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Alfred the Great

King from 871-901 A.D.

The Danes were neighbors of the Norwegian Vikings, and like them

were fond of the sea and piracy. They plundered the English coasts

for more than a century; and most of northern and eastern England

became for a time a Danish country with Danish kings.

What saved the rest of the country to the Saxons was the courage

of the great Saxon king, Alfred.

br /> Alfred was the son of Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. He had

a loving mother who brought him up with great care. Up to the age

of twelve, it is said, he was not able to read well, in spite of

the efforts of his mother and others to teach him.

When Alfred was a boy there were no printed books. The wonderful

art of printing was not invented until about the year 1440--nearly

six hundred years later than Alfred's time. Moreover, the art of

making paper had not yet been invented. Consequently the few books

in use in Alfred's time were written by skillful penmen, who wrote

generally on leaves of parchment, which was sheepskin carefully

prepared so that it might retain ink.

One day Alfred's mother showed him and his elder brothers a beautiful

volume which contained a number of the best Saxon ballads. Some

of the words in this book were written in brightly colored letters,

and upon many of the leaves were painted pictures of gaily-dressed

knights and ladies.

"Oh, what a lovely book!" exclaimed the boys.

"Yes, it is lovely," replied the mother. "I will give it to

whichever of you children can read it the best in a week."

Alfred began at once to take lessons in reading, and studied hard

day after day. His brothers passed their time in amusements and

made fun of Alfred's efforts. They thought he could not learn to

read as well as they could, no matter how hard he should try.

At the end of the week the boys read the book to their mother,

one after the other. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Alfred

proved to be the best reader and his mother gave him the book.

While still very young Alfred was sent by his father to Rome to

be anointed by His Holiness, the Pope. It was a long and tiresome

journey, made mostly on horseback.

With imposing, solemn ceremony he was anointed by the Holy Father.

Afterwards he spent a year in Rome receiving religious instruction.

In the year 871, when Alfred was twenty-two years old, the Danes

invaded various parts of England. Some great battles were fought,

and Alfred's elder brother Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, was

killed. Thus Alfred became king.

The Danes still continued to fight the Saxons, and defeated Alfred

in a long and severe struggle. They took for themselves the northern

and eastern parts of England.

Moreover, Danes from Denmark continued to cross the sea and ravage

the coast of Saxon England. They kept the people in constant

alarm. Alfred therefore determined to meet the pirates on their

own element, the sea. So he built and equipped the first English

navy, and in 875 gained the first naval victory ever won by the


A few years after this, however, great numbers of Danes from the

northern part of England came pouring into the Saxon lands. Alfred

himself was obliged to flee for his life.

For many months he wandered through forests and over hills to avoid

being taken by the Danes. He sometimes made his home in caves and

in the huts of shepherds and cowherds. Often he tended the cattle

and sheep and was glad to get a part of the farmer's dinner in pay

for his services.

Once, when very hungry, he went into the house of a cowherd and

asked for something to eat. The cowherd's wife was baking cakes

and she said she would give him some when they were done.

"Watch the cakes and do not let them burn, while I go across the

field to look after the cows," said the woman, as she hurried away.

Alfred took his seat on the chimney-corner to do as he was told.

But soon his thoughts turned to his troubles and he forgot about

the cakes.

When the woman came back she cried out with vexation, for the

cakes were burned and spoiled. "You lazy, good-for-nothing man!"

she said, "I warrant you can eat cakes fast enough; but you are

too lazy to help me bake them."

With that she drove the poor hungry Alfred out of her house. In

his ragged dress he certainly did not look like a king, and she

had no idea that he was anything but a poor beggar.

Some of Alfred's friends discovered where he was hiding and joined

him. In a little time a body of soldiers came to him and a strong

fort was built by them. From this fort Alfred and his men went

out now and then and gave battle to small parties of the Danes.

Alfred was successful and his army grew larger and larger.

One day he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and went into

the camp of the Danes. He strolled here and there, playing on a

harp and singing Saxon ballads. At last, Guthrum (Guth'-rum), the

commander of the Danes, ordered the minstrel to be brought to his


Alfred went. "Sing to me some of your charming songs," said Guthrum.

"I never heard more beautiful music." So the kingly harper played

and sang for the Dane, and went away with handsome presents. But

better than that, he had gained information that was of the greatest


In a week he attacked the Danish forces and defeated them with

great slaughter in a battle which lasted all day and far into the

night. Guthrum was taken prisoner and brought before Alfred.

Taking his harp in his hands, Alfred played and sang one of the

ballads with which he had entertained Guthrum in the camp. The

Dane started in amazement and exclaimed:

"You, then, King Alfred, were the wandering minstrel?"

"Yes," replied Alfred, "I was the musician whom you received so

kindly. Your life is now in my hands; but I will give you your

liberty if you will become a Christian and never again make war on

my people."

"King Alfred," said Guthrum, "I will become a Christian, and so

will all my men if you will grant liberty to them as to me; and

henceforth, we will be your friends."

Alfred then released the Danes, and they were baptized as Christians.

An old road running across England from London to Chester was then

agreed upon as the boundary between the Danish and Saxon kingdoms;

and the Danes settled in East Anglia, as the eastern part of England

was called.

Years of peace and prosperity followed for Alfred's kingdom. During

these years the king rebuilt the towns that had been destroyed by

the Danes, erected new forts, and greatly strengthened his army

and navy.

He also encouraged trade; and he founded a school like that

established by Charlemagne. He himself translated a number of Latin

books into Saxon, and probably did more for the cause of education

than any other king that ever wore the English crown.