Alfredus Rex Fundator

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Lectures and Essays, by Goldwin Smith (published 1881). Introductory paragraphs on the history of Oxford University are omitted.

….Marcus Aurelius, Alfred, and St. Louis, are the three examples of perfect virtue on a throne. But the virtue of St. Louis is deeply tainted with asceticism; and with the sublimated selfishness on which asceticism is founded, he sacrifices everything and everybody—sacrifices national interests, sacrifices the lives of the thousands of his subjects whom he drags with him in his chimerical crusades—to the good of his own soul. The Reflections of Marcus Aurelius will be read with ever increasing admiration by all who have learned to study character, and to read it in its connection with history. Alone in every sense, without guidance or support but that which he found in his own breast, the imperial Stoic struggled serenely, though hopelessly, against the powers of evil which were dragging heathen Rome to her inevitable doom. Alfred was a Christian hero, and in his Christianity he found the force which bore him, through calamity apparently hopeless, to victory and happiness.

It must be owned that the materials for the history of the English king are not very good. His biography by Bishop Asser, his counsellor and friend, which forms the principal authority, is panegyrical and uncritical, not to mention that a doubt rests on the authenticity of some portions of it. But in the general picture there are a consistency and a sobriety, which, combined with its peculiarity, commend it to us as historical. The leading acts of Alfred’s life are, of course, beyond doubt. And as to his character, he speaks to us himself in his works, and the sentiments which he expresses perfectly correspond with the physiognomy of the portrait.

We have called him a Christian hero. He was the victorious champion of Christianity against Paganism. This is the real significance of the struggle and of his character. The Northmen, or, as we loosely term them, the Danes, are called by the Saxon chroniclers the Pagans. As to race, the Northman, like the Saxon, was a Teuton, and the institutions, and the political and social tendencies of both, were radically the same.

It has been said that Christianity enervated the English and gave them over into the hands of the fresh and robust sons of nature. Asceticism and the abuse of monachism enervated the English. Asceticism taught the spiritual selfishness which flies from the world and abandons it to ruin instead of serving God by serving humanity. Kings and chieftains, under the hypocritical pretence of exchanging a worldly for an angelic life, buried themselves in the indolence, not seldom in the sensuality, of the cloister, when they ought to have been leading their people against the Dane. But Christianity formed the bond which held the English together, and the strength of their resistance. It inspired their patriot martyrs, it raised up to them a deliverer at their utmost need. The causes of Danish success are manifest; superior prowess and valour, sustained by more constant practice in war, of which the Saxon had probably had comparatively little since the final subjection of the Celt and the union of the Saxon kingdoms under Egbert; the imperfect character of that union, each kingdom retaining its own council and its own interests; and above all the command of the sea, which made the invaders ubiquitous, while the march of the defenders was delayed, and their junction prevented, by the woods and morasses of the uncleared island, in which the only roads worthy of the name were those left by the Romans.

It would be wrong to call the Northmen mere corsairs, or even to class them with piratical states such as Cilicia of old, or Barbary in more recent times. Their invasions were rather to be regarded as an after-act of the great migration of the Germanic tribes, one of the last waves of the flood which overwhelmed the Roman Empire, and deposited the germs of modern Christendom. They were, and but for the defensive energy of the Christianized Teuton would have been, to the Saxon what the Saxon had been to the Celt, whose sole monuments in England now are the names of hills and rivers, the usual epitaph of exterminated races. Like the Saxons the Northmen came by sea, untouched by those Roman influences, political and religious, by which most of the barbarians had been more or less transmuted before their actual irruption into the Empire. If they treated all the rest of mankind as their prey, this was the international law of heathendom, modified only by a politic humanity in the case of the Imperial Roman, who preferred enduring dominion to blood and booty. With Christianity came the idea, even now imperfectly realized, of the brotherhood of man. The Northmen were a memorable race, and English character, especially its maritime element, received in them a momentous addition. In their northern abodes they had undergone, no doubt, the most rigorous process of national selection. The sea-roving life, to which they were driven by the poverty of their soil, as the Scandinavian of our day is driven to emigration, intensified in them the vigour, the enterprise, and the independence of the Teuton. As has been said before, they were the first ocean sailors; for the Phoenicians, though adventurous had crept along the shore; and the Greeks and Romans had done the same. The Northman, stouter of heart than they, put forth into mid Atlantic. American antiquarians are anxious to believe in a Norse discovery of America. Norse colonies were planted in Greenland beyond what is now the limit of human habitation; and when a power grew up in his native seats which could not be brooked by the Northman’s love of freedom, he founded amidst the unearthly scenery of Iceland a community which brought the image of a republic of the Homeric type far down into historic times. His race, widely dispersed in its course of adventure, and everywhere asserting its ascendancy, sat on the thrones of Normandy, Apulia, Sicily, England, Ireland, and even Russia, and gave heroic chiefs to the crusaders. The pirates were not without heart towards each other, nor without a rudimentary civilization, which included on the one hand a strong regard for freehold property in land, and on the other a passionate love of heroic days. Their mythology was the universal story of the progress of the sun and the changes of the year, but in a northern version, wild with storms and icebergs, gloomy with the darkness of Scandinavian winters. Their religion was a war religion, the lord of their hearts a war god; their only heaven was that of the brave, their only hell that of the coward; and the joys of Paradise were a renewal of the fierce combat and the fierce carouse of earth. Some of them wound themselves up on the eve of battle to a frenzy like that of a Malay running amuck. But this was, at all events, a religion of action, not of ceremonial or spell; and it quelled the fear of death. In some legends of the Norse mythology there is a humorous element which shows freedom of spirit; while in others, such as the legend of the death of Balder, there is a pathos not uncongenial to Christianity. The Northmen were not priest-ridden. Their gods were not monstrous and overwhelming forces like the hundred-handed idols of the Hindu, but human forms, their own high qualities idealized, like the gods of the Greek, though with Scandinavian force in place of Hellenic grace.

Converted to Christianity, the Northman transferred his enthusiasm, his martial prowess, and his spirit of adventure from the service of Odin to that of Christ, and became a devotee and a crusader. But in his unconverted state he was an exterminating enemy of Christianity; and Christianity was the civilization as well as the religion of England.

Scarcely had the Saxon kingdom been united by Egbert, when the barks of the Northmen appeared, filling the English Charlemagne, no doubt, with the same foreboding sorrow with which they had filled his Frankish prototype and master. In the course of the half century which followed, the swarms of rovers constantly increased, and grew more pertinacious and daring in their attacks. Leaving their ships they took horses, extended their incursions inland, and formed in the interior of the country strongholds, into which they brought the plunder of the district. At last they in effect conquered the North and Midland, and set up a satrap king, as the agent of their extortion. They seem, like the Franks of Clovis, to have quartered themselves as “guests” upon the unhappy people of the land. The monasteries and churches were the special objects of their attacks, both as the seats of the hated religion, and as the centres of wealth; and their sword never spared a monk. Croyland, Peterborough, Huntingdon and Ely, were turned to blood-stained ashes. Edmund, the Christian chief of East Anglia, found a martyrdom, of which one of the holiest and most magnificent of English abbeys was afterwards the monument. The brave Algar, another East Anglian chieftain, having taken the holy sacrament with all his followers on the eve of battle, perished with them in a desperate struggle, overcome by the vulpine cunning of the marauders. Among the leaders of the Northmen were the terrible brothers Ingrar and Ubba, fired, if the Norse legend may be trusted, by revenge as well as by the love of plunder and horror; for they were the sons of that Ragnar Lodbrok who had perished in the serpent tower of the Saxon Ella. When Alfred appeared upon the scene, Wessex itself, the heritage of the house of Cerdic and the supreme kingdom, was in peril from the Pagans, who had firmly entrenched themselves at Reading, in the angle between the Thames and Kennet, and English Christianity was threatened with destruction.

A younger but a favourite child, Alfred was sent in his infancy by his father to Rome to receive the Pope’s blessing. He was thus affiliated, as it were, to that Roman element, ecclesiastical and political, which, combined with the Christian and Teutonic elements, has made up English civilization. But he remained through life a true Teuton. He went a second time, in company with his father, to Rome, still a child, yet old enough, especially if he was precocious, to receive some impressions from the city of historic grandeur, ancient art, ecclesiastical order, centralized power. There is a pretty legend denoting the docility of the boy and his love of learning, or at least of the national lays; but he was also a hunter and a warrior. From his youth he had a thorn in his flesh, in the shape of a mysterious disease, perhaps epilepsy, to which monkish chroniclers have given an ascetic and miraculous turn; and this enhances our sense of the hero’s moral energy in the case of Alfred, as in that of William III.

As “Crown Prince,” to use the phrase of a German writer, Alfred took part with his elder brother, King Ethelbert, in the mortal struggle against the Pagans, then raging around Reading and along the rich valley through which the Great Western Railway now runs, and where a Saxon victory is commemorated by the White Horse, which forms the subject of a little work by Thomas Hughes, a true representative, if any there be, of the liegemen and soldiers of King Alfred. When Ethelbert was showing that in him at all events Christianity was not free from the ascetic taint, by continuing to hear mass in his tent when the moment had come for decisive action, Alfred charged up-hill “like a wild boar” against the heathen, and began a battle which, his brother at last coming up, ended in a great victory. The death of Ethelbert, in the midst of the crisis, placed the perilous crown on Alfred’s head. Ethelbert left infant sons, but the monarchy was elective, though one of the line of Cerdic was always chosen; and those were the days of the real king, the ruler, judge, and captain of the people, not of what Napoleon called the cochon à l’engrais à cinq millions par an. In pitched battles, eight of which were fought in rapid succession, the English held their own; but they were worn out, and at length could no longer be brought into the field. Whether a faint monkish tradition of the estrangement of the people by unpopular courses on the part of the young king has any substance of truth we cannot say.

Utter gloom now settled down upon the Christian king and people. Had Alfred yielded to his inclinations, he would probably have followed the example of his brother-in-law, Buhred of Mercia, and sought a congenial retreat amidst the churches and libraries of Rome; asceticism would have afforded him a pretext for so doing; but he remained at the post of duty. Athelney, a little island in the marshes of Somersetshire—then marshes, now drained and a fruitful plain—to which he retired with the few followers left him, has been aptly compared to the mountains of Asturias, which formed the last asylum of Christianity in Spain. A jewel with the legend in Anglo-Saxon, Alfred caused me to be made,” was found near the spot, and is now in the University Museum at Oxford. A similar island in the marshes of Cambridgeshire formed the last rallying point of English patriotism against the Norman Conquest. Of course, after the deliverance, a halo of legends gathered around Athelney. The legends of the king disguised as a peasant in the cottage of the herdsman, and of the king disguised as a harper in the camp of the Dane, are familiar to childhood. There is also a legend of the miraculous appearance of the great Saxon Saint Cuthbert. The king in his extreme need had gone to fish in a neighbouring stream, but had caught nothing, and was trying to comfort himself by reading the Psalms, when a poor man came to the door and begged for a piece of bread. The king gave him half his last loaf and the little wine left in the pitcher. The beggar vanished; the loaf was unbroken, the pitcher brimful of wine; and fishermen came in bringing a rich haul of fish from the river. In the night St. Cuthbert appeared to the king in a dream and promised him victory. We see at least what notion the generations nearest to him had of the character of Alfred.

At last the heart of the oppressed people turned to its king, and the time arrived for a war of liberation. But on the morrow of victory Alfred compromised with the Northmen. He despaired, it seems, of their final expulsion, and thought it better, if possible, to make them Englishmen and Christians, and to convert them into a barrier against their foreign and heathen brethren. We see in this politic moderation at once a trait of national character and a proof that the exploits of Alfred are not mythical. By the treaty of Wedmore, the northeastern part of England became the portion of the Dane, where he was to dwell in peace with the Saxon people, and in allegiance to their king, but under his own laws—an arrangement which had nothing strange in it when law was only the custom of the tribe. As a part of the compact, Guthorm[1] led over his Northmen from the allegiance of Odin to that of Christ, and was himself baptized by the Christian name of Athelstan. When religions were national, or rather tribal, conversions were tribal too. The Northmen of East Anglia had not so far put off their heathen propensities or their savage perfidy as to remain perfectly true to their covenant: but, on the whole, Alfred’s policy of compromise and assimilation was successful. A new section of heathen Teutonism was incorporated into Christendom, and England absorbed a large Norse population whose dwelling-place is still marked by the names of places, and perhaps in some measure by the features and character of the people. In the fishermen of Whitby, for example, a town with a Danish name, there is a peculiarity which is probably Scandinavian.

The transaction resembled the cession of Normandy to Rolf and his followers by the Carlovingian King of France. But the cession of Normandy marked the dissolution of the Carlovingian monarchy: from the cession of East Anglia to Guthorm dates a regeneration of the monarchy of Cerdic.

Alfred had rescued the country. But the country which he had rescued was a wreck. The Church, the great organ of civilization as well as of spiritual life, was ruined. The monasteries were in ashes. The monks of St. Cuthbert were wandering from place to place, with the relics of the great northern Saint. The worship of Woden seemed on the point of returning. The clergy had exchanged the missal and censer for the battle-axe, and had become secularized and brutalized by the conflict. The learning of the Order was dead. The Latin language, the tongue of the Church, of literature, of education, was almost extinct. Alfred himself says that he could not recollect a priest, south of the Thames, who understood the Latin service or could translate a document from the Latin when he became king. Political institutions were in an equal state of disorganization. Spiritual, intellectual, civil life—everything was to be restored; and Alfred undertook to restore everything. No man in these days stands alone, or towers in unapproachable superiority above his fellows. Nor can any man now play all the parts. A division of labour has taken place in all spheres. The time when the missionaries at once converted and civilized the forefathers of European Christendom, when Charlemagne or Alfred was the master spirit in everything, has passed away, and with it the day of hero-worship, of rational hero-worship, has departed, at least for the European nations. The more backward races may still need, and have reason to venerate, a Peter the Great.

Alfred had to do everything almost with his own hands. He was himself the inventor of the candle-clock which measured his time, so unspeakably precious, and of the lantern of transparent horn which protected the candle-clock against the wind in the tent, or the lodging scarcely more impervious to the weather than a tent, which in those times sheltered the head of wandering royalty. Far and wide he sought for men, like a bee in quest of honey, to condense a somewhat prolix trope of his biographer. An embassy of bishops, priests and religious laymen, with great gifts, was sent to the Archbishop of Rheims, within whose diocese the famous Grimbald resided, to persuade him to allow Grimbald to come to England, and with difficulty the ambassadors prevailed, Alfred promising to treat Grimbald with distinguished honour during the rest of his life. It is touching to see what a price the king set upon a good and able man. “I was called,” says Asser, “from the western extremity of Wales. I was led to Sussex, and first saw the king in the royal mansion of Dene. He received me with kindness, and amongst other conversation, earnestly besought me to devote myself to his service, and to become his companion. He begged me to give up my preferments beyond the Severn, promising to bestow on me still richer preferments in their place.” Asser said that he was unwilling to quit, merely for worldly honour, the country in which he had been brought up and ordained. “At least,” replied the king, “give me half your time. Pass six months of the year with me and the rest in Wales.” Asser still hesitated. The king repeated his solicitations, and Asser promised to return within half a year; the time was fixed for his visit, and on the fourth day of their interview he left the king and went home.

In order to restore civilization, it was necessary above all things to reform the Church. “I have often thought,” says Alfred, “what wise men there were once among the English people, both clergy and laymen, and what blessed times those were when the people were governed by kings who obeyed God and His gospels, and how they maintained peace, virtue and good order at home, and even extended them beyond their own country; how they prospered in battle as well as in wisdom, and how zealous the clergy were in teaching and learning, and in all their sacred duties; and how people came hither from foreign countries to seek for instruction, whereas now, when we desire it, we can only obtain it from abroad.” It is clear that the king, unlike the literary devotees of Scandinavian paganism, looked upon Christianity as the root of the greatness, and even of the military force, of the nation.

In order to restore the Church, again, it was necessary above all things to refound the monasteries. Afterwards—society having become settled, religion being established, and the Church herself having acquired fatal wealth—these brotherhoods sank into torpor and corruption; but while the Church was still a missionary in a spiritual and material wilderness, waging a death struggle with heathenism and barbarism, they were the indispensable engines of the holy war. The re-foundation of monasteries, therefore, was one of Alfred’s first cares; and he did not fail, in token of his pious gratitude, to build at Athelney a house of God which was far holier than the memorial abbey afterwards built by the Norman Conqueror at Battle. The revival of monasticism among the English, however, was probably no easy task; for their domestic and somewhat material nature never was well suited to monastic life.

The monastery schools, the germs, as has been already said, of our modern universities and colleges, were the King’s main organs in restoring education; but he had also a school in his palace for the children of the nobility and the royal household. It was not only clerical education that he desired to promote. His wish was “that all the free-born youth of his people, who possessed the means, might persevere in learning so long as they had no other work to occupy them, until they could perfectly read the English scriptures; while such as desired to devote themselves to the service of the Church might be taught Latin.” No doubt the wish was most imperfectly fulfilled, but still it was a noble wish. We are told the King himself was often present at the instruction of the children in the palace school. A pleasant calm after the storms of battle with the Dane!

Oxford (Ousen-ford, the ford of the Ouse) was already a royal city; and it may be conjectured that, amidst the general restoration of learning under Alfred, a school of some sort would be opened there. This is the only particle of historical foundation for the academic legend which gave rise to the recent celebration. Oxford was desolated by the Norman Conquest, and anything that remained of the educational institution of Alfred was in all probability swept away.

Another measure, indispensable to the civilizer as well as to the church reformer in those days, was to restore the intercourse with Rome, and through her with continental Christendom, which had been interrupted by the troubles. The Pope, upon Alfred’s accession, had sent him gifts and a piece of the Holy Cross. Alfred sent embassies to the Pope, and made a voluntary annual offering, to obtain favourable treatment for his subjects at Rome. But, adopted child of Rome, and naturally attached to her as the centre of ecclesiastical order and its civilizing influences though he was, and much as he was surrounded by ecclesiastical friends and ministers, we trace in him no ultramontanism, no servile submission to priests. The English Church, so far as we can see, remains national, and the English King remains its head.

Not only with Latin but with Eastern Christendom, Alfred, if we may trust the contemporary Saxon chronicles, opened communication. As Charlemagne, in the spirit partly perhaps of piety, partly of ambition, had sent an embassy with proofs of his grandeur to the Caliph of Bagdad; as Louis XIV, in the spirit of mere ambition, delighted to receive a embassy from Siam; so Alfred, in a spirit of piety unmixed, sent ambassadors to the traditional Church of St. Thomas in India: and the ambassadors returned, we are told, with perfumes and precious stones as the memorials of their journey, which were long preserved in the churches. “This was the first intercourse,” remarks Pauli, “that took place between England and Hindostan.”

All nations are inclined to ascribe their primitive institutions to some national founder, a Lycurgus, a Theseus, a Romulus. It is not necessary now to prove that Alfred did not found trial by jury, or the frank-pledge, or that he was not the first who divided the kingdom into shires, hundreds, or tithings. The part of trial by jury which has been politically of so much importance, its popular character, as opposed to arbitrary trial by a royal or imperial officer—that of which the preservation, amidst the general prevalence of judicial imperialism, has been the glory of England—was simply Teutonic; so was the frank-pledge, the rude machinery for preserving law and order by mutual responsibility in the days before police; so were the hundreds and the tithings, rudimentary institutions marking the transition from the clan to the local community or canton. The shires probably marked some stage in the consolidation of the Saxon settlements; at all events they were ancient divisions which Alfred can at most only have reconstituted in a revised form after the anarchy.

He seems, however, to have introduced a real and momentous innovation by appointing special judges to administer a more regular justice than that which was administered in the local courts of the earls and bishops, or even in the national assembly. In this respect he was the imitator, probably the unconscious imitator, of Charlemagne, and the precursor of Henry II, the institutor of our Justices in Eyre. The powers and functions of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, lie at first enfolded in the same germ, and are alike exercised by the king, or, as in the case of the ancient republics, by the national assembly. It is a great step when the special office of the judiciary is separated from the rest. It is a great step also when uniformity of justice is introduced. Probably, however, these judges, like the itinerant justices of Henry II, were administrative as well as judicial officers; or, in the terms of our modern polity, they were delegates of the Home Office as well as of the Central Courts of Law.

In his laws, Alfred, with the sobriety and caution on which the statesmen of his race have prided themselves, renounces the character of an innovator, fearing, as he says, that his innovations might not be accepted by those who would come after him. His code, if so inartificial a document can be dignified with the name, is mainly a compilation from the laws of his Saxon predecessors. We trace, however, an advance from the barbarous system of weregeld, or composition for murder and other crimes as private wrongs, towards a State system of criminal justice. In totally forbidding composition for blood, and asserting that indefeasible sanctity of human life which is the essential basis of civilization, the code of Moses stands contrasted with other primeval codes. Alfred, in fact, incorporated an unusually large amount of the Mosaic and Christian elements, which blend with Germanic customs and the relics of Roman law, in different proportions, to make up the various codes of the early Middle Ages, called the Laws of the Barbarians. His code opens with the Ten Commandments, followed by extracts from Exodus, containing the Mosaic law respecting the relations between masters and servants, murder and other crimes, and the observance of holy days, and the Apostolic Epistle from Acts xv. 23-29. Then is added Matthew vii. 12, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

“By this one Commandment,” says Alfred, “a man shall know whether he does right, and he will then require no other law-book.” This is not the form of a modern Act of Parliament, but legislation in those days was as much preaching as enactment; it often resembled in character the Royal Proclamation against Vice and Immorality.

Alfred’s laws unquestionably show a tendency to enforce loyalty to the king, and to enhance the guilt of treason, which, in the case of an attempt on the king’s life, is punished with death and confiscation, instead of the old composition by payment of the royal weregeld. Hence he has been accused of imperializing and anti-Teutonic tendencies; he had even the misfortune to be fixed upon as a prototype by Oxford advocates of the absolutism of Charles I. There is no ground for the charge, so far at least as Alfred’s legislation or any known measure of his government is concerned. The kingly power was the great source of order and justice amidst that anarchy, the sole rallying point and bond of union for the imperilled nation; to maintain it, and protect from violence the life of its holder, was the duty of a patriot law-giver: and as the authority of a Saxon king depended in great measure on his personal character and position, no doubt the personal authority of Alfred was exceptionally great. But he continued to govern by the advice of the national council; and the fundamental principles of the Teutonic polity remained unimpaired by him, and were transmitted intact to his successors. His writings breathe a sense of the responsibilities of rulers and a hatred of tyranny. He did not even attempt to carry further the incorporation of the subordinate kingdoms with Wessex; but ruled Mercia as a separate state by the hand of his brother-in-law, and left it to its own national council or witan. Considering his circumstances, and the chaos from which his government had emerged, it is wonderful that he did not centralize more. He was, we repeat, a true Teuton, and entirely worthy of his place in the Germanic Walhalla.

The most striking proof of his multifarious activity of mind, and of the unlimited extent of the task which his circumstances imposed upon him, as well as of his thoroughly English character, is his undertaking to give his people a literature in their own tongue. To do this he had first to educate himself—to educate himself at an advanced age, after a life of fierce distraction, and with the reorganization of his shattered kingdom on his hands. In his boyhood he had got by heart Saxon lays, vigorous and inspiring, but barbarous; he had learned to read, but it is thought that he had not learned to write. “As we were one day sitting in the royal chamber,” says Asser, “and were conversing as was our wont, it chanced that I read him a passage out of a certain book. After he had listened with fixed attention, and expressed great delight, he showed me the little book which he always carried about with him, and in which the daily lessons, psalms and prayers, were written, and begged me to transcribe that passage into his book.” Asser assented, but found that the book was already full, and proposed to the king to begin another book, which was soon in its turn filled with extracts. A portion of the process of Alfred’s education is recorded by Asser. “I was honourably received at the royal mansion, and at that time stayed eight months in the king’s court. I translated and read to him whatever books he wished which were within our reach; for it was his custom, day and night, amidst all his afflictions of mind and body, to read books himself or have them read to him by others.” To original composition Alfred did not aspire; he was content with giving his people a body of translations of what he deemed the best authors; here again showing his royal good sense. In the selection of his authors, he showed liberality and freedom from Roman, ecclesiastical, imperialist, or other bias. On the one hand he chooses for the benefit of the clergy whom he desired to reform, the “Pastoral Care” of the good Pope, Gregory the Great, the author of the mission which had converted England to Christianity; but on the other hand he chooses the “Consolations of Philosophy,” the chief work of Boethius, the last of the Romans, and the victim of the cruel jealousy of Theodoric. Of Boethius Hallam says: “Last of the classic writers, in style not impure, though displaying too lavishly that poetic exuberance which had distinguished the two or three preceding centuries; in elevation of sentiment equal to any of the philosophers; and mingling a Christian sanctity with their lessons, he speaks from his prison in the swan-like tones of dying eloquence. The philosophy which consoled him in bonds was soon required in the sufferings of a cruel death. Quenched in his blood, the lamp he had trimmed with a skilful hand gave no more light; the language of Tully[2] and Virgil soon ceased to be spoken; and many ages were to pass away before learned diligence restored its purity, and the union of genius with imitation taught a few modern writers to surpass in eloquence the Latinity of Boethius.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English, the highest product of that memorable burst of Saxon intellect which followed the conversion, and a work, not untainted by miracle and legend, yet most remarkable for its historical qualities as well as for its mild and liberal Christianity, is balanced in the king’s series of translations by the work of Orosius, who wrote of general and secular history, though with a religious object. In the translation of Orosius, Alfred has inserted a sketch of the geography of Germany, and the reports of explorations made by two mariners under his auspices among the natives dwelling on the coasts of the Baltic and the North Sea—further proof of the variety of his interests and the reach of his mind.

In his prefaces, and in his amplifications and interpolations of the philosophy of Boethius, Alfred comes before us an independent author, and shows us something of his own mind on theology, on philosophy, on government, and generally as to the estate of man. To estimate these passages rightly, we must put ourselves back into the anarchical and illiterate England of the ninth century, and imagine a writer, who, if we could see him, would appear barbarous and grotesque, as would all his equipments and surroundings, and one who had spent his days in a desperate struggle with wolfish Danes, seated at his literary work in his rude Saxon mansion, with his candle-clock protected by the horn lantern against the wind. The utterances of Alfred will then appear altogether worthy of his character and his deeds. He always emphasizes and expands passages which speak either of the responsibilities of rulers or of the nothingness of earthly power; and the reflections are pervaded by a pensiveness which reminds us of Marcus Aurelius. The political world had not much advanced when, six centuries after Alfred, it arrived at Machiavelli.

There is an especial sadness in the tone of some words respecting the estate of kings, their intrinsic weakness, disguised only by their royal trains, the mutual dread that exists between them and those by whom they are surrounded, the drawn sword that always hangs over their heads, “as to me it ever did.” We seem to catch a glimpse of some trials, and perhaps errors, not recorded by Asser or the chroniclers.

In his private life Alfred appears to have been an example of conjugal fidelity and manly purity, while we see no traces of the asceticism which was revered by the superstition of the age of Edward the Confessor. His words on the value and the claims of a wife, if not up to the standard of modern sentiment, are at least instinct with genuine affection.

The struggle with the Northmen was not over. Their swarms came again, in the latter part of Alfred’s reign, from Germany, whence they had been repulsed, and from France, which they had exhausted by their ravages. But the king’s generalship foiled them and compelled them to depart. Seeing where their strength lay, he built a regular fleet to encounter them on their own element, and he may be called the founder of the Royal Navy.

His victory was decisive. The English monarchy rose from the ground in renewed strength, and entered on a fresh lease of greatness. A line of able kings followed Alfred. His son and successor, Edward, inherited his vigour. His favourite grandson, Athelstan, smote the Dane and the Scot together at Brunanburgh, and awoke by his glorious victory the last echoes of Saxon song. Under Edgar the greatness of the monarchy reached its highest pitch, and it embraced the whole island under its imperial ascendancy. At last its hour came; but when Canute founded a Danish dynasty he and his Danes were Christians.

“This I can now truly say, that so long as I have lived I have striven to live worthily, and after my death to leave my memory to my descendants in good works.” If the king who wrote those words did not found a university or a polity, he restored and perpetuated the foundations of English institutions, and he left what is almost as valuable as any institution-a great and inspiring example of public duty.

Goldwin Smith


[1] Commonly spelled Guthrum in English histories. (ed.)
[2] Marcus Tullius Cicero. (ed.)

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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