Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

King Alfred

A saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a warrior who fought only in defense of his country, a conqueror whose laurels were never stained with cruelty, a prince never cast down by adversity, nor lifted up to insolence in the hour of triumph--there is no other name in English history to compare with his.

--Freeman


Julius Csar, the greatest man of initiative the world has ever seen, had a nephew known as Csar Augustus.

The grandeur that was Rome occurred in the reign of Augustus. It was Augustus who said, "I found your city mud and I left it marble!" The impetus given to the times by Julius Csar was conserved by Augustus. He continued the work his uncle had planned, but before he had completed it, he grew very weary, and the weariness he expressed was also the old age of the nation. There was lime in the bones of the boss.

When Csar Augustus said, "Rome is great enough--here we rest," he merely meant that he had reached his limit, and had had enough of road-building. At the boundaries of the Empire and the end of each Roman road he set up a statue of the god Terminus. This god gave his blessing to those going beyond, and a welcome to those returning, just as the Stars and Stripes welcome the traveler coming to America from across the sea. This god Terminus also supplied the world, especially the railroad world, a word.

Julius Csar reached his terminus and died, aged fifty-six, from compulsory vaccination. Augustus, aged seventy-seven, died peacefully in bed.

The reign of Augustus marks the crest of the power of Rome, and a crest is a place where no man nor nation stays--when you reach it, you go over and down on the other side.

When Augustus set up his Termini, announcing to all mankind that this was the limit, the enemies of Rome took courage and became active. The Goths and Vandals, hanging on the skirts of Rome, had learned many things, and one of the things was that, for getting rich quick, conquest is better than production. The barbarians, some of whom evidently had a sense of humor, had a way of picking up the Termini and carrying them inward, and finally they smashed them entirely, somewhat as country boys, out hunting, shoot railroad-signs full of holes.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In the Middle Ages the soldier was supreme, and in the name of protecting the people he robbed the people, a tradition much respected, but not in the breach.

To escape the scourge of war, certain families and tribes moved northward. It was fight and turmoil in Southern Europe that settled Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and produced the Norsemen. And in making for themselves a home in the wilderness, battling with the climate and unkind conditions, there was evolved a very strong and sturdy type of man.

On the north shore of the Baltic dwelt the Norsemen. Along the southern shore were scattered several small tribes or families who were not strong enough in numbers to fight the Goths, and so sought peace with them, and were taxed--or pillaged--often to the point of starvation. They were so poor and insignificant that the Romans really never heard of them, and they never heard of the Romans, save in myth and legend. They lived in caves and rude stone huts. They fished, hunted, raised goats and farmed, and finally, about the year Three Hundred, they secured horses, which they bought from the Goths, who stole them from the Romans.

Their Government was the Folkmoot, the germ of the New England Town Meeting. All the laws were passed by all the people, and in the making of these laws, the women had an equal voice with the men.

When important steps were to be taken where the interests of the whole tribe were at stake, great deference was paid to the opinions of the mothers. For the mother spoke not only for herself, but for her children. The mother was the home-maker. The word "wife" means weaver; and this deference to the one member of the family who invented, created, preparing both the food and the clothing, is a marked Teutonic instinct. Its survival is seen yet in the sturdy German of the middle class, who takes his wife and children with him when he goes to the concert or to the beer-garden. So has he always taken his family with him on his migrations; whereas the Greeks and the Romans left their women behind.

South America was colonized by Spanish men. And the Indians and the Negroes absorbed the haughty grandee, yet preserved the faults and failings of both.

The German who moves to America comes to stay--his family is a part of himself. The Italian comes alone, and his intent is to make what he can and return. This is a modified form of conquest.

The Romans who came to Brittany in Csar's time were men. Those who remained "took to themselves wives among the daughters of Philistia," as strong men ever are wont to do when they seek to govern savage tribes. And note this--instead of raising the savages or barbarians to their level, they sink to theirs. The child takes the status of the mother. The white man who marries an Indian woman becomes an Indian and their children are Indians. With the Negro race the same law holds.

The Teutonic races have conquered the world because they took their women with them on their migrations, mental and physical. And the moral seems to be this, that the men who progress financially, morally and spiritually are those who do not leave their women-folk behind.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

When we think of the English, we usually have in mind the British Isles. But the original England was situated along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. This was the true Eng-Land, the land of the Engles or Angles. To one side lay Jute-Land, the home of the Jutes. On the other was Saxony, where dwelt the Saxons.

Jute-Land still lives in Jutland; the land of the Saxons is yet so indicated on the map; but Eng-Land was transported bodily a thousand miles, and her original territory became an abandoned farm where barbarians battled.

And now behold how England has diffused herself all over the world, with the British Isles as a base of supplies, or a radiating center. Behind this twenty miles of water that separates Calais and Dover she found safety and security, and there her brain and brawn evolved and expanded. So there are now Anglo-Americans, Anglo-Africans, Anglo-Indians, Anglo-Australians, and Anglo-New-Zealanders. As the native Indians of America and the Maoris of New Zealand have given way before the onward push and persistence of the English, so likewise did the ancient Britons give way and were absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons; and then the Saxons, being a little too fine for the stern competitor, allowed the Engles to take charge. And as Dutch, Germans, Slavs and Swedes are transformed with the second generation into English-Americans when they come to America, so did the people from Eng-Land fuse Saxons, Norsemen, Jutes, Celts and Britons into one people and fix upon them the indelible stamp of Eng-Land.

Yet it is obvious that the characters of the people of England have been strengthened, modified and refined by contact with the various races she has met, mixed with and absorbed. To influence others is to grow. Had England been satisfied to people and hold the British Isles, she would ere this have been outrun and absorbed by Spain or France. To stand still is to retreat. It is the same with men as it is with races. England's Colonies have been her strength. They have given her poise, reserve, ballast--and enough trouble to prevent either revolution, stagnation or introspection.

Nations have their periods of youth, manhood and old age. Whether England is now passing into decline, living her life in her children, the Colonies, might be indelicate to ask. Perhaps as Briton, Celt, Jute and Saxon were fused to make that hardy, courageous, restless and sinewy man known as the Englishman, so are the English, the Dutch, the Swede, the German, the Slav, transplanted into America, being fused into a composite man who shall surpass any type that the world has ever seen. In the British Isles, just as in the great cities, mankind gets pot-bound. In the newer lands, the roots strike deep into the soil, and find the sustenance the human plant requires.

Walls keep folks in as well as shut other folks out. The British Isles, rock-faced and sea-girted, shut out the enemies of England without shutting the English in. A country surrounded by the sea produces sailors, and England's position bred a type of man that made her mistress of the seas. As her drum-taps, greeting the rising sun, girdle the world, so do her lighthouses flash protection to the mariner wherever the hungry sea lies in wait along rocky coasts, the round world over. England has sounded the shallows, marked the rocks and reefs, and mapped the coasts.

The first settlement of Saxons in Britain occurred in the year Four Hundred Forty-nine. They did not come as invaders, as did the Romans five hundred years before; their numbers were too few, and their arms too crude to mean menace to the swarthy, black-haired Britons. These fair stranger-folk were welcomed as curiosities and were allowed to settle and make themselves homes. Word was sent back to Saxony and Jute-Land and more settlers came. In a few years came a shipload of Engles, with their women and children, red-haired, freckled, tawny. They tilled the soil with a faith and an intelligence such as the Britons never brought to bear: very much as the German settlers follow the pioneers and grow rich where the Mudsock fails. Naturally the fair-haired girls found favor in the sight of the swarthy Britons. Marriages occurred, and a new type of man-child appeared as the months went by. More Engles came. A century passed, and the coast, from Kent to the Firth of Forth, was dotted with the farms and homes of the people from the Baltic. There were now occasional protests from the original holders, and fights followed, when the Britons retreated before the strangers, or else were very glad to make terms. Victory is a matter of staying-power. The Engles had come to stay.

But a new enemy had appeared--the Norsemen or Danes. These were sea-nomads who acknowledged no man as master. Rough, bold, laughing at disaster, with no patience to build or dig or plow, they landed but to ravish, steal and lay waste, and then boarded their craft, sailing away, joying in the ruin they had wrought.

The next year they came back. The industry and the thrift of the Engles made Britain a land of promise, a storehouse where the good things of life could be secured much more easily than by creating or producing them. And so now, before this common foe, the Britons, Jutes, Celts, Saxons and Engles united to punish and expel the invaders.

The calamity was a blessing--as most calamities are. From being a dozen little kingdoms, Britain now became one. A "Cyng," or captain, was chosen--an Engle, strong of arm, clear of brain, blue of eye, with long yellow hair. He was a man who commanded respect by his person and by his deeds. His name was Egbert.

King Alfred, or Elfred, was born at Wantage, Berkshire, in the year Eight Hundred Forty-nine. He was the grandson of Egbert, a great man, and the son of Ethelwulf, a man of mediocre qualities. Alfred was shrewd enough to inherit the courage and persistence of his grandfather. Our D. A. R. friends are right and Mark Twain is wrong--it is really more necessary to have a grandfather than a father.

English civilization begins with Alfred. If you will refer to the dictionary you will find that the word "civilization" simply means to be civil. That is, if you are civilized you are gentle instead of violent--gaining your ends by kindly and persuasive means, instead of through coercion, intimidation and force.

Alfred was the first English gentleman, and let no joker add "and the last." Yet it is needless and quite irrelevant to say that civilized people are not always civil; nor are gentlemen always gentle--so little do words count. Many gentlemen are only gents.

Alfred was civil and gentle. He had been sent to Rome in his boyhood, and this transplantation had done him a world of good. Superior men are always transplanted men: people who do not travel have no perspective. To stay at home means getting pot-bound. You neither search down in the soil for color and perfume nor reach out strong toward the sunshine.

It was only a few years before the time of Alfred that a Christian monk appeared at Edin-Borough, and told the astonished Engles and Saxons of the gentle Jesus, who had been sent to earth by the All-Father to tell men they should love their enemies and be gentle and civil and not violent, and should do unto others as they would be done by. The natural religion of the Great Spirit which the ancient Teutonic people held had much in it that was good, but now they were prepared for something better--they had the hope of a heaven of rest and happiness after death.

Christianity flourishes best among a downtrodden, poor, subdued and persecuted people. Renan says it is a religion of sorrow. And primitive Christianity--the religion of conduct--is a beautiful and pure doctrine that no sane person ever flouted or scoffed.

The parents of Alfred, filled with holy zeal, allowed one of the missionary monks to take the boy to Rome. The idea was that he should become a bishop in the Church.

Ethelred, the elder brother of Alfred, had succeeded Ethelwulf, his father, as King. The Danes had overrun and ravished the country. For many years these marauding usurpers had fed their armies on the products of the land. And now they had more than two-thirds of the country under their control, and the fear that they would absolutely subjugate the Anglo-Saxons was imminent. Ethelwulf gave up the struggle in despair and died. Ethelred fell in battle. And as the Greeks of old in their terror cast around for the strongest man they could find to repel the Persian invaders, and picked on the boy Alexander, so did the Anglo-Saxons turn to Alfred, the gentle and silent. He was only twenty-three years old. In build he was slight and slender, but he had given token of his courage for four years, fighting with his brother. He had qualities that were closely akin to those of both Alexander and Csar. He had a cool, clear and vivid intellect and he had invincible courage. But he surpassed both of the men just named in that he had a tender, sympathetic heart.

The Danes were overconfident, and had allowed their discipline to relax. Alfred had at first evidently encouraged them in their idea that they had won, for he struck feebly and then withdrew his army to the marshes, where the Danish horsemen could not follow.

The Danes went into winter quarters, fat and feasting. Alfred made a definite plan for a campaign, drilled his men, prayed with them, and filled their hearts with the one idea that they were going forth to certain victory. And to victory they went. They fell upon the Danes with an impetuosity as unexpected as it was invincible, and before they could get into their armor, or secure their horses, they were in a rout. Every timid Engle and Saxon now took heart--it was the Lord's victory--they were fighting for home--the Danes gave way. This was not all accomplished quite as easily as I am writing it, but difficulties, deprivations and disaster only brought out new resources in Alfred. He was as serenely hopeful as was Washington at Valley Forge, and his soldiers were just as ragged. He, too, like Thomas Paine, cried, "These are the times that try men's souls--be grateful for this crisis, for it will give us opportunity to show that we are men." He had aroused his people to a pitch where the Danes would have had to kill them all, or else give way. As they could not kill them they gave way. Napoleon at twenty-six was master of France and had Italy under his heel, and so was Alfred at the same age supreme in Southern Britain--including Wessex and Mercia. He rounded up the enemy, took away their weapons, and then held a revival-meeting, asking everybody to come forward to the mourners'-bench. There is no proof that he coerced them into Christianity. They were glad to accept it. Alfred seemed to have the persuasive power of the Reverend Doctor Torrey. Guthrum, the Danish King, who had come over to take a personal hand in the looting, was captured, baptized, and then Alfred stood sponsor for him and gave him the name of Ethelstan. He was made a bishop.

This acceptance of Christianity by the leaders of the Danes broke their fierce spirit, and peace followed. Alfred told the soldiers to use their horses to plow the fields. The two armies that had fought each other now worked together at road-making and draining the marshes. Some of the Danes fled in their ships, but very many remained and became citizens of the country. The Danish names are still recognizable. Names beginning with the aspirate, say Herbert, Hulett, Hubbard, Hubbs, Harold, Hancock, are Danish, and are the cause of that beautiful muddling of the "H" that still perplexes the British tongue, the rule governing which is to put it on where it is not needed and leave it off where it is. The Danes called the Engles, "Hengles," and the Engles called a man by the name of Henry, "Enry."

In saving Wessex, Alfred saved England for the English people; for it was from Wessex, as a center, that his successors began the task of reconquering England from the Danes.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

With the rule of Alfred begins the England that we know. As we call Herodotus the father of history, so could we, with equal propriety, call Asser, who wrote in the time of Alfred, the father of English history. The oldest English book is the "Life of Alfred" by Asser the monk.

That Asser was a dependent on his subject and very much in love with him, doubtless gave a very strong bias to the book. That it is right in the main, although occasionally wrong as to details, is proved by various corroborating records.

The king's word in Alfred's time was law, and Alfred proved his modesty by publicly proclaiming that a king was not divine, but only a man, and therefore a king's edicts should be endorsed by the people in Folkmoot. Here we get the genesis of popular government, and about the only instance that I can recall where a very strong man acting as chief ruler renounced a part of his power to the people, of his own accord. Kings usually have to be trimmed, and it is revolution that does the shearing. It is the rule that men do not relinquish power of their own accord--they have to be disannexed from it.

Alfred, however, knew the popular heart--he was very close to the common people. He had slept on the ground with his soldiers, fared at table with the swineherd's family, tilled the soil with the farmer folk. His heart went out to humanity. He did not overrate the average mind, nor did he underrate it. He had faith in mankind, and knew that at the last power was with the people. He did not say, "Vox populi, vox Dei," but he thought it. Therefore he set himself to educating the plain people. He prophesied a day when all grown men would be able to read and write, and when all would have an intelligent, personal interest in the government.

There have been periods in English history when Britain lagged woefully behind, for England has had kings who forgot the rights of mankind, and instead of seeking to serve their people, have battened and fattened upon them. They governed. George the Third thought that Alfred was a barbarian, and spoke of him with patronizing pity.

Alfred introduced the system of trial by jury, although the fact has been pointed out that he did not originate it. It goes back to the hardy Norseman who acknowledged no man as master, harking back to a time when there was no law, and to a people whose collective desire was supreme. In fact, it has its origin in "Lynch Law," or the rule of the Vigilantes. From a village turning loose on an offender and pulling him limb from limb, a degree of deliberation comes in and a committee of twelve are selected to investigate the deed and report their verdict.

The jury system began with pirates and robbers, but it is no less excellent on that account, and we might add that freedom also began with pirates and robbers, for they were the people who cried, "We acknowledge no man as master."

The early Greeks had trials by jury--Socrates was tried by a jury of five hundred citizens.

But let the fact stand that Alfred was the man who first introduced the jury system into England. He had absolute power. He was the sole judge and ruler, but on various occasions he abdicated the throne and said: "I do not feel able to try this man, for as I look into my heart I see that I am prejudiced. Neither will I name men to try him, for in their selection I might also be prejudiced. Therefore let one hundred men be called, and from these let twelve be selected by lot, and they shall listen to the charges and weigh the defense, and their verdict shall be mine."

We sometimes say that English Common Law is built on the Roman Law, but I can not find that Alfred ever studied the Roman Law, or ever heard of the Justinian Code, or thought it worth while to establish a system of jurisprudence. His government was of the simplest sort. He respected the habits, ways and customs of the common people, and these were the Common Law. If the people had a footpath that was used by their children and their parents and their grandparents, then this path belonged to the people, and Alfred said that even the King could not take it from them.

This deference to the innocent ways, habits and natural rights of the people mark Alfred as supremely great, because a great man is one great in his sympathies. Alfred had the imagination to put himself in the place of the lowly and obscure.

The English love of law, system and order dates from Alfred. The patience, kindliness, good-cheer and desire for fair play were his, plus. He had poise, equanimity, unfaltering faith and a courage that never grew faint. He was as religious as Cromwell, as firm as Washington, as stubborn as Gladstone. In him were combined the virtues of the scholar and patriot, the efficiency of the man of affairs with the wisdom of the philosopher. His character, both public and private, is stainless, and his whole life was one of enlightened and magnanimous service to his country.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In the age of Augustus there was one study that was regarded as more important than all others, and this was rhetoric, or the art of the rhetor. The rhetor was a man whose business it was to persuade or convince.

The public forum has its use in the very natural town-meeting, or the powwow of savages. But in Rome it had developed and been refined to a point where the public had no voice, although the boasted forum still existed. The forum was monopolized by the professional orators hired by this political clique or that.

It was about like the political "forum" in America today.

The greatest man in Rome was the man who could put up the greatest talk. So all Roman mammas and matrons had their boys study rhetoric. The father of Seneca had a school of oratory where rich Roman youths were taught to mouth in orotund and gesticulate in curves. He must have been a pretty good teacher, for he had two extraordinary sons, one of whom is mentioned in the Bible, and a most exemplary daughter.

Oratory as an end we now regard as an unworthy art. The first requisite is to feel deeply--to have a message--and then if you are a person of fair intelligence and in good health, you'll impress your hearers. But to hire out to impress people with another's theme is to be a pettifogger, and the genus pettifogger has nearly had his day.

History moves in circles. The Chicago Common Council, weary of rhetoric, has recently declined to listen to paid attorneys; but any citizen who speaks for himself and his neighbors can come before the Council and state his case.

Chief Justice Fuller has given it as his opinion that there will come a day in America when damage-cases will be taken care of by an automatic tribunal, without the help of lawyers. And as a man fills out a request for a money-order at the Post-Office, so will he file his claim for damages, and it will have attention. The contingent fee will yet be a misdemeanor. Also, it will be possible for plain citizens to be able to go before a Court of Equity and be heard without regard to law and precedent and attorney's quillets and quibbles, which so often hamper justice. Justice should be cheap and easy, instead of costly and complex.

Evidently the Chief Justice had in mind the usages in the time of King Alfred, when the barrister was an employee of the court, and his business was to get the facts and then explain them to the King in the fewest possible words.

Alfred considered a paid advocate, or even a counselor, as without the pale, and such men were never allowed at court. If the barrister accepted a fee from a man suing for justice, he was disbarred.

Finally, however, the practise of feeing in order to renew the zeal of a barrister grew so that it had to be tolerated, because things we can't suppress we license, and a pocket was placed on each barrister's back between his shoulders where he could not reach it without taking off his gown, and into this pocket clients were allowed slyly to slip such gratuities as they could afford.

But the general practise of the client paying the barrister, instead of the court, was not adopted for several hundred years later, and then it was regarded as an expeditious move to keep down litigation and punish the client for being fool enough not to settle his own troubles.

In England the rudimentary pocket still survives, like the buttons on the back of a coat, which were once used to support the sword-belt.

In America we have done away with wigs and gowns for attorneys, but attorneys are still regarded as attaches of the court, even though one-half of them, according to Judge DeCourcy of Boston, are engaged most of the time in attempts to bamboozle and befog the judge and jury and defeat the ends of justice. Likewise, we still use the word "Court," signifying the place where lives royalty, even for the dingy office of a country J. P., where sawdust spittoons are the bric-a-brac and patent-office reports loom large, and justice is dispensed with. We now also commonly call the man "the Court."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Alfred was filled with a desire to educate, and to this end organized a school at the Ox Ford, where his friend Asser taught. This school was the germ of the University of Oxford. Attached to this school was a farm, where the boys were taught how to sow and plant and reap to the best advantage. Here they also bred and raised horses and cattle, and the care of livestock was a part of the curriculum. It was the first College of Agriculture.

It comes to us as somewhat of a surprise to see how we are now going back to simplicity, and the agricultural college is being given the due and thoughtful consideration which it deserves. Twenty years ago our agricultural college was considered more or less of a joke, but now that which adds greatly to the wealth of the nation, and the happiness and well-being of the people, is looked upon as worthy of our support and highest respect.

Up to the time of Alfred, England had no navy. For the government to own ships seemed quite preposterous, since the people had come to England to stay, and were not marauders intent on exploitation and conquest, like the Norsemen.

But after Alfred had vanquished the Danes and they had settled down as citizens, he took their ships, refitted them, built more and said: "No more marauders shall land on these shores. If we are threatened we will meet the enemy on the sea."

In a few years along came a fleet of marauding Norse. The English ships on the lookout gave the alarm, and England's navy put out to meet them. The enemy were taken by surprise, and the fate that five hundred years later was to overtake the Spanish Armada, was theirs.

From that time to this, England has had a navy that has gradually grown in power.

Let no one imagine that peace and rest came to Alfred. His life was a battle, for not only did he have to fight the Danes, but he had to struggle with ignorance, stupidity and superstition at home. To lead men out of captivity is a thankless task. They always ask when you take away their superstition, "What are you going to give us in return?" They do not realize that superstition is a disease, and that to give another disease in return is not nice, necessary or polite.

Alfred died, at the age of fifty-two, worn out with his ceaseless labors of teaching, building, planning, inventing and devising methods and means for the betterment and benefit of his people.

After his death, the Danes were successful, and Canute became King of England. But he was proud to be called an Englishman, and declared he was no longer a Dane.

And so England captured him.

Then came the Norman William, claiming the throne by right of succession, and successfully battling for it; but the English people reckoned the Conqueror as of their own blood--their kith and kin--and so he was. He issued an edict forbidding any one to call him or his followers "Norman," "Norse" or "Norsemen," and declared there was a United England. And so he lived and died an Englishman; and after him no ruler, these nine hundred years, has ever sat on the throne of the Engles by right of conquest.

Both Canute and William recognized and prized the worth of Alfred's rule. The virtues of Alfred are the virtues that have made it possible for the Teutonic tribes to girdle the globe. It was Alfred who taught the nobility of industry, service, education, patience, loyalty, persistence, and the faith and hope that abide. By pen, tongue, and best of all by his life, Alfred taught the truths which we yet hold dear. And by this sign shall ye conquer!


Elbert Hubbard

Sorry, no summary available yet.