| 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 |
WHO SHALL BE KING?
THELBALD had intended that Alfred should live with
him, but here Bishop Swithin interposed and to some
"King Ethelbald," he said, "you well know the feeling
of your people. It is no stronger in Wessex than it is
in Kent. The people of Kent love the child and are
proud of having him among them. Take him away and they
"Revolt?" said the king contemptuously. "Against whom?
My brother Ethelbert has done nothing to arouse their
anger. Let them attack me if they choose; I can crush
any outbreak that the little realm of Kent can make."
"True," said the bishop, "you can, if you think it wise
to try to subdue a domain that is not yours. You can
lay the land of your brother waste, if you will; but in
so doing you destroy the eastern bulwark against the
 and open the way for them to march without let or
hindrance into the heart of the country."
Ethelbald was quick to see where he must yield. "Have
your own way then," he said. "Alfred is a child now,
but when he is twelve, he comes to me. Understand that,
will you? and if you have not made him into a
psalm-singing churchman like yourselves, I will teach
him how to be a prince and a soldier."
"There is a psalm-singing churchman called Alstan who
once showed himself the best soldier in England," said
the bishop quietly. "And there was once a psalm-singing
Pope who fortified Rome and saved her from the attacks
of the heathen."
"You priests always have the last word," sneered
Ethelbald, "but the boy comes to me at twelve; there's
no power in England to prevent that."
"There is a Power above England," said the bishop
reverently, as Ethelbald strode away.
It was fortunate, perhaps, that Alfred was not asked
with which one of his brothers he preferred to live,
for it would have been very hard for him to choose.
Ethelbald, who had fought in a real battle had always
 upon with wonder and admiration by the little boy, who
was so much younger than he; and Judith, the lovable,
fascinating Judith, was with him in Wessex. Nothing
would make up for the loss of Judith. But Alfred
believed every word that Bishop Swithin said, and the
bishop told him that Judith had done wrong, and that
she would teach him to be a wicked man. Then, too, he
had become very fond of Ethelbert, who seemed to him
rather like a father than a brother, for Ethelbert's
own children were not so many years younger than Alfred
himself. Alfred loved these children and was happy with
them, and in spite of his longing for Judith, he became
before many days had passed the same cheerful little
boy that he had always been.
Their life in Kent went on peacefully and quietly until
the year 860 came and Alfred was nearly twelve years of
age. Although Alfred knew nothing about it, Ethelbald
had never given up his intention to have the boy come
to him, and in every communication from the king of the
West Saxons there was some mention made of the plan.
Ethelbald had no child, and he had taken a dislike to
Ethelred. The mild, wavering,
 undecided disposition of the younger brother had always
annoyed Ethelbald, and he was determined that he would
prevent Ethelred from succeeding to the throne of the
West Saxons, and would train Alfred to be a prince
after his own heart and to govern the kingdom as he
himself governed it.
Bishop Swithin was greatly troubled about the matter.
It was bad enough to have his little favorite put into
the hands of a usurper, but to have the child himself
taught to usurp the throne of the West Saxons when it
belonged of right to his older brother would bring on
revolt and disaster. The Danes would pounce down upon a
country divided and at strife. Fire and rapine and
murder, a devastated land, a king fleeing for his life
or else become a victim of the Danish onslaught,
churches torn down, convents burned, the land become a
wilderness through which the wild beasts roamed
fearlessly—when the bishop pictured all this to
himself, it is no wonder that his heart sank. It was
night. Hour after hour he lay awake. At last he rose,
went into the chapel, and flung himself down before the
 "O God," he prayed, "the child is Thine, save him from
those that would lead him astray. The land is Thine,
save it for Thyself and Thy truth. Let not the child
bring darkness and wrong upon his country; let him
bring light and—" There was a thundering knock at the
door, but the bishop in his anguish of soul did not
"The bishop! We must see the bishop," a loud voice
"The bishop is at prayer," said the keeper of the door.
"I shall not disturb him unless you come from the
"Tell him," cried the messenger, "that we come from the
dead body of him that was king of the West Saxons." The
bishop had heard the last words.
"God be thanked," said he, and then stopped in horror.
"A wicked man has died in his sins. God pardon him," he
said. "There is, indeed, a Power that rules over
England," and he went forth to meet the messenger.
Ethelbald had fallen from his horse and had died almost
instantly, and the counselors were in a difficulty. By
Ethelwulf's will Ethelbert
 was to remain king of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex; and
Ethelred was to follow Ethelbald as king of the West
Saxons. Now in Ethelbald's plans that Alfred should
succeed him, Ethelred had never been allowed to take
his proper position as crown prince. To the people at
large he was almost unknown. Alstan was far away on a
journey. What to do for the best good of the land lay
in the hands of the bishop and the company of
counselors that followed hard upon the messenger. There
at midnight in the bishop's chapel the fate of the
kingdom was discussed.
"By the king's will to which we agreed," said one,
"Ethelred should be king of the West Saxons."
"True," said another, "but matters are changed. When
Ethelwulf died, the land was at peace. A child could
have ruled the country. It is different now. There are
rumors of the restlessness of the Danes. Should they
come down upon our shores again, no gentle hand can
defend us. We need a strong arm and a wise head. Bishop
Swithin, you know the princes. Is Ethelred strong and
wise and brave and fearless? Will he dare to give us
 peace? Will he lead us worthily against our foes?"
"Ethelred—" began the bishop slowly, but the sound of
hurrying horsemen was heard. A man who had been on
guard rushed in breathlessly.
"I heard their words," he gasped. "They go to tell the
princes of the death of the king."
"What we do must be done quickly," said one, with an
impatient glance at the bishop, who stood silent, his
eyes bent on the ground. At last the bishop spoke.
"The king must be one of the three," he said. "Alfred
is too young, Ethelred is not the strong hand that
should rule the land. I know, perhaps even more than
you, of her dangers. We break the letter of Ethelwulf's
will to favor no usurper, but to keep its spirit rather
than its letter. I counsel that Ethelbert be made king
of the West Saxons."
In a moment the counselors were on their horses and
pressing onward to overtake those who were in advance
of them. The sun was fully overhead when they reached
the palace of King Ethelbert. The two parties of riders
had chanced to take different roads in the forest
 and approached the palace from nearly opposite
"We would see King Ethelbert," cried the counselors
that had gone to the bishop.
"We demand to see Ethelred, our king," shouted the
In the presence of the three brothers there was a
stormy scene. One party demanded the literal execution
of the king's will; the other pleaded the needs of the
kingdom. Ethelbert was thoughtful; Ethelred irresolute,
at one moment ready to seize the throne that had been
willed to him, and the next drawing back from the
dangers and difficulties that lay before him who should
rule the West Saxons. Many looked upon Alfred, the
prince who had made the pilgrimage to Rome and who had
been blessed by the Pope, and wished that he was older;
but Alfred thought only of the death of his brother,
his warrior brother, who had been his ideal of all that
was strong and bold and warlike.
"They all go away from me," he said to himself, "my
mother, my father, my sister, Judith, and now my
brother—" but Ethelbert was speaking.
 "There has never been discord among the sons of
Ethelwulf," he said. "My brothers and myself will
withdraw to an inner chamber and consult. Do you agree
to await our decision and to abide by it?" One party
said "Yes" frankly and willingly, the other slowly and
doubtfully, but all felt that nothing better could be
done. When the brothers were alone, Ethelbert said:—
"Ethelred, the kingdom of the West Saxons is yours by
our father's will. Do you take it? Will you rule the
people in peace and lead them in war?"
"Yes," said Ethelred, "I will take it."
"You know," said Ethelbert, "that it is a divided
kingdom. Some would have you for king, some would have
me, and some look with affection upon our younger
brother and wish that it might fall into his hands
before many years have passed. Can you meet this
opposition?" Ethelred hesitated.
"This is not a new question to me," said Ethelbert.
"Many weeks ago, two trusty counselors came to me and
said that Ethelbald was in danger of his life as much
from his own
reck-  lessness as from secret enemies. They told me that
it would be the wish of many that I, who had had some
experience in ruling, should take the throne of the
West Saxons as well as that of Kent and the eastern
districts, and hold it as a trust, not for my children,
but for you, and after you, Alfred: that so the two
kingdoms might gain in strength by union and that you
who are younger might have years and experience before
meeting your time of danger and responsibility. Do you
agree to that, Ethelred?"
"I agree," said Ethelred, always ready to agree to the
"Alfred, do you agree that I shall take the throne of
the West Saxons and that you shall not rule until after
I and Ethelred are dead?"
"My father told me never to wish to be king before my
brothers," said Alfred simply.
And so a parchment was written saying that Ethelred and
Alfred waived their right to the rule of the West
Saxons during the life of their older brother. When the
parchment was passed to Alfred and he was told to make
his mark, he said:—
"But I can write my name," and as the gray
 old counselors pressed near to see the wonderful thing,
the boy slowly and laboriously wrote his name, "as well
as a clerk could have done it," the counselors said.
There was great sorrow in the land of Kent when it was
known that Ethelbert, though still their king, was to
dwell chiefly in the region of the West Saxons, for his
mild and just rule had made him very dear to them in
the two years that he had held the kingdom. They were
still more sorry because Alfred must go with him, for
they had become very fond of the child; but there was
no help for it, and Ethelbert and his two brothers
removed to Alfred's old home at Wantage in Berkshire.
They had the long, pleasant sail on the river that
Alfred remembered so well at
the beginning of his great
journey to Rome. He knew the very place where his
father had spurred on his horse and dashed away into
the woods; but perhaps the most vivid picture in his
mind was of his mother as she stood in the door of the
palace and bade him her last farewell; and as they rode
up to the house, he felt for the jewel which hung on a
light golden chain around his neck. As he touched it,
 he could almost believe that Osburga was with him, and
was glad to have him return to the house that was so
closely associated with her memory.
Little was changed about the place. Alfred wandered
about, over the bridge where he used to fear the
nixyman, to see the horses and dogs, to the bakery and
to the smithy. Everywhere was a warm greeting for him.
"And have you lost the sword that I made you?" asked
"No, surely," said Alfred, "but it is too small now.
Will you make me a larger one? And I want a spear too,
for Ethelbert says I may go on a real boar-hunt when I
"And will you have a rune on your sword?" asked the
smith with a sly twinkle in his eye.
"Bishop Swithin says that prayers are better than
runes," said Alfred, "and he gave me this and told me
to carry it with me always," and he drew forth from the
bosom of his tunic a tiny parchment book of psalms and
"And can you really tell what the marks say?" asked the
old blacksmith, gazing eagerly at the marvel.
 "Judith taught me to read English," said Alfred, "and I
can read the Latin a very little, but I know all this
by heart. But when will you make me the spear? Will
you do it right away? See how tall I am. I shall be
fourteen before very long."
"Yes," said the smith. "And I'll put a rune on it too,"
he muttered as the child went away, "though I'm afraid
that all this praying will spoil it."
Ethelbert had no time to think of boar-hunts, for there
was much to be done in his new kingdom. First, he gave
to the cathedral at Sherborne, where Ethelbald was
buried, forty pounds of silver, three golden crosses,
and land enough to feed one thousand swine. This gift
for the repose of his brother's soul was from his own
private property; and he also promised to give every
year one hundred marks that prayers might be offered
for Ethelbald and psalms sung once a week through the
The churches had suffered throughout Wessex, for
Ethelbald had no interest in them, and he had taken as
large a portion of their revenues as he dared to apply
to other purposes.
Ethel-  bert felt that his next business must be to right
the wrongs that had been done them.
The defenses of the realm were in good order, for
Ethelbald had strengthened them continually. In some
respects his fighting men had been well prepared for
fighting. They had weapons of one kind or another, and
they knew how to use them. Even those who most
disliked Ethelbald were proud of him, for he had
taught them how to fight and how to follow a leader,
and they were ready to plunge into any kind of danger,
if there was but one brave man to go before them.
Even in the first few months of Ethelbert's reign,
danger was nearer than any one thought, for a fleet of
Danish boats had silently made their way down the
English Channel. The Danes had meant to land boldly on
Thanet, but a dense fog came up that suggested their
passing by the eastern coast in the darkness, and then
landing either on the Frankish shores or in southern
England, as the wind might blow them. Storm or
sunshine, it was all the same to them. They did not
care for conquest and settlement, but only to burn and
kill and go
 away laden with booty. They boasted that they slept
under no roof and sat by no hearth. One son must stay
at home to inherit and care for the ancestral property,
but the others took the sea for their kingdom. The ship
and the sword were their riches, and bracelets set with
many jewels, which stood to them for bravery rather
than for beauty, for they were the spoils of fighting,
and on them their most solemn oaths were sworn. Their
unwritten law was that a Dane must attack two and stand
firm against three. He might retire one pace from four,
but he must not fly for fewer than five. They knew no
fear, and sought eagerly for a violent death, for he
who would enter the halls of Odin must have died in
battle, and his rank among the dead heroes depended
upon the number of men that he had slain.
These were the people that under cover of the fog
glided along the southern coast of England as far as
the Isle of Wight. At the mouth of the Itchen River a
pause was made.
"I have heard," said Weland, their leader, "that not
many miles up this stream is a town with churches and
convents and treasures of
 gold and silver and jewels and—" Shouts of delight
from his followers interrupted him. "There are
black-robed monks who pray against us to their gods
till even Thor himself could not give us the victory.
There are books with magical marks, and even our
greatest runes have no power against them. Burn the
books, kill the monks, and win your place in the halls
of Odin. The coward falls to the realm of death and to
the ninth world below death, to the darkness of the
forgotten; but when the brave man dies, the Valkyrs go
forth to meet him, and bear him with song and the
clangor of sword and shield to Valhalla, and there he
feasts with the gods forever and forever. Will ye be
cowards or heroes? Will ye feast with the gods, or will
ye go to the land of the forgotten and be as if ye
never were? Let every man lay his hand upon the
bracelets that he won by his valor and swear to be
braver than ever before, or let him never dream of the
joys of Valhalla, for with my own hand I will fling him
off yonder cliff that he may die the death of the
coward that he is."
Wild shouts of eagerness for the attack and
 defiance of their enemies rang through the foggy air.
"Then hear my words," said Weland. "Keep close to the
shore under the shadow of the trees until we are in
sight of the town. Then let not a word be spoken. Let
not a sound be heard. Let no dry twig break under foot.
Let no bird be disturbed in her nest as we go through
the woods. When we come to the town, take your stand as
I shall bid you; and then let no man stir from his
place until Balder smiles upon our quest for glory.
When I give the signal at the first ray of the sun,
shout defiance, sing the song of Odin, the lord of
battles, and follow the leader. Burn, kill, seize
treasures, win your seats in the halls of the mighty."
The fog lifted, but protected by the night, the pirates
rowed silently up the stream in their light boats. In
the early gray of the morning, they could see vaguely
against the eastern sky the outlines of the highest
buildings. Forests were here and there in gloomy masses
wherein no ray of light had penetrated. Beyond them
were low-lying hills. There were rich pasture lands and
cultivated fields, and in the midst of it was the
 quiet little town through which the river peacefully
IN THE EARLY GRAY OF THE MORNING THEY COULD SEE . . . THE OUTLINES OF THE HIGHEST BUILDINGS.
Not a sound was heard; the village was sleeping
fearlessly. Silently as a pestilence the Danes made
their way up from the grassy shores of the river. Under
the whispered commands of their leader, they divided
into two parties. One party went softly around the town
to the extreme west; the other took their stand on the
little bridge that Bishop Swithin had built, little
thinking that it would ever serve as a vantage ground
for their foes.
There was a moment of stillness. Even a fiend might
have pitied the little village sleeping so trustfully
in the first gray glimmerings of the morning. Light
mists showed the course of the river winding gently
through the meadows. The willows bending over it took
on a tinge of green. A gentle breeze brought the
freshness of the forest to the men standing like
statues on the bridge and at the western side of the
town. A bird chirped sleepily. The church towers grew
more distinct every moment. Far away on the hills a
cock crowed, and from a still more distant hill an
answer came. A dog barked, but his master only
 grumbled sleepily at being disturbed. The light grew
stronger; the east was all aglow. The first ray of the
sun shot over the hills.
"The gods be with us!" cried the Danes, and with
shrieks of fiendish ecstasy they fell upon the
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