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KING ALFRED THE GREAT
T was about 449 when the Teutons landed on the island of Thanet.
More and more of them came, until finally not the
Britons, but the Teutons, ruled England. Each company tried to
make their settlement a little kingdom by itself.
Sometimes a little group of these kingdoms were allies for a
while, then they were enemies. Gradually the West Saxons
became more powerful than the others, and at length their king,
Egbert, induced seven of these kingdoms to make a
sort of union.
HILTS OF DANISH IRON SWORDS
It would have been far better if this union could have been
strong and lasting, for all England was now in dreadful
peril. The reason was that still more tribes were pushing on to
the westward. These tribes were Teutons who lived in
Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; but the English called them all
Danes. The Danes thought it a disgrace to live quietly on
the land, and they dashed off in the fiercest tempests and over
the stormiest seas in search of treasure. They would
steal up to a church or a
convent or a village in the mist and darkness. Then with wild
shouts to Odin and Thor they would
 kill, burn, and
plunder. They destroyed bridges, they set fire to the growing
crops, they tossed little babies to and fro on the points
of their spears, they tortured the helpless dogs and horses.
Then they set off for their homeland to display the
treasures they had won. Their code of honour was that a Dane who
fled from fewer than five disgraced himself. The
warriors had no fear of death, for they believed that the
Valkyries would come and carry those slain in battle to
the delights of Valhalla.
THE STATUE OF KING
ALFRED AT WINCHESTER
These were the enemies whom the grandson of Egbert, the Saxon
king Alfred, a young man of twenty-three, had to
meet. At the death of his brother he had become king, but just
at that time the Danes were coming in throngs and there
were no rejoicings in honor of the new sovereign. There was no
feasting, there was not even
 a meeting of the councillors
of the kingdom to declare that they accepter him as their ruler.
The Danes landed first on one shore, then on another.
Alfred built warships and won a battle on the sea Then he was
surprised by the Danes and most of his people were
subdued. Their king, however, had no thought of yielding.
He and some of his faithful followers withdrew to
Athelney, an island in the swampy forest of Somerset,
made themselves a fort. A few people lived in this wilderness
who tended the swine of their lord. Their homes
were tiny huts of brushwood plastered with mud.
Two legends of his stay at Athelney have been handed down to
us. One is that he once took refuge in one of these tiny
huts, much to the wrath of the housewife, for her husband had
not told her who was his guest. The story says that she
bade the visitor sit by the fire and turn her cakes when they
were done on one side. The anxious king forgot all about
them, and the angry housewife scolded. According to an old
ballad, she cried,—
"There, don't you see the cakes are burnt?
Then wherefore turn them not?
You're quick enough to eat them
When they are good and hot."
ALFRED THE GREAT LETTING THE CAKES BURN.
The second legend is that in order to find out the number of
the Danes he put on the dress of a harper and went to the
Danish camp. There he sang old ballads, perhaps even part of
The Danes were delighted, and never guessed that they were
applauding the king of the English. Alfred went back to his
friends with a good knowledge of the Danish camp and a heart
full of courage. When the spring came, he surprised his
enemies and forced them to promise to be baptized
 as Christians.
He was not strong enough to drive them from the
country, but it was agreed that they should remain in their
settlements in the eastern and northern parts of England,
while Alfred should rule the southern and western parts. Then
Alfred set to work to do what he could for his kingdom.
AN EARLY ENGLISH CHURCH
(CHURCH OF ST. LAWRENCE, WILTSHIRE, BUILT PROBABLY IN THE 7TH CENTURY)
The king of England was in a hard position. Much of the country
had been ravaged again and again. Churches,
libraries, and convents had been destroyed. Alfred built a line
of forts around the south-eastern coast, for he knew that
other Danes would be likely to come. He built at least one
He made a code of laws for his people. He appointed judges,
who were punished if they were not just. One judge was
hanged because he condemned a man unlawfully. Alfred built
churches and convents. He brought learned men to his kingdom,
following the example of Charlemagne in earlier times. He established
schools, and he commanded that every freeborn boy in the
kingdom should learn to read English, and that if
 he showed
ability, he should go on and learn to read Latin. Now arose
a difficulty. In those times books were written in Latin as a
matter of course, and there were very few in English. So
the busy king set to work to translate books for his people.
One of them was a sort of history and geography combined.
In this is the story which Longfellow has put into his poem,
The Discoverer of the North Cape—the story of
Othere the old sea-captain
Who dwelt in Helgoland.
Alfred had received a barren land, overrun by enemies. He left
it a peaceful, prosperous kingdom with schools, churches,
just laws, vessels, and fortifications. It is no wonder that he
is called Alfred the Great.