| 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 |
ALFRED'S EARLY HOME
 THE palace in which Alfred the Great was born was
hardly what we should call a palace in these days. It
was a long, low, wooden house, or rather a group of
houses; for whenever more room was needed, a new
building was put up, and joined to the old ones
wherever it seemed most convenient, so that the palace
looked much like a company of one-story houses that had
drifted together in a flood. There had to be room for a
large family, for the king's counsellors and many of
the church dignitaries lived with him. All around the
house were many smaller houses for the fighting and the
working men. Those were the days when at any moment a
 messenger might come flying on a panting horse and say:—
"O King Ethelwulf, the Danes are upon us! Their ships
are in the offing, and they are driving toward
Then the king would send horsemen in hot haste to all
his underchiefs, and he himself, at the head of the
soldiers of his household, would march toward the
coast, sometimes to fight and sometimes, if fighting
failed, to buy them off by a ransom of money and jewels
and vessels of gold and of silver.
The priests, with the women and children, would hasten
into the church and throw themselves down before the
altar and pray:—
"From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us."
They had good reason for their alarm; for perhaps even
before the king and his men could reach the eastern
shore, another fleet would come to land on the southern
coast, and the fierce Danes would sweep like a
whirlwind through the land, burning the homes of the
people, carrying away the women, and tossing the little
children back and forth on the points of their spears.
 There were many workingmen about the king's palace, for
almost everything that was needed had to be made on the
premises. Not only must the grain be raised, wheat or
barley or oats or corn, but it must be ground,
sometimes by many small hand-mills, and sometimes by
one large mill that belonged to the king. For drink,
there was a kind of mead, or ale, and that must be
brewed in the king's brewery. When it came to the
question of clothes, there was still more work to do;
for leather must be tanned for the shoes as well as for
the harnesses, and flax and wool must be spun and
woven. Then, too, there were blacksmiths, who not only
made the simple implements needed to carry on the farm,
but who must be skilful enough to make and repair the
metal network of the coats of mail, and to keep the
soldiers well supplied with spears and swords and
battle-axes and arrowheads.
A king who was willing to "rough it" a little could
live on his royal domain very comfortably without
sending away for many luxuries. If his land did not
border on the seashore, he would have to send for salt
that was made by evaporating sea-water; and whenever
he needed a
mill-  stone, he would send to France, for the best ones were
found in quarries near Paris. For iron, King Ethelwulf
sent to Sussex, not a very long journey, to be sure,
but by no means an easy one, for some of the roads were
of the roughest kind. If he had lived on the coast, it
would have been almost as easy to send to Spain for
iron, and sometimes men did make the long voyage rather
than go a much shorter distance by land and bring home
the heavy load. When the millstones were landed from
France, the laborers had to take their cattle, and make
the slow, tiresome journey to the shore to bring them
All these things were very interesting for the little
Prince Alfred to see, though he was not quite five
years old at the time when this story begins. He was
the youngest child of King Ethelwulf and Queen Osburga,
and a favorite with everybody on the great estate. The
blacksmith had made him a tiny coat of mail and a
spear, and he and the other children would play "Fight
the Danes," and the soldiers would look on and say,
"There's a prince for you," and often one of them would
take him up before him on his horse for a mad gallop
through the forest. The
 half-wild swine would scatter before them, and
sometimes the soldier, holding the little boy firmly
with one hand, would charge upon them, and leaning far
over the saddle, would run his spear through one; and
back they would ride to the palace, dragging the pig
behind them, and the little prince, his long, yellow
hair streaming in the wind, would shout, "A Dane,
father! We have killed a Dane!"
Nobody troubled the little boy about learning to read.
Priests must read, of course, both English and Latin,
for the service of the church was in Latin, and they
must know how to pronounce the words, though very few
of them were quite sure what the words meant. Kings
seldom learned anything of books, but King Ethelwulf
could read, for when he was a young man he had wished
to become a priest and had studied a little with this
plan in mind. His father had opposed the scheme; for
after the older brother's death Ethelwulf was his only
son, and there was no one else to whom he could leave
the kingdom. He was greatly troubled, for he was afraid
that a king who could read would not be a good warrior,
but he finally decided to test him by giving him a
 small kingdom to practise on; so he put Kent into his
hands, and for ten years Ethelwulf ruled under his
father's eye. He was so attentive to his duties as a
king, that his father concluded that learning how to
read had not hurt him, and so at his death he left him
the whole kingdom.
Even if no one made the little boy learn to read, the
days were never long enough for him. The great domain
was a busy place. Everybody was making something, and
everybody was glad to have the little prince look on
and ask questions. There were hives of bees, and there
were hunting dogs and hawks. People were coming and
going from morning till night. The king rented much of
his land to different families. He was bound to care
for them, and they were bound to fight under him and to
work for him, to make hedges and ditches, to plough, to
shear the sheep, and to help make roads. Besides this,
they were to pay him rent, and this rent seldom came in
money, but rather in produce of the land. There was a
steward whose business it was to receive the rent, and
a boy would be interested to keep by his side all day
long and watch what the people brought. There might
 be cheese or bacon or honey or home-brewed ale; and
often there was quite a lively time when a man appeared
with hens or ducks or geese, cackling or quacking or
hissing, as the case might be, and all making as much
noise as their throats would permit. Sometimes this
rent was paid only as a token that the land belonged to
the king, and had no real value. One man was bound to
present three fishes fresh from the river four times a
year, and another had only to bring a sheaf of wheat on
a certain day of each year.
At the regular times for paying rent, these people were
coming and going all day long, and often they brought
besides their rent some special gift for the boy—a
bag of apples or of nuts, or a particularly yellow
honeycomb on a great platter of bark covered with fresh
green leaves. There were all these things going on as a
matter of course, but sometimes there would be heard
the trampling of hoofs and a great cry, and all the men
who had been paying their rent, and all the men who
were working in the fields, and all the servants of the
house would run out and cry:—
 "Hillo! What ho?" and the men who had been hunting
would ride into the little settlement, dragging behind
them a wild boar or a deer to be roasted on the great
hearth in the hall.
Alfred was, as I said, the youngest of King Ethelwulf's
five children. His sister, Ethelswitha, was only
eleven years older than he, and she was his special
friend. He was not very strong, and there were days
when he liked better to stay in the house and listen to
her stories than even to be among all the interesting
things that were going on outside. One day she began:—
"Once there was a king, and he built a great hall—"
"My father's a king," said the little boy. "Was the
hall like ours?"
"Oh, it was larger and much finer; but when the men
were asleep in it, a monster used to come and carry
them off to a cave under the water and eat them. At
last a great warrior came, and he killed the dragon,
and the water was all red with his blood."
"My brother Ethelbald would kill a dragon;
 he fought in a real battle," said Alfred. "Tell me more
about the man that killed the dragon."
"The king gave him rings and bracelets and spears and
shields, and he went home to his own people; and by and
by some one told him of another dragon that lived in a
cave in the land, and had gold vases and spears and
bronze shields and gold rings for the neck and for the
arms; and he went out to kill this dragon so as to give
the gold to the men."
"Did he go alone?"
"No, his fighting men went with him; but when the
dragon came, it breathed out fire, and they were
afraid, and all but one of them ran away from him."
"I would have stayed," said the little prince.
"And so I believe you would," said King Ethelwulf, who
had been listening to their talk. "You would fight; but
women do not fight; and what would you do, Ethelswitha,
for a brave man?"
"I would pass him the mead as my mother does, and when
you gave him great gifts, I would put the rings on his
arms and the necklace about his neck, and he would say:
 the daughter of my king that gives me this, and I will
fight for my king. My body and blood shall be his.' "
"Good, my girl. That you have done for many of my brave
men; but if it was a great warrior who had fought
beside your father, a warrior who was a king? Could you
do no more for him?" And he looked closely into the
eyes of the young girl.
"What else could I do, father?" she asked. "You never
told me to do anything more for your thegns, and no one
can be braver than they."
The king looked a little puzzled, then he said:—
"Come here, Alfred, and I'll tell you a story, and
Ethelswitha may listen."
"About the brave king?" asked Alfred.
"Yes, about the brave king," said his father. "The
brave king lives to the north of us, in Mercia. His
name is Buhred. The Welsh people who live beyond him
kept coming into his country, and when they came they
would steal the treasures and kill the people."
"Did they eat them, too?"
 "No," said the king, "but they tormented them, and shot
them with arrows, and stabbed them with short, strong
knives. This king was very brave, but he had not men
enough to drive them away, so he sent to me and asked
if I would help him. I think you can remember when we
rode away from here."
"Mother and you and I went to the church, Alfred," said
his sister, "to pray that they might come home safely."
"Yes, I remember," and the little boy nodded wisely.
"Well, this king had not any wife, but his sister went
to their church and prayed for him to come back to her.
He was very strong and killed a great many men, and the
bad Welsh were all driven away, and then he went home.
He wished that he had a wife at home to greet him, and
he asked me if I would give him my daughter."
Alfred had slipped down from his father's knee, but the
king put his arm about his daughter, who was sitting on
the bench beside him, and said:—
"Do you see now what you can do for him?"
 The young girl looked straight into her father's eyes,
"Is he as brave a man as you?"
"Yes," said the king.
"Then I will be his wife," said she.
This was a few months before the time of our story, and
the little boy had, of course, forgotten the
conversation, but the wedding and the wedding feast
even so little a fellow as he was could not forget.
Ever since Ethelswitha was a little child, the queen
and the maidens of the household had been preparing for
her marriage. They had spun and woven great chests full
of linen and woolen. They had made beautifully
embroidered tapestries and rich coverings for the
benches of the hall. They had made gowns of blue and
red and yellow and green, whose deep borders were
worked with silk and with threads of gold. Then there
were wide mantles of all the colors of the rainbow for
her to wear over her gown. They were wound about the
waist and thrown over the left shoulder, and they were
so long that they would fall down nearly to the ground.
These, too, were richly embroidered with gold thread.
 Queen Osburga and King Ethelwulf were descendants of
Cerdic, who had conquered the Isle of Wight three
hundred years before this. Some of their kinsfolk still
dwelt near the island, and were skilful workers in gold
and silver. From there had been brought beautiful
ornaments, clasps for the cloak, necklaces, and
ear-rings. One of the clasps was circular in shape, made
of a fine gold filigree work. The centre was filled by
a double star set with garnets. Another clasp was of
silver in the shape of a Maltese cross, with green
enamel around the edges and a ruby in the centre. Then
there was a necklace with many gold pendants and a blue
stone in each. There were "stick-pins" of red and blue
enamel, and there were ear-rings of precisely the
crescent shape that our grandmothers used to wear.
The king had houses in several places and went from one
to another as the needs of his kingdom demanded.
Sometimes there would be fear of an attack by the Danes
or the Welsh, for which the presence of the king might
help his people to prepare. Sometimes there was a new
church to be dedicated in some distant part of the
kingdom, and then the furniture, the tapestries,
 and the valuable dishes were put on pack-horses, and
thither the king and his great family would go, and
stay for a few weeks or months, as the case might be.
Then there was another reason, perhaps the strongest of
all. The king was really "boarded around." There was
not a great deal of money in the kingdom, and the
easiest way to collect rent was to eat it in the shape
of the grain and vegetables that the tenants brought
in; so the king and his court would stay till they had
eaten the products of the land in one place, and would
then move on to another. The queen liked especially the
house at Chippenham in Wiltshire, and so it was decided
that there the marriage should be celebrated. The
palace was in a beautiful valley through which the Avon
flowed. Other streams were near, and the rolling
country around was rich with fresh green forests.
King Buhred came marching up with a great company of
his men at arms, and King Ethelwulf stood ready to
receive him. It was a brilliant sight, with the
background of the woods and the river and the low-lying
hills. King Ethelwulf was in advance of his men and was
mounted on a great white horse. He wore a rich purple
 and over it a short blue cloak with a gold border. This
was fastened at the shoulder with a gold brooch
flashing with red stones. Bands of bright-colored cloth
were wound about his legs, and ended in tassels at the
On the saddle before him was the little prince, his
yellow hair flying over a scarlet tunic; and next
behind them came the three older sons of the king,
wearing yellow tunics and blue cloaks.
Then came the bishops and priests with their vestments
of white and gold, and behind them were King
Ethelwulf's fighting men, with their light blue tunics,
whose borders were embroidered with leaves and
circles. Their short cloaks were fastened on the right
shoulder or under the chin by a clasp. They carried
shields and spears that flashed in the sun as they
The queen wore a long red gown with wide-hanging
sleeves. Her mantle of purple hung over her left
shoulder in graceful folds.
The young bride, who was only fifteen, wore a white
gown and white mantle, and her hair was bound by a
narrow gold fillet set with blue stones. It must have
been a gorgeous scene in the great hall of feasting.
Iron lamps hung from the
raf-  ters and shone down upon the bright spears and helmets and
chain armor that hung upon the walls. Brave deeds of
their ancestors were pictured in the tapestry. In the
centre of the hall was a great fireplace, or hearth,
made of burnt clay, where the meat was roasted. Long
tables were spread down the hall, and at the upper end
was a platform where the royal family sat, and a few of
the thegns whom the king wished to honor.
All day and far into the night was the feasting kept
up, till even in the midst of the rejoicing little
Alfred fell asleep in his father's arms. He was
awakened by a sudden silence, and then came the sound
of singing and of playing on the harp; for the harpers
were come in their long green gowns and gay mantles,
and all the brave warriors were silent listening to
their music, for the one thing that they enjoyed most
was to have a harper come in after the feast was well
begun and sing to them the ballads of their people.
Long it lasted, but the time came when even the
merriest of them had had enough of merriment, and the
feast was ended.
Queen Osburga was sad at losing her only daughter, and
she clasped the little Alfred more
 closely than ever to her breast, and kissed him again
and again. The king was silent, and as she looked up,
she saw his eyes fixed upon her and Alfred with a
strange expression of pity and suffering and
"What is it, my husband?" she asked, fearful of
something she knew not what.
"Perhaps it is nothing. They say that the thought is
clearer in the morning light. We will sleep now, and
when the sun rises, I will think. Sleep well, my own
The king looked sad and troubled, and Osburga lay with
a burden on her heart, she knew not what, even till the
sun rose over the forest.
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