| 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 |
"I MUST SERVE MY PEOPLE"
HEN Alfred was told of the massacre, he was cut to the
heart. "It is my own men of Kent," he said. "If I
could only have been with them!" Then he remembered and
understood Swithin's lament when Winchester was sacked
and burned, "My people, O my people!" "What can I do
for my people?" the boy questioned. The thought pressed
too heavily upon him. He could not be still; he must go
somewhere, do something. A company was just starting
for the woods to hunt; he caught up a spear and
galloped after them.
It was not safe to go any distance into the forest
alone, but before long Alfred had left his companions
far behind him. On and on he rode. Deer sprang away
before him, but his bow hung idle. Wolves howled
faintly in the distance, only waiting for twilight to
make their attack,
 but he did not even grasp his sword the more firmly.
Faster and faster he went, realizing nothing of his
whereabouts until between the trees he caught a glimpse
of a little village. He was in no mood to meet people
and receive the homage that they would pay him as their
favorite prince. He checked his horse and sought a
roundabout way to avoid the villagers. Only one did he
meet, and that one far from the houses, an old woman
wandering aimlessly about. She was bent and bowed and
almost blind, but worse than all that, Alfred saw at a
glance that she was afflicted with all the horrors of
leprosy. The sickly white of her skin, the ghastly
ravages of the disease—it was more than the young
prince in his highly excited mood could bear. He
spurred his horse and went on faster than ever.
"To be like that," he gasped, "to be a horror and a
dread to my people! I could not bear it. Anything but
that! The pain is nothing." But even as he spoke, the
suffering of the disease that no one could understand
or lessen came suddenly upon him. He slipped from his
horse and lay on the ground only half
 conscious, but saying to himself over and over again:—
"Anything but that, anything but that!"
The pain disappeared as suddenly as it came, and he
looked around him. He was alone. His horse was quietly
feeding near by and came at his call. He was on the
outskirts of the village. Not far away, at the edge of
the rocky valley, was a tiny church, and into it Alfred
made his way, staggering from weakness. A single priest
was at the altar. The prince knelt reverently. When the
prayer was over, he approached the priest.
"I am Alfred the prince," he said. "Will you send some
one to care for my horse, and will you leave me here
all night? I must be alone." The priest bent low before
"The blessing of the church be upon you, and the God of
the church be with you," he said as he closed the door.
The prince was alone. He flung himself before the
"Anything but that," he prayed, "anything but that! My
people would scorn me. I must serve my people. Any
pain, any suffering, but let me help my people. Give me
 Give me wisdom, not for myself, but for my people."
Long the prince pleaded; then he slept, soundly and
sweetly, even on the hard floor before the altar.
It was morning when he awoke. The day was bright and
sunny. His heart was at rest. He knew not what lay
before him, but he believed that his prayer would be
answered. In that night Alfred had left his boyhood
behind him. He was a man, and the cares and burdens of
a man were pressing nearer to him than he knew.
He rode slowly through the forest, breathing in the
freshness of the early morning, stopping for a moment
to enjoy the plashing and gurgling of every tiny
brook, seeing every ray of sunlight that beamed softly
down through the branches upon a bed of green moss, or
brought out the rich golden brown of some pool lying
sleepily under the trees. He felt himself a man. He
knew that dangers and responsibilities lay before him,
but he felt strong to encounter them.
As he rode up to the palace, his brother met him.
 "I have been a little anxious about you, Alfred," he
said. "It is not your wont to stay away so long."
"No, it is not," said Alfred. "I will not do it again.
I did not remember that you might be alarmed," and,
indeed, he had felt so full of responsibility that he
had forgotten that any one might feel responsible for
"I was in the little village far to the west of us," he
said. "I spent the night alone in the church." The king
looked a little troubled but he said only:—
"Bishop Alstan has been asking for you. He wishes to
"He is not ill?" asked the prince quickly.
"No, but he is very feeble. We cannot hope to have him
with us long. He has done his work nobly and rest is
good. Rest is good," repeated the king a little
wearily, and as Alfred looked at him, he was struck by
the worn look on his pale face.
"You are tired," he said. "I wish that I could help
"You do help me," said the king, laying his hand on the
prince's shoulder, "and the thought
 of you rests me. It will make it easier to lay down the
heavy burden when the time of freedom comes. But now go
and find the bishop."
Alfred rode away a little saddened, but feeling himself
even more of a man because of his older brother's trust
and his rare words of affectionate confidence.
It was not the way of the soldier bishop to make long
preambles to what he had to say, and after a brief
welcome he began:—
"I have known your brothers, your father, and your
grandfather. I have watched the sons of Ethelwulf from
their childhood. King Ethelbert will not have a long
life; the feeble old bishop may live longer than he.
Where will the kingdom fall? Into the hands of
Ethelred, trembling and uncertain as they are. I could
overthrow his claims even now. Weak and worn as I am,
there are strong arms ready to do my bidding; but to
thrust him from the throne would be to arouse a party
in his favor, and the kingdom must not be divided. No,
it is best that he should be king, but the real power
must rest in your hands. Do you fear to accept it?"
"I will do the best that I can for my people.
 What is for their good shall ever be first with me,"
said the prince solemnly.
"That is good," said the old man, gazing keenly into
the eyes of the youth. "I believe that you will keep
your word. There is a new manliness in your face, a
something that I have not seen there before. You are a
boy in years, but you have the heart of a man and some
of the man's wisdom."
"I am enough of a man to value your advice," said
Alfred. "If I should ever—if the time comes of which
you speak, what ought I to do?"
"First of all," said the bishop in a low, clear voice,
"you must demand of Ethelred your share of the property
left by your father. If he yields it to you, matters
will be easier; but I think he will not yield. He has a
vague idea that in some way, if he only holds on to it,
he can give more to the church. That one thought is
firmly fixed in his mind, and he will not understand
that to give even to the church money and lands that
belong to another will bring no blessing. If he
refuses, you can do no more, for you must stand
together. It is a difficult position for even a man of
experience. You must be the power in the
 kingdom, but you must act only as your brother's agent,
or at least seem to do so.
"There is one word more. I have been something of a
soldier in my time. There will be fighting in our
land, worse than has ever been before. When our people
came, they drove the Britons to the westward till they
took refuge in the wildest mountain fastnesses of
Wales; and I have feared lest the Danes in time soon to
come drive us too from our homes to some other place,
perhaps across the water to the land that is beyond the
country of the Cambrians. Now that my arm is feeble, I
see what we need. All that will save us is union. Two
men together have the strength of three separately,
but we are separated. When Kent is ravaged, we are glad
it is not Wessex; and when Winchester is sacked, the
men of Kent rejoice that they have escaped. That has
been our mistake. You must try to make each division of
your kingdom feel that what hurts any one part hurts
all. Unite, if you would save your country. Unite, if
you would have a country to save." The old man sank
back wearied. The prince bent low and kissed his hand
"My bishop and my soldier," he said, "of all that has
been said to me I will take heed."
 "The boy has the mind of a man," murmured the bishop,
"for he can listen; and he has the heart of a king,
for he can obey. The land is safe in his hands. Mine
eyes have seen its salvation. I may depart in peace."
Ethelbert worked with a feverish eagerness to prepare
his men for fighting. Night and day the forges were
aglow, and at any hour the king was likely to come in
upon the workmen and even to take a hand in the work
himself to teach them some better way that he had
learned or invented.
Ethelred paid little attention to the preparations
that were going on around him. The Danes were not in
sight, why then fear their coming? Perhaps they would
not come at all. So he reasoned, and went on with his
usual occupations, while Alfred was taking his place
in aiding the king in his efforts. He had gained much
that was of practical value from his reading, and he
was quick to see the better way of doing a thing. The
king was most grateful for the help and interest of his
younger brother. He worked more eagerly than ever, till
one day his over-tasked strength gave way. There was no
disease, or at least none that the primitive medical
 the time could discover. He simply grew weaker day by
day, and it was not long before he, too, was laid in
The grief throughout the land was most sincere, for
Ethelbert was loved and respected; and while Ethelred
had no enemies, all who came near him had learned to
fear his weakness in important matters and his
occasional obstinacy in trifles. Many looked upon the
younger brother, and wished that he, even with his lack
of years and of experience, might be placed upon the
throne. This feeling went no further than words,
however, both because Alstan's wishes were powerful
among them, and because even the most restless feared
the trouble that would follow division and rivalry. Yet
it is hard to say what might have been the result, had
not Alfred invariably discouraged any suggestion that
he should take the first place. Whatever he did, he did
in the name of Ethelred. "My brother, the king," was
always his authority.
But the time had come when, if he obeyed the words of
Alstan, he must formally demand his share of the
inheritance. It must be in the presence of the king's
council, and there it was that
 with nobles and thegns looking on he laid his claim
before the king.
"King Ethelred, my brother," he said, "it is now six
years since you and I willingly laid our possessions
into the hand of Ethelbert that his stronger arm might
guard them for us. They have now passed into your
hands. It is right that I should receive what my father
wished me to have; and it is only fitting that the
crown prince should have lands and treasures of his own
that he may the better learn to care for the larger
interests that may one day come to him. I ask you for
my share of the possessions left by my father."
The counselors nodded their approval, and the keen eyes
of Alstan fairly shone with pleasure at the quiet
dignity of the young prince's speech.
In great contrast with this was the somewhat confused
reply of Ethelred. It was to the effect that some of
the property had come directly from their father, some
through Ethelbald and Ethelbert; that some lay in
Wessex, some in Kent; that there had been changes in
value because of the ravages of the Danes; that some of
it was to be divided between them, while some belonged
to himself alone; and that if Alfred would be
con-  tent until his death, he would then leave all to
him, both what belonged to them jointly and any that
he, Ethelred, might afterward acquire.
The counselors looked grave. Here and there one
involuntarily put his hand on his sword. There was a
murmur of disapproval, but here and there was an
answering murmur of satisfaction.
"The prince should have his own," whispered one.
"Better that it should stay in one man's hands," said
"The prince would give its revenues for the defense of
the kingdom—" but Ethelred was asking the formal
"Are you content?" and Alfred with one glance at the
varying expressions on the faces of the counselors
before him, said quietly:—
"I am content."
Wise, indeed, was Alstan in counseling peace and union
between the two brothers, whatever might betide, for
never was there a time when variance between members of
the royal family would have wrought more of harm to the
Saxons. Up to this time the Danish invaders had been
roving bands of marauders, cruel because their
 nature and training led to cruelty, but with no special
determination to torture and to kill. They burned and
demolished with no particular malice toward the owners
of the land that they ravaged and the property that
they destroyed, but simply because they felt a fiendish
delight in destruction and ruin. An invasion of a far
different nature was soon to take place, one that would
require all Ethelbald's strengthening of defenses, all
Ethelbert's making of weapons and training of men, and
all of Alfred's young strength together with a wisdom
far beyond his years, before the island should become
in reality England, Angleland, the land of the Angles.
For many years the name most feared by the men of
northeastern England was that of Ragnar Lodbrog. He was
no common marauder. His mother was a Danish princess,
his father a Norwegian of high rank. He himself had
sat on the throne of the Danish islands. A rival king
had driven him from his kingdom, but soon had to beg
for aid from the Franks against Lodbrog's increasing
power, for the deposed king was worshiped by the
island chieftains who had become his followers.
 They had reason to look up to him. He was a king; his
mother had been of royal birth; his father had risen to
the highest position by his own merits. He was a man of
talent, and this talent was not wholly uncultivated. Of
all the Baltic countries, Denmark was nearest the
Frankish kingdom, and he had received as much
education as his wild nature could accept. When he set
forth, therefore, on his career of piracy, his name
carried with it a certain repute that attracted to him
the boldest of the nobles; and it was not long before
the sound of that name would make men tremble, not only
on the shores of the Baltic and in England, but also in
France, and perhaps even on the Mediterranean coasts.
He was a plunderer and a robber, but plundering and
robbery were regarded by the Danes as a noble
occupation. To stay at home, to live on the treasure of
one's fathers, that was humiliation, and the son that
was chosen to be the heir was looked upon with a
certain pity. To go out upon the ocean and fight one's
way with the sword, that was honor, that was worthy of
a man descended even from the great gods themselves.
Most of the other Danish pirates gave
them-  selves with a reckless confidence to the chances of
the sea, landing wherever the winds and the waves bore
them; but the exploits of Lodbrog gained a certain
dignity from the fact that his invasions always had a
definite object, that he set out on no journey without
a definite destination. In revenge for the aid that the
Franks had given to his rival, he sailed up the Seine
to destroy Paris. The people heard of his coming and
fled in terror. He began to demolish the city, but
after he had torn down one monastery, the king bribed
him with a gift of seven thousand pounds to depart.
The scene of his next exploits was to be the British
islands. He was successful in ravaging parts of
Scotland and Ireland; and now he planned a greater
expedition than any one before him had undertaken. He
would land on the coast of Northumbria, rich in
convents with their accumulated treasures, and he would
bring home such a load of gold and silver and jewels as
never boat had carried before.
He built two great vessels, larger than any that had
ever been seen in the Danish waters. From far and near,
people came to look upon the
won-  derful things, and to predict the mighty deeds that
would be done in the land of the Angles. Nobles and
chieftains begged for a chance to go with him who had
become the pride of their land. He might easily have
been made their king if he had chosen, but he scorned
the land save as a repository for his treasure; his
kingdom was the sea.
The bravest men of Denmark were suppliants before him;
he had only to choose. The night before they set sail
there was a great feast. Bonfires blazed and flashed
their light from island to island, until the narrow
straits glowed with the reflection of the flame. Songs
of heroes and of gods were chanted, war-poems "with a
sword in every line." Last of all came the song that
they believed was written by Odin himself:—
We ourselves also die;
But the fair fame never dies
Of him who has earned it."
The day of their starting was wild and stormy, just
such a time as the Danish pirates liked; and
 exulting as if the victory was already won, they passed
out into the North Sea. The wind was from the east, and
they had an almost straight course. All went well until
they were near the land; then came conflicting winds
and currents. With their light boats, they would have
been at ease, but they knew nothing of navigating the
unwieldy monsters that had been the pride of the Danish
land. The vessels were wrecked, and they were thrown
helpless upon the coast of their enemies.
In a free combat the Danes had, man for man, no
superiority over the Saxons. Danish victories had been
due to the quickness of their movements, to the
unexpectedness of their arrivals, and to their rapidity
in striking a sudden blow and then retreating before
their opponents could gather together. In this
instance, there was warning of their approach; they
could not move so rapidly as the Saxons who knew the
ground, and they had no way of retreating. It was
hopeless from the first, but the proud king would not
beg for mercy, and he could hardly have expected to
receive it, if he had humbled himself to ask it.
Ella, king of Deira, marched against him.
 There was a fierce combat, for the Danes fought like
men who must put all their force into one blow, and the
Saxons like men who had but one chance to avenge the
most bitter wrongs. Four times Lodbrog dashed through
the lines of Ella; four times he was thrust back. His
friends were slain one by one, and he himself was
captured. One could hardly expect King Ella to be
magnanimous, but the death that he decreed for his
royal prisoner, the idol of Denmark, was to be thrown
into a dungeon of vipers and to die in agony from their
The old legend goes on to say that while Lodbrog was in
Northumbria, his sons were winning victories in the
south. They came home laden with treasure, and were
quietly resting and making ready for another voyage
when the tidings was brought them of their father's
death. Two of the sons were playing chess, and they
clutched the board till their hands bled. One had a
knife in his hand, and he grasped the blade until,
without knowing it, he had cut his fingers to the bone.
One was polishing his spear, and his fingers left
their impress on the hard iron. These four made the
 most terrible threats of vengeance. Inguar, the
eldest, said nothing, but his face was fearful to look
upon. In some way the scene was reported to King Ella.
He smiled until the look of Inguar was described; then
he trembled and said:—
"It is Inguar or no one that I fear."
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