseverance, are certain to arise.

 

     I pause to think with admiration of the noble king, who, in his single

person, possessed all the Saxon virtues; whom misfortune could not subdue,

whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance nothing could shake; who

was hopeful in defeat, and generous in success; who loved justice, freedom,

truth, and knowledge; who, in his care to instruct his people, probably did

more to preserve the beautiful old Saxon language than I can imagine; without

whom the English tongue in which I tell this story might have wanted half its

meaning.  As it is said that his spirit still inspires some of our best

English laws, so let you and I pray that it may animate our English hearts, at

least to this, - to resolve, when we see any of our fellow-creatures left in

ignorance, that we will do our best, while life is in us, to have them taught;

and to tell those rulers whose duty it is to teach them, and who neglect their

duty, that they have profited very little by all the years that have rolled

away since the year 901, and that they are far behind the bright example of

King Alfred the Great.

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