| 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 king's business brooks no delay," said the bishop
to himself, as with the three men for guides he rode
through the streets of the city to the abiding place of
the king's messenger.
"A greeting to you, Wulfric," said the bishop, "bold
and trusty thegn of my king that I know you to be. What
brings you into so sad a plight?" for the thegn lay on
his bed and was evidently in great distress. Drops of
perspiration stood on his forehead, and his face was
drawn with suffering.
"Think not of me," said the thegn. "Do not lose a
moment. I fear that it is already too late. Osburga,
the wife of our king, is dying. Take the prince to her.
With that message am I sent."
"But what has come to the queen?" asked the bishop. "Is
it the grief from the parting?"
 "Yes," said the thegn. "She pined for the prince, and
faded so rapidly that the king sent me to intercept you
and give his command that you bring back the child to
"Where is your guard?" asked the bishop. "You are
"I came alone," answered the thegn. "My mother was one
of the Franks. I know the language of the peoples
through whose lands one must pass. I told the king that
I could make my way faster if I was alone, that I knew
footpaths and secret ways through the mountains where
one man might go, but not an armed troop."
"And to bring a child to his mother, you have come
alone where we scarcely ventured with a great guard of
"It was the will of the king," said the thegn simply,
"and all would have been well, had I not—and I was
but a few miles from your road—if I had only not been
taken by robbers, I should have met you; but that was
many days ago. They held me for a ransom. I begged for
only a few hours to meet you and give you my message,
but they laughed me to scorn. I could not wait for the
ransom; the king's business
 brooks no delay. I escaped. They caught me and tortured
me and left me for dead. I made my way here, I know not
how, and our own Saxons in Rome have cared for me most
tenderly. I shall die, but tell my king that I was
faithful to my trust."
The bishop's eyes were full. He bent low and kissed the
"My bishop!" the suffering man gasped in protest.
"To-morrow I shall come to you again," said the bishop.
"The prince cannot travel without rest. The king must
not lose both wife and child."
Scarcely was the bishop again on the street when there
was a great clattering of hoofs. He turned, and there
was a company of riders with the familiar Saxon dress
and weapons. The bishop's heart sank.
"If it was well with her," he thought, "there would be
The foremost of the riders dismounted, bowed himself
low before his bishop, and presented a bit of parchment
in a strong leather case. It read:—
 "Ethelwulf the king sends greeting to Swithin his
bishop, and bids him know that Osburga, the wife of the
king, is dead; and that it is the king's will that
Alfred the prince tarry in Rome until the king come to
The bishop was a good man of business as well as a
prelate, and it was but a short time before the prince
was comfortably established for a longer stay than they
had planned. Not until he had had many days of rest did
the bishop give him the message from his father. Then
very tenderly he told him that when he went home his
mother would not be there to meet him.
"But I was going to carry her the prettiest gift in
Rome," said he, his great blue eyes filling with tears,
"and now she won't have it."
"You can pray for her," said the bishop, taking the
child into his arms, "and that is better than any gift
in all Rome."
"But I wanted to carry her something," said the little
boy, and in spite of all the tender care and sympathy
of the bishop and Wynfreda, the little Saxon prince was
that night the saddest, loneliest child in Rome.
The Saxons were nominally guests of the Pope,
 Leo IV, and very soon came the first interview with him.
Leo was much pleased with the little boy who quietly
did just what he was told to in the formal ceremony of
his reception; and he was far more pleased when the child,
after a long look straight into his eyes, came up to him
fearlessly and laid his little hand in that of Pope.
"That is a child with the soul of a prince," said the
Pope. "Some day he will be a king, it needs no prophet
to foretell that there will turbulent days in that
stormy, harassed land of the Saxons. Perhaps he will
not wear his crown until long after I am gone, but no
hand save mine shall anoint him with the holy oil." And
so holy oil was brought, for Leo was not a man of delays
and postponements, and the child was anointed and blessed.
Then the Pope said, touching the jewel that hung at
"And what is this? Is it a relic?"
THEN THE POPE SAID . . . "AND WHAT IS THIS? IS IT A RELIC?"
"It is my Saint Cuthbert," said the boy. "My mother
gave it to me, and I was going to carry her the
prettiest thing in all Rome; but now I can't, because
she is dead." The Pope laid his hand tenderly on the
 "The Saxon prince comes nearer to my heart than any
other child has ever done," he said. "He has his
sponsors in baptism, but he shall have one more. I
hereby adopt him as my own spiritual son. I give him
the blessing of the Father of the Church, and I give
him the kiss of the tired old warrior whose heart he
has warmed with his childish trust," and the Pope bent
down and kissed the boy gently on the forehead.
Very little of this speech had Alfred understood, for
it had all been in Latin, but he had many questions to
ask about it, and Bishop Swithin tried to make him
comprehend the meaning of the ceremony. The next
morning he asked to be taken again to see "my Pope," as
he persisted in calling the warrior pontiff, but a
council of bishops was to be held in Rome, and it was
quite a long time before the Pope could be free to see
his little friend.
Month after month passed on, and Ethelwulf did not
come. He had hoped to start at once, but one trouble
after another in his kingdom prevented him from leaving
it. Meanwhile there was much to see in this great city
of Rome, the very centre of art and learning, and the
 passed swiftly. Soon after their arrival, Alfred had
noticed some men heavily chained who were working on
the rebuilding of the fortifications.
"My father's men do not wear chains," he said. "Why do
The bishop explained to him that just as the Danes
troubled England, so the Saracens, a people who lived
across the sea, had troubled Rome.
"They tore down the holy churches of Saint Peter and
Saint Paul," he said, "and robbed them. The sacred
pictures they ran through with their knives. The
precious stones were torn from the altar, and the
golden images and consecrated dishes were carried away
to serve in the land of the heathen."
"When the Danes came, my father and Ethelbald fought
them and drove them away," said Alfred. "Why didn't my
Pope drive them away?"
"He was not Pope then," said the bishop, "but just as
soon as he became Pope, and knew that they were coming
again, he built those two great towers that you can see
from the window, one on each bank of the Tiber, and he
stretched a heavy iron chain between them, so that the
fleet of the
 heathen Saracens could not come up the river. Then he
repaired the walls and put up new watch-towers. Before
long the Saracen fleet came, and the Pope's fleet went
out to meet them, and there was a great fight."
"We didn't fight when we saw the Danes," said Alfred.
"No," said the bishop. "We had prayed to God, and He
had sent the little worms of the sea to aid us. The
Pope's people, too, had prayed, and while they were
fighting, a strong wind arose, and the boats of the
heathen were separated. Some of them were dashed on the
rocks, and all the men were drowned; and some of the
men in the other boats were cast away on little islands
where there was nothing to eat, and they starved to
death; and many were driven on this coast and were
taken prisoners, and they are the men whom you saw in
chains. They tried to overthrow the Holy City, and now
it is their strength that is being used to rebuild it
and to fortify it so that no one shall ever be able to
come against it again."
"Is it where the high walls are that they are
building?" asked Alfred.
 "Yes," said the bishop, "in the Vatican quarter. They
call it the Leonine City, because the name of your Pope
is Leo. He has consecrated it to heaven so that no
wicked Saracens can ever prevail against it. A little
while before we came, he walked around the wall with
many bishops and all the Roman clergy, and sprinkled it
with holy water. They were barefooted and had ashes on
their heads. At each of the three gates they stopped
and prayed that heaven would bless the city, and save
it from the heathen men who hated it. Then, because
they wished everybody in Rome to be as happy as they
were, they gave away great sums of money to the people
that were there. To-morrow you shall go again to see
the new church of Saint Peter that is within the high
But when the next day came, a messenger arrived from
King Ethelwulf, bidding Swithin return at once to
England. The king was sad from the loss of his wife,
and longed to see his youngest and best-beloved son.
Had he read the will of heaven aright, he wondered?
Ought he to have sent the child to Rome to keep his
father's vow, even to save the boy from fancied
 danger? Was the death of his wife a punishment for
his neglect of duty? He was anxious and restless. He
would send for Swithin and the child to return to
England, and he would be separated no more from his
son, but would take Alfred with him and make his
pilgrimage to Rome even at this late day; and so it
was, that instead of going to Saint Peter's Church,
Alfred started on the long journey across the
mountains. The Pope had for many weeks been too ill to
see him, so that his little friend could give him no
It was a lonely time. The bishop was troubled. He was a
brave man, and a man of resources, but the care of a
delicate child on a second long and dangerous journey
was no light matter, and the great responsibilities
that awaited his arrival in England were enough to make
the most self-reliant man serious. He was much relieved
when, before they had travelled many hours, a second
messenger from the king met him.
"It is better," said the king, "for me to wait than
for the prince to make the journey twice. I bid you
leave him in a place of safety to
 await my coming, and do you make all haste to England."
And so Alfred was left with Wynfreda and a strong guard
of nobles, to wait for his father and to make a still
longer visit in Rome.
Swithin pushed on to England, and found King Ethelwulf
eagerly awaiting his arrival.
"My wife is gone, my child is across the sea and the
land," said he sadly. "I have done my best. The country
is no longer troubled by the Danish heathen. Surely now
I may give up the kingdom to younger hands, and spend
my last years in Rome, as did two of my ancestors."
This was what Swithin had feared. He must look for the
good of the church rather than for the happiness of the
king. If Ethelwulf gave up his kingdom, it would go
into the hands of Ethelbald, who was strong,
self-willed, and the only one of the king's sons whom
the bishop had never been able to influence. Ethelbald
cared nothing for the church, and under him it would
have neither gifts nor protection. Swithin thought
rapidly. Only the most perfect frankness would
influence this man, who, hesitating and sometimes weak
as he was in matters
relat-  ing to the government of his kingdom, was never weak or
hesitating in matters relating to truth.
"My king," he said, "the kingdom is free from the
enemy, but is the church free from her foes? The church
in Rome is cared for and protected, but does not the
church in England still need your care? Will you spend
your life in Rome that the church may give to you? or
will you remain in England that you may give to the
church? I counsel that you make the pilgrimage, and so
free your soul from the shadow of a vow, and then
return to aid the church in the country where God has
placed you, and among the duties that he has laid upon
As the bishop counseled, so it was. In the presence of
Swithin and another bishop, Ethelwulf signed a charter
freeing one-tenth of his lands from royal tribute and
devoting them to the service of the church, and set out
eagerly for Rome. The king of the Franks received him
with the greatest honors, and would have gladly kept
his royal guest for months, but Ethelwulf was too
anxious to reach Rome and to meet his favorite son
again to be willing to delay. He pressed on, and the
Frankish king could do
 nothing more than to give him his royal escort to the
boundary of the kingdom.
Alfred had come a day's journey to meet him, and now a
second time the little prince entered Rome, and this
time with his father.
"I want to show you my Pope," were the little boy's
first words as they entered the city; but the city was
draped with black, for the warrior Pope who had
defended it so bravely and wisely against its enemies
was dead, and every one mourned for him, none more
sincerely than the little Saxon boy and his father.
A few days later, a priest was quietly praying in his
church, when he was interrupted by the news that he had
been chosen as the successor of Leo IV. He begged with
tears to be released.
"The charge is too much for me," he said. "I am not
equal to it. I am not worthy," but in spite of all his
protests, he was carried to the Lateran Church and set
on the throne; and so it was that Ethelwulf and his son
became guests of Benedict III instead of Alfred's
friend, Leo IV.
Ethelwulf's generosity, if nothing more, would have
made him a most welcome visitor, for he
 brought to the Pope gifts that were indeed worthy of a
king. There was a crown of pure gold, four pounds in
weight, a sword with golden hilt, dishes of gold and of
silver set with jewels, many priestly vestments, among
them costly stoles with borders of gold and purple, and
robes of white samite heavily embroidered with gold and
One whole year he spent in Rome, and there seemed to be
no limit to his benefactions. He gave gold and silver
to Saint Peter's Church, and made generous presents to
both clergy and nobles and to the common people.
Accustomed as the Romans were to the lavishness of
royal pilgrims and to their presence in the Roman
streets, these former visitors were quite outshone by
this sovereign of a far-away country, who could not
speak their language, and whose very name they could
There had been in Rome for many years a school to
educate Saxon priests, but this had been burned.
Ethelwulf rebuilt it and endowed it. He was not
satisfied with his present gifts, but promised one
hundred marks a year to the Pope, and the same sum to
the church of Saint
 Peter, and also to Saint Paul's, to provide oil for the
lamps for Easter even and Easter morning.
This church of Saint Peter was the jewel of Rome.
Protected by the mighty walls of the Leonine City,
forty feet in height, it was a treasure-house of all
that was rich and costly. Leo had covered the altar
with plates of gold, flashing and flaming with precious
stones. A silver crucifix was set with amethysts and
diamonds, and a golden cross with pearls, opals, and
emeralds. There were priceless vases and censers and
chalices set with many jewels. There were lamps hung by
silver chains ending in golden balls, and there were
reading desks of wrought silver. Heavy tapestry in dim,
rich colors hung at the doors and on the columns. The
priests had vestments of silk and of purple velvet
embroidered with gold thread and blazing with precious
stones. Ethelwulf, as well as Alfred, had been
accustomed to nothing more grand than the English
cathedral at Winchester, and this, with the river
flowing gently down the valley, the woods all around
the little town, and the green hills looking down upon
it, seemed like a quiet country chapel in comparison
magnifi-  cence of Saint Peter's in its rich setting of the great Roman
city with its towers and churches and monasteries, and
its hills crowned with lordly castles.
It was a happy year for the king. He was free from the
cares of a turbulent kingdom, which had always been
irksome to him. He could spend long hours at his
prayers in the churches richly adorned with the gifts
of believers, until he could almost fancy that he had
at last entered upon the convent life for which he had
longed, and forget that he must ever again take up the
duties of his kingdom.
But Bishop Swithin was sending him messages that the
country needed its king, and at last he reluctantly
turned his steps northward to find himself at the
Frankish court. Its glitter and its gayeties were at
first almost a shock to his highly wrought feelings;
but after a little, the very contrast aroused and
interested him, and yielding to the urgent invitation
of Charles the Bald, he lingered month after month.
Next to Rome, this Frankish capital, with the influence
of Charlemagne still upon it, was the centre of all
culture and the home of all magnificence.
 Alfred had hoped to find a little boy like Ekhard, but
he forgot his disappointment when he met the king's
eldest daughter. She was just about the age that
Ethelswitha had been at her marriage. The little
brother had missed his sister sorely, and he could
almost fancy in meeting Judith that Ethelswitha had
come back to him, only she had been quiet and gentle,
while this Judith was never twice the same. Sometimes
she would put on all the airs of a great lady and
insist upon his imitating the manners of some dignified
courtier, and then in the midst of all the mock
formality, she would suddenly seize his hand, gather up
her long skirts, and away they would run down the
corridors in a merry race. Even more wonderful than
Ekhard, the boy that had seen a battle, was this
fascinating Judith, always changing, never twice in
the same mood, but always kind to him.
While Alfred was so happy, his father was troubled, for
he knew in the bottom of his heart that he ought to
return to his kingdom. The Danes had spent the winter
on the island of Sheppey, and the country needed its
king. Still he delayed to leave this stately court,
 whose ways were so congenial to him. Into the midst of
his meditating came one day his little son, who had
evidently been meditating too in his small way. He
"Father, I like Judith."
"Yes," said the king, rather absently, "she seems to be
a merry, agreeable young girl."
"Shall we go home to Wessex again after we have been
here longer?" The king started; the child seemed to
have read his thoughts.
"Yes," he said slowly.
"Then can't Judith go too? Will you ask her father?"
Like most people who waver and hesitate over lesser
affairs, Ethelwulf often decided weighty matters with a
rather astonishing haste. Ever since he left England he
had dreaded to return to the lonely palace from which
he had fled. Would it not be easier to return if he
could take with him this merry, lighthearted young
girl? Before nightfall he had asked the Frankish king
for the hand of his daughter in marriage.
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