Imagini ale paginilor
[blocks in formation]

England-Alfred in Hiding

[ocr errors]


of all campaigning. Not doubting it, the West Saxon army was disbanded, and the men returned to their farms, believing no more fighting would be required, at least before the return of fair weather. But, without warning, the Danes swarmed over the Mercian border and surprised Wessex. They came like an inundation of the sea, spreading everywhere. In no place was there the slightest preparation for their coming. If ever the term "unpreparedness was justified, it was as applied to the West Saxons, many of whom, looking upon further resistance as hopeless, fled. In the quaint words of the chronicler, "Mickle of the folk over the sea they drove, and of the others the most deal they rode over; all but King Alfred; he with a little band hardly fared after the woods and in the moor-fastnesses." A few brave followers in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset still clung to Alfred, but for a long time it looked as if all the rest of Wessex was to pass unresisting into the possession of the Danes.

It is hard to conceive of a monarch driven to sorer straits than King Alfred, during those gloomy days. Followed by his still faithful band, he plunged into the swamps and forests of Somersetshire, so hidden in the tangled depths, with which his men were familiar, that his enemies could not trace him to his hiding-place. The story is told that he spent some days in the hut of a neatherd, who knew his identity, but, at Alfred's request, kept the secret from his wife. One day when Alfred was mending his bow and arrows, the wife set some cakes to bake at the fire, and bade their guest watch and turn them while she went out for a brief time. When she came back, Alfred was still busy with his weapons and doubtless pondering upon weighty matters, while the cakes were burnt to a crisp. The angry housewife soundly scolded him, saying that one who was so ready to eat other people's food, ought to show enough appreciation to do the little work she had asked of him.

Between the opening of the year and Easter, 878, Alfred threaded his way to a piece of firm ground in the middle of the marshes, formed by the Parret and the Tone. The position was very strong naturally, and he made his headquarters at Athelney, whence he began a guerrilla warfare through which he inflicted considerable damage on the enemy. Whether the story be true or not, it is related that, in order to learn the intentions of the Danes, Alfred visited their camp in the guise of a minstrel or juggler, and stayed a full week, entertaining them and their king, Guthrum, with his music. When he had learned all he wished to know, he quietly departed, without having once drawn suspicion to himself.

Before long Alfred's followers had so increased that he did not shrink from facing his enemies in the open field. The two forces met at Eddington, near Westbury, and the Danes suffered defeat. After two weeks' siege, Guthrum

surrendered on terms that were an immense triumph to the West Saxons. The invaders agreed to give Alfred as many hostages as he demanded, receiving none in return; they were to quit Wessex forever, and Guthrum announced himself prepared to turn Christian and be baptized. In the treaty afterward concluded at Wedmore, the boundaries between Danish and English Britain were defined. The rights of Alfred were established over all of Wessex, Kent, and London, and a large district extending into Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

It was not until 886, however, that the little Saxon chiefs all over England, recognizing Alfred's ability and power, came to him voluntarily, and, placing their hands in his, acknowledged him as their lord. In the same year Alfred was able to begin rebuilding London. He reconstructed the Roman walls with material provided by the church of St. Alban. He rebuilt the bridge spanning the Thames, and, to provide means for defending the structure, raised a tower, on whose site William the Conqueror afterward built the Tower of London. Being secure now in the possession of the town, the English had no trouble in holding the Thames, and that protected Kent, Wessex, and Mercia.

A tremendous test of Alfred's material work for England came in 893-896, when Hasting, the Northman, landed an army in Britain. The Danes already settled in East England formed an open alliance with Hasting, but the formidable force, after several defeats at the hands of Alfred, finally broke to fragments, and in 897 the grave danger to Wessex vanished, for the time. The last days of the illustrious Alfred closed in peace and tranquillity, the entry in the English Chronicle being as follows:

"This year (901) died Alfred, son of Ethelwulf, six days before the Mass of All Saints. He was king over the whole English nation, except that part which was under the dominion of the Danes. He held the kingdom one year and a half less than thirty years. And then Edward, his son, succeeded to the kingdom."

Alfred's services to England were those of a patriot and statesman as well as warrior. The code of laws which he compiled in 890 was prefaced by the Ten Commandments, and closed with the Golden Rule, and he remarked, referring to the former: "He who keeps them shall not need any other law book." He first made a collection of the Kentish and West Saxon and Mercian statutes, which amended those that had descended unwritten. The laws of Kent included the Dooms of Ethelbert, the additions of his successors, those of Ine of Wessex (a predecessor of Alfred), and the judgments of Offa, the great Mercian king. Alfred added to these a number of his own laws, which *The length of Alfred's reign, however, is incorrectly stated, since it lacked only a few weeks of thirty years.

[graphic][merged small]
[blocks in formation]
« ÎnapoiContinuă »