Alfred the Great – Part 5

September 16, 2017
15 mins read

Editor’s Note:  This is the fifth chapter of Alfred the Great, by Jacob Abbot (published 1872).

(Continued from Part 4)

V. The State of England

Having thus brought down the narrative of Alfred’s early life as far and as fully as the records that remain enable us to do so, we resume the general history of the national affairs by returning to the subject of the depredations and conquests of the Danes, and the circumstances connected with Alfred’s accession to the throne.

To give the reader some definite and clear ideas of the nature of this warfare, it will be well to describe in detail some few of the incidents and scenes which ancient historians have recorded. The following was one case which occurred:

The Danes, it must be premised, were particularly hostile to the monasteries and religious establishments of the Anglo-Saxons. In the first place, they were themselves pagans, and they hated Christianity. In the second place, they knew that these places of sacred seclusion were often the depositories selected for the custody or concealment of treasure; and, besides the treasures which kings and potentates often placed in them for safety, these establishments possessed utensils of gold and silver for the service of the chapels, and a great variety of valuable gifts, such as pious saints or penitent sinners were continually bequeathing to them. The Danes were, consequently, never better pleased than when sacking an abbey or a monastery. In such exploits they gratified their terrible animal propensities, both of hatred and love, by the cruelties which they perpetrated personally upon the monks and the nuns, and at the same time enriched their coffers with the most valuable spoils. A dreadful tale is told of one company of nuns, who, in the consternation and terror which they endured at the approach of a band of Danes, mutilated their faces in a manner too horrid to be described, as the only means left to them for protection against the brutality of their foes. They followed, in adopting this measure, the advice and the example of the lady superior. It was effectual.

There was a certain abbey, called Crowland, which was in those days one of the most celebrated in the island. It was situated near the southern border of Lincolnshire, which lies on the eastern side of England. There is a great shallow bay, called The Wash, on this eastern shore, and it is surrounded by a broad tract of low and marshy land, which is drained by long canals, and traversed by roads built upon embankments. Dikes skirt the margins of the streams, and windmills are engaged in perpetual toil to raise the water from the fields into the channels by which it is conveyed away.

Crowland Abbey

Crowland is at the confluence of two rivers, which flow sluggishly through this flat but beautiful and verdant region. The remains of the old abbey still stand, built on piles driven into the marshy ground, and they form at the present time a very interesting mass of ruins. The year before Alfred acceded to the throne, the abbey was in all its glory; and on one occasion it furnished two hundred men, who went out under the command of one of the monks, named Friar Joly, to join the English armies and fight the Danes.

The English army was too small, notwithstanding this desperate effort to strengthen it. They stood, however, all day in a compact band, protecting themselves with their shields from the arrows of the foot soldiers of the Enemy, and with their pikes from the onset of the cavalry. At night the Danes retired, as if giving up the contest; but as soon as the Saxons, now released from their positions of confinement and restraint, had separated a little, and began to feel somewhat more secure, their implacable foes returned again and attacked them in separate masses, and with more fury than before. The Saxons endeavored in vain either to defend themselves or escape. As fast as their comrades were killed, the survivors stood upon the heaps of the slain, to gain what little advantage they could from so slight an elevation. Nearly all at length were killed. A few escaped into a neighboring wood, where they lay concealed during the day following, and then, when the darkness of the succeeding night came to enable them to conceal their journey, they made their way to the abbey, to make known to the anxious inmates of it the destruction of the army, and to warn them of the imminence of the impending danger to which they were now exposed.

A dreadful scene of consternation and terror ensued. The affrighted messengers told their tale breathless and wayworn, at the door of the chapel, where the monks were engaged at their devotions. The aisles were filled with exclamations of alarm and despairing lamentations. The abbot, whose name was Theodore, immediately began to take measures suited to the emergency. He resolved to retain at the monastery only some aged monks and a few children, whose utter defenselessness, he thought, would disarm the ferocity and vengeance of the Danes. The, rest, only about thirty, however, in number—nearly all the brethren having gone out under the Friar Joly into the great battle—were put on board a boat to be sent down the river. It seems at first view a strange idea to send away the vigorous and strong, and keep the infirm and helpless at the scene of danger; but the monks knew very well that all resistance was vain, and that, consequently, their greatest safety would lie in the absence of all appearance of the possibility of resistance.

The treasures were sent away, too, with all of the men. They hastily collected all the valuables together, the relics, the jewels, and all of the gold and silver plate which could be easily removed, and placed them in a boat—packing them as securely as their haste and trepidation allowed. The boats glided down the river, till they came to a lonely spot, where an anchorite or sort of hermit lived in solitude. The men and the treasures were to be intrusted to his charge. He concealed the men in the thickets, and other hiding-planes in the woods, and buried the treasures.

In the mean time, as soon as the boats and the party of monks which accompanied them had left the abbey, the Abbot Theodore and the old monks that remained with him urged on the work of concealing that part of the treasures which had not been taken away. All of the plate which could not be easily transported, and a certain very rich and costly table employed for the service of the altar, and many sacred and expensive garments used by the higher priests in their ceremonies, had been left behind, as they could not be easily removed. These the abbot and the monks concealed in the most secure places that they could find, and then, clothing themselves in their priestly robes, they assembled in the chapel, and resumed their exercises of devotion. To be found in so sacred a place and engaged in so holy an avocation would have been a great protection from any Christian soldiery; but the monks entirely misconceived the nature of the impulses by which human nature is governed, in supposing that it would have any restraining influence upon the pagan Danes. The first thing the ferocious marauders did, on breaking into the sacred precincts of the chapel, was to cut down the venerable abbot at the altar, in his sacerdotal robes, and then to push forward the work of slaying every other inmate of the abbey, feeble, and helpless as they were. Only one was saved.

This one was a boy, about ten years old. His name was Turgar. He was a handsome boy, and one of the Danish chieftains was struck with his countenance and air, in the midst of the slaughter, and took pity on him. The chieftain’s name was Count Sidroc. Sidroc drew Turgar out of the immediate scene of danger, and gave him a Danish garment, directing him, at the same time, to, throw aside his own, and then to follow him wherever he went, and keep close to his side, as if he were a Dane. The boy, relieved from his terrors by this hope of protection, obeyed implicitly. He followed Sidroc everywhere, and his life was saved. The Danes, after killing all the others, ransacked and plundered the monastery, broke open the tombs in their search for concealed treasures, and, after taking all that they could discover, they set the edifices on fire wherever they could find wood-work that would burn, and went away, leaving the bodies slowly burning in the grand and terrible funeral pile.

From Crowland the marauders proceeded, taking Turgar with them, to another large and wealthy abbey in the neighborhood, which they plundered and destroyed, as they had the abbey at Crowland. Sidroc made Turgar his own attendant, keeping him always near him. When the expedition had completed their second conquest, they packed the valuables which they had obtained from both abbeys in wagons, and moved toward the south. It happened that some of these wagons were under Count Sidroc’s charge, and were in the rear of the line of march. In passing a ford, the wheels of one of these rear wagons sank in the muddy bottom, and the horses, in attempting to draw the wagon out, became entangled and restive. While Sidroc’s whole attention was engrossed by this difficulty, Turgar contrived to steal away unobserved. He hid himself in a neighboring wood, and, with a degree of sagacity and discretion remarkable in a boy of his years, he contrived to find his way back to the smoking ruins of his home at the Abbey of Crowland.

The monks who had gone away to seek concealment at the cell of the anchorite had returned, and were at work among the smoking ruins, saving what they could from the fire, and gathering together the blackened remains of their brethren for interment. They chose one of the monks that had escaped to succeed the abbot who had been murdered, repaired, so far as they could, their ruined edifices, and mournfully resumed their functions as a religious community.

Many of the tales which the ancient chroniclers tell of those times are romantic and incredible; they may have arisen, perhaps, in the first instance, in exaggerations of incidents and events which really occurred, and were then handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition, till they found historians to record them. The story of the martyrdom of King Edmund is of this character. Edmund was a sort of king over one of the nations of Anglo-Saxons called East Angles, who, as their name imports, occupied a part of the eastern portion of the island. Their particular hostility to Edmund was awakened, according to the story, in the following manner:

Ragnar Lothbroc (relief in Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark)

There was a certain bold and adventurous Dane named Lothbroc, who one day took his falcon on his arm and went out alone in a boat on the Baltic Sea, or in the straits connecting it with the German Ocean, intending to go to a certain island and hunt. The falcon is a species, of hawk which they were accustomed to train in those days, to attack and bring down birds from the air, and falconry was, as might have been expected, a very picturesque and exciting species of hunting. The game which Lothbroc was going to seek consisted of the wild fowl which frequents sometimes, in vast numbers, the cliffs and shores of the islands in those seas. Before he reached his hunting ground, however, he was overtaken by a storm, and his boat was driven by it out to sea. Accustomed to all sorts of adventures and dangers by sea and by land, and skilled in every operation required in all possible emergencies, Lothbroc contrived to keep his boat before the wind, and to bail out the water as fast as it came in, until at length, after being driven entirely across the German Ocean, he was thrown upon the English shore, where, with his hawk still upon his arm, he safely landed.

He knew that he was in the country of the most deadly foes of his nation. and race, and accordingly sought to conceal rather than to make known his arrival. He was, however, found, after a few days, wandering up and down in a solitary wood, and was conducted, together with his hawk, to King Edmund.

Edmund was so much pleased with his air and bearing, and so astonished at the remarkable manner in which he had been brought to the English shore, that he gave him his life; and soon discovering his great knowledge and skill as a huntsman, he received him into his own service, and treated him with great distinction and honor. In addition to his hawk, Lothbroc had a greyhound, so that he could hunt with the king in the fields as well as through the air. The greyhound was very strongly attached to his master.

The king’s chief huntsman at this time was Beorn, and Beorn soon became very envious and jealous of Lothbroc, on account of his superior power and skill, and of the honorable distinction which they procured for him. One day, when they two were hunting alone in the woods with their dogs, Beorn killed his rival, and hid his body in a thicket. Beorn went home, his own dogs following him, while the greyhound remained to watch mournfully over the body of his master. They asked Beorn what was become of Lothbroc, and he replied that he had gone off into the wood the day before, and he did not know what had become of him.

In the meantime, the greyhound remained faithfully watching at the side of the body of his master until hunger compelled him to leave his post in search of food. He went home, and, as soon as his wants were supplied, he returned immediately to the wood again. This he did several days; and at length his singular conduct attracting attention, he was followed by some of the king’s household, and the body of his murdered master was found.

The guilt of the murder was with little difficulty brought home to Beorn; and, as an appropriate punishment for his cruelty to an unfortunate and homeless stranger, the king condemned him to be put on board the same boat in which the ill-fated Lothbroc had made his perilous voyage, and pushed out to sea.

The winds and storms—entering, it seems, into the plan, and influenced by the same principles of poetical justice as had governed the king—drove the boat, with its terrified mariner, back again across to the mouth of the Baltic, as they had brought Lothbroc to England. The boat was thrown upon the beach, on Lothbroc’s family domain.

Lothbroc’s sons sailing to avenge their father

Now Lothbroc had been, in his own country, a man of high rank and influence. He was of royal descent, and had many friends. He had two sons, men of enterprise and energy; and it so happened that the landing of Beorn took place so near to them, that the tidings soon came to their ears that their fathers boat, in the hands of a Saxon stranger, had arrived on the coast. They immediately sought out the stranger, and demanded what had become of their father. Beorn, in order to hide his own guilt, fabricated a tale of Lothbroc’s having been killed by Edmund, the king of the East Angles. The sons of the murdered Lothbroc were incensed at this news. They aroused their countrymen by calling upon them everywhere to aid them in revenging their father’s death. A large naval force was accordingly collected, and a formidable descent made upon the English coast.

Now Edmund, according to the story, was a humane and gentle-minded man, much more interested in deeds of benevolence and of piety than in warlike undertakings and exploits, and he was very far from being well prepared to, meet this formidable foe. In fact, he sought refuge in a retired residence called Heglesdune. The Danes, having taken some Saxons captive in a city which they had sacked and destroyed, compelled them to make known the place of the king’s retreat. Hinquar, the captain of the Danes, sent him a summons to come and surrender both himself and all the treasures of his Kingdom. Edmund refused. Hinquar then laid siege to the palace, and surrounded it; and, finally, his soldiers, breaking in, put Edmund’s attendants to death, and brought Edmund himself, bound, into Hinquar’s presence.

The martyrdom of Edmund

Hinquar decided that the unfortunate captive should die. He was, accordingly, first taken to a tree and scourged. Then he was shot at with arrows, until, as the account states, his body was so full of the arrows that remained in the flesh that there seemed to be no room for more. During all this time Edmund continued to call upon the name of Christ, as if finding spiritual refuge and strength in the Redeemer in this his hour of extremity; and although these ejaculations afforded, doubtless, great support and comfort to him, they only served to irritate to a perfect frenzy of exasperation his implacable pagan foes. They continued to shoot arrows into him until he was dead, and then they cut off his head and went away, carrying the dissevered head with them. Their object was to prevent his friends from having the satisfaction of interring it with the body. They carried it to what they supposed a sufficient distance, and then threw it off into a wood by the way-side, where they supposed it could not easily be found.

As soon, however, as the Danes had left the place, the affrighted friends and followers of Edmund came out, by degrees, from their retreats and hiding places. They readily found the dead body of their sovereign, as it lay, of course, where the cruel deed of his murder had been performed. They sought with mournful and anxious steps, here and there, all around, for the head, until at length, when they came into the wood where it was lying, they heard, as the historian who records these events gravely testifies, a voice issuing from it, calling them, and directing their steps by the sound. They followed the voice, and, having recovered the head by means of this miraculous guidance, they buried it with the body.

It seems surprising to us that reasonable men should so readily believe such tales as these; but there are, in all ages of the world, certain habits of belief, in conformity to which the whole community go together. We all believe whatever is in harmony with, or analogous to, the general type of faith prevailing in our own generation. Nobody could be persuaded now that a dead head could speak, or a wolf change his nature to protect it; but thousands will credit a fortune-teller, or believe that a mesmerized patient can have a mental perception of scenes and occurrences a thousand miles away.

There was a great deal of superstition in the days when Alfred was called to the throne, and there was also, with it, a great deal of genuine honest piety. The piety and the superstition, too, were inextricably intermingled and combined together. They were all Catholics then, yielding an implicit obedience to the Church of Rome, making regular contributions in money to sustain the papal authority, and looking to Rome as the great and central point of Christian influence and power, and the object of supreme veneration. We have already seen that the Saxons had established a seminary at Rome, which King Ethelwulf, Alfred’s father, rebuilt and re-endowed. One of the former Anglo-Saxon kings, too, had given a grant of one penny from every house in the kingdom to the successors of St. Peter at Rome, which tax, although nominally small, produced a very considerable sum in the aggregate, exceeding for many years the royal revenues of the kings of England. It continued to be paid down to the time of Henry VIII., when the reformation swept away that, and all the other national obligations of England to the Catholic Church together.

In the age of Alfred, however, there were not only these public acts of acknowledgment recognizing the papal supremacy, but there was a strong tide of personal and private feeling of veneration and attachment to the mother Church, of which it is hard for us, in the present divided state of Christendom to conceive. The religious thoughts and affections of every pious heart throughout the realm centered in Rome. Rome, too, was the scene of many miracles, by which the imaginations of the superstitious and of the truly devout were excited, which impressed them with an idea of power in which they felt a sort of confiding sense of protection. This power was continually interposing, now in one way and now in another, to protect virtue, to punish crime, and to testify to the impious and to the devout, to each in an appropriate way, that their respective deeds were the objects, according to their character, of the displeasure or of the approbation of Heaven.

Saint Kenelm (St. Augustine’s Church, Ramsgate)

On one occasion, the following incident is said to have occurred. The narration of it will illustrate the ideas of the time. A child of about seven years old, named Kenelm, succeeded to the throne in the Anglo-Saxon line. Being too young to act for himself, he was put under the charge of a sister, who was to act as regent until the boy became of age. The sister, ambitious of making the power thus delegated to her entirely her own, decided on destroying her brother. She commissioned a hired murderer to perpetrate the deed. The murderer took the child into a wood, killed him, and hid his body in a thicket, in a certain cow-pasture at a place called Clent. The sister then assumed the scepter in her own name, and suppressed all inquiries in respect to the fate of her brother; and his murder might have remained forever undiscovered, had it not been miraculously revealed at Rome.

A white dove flew into a church there one day, and let fall upon the altar of St. Peter a paper on which was written, in Anglo-Saxon characters:


For a time nobody could read the writing. At length an Anglo-Saxon saw it, and translated it into Latin, so that the pope and all others could understand it. The pope then sent a letter to the authorities in England, who made search and found the body.

But we must end these digressions, which we have indulged thus far in order to give the reader some distinct conception of the ideas and habits of the times, and proceed, in the next chapter, to relate the events immediately connected with Alfred’s accession to the throne.

(Continue to Part 6)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


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