| 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 |
THE WHITE HORSE OF ASHDOWN
T was now the time of Wessex to suffer. The Danes were
not sure of being able to take Mercia, for they had
seen that Wessex would come to her aid; but they felt
little doubt of their ability to take Wessex, for
Mercia, with the Danish force on her north and east,
could lend no assistance to another kingdom.
Now in Wessex the fortified town that was farthest
east was Reading. It was on the Thames, and so a great
force could come by boat, while one equally great was
coming with almost equal swiftness by land. To
strengthen their position, the Danes threw up
earthworks extending from the Thames to the Kennet, the
little river to the south of Reading, and in less than
three days after their arrival, they sent out bands of
men to plunder the country round about.
Now there had been no fighting in Wessex since the
time, some ten years before, that the
 Danes had pillaged Winchester. Ethelwulf, the valiant
ealderman of Berkshire, who with Osric of Hants had so
completely routed the pirates at the mouth of the
Itchen, had not forgotten how to fight. Without waiting
to send for help he brought together the men of his
district. It can hardly be wondered at that they were
not eager to meet the Danes, who had many times their
numbers, but they took the field courageously. Up and
down in front of the lines rode Ethelwulf.
"Remember the fight of the Itchen," he said. "The Danes
were more than we, but the Lord helped us. He divided
their forces, and they ran before us like sheep. Why
should we fear the heathen? The God of battles is our
leader; their commander is Satan himself."
Bravely the little company went on. The first body of
Danes that they met they attacked with so much vigor
that the invaders were put to flight, and one of their
leaders was slain.
MESSENGERS WERE SENT . . . TO EVERY LITTLE VILLAGE.
A fiercer contest was coming. No sooner had the tidings
reached Ethelred and Alfred that their foes were in
Wessex than messengers were sent over the kingdom to
every village, even to every little grange. They bore
an arrow and a naked
 sword. These they held up in sight
of the people, who knew their meaning only too well,
"The enemy are upon us. Let every man leave his house
and land and come. This is the word of the king," and
then they turned to ride swiftly to the next town or
hamlet. If any man refused to come, his land was
forfeited to the king.
Neither Ethelred nor Alfred had any practical knowledge
of fighting, and it is no wonder that they mistook
enthusiasm for the power that could come only with
experience and numbers. Without waiting for troops to
come from the more distant parts of the kingdom, they
set off at once to meet the Danes; and in four days
after Ethelwulf's successful encounter, they were
ready with all zeal and a firm belief in their own
ability to drive the heathen from their land.
Ethelred had surprised those who judged him by his
somewhat childish speeches and his inaction. So long as
the Danes were on the farther side of the land, it
seemed impossible for him to realize that they could
come nearer; but when they were once within the bounds
of his own kingdom, no one could have been more prompt
than he in
get-  ting his men together or more fearless in leading them on to
The royal forces were in front of Reading. They
expected to win, for Ethelred with fewer numbers had
been successful. Wild with enthusiasm, they fell upon
the Danes who were outside the fortifications. These
were taken by surprise and were easily overcome. The
Saxon courage rose higher. It was now late in the
afternoon; they would encamp in a convenient place near
at hand, and in the morning there should be another
battle and another victory.
The Danes were quiet within their stronghold. The
Saxons were joyfully making their camp, when, like the
bursting forth of a mighty river, the enemy suddenly
rushed out from the fortifications and fell upon the
unsuspecting Saxons. Surprised and taken at a
disadvantage as they were, the Saxons wheeled about and
renewed the battle so fiercely that the Danes had far
from the easy victory that they had expected.
There was no special advantage of place, for the
battle-field was a long stretch of level meadow lands,
and success seemed now in the hands of one side, now of
the other. Both sides
 were equally courageous, but the Danes had many more
men and life-long experience in fighting, while few of
the Saxons had ever been on a field of war. The wonder
is not that they were finally forced to flee, but
rather that they could resist so long and so
The retreat was hardly a flight, for they withdrew to
the westward in good order, though with ranks sadly
thinned, to do what would have been wiser in the first
place, that is, to await the arrival of more forces.
Rapidly the troops came up, in companies, in straggling
bands, even one by one, for there was little delaying
one for another. The farther Ethelred retreated, the
more powerful he grew, and when they had come to
Ashdown in Berkshire, both he and Alfred believed that
if they could ever oppose the invaders, it would be
then. There they halted.
But the heathen were upon their track. Faster and
faster they came with the whole force save the few that
remained to guard Reading. On both sides the armies had
been busy in throwing up earthworks. Darkness came upon
them, and through the chill of the
 March night, the sentinels paced to and fro, and the
watchfires blazed red and angry. The soldiers, many of
them exhausted by the long march, slept heavily; but
there was no rest for the young leaders upon whom the
new responsibility weighed so gravely. When they were
before Nottingham, there may have been some small
skirmishes, but aside from these, all their experience
in fighting had come from the disaster of four days
previously. Thinking, perhaps, more of shelter than of
military advantage, they had pitched their camp near
the base of a hill, while the Danish camp was at its
Slowly the long night passed away. As the morning began
to dawn, the anxious young commanders noticed that the
Danes had divided their forces into two companies, one
led by two kings, the other by the jarls.
"We will gain by their experience," said Ethelred. "If
our men are in one body, and we attack one of their
divisions, the other will set upon us on the rear. I
will take command of half of our men and meet those who
are led by the kings, and do you lead the other half
and meet the jarls and their men."
 "The Danes are already moving," said Alfred. "They will
be upon us," but Ethelred had galloped swiftly away.
There was more and more movement among the Danish
troops. The top of the hill was black with them. They
formed in line. Alfred almost thought that he could
hear their terrible battle-cries. He drew up his own
men, but where was Ethelred?
Trusting the message to no one else, Alfred went at
full speed in search of his brother. He came to a thick
clump of trees where the temporary altar had been
built. A low sound of chanting struck his ears. It was
the voice of the priest.
"Ethelred—my brother—my king," he cried, "the Danes
are upon us. Their lines are formed. My men are ready.
A moment's delay may lose the battle." But Ethelred
"It is the service of God. Our priest is saying
prayers for us and for our men. Shall I forsake the
help of God to trust in men and in weapons? It is meet
that the king pray for his people."
 Alfred stood for a moment helpless, then he galloped
back. Directly in front of his division was a stunted
thorn tree. Here the prince stopped. The Danes were
above him. They were looking down. They were ready to
charge. He glanced below him. There were his own men.
They stood, not like the great machine that an army is
to-day, but like a multitude of individuals, held
together by a common purpose, but by no strong bonds of
discipline. In that one glance, Alfred saw that one
face was eager, another angry, another scornful. Then
came the supreme moment; they raised their shields and
"Battle! battle! Lead us to the battle!" Through the
young man's mind thoughts flashed like the flashing of
a sword. From his higher position he could see the
multitudes of the hostile ranks more clearly than could
his men. Then first, he realized the great advantage of
the enemy in being on higher ground. Let the Danes make
the first charge, and coming from above they would be
resistless. Let the Saxons realize this, and they would
perhaps flee in despair. One wrong step, and the
 Wessex might be in the hands of the heathen. His very
lips paled. No long prayers had the young prince made
that morning, but if there ever was a true prayer, it
was his whispered "God help us!" He trembled, but his
voice rang clear and strong as he shouted:—
"Forward!" and with his men following dashed up the
hill "like a wild boar."
Then came the terrible onslaught of the Berserkir
warriors, who excited themselves to madness and fury
until they were more like ferocious wolves than men.
They rolled on the ground, they beat their breasts,
they gnashed their teeth, they bit their shields, they
howled and they screeched, until they seemed to have
lost all likeness to human beings. These were in the
front of the Danish lines, and horrible, indeed, was
their attack. It was not fighting men, but fiends.
From Alfred's one little experience of four days
previously, he and his men realized that their only
hope was in keeping together. Even Berserkir could not
scatter them. Men fell by hundreds on both sides.
Alfred's men could not advance beyond the stunted
 Danes could not make their way one step farther down
the hill. The second division of the Danes was swinging
around from the other side. With no orders and no
leader, Ethelred's men had formed in line, and stood in
a great body, ready to charge at a moment's warning.
Down came the Danish forces led by the two kings,
rushing headlong down the hill to get between Alfred's
men and the men without a leader. The limit of Saxon
self-restraint had been reached. Edmund, who had
succeeded Alstan as bishop of Sherborne, came in front
of the line.
"Men of Wessex," he began; but there was a cloud of
dust as a horse and rider plunged furiously up the
hill, tearing up the turf at every step. It was the
king. In a moment he was at the head of his army.
"The blessing of God is with us," he shouted. "The Lord
will save His people. Forward!" All the more madly for
their restraint, the Saxons rushed upon the two kings
and their men, and drove them in frantic confusion over
the hill. They were almost as wild as the Berserkir
themselves. The jarls had fled in a frenzy of alarm.
The whole Saxon troop
 pursued. One of the Danish kings was slain. One after
another, five of the great jarls fell. No one noticed.
No one thought of them. It was a mad scramble for
safety. The battle itself had lasted only three or four
hours at longest; but all day long, over hill and
meadow and through the forest the Saxons pursued their
retreating foes, until they had been driven back to the
walls of Reading. No one knows how many thousands of
the invaders fell. Their bodies lay where they had been
struck down, on a rock, in a brook, under a tree, in
the midst of a great stretch of meadow land. Anywhere
and everywhere was a feast for the wolves and the
ravens, the corpses of the Danish invaders.
Far up on Ashdown Hill is the rudely outlined figure
of a horse, made by cutting away the turf from the
white limestone. It is so large that it spreads over
nearly an acre of the hillside. Tradition says that
this is the white horse, the standard of the Saxons,
cut in memory of the victory of Ashdown; and for no
one knows how long, it has been the custom for the
people of the neighborhood to assemble every few years
to celebrate with games and
 races and a general jubilee a day of "scouring the
White Horse," that is, of clearing away the turf and
bushes that may have grown over the trenches forming
The Saxons well knew that there was nothing permanent
about even so complete a victory as this. The Danes had
been routed, but they could return; they had lost
nothing but men, and there might be thousands more on
the way. Little time could the victors spare for
rejoicing over the victory or even for rest. In a
fortnight the Danes were ready to march out in numbers
as great as ever.
This time they went to the south across the Kennet
River into Hants. Ethelred and Alfred pursued in hot
haste. The Saxons were not victorious, but they were
strong enough to prevent the foe from carrying away
booty. But of what avail was a victory when it only
opened the way for another contest? More than one king
would have deserted his people and crossed the seas.
The refuge of Rome was always open. It was not looked
upon as a cowardly thing for a Saxon king to withdraw
from active life and spend his last days in the English
 Rome. Ethelred, at least, seems to have had some little
bent toward the quiet life under the shadows of the
cloister; but to neither him nor Alfred did any thought
come of attempting to secure a heavenly kingdom by
deserting the one that had been entrusted to them on
They pressed on boldly, and two months later, at a
little place called Merton, there was another
engagement. The ranks of the Danes were again filled. A
fierce battle was waged all day, and in spite of their
smaller numbers, the Saxons held their own. Just before
sunset, the enemy made one last, furious charge, and
the Saxons were forced to retreat. The brave bishop who
had succeeded Alstan was slain, and the king was so
severely wounded that he died soon after the battle.
Ethelred was buried with royal honors at Wimborne, but
scant time could the younger brother spare for his
grief. Weighty questions were pressing upon him. Must
he become king? He was not yet twenty-three; he was
afflicted with a painful disease whose attacks might
come upon him at any moment. He had not a relative in
the land, saving the children of his brothers and
 his sister Ethelswitha. No wonder that he repeated his
childish plaint, "They all go away from me."
Is it any marvel that he fell into utter
discouragement? Nominally the king of the West Saxons
was king of all England, but in reality his power was
limited to a part of the land of Wessex. He was at the
head of the army, but the very flower of his army had
fallen. Ethelwulf, upon whom he might have depended
for counsel, had been slain at Reading; Osric had died
long before. The Danish power was all around him. Could
he accept the throne? Was there any throne to accept?
Had he any country to rule? After his talk with Alstan,
it had all seemed easy. He had felt strong and
confident, but now he was discouraged and almost
hopeless. There was no one to counsel him. The glad
courage that had come to him after his lonely night in
the chapel in Cornwall had left him; but he remembered
his resolution and the promise that he had made to
Alstan, "I will do the best that I can for my people;"
and so it was that Alfred became king of England.
It was a sad coming to the throne. There was no public
rejoicing, no coronation ceremonies, not even a formal
declaration on the part of the
coun-  selors that they accepted him as their king; but no one
thought of any opposition, and one month after
Ethelred's death the Saxon soldiers met the enemy as
enthusiastically as ever, at Wilton, not far from the
centre of Wessex. The story of the battle was only an
old tale repeated; for the Saxons fought fiercely, but
were overcome at last by the same old trick of the
Danes,—their pretending to be routed and then, when the
ranks of the eager pursuers had lost all semblance of
form and order, of wheeling about and cutting them down
without mercy. It was a sad beginning for a young
king's reign, but a few months later the Danes withdrew
The explanation seems to be that though the Danes were
fighters, and though they sang many war-songs, they did
not often fight without an object. So long as there
were rich pastures full of flocks and herds, and
churches with their treasures, to be had almost for
the taking, why should they stay in Wessex where every
step was marked with blood rather than gold? They moved
to the east and took up their winter quarters in
For a year or more there was peace; then came a day
when Ethelswitha fled to Alfred and said:—
 "My husband can no longer meet the Danes. He has left
his kingdom and gone to Rome. I cannot leave my
people." This was in 874. Mercia had fallen into Danish
hands, Alfred alone resisted. How long could his
resistance last? Successful battles were nothing, when
in a few days reënforcements filled up the ranks of
their foes. Was there any way to shut off these fresh
Now, though of the same blood as the Danes and born
with the same love of the sea, the Saxons who had come
to Britain had settled down to a quiet life on the
land. Could the old success and fearlessness on the
ocean be aroused? King Alfred pondered long and
carefully, then he sent for his counselors.
"Let us," he said, "build ships that we may meet the
heathen on the water, and guard the harbors and the
mouths of the rivers."
At first the counselors saw many objections to the
plan. They had no practised builders of ships, they had
no sailors, no commanders. The Danes would be as
invincible on the sea as on the land. It would be a
useless waste of the energy that ought to go to defend
 The king bit his lip and there was a spot of anger on
"What will you do?" he said quietly, though there was a
certain restraint in his voice that made every word
tell like a blow. "We have tried to defend our land.
Your brothers and sons have fallen. King Ethelred gave
up his life trying to protect you. What have we gained?
At the cost of many lives, we have gained a short
freedom from the heathen. You well know how little a
treaty with them means. They will come again in the
summer, and perhaps in greater numbers than ever. You
say we have no shipbuilders? We have builders of small
vessels. I can teach them to build larger ones. I can
train sailors, and I can command the war-ships. What
will you do?" The counselors hesitated.
"They say that the king could build a whole war-ship
himself," whispered one of the counselors to another,
"that he has read about them in his books."
"What will you do?" repeated the king almost sternly.
His quiet confidence gave them courage, and perhaps,
indeed, they felt half afraid
 to oppose him. They meditated a little time and then
"We will build the boats."
Alfred had not fought the Danes without learning
something of their military tactics. "He who would win
must surprise" was one great lesson, and with this
thought in mind, he planned to build his ships in a
hidden recess of the rocky shore, a long arm of the sea
that made an abrupt turn to the east. Projecting cliffs
hid it from all but the keenest, most watchful eyes. It
was a small fleet of small vessels that he built, and
it was commanded by an admiral who was utterly without
practical experience; but he had one great advantage.
The vikings, cruising fearlessly along the southern
coast, had no thought of meeting the slightest
opposition until they were far inland, and when
Alfred's ships suddenly appeared before them, it
seemed to the superstitious pirates almost as if
supernatural aid had been given to their opponents. One
of the Danish ships was captured and the other six
sailed back to Denmark. The enthusiasm of the
hero-worshipping Saxons was aroused. They were ready to
do whatever their wonderful young
 king might suggest, and enough of their old love of the
sea came back to them to make them more than ready to
build as many more vessels as Alfred thought best.
The Danes began to feel something a little like dread
of the leader of the Saxons. He had won a great battle
on land, and they, the invincible warriors, had been
driven over field and through forest to seek refuge as
best they might. Now, came this victory on the sea.
That they, the rulers of the ocean, should be
overpowered and forced to flee across the waters to
their own land with vessels empty of treasures, was a
humiliation that was new to them. They would come
again, this should not be the end. The lord of the West
Saxons should feel their vengeance.
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