| In the Days of Alfred the Great|
|by Eva March Tappan|
|Story of the life of Alfred the Great, how at twenty-two he inherited a land overrun by savage pirates,—a restless, ignorant, defenseless land, and how he fought the Danes and restored the country to a condition of peace and safety. Ages 11-15 |
ACROSS THE CONTINENT
LFRED was not at all pleased with the appearance of
the boats that were to take them across the channel and
up the Seine River to Paris. Instead of being as bright
and shining as they could be made, and ornamented with
gold and gorgeous with banners, they were very plain
and were painted a dull bluish gray.
"This isn't a pretty boat," said he to one of the
"No, my prince," the nobleman replied, "but sometimes
it is better not to be seen than to be pretty. The
Danes have sharp eyes, and the sun shining on a bit of
gold sends a light a long way."
"No danger of Danes in this short run," said another;
"we can almost throw a stone across to the fair land of
the Franks, and in weather like this, the sea will be
as still as a cup of mead."
 "That does not stand so very still when it's within
your reach," retorted the first.
It seemed needless to think of danger now that the sky
was so blue, the shores so green, and everything about
them so calm and peaceful. Down the river they went,
going by a passage that is now filled up between Thanet
and the fields and forests of Kent. And now England was
behind them, and—though no one knew it—the hope of
England's greatness was at the mercy of the winds and
the waves and the frail, open-decked vessel.
"It is the day of all days for the journey of a
prince," said Bishop Swithin to the captain.
"It is," said the captain, "but I will not trust it.
There's a look to the sky that I don't like, and I half
incline to run into harbor at Dover and wait till
"That would mean a day's delay," said the bishop
"Better delay than danger," said the captain.
"True," said the bishop, "but the king's orders are to
make the journey and return as rapidly as the comfort
of the prince will permit."
The sky cleared, and the captain against his
 better judgment steered for the Frankish coast. Hardly
were they fairly clear of the land when a strong wind
came up from the south, sweeping a heavy mist before
it. The boats were separated, but the best seamen of
England were in charge of Alfred's vessel, and even
then all would have gone well, had not the rudder
suddenly given way.
"What will the Danes do to us, if they get us?" asked
Alfred. More than one face paled. In the excitement of
the storm every one had for the moment forgotten the
even more terrible danger that they were in. The wind
was driving them directly to the Danish coast, and
their boat was rudderless.
"The Danes shall never get you, my prince," said the
bishop; and turning aside to a tall thegn, one of the
king's greatest warriors, he whispered, pointing to the
short sword that hung at his side:—
"You know your duty?"
"I do," said the thegn in a fierce undertone, "but many
a Dane shall see the bottom of the ocean before I save
the child in that way."
"It would be the king's wish," said the bishop
 gravely. The thegn made no reply, but under his breath
he muttered savagely:—
The men stood with folded arms. There was nothing for
them to do.
The bishop lifted his eyes to heaven and began to
intone the litany:—
"Lord, have mercy upon us! From the fury of the
Northmen, good Lord deliver us!"
"Good Lord deliver us!" responded the others fervently;
but even as they spoke, there was a sudden rift in the
fog, and there before them, with a flash of sunshine
coming down full upon it, was a Danish fleet.
"They have seen us," said the captain in despair. "They
are coming down upon us."
The bishop drew the little prince nearer and wrapped
his long cloak about them both.
"Get me a sword while I pray," he said; "and do you
pray, my prince, pray for our relief; the prayers of a
child go very swiftly."
The sword was brought, but the wind blew them north,
and the Danes were coming nearer. The fog had lifted.
The English could almost see the fierce, exultant faces
of their foes. The
 bishop did not stir from his place. His head was
uplifted, his lips moved, though no sound was heard.
Something had happened to one of the boats of the
Danish fleet. It rolled like a log in the trough of the
sea. It was sinking, and before the others could come
to the rescue, the waters had closed over it.
"It is a miracle," cried one of the sailors, and fell
on his knees.
"God's ways are always miracles," said the bishop.
"Look!" and behold, the Danes, as superstitious as they
were fierce, had fled like so many frightened
sea-gulls. They had all sail spread, and the same south
wind was quickly sweeping them toward their own coast.
The English managed to make one of the benches into a
rude substitute for a rudder, and although their voyage
to France was slow, they met with no more dangers.
"What made the Danes' boat go down?" asked Alfred, when
they were sailing safely up the Seine River.
"We prayed to God, and He made it," said the bishop.
 "Would He have made our boat go down if the Danes had
prayed to Him?" persisted the child.
"Bishop," said the captain, "my sister's husband knew
a man who was in a boat that went down in a minute just
as that one did. It was in shallow water, and the tide
left the place bare, and they found that the worms had
bored the planks through and through. It was soaked
with water, but no one guessed what was the matter with
it. It minded the rudder and the sail, but it kept
going more and more slowly until all of a sudden it
went down just like this."
"Even a greater miracle," said the bishop, "if the
little creatures of the sea have been called upon to
save us. We are grown men, our lives are fast coming to
their latter days, but a little child has much before
him. Alfred, my prince," he said to the child, who was
closely listening, "never forget that God could have
saved the Danish boat as easily as ours; and that if He
chose to save you, it is because He has work for you to
do when you are a man."
Soon they reached Paris, and began their journey
through the land of the Franks. It was like a triumphal
procession. No one knows how many
 men were in the company, but there were soldiers enough
to make quite a retinue by themselves. Then, too, there
were many priests; there were women to assist Wynfreda,
or to take her place or that of her special assistants,
if anything should befall one of them. Provisions must
be carried. Hotels were a comfort of the distant
future; kings' courts were rare, and castles and
convents where so many could be entertained were not
common. They could not trust to buying food along the
way; and so there was a long train of packhorses and
mules carrying corn and wheat and barley, some of it
ground, and some to be ground as they needed it. They
had dried and salted meats, beef and pork; they had ale
and mead and wine, together with pigment, a heavy,
sweet wine, of which they were fond. Cooks and
wine-makers were with them, carpenters and smiths and
men to care for the horses.
Truly, it was a gorgeous procession. First came half of
the soldiers. The nobles among them wore glittering
coats of mail, and had spears in their hands, while at
their sides hung swords with wooden scabbards covered
with leather and bound with bands of bronze. The others
 tunics of bright colors and cloaks, and they had short
swords and battle-axes. After these soldiers came the
bishop and his priests and the little prince, and
Wynfreda with her women, and the men who had charge of
the treasure, money to spend and to give away, and
gifts for the Pope. Then came a brilliant company of
noblemen, more soldiers, and then the long lines of
servants with mules and horses laden with rich robes
and provisions and fodder for the beasts.
Part of the journey was made over the old Roman roads,
and here they could travel as rapidly as was possible
for so large a number of people. The Romans used,
first, to beat the soil, then to spread layers of flint
or pebbles or sand, and then sometimes add a kind of
masonry of stones or bricks fastened together with
mortar. The roads were raised in the centre, and it
seems as if it ought to have been easy to march over
them; but there was one great disadvantage, they were
as nearly straight as they could be made, and if a hill
came in their way, they never went around it, but
always directly over it.
Rough roads were not the worst troubles that they had
to meet. Streams must be forded,
 sometimes gentle and winding, flowing softly through
green meadows and bordered with bright flowers; but
sometimes they were wild and turbulent, and dashed
through the mountain gorges with a fierce, dangerous
current. At such times, the bishop never trusted Alfred
to any one else, but, taking the child on his own
saddle-bow, he would carefully pick his way across from
rock to rock. Sometimes the stream would be so deep
that the horse would have to swim; and then the bishop
would have ten men below him ready to rescue the
prince, if the force of the current should sweep the
horse down stream. After crossing such a torrent as
this, the whole company would kneel down on the farther
shore, and the bishop would thank God for saving them
from death; and then he would chant the "Gloria," and
they would go on ready to meet the next danger.
Had the company been smaller, there would have been
great fear of robbers, for they had to pass through
dense forests where many bands of thieves had made
"The child has been in danger of robbers once," the
king had said when they left home, "and please God, he
shall not be this time";
 and so he had given them an escort three times as large
as any one would have thought was necessary.
It was a long journey, and the bishop was glad when
they came to a great stone castle where they were to
rest a few days; for Alfred was never strong, and the
constant travel had been very tiresome for him.
It was quite a climb to the castle, for it was high up
on a jutting crag far above the green meadows. It
looked gray and stern and forbidding, but its doors
were thrown wide open to welcome the great bishop and
the little Saxon prince. It would not have been so easy
to enter if they had been unwelcome guests; for first
they went across a moat by a drawbridge, then through a
gate in the thick wall with a strong tower on either
hand; then came another moat and bridge and wall, and
still another. Overhead was the heavy iron portcullis
with its sharp points ready to fall upon them, had they
been enemies; but at last they were inside the "keep,"
the home of the lord of the castle, where he and his
family lived and where their richest treasures were
 It was a very safe place, and that meant a great deal
in those stormy days; but Alfred thought it was the
most gloomy house he had ever seen, for the windows
were only loopholes, and the rooms were small and
cheerless. The greeting was hearty, for the days were
rather dull and lonely. There was great rejoicing
whenever a wandering minstrel made his way up the
mountain, or a priest bound on some distant mission
stopped to ask for a night's entertainment. What a
welcome there must have been, then, when a bishop and a
prince and their long train of followers were seen
winding up the narrow, rough way that led to the
Alfred was delighted to find a boy not much older than
himself, the youngest son of the lord of the castle.
The lord's wife was English, and so little Ekhard could
talk English, and the two children had a delightful
time. It was all strange and mysterious to Alfred,
especially the long underground passage that led far
out into the forest; and he thought Ekhard a wonderful
boy when he told the story of a time when the castle
was attacked, and some of their men had gone through
the passageway back of the
be-  siegers and hemmed them in between themselves and the
"Did you kill them?" asked Alfred of this marvelous new
"We dropped hot pitch down on them and drove them into
the moat," said Ekhard.
Alfred's eyes were very wide open. He had seen many
strange sights since he left his own home, but this was
the most amazing of all, for here was a boy not much
taller than himself who had seen a real fight. How the
little fellow wished that he could be so fortunate!
They sat at the long table at noonday. Part way down
the table was the salt-cellar. Above it was the lord
with family, his the little prince, the bishop, the
priests, and the nobles. Below it were those were those
of less rank. There was room for all and entertainment
for all. They were still sitting at the table when
there was a noise at the gate and the sound of a
"A man demands speech with my lord," said one of the
"The meal hours are sacred," said the lord. "Bid the
man enter and share the meal. Afterwards, he may
 The man entered, but instead of taking the place that
was pointed out to him, he went straight to the lord,
bent lightly on one knee before him, and whispered a
few words in his ear. The lord sprang to his feet,
beckoned to his men at arms, and in a moment all was
confusion and uproar. Every man put on a helmet or a
coat of mail or whatever he happened to possess in the
line of armor, seized a sword or an axe or a spear, and
followed his lord.
It was all a mystery to Alfred. Not one word of all the
loud talk had he understood. He sat motionless until
they had dashed out of the castle gate, and he could
hear the steps of their horses going at a breakneck
speed down the hill. Then he turned to his friend
Ekhard and asked in a frightened whisper:—
"Are the Danes coming?"
"What are Danes?" said Ekhard, a little
contemptuously. "This is better than any Danes. Come,
and I'll show you," and he seized him by the hand and
drew him away to some winding stairs in one of the
"Come, and perhaps we can see the merchants," he said.
 "What merchants?" asked Alfred.
"The men that are coming from Italy to our country.
They have things to sell."
"Will your father buy some?" asked Alfred.
looked as if he thought Alfred a most ignorant
young person, if he was a prince, and said:—
"Of course not. Every one that goes by our castle must
pay my father. Those men haven't paid, and so he will
take their goods."
"Will he kill them?" asked Alfred.
"He will if they fight," said Ekhard. "Come up, and
perhaps we can see them." So the two boys, hand in
hand, climbed the steep, winding stairs in one of the
towers. Through the long, narrow slit in the wall, they
could see afar down the valley a little company of men
winding slowly along the road. To the right of them,
but quite hidden from them by the spur of the mountain,
was another company, the lord and his men, hurrying
down the steep path to meet the merchants. The traders
were soon hidden in the woods, and the lord's men too
disappeared, but the two children heard faint shouts
and war cries; then all was still.
 "I wonder what they'll bring," said Ekhard, and went on
talking, half to himself and half to Alfred. "Perhaps
there'll be silk and velvet and jewels and furs. The
last one had silver and glass and oil. I don't care
much about that, but I hope they'll bring some cinnamon
and nutmeg and wine and dried fruits."
"Why won't your father let people go by his house?"
said Alfred. "My father does."
"Why, because he's the lord, and they have to pay him,"
said Ekhard; "but we can't see any more. Let's go down
and meet them."
It seemed a long time to the impatient children before
the lord and his men came up the hill. Their march was
slow, for the men were on foot, and every horse was
laden with booty. There were rolls of silk and fine
woolen, precious stones and carved ivory, a package of
stained glass for the windows of some church, and what
pleased Ekhard most, a great quantity of cinnamon and
cloves and figs and dates.
"That's a good load," said he to Alfred; but Alfred was
thinking, and thinking very earnestly for so little a
boy. He looked at the bishop,
 but the bishop was at the farther end of the long room.
Then he went to Wynfreda.
"Didn't those things belong to the merchants?" he
"Yes," said Wynfreda.
"My father wouldn't take them away," said he. "I won't
when I am a man."
The hardest part of their journey was still before
them, for the Alps lay between them and Rome. They were
going over the Mount Cenis Pass. There were great
forests of pine and fir through which they must make
their way. There were bald ridges of jagged rock and
deep gorges. Sometimes the road led over dreary slopes.
or through dismal ravines, or over fields of snow.
Sometimes it was only a tiny thread of a path winding
along the edge of a precipice. The bishop looked worn
and anxious, but Alfred thought it was all a delightful
series of adventures. He clapped his hands with
pleasure when he was carefully wrapped in an oxhide and
drawn over the snow; and when they came to ledges so
dizzy that the horses and mules had to be lowered with
ropes to a place where there was surer footing, he
thought this was almost
 as good as seeing a real battle, and wished he could
tell Ekhard about it.
The journey was not all danger and no pleasure, not
even the passage over the Alps, for a little lower down
the flowers were brighter and more beautiful than
Alfred had ever seen before. All along the roadside
were columbines and geraniums. Harebells clung to every
little over-hanging rock. Violets were in the shady
nooks of the forest. The lady's-slipper was there, and
down in the warm, sunny meadows below them were beds of
pinks. At the edge of the snow above them was the
edelweiss. It was all very beautiful, and when they
came to their first bed of brilliant Alpine roses,
Alfred fairly shouted with delight.
"Can't I send some to my mother?" he begged, but the
bishop smiled and said:—
"You shall take her something better than roses. There
are wonderful things in Rome, and you shall choose
And so they went on to Rome; but outside the city three
men on horseback met them.
"Is this the train of the noble prince, Alfred of
England?" said they.
 "It is," said the bishop.
"Then is there a message from King Ethelwulf. The
bearer came at the risk of his life. He is ill, and he
begs that you will come to him, for the king's business
brooks no delay."
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics