Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
The early Saxons
Their conquest of England
Division of England into petty kingdoms
Conversion of the Saxons
The Saxon bishoprics
Early distinguished men
Isadore, Caedmon, and Baeda, or Bede
Birth and early life of Alfred
Succession to the throne of Wessex
Danish invasions
Humiliation and defeat of Alfred
His subsequent conquests
Final settlement of the Danes
Alfred fortifies his kingdom
Reorganizes the army and navy
His naval successes
Renewed Danish invasions
The laws of Alfred
Their severity
Alfred’s judicial reforms
Establishment of shires and parishes
Administrative reforms
Financial resources of Alfred
His efforts in behalf of education
His literary labors
Final defeat of the Danes
Death and character of Alfred
His services to civilization

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England

A.D. 849-901.

Alfred is one of the most interesting characters in all history for those blended virtues and talents which remind us of a David, a Marcus Aurelius, or a Saint Louis,–a man whom everybody loved, whose deeds were a boon, whose graces were a radiance, and whose words were a benediction; alike a saint, a poet, a warrior, and a statesman. He ruled a little kingdom, but left a great name, second only to Charlemagne, among the civilizers of his people and nation in the Middle Ages. As a man of military genius he yields to many of the kings of England, to say nothing of the heroes of ancient and modern times.

Embarkation of Anglo-Saxons for the Conquest of England After the painting by H. Merté

When he was born, A.D. 849, the Saxons had occupied Britain, or England, about four hundred years, having conquered it from the old Celtic inhabitants soon after the Romans had retired to defend their own imperial capital from the Goths. Like the Goths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, Lombards, and Heruli, the Saxons belonged to the same Teutonic race, whose remotest origin can be traced to Central Asia,–kindred, indeed, to the early inhabitants of Italy and Greece, whom we call Indo-European, or Aryan. These Saxons–one of the fiercest tribes of the Teutonic barbarians;–lived, before the invasion of Britain, in that part of Europe which we now call Schleswig, in the heart of the peninsula which parts the Baltic from the northern seas; also in those parts of Germany which now belong to Hanover and Oldenburg. It does not appear from the best authorities that these tribes–called Engle, Saxon, and Jute–wandered about seeking a precarious living, but they were settled in villages, in the government of which we trace the germs of the subsequent social and political institutions of England. The social centre was the homestead of the oetheling or corl, distinguished from his fellow-villagers by his greater wealth and nobler blood, and held by them in hereditary reverence. From him and his brother-oethelings the leaders of a warlike expedition were chosen. He alone was armed with spear and sword, and his long hair floated in the wind. He was bound to protect his kinsmen from wrong and injustice. The land which inclosed the village, whether reserved for pasture, wood, or tillage, was undivided, and every free villager had the right of turning his cattle and swine upon it, and also of sharing in the division of the harvest. The basis of the life was agricultural. Our Saxon ancestors in Germany did not subsist exclusively by hunting or fishing, although these pursuits were not neglected. They were as skilful with the plough and mattock as they were in steering a boat or hunting a deer or pursuing a whale. They were coarse in their pleasures, but religious in their turn of mind; Pagans, indeed, but worshipping the powers of Nature with poetic ardor. They were born warriors, and their passion for the sea led to adventurous enterprise. Before the close of the third century their boats, driven by fifty oars, had been seen in the British waters; and after the Romans had left the Britons to defend themselves against the Scots and Picts, the harassed rulers of the land invoked the aid of these Saxon pirates, and, headed by two ealdormen,–Hengist and Horsa,–they landed on the Isle of Thanet in the year 449.

These two chieftains are the earliest traditionary heroes of the Saxons in England. Their mercenary work was soon done, and after it was done they had no idea of retiring to their own villages in Germany. They cast their greedy eyes on richer pastures and more fruitful fields. Brother-pirates flocked from the Elbe and Rhine to their settlement in Thanet. In forty-five years after Hengist and Horsa landed, Cerdic with a more formidable band had taken possession of a large part of the southern coast, and pushed his way to Winchester and founded the kingdom of Wessex. But the work of conquest was slow. It took seventy years for the Saxons to become masters of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Essex, and Wessex.

A stout resistance to the invading Saxons had been made by the native Britons, headed by Arthur,–a legendary hero, who is thought to have lived near the close of the fifth century. His deeds and those of the knights of the Round Table form the subject of one of the most interesting romances of the Middle Ages, probably written in the brightest age of chivalry, and by a monk very ignorant of history, since he gives many Norman names to his characters. But all the valor of the Celtic hero and his chivalrous followers was of no avail before the fierce and persistent attacks of a hardier race, bent on the possession of a fairer land than their own.

We know but little of the details of the various conflicts until Britain was finally won by these predatory tribes of barbarians. The stubborn resistance of the Britons led to their final retreat or complete extermination, and with their disappearance also perished what remained of the Roman civilization. The resistance of the Britons was much more obstinate than that of any of the other provinces of the Empire; but, as the forces arrayed against them were comparatively small, the work of conquest was slow. “It took thirty years to win Kent alone, and sixty to complete the conquest of south Britain, and nearly two hundred to subdue the whole island.” But when the conquest was made it was complete, and England was Saxon, in language, in institutions, and in manners; while France retained much of the language, habits, and institutions of the Romans, and even of the old Gaulish elements of society. England became a German nation on the complete wreck of everything Roman, whose peculiar characteristic was the freedom of those who tilled the land or gathered around the military standard of their chieftains. It was the gradual transfer of a whole German nation from the Elbe and Rhine to the Thames and the Humber, with their original village institutions, under the rule of their eorls, with the simple addition of kings,–unknown in their original settlements, but brought about by the necessities which military life and conquest produced.

After the conquest we find seven petty kings, who ruled in different parts of the island. Jealousies, wars, and marriages soon reduced their number to three, ruling over Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria. All the people of these kingdoms were Pagan, the chief deity of whom was Woden. It was not till the middle of the seventh century that Christianity was introduced into Wessex, although Kent and Northumbria received Christian missionaries half-a-century earlier. The beautiful though well-known tradition of the incidents which led to the introduction of the Christian religion deserves a passing mention. About the middle of the sixth century some Saxons taken in war, in one of the quarrels of rival kings, and hence made slaves, were exposed for sale in Rome. Gregory the Great, then simply deacon, passing by the market-place, observed their fair faces, white bodies, blue eyes, and golden hair, and inquired of the slave-dealer who they were. “They are English, or Angles.” “No, not Angles,” said the pious and poetic deacon; “they are angels, with faces so angelic. From what country did they come?” “From Deira.” “De Ira! ay, plucked from God’s wrath. What is the name of their king?” “Ella.” “Ay, let alleluia be sung in their land.” It need scarcely be added that when this pious and witty deacon became pope he remembered these Saxon slaves, and sent Augustin (or Austin,–not to be confounded with Augustine of Hippo, who lived nearly two centuries earlier), with forty monks as missionaries to convert the pagan Saxons. They established themselves in Kent A.D. 597, which became the seat of the first English bishopric, through the favor of the king, Aethelbert, whose wife Clotilda, a French princess, had been previously converted. Soon after, Essex followed the example of Kent; and then Northumbria. Wessex was the last of the Saxon kingdoms to be converted, their inhabitants being especially fierce and warlike.

It is singular that no traces of Christianity seem to have been left in Britain on the completion of the Saxon conquest, although it had been planted there as early as the time of Constantine. Helena was a Christian, and Pelagius and Celestine were British monks. But the Saxon conquest eradicated all that was left of Roman influence and institutions.

When Christianity had once acquired a foothold among the Saxons its progress was rapid. In no country were monastic institutions more firmly planted. Monasteries and churches were erected in the principal settlements and liberally endowed by the Saxon kings. In Kent were the great sees of Canterbury and Rochester; in Essex was London; in East Anglia was Norwich; in Wessex was Winchester; in Mercia were Lichfield, Leicester, Worcester, and Hereford; in Northumbria were York, Durham, and Ripon. Each cathedral had its schools and convents. Christianity became the law of the land, and entered largely into all the Saxon codes. There was a constant immigration of missionaries into Britain, and the great sees were filled with distinguished ecclesiastics, frequently from the continent, since a strong union was cemented between Rome and the English churches. Prince and prelate made frequent pilgrimages to the old capital of the world, and were received with distinguished honors. The monasteries were filled with princes and nobles and ladies of rank. As early as the eighth century monasteries were enormously multiplied and enriched, for the piety of the Saxons assumed a monastic type. What civilization existed can be traced chiefly to the Church.

We read of only three great names among the Saxons who impressed their genius on the nation, until the various Saxon kingdoms were united under the sovereignty of Ecgberht, or Egbert, king of Wessex, about the middle of the ninth century. These were Theodore, Caedmon, and Baeda. The first was a monk from Tarsus, whom the Pope dispatched in the year 668 to Britain as Archbishop of Canterbury. To him the work of church organization was intrusted. He enlarged the number of the sees, and arranged them on the basis which was maintained for a thousand years. The subordination of priest to bishop and bishop to primate was more clearly defined by him. He also assembled councils for general legislation, which perhaps led the way to national parliaments. He not only organized the episcopate, but the parish system, and even the system of tithes has been by some attributed to him. The missionary who had been merely the chaplain of a nobleman became the priest of the manor or parish.

The second memorable man was born a cowherd; encouraged to sing his songs by the abbess Hilda, a “Northumbrian Deborah.” When advanced in life he entered through her patronage a convent, and sang the marvellous and touching stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, fixing their truths on the mind of the nation, and becoming the father of English poetry.

The third of these great men was the greatest, Baeda,–or Bede, as the name is usually spelled. He was a priest of the great abbey church of Weremouth, in Northumbria, and was a master of all the learning then known. He was the life of the famous school of Jarrow, and it is said that six hundred monks, besides strangers, listened to his teachings. His greatest work was an “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,” which extends from the landing of Julius Caesar to the year 731. He was the first English historian, and the founder of mediaeval history, and all we know of the one hundred and fifty years after the landing of Augustin the missionary is drawn from him. He was not only historian, but theologian,–the father of the education of the English nation.

It was one hundred and fourteen years after the death of the “venerable Bede” before Alfred was born, A.D. 849, the youngest son of Aethelwulf, king of Wessex, who united under his rule all the Saxon kingdoms. The mother of Alfred was Osburgha, a German princess of extraordinary force of character. From her he received, at the age of four, the first rudiments of education, and learned to sing those Saxon ballads which he afterwards recited with so much effect in the Danish camp. At the age of five Alfred was sent to Rome, probably to be educated, where he remained two years, visiting on his return the court of Charles the Bald,–the centre of culture in Western Europe. The celebrated Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims,–the greatest churchman of the age,–was the most influential minister of the king; at whose table also sat John Erigena, then engaged in a controversy with Gotteschalk, the German monk, about the presence of Christ in the eucharist,–the earliest notable theological controversy after the Patristic age. Alfred was too young to take an interest in this profound discussion; but he may perhaps have received an intellectual impulse from his visit to Rome and Paris, which affected his whole subsequent life.

About this time his father, over sixty years of age, married a French princess of the name of Judith, only fourteen years of age,–even in that rude age a great scandal, which nearly resulted in his dethronement. He lived but two years longer; and his youthful widow, to the still greater scandal of the realm and Church, married her late husband’s eldest son, Ethelbald, who inherited the crown. It was through this woman, and her subsequent husband Baldwin, called Bras de Fer, Count of Flanders, that the English kings, since the Conqueror, trace their descent from Alfred and Charlemagne; for her son, the second Count of Flanders, married Elfrida, the daughter of Alfred. From this union descended the Conqueror’s wife Matilda. Thus the present royal family of England can trace a direct descent through William the Conqueror, Alfred, and Charlemagne, and is allied by blood, remotely indeed, with most of the reigning princes of Europe.

The three elder brothers of Alfred reigned successively over Wessex,–to whom all England owned allegiance. It was during their short reigns that the great invasion of the Danes took place, which reduced the whole island to desolation and misery. These Danes were of the same stock as the Saxons, but more enterprising and bold. It seems that they drove the Saxons before them, as the Saxons, three hundred years before, had driven the Britons. In their destructive ravages they sacked and burned Croyland, Peterborough, Huntington, Ely, and other wealthy abbeys,–the glory of the kingdom,–together with their valuable libraries.

It was then that Alfred (already the king’s most capable general) began his reign, A.D. 871, at the age of twenty-three, on the death of his brother Ethelred,–a brave and pious prince, mortally wounded at the battle of Merton.

It was Alfred’s memorable struggle with the Danes which gave to him his military fame. When he ascended the throne these barbarians had gained a foothold, and in a few years nearly the whole of England was in their hands. Wave followed wave in the dreadful invasion; fleet after fleet and army after army was destroyed, and the Saxons were driven nearly to despair; for added to the evils of pillage and destruction were pestilence and famine, the usual attendants of desolating wars. In the year 878 the heroic leader of the disheartened people was compelled to hide himself, with a few faithful followers, in the forest of Selwood, amid the marshes of Somersetshire. Yet Alfred–a fugitive–succeeded at last in rescuing his kingdom of Wessex from the dominion of Pagan barbarians, and restoring it to a higher state of prosperity than it had ever attained before. He preserved both Christianity and civilization. For these exalted services he is called “the Great;” and no prince ever more heroically earned the title.

“It is hard,” says Hughes, who has written an interesting but not exhaustive life of Alfred, “to account for the sudden and complete collapse of the West Saxon power in January, 878, since in the campaign of the preceding year Alfred had been successful both by sea and land.” Yet such seems to have been the fact, whatever may be its explanation. No such panic had ever overcome the Britons, who made a more stubborn resistance. No prince ever suffered a severer humiliation than did the Saxon monarch during the dreary winter of 878; but, according to Asser, it was for his ultimate good. Alfred was deeply and sincerely religious, and like David saw the hand of God in all his misfortunes. In his case adversity proved the school of greatness. For six months he was hidden from public view, lost sight of entirely by his afflicted subjects, enduring great privations, and gaining a scanty subsistence. There are several popular legends about his life in the marshes, too well known to be described,–one about the cakes and another about his wanderings to the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel, both probable enough; yet, if true, they show an extraordinary depth of misfortunes.

At last his subjects began to rally. It was known by many that Alfred was alive. Bodies of armed followers gradually gathered at his retreat. He was strongly intrenched; and occasionally he issued from his retreat to attack straggling bands, or to make reconnoissance of the enemy’s forces. In May, 878, he left his fortified position and met some brave and faithful subjects at Egbert’s Stone, twenty miles to the east of Selwood. The gathering had been carefully planned and secretly made, and was unknown to the Danes. His first marked success was at Edington, or Ethandune, where the Pagan host lay encamped, near Westbury. We have no definite knowledge of the number of men engaged in that bloody and desperate battle, in which the Saxons were greatly outnumbered by the Danes, who were marshalled under a chieftain called Guthrun. But the battle was decisive, and made Alfred once more master of England south of the Thames. Guthrun, now in Alfred’s power, was the ablest warrior that the Northmen had as yet produced. He was shut up in an inland fort, with no ships on the nearest river, and with no hope of reinforcements. At the end of two weeks he humbly sued for peace, offering to quit Wessex for good, and even to embrace the Christian religion. Strange as it may seem, Alfred granted his request,–either, with profound statesmanship, not wishing to drive a desperate enemy to extremities, or seeking his conversion. The remains of the discomfited Pagan host crossed over into Mercia, and gave no further trouble. Never was a conquest attended with happier results. Guthrun (with thirty of his principal nobles) was baptized into the Christian faith, and received the Saxon name of Athelstan. But East Anglia became a Danish kingdom. The Danes were not expelled from England. Their settlement was permanent. The treaty of Wedmore confirmed them in their possessions. Alfred by this treaty was acknowledged as undisputed master of England south of the Thames; of Wessex and Essex, including London, Hertford, and St. Albans; of the whole of Mercia west of Watling Street,–the great road from London to Chester; but the Danes retained also one half of England, which shows how formidable they were, even in defeat. The Danes and the Saxons, it would seem, commingled, and gradually became one nation.

The great Danish invasion of the ninth century was successful, since it gave half of England to the Pagans. It is a sad thing to contemplate. Civilization was doubtless retarded. Whole districts were depopulated, and monasteries and churches were ruthlessly destroyed, with their libraries and works of art. This could not have happened without a fearful demoralization among the Saxons themselves. They had become prosperous, and their wealth was succeeded by vices, especially luxury and sloth. Their wealth tempted the more needy of the adventurers from the North, who succeeded in their aggressions because they were stronger than the Saxons. So slow was the progress of England in civilization. As soon as it became centralized under a single monarch, it was subjected to fresh calamities. It would seem that the history of those ages is simply the history of violence and spoliations. There was the perpetual waste of human energies. Barbarism seemed to be stronger than civilization. Nor in this respect was the condition of England unique. The same public misfortunes happened in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. For five hundred years Europe was the scene of constant strife. Not until the Normans settled in England were the waves of barbaric invasion arrested.

The Danish conquest made a profound impression on Alfred, and stimulated him to renewed efforts to preserve what still remained of Christian civilization. His whole subsequent life was spent in actual war with the Northmen, or in preparations for war. It was remarkable that he succeeded as well as he did, for after all he was the sovereign of scarcely half the territory that Egbert had won, and over which his grandfather and father had ruled. He preserved Wessex; and in preserving Wessex he saved England, which would have been replunged in barbarism but for his perseverance, energy, and courage. That Danish invasion was a chastisement not undeserved, for both the clergy and the laity had become corrupt, had been enervated by prosperity. The clergy especially were lazy and ignorant; not one in a thousand could write a common letter of salutation. They had fattened on the contributions of princes and of the credulous people; they saw the destruction of their richest and proudest abbeys, and their lands seized by Pagan barbarians, who settled down in them as lords of the soil, especially in Northumbria. But Alfred at least arrested their further progress, and threw them on the defensive. He knew that the recovery of the conquests which the Saxons had made was a work of exceeding difficulty. It was necessary to make great preparations for future struggles, as peace with the Danes was only a truce. They aimed at the complete conquest of the island, and they sought to rouse the hostility of the Welsh.

Alfred showed a wise precaution against future assaults in constructing fortresses at the most important points within his control. Before his day the Saxons had but few fortified positions, and this want of forts had greatly facilitated the Danish conquest. But the Danes, as soon as they gained a strong position, fortified it, and were never afterwards ejected by force. Probably Alfred took the hint from them. He rebuilt and strengthened the fortresses along the coast, as he had four precious years of unmolested work; and for this his small kingdom was doubtless severely taxed. He imported skilled workmen, and adopted the newest improvements. He made use of stone instead of timber, and extended his works of construction to palaces, halls, and churches, as well as castles. So well built were his fortifications, that no strong place was ever afterwards wrested from him. In those times the defence of kingdoms was in castles. They marked the feudal ages equally with monasteries and cathedral churches. Castles protected the realm from invasion and conquest, as much as they did the family of a feudal noble. The wisdom as well as the necessity of fortified cities was seen in a marked manner when the Northmen, in 885, stole up the Thames and Medway and made an unexpected assault on Rochester. They were completely foiled, and were obliged to retreat to their ships, leaving behind them even the spoil they had brought from France. This successful resistance was a great moral assistance to Alfred, since it opened the eyes of bishops and nobles to the necessity of fortifying their towns, to which they had hitherto been opposed, being unwilling to incur the expense. So it was not long before Alfred had a complete chain of defences on the coast, as well as around his cities and palaces, able to resist sudden attacks,–which he had most to fear. His great work of fortification was that of London, which, though belonging to him by the peace of Wedmore, was neglected, fallen to decay, filled with lawless bands of marauders and pirates, and defenceless against attack. In 886 he marched against this city, which made no serious resistance; rebuilt it, made it habitable, fortified it, and encouraged people to settle in it, for he foresaw its vast commercial importance. Under the rule of his son Ethelred, it regained the pre-eminence it had enjoyed under the Romans as a commercial centre.

Having done what he could to protect his dominion from sudden attacks, Alfred then turned his attention to the reorganization of his army and navy. Strictly speaking he had no regular army, or standing force, which he could call his own. When the country was threatened the freemen flew to arms, under their eorls and ealdormen; and on this force the king was obliged to rely. They sometimes acted without his orders, obeying the calls of their leaders when danger was most imminent. On the men in the immediate neighborhood of danger the brunt of the contest fell. Nor could levies be relied upon for any length of time; they dwindled after a few weeks, in order to attend to their agricultural interests, for agriculture was the only great and permanent pursuit in the feudal ages. Everything was subordinate to labors in the field. The only wealth was in land, except what was hoarded by the clergy and nobles.

How well Alfred paid his soldiers it is difficult to determine. His own private means were large, and the Crown lands were very extensive. One-third of his income was spent upon his army. But it is not probable that a large force was under pay in time of peace; yet he had always one third of his forces ready to act promptly against an enemy. The burden of the service was distributed over the whole kingdom. The main feature of his military reform seems to have been in the division of his forces into three bodies, only one of which was liable to be called upon for service at a time, except in great emergencies. In regard to tactics, or changes in armor and mode of fighting, we know nothing; for war as an art or science did not exist in any Teutonic kingdom; it was lost with, the fall of the Roman Empire. How far Alfred was gifted with military genius we are unable to say, beyond courage, fertility of resources, activity of movement, and a marvellous patience. His greatest qualities were moral, like those of Washington. It is his reproachless character, and his devotion to duty, and love of his people which impress us from first to last. As has been said of Marcus Aurelius, Alfred was a Saint Anselm on a throne. He had none of those turbulent and restless qualities which we associate with mediaeval kings. What a contrast between him and William the Conqueror!

Alfred also gave his attention to the construction of a navy, as well as to the organization of an army, knowing that it was necessary to resist the Northmen on the ocean and prevent their landing on the coast. In 875 he had fought a naval battle with success, and had taken one of the ships of the sea-kings, which furnished him with a model to build his own ships,–doing the same thing that the Romans did in their early naval warfare with the Carthaginians. In 877 he destroyed a Danish fleet on its way to relieve Exeter. But he soon made considerable improvement on the ships of his enemies, making them twice as long as those of the Danes, with a larger number of oars. These were steadier and swifter than the older vessels. As the West Saxons were not a seafaring people, he employed and munificently rewarded men from other nations more accustomed to the sea,–whether Frisians, Franks, Britons, Scots, or even Danes. The result was, he was never badly beaten at sea, and before the end of his reign he had swept the coast clear of pirates. Within two years from the treaty of Wedmore his fleet was ready for action. He was prepared to meet the sea-kings on equal terms, and in 882 he had gained an important naval battle over a fleet that was meditating an invasion.

In the year 885 the Danes again invaded England and laid siege to Rochester, but fled to their ships on the approach of Alfred. They were pursued by the Saxon king and defeated with great slaughter, sixteen Danish vessels being destroyed and their crews put to the sword. Nor had Guthrun Athelstan, the ex-viking, been true to his engagements. He had allowed two additional settlements of Danes on the East Anglian coasts, and had even assisted Alfred’s enemies. Their defeat, however, induced him to live peaceably in East Anglia until he died in 890. These successes of Alfred secured peace with the Danes for eight more years, during which he pursued his various schemes for the improvement of his people, and in preparations for future wars. He had put his kingdom in a state of defence, and now turned his attention to legislation,–the supremest labor of an enlightened monarch.

The laws of Alfred wear a close resemblance to those which Moses gave to the Hebrews, and moreover are pervaded with Christian ideas. His aim seems to have been to recognize in his jurisprudence the supreme obedience which is due to the laws of God. In all the laws of the converted Teutonic nations, from Charlemagne down, we notice the influence of the Christian clergy in modifying the severity of the old Pagan codes. Alfred did not aim to be an original legislator, like Moses or Solon, but selected from the Mosaic code, and also from the laws of Ethelbert, Ina, Offa, and other Saxon princes, those regulations which he considered best adapted to the circumstances of the people whom he governed. He recognized more completely than any of his predecessors the rights of property, and attached great sanctity to oaths. Whoever violated his pledge was sentenced to imprisonment. He raised the dignity of ealdormen and bishops to that of the highest rank. He made treason against the royal authority the gravest offence known to the laws, and all were deemed traitors who should presume to draw the sword in the king’s house. He made new provisions for personal security, and severely punished theft and robbery of every kind, especially of the property of the Church. He bestowed freedom on slaves after six years of service. Some think he instituted trial by jury. Like Theodosius and Charlemagne, he gave peculiar privileges to the clergy as a counterpoise to the lawlessness of nobles.

One of the peculiarities of his legislation was compensation for crime,–seen alike in the Mosaic dispensation and in the old customs of the Germanic nations in their native forests. On conviction, the culprit was compelled to pay a sum of money to the relatives of the injured, and another sum to the community at large. This compensation varied according to the rank of the injured party,–and rank was determined by wealth. The owner of two hydes of land was ranked above a ceorl, or simple farmer, while the owner of twelve hydes was a royal thane. In the compensation for crime the gradation was curious: twelve shillings would pay for the loss of a foot, ten for a great toe, and twenty for a thumb. If a man robbed his equal, he was compelled to pay threefold; if he robbed the king, he paid ninefold; and if he robbed the church, he was obliged to return twelvefold: hence the robbery of ecclesiastical property was attended with such severe penalties that it was unusual. In some cases theft was punished with death.

The code of Alfred was severe, but in an age of crime and disorder severity was necessary. He also instituted a vigorous police, and divided the country into counties, and these again into hundreds or parishes, each of which was made responsible for the maintenance of order and the detection of crime. He was severe on judges when they passed sentence irrespective of the rights of jurors. He did not emancipate slaves, but he ameliorated their condition and limited their term of compulsory service. Burglary in the king’s house was punished by a fine of one hundred and twenty shillings; in an archbishop’s, at ninety; in a bishop’s or ealdorman’s, at sixty; in the house of a man of twelve hydes, at thirty shillings; in a six-hyde man’s, at fifteen; in a churl’s, at five shillings,–the fine being graded according to the rank of him whose house had been entered. There was a rigorous punishment for working on Sunday: if a theow, by order of his lord, the lord had to pay a penalty of thirty shillings; if without the lord’s order, he was condemned to be flogged. If a freeman worked without his lord’s order, he had to pay sixty shillings or forfeit his freedom. If a man was found burning a tree in a forest, he was obliged to pay a fine of sixty shillings, in order to protect the forest; or if he cut down a tree under which thirty swine might stand, he was obliged to pay a fine of sixty shillings. These penalties seem severe, but they were inflicted for offences difficult to be detected and frequently committed. We infer from these various fines that burglary, robbery, petty larcenies, and brawls were the most common offences against the laws.

One of the greatest services which Alfred rendered to the cause of civilization in England was in separating judicial from executive functions. The old eorls and ealdormen were warriors; and yet to them had been committed the administration of justice, which they often abused,–frequently deciding cases against the verdicts of jurors, and sometimes unjustly dooming innocent men to capital punishment. Alfred hanged an ealdorman or alderman, one Freberne, for sentencing Haspin to death when the jury was in doubt. He even hanged twenty-four inferior officers, on whom judicial duties devolved, for palpable injustice.

The love of justice and truth was one of the main traits of Alfred’s character, and he painfully perceived that the ealdormen of shires, though faithful and valiant warriors, were not learned and impartial enough to administer justice. There was scarcely one of them who could read the written law, or who had any extensive acquaintance with the common law or the usages which had been in force from time immemorial,–as far back as in the original villages of Germany. Moreover, the poor and defenceless had need of protection. They always had needed it, for in Pagan and barbarous countries their rights were too often disregarded. When brute force bore everything before it, it became both the duty and privilege of the king, who represented central power, to maintain the rights of the humblest of his people,–to whom he was a father. To see justice enforced is the most exalted of the prerogatives of sovereigns; and no one appreciated this delegation of sovereign power from the Universal Father more than Alfred, the most conscientious and truth-loving of all the kings of the Middle Ages.

So, to maintain justice, Alfred set aside the ignorant and passionate ealdormen, and appointed judges whose sole duty it was to interpret and enforce the laws, and men best fitted to represent the king in the royal courts. They were sent through the shires to see that justice was done, and to report the decisions of the county courts. Thus came into existence the judges of assize,–an office or institution which remains to this day, amid all the revolutions of English thought and life, and all the changes which politics and dynasties have wrought.

King Alfred The Great

King Alfred The Great

Nor did Alfred rest with a reform of the law courts. He defined the boundaries of shires, which divisions are very old, and subdivided them into parishes, which have remained to this day. He gave to each hundred its court, from which appeals were made to a court representing several hundreds,–about three to each county. Each hundred was subdivided into tythings, or companies of ten neighboring householders, who were held as mutual sureties or frank (free) pledges for each other’s orderly conduct; so that each man was a member of a tything, and was obliged to keep household rolls of his servants. Thus every liegeman was known to the law, and was taught his duties and obligations; and every tything was responsible for the production of its criminals, and obliged to pay a fine if they escaped. Every householder was liable to answer for any stranger who might stop at his house. “This mutual liability or suretyship was the pivot of all Alfred’s administrative reform, and wrought a remarkable change in the kingdom, so that merchants and travellers could go about without armed guards. The forests were emptied of outlaws, and confidence and security succeeded distrust and lawlessness…. The frank pledge-system, which was worked in country districts, was supplied in towns by the machinery of the guilds,–institutions combining the benefit of modern clubs, insurance societies, and trades-unions. As a rule, they were limited to members of one trade or calling.”

Mr. Pearson, in his history of England, as quoted by Hughes, thus sums up this great administrative reform for the preservation of life and property and order during the Middle Ages:–

“What is essential to remember is, that life and property were not secured to the Anglo-Saxon by the State, but by the loyal union of his fellow-citizens; the Saxon guilds are unmatched in the history of their times as evidences of self-reliance, mutual trust, patient self-restraint, and orderly love of law among a young people,

“To recapitulate the reforms of Alfred in the administration of justice and the resettlement of the country, the old divisions of shires were carefully readjusted, and divided into hundreds and tythings. The alderman of the shire still remained the chief officer, but the office was no longer hereditary. The king appointed the alderman, or eorl, who was president of the shire gemot, or council, and chief judge of the county court as well as governor of the shire, but was assisted and probably controlled in his judicial capacity by justices appointed by the king, and not attached to the shire, or in any way dependent on the alderman. The vice-domini, or nominees of the alderman, were abolished, and an officer substituted for them called the reeve of the shire, or sheriff, who carried out the decrees of the courts. The hundreds and tythings were represented by their own officers, and had their hundred-courts and courts-leet, which exercised a trifling criminal jurisdiction, but were chiefly assemblies answering to our grand juries and parish vestries. All householders were members of them, and every man thus became responsible for keeping the king’s peace.”

In regard to the financial resources of Alfred we know but little. Probably they were great, considering the extent and population of the little kingdom over which he ruled, but inconsiderable in comparison with the revenues of England at the present day. To build fortresses, construct a navy, and keep in pay a considerable military force,–to say nothing of his own private expenditure and the expense of his court, his public improvements, the endowment of churches, the support of schools, the relief of the poor, and keeping the highways and bridges in repair,–required a large income. This was derived from the public revenues, crown lands, and private property. The public revenue was raised chiefly by customs, tolls, and fines. The crown lands were very extensive, as well as the private property of the sovereign, as he had large estates in every county of his kingdom.

But whatever his income, he set apart one quarter of it for religious purposes, one-sixth for architecture, and one-eighth for the poor, besides a considerable sum for foreigners, whom he liberally patronized. He richly endowed schools and monasteries. He was devoted to the Church, and his relations with the Pope were pleasant and intimate, although more independent than those of many of his successors.

All the biographers of Alfred speak of his zealous efforts in behalf of education. He established a school for the young nobles of his court, and taught them himself. His teachers were chiefly learned men drawn from the continent, especially from the Franks, and were well paid by the king. He made the scholarly Asser–a Welsh monk, afterwards bishop of Sherborne, from whose biography of Alfred our best information is derived–his counsellor and friend, and from his instructions acquired much knowledge. To Asser he gave the general superintendence of education, not merely for laymen, but for priests. In his own words, he declared that his wish was that all free-born youth should persevere in learning until they could read the English Scriptures. For those who desired to devote themselves to the Church, he provided the means for the study of Latin. He gave all his children a good education. His own thirst for knowledge was remarkable, considering his cares and public duties. He copied the prayer-book with his own hands, and always carried it in his bosom, Asser read to him all the books which were then accessible. From an humble scholar the king soon became an author. He translated “Consolations of Philosophy” from the Latin of Boethius, a Roman senator of the sixth century,–the most remarkable literary effort of the declining days of the Roman Empire, and highly prized in the Middle Ages. He also translated the “Chronicle of the World,” by Orosius, a Spanish priest, who lived in the early part of the fifth century,–a work suggested by Saint Augustine’s “City of God.” The “Ecclesiastical History” of Bede was also translated by Alfred. He is said to have translated the Proverbs of Solomon and the Fables of Aesop. His greatest literary work, however, was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the principal authority of the reign of Alfred. No man of his day wrote the Saxon language so purely as did Alfred himself; and he was distinguished not only for his knowledge of Latin, but for profound philosophical reflections interspersed through his writings, which would do honor to a Father of the Church. He was also a poet, inferior only to Caedmon. Nor was his knowledge confined to literature alone; it was extended to the arts, especially architecture, ship-building, and silver-workmanship. He built more beautiful edifices than any of his predecessors. He also had a knowledge of geography beyond his contemporaries, and sent a Norwegian ship-master to explore the White Sea. He enriched his translation of Orosius by a sketch of the new geographical discoveries in the North. In fact, there was scarcely any branch of knowledge then known in which Alfred was not well instructed,–being a remarkably learned man for his age, and as enlightened as he was learned.

But in the midst of his reforms and wise efforts to civilize his people, the war-clouds gathered once more, and he was obliged to put forth all his energies to defend his realm from the incursions of his old enemies. The death of Charles the Bald in the year 877 left France in a very disordered state, and the Northmen under Hasting, one of the greatest of their vikings, recommenced their ravages. In 893 they crossed the Channel in two hundred and fifty vessels, and invaded England, followed soon after by Hasting with another large detachment, and strongly intrenched themselves near Winchester. Alfred at the same time strongly fortified his own position, about thirty miles distant, and kept so close a watch over the movements of his enemies that they rarely ventured beyond their own intrenchments. A sort of desultory warfare succeeded, and continued for a year without any decisive results. At last the Danes, getting weary, broke up their camps, and resolved to pass into East Anglia. They were met by Alfred at Farnham and forced to fight, which resulted in their defeat and the loss of all the spoils they had taken and all the horses they had brought from France. The discomfited Danes retreated, by means of their ships, to an island in the Thames, at its junction with the Colne, where they were invested by Alfred. They would soon have been at the mercy of the Saxon king, had it not unfortunately happened that the Danes on the east coast, from Essex to Northumbria, joined the invaders, which unlooked-for event compelled Alfred to raise the blockade, and send Ethelred his son to the west, where the Danes were again strongly intrenched at Banfleet, near London. Their camp was successfully stormed, and much booty was taken, together with the wife and sons of Hasting. The Danish fleet was also captured, and some of the vessels were sent to London. But Hasting still held out, in spite of his disaster, and succeeded in intrenching himself with the remnants of his army at Shoebury, ten miles from Banfleet, from which he issued on a marauding expedition along the northern banks of the Thames, carrying fire and sword wherever he went, thence turned northward, making no halt until he reached the banks of the Severn, where he again intrenched himself, but was again beaten. Hasting saved himself by falling back on a part of East Anglia removed from Alfred’s influence, and appeared near Chester. Alfred himself had undertaken the task of guarding Exeter and the coasts of Devonshire and South Wales, where he wintered, leaving Ethelred to pursue Hasting.

Thus a year passed in the successful defence of the kingdom, the Danes having gained no important advantage. At the end of the second campaign Hasting still maintained his ground and fortified himself on the Thames, within twenty miles of London. At the close of the third year, Hasting, being driven from his position on the Thames, established himself in Shropshire. “In the spring of 897 Hasting broke up his last camp on the English soil, being foiled at every point, and crossed the sea with the remnant of his followers to the banks of the Seine.” The war was now virtually at an end, and the Danes utterly defeated.

The work for which Alfred was raised up was at last accomplished. He had stayed the inundations of the Northmen, defended his kingdom of Wessex, and planted the seeds of a higher civilization in England, winning the love and admiration of his subjects. The greatness of Alfred should not be measured by the size of his kingdom. It is not the bigness of a country that gives fame to its illustrious men. The immortal heroes of Palestine and Greece ruled over territories smaller and of less importance than the kingdom of Wessex. It is the greatness of their characters that preserves their name and memory.

Alfred died in the year 901, at the age of fifty-two, worn out with disease and labors, leaving his kingdom in a prosperous state; and it had rest under his son Edward for nine years. Then the contest was renewed with the Danes, and it was under the reign of Edward that Mercia was once more annexed to Wessex, as well as Northumbria. Edward died in 925, and under the reign of his son Aethelstan the Saxon kingdom reached still greater prosperity. The completion of the West Saxon realm was reserved for Edmund, son of Aethelstan, who ascended the throne in 940, being a mere boy. He was ruled by the greatest statesman of that age, the celebrated Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury and Archbishop of Canterbury,–a great statesman and a great Churchman, like Hincmar of Rheims.

Thus the heroism and patience of Alfred were rewarded by the restoration of the Saxon power, and the absorption of what Mr. Green calls “Danelagh,” after a long and bitter contest, of which Alfred was the greatest hero. In surveying his conquests we are reminded of the long contest which Charlemagne had with the Saxons. Next to Charlemagne, Alfred was the greatest prince who reigned in Europe after the dissolution of the Roman Empire, until the Norman Conquest. He fought not for the desire of bequeathing a great empire to his descendants, but to rescue his country from ruin, in the midst of overwhelming calamities. It was a struggle for national existence, not military glory. In the successful defence of his kingdom against the ravages of Pagan invaders he may be likened to William the Silent in preserving the nationality of Holland. No European monarch from the time of Alfred can be compared to him in the service he rendered to his country. The memorableness of a war is to be gauged not by the number of the combatants, but by the sacredness of a cause. It was the devotion of Washington to a great cause which embalms his memory in the heart of the world. And no English king has left so hallowed a name as Alfred: it was because he was a benefactor, and infused his energy of purpose into a discouraged and afflicted people. How far his saint-like virtues were imitated it is difficult to tell. Religion was the groundwork of his character,–faith in God and devotion to duty. His piety was also more enlightened than the piety of his age, since it was practical and not ascetic. His temper was open, frank, and genial. He loved books and strangers and travellers. There was nothing cynical about him, in spite of his perplexities and discouragements. He had a beautifully balanced character and a many-sided nature. He had the power of inspiring confidence in defeat and danger. His judgment and good sense seemed to fit him for any emergency. He had the same control over himself that he had over others. His patriotism and singleness of purpose inspired devotion. He felt his burdens, but did not seek to throw them off. “Hardship and sorrow,” said he, “not a king but would wish to be without these if he could; but I know he cannot.” “So long as I have lived I have striven to live worthily.” “I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works.” These were some of his precious utterances, so that the love which he won a thousand years ago has lingered around his name from that day to this.

It was a strong sense of duty, quickened by a Christian life, which gave to the character of Alfred its peculiar radiance. He felt his responsibilities as a Christian ruler. He was affable, courteous, accessible. His body was frail and delicate, but his energies were never relaxed. Pride and haughtiness were unknown in his intercourse with bishops or nobles. He had no striking defects. He was the model of a man and a king; and he left the impress of his genius on all the subsequent institutions of his country. “The tree,” says Dr. Pauli, one of his ablest biographers, “which now casts its shadow far and near over the world, when menaced with destruction in its bud, was carefully guarded by Alfred; but at the period when it was ready to burst forth into a plant, he was forced to leave it to the influence of time. Many great men have occupied themselves with the care of this tree, and each in his own way has advanced its growth. William the Conqueror, with his iron hand, bent the tender branches to his will; Henry the Second ruled the Saxons with true Roman pride, but in Magna Charta the old German nature became aroused and worked powerfully, even among the barons. It became free under Edward the Third,–that prince so ambitious of conquest: the old language and the old law, the one somewhat altered, the other much softened, opened the path to a new era. The nation stood like an oak in the full strength of its leafy maturity; and to this strength the Reformation is indebted for its accomplishment. Elizabeth, the greatest woman who ever sat upon a throne, occupied a central position in a golden age of power and literature. Then came the Stuarts, who with their despotic ideas outraged the deeply-rooted Saxon individuality of the English, and by their fall contributed to the sure development of that freedom which was founded so long before. The stern Cromwell and the astute William the Third aided in preparing for the now advanced nation that path in which it has ever since moved. The Anglo-Saxon race has already attained maturity in the New World, and, founded on these pillars, it will triumph in all places and in every age. Alfred’s name will always be placed among those of the great spirits of this earth; and so long as men regard their past history with reverence they will not venture to bring forward any other in comparison with him who saved the West Saxon nation from complete destruction, and in whose heart all the virtues dwelt in such harmonious concord.”


Asser’s Life of Alfred; the Saxon Chronicle; Alfred’s own writings; Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; Thorpe’s Ancient Laws and Institutes of England; Kemble’s Saxons in England; Sir F. Palgrave’s History of the English Commonwealth; Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons; Green’s History of the English People; Dr. Pauli’s Life of Alfred; Alfred the Great, by Thomas Hughes. Freeman, Pearson, Hume, Spelman, Knight, and other English historians may be consulted.

Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers