Editor’s Note: This is the seventh chapter of Alfred the Great, by Jacob Abbot (published 1872)
The historians say that Alfred was very unwilling to assume the crown when the death of Ethelred presented it to him. If it had been an object of ambition or desire, there would probably have been a rival claimant, whose right would perhaps have proved superior to his own, since it appears that one or more of the brothers who reigned before him left a son, whose claim to the inheritance, if the inheritance had been worth claiming, would have been stronger than that of their uncle. The son of the oldest son takes precedence always of the brother, for hereditary rights, like water, never move laterally so long as they can continue to descend.
The nobles, however, and chieftains, and all the leading powers of the kingdom of Wessex, which was the particular kingdom which descended from Alfred’s ancestors, united to urge Alfred to take the throne. His father had, indeed, designated him as the successor of his brothers by his will, though how far a monarch may properly control by his will the disposal of his realm, is a matter of great uncertainty. Alfred yielded at length to these solicitations, and determined on assuming the sovereign power. He first went to Wimborne to attend to the funeral solemnities which were to be observed at his royal brother’s burial. He then went to Winchester, which, as well as Wimborne, is in the south of England, to be crowned and anointed king. Winchester was, even in those early days, a great ecclesiastical center. It was for some time the capital of the West Saxon realm. It was a very sacred place, and the crown was there placed upon Alfred’s head, with the most imposing and solemn ceremonies. It is a curious and remarkable fact, that the spots which were consecrated in those early days by the religious establishments of the times, have preserved in almost every case their sacredness to the present day. Winchester is now famed all over England for its great Cathedral church, and the vast religious establishment which has its seat there—the annual revenues and expenditures of which far exceed those of many of the states of this Union. The income of the bishop alone was for many years double that of the salary of the President of the United States. The Bishop of Winchester is widely celebrated, therefore, all over England, for his wealth, his ecclesiastical power, the architectural grandeur of the Cathedral church, and the wealth and importance of the college of ecclesiastics over which he presides.
It was in Winchester that Alfred was crowned. As soon as the ceremony was performed, he took the field, collected his forces, and went to meet the Danes again. He found the country in a most deplorable condition. The Danes had extended and strengthened their positions. They had got possession of many of the towns, and, not content with plundering castles and abbeys, they had seized lands, and were beginning to settle upon them, as if they intended to make Alfred’s new kingdom their permanent abode. The forces of the Saxons, on the other hand, were scattered and discouraged. There seemed no hope left to them of making head against their pestiferous invaders. If they were defeated, their cruel conquerors showed no moderation and no mercy in their victory; and if they conquered, it was only to suppress for a moment one horde, with a certainty of being attacked immediately by another, more recently arrived, and more determined and relentless than those before them.
Alfred succeeded, however, by means of the influence of his personal character, and by the very active and efficient exertions that he made, in concentrating what forces remained, and in preparing for a renewal of the contest. The first great battle that was fought was at Wilton. This was within a month of his accession to the throne. The battle was very obstinately fought; at the first onset Alfred’s troops carried all before them, and there was every prospect that he would win the day. In the end, however, the tide of victory turned in favor of the Danes, and Alfred and his troops were driven from the field. There was an immense loss on both sides, In fact, both armies were, for the time, pretty effectually disabled, and each seems to have shrunk from a renewal of the contest. Instead, therefore, of fighting again, the two commanders entered into negotiations. Hubba was the name of the Danish chieftain. In the end, he made a treaty with Alfred, by which he agreed to retire from Alfred’s dominions, and leave him in peace, provided that Alfred would not interfere with him in his wars in any other part of England. Alfred’s kingdom was Wessex. Besides Wessex, there was Essex, Mercia, and Northumberland. Hubba and his Danes, finding that Alfred was likely to prove too formidable an antagonist for them easily to subdue, thought it would be most prudent to give up one kingdom out of the four, on condition of not having Alfred to contend against in their depredations upon the other three. They accordingly made the treaty, and the Danes withdrew. They evacuated their posts and strong-holds in Wessex, and went down the Thames to London, which was in Mercia, and there commenced a new course of conquest and plunder, where they had no such powerful foe to oppose them.
Buthred was the king of Mercia. He could not resist Hubba and his Danes alone, and he could not now have Alfred’s assistance. Alfred was censured very much at the time, and has been condemned often since, for having thus made a separate peace for himself and his own immediate dominions, and abandoned his natural allies and friends, the people of the other Saxon kingdoms. To make a peace with savage and relentless pagans, on the express condition of leaving his fellow Christian neighbors at their mercy, has been considered ungenerous, at least, if it was not unjust. On the other hand, those who vindicate his conduct maintain that it was his duty to secure the peace and welfare of his own realm, leaving other sovereigns to take care of theirs; and that he would have done very wrong to sacrifice the property and lives of his own immediate subjects to a mere point of honor, when it was utterly out of his power to protect them and his neighbors too.
However this may be, Buthred, finding that he could not have Alfred’s aid, and that he could not protect his kingdom by any force which he could himself bring into the field, tried negotiations too, and he succeeded in buying off the Danes with money. He paid them a large sum, on condition of their leaving his dominions finally and forever, and, not coming to molest him any more. Such a measure as this is always a very desperate and hopeless one. Buying off robbers, or beggars, or false accusers, or oppressors of any kind, is only to encourage them to come again, after a brief interval, under some frivolous pretext, with fresh demands or new oppressions, that they may be bought off again with higher pay. At least Buthred found it so in this case. Hubba went northward for a time, into the kingdom of Northumberland, and, after various conquests and  plunderings there, he came back again into Mercia, on the plea that there was a scarcity of provisions in the northern kingdom, and he was obliged to come back. Buthred bought him off again with a larger sum of money. Hubba scarcely left the kingdom this time, but spent the money with his army, in carousings and excesses, and then went to robbing and plundering as before. Buthred, at last reduced to despair, and seeing no hope of escape from the terrible pest with which his kingdom was infested, abandoned the country and escaped to Rome. They received him as an exiled monarch, in the Saxon school, where he soon after died, a prey to grief and despair. The Danes overturned what remained of Buthred’s government. They destroyed a famous mausoleum, the ancient burial place of the Mercian kings. This devastation of the abodes of the dead was a sort of recreation—a savage amusement, to vary the more serious and dangerous excitements attending their contests with the living. They found an officer of Buthred’s government named Ceolwulf, who, though a Saxon, was willing, through his love of place and power, to accept of the office of king in subordination to the Danes, and hold it at their disposal, paying an annual tribute to them. Ceolwulf was execrated by his countrymen, who considered him a traitor. He, in his turn, oppressed and tyrannized over them.
In the meantime, a new leader, with a fresh horde of Danes, had landed in England. His name was Halfden. Halfden came with a considerable fleet of ships, and, after landing his men, and performing various exploits and encountering various adventures in other parts of England, he began to turn his thoughts toward Alfred’s dominions. Alfred did not pay particular attention to Halfden’s movements at first, as he supposed that his treaty with Hubba had bound the whole nation of the Danes not to encroach upon his realm, whatever they might do in respect to the other Saxon kingdoms. Alfred had a famous castle at Wareham, on the southern coast of the island. It was situated on a bay which lies in what is now Dorsetshire. This castle was the strongest place in his dominions. It was garrisoned and guarded, but not with any special vigilance, as no one expected an attack upon it. Halfden brought his fleet to the southern shore of the island, and, organizing an expedition there, he put to sea, and before anyone suspected his design, he entered the bay, surprised and attacked Wareham Castle, and took it. Alfred and the people of his realm were not only astonished and alarmed at the loss of the castle, but they were filled with indignation at the treachery of the Danes in violating their treaty by attacking it. Halfden said, however, that he was an independent chieftain, acting in his own name, and was not bound at all by any obligations entered into by Hubba!
There followed after this a series of contests and truces, during which treacherous wars alternated with still more treacherous and illusive periods of peace, neither party, on the whole, gaining any decided victory. the Danes, at one time, after agreeing upon a cessation of hostilities, suddenly fell upon a large squadron of Alfred’s horse, who, relying on the truce, were moving across the country too much off their guard. The Danes dismounted and drove off the men, and seized the horses, and thus provided themselves with cavalry, a species of force which it is obvious they could not easily bring, in any ships which they could then construct, across the German Ocean. Without waiting for Alfred to recover from the surprise and consternation which this unexpected treachery occasioned, the newly-mounted troop of Danes rode rapidly along the southern coast of England till they came to the town of Exeter. Its name was in those days Exancester. It was then, as it is now, a very important town. It has since acquired a mournful celebrity as the place of refuge, and the scene of suffering of Queen Henrietta Maria, the mother of Charles the Second. The loss of this place was a new and heavy cloud over Alfred’s prospects. It placed the whole southern coast of his realm in the hands of his enemies, and seemed to portend for the whole interior of the country a period of hopeless and irremediable calamity.
It seems, too, from various unequivocal statements and allusions contained in the narratives of the times, that Alfred did not possess, during this period of his reign, the respect and affection of his subjects. He is accused, or, rather, not directly accused, but spoken of as generally known to be guilty of many faults which alienated the hearts of his countrymen from him, and prepared them to consider his calamities as the judgments of Heaven. He was young and ardent, full of youthful impetuosity and fire, and was elated at his elevation to the throne; and, during the period while the Danes left him in peace, under the treaties he had made with Hubba, he gave himself up to pleasure, and not always to innocent pleasure. They charged him, too, with being tyrannical and oppressive in his government, being so devoted to gratifying his own ambition and love of personal indulgence that he neglected his government, sacrificed the interests and the welfare of his subjects, and exercised his regal powers in a very despotic and arbitrary manner.
It is very difficult to decide, at this late day, how far this disposition to find fault with Alfred’s early administration of his government arose from, or was aggravated by, the misfortunes and calamities which befell him. On the one hand, it would not be surprising if, young, and arduous, and impetuous as he was at this period of his life, he should have fallen into the errors and faults which youthful monarchs are very prone to commit on being suddenly raised to power. But then, on the other hand, men are prone, in all ages of the world, and most especially in such rude and uncultivated times as these were, to judge military and governmental action by the sole criterion of success. Thus, when they found that Alfred’s measures, one after another, failed in protecting his country, that the impending calamities burst successively upon them, notwithstanding all Alfred’s efforts to avert them, it was natural that they should look at and exaggerate his faults, and charge all their national misfortunes to the influence of them.
There was a certain Saint Neot, a kinsman and religious counselor of Alfred, the history of whose life was afterward written by the Abbot of Crowland, the monastery whose destruction by the Danes was described in a former chapter. In this narrative it is said that Neot often rebuked Alfred in the severest terms for his sinful course of life, predicting the most fatal consequences if he did not reform, and using language which only a very culpable degree of remissness and irregularity could justify. “You glory,” said he, one day, when addressing the king, “in your pride and power, and are determined and obdurate in your iniquity. But there is a terrible retribution in store for you. I entreat you to listen to my counsels, amend your life, and govern your people with moderation and justice, instead of tyranny and oppression, and thus avert if you can, before it is too late, the impending judgments of Heaven.”
Such language as this it is obvious that only a very serious dereliction of duty on Alfred’s part could call for or justify; but, whatever he may have done to deserve it, his offenses were so fully expiated by his subsequent sufferings, and he atoned for them so nobly, too, by the wisdom, the prudence, the faithful and devoted patriotism of his later career, that mankind have been disposed to pass by the faults of his early years without attempting to scrutinize them too closely. The noblest human spirits are always, in some periods of their existence, or in some aspects of their characters, strangely weakened by infirmities and frailties, and deformed by sin. This is human nature. We like to imagine that we find exceptions, and to see specimens of moral perfection in our friends or in the historical characters whose general course of action we admire; but there are no exceptions. To err and to sin, at some times and in some ways, is the common, universal and inevitable lot of humanity.
At the time when Halfden and his followers seized Wareham Castle and Exeter, Alfred had been several years upon the throne, during which time these derelictions from duty took place, so far as they existed at all. But now, alarmed at the imminence of the impending danger, which threatened not only the welfare of his people, but his own kingdom and even his life—for one Saxon monarch had been driven from his dominions, as we have seen, and had died a miserable exile at Rome—Alfred aroused himself in earnest to the work of regaining his lost influence among his people, and recovering their alienated affections.
He accordingly, as his first step, convened a great assembly of the leading chieftains and noblemen of the realm, and made addresses to them, in which he urged upon them the imminence of the danger which threatened their common country, and pressed them to unite vigorously and energetically with him to contend against their common foe. They must make great sacrifices, he said, both of their comfort and ease, as well as of their wealth, to resist successfully so imminent a danger. He summoned them to arms, and urged them to contribute the means necessary to pay the expense of a vigorous prosecution of the war. These harangues, and the ardor and determination which Alfred manifested himself at the time of making them, were successful. The nation aroused itself to new exertions, and for a time there was a prospect that the country would be saved.
Among the other measures to which Alfred resorted in this emergency was the attempt to encounter the Danes upon their own element, by building and equipping a fleet of ships, with which to proceed to sea, in order to meet and attack upon the water certain new bodies of invaders, who were on the way to join the Danes already on the island—coming, as rumor said, along the southern shore. In attempting to build up a naval power, the greatest difficulty, always, is to provide seamen. It is much easier to build ships than to train sailors. To man his little fleet, Alfred had to enlist such half-savage foreigners as could be found in the ports, and even pirates, as was said, whom he induced to enter his service, promising them pay, and such plunder as they could take from the enemy. These attempts of Alfred to build and man a fleet are considered the first rude beginnings from which the present vast edifice of British naval power took its origin. When the fleet was ready to put to sea, the people thronged the shores, watching its movements with the utmost curiosity and interest, earnestly hoping that it might be successful in its contests with the more tried and experienced armaments with which it would have to contend.
Alfred was, in fact, successful in the first enterprises which he undertook with his ships. He encountered a fleet of the Danish ships in the Channel, and defeated them. His fleet captured, moreover, one of the largest of the vessels of the enemy; and, with what would be thought in our day unpardonable cruelty, they threw the sailors and soldiers whom they found on board into the sea, and kept the vessel.
After all, however, Alfred gained no conclusive and decisive victory over his foes. They were too numerous, too scattered, and too firmly seated in the various districts of the island, of some of which they had been in possession for many years. Time passed on, battles were, fought, treaties of peace were made, oaths were taken, hostages were exchanged, and then, after a very brief interval of repose, hostilities would break out again, each party bitterly accusing the other of treachery. Then the poor hostages would be slain, first by one party, and afterward, in retaliation, by the other.
In one of these temporary and illusive pacifications, Alfred attempted to bind the Danes by Christian oaths. Their customary mode of binding themselves, in cases where they wished to impose a solemn religious obligation, was to swear by a certain ornament which they wore upon their arms, which is called in the chronicles of those times a bracelet. What its form and fashion was we cannot now precisely know; but it is plain that they attached some superstitious, and perhaps idolatrous associations of sacredness to it. To swear by this bracelet was to place themselves under the most solemn obligation that they could assume. Alfred, however, not satisfied with this pagan sanction, made them, in confirming one treaty, swear by the Christian relics, which were certain supposed memorials of our Saviour’s crucifixion, or portions of the bodies of dead saints miraculously preserved, and to which the credulous Christians of that day attached an idea of sacredness and awe, scarcely less superstitious than that which their pagan enemies felt for the bracelets on their arms. Alfred could not have supposed that these treacherous covenanters, since they would readily violate the faith plighted in the name of what they revered, could be held by what they hated and despised. Perhaps he thought that, though they would be no more likely to keep the new oath than the old, still, that their violation of it, when it occurred, would be in itself a great crime—that his cause would be subsequently strengthened by their thus incurring the special and unmitigated displeasure of Heaven.
Among the Danish chieftains with whom Alfred had thus continually to contend in this early part of his reign, there was one very famous hero, whose name was Rollo. He invaded England with a wild horde which attended him for a short time, but he soon retired and went to France, where he afterward greatly distinguished himself by his prowess and his exploits. The Saxon historians say that he retreated from England because Alfred gave him such a reception that he saw that it would be impossible for him to maintain his footing there. His account of it was, that, one day, when he was perplexed with doubt and uncertainty about his plans, he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw a swarm of bees flying southward. This was an omen, as he regarded it, indicating the course which he ought to pursue. He accordingly embarked his men on board his ships again, and crossed the Channel, and sought successfully in Normandy, a province of France, the kingdom and the home which, either on account of Alfred or of the bees, he was not to enjoy in England.
The cases, however, in which the Danish chieftains were either entirely conquered or finally expelled from the kingdom were very few. As years passed on, Alfred found his army diminishing, and the strength of his kingdom wasting away. His resources were exhausted, his friends had disappeared, his towns and castles were taken, and, at last about eight years after his coronation at Winchester as monarch of the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms, he found himself reduced to the very last extreme of destitution and distress.