Editor’s Note: This is the first chapter of Alfred the Great, by Jacob Abbot (published 1872)
I. The Britons
Alfred the Great figures in history as the founder, in some sense, of the British monarchy. Of that long succession of sovereigns who have held the scepter of that monarchy, and whose government has exerted so vast an influence on the condition and welfare of mankind, he was not, indeed, actually the first. There were several lines of insignificant princes before him, who governed such portions of the kingdom as they individually possessed, more like semi-savage chieftains than English kings. Alfred followed these by the principle of hereditary right, and spent his life in laying broad and deep the foundations on which the enormous superstructure of the British empire has since been reared. If the tales respecting his character and deeds which have come down to us are at all worthy of belief, he was an honest, conscientious, disinterested, and far-seeing statesman. If the system of hereditary succession would always furnish such sovereigns for mankind, the principle of loyalty would have held its place much longer in the world than it is now likely to do, and great nations, now republican, would have been saved a vast deal of trouble and toil expended in the election of their rulers.
Although the period of King Alfred’s reign seems a very remote one as we look back toward it from the present day, it was still eight hundred years after the Christian era that he ascended his throne. Tolerable authentic history of the British realm mounts up through these eight hundred years to the time of Julius Cæsar. Beyond this the ground is covered by a series of romantic and fabulous tales, pretending to be history, which extend back eight hundred years further to the days of Solomon; so that a much longer portion of the story of that extraordinary island comes before than since the days of Alfred. In respect, however to all that pertains to the interest and importance of the narrative, the exploits and the arrangements of Alfred are the beginning.
The histories, in fact, of all nations, ancient and modern, run back always into misty regions of romance and fable. Before arts and letters arrived at such a state of progress as that public events could be recorded in writing, tradition was the only means of handing down the memory of events from generation to generation; and tradition, among semi-savages, changes every thing it touches into romantic and marvelous fiction.
The stories connected with the earliest discovery and settlement of Great Britain afford very good illustrations of the nature of these fabulous tales. The following may serve as a specimen:
At the close of the Trojan war, Æneas retired with a company of Trojans, who escaped from the city with him, and, after a great variety of adventures, which Virgil has related, he landed and settled in Italy. Here, in process of time, he had a grandson named Silvius, who had a son named Brutus, Brutus being thus Æneas’s great-grandson.
One day, while Brutus was hunting in the forests, he accidentally killed his father with an arrow. His father was at that time King of Alba—a region of Italy near the spot on which Rome was subsequently built—and the accident brought Brutus under such suspicions, and exposed him to such dangers, that he fled from the country. After various wandering he at last reached Greece, where he collected a number of Trojan followers, whom he found roaming about the country, and formed them into an army. With this half-savage force, he attacked a king of the country named Pandrasus. Brutus was successful in the war, and Pandrasus was taken prisoner. This compelled Pandrasus to sue for peace, and peace was concluded on the following very extraordinary terms:
Pandrasus was to give Brutus his daughter Imogena for a wife, and a fleet of ships as her dowry. Brutus, on the other hand, was to take his wife and all his followers on board of his fleet, and sail away and seek a home in some other quarter of the globe. This plan of a monarch’s purchasing his own ransom and peace for his realm from a band of roaming robbers, by offering the leader of them his daughter for a wife, however strange to our ideas, was very characteristic of the times. Imogena must have found it a hard alternative to choose between such a husband and such a father.
Brutus, with his fleet and his bride, betook themselves to sea, and within a short time landed on a deserted island, where they found the ruins of a city. Here there was an ancient temple of Diana, and an image of the goddess, which image was endued with the power of uttering oracular responses to those who consulted it with proper ceremonies and forms. Brutus consulted this oracle on the question in what land he should find a place of final settlement. His address to it was in ancient verse, which some chronicler has turned into English rhyme as follows:
“Goddess of shades and huntress, who at will
Walk’st on the rolling sphere, and through the deep,
On thy third reign, the earth, look now and tell
What land, what seat of rest thou bidd’st me seek?”
To which the oracle returned the following answer:
“Far to the west, in the ocean wide,
Beyond the realm of Gaul a land there lies—
Sea-girt it lies—where giants dwelt of old.
Now void, it fits thy people; thither bend
Thy course; there shalt thou find a lasting home.”
It is scarcely necessary to say that this meant Britain. Brutus, following the directions which the oracle had given him, set sail from the island, and proceeded to the westward through the Mediterranean Sea. He arrived at the Pillars of Hercules. This was the name by which the Rock of Gibraltar and the corresponding promontory on the opposite coast, across the straits, were called in those days; these cliffs having been built, according to ancient tales, by Hercules, as monuments set up to mark the extreme limits of his western wanderings. Brutus passed through the strait, and then, turning northward, coasted along the shores of Spain.
At length, after enduring great privations and suffering, and encountering the extreme dangers to which their frail barks were necessarily exposed from the surges which roll in perpetually from the broad Atlantic Ocean upon the coast of Spain and into the Bay of Biscay, they arrived safely on the shores of Britain. They landed and explored the interior. They found the island robed in the richest drapery of fruitfulness and verdure, but it was unoccupied by any thing human. There were wild beasts roaming in the forests, and the remains of a race of giants in dens and caves—monsters as diverse from humanity as the wolves. Brutus and his followers attacked all these occupants of the land. They drove the wild beasts into the mountains of Scotland and Wales, and killed the giants. The chief of them, whose name was Gogmagog, was hurled by one of Brutus’s followers from the summit of one of the chalky cliffs which bound the island into the sea.
The island of Great Britain is in the latitude of Labrador, which on our side of the continent is the synonym for almost perpetual ice and snow; still these wandering Trojans found it a region of inexhaustible verdure, fruitfulness, and beauty; and as to its extent, though often, in modern times, called a little island, they found its green fields and luxuriant forests extending very far and wide over the sea. A length of nearly six hundred miles would seem almost to merit the name of continent, and the dimensions of this detached outpost of the habitable surface of the earth would never have been deemed inconsiderable, had it not been that the people, by the greatness of their exploits, of which the whole world has been the theatre, have made the physical dimensions of their territory appear so small and insignificant in comparison. To Brutus and his companions the land appeared a world. It was nearly four hundred miles in breadth at the place where they landed, and, wandering northward, they found it extending, in almost undiminished beauty and fruitfulness, further than they had the disposition to explore it. They might have gone northward until the twilight scarcely disappeared in the summer nights, and have found the game verdure and beauty continuing to the end. There were broad and undulating plains in the southern regions of the island, and in the northern, green mountains and romantic glens; but all, plains, valleys, and mountains, were fertile and beautiful, and teeming with abundant sustenance for flocks, for herds, and for man.
Brutus accordingly established himself upon the island with all his followers, and founded a kingdom there, over which he reigned as the founder of a dynasty. Endless tales are told of the lives, and exploits, and quarrels of his successors down to the time of Cæsar. Conflicting claimants arose continually to dispute with each other, for the possession of power; wars were made by one tribe upon another; cities, as they were called—though probably, in fact, they were only rude collections of hovels—were built, fortresses were founded, and rivers were named from princes or princesses drowned in them; in accidental journeys, or by the violence of rival claimants to their thrones. The pretended records contain a vast number of legends, of very little interest or value, as the reader will readily admit when we tell him that the famous story of King Lear is the most entertaining one in the whole collection. It is this:
There was a king in the line named Lear. He founded the city now called Leicester. He had three daughters, whose names were Gonilla, Regana, and Cordiella. Cordiella was her father’s favorite child. He was, however, jealous of the affections of them all, and one day he called them to him, and asked them for some assurance of their love. The two eldest responded by making the most extravagant protestations. They loved their father a thousand times better than their own souls. They could not express, they said, the ardor and strength of their attachment, and called Heaven and earth to witness that these protestations were sincere.
Cordiella, all this time, stood meekly and silently by, and when her father asked her how it was with her, she replied, “Father, my love toward you is as my duty bids. What can a father ask, or a daughter promise more? They who pretend beyond this only flatter.”
The king, who was old and childish, was much pleased with the manifestation of love offered by Gonilla and Regana, and thought that the honest Cordiella was heartless and cold. He treated her with greater and greater neglect, and finally decided to leave her without any portion whatever, while he divided his kingdom between the other two, having previously married them to princes of high rank. Cordiella was, however, at last made choice of for a wife by a French prince, who, it seems, knew better than the old king how much more to be relied upon was unpretending and honest truth than empty and extravagant profession. He married the portionless Cordiella, and took her with him to the Continent.
The old king now having given up his kingdom to his eldest daughters, they managed, by artifice and maneuvering, to get every thing else away from him, so that he became wholly dependent upon them, and had to live with them by turns. This was not all; for, at the instigation of their husbands, they put so many indignities and affronts upon him, that his life at length became an intolerable burden, and finally he was compelled to leave the realm altogether, and in his destitution and distress he went for refuge and protection to his rejected daughter Cordiella. She received her father with the greatest alacrity and affection. She raised an army to restore him to his rights, and went in person with him to England to assist him in recovering them. She was successful. The old king took possession of his throne again, and reigned in peace for the remainder of his days. The story is of itself nothing very remarkable, though Shakespeare has immortalized it by making it the subject of one of his tragedies.
Centuries passed away, and at length the great Julius Cæsar, who was extending the Roman power in every direction, made his way across the Channel, and landed in England. The particulars of this invasion are described in our history of Julius Cæsar. The Romans retained possession of the island, in a greater or less degree, for four hundred years.
They did not, however, hold it in peace all this time. They became continually involved in difficulties and contests with the native Britons who could ill brook the oppressions of such merciless masters as Roman generals always proved in the provinces which they pretended to govern. One of the most formidable rebellions that the Romans had to encounter during their disturbed and troubled sway in Britain was led on by a woman. Her name was Boadicea. Boadicea, like almost all other heroines, was coarse and repulsive in appearance. She was tall and masculine in form. The tones of her voice were harsh, and she had the countenance of a savage. Her hair was yellow. It might have been beautiful if it had been neatly arranged, and had shaded a face which possessed the gentle expression that belongs properly to woman. It would then have been called golden. As it was, hanging loosely below her waist and streaming in the wind, it made the wearer only look the more frightful. Still, Boadicea was not by any means indifferent to the appearance she made in the eyes of beholders. She evinced her desire to make a favorable impression upon others, in her own peculiar way, it is true, but in one which must have been effective, considering what sort of beholders they were in whose eyes she figured. She was dressed in a gaudy coat, wrought of various colors, with a sort of mantle buttoned over it. She wore a great gold chain about her neck; and held to ornamented spear in her hand. Thus equipped, she appeared at the head of an army of a hundred thousand men, and gathering them around her, she ascended a mound of earth and harangued them—that is, as many as could stand within reach of her voice—arousing them to sentiments of revenge against their hated oppressors, and urging them to the highest pitch of determination and courage for the approaching straggle. Boadicea had reason to deem the Romans her implacable foes. They had robbed her of her treasures, deprived her of her kingdom, imprisoned her, scourged her, and inflicted the worst possible injuries upon her daughters. These things had driven the wretched mother to a perfect frenzy of hate, and aroused her to this desperate struggle for redress and revenge. But all was in vain. In encountering the spears of Roman soldiery, she was encountering the very hardest and sharpest steel that a cruel world could furnish. Her army was conquered, and she killed herself by taking poison in her despair.
By struggles such as these the contest between the Romans and the Britons was carried on for many generations; the Romans conquering at every trial, until, at length, the Britons learned to submit without further resistance to their sway. In fact, there gradually came upon the stage, during the progress of these centuries, a new power, acting as an enemy to both, the Picts and Scots; hordes of lawless barbarians, who inhabited the mountains and morasses of Scotland and Ireland. These terrible savages made continual irruptions into the southern country for plunder, burning and destroying, as they retired, whatever they could not carry away. They lived in impregnable and almost inaccessible fastnesses, among dark glens and precipitous mountains, and upon gloomy islands surrounded by iron-bound coasts and stormy seas. The Roman legions made repeated attempts to hunt them out of these retreats, but with very little success. At length a line of fortified posts was established across the island, near where the boundary line now lies between England and Scotland; and by guarding this line, the Roman generals who had charge of Britain attempted to protect the inhabitants of the southern country, who had learned at length to submit peaceably to their sway.
One of the most memorable events which occurred during the time that the Romans held possession of the island of Britain was the visit of one of the emperors to this northern extremity of his dominions. The name of this emperor was Severus. He was powerful and prosperous at home, but his life was embittered by one great calamity, the dissolute character and the perpetual quarrels of his sons. To remove them from Rome, where they disgraced both themselves and their father by their vicious lives, and the ferocious rivalry and hatred they bore to each other, Severus planned an excursion to Britain, taking them with him, in the hope of turning their minds into new channels of thought, and awakening in them some new and nobler ambition.
At the time when Severus undertook this expedition, he was advanced in age and very infirm. He suffered much from the gout, so that he was unable to travel by any ordinary conveyance, and was borne, accordingly, almost all the way upon a litter. He crossed the Channel with his army, and, leaving one of his sons in command in the south part of the island, he advanced with the other, at the head of an enormous force, determined to push boldly forward into the heart of Scotland, and to bring the war with the Picts and Scots to an effectual end.
He met, however, with very partial success. His soldiers became entangled in bogs and morasses; they fell into ambuscades; they suffered every degree of privation and hardship for want of water and of food, and were continually entrapped by their enemies in situations where they had to fight in small numbers and at a great disadvantage. Then, too, the aged and feeble general was kept in a continual fever of anxiety and trouble by Bassianus, the son whom he had brought with him to the north. The dissoluteness and violence of his character were not changed by the change of scene. He formed plots and conspiracies against his father’s authority; he raised mutinies in the army; he headed riots; and he was finally detected in a plan for actually assassinating his father. Severus, when he discovered this last enormity of wickedness, sent for his son to come to his imperial tent. He laid a naked sword before him, and then, after bitterly reproaching him with his undutiful and ungrateful conduct, he said, “If you wish to kill me, do it now. Here I stand, old, infirm, and helpless. You are young and strong, and can do it easily. I am ready. Strike the blow.”
Of course Bassianus shrunk from his father’s reproaches, and went away without committing the crime to which he was thus reproachfully invited; but his character remained unchanged; and this constant trouble, added to all the other difficulties which Severus encountered, prevented his accomplishing his object of thoroughly conquering his northern foes. He made a sort of peace with them, and retiring south to the line of fortified posts which had been previously established, he determined to make it a fixed and certain boundary by building upon it a permanent wall. He put the whole force of his army upon the work, and in one or two years, as is said, he completed the structure. It is known in history as the Wall of Severus; and so solid, substantial, and permanent was the work, that the traces of it have not entirely disappeared to the present day.
The wall extended across the island, from the mouth of the Tyne, on the German Ocean, to the Solway Firth—nearly seventy miles. It was twelve feet high, and eight feet wide. It was faced with substantial masonry on both sides, the intermediate space being likewise filled in with stone. When it crossed bays or morasses, piles were driven to serve as a foundation. Of course, such a wall as this, by itself, would be no defense. It was to be garrisoned by soldiers, being, intended, in fact, only as a means to enable a smaller number of troops than would otherwise be necessary to guard the line. For these soldiers there were built great fortresses at intervals along the wall, wherever a situation was found favorable for such structures. These were called stations. The stations were occupied by garrisons of troops, and small towns of artificers and laborers soon sprung up around them. Between the stations, at smaller intervals, were other smaller fortresses called castles, intended as places of defense, and rallying points in case of an attack, but not for garrisons of any considerable number of men. Then, between the castles, at smaller intervals still, were turrets, used as watch-towers and posts for sentinels. Thus the whole line of the wall was everywhere defended by armed men. The whole number thus employed in the defense of this extraordinary rampart was said to be ten thousand. There was a broad, deep, and continuous ditch on the northern side of the wall, to make the impediment still greater for the enemy, and a spacious and well-constructed military road on the southern side, on which troops, stores, wagons, and baggage of every kind could be readily transported along the line, from one end to the other.
The wall was a good defense as long as Roman soldiers remained to guard it. But in process of time—about two centuries after Severus’s day—the Roman empire itself began to decline, even in the very seat and center of its power; and then, to preserve their own capital from destruction, the government were obliged to call their distant armies home. The wall was left to the Britons; but they could not defend it. The Picts and Scots, finding out the change, renewed their assaults. They battered in the castles; they made breaches here and there in the wall; they built vessels, and, passing round by sea across the mouth of the Solway Firth and of the River Tyne, they renewed their old incursions for plunder and destruction. The Britons, in extreme distress, sent again and again to recall the Romans to their aid, and they did, in fact, receive from them some occasional and temporary succor. At length, however, all hope of help from this quarter failed, and the Britons, finding their condition desperate, were compelled to resort to a desperate remedy, the nature of which will be explained in the next chapter.
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Delightful read. Also interesting to see the mentality of a 19th century Britishman, so confident in the inherent superiority of the British.