| 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 |
HE next two years were the happiest period of
Ethelwulf's life since his coronation. The people of
Kent had welcomed him and had found no fault with his
marriage. His delight in being free to give his time to
the church was intensified by the happiness of those
around him. He had all the pleasures of a king and
almost none of the responsibilities. He could occupy
himself in planning generous gifts to the church and in
signing charters to enrich some monastery. He could
entertain holy pilgrims and rejoice in their promises
that many prayers should be offered for the benefit of
his soul. He need not take the king's place at the head
of the army, for Ethelbald's energetic measures and his
reputation, which had spread even to Denmark, had given
the land a respite from her tormentors. At his son's
 of the kingdom, Ethelwulf felt not the slightest
indignation. He looked upon it rather as a
providential event by which he was enabled to give his
life to what would bring him most enjoyment and most
profit; and he greeted Ethelbald with the utmost
cordiality, and even invited him to listen to a special
course of psalms to be sung for his benefit when the
king of the West Saxons came to Kent with some paper
that he thought his father's signature might make more
binding on the priests, or on those nobles who, though
silent for fear of Ethelbald's strong hand, were still
loyal to the rightful king.
Judith had been free to introduce into the court
whatever she chose of form and ceremony. The people of
Kent were as fascinated as Alfred with the sparkling
beauty of their queen and her alternate merriment and
stateliness, and criticised nothing that she did. Some
of them felt that it was an honor to be allied with the
Frankish kingdom; and others remembered that
Ethelwulf's bride had been won while he was on his
return from a holy pilgrimage, and even fancied that
this gave an
 additional shade of sacredness to the marriage. Osburga
had been little known in Kent, so comparisons were
never made between her unvarying gentleness and
Judith's occasional waywardness. Ethelwulf gladly left
much of the royal power in her hands. When the thegns
came to consult the king, it was often the fair Judith
who met them, heard their story, and decided matters as
best suited her whim for the moment. The thegns never
knew what to expect from her, but they were sure that
she would let no man leave her dissatisfied with her
treatment. When one claimed that his neighbor had
encroached upon his boundaries, this new judge pacified
him with the gift of a golden dish worth thrice the
value of the disputed land, and he went away content.
For some time the novelty of her position and her
freedom of sway afforded her all the amusement that she
could ask; but after Ethelbald's first visit, she
"Is the realm of the West Saxons larger than this?" she
asked of the king.
"Much larger," said he. "It is a fertile land, and it
has wealth and wide boundaries, and its
 army can command twenty men to one of the land of Kent.
It is a sad burden for a man to rule the kingdom of the
"Is the king's palace finer than this?" continued
"It is a great house," broke in Alfred, who had been
eagerly listening, "and there were very many dishes of
gold, and red and blue stones were around the edges;
and the high seat in the hall was covered with purple
and gold, and the pictures on the tapestries were of
men and horses and water and boats; and the nixyman
lives in the brook, and if you stop to look, he pulls
you down; and the smith puts a rune on the sword when
he likes his lord, and the flowers grow all around—"
but the child stopped for want of breath.
"You remember well," said the king, smiling at his
little son. "But do you not remember the church, too,
Alfred, where the psalms were chanted every morning?
But I have taught the singers here to chant as they do
in Rome, Judith. The land of the West Saxons is a fair
country, but the chanting is much better here. I am
sure that you would like this land better."
 Judith hardly heard his last words. She was gazing
absently to the westward, and as if she had beckoned
him to come, a rider appeared at the turn of the way.
He came up slowly and was admitted into the palace. He
bowed with deference to the king, then turned to the
queen and said:—
"My lord the king of the West Saxons bade me bring you
this." He glanced quickly at the king, and made his
farewells as rapidly as possible. He had presented
Judith with a little silken package bound with a
slender gold chain. She held it silently for a moment
and glanced at Ethelwulf. His face was calm and
peaceful. She slipped off the gold chain and unfolded
the silk. There lay a most exquisitely wrought mirror
of polished silver set with clusters of amethysts.
Under the mirror was a bit of parchment, and on it was
"To the fairest of queens from one who admires her and
would willingly—" That was all. Judith's face flushed
scarlet, but King Ethelwulf was apparently much
"My son is a man of many interests," he said. "I
suppose he could not stay with his scribe, and
 the lad forgot the rest of the message. He must have
meant to write 'would willingly be his own messenger.'
It is a pleasant courtesy, and we will send men to him
with our thanks and a return gift before many days have
But the first messenger that was sent to Ethelbald bore
the sad tidings that the gentle old king was sick unto
death. Judith, repenting the folly of her thought, was
his most devoted attendant. The king was calm and
happy. He had before this made his will, arranging for
what he had no doubt was for the best good of his
kingdom. Judith's kindness to Alfred assured him of the
child's comfort, and he died peacefully without a
shadow of unrest.
His will had been signed by some of the most powerful
men among the West Saxons in token of their
satisfaction with its provisions. He left Kent and the
eastern district to Ethelbert, his second son, while
Wessex, the most valuable part of the kingdom, was to
remain in the hands of Ethelbald. If Ethelbald died
leaving no children, Wessex was to come to Ethelred and
then to Alfred. There was provision made for various
deeds of charity for the benefit of his soul, and
 especially that one poor man in every ten of those
living on his lands should be supplied with "meat,
drink, and clothing," be he a native or foreigner—a
rare bit of liberality in those times. This gift was to
be continued by his successors "until the Day of
Judgment, supposing, however, that the country should
still be inhabited by men and cattle, and should not
A long procession of truly sorrowing people followed
the bier of Ethelwulf to his grave in Winchester
cathedral. Then Judith and Alfred returned to the
palace in Kent. Judith was sincerely grieved at the
death of the kind-hearted old king, who had been to her
a father rather than a husband, and she was even more
kind than ever to her little stepson.
Ethelbert had taken his position as ruler of Kent. He
was a gentle, quiet man, with all his father's
sincerity, but he held quite different ideas of the
duty of a king to his people. Ethelwulf had been
contented if he heard no complaint; Ethelbert meant to
see for himself that there was no ground for complaint.
The result was that there were no more decisions made
after the manner of Judith, for Ethelbert held the
 of his little kingdom gently but firmly, and he himself
looked into all matters of dispute. The house of the
noble and the straw-thatched cottage of the noble's
workingman were both familiar to him, and in both was
he equally welcome. His people felt for him the same
love that they had felt for Ethelwulf, and they had a
much greater confidence in his judgments, feeling that
he knew his people as Ethelwulf had never known them.
Alfred was allowed to remain in Kent, much to
Ethelbert's pleasure, but a little to his surprise.
Ethelbald had at first declared that the child should
live with him, his lawful guardian; but suddenly he had
checked himself, glanced at Judith, and yielded the
"As I am the boy's guardian, I shall pay him frequent
Before many weeks, Judith's natural gayety and
restlessness of disposition began to show itself.
There seemed no place for her in the court of
Ethelbert. He was kind and courteous, and apparently
glad of her presence, but her taste of power had made
her more restless than ever. She began to think that
she would go back to her father's court, when her
 were suddenly turned back into an old channel from
which they had seemed to have made their escape.
She was wandering about the skirts of the forest one
day in early summer, Alfred her attendant as usual.
"I am tired," said Judith. "We'll sit down on this log,
and I'll make you a crown of buttercups."
"Hilda made me a crown," said Alfred, "and then the
robbers came, and they tied Hilda and hurt her; but
they let me go, and didn't hurt me—"
"Oh!" exclaimed Judith, in a startled tone. Then
quickly recovering herself, she said with her most
"Do you wish anything of the queen of Kent?"
An old woman bowed humbly before her. She wore a robe
of dark brown or gray, so like the color of the trunks
of the trees that she had wound her way among them
without being seen until she was very near the queen
"The queen of Kent shall have a larger kingdom," she
muttered in a low monotone, while
 her eyes were apparently gazing far away and she was
making strange motions in the air with her fingers. The
light and the dark did not strive; but the dark won,
and the dark shall win."
There was something so uncanny in the woman's manner
that for once Judith was really frightened. She arose
and turned toward the palace, as if to summon aid. When
she looked back again, the woman had gone as
mysteriously as she had come.
Alfred had sat motionless during the interview, which
indeed had lasted scarcely three minutes. He said:—
"I do not like that woman, Judith. I want to go home."
They went toward the palace, both silent; but a spot of
red burned on Judith's cheeks, as little by little the
possible meaning of the old woman's speech came to her.
From the secret place where she kept her treasures, she
drew forth the bit of parchment and read:—
"One who admires her and would willingly—" Should she
remain in Kent, or return to her own land—or should she
defy the law of the church and the law of the land and
 the queen of the West Saxons? She stood gazing at the
bit of parchment when Alfred came to her.
"How does it say anything, Judith? Those queer marks
haven't any sound. How does it talk? Won't you tell me
how to hear it?"
"Yes, I will," said Judith. "I'll teach you to read and
to write, and we'll begin now," for she was glad to
have the matter out of her mind for even a little
From that time on for many days Alfred had his lesson
in reading and writing every morning. There is a fine
old English poem called "Judith," and it has been
that perhaps it was written in honor of this Judith's
coming to England, and that maybe this was the book
from which Alfred learned to read. It is the old story
of Judith and Holofernes, captain of the Assyrians.
Holofernes has subdued all the other people of the west
country. He is now besieging the town of the Israelites
and has gotten possession of their fountains of water.
The Israelites agree to wait five days for help, and
then, if the Lord does not aid them, they
 are determined to surrender. Judith sends for the
leaders of the people and tells them that they must not
limit God to five days, but must trust Him to save
them. Something in her manner gives them confidence,
and when she hints that she has thought of a way of
salvation, they ask no questions, but go away begging
her to pray for them.
Judith puts on her finest apparel and all her jewels
and makes her way to the camp of the heathen.
Holofernes is charmed with her beauty, and vows that he
will carry her home to be the wife of his king; but at
night, after a drunken revel, he falls into a stupor,
and Judith and her maid draw aside the curtain of his
tent, and Judith smites "twice upon his neck"; and the
next morning, when as usual they leave the camp of the
heathen to go out to pray, the maid carries in a basket
the head of Holofernes.
Great is the rejoicing when the people on the walls of
the beleaguered town see coming toward them "the maid
of the Lord." They rush forth to meet her; and possibly
these are the very lines whose complicated black
letters and beautifully illuminated capitals Alfred's
childish fingers may
 have traced in his efforts to "hear what the marks
The army rejoiced,
The people pressed to the fortress gate,
Women and men together; in crowds,
In multitudes, masses, they surged and they thronged,
Old men and young men running by thousands,
To meet the maid of the Lord; and the heart
Of every man in the city rejoiced
That Judith had come again to her homeland.
Straightway they flung wide the gates and gave welcome,
With reverence they bade her to enter the city.
Ethelbert was not quite sure that it was wise for his
little brother to learn to read and write, for his
father had known how to read, and had he not lost his
kingdom? but the child pleaded so earnestly, and
Judith's argument that a king ought to be able to sign
his name to state documents was so convincing, that he
yielded, and Alfred went on happily, to Judith's
pleasure as well as his.
But the question that was weighing so heavily upon
Judith returned again and again, and at last one who
knew of it might have guessed from the touch of
recklessness in her manner that it had been decided,
even before Ethelbald came to her for his brief and
 A stronger man than Ethelbald would have followed the
right way; a weaker man would have had many misgivings.
Ethelbald was not strong enough to do right, and he was
not weak enough to hesitate. In this, as in everything
else, he carried matters with a high hand. Before he
came to Judith, he had had a stormy interview with one
of his bishops. As he had raised the prelate to his
present position, the king had no doubt of his ability
to control his priest. With coat of mail and sword he
strode into the chamber of the bishop.
"I propose to wed Judith, queen of Kent," he said
"Such a marriage is against the custom of the land and
the law of the church," said the bishop firmly.
"Then I'll marry her without the custom of the land and
the law of the church," said Ethelbald.
"It was for breaking the law that your father lost his
kingdom," said the bishop.
"My father lost his kingdom because he was not strong
enough to hold it," said Ethelbald.
"Think you," asked
the bishop quietly, "that
 the king of the Franks would permit his daughter to wed
without the blessing of the church?"
"The king of the Franks has all that he can do to
remain king of the Franks," sneered Ethelbald. "He will
not interfere with the land of the West Saxons. But you
talk of breaking the laws of the church. Was it not
breaking her laws for a man to draw back after he had
begun to be a priest?"
"Your father had the dispensation of the Pope because
of the unforeseen needs of the kingdom," said the
"Very well," said Ethelbald, "get as many dispensations
as you like, and pay the price; endow a church if you
choose. One never knows what whim a woman may take into
her head, and if the fair Judith fancies a dispensation
instead of a jewel, it is the same to me; only it will
be a day late, for if the queen of Kent agrees, she
shall be queen of the West Saxons within a month, and
you shall say the words that make her my wife."
"Never," said the bishop firmly.
The king drew his sword. "Do you know that if I take
your life this moment, there is
 not one man in my kingdom who will dare call me to
"The life of the priest is at the service of the
church," said the bishop, glancing indifferently at
the drawn sword.
"So that's it, is it?" said Ethelbald. "Then the priest
may have his life, but he shall not have his church.
Promise me here upon the cross that when I bring to you
her who is to be queen of the West Saxons, you will say
over us the words that make her my wife and that you
will pronounce upon us the blessing of the church.
Refuse, and I swear to you here by my sword that before
the next coming of the new moon there shall not be a
church standing in the land of the West Saxons.
Choose." The bishop paled.
"I know whereof I speak," said Ethelbald. "There are
men in my pay who would burn a church as willingly as a
heap of brushwood." The bishop knew that this was true.
"Choose," thundered Ethelbald. The bishop sank
trembling upon a bench.
"I yield," he said. "I will say the words that make you
man and wife. The sin be
 mine; the churches are saved. Other men have given
their lives for the church; I have given my soul."
"You will pronounce the blessing of the church?"
persisted Ethelbald mercilessly.
"I will," said the bishop, as a deathly pallor spread
over his face.
"Here's your pay," said the king, tossing him a bag of
gold coins, a rarity in the Saxon kingdom. It fell upon
the floor. The bishop roused himself and gave the
little bag a most unbishoply kick out of the open door.
"Thy gold perish with thee," he whispered sharply, as
he sank back again on the bench. Ethelbald laughed.
"I like your pluck," said he. "It's a pity that you had
to give in, but I really don't see that you had any way
out of it."
As soon as the proposed marriage was known over the
kingdom, there was a stern wrath and indignation
manifested that would have warned a man far less keen
than the king that the utmost which even he dared
attempt was a quiet ceremony with none of the customary
feasting and rejoicing.
 Alfred was broken-hearted at losing Judith, and at last
Ethelbert sent for Swithin to try to comfort him. The
bishop told him as clearly as he could tell a child of
nine years that Judith had done what was wrong.
"You do not wish to live with a woman who would teach
you to do wrong, do you, Alfred?" the bishop questioned
"No," said Alfred, "but I want my Judith. I do want my
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics