| 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 |
ING CHARLES had no objections to bring forward. Offers
of marriage from sovereigns were rare. England was in
a troubled state, but in no worse condition than his
own country. The consent of the girl herself was hardly
asked, but at any rate, she showed no opposition. The
betrothal was announced, and in three months the
wedding was celebrated with all the pomp and splendor
that even the Frankish court could command.
One thing the father of the bride had insisted upon—that
she should be crowned queen of the Saxons. At that
Ethelwulf hesitated. Long before this time the West
Saxons had been aroused to wrathful indignation by the
ill conduct of the wicked Queen Eadburga, and ever
since the first year of the reign of King Egbert,
father of Ethelwulf, it had been a law among them that
no woman should be crowned. The
 royal consort was called the king's wife, not the
queen, and she was forbidden to sit beside her husband
on the royal seat. Then he remembered that Osburga had
often been addressed as queen, and apparently no
resentment had been aroused, and with his natural
carelessness of ills that were in the future, he
suffered the archbishop of Rheims to place the crown of
the West Saxons on the head of Judith.
Alfred was very happy when he was told that Judith was
to go home with him, but the matter of the marriage was
something of a mystery, and when Wynfreda asked him:—
"Have you kissed your new mother?" and led him up to
Judith, he said gravely:—
"Judith is my sister; she's my sister for always, and
she says she won't ever go away from me as Ethelswitha
did;" and Judith, the careless, trivial girl, who had
willingly married a man four times her age that she
might become a queen, forgot her new crown and her
coronation robes, and gave her little stepson a kiss of
genuine affection that promised well for her kindness
to him, whatever her behavior to others might be.
 The wedding festivities were hardly over when a message
came to Ethelwulf from his faithful bishop. It was but
these few words:—
"O king, if you would still have a kingdom, return to
it." Judith, who had the curiosity of a child to see
her new domain and an ambition which made her wiser
than the king, urged their departure, and they set sail
Some time before this, there had been a long
conversation between Ethelbald and Alstan, the soldier
bishop of Sherborne, who thirty years before had
marched with Ethelwulf at the head of the army into
Kent. It was perhaps chiefly owing to Alstan's good
advice that Ethelwulf had been able to govern Kent in
such a manner as to satisfy his father that he would be
able to rule the West Saxons; and all through his
reign, while he sought Swithin in religious matters, it
was to Alstan that he turned with all questions of
practical government. It is this old friend and adviser
of the king who now sits in the council chamber of
Ethelbald, his keen gray eyes bent upon the ground.
Ethelbald looked at him rather impatiently. Then he
 "Have you anything to say?"
"Much," said the bishop curtly. "You tell me that you,
the eldest son of our king, you who have been trusted
with the kingdom during his absence on a holy
"And haven't I ruled it well?" broke in Ethelbald, as
the bishop hesitated for a moment.
"You have ruled your father's people well; but now you
would be faithless to your trust, you would even by
force of arms hold the kingdom regardless of the duty
that you owe to your father and king."
"That's the speech of a priest," sneered Ethelbald;
"that comes from the cloister and the cowl, and not
from the man who has marched at the head of an army. I
hold this kingdom. I have ruled it well. It is my
birthright. One Judith made trouble enough in the land
of the Franks. It is a fated name, and shall it come
into this land to work misery and overthrow for us too?
Shall I be thrust out of my birthright by children of
this second marriage?"
"That could hardly be," said the bishop. "The church—"
 "Yes, the church would do as it did in the Frankish
land," said Ethelbald. "It would stand by the children
of the second marriage. Lands that had even been
already assigned to the older sons were taken back to
make a patrimony for the child of the interloper, and
the church had no word of protest."
"Your brothers—" began the bishop, but Ethelbald
"Yes, I know all that. You would say that my brothers
would stand by me. I know, too, that I am strongest of
them all. Ethelbert and Ethelred would nod when I
nodded. Alfred is a child. My father always loved him
best. If it was not too deep a scheme for my father to
have in hand, I should think that all this sending the
boy to Rome and this foolishness of the anointing was
meant to give him a hold on the kingdom before us who
"I have it from those who were present that it was the
Pope's own thought," said the bishop.
"I've nothing against the child," said Ethelbald, his
voice softening a little in spite of himself, "and,
moreover, if my father were to die to-night, I would
take the boy, if I had to
 fight for him, and I would treat him well, and have him
taught what a prince ought to know."
"To be false to his father?" said the bishop, looking
fixedly into the young man's eyes.
"I tell you there's no falseness about it. I have in my
hands what ought to come to me in a few years at most;
and to prevent its being stolen from me I hold on to
it. I'll tell you more, bishop. Three days ago, in the
forest of Selwood, some forty people met. There were
nobles, and there were even some of your own churchmen.
Do you want to know what they did? I will tell you.
Every man there, be he noble or priest, every man laid
his hand on mine and swore by the cross at the hilt of
my sword that he would stand by me in my rights. Take
that and think upon it; and I'll tell you one thing
more, I shall be at the head of this kingdom, and if
you and your church want any care or protection from me
in the days to come, do you stand by me now," and he
strode away, leaving his guest to make his way out as
best he might.
The bishop rode slowly away. The shadows began to
lengthen; still he rode on, meditating,
 trying to think what was best to be done. He well knew
the disposition of Ethelwulf, that with peace and
freedom from care, he would be satisfied. He would give
his life to prayer and penance. The loss of his kingdom
might be to the gain of his soul. Then it was true that
Ethelbald's rule in these months of his regency had
been just, though severe. He had ruled by fear rather
than with his father's gentle sway, but he had ruled
justly and firmly. Was it not true that a king who had
left his kingdom, who had taken the money needed in his
own land and wasted it in Rome—but here the bishop
checked his thought, crossed himself, and said:—
"He did not need to dally in the Frankish court. Save
for that, all might have been well. Then too, he, the
king, has broken the law of his kingdom. Since the days
of the wicked woman whose name may not be spoken among
us, no woman may be crowned queen of the West Saxons.
There is reason—"
"If your reverence would only turn the horse a bit away
from the tuft of grass, my setting of eggs would not be
spoiled," said a shrill voice
 in a tone half-way between scolding and entreating;
but it was too late. The bishop's horse had prevented a
whole nestful of embryo chickens from ever taking their
proper place in the world.
The bishop aroused himself. Where was he? He had
wandered far from his road, and now it was late in the
afternoon. He made his apologies to the woman who owned
the eggs, and added weight to his words by the gift of
a silver penny. She was volubly grateful, but he hardly
heard her thanks, for he was thinking:—
"It is the hand of some saint that has led me out of my
way. This hut is on the road to Winchester." He turned
to the woman.
"Have you a stout son whom you could send to Sherborne
to say that I am gone to Winchester?" he asked, for he
had come to a sudden conclusion; he would go to
Winchester and discuss this matter with Swithin; for
warrior as he was, Alstan had much respect, even in
worldly matters, for the unworldly simplicity of
thought of his brother bishop.
It was late in the night when he reached Winchester.
Swithin was keeping a vigil before the
 altar. With almost a touch of impatience, Alstan broke
in upon his devotions:—
"It is good to pray, but the time has come when we must
think and perhaps fight." Then he told him of his
interview with Ethelbald.
"I feared," said Swithin, "that it would come to this,
and ten days ago I sent a swift messenger to Ethelwulf.
I cannot think that the king will delay longer. But
come away to a place where we can be free from
interruption, and discuss what is best to do for the
church in this troublous time."
"We must plan not only for the good of the church,"
said the bishop who had been at the head of an army.
"The weight of the best good of the kingdom and of the
king is thrown upon us."
While this conversation was going on, Ethelwulf,
Judith, and Alfred, and their train of warriors and
nobles were on their way to England. Their retinue was
even longer and more brilliant than it had been at
Ethelwulf's first coming, for large numbers of the
Frankish nobles followed them to the sea to do honor to
the young princess and her royal husband.
 The king was silent and troubled; he dreaded the
responsibilities of the kingdom, and wished only for
quiet and peace, and freedom from the cares that were
so wearisome to him. Judith and Alfred were in high
spirits, behaving like the two children that they were,
until Judith would suddenly remember that she was
queen of the West Saxons, and would demand that Alfred
should show her the reverence due to a queen. Then
Alfred would doff his little cap, and bending low
before her with his fair hair blowing in the wind,
would repeat the words that she had taught him:—
THEN ALFRED WOULD DOFF HIS LITTLE CAP, AND . . . WOULD REPEAT THE WORDS SHE HAD TAUGHT HIM.
"Fair lady, princess of the Franks and queen of the
West Saxons, I do faithfully avow my—" but rarely
would she allow him to go even so far, before the queen
in her would vanish, and again they were two children
When they landed, there was a large company assembled
to greet them. The rich waved banners, and the poor
waved branches of oak or of evergreen. There were harps
and horns and tabors and drums and trumpets; and best
of all, there were great shouts of welcome. Alstan had
thought it wiser to remain in Wessex to delay, if
 he could not prevent, any uprising of the party of
Ethelbald; but Swithin was the first to greet the king
as he stepped from the boat.
"Welcome, most royal king and master," said the bishop.
"Greeting to you, the beloved master and teacher of the
king," said Ethelwulf.
The bishop bowed low before Judith and said:—
"A fitting welcome to the fair princess of the land of
the Franks, the wife of our king."
"I am the queen of the West Saxons," said Judith,
drawing herself up proudly.
The bishop's face paled. "May I beg in all humbleness—" he began, but Judith turned haughtily away.
Alfred would wait no longer to greet his old friend,
and he whispered in the bishop's ear:—
"It's my Judith. She's going to be my sister and stay
with me always."
Horses were in waiting, and the royal party rode to the
king's palace. The shouts of welcome continued, and the
long lines of people that followed them still waved
their banners and their green branches; but Swithin was
watching keenly, and here and there in the crowd he saw
 set or a look of dull anger, or a stern and fixed gaze
bent sullenly upon the king and his new wife, and once
he heard a voice that said:—
"That gold would have rebuilt our city and protected us
from the heathen;" and another responded:—
"It is not so hard to find a king that will keep the
laws. One need not go far."
After the king had withdrawn into the palace, these
speeches became more frequent. The bishop fancied that
he could trace men going about in the crowd with a word
to this man and to that. He fancied that brows became
more lowering, and that an expression of dull, slow
anger was spreading over many faces. He turned sadly
toward the palace. A man mounted on a swift horse drew
rein suddenly, peered into the bishop's face, flung
himself from his horse, and said:—
"Bishop Swithin, the friends of Ethelbald and those
that still remain loyal to the king are to meet in
Saint Paul's to-morrow directly after the service."
And so, after Ethelwulf had offered up in the cathedral
his thanks for his safe return, there was a meeting of
men loyal to their king and men
 eager to keep Ethelbald on the throne. In spite of all
the boasts of Ethelbald, he dared not defy the
authority of the church; and the bishops, realizing
that the complaint of the West Saxons had just cause,
dared not defy the increasing power of Ethelbald. The
end of it all was that the two bishops were sent to
announce to Ethelwulf the decision of the council, that
Wessex at least must remain in the hands of Ethelbald.
Swithin's eyes were fixed upon the king as Alstan told
him that it was only by flame and bloodshed that he
could hope to remain ruler of the West Saxons. Even the
two bishops who had known Ethelwulf from his childhood
were not prepared for what followed, for the king sank
upon his knees and said:—
"I thank Thee that my prayer is answered, and that I
may be free from the worldly anxieties of the ruler of
a kingdom;" but Judith, who had insisted upon being
present and sitting on the royal seat beside the king,
stamped her foot in an almost childish rage and cried
"But I am a queen, and I will not give up my kingdom.
Fight! Kill those stupid men who would dare to hold it
from me," and the
child-  queen burst into tears. Alfred had slipped in
"Don't cry, Judith," he pleaded. "If my brother
Ethelbald has a kingdom, I'll ask him to let you be
Ethelwulf was only too ready to compromise; indeed, he
would have been glad to be rid of the kingdom
altogether. It was settled that Ethelbald should remain
ruler of the West Saxons, and that Ethelwulf should
rule over Kent and the lands adjoining.
"And shall I be queen of Kent?" asked Judith, to whom
the wide territories of Wessex and the rather scanty
boundaries of the eastern districts were only a name.
The people of Kent had been ruled over by Ethelwulf in
his youth, and they remembered and loved the gentle,
kind-hearted king, and welcomed him most sincerely.
They had no law against the king's wife being called
the queen, so that for the time being Judith's ambition
was satisfied. The king was even happier than he would
have been in Rome, for now that he was really
performing the duties of a sovereign, though on so
small a scale as not to be wearisome, he had
 no haunting thoughts that he was neglecting the work
that it belonged to him to do.
Never did king lose his kingdom so joyfully. He was
free for long hours in the church. He could hear as
much singing of psalms as he chose, and to the
Anglo-Saxon taste, that was an almost unlimited amount.
The singing of psalms in generous measure was an
important part, not only of the church service, but
also of private devotions. If a man was bound to fast
for a day, he might instead sing the one hundred and
nineteenth psalm six times. In return for Ethelwulf's
gift of lands on his departure for Rome, the churches
at Winchester and Sherborne were bound to sing fifty
psalms every week "on the day of Mercury, that is
Wednesday," for the good of the king's soul. Nor was
this singing unaccompanied, for, if we may trust the
old records, "Whole pipes of copper being winded by
bellows, and furnished with proper stops and keys, sent
forth a most loud and ravishing music that was heard at
a great distance."
Ethelwulf was in a dream of happiness. He forgot that
either Judith or Alfred had any claims upon him, and
they were left to amuse
 each other as best they might. Alfred was fond of
telling Judith of his brothers, especially of
Ethelbald, who had so impressed his imagination because
he was the only one of them that had seen a real
One day there was a great winding of horns and a
trampling of horses' feet on the road that led to the
royal palace in Kent.
"It is the horn of King Ethelbald of the West Saxons,"
was whispered half timidly about the palace. Ethelwulf
was at church, but Judith had quickly arrayed herself
in her richest robes and had taken her place on the
royal seat when Ethelbald was ushered in.
A tall man of large frame, with dark complexion and
keen, dark eyes bowed half mockingly before her; then,
after a quick glance at her face, he bent on one knee
to kiss her hand, and said:—
"Ethelbald, king of the West Saxons, bows before the
beautiful queen of the kingdom of Kent—and, by my
faith, I never saw so fair a face," he added boldly.
Judith manifested no anger at the impertinent
familiarity. The boldness of Ethelbald was more to her
taste than the
 quiet courtesy of Ethelwulf, and when he said, "Such
beauty as this should rule over a wider realm than the
narrow limits of Kent and Surrey, it would best grace a
queen of the West Saxons, but there is no other face
like it," even then she was not angry, but pleased that
the stern Ethelbald had yielded so easily to her
"Ethelbald likes Judith," said Alfred to his father.
"He told her she ought to be queen of the West Saxons,
but you won't let her go, will you?"
"No," said the king, absently; and added: "There is to
be a course of one hundred psalms chanted to-morrow
morning in the church for the welfare of the country.
It may some day be deserted by men and beasts, and
while we may, it is fitting that we should offer up
sacrifices for it and for the many good men that have
given their lives in its service. Will you bring Alfred
to the church, Judith?"
"Yes," said Judith as absently, for her thoughts were
far away with the man who had not only stolen his
father's kingdom, but who, as he rode away, had dared
to toss a kiss to the bride of his rightful king.
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