King Alfred

WE cannot, as Americans, be expected to agree with King James I., that “ the state of Monarchie is the supreamest thing on earth,” although, being children of the twentieth century, we are almost equally startled to hear from our own John Eliot, in his Christian Commonwealth, that for a Christian people to take the pattern of their government from the nations of the world

— that is, to have a mortal king — would be “ an offence to Christ, who intends to rule them himself.” Assailed by Scylla on the one side, as represented by the self-complacent King James, and pressed by Charybdis on the other, in the shape of our insistently dogmatizing Apostle to the Indians, we might do far worse than take refuge with quaint old Sir John Fortescue, who, in his time of exile, — twenty odd years before America was discovered, — showed how and why it was “the office and duty of a king to fight the battailes of his people, and also rightly to judge them.”

Whatever our theoretical views may be as to the availability of kings in modern political circumstances, there is something that appeals to us in the chastened mood underlying the exiled chief justice’s account of kingship. His utterance, moreover, fits the case of King Alfred, whose leadership shone out most conspicuously when he was at Athelney,

— an exile in his own land of Wessex. After all, Fortescue’s definition of kingly duty is but paraphrased from that which was on the lips of Israel when they refused to obey the voice of Samuel, and clamored for Saul to rule over them. Who would not prefer to take his chances under Alfred in the marsh lands of Athelney rather than to live openly in the subjection of Eliot’s Christian Commonwealth ?

Of course, such a simple and straightforward account of kingship as Fortescue’s was better suited alike to the circumstances of Israel in the days of the Judges, and of Britons and Anglo-Saxons at the time of the Danish invasion, than to the situation of the English during the wars of the Roses, when Sir John wrote his Praises of English Laws. For this reason, therefore, it is startling to find in Alfred’s practice a parallel and precedent for the further dictum of Sir John Fortescue, that “ the King of England cannot change the laws at his pleasure.” Indeed, we might almost say that Alfred gave the reason for Sir John’s dictum five hundred years beforehand, when he explained, in the preamble to his laws, that he had added no new enactments to take the place of those of his predecessors omitted, with the advice and consent of his wise men, because he “ could not know whether those who came after us would approve.” It looks, then, as if Alfred and Sir John Fortescue were of one mind with Pym as to the relation of an English king to the laws of the realm. “ The laws of this kingdom,” said Pym in his arraignment of Strafford, “ have invested the Royall Crowne with power sufficient for the manifestation of his goodness and of his greatness.”

It was accordingly a pardonable twisting of the actual facts of history in which the Puritans indulged themselves, when they pressed Alfred into their service against the arbitrary usurpations of the Stuarts. Our own William Penn, not a very noteworthy opponent, in later life, of the royal Stuarts, when he defended his good right to hold a meeting in the London streets, associated the goodness and greatness of Alfred with the liberties of Magna Charta and the immemorial immunity of Englishmen from arbitrary rule ; and we also read of a similar incident in the early annals of the Anne Arundel County colonists. Indeed, the roll is a long one of those who, at moments of intense political feeling, dwelt fondly on the dim records of Alfred and Old English rule. Inevitably, these faroff worthies gathered around them all the perfections which were looked for, and not found, in contemporary sovereigns.

This habit of retrospection can be traced back, in one form or another, to the time of the Norman Conquest; and the glorification of Old English rule began under William the Conqueror’s youngest son, King Henry I., who by his marriage and administration of affairs conciliated the vanquished AngloSaxons. But, curiously enough, Alfred had at the outset little or no part in this Saxon revival. Under the guidance of the Church, praises and retrospective glories clustered around that insignificant descendant of Alfred, one of the feeblest of Old English kings, St. Edward the Confessor. Lives of this saint appeared which glorified in him the good old days before the Conquest, and paid little or no heed to historical facts. As time went on, and the mediæval ideals of saintliness which were bound up with the popular picture of St. Edward lost their hold, the Confessor bulked less, and Alfred more, while the dictates of piety yielded to those of patriotism in these unhistorical retrospections. The like of them have always been dear to the English-speaking race, as we know by the popular vogue of the well-invented tale of Alfred burning the cakes, and the no less admirably devised story of Washington and the cherry tree. The very surname of “ the Great ” habitually attached to King Alfred dates, apparently, from the discussions on government so vigorously maintained in England during the seventeenth century, an epoch proverbially devoid of the critical sense in dealing with history. Alfred’s praises were not sung by assailants of the royal prerogative alone ; he was also held up by the champions of Charles I. as the typically perfect king, “ God’s vicegerent, and the head of the Commonwealth.”

The historian Freeman, whose account of Alfred in the Dictionary of National Biography is one of his most memorable works, rejects for his hero this surname of “the Great,” — which he would have to share with a Napoleon, — and deems him more suitably designated by his Christian name unqualified. Doubtless this point is well taken, and we may accordingly agree to abstain from calling Alfred “ the Great,” because he so utterly deserves the title. Indeed, the chief reason for being very critical as to the facts of our king’s history — for being at some pains in rejecting the fables and inventions that swarm about him—is that his record requires no embellishment. None of all the unhistorical and enthusiastic improvisations about Alfred make him out better or greater than the unvarnished facts will warrant. “ Even his legendary reputation,” says Freeman, “is hardly too great for his merits.”

Alfred himself took the matter of his own good fame very much to heart, as we know from an interpolation, for which he alone is responsible, which occurs in the thirteenth chapter of his translation of Boethius. He there speaks of a man’s good fame as of dearer worth than any wealth ; “ nor can any man with sword slay it,” he adds, “ nor with rope bind, nor does it ever perish.” Again, later on in the same work, Alfred breaks away from his Latin original to make what we may call his plea for fair and serious treatment at the bar of posterity, as follows : “ It behooves me in all truth to say that my resolve has been to live worthily, and to leave to men who should come after I have lived a remembrance of me in good works.”

That being Alfred’s own express mind, those who admire him must be doubly cautious how they accept as history the tales and legends that cluster about his name. They may note the fact that many glorious institutions of which he never dreamt — such as trial by jury, the British navy, the subdivision of England into shires — have had Alfred thrust upon them as their founder; but they must not suffer controversies as to these facts to obscure his genuine quality. His character was straightforward, uncomplicated, and his really great achievements are enough to assure him lasting fame.

To begin with, Alfred literally and ideally performed the whole duty of a king : he fought the battles of his people, and also rightly judged them. But over and above all this, he devoted himself, late in life, and for the sake of his people, to a strenuous course of book-learning, in which he persisted under incredibly adverse circumstances. Indeed, in this regard his high conception of the duties of kingship, along with the remarkable abilities which it called into play, forces us to place him side by side with Marcus Aurelius. But there is a difference, all in favor of Alfred’s shrewder and more utterly self-devoted practical mind. Marcus Aurelius strove to realize in his own person the Platonic dream of a philosopher - king. Alfred did not think of himself or of philosophy. He thought only of the pity it was to live in a time when barbarian hordes had destroyed schools, churches, and libraries. And this thought nerved him, even in the midst of alarums and affrays which had made of the first half of his reign a veritable Dance of Death, to think of writing, and causing to be multiplied for his people, such books as were most indispensable to ransom them from ignorance and barbarism. In short, Alfred was resolved to give to his people the means of self-improvement.

Charlemagne — a friend of Alfred’s grandfather, King Egbert of Wessex — would certainly have sympathized with this determination to provide the people with means of self-improvement. Indeed, so far as Alfred merely preoccupied himself with securing learned bishops and encouraging sound schools, he was but doing in Wessex, and on a smaller scale, what Charlemagne had done, on a larger scale, for his far wider realm. But when Alfred undertook the task of himself preparing an Old English version of Orosius by way of providing his unlettered subjects with an encyclopædia of useful knowledge, and when he prepared his version of Boethius on Consolation and of Gregory’s Pastoral Care for the spiritual edification of his Anglo-Saxons, then he went where the unlettered Charlemagne could not have followed him. Alfred showed, in fact, both in this and in other particulars, a certain suppleness and resourcefulness of mind which seems to indicate in him some strain of Celtic ancestry mingling with the robuster vigor of his Teutonic nature.

How hard to deal with, in the matter of book - learning, Alfred believed the best of his Anglo-Saxons to be is shown by a well - known passage in the preface to his translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care. Alfred begins by lamenting the havoc wrought by the Danes, and proposes to his bishops that they should join him in translating certain books “ which are most useful for all to know into the language which we can all understand.” These translations can be made most easily, he urges, “ if we have tranquillity enough.” Here we note how the fear of more pillaging and marauding Danes is always lurking behind every plan and mocking every hope. Given the necessary “ tranquillity,” Alfred proceeds to unfold the crowning hope of all, and proposes that “ all the youth now in England, freemen who are rich enough to be able to devote themselves to it, be set to learn, as long as they are not fit for any other occupation, until they are well able to read English writing.” Alfred had no illusions. He knew his Saxons well, and did not dream of elaborate schooling for them. This proposal, so carefully led up to, does not so much as hint at their learning to write.

It would doubtless be absurd to read too much between the lines of these prefatory suggestions made by Alfred to his bishops. And yet, such as they are, these suggestions form the chief basis of fact for that educational marvel of the days of Queen Elizabeth and King James, — the story of Oxford University, and more particularly of University College, Oxford, founded by Alfred the Great in the ninth century A. D. The neighborhood of Oxford was at that time far too favorite a haunt of the Danes to make the myth of Alfred’s foundation there at all plausible. Alfred founded no Oxford Colleges ; University College has as little connection with him as the King’s Hall, now Brasenose College, Oxford. Those, however, who know modern Oxford best can see there something of Alfred’s mind ; his intense conviction, for instance, that national life without national education cuts a people off from the enlightened service of God and the Commonwealth. Alike at Oxford and at Cambridge, so much is patriotically sacrificed to the needs of the nation at large, so much is done in order to “ man ” the British Empire, that we may claim for both in equal measure that they are regulated in the spirit of him who was “the most complete embodiment of all that is great, all that is lovable, in the English temper.” And yet, when we put the fullness and the complications of modern English life and education alongside of the utter and semi-savage poverty of life in Alfred’s day, parallels and comparisons seem far-fetched and strained. But Alfred’s prophetic appreciation of the need of learning shines out all the more vividly, like a beacon in the night of primitive ignorance. When contemporaneous surroundings are taken into account, we are constrained, in order to match in any way Alfred’s proposals, just quoted, and the laborious steadfastness with which he did his part in carrying them out, to turn from the mother country to the colonies, and to those fears and tumults in the midst of which Harvard College, or rather the grammar school which so soon became Harvard College, came into being. “ Not Marina herself,” said Lowell, “ had a more blusterous birth or a more chiding nativity.” The same may be said of Alfred’s educational essays. Indeed, it is from Alfred himself that we learn of the ghastly shipwreck of learning and holy living in England for which he strove so hard to find some remedy. “ I saw,” he says to his bishops, — “I saw, before it had all been ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout the whole of England stood filled with treasures and books.” Alfred’s remedial efforts were certainly not in vain, since, thanks to them, English prose literature had far earlier beginnings than the prose of any other European nation or literature of modern times.

For those who may be moved to scan more closely the career of Alfred, his life by Freeman, already alluded to, is ready to hand; and with it may most profitably be read an exceedingly careful and serviceable little book, just published, by Mr. Warwick H. Draper, M. A., late scholar of University College, Oxford, and entitled Alfred the Great. A Sketch and Seven Studies.1 Careful study must lead us all to conclude that Alfred is by no means the hazy, mythological personage which uncritical enthusiasm once threatened to make of him. He has escaped the fate of his descendant, St. Edward the Confessor, and we can form a clearly defined outline, if not a complete picture, of his life and character. Superstitions he had with which we cannot sympathize, such as the notion that the fires of Etna were infernal, and had therefore been perceptibly less fierce since the birth of Christ. But are we not learning in America — almost with a sense of relief — that the moral perfections of George Washington were not incompatible with his wellauthenticated employment, upon occasion, of exceedingly strong language ?

If this be our case with Washington, shall we not put up with a dash of superstition in one who has achieved the dangerous preëminence of being called “ the most perfect character in history,” and of being not infrequently coupled with Washington ?

It will indeed be a healthy result of this year’s celebration of the one thousandth anniversary of Alfred’s death, fixed to take place at Winchester in July, if we learn to prize with discrimination the lessons conveyed by the life of Alfred, who was the father and founder of a great race. Indeed, he was himself the first exemplar of the virtues held in highest esteem by that race the world over, but nowhere more highly rated than in England and America, whose political and social institutions still embody so much of Alfred’s spirit.

Louis Dyer.

  1. London, Eliot Stock, 1901.