Alfred the Great – Part 8

September 21, 2017
10 mins read

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

(Continued from Part 7)

VIII. The Seclusion

Notwithstanding the tide of disaster and calamity which seemed to be gradually overwhelming Alfred’s kingdom, he was not reduced to absolute despair, but continued for a long time the almost hopeless struggle. There is a certain desperation to which men are often aroused in the last extremity, which surpasses courage, and is even sometimes a very effectual substitute for strength; and Alfred might, perhaps, have succeeded, after all, in saving his affairs from utter ruin, had not a new circumstance intervened, which seemed at once to extinguish all remaining hope and to seal his doom.

This circumstance was the arrival of a new band of Danes, who were, it seems, more numerous, more ferocious, and more insatiable than any who had come before them. The other kingdoms of the Saxons had been already pretty effectually plundered. Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex was now, therefore, the most inviting field, and, after various excursions of conquest and plunder in other parts of the island, they came like an inundation over Alfred’s frontiers, and all hope of resisting them seems to have been immediately abandoned. The Saxon armies were broken up. Alfred had lost, it appears, all influence and control over both leaders and men. The chieftains and nobles fled. Some left the country altogether; others hid themselves in the best retreats and fastnesses that they could find. Alfred himself was obliged to follow the general example. A few attendants, either more faithful than the rest, or else more distrustful of their own resources, and inclined, accordingly, to seek their own personal safety by adhering closely to their sovereign, followed him. These, however, one after another, gradually forsook him, and, finally, the fallen and deserted monarch was left alone.

In fact, it was a relief to him at last to be left alone; for they who remained around him became in the end a burden instead of affording him protection. They were too few to fight, and too many to be easily concealed. Alfred withdrew himself from them, thinking that, under the circumstances in which he was now placed, he was justified in seeking his own personal safety alone. He had a wife, whom he married when he was about twenty years old; but she was not with him now, though she afterward joined him. She was in some other place of retreat. She could, in fact, be much more easily concealed than her husband, for the Danes, though they would undoubtedly have valued her very highly as a captive, would not search for her with the eager and persevering vigilance with which it was to be expected they would hunt for their most formidable, but now discomfited and fugitive foe.

Alfred, therefore, after disentangling himself from all but one or two trustworthy and faithful friends, wandered on toward the west, through forests, and solitudes, and wilds, to get as far away as possible from the enemies who were upon his track. He arrived at last on the remote western frontiers of his kingdom, at a place whose name has been immortalized by its having been for some time the place of his retreat. It was called Athelney. Athelney was, however, scarcely deserving of a name, for it was nothing but a small spot of dry land in the midst of a morass, which, as grass would grow upon it in the openings among the trees, a simple cow-herd had taken possession of, and built his hut there.

The solid land which the cow-herd called his farm was only about two acres in extent. All around it was a black morass, of great extent, wooded with alders, among which green sedges grew, and sluggish streams meandered, and mossy tracts of verdure spread treacherously over deep bogs and sloughs. In the driest season of the summer the goats and the sheep penetrated into these recesses, but, excepting in the devious and tortuous path by which the cow-herd found his way to his island, it was almost impassable for man.

Alfred, however, attracted now by the impediments and obstacles which would have repelled a wanderer under any other circumstances, went on with the greater alacrity the more intricate and entangled the thickets of the morass were found, since these difficulties promised to impede or deter pursuit. He found his way in to the cow-herd’s hut. He asked for shelter. People who live in solitudes are always hospitable. The cow-herd took the wayworn fugitive in, and gave him food and shelter. Alfred remained his guest for a considerable time.

The story is, that after a few days the cow-herd asked him who he was, and how he came to be wandering about in that distressed and destitute condition. Alfred told him that he was one of the king’s thanes. A thane was a sort of chieftain in the Saxon state. He accounted for his condition by saying that Alfred’s army had been beaten by the Danes, and that he, with the other generals, had been forced to fly. He begged the cow-herd to conceal him, and to keep the secret of his character until times should change, so that he could take the field again.

The story of Alfred’s seclusion on the island, as it might almost be called, of Athelney, is told very differently by the different narrators of it. Some of these narrations are inconsistent and contradictory. They all combine, however, though they differ in respect to many other incidents and details, in relating the far-famed story of Alfred’s leaving the cakes to burn. It seems that, though the cow-herd himself was allowed to regard Alfred as a man of rank in disguise—though even he  did not know that it was the king—his wife was not admitted, even in this partial way, into the secret. She was made to consider the stranger as some common strolling countryman, and the better to sustain this idea, he was taken into the cow-herd’s service, and employed in various ways, from time to time, in labors about the house and farm. Alfred’s thoughts, however, were little interested in these occupations. His mind dwelt incessantly upon his misfortunes and the calamities which had befallen his kingdom. He was harassed by continual suspense and anxiety, not being able to gain any clear or certain intelligence about the condition and movements of either his friends or foes. He was revolving continually vague and half-formed plans for resuming the command of his army and attempting to regain his kingdom, and wearying himself with fruitless attempts to devise means to accomplish these ends. Whenever he engaged voluntarily in any occupation, it would always be something in harmony with these trains of thought and these plans. He would repair and put in order implements of hunting, or anything else which might be deemed to have some relation to war. He would make bows and arrows in the chimney corner—lost, all the time, in melancholy reveries, or in wild and visionary schemes of future exploits.

One evening, while he was thus at work, the cow-herd’s wife left, for a few moments, some cakes under his charge, which she was baking upon the great stone hearth, in preparation for their common supper. Alfred, as might have been expected, let the cakes burn. The woman, when she came back and found them smoking, was very angry. She told him that he could eat the cakes fast enough when they were baked, though it seemed he was too lazy and good for nothing to do the least thing in helping to bake them. What wide-spread and lasting effects result sometimes from the most trifling and inadequate causes! The singularity of such an adventure befalling a monarch in disguise, and the terse antithesis of the reproaches with which the woman rebuked him, invest this incident with an interest which carries it everywhere spontaneously among mankind. Millions, within the last thousand years, have heard the name of Alfred, who have known no more of him than this story; and millions more, who never would have heard of him but for this story, have been led by it to study the whole history of his life; so that the unconscious cow-herd’s wife, in scolding the disguised monarch for forgetting her cakes, was perhaps doing more than he ever did himself for the wide extension of his future fame.

Alfred was, for a time, extremely depressed and disheartened by the sense of his misfortunes and calamities; but the monkish writers who described his character and his life say that the influence of his sufferings was extremely salutary in softening his disposition and improving his character. He had been proud, and haughty, and domineering before. He became humble, docile and considerate now. Faults of character that are superficial, resulting from the force of circumstances and peculiarities of temptation rather than from innate depravity of heart, are easily and readily burned off in the fire of affliction, while the same severe ordeal seems only to indurate the more hopelessly those propensities which lie deeply seated in an inherent and radical perversity.

Alfred, though restless and wretched in his apparently hopeless seclusion, bore his privations with a great degree of patience and fortitude, planning, all the time, the best means of reorganizing his scattered forces, and of rescuing his country from the ruin into which it had fallen. Some of his former friends, roaming as he himself had done, as fugitives about the country, happened at length to come into the neighborhood of his retreat. He heard of them, and cautiously made himself known. They were rejoiced to find their old commander once more, and, as there was no force of the Danes in that neighborhood at the time, they lingered, timidly and fearlessly at first, in the vicinity, until, at length, growing more bold as they found themselves unmolested in their retreat, they began to make it their gathering place and head-quarters. Alfred threw off his disguise, and assumed his true character. Tidings of his having been thus discovered spread confidentially among the most tried and faithful of his Saxon followers, who had themselves been seeking safety in other places of refuge. They began, at first cautiously and by stealth, but afterward more openly, to repair to the spot. Alfred’s family, too, from, which he had now been for many months entirely separated, contrived to rejoin him. The herdsman, who proved to be a man of intelligence and character superior to his station, entered heartily into all these movements. He kept the secret faithfully. He did all in his power to provide for the wants and to promote the comfort of his warlike guests, and, by his fidelity and devotion, laid Alfred under obligations of gratitude to him, which the king, when he was afterward restored to the throne, did not forget to repay.

Notwithstanding, however, all the efforts which the herdsman made to obtain supplies, the company now assembled at Athelney were sometimes reduced to great straits. There were not only the wants of Alfred and his immediate family and attendants to be provided for, but many persons were continually coming and going, arriving often at unexpected times, and acting, as roving and disorganized bodies of soldier are very apt to do at such times, in a very inconsiderate manner. The herdsman’s farm produced very little food, and the inaccessibleness of its situation made it difficult to bring in supplies from without. In fact, it was necessary, in one part of the approach to it, to use a boat, so that the place is generally called, in history, an island, though it was insulated mainly by swamps and morasses rather than by navigable waters. There were, however, sluggish streams all around it, where Alfred’s men, when their stores were exhausted, went to fish, under the herdsman’s guidance, returning sometimes with a moderate fare, and sometimes with none.

The monks who describe this portion of Alfred’s life have recorded an incident as having occurred on the occasion of one of these fishing excursions, which, however, is certainly, in part, a fabrication, and may be wholly so. It was in the winter. The waters about the grounds were frozen up. The provisions in the house were nearly exhausted, there being scarcely any thing remaining. The men went away with their fishing apparatus, and with their bows and arrows, in hopes of procuring some fish or fowl to replenish their stores. Alfred was left alone, with only a single lady of his family, who is called in the account “Mother,” though it could not have been Alfred’s own mother, as she had been dead many years. Alfred was sitting in the hut reading. A beggar, who had by some means or other found his way in over the frozen morasses, came to the door, and asked for food. Alfred, looking up from his book, asked the mother, whoever she was, to go and see what there was to give him. She went to make examination, and presently returned, saying that there was nothing to give him. There was only a single loaf of bread remaining, and that would not be half enough for their own wants that very night when the hunting party should return, if they should come back unsuccessful from their expedition. Alfred hesitated a moment, and then ordered half the loaf to be given to the beggar. He said, in justification of the act, that his trust was now in God, and that the power which once, with five loaves and two small fishes, fed abundantly three thousand men, could easily make half a loaf suffice for them.

Silver medal issued in 1792 showing Alfred sharing his loaf with the beggar

The loaf was accordingly divided, the beggar was supplied, and, delighted with this unexpected relief, he went away. Alfred turned his attention again to his reading. After a time the book dropped from his hand. He had fallen asleep. He dreamed that a certain saint appeared to him, and made a revelation to him from heaven. God, he said, had heard his prayers, was satisfied with his penitence, and pitied his sorrows; and that his act of charity in relieving the, poor beggar, even at the risk of leaving himself and his friends in utter destitution, was extremely acceptable in the sight of Heaven. The faith and trust which he thus manifested were about to be rewarded. The time for a change had come. He was to be restored to his kingdom, and raised to a new and higher state of prosperity and power than before. As a token that this prediction was true, and would be all fulfilled, the hunting party would return that night with an ample and abundant supply.

Alfred awoke from his sleep with his mind filled with new hopes and anticipations. The hunting party returned loaded with supplies, and in a state of the greatest exhilaration at their success. They had fish and game enough to have supplied a little army. The incident of relieving the beggar, the dream, and their unwonted success confirming it, inspired them all with confidence and hope. They began to form plans for commencing offensive operations. They would build fortifications to strengthen their position on the island. They would collect a force. They would make sallies to attack the smaller parties of the Danes. They would send agents and emissaries about the kingdom to arouse, and encourage, and assemble such Saxon forces as were yet to be found. In a word, they would commence a series of measures for recovering the country from the possession of its pestilent enemy, and for restoring the rightful sovereign to the throne. The development of these projects and plans, and the measures, for carrying them into effect, were very much hastened by an event which suddenly occurred in the neighborhood of Athelney, the account of which, however, must be postponed to the next chapter.

King Alfred’s Monument (Athelney Island, Somerset)

(Continue to Part 9)

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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