Stopford Augustus Brooke.

King Alfred as educator of his people and man of letters ... with an appendix of passages from the writings of Alfred online

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First Edition published September 1901.
Reprinted November 1901.



THE little treatise on King Alfred which follows this Preface is
taken from a book of mine on Early English literature, and is one
of its chapters. It is chiefly concerned with the king's work as
an educator of his people, and as a man of letters, but it also
dwells briefly on him as the ruler, the lawgiver, the warrior, and
the statesman. No doubt, Alfred's lofty character is seen most
clearly in the work he did both in war and peace ; but there is
an inner life of thought and feeling in public men of which the
world sees little ; and this, which in Alfred was sorrowful,
sensitive, humble-minded, and profoundly religious, appears in
the additions he inserted into the translations he made of Latin
books for the instruction of his clergy, his nobles, his people,
and for his own private pleasure. The style too in which he
wrote- -childlike, at times, in its simplicity and sincerity, and
marked by an individual naivete is also a revelation of the way
in which his mind and spirit worked together.

Some of these personal additions to the originals I have
placed in the following chapter, and others have been placed in
the Appendix, which consists of passages selected and translated
from most of the books Alfred put into English. These have
been done, and the whole thrown into its present form, by
Miss Kate Warren. She offered to do this work, and it is
entirely her own. Her translations have been made with in-
tentional literalness, in order, if possible, to give in modem
English some resemblance to Alfred's style. It is, until we


come to its directness and excellent brevity in the English
Chronicle, and to its greater ease in the Boethius, the style of a
beginner in prose, of one who^had no good models to learn
from or to imitate. But it is all the more interesting for that.
Alfred began literary English prose.

Four extracts have been made from the Cur a Pastoralis-
the Herdsman's Book. It will be felt, on reading them, how
difficult it was for Alfred to grasp the Latin idioms and transfer
them into English. He did better afterwards. These passages
from Gregory's book express ideas both on teaching and govern-
ing which illustrate the methods of Alfred's public work ; and
they lodged so deeply in his mind that their spirit appears in
the additions he made to the translation, done in his later years,
of the Consolation of Philosophy.

The passages taken from the king's translation of Baeda's
History are fairly known, and their importance suggested their
insertion. The first has become one of the universal illustra-
tions used in literature, and the second tells the tale of the
birth of English poetry written in England. It has been doubted
of late whether Alfred made this translation, first, because there
is no trace of a West Saxon original ; secondly, that the only in-
ternal evidence for the king's authorship is the insertion of the
West Saxon genealogy, which is not carried beyond his accession ;
thirdly, that the MSS. we possess are for the most part in an
Anglian (Mercian) dialect. For these reasons, and others too long
for record in this Preface, Dr. T. Miller infers that the Old English
translation of Breda was not made by Alfred, but probably in
a Mercian monastery by a Mercian scholar of the period. But
the statement of the king's authorship in ^Ifric's homily on
Gregory ; the Latin couplet-

Ilistoricus quondam fecit me Beeda latinum
Alfred rex Saxo transtulit ille pius


found in a MS. of the Old English Breda in Cambridge ; and
William of Malrnesbury's testimony, are strong confirmation of
the traditionary belief. As to the Mercian dialect-forms in the
translation, they probably came from the Mercian scholars who
lived with the king and no doubt assisted him in his translation.
v^Ethelstan and Werewulf, learned men whom he loved, his
chaplains, were Mercians. So was Werfrith of Worcester, who
was frequently with him. So was Plegmund of Canterbury.
All his English assistants were Mercians, and no one is likely to
imagine that Alfred did not entrust his earlier translations for
careful revision to his English friends and fellow-labourers. It
would not be surprising to find Mercian forms in the Herdsman s

The passages from the Orosius require no comment ; but a
large number have been made from that part of the English
Chronicle which is generally supposed to have been the work of
Alfred himself. Miss Warren has continued her extracts beyond
the year 891, where in the chapter on Alfred I make his work to
cease. I followed then what I considered the best authority ;
but I see no reason, if we believe that Alfred wrote the first
part of the Danish wars, why we should not believe that he also
wrote the second. The improvement in the style may be
accounted for. Alfred, in these later years, had gained greater
experience and ease in writing. There is no clear evidence that
he wrote any of this history ; but it is a conjecture as probable
as it is pleasant. It would suit Alfred's temper to record the
wars he waged with so much fervour on behalf of his people.

If he wrote this part of the Chronicle, the records he made
illustrate his character. They are concise, clear, practical. No
personal element intrudes, no boasting, no abuse of his foes, no
anger at their treachery honest, luminous, forcible history and
no more, And these elements in them present a curious contrast


to the sensitive, personal, spiritual, even the ornamented writing
in the king's translation of Boethius. It has been said that
similes are rare in Alfred's writing. Alfred invents some in the
BoethiuS) and we find others also in his work.

The extracts from the Consolation of Philosophy are naturally
the most numerous in the Appendix, for in that translation Alfred
let himself loose, and made many additions to his original. It
was his last large work, and we have in it an image of the temper
and spirit of the king when the labour of his life was, in a time
of long hoped for peace, drawing to its close. We touch in them
the lonely hidden spirit of Alfred. We feel the principles, social,
moral and spiritual, which ruled his life. We see him as his
children and his intimate friends saw him. The wise ruler
appears in them, the king conscious of his rank ; but strangely
mixed with that, the man to whom all men were equal if they
were good and true. Rank, wealth, and power were to Alfred
the mere clothing of the man. Goodness, truth, fidelity,
honourable work, trust in God, made the man who, if a king
were false to these righteous things, was greater than the king.
There was a Judge before whom power, cleverness, wealth, and
rank were worthless, and Alfred lived in that faith and ruled
himself as king thereby. In that faith was held his view of men,
and his behaviour to them. There are few pleasanter pictures
in history than those in which we see Alfred in equal social inter-
course with his friends, his followers, and the men who came to
tell him tales of far-off lands or to bring him knowledge. Irish
scholars, sea-captains, men from Jerusalem, India, Rome, from
European courts and monasteries, freemen who came on his
progresses to complain of the injustice of their lords, whom he
received while he was washing his hands, bards who brought
songs and MSS. from the North, his bishops whom he harried
into writing, his Ethelings whom he drove to read enough law to


do their duty as magistrates, all who had anything new or useful
to tell him, were welcomed frankly and talked to as man to man.
Yet with this sense of human equality, he was always the ruler,
the master who was resolved to do justice, to slay the evil-doer
whatever his rank, to secure the state, to make law prevail.

And well he did this work, knowing his time, himself, his foes,
and his people. Though he sometimes complained, as it were to
himself, of his unquiet life, he was one of those high-hearted men
who think themselves fortunate because they are born in evil times.
He was still more fortunate in that he had within himself the power
to meet them, to endure them when nothing but endurance was
possible, to master them when the hour of action arrived. He
took his world day by day, as men must do in these national crises,
and found himself equal to the moment. If he had not foreseen
a difficulty, he invented what was fitting to overcome it. When
he conquered it, he took care it should never occur again. What
he seized or won, he kept. Nor did he act with violence, or in
haste, or without a good-humoured smile for the weakness or
waywardness of men. No hard times made him unjust, or cruel,
or irritable. He had fierce fighting to do, incessant war for the
very life of his kingdom. He suffered sorely from painful and
recurring illness. He had to subdue to justice and education a
reluctant nobility, an ignorant Church, and a rude people. His
foes had no sense of truth and honour. They broke their
treaties with a laugh. They were men whose business was
plunder, who hated learning, civilisation, and any law and order
but their own wild code. Alfred loathed their ways, but he
managed them with a certain gentle and masterly tolerance, and
made them feel that he was their master. He expected treachery,
got it, and quietly bade them behave better for the future. He
was a real philosopher of mankind.

So he felt what life was, and was tolerant to humanity one of


those men who, passing through manifold experiences, mostly
sorrowful and hard, emerge at the end more kindly, gentle, and
wiser than before. Nor was he without noble consolations.
After the valley of the shadow of death, he had some years of
green pastures and sweet waters, when he could pursue and try to
fulfil the ideals of his youth. His friends were many, and they
clung to him. Nothing in his writings is more lovingly dwelt on
than the blessing of friendship. He drew even a deeper comfort
from the love he gave to his chieftains and his people which
made the atmosphere of his soul tender and bright, and from his
knowledge of their love for him. Liberty, the woman he loved
more than any earthly woman, was with him always like an angel ;
and his soul was humble and right with God. We feel these
consolations were his, when we read his comments on the book
of Boethius. Yet we see also from those comments how sensitive,
how delicately wrought was his spirit. There are passages which
seem written by one who had suffered in friendship, yet who believed
in men. There are passages which record how bitterly he longed
for quiet, yet he fought on. There are passages which seem
written by a retired philosopher, unfit for rude affairs. Yet he
was a great warrior, fighting hand to hand in front of the fray,
and in peace a great hunter. He was more than a warrior ; he
was a great general, strategist, and master of men. When he
appeared in the field, his face was lit like an angel's. The Danes
had conquered in battle all who opposed them in Europe. They
met more than their match in Alfred. He even beat them on
their own element of the sea, When we read of his fighting we
think he is unlikely to manage peace. Wlien we read of his
pleasure in the affairs of peace, we think he is not likely to
manage war. But he managed both excellently well. War was
his duty, peace his delight.

Peace and its work of learning, of the arts, of law, was the


ideal of his life. A weaker man, angry with events which pre-
vented his ideal, might have been so wearied with contrary winds
and with his own anger, that when peace came he would, in
sullenness or exhaustion, not use its opportunities. It was quite
the opposite with the king. When the contrary winds ceased to
blow, he was like a ship long cabined in harbour, who with joy
lets loose her sails, springs from her anchorage,* and with the
favouring breeze humming in her cordage and in her captain's
heart, flies forth to seek new lands, to fulfil her hopes, and reach
her goal. No one else in England had this ideal of a people
civilised by law, by education in learning and the arts, not his
brother, not the Thegns, not even the Church ; nor did he suc-
ceed in giving it to his sons and grandsons. They let fall from
their hands the tools he had made. It was not till nearly a
century afterwards that his work was taken up again.

Where did he find this high conception ? It partly grew out
of his own genius, a self-created tree. But before it took form
it had received divers elements which gave its seed the power
to grow. His boyhood had been nurtured by the influence of
Rome. The traditions of the aims and work of Charles the Great
for the education and civilisation of his empire had fallen into his
mind at the court of Charles the Bald ; and these were linked to
the past of his own country when Northumbria, as he knew, was at
the head of the scholarship of Europe. His boyhood had loved,
tradition tells us, the songs of his people, and when he became
king he inflamed his ardour for learning and moulded his ideal
for his people with the new elements he drew from these ances-
tral sagas, from the remnants of the glory of Northumbrian letters
and arts which filtered through Mercia to his Court, from the
learned men who visited him from Ireland and the Continent, till
the longing to realise his ideal for Wessex and for England grew
into an intensity which it never lost. This is even more remark-



able than his pre-emm/nce in war and government. In those,
many kings have been great, but fewhave also been great in this
as well.

Moreover he gave this ideal of learning a new turn. There
has been plenty, he thought, of cloistered learning in the past.
What is the good of it unless the people have it? Let the priests
master it, and the nobles learn it. Let them know the songs and
tales of their land and the history of their people and the world
and then give what they know to the folk, spread learning and the
arts over the nation, and bind all men together into unity by this
education, as well as by law and love of country. That was
Alfred's ideal ; it was only conceived in that age by one other
man, by Charles the Great; and it is, even to-day, a thing un-
common among emperors, kings, and governments.

That men should fight steadily was well; that good government
should be is well, but Alfred thought that war and government would
both be better if knowledge, literature, and the arts were common
among the people. They discipline, he thought, the brain, create
a soul, instil good manners into a nation. By better brains men win
battles more easily, and make better laws. When the powers of the
soul are developed, a people obey better, and the law-giver feels more
sensitively what a people need. Poetry may give wings to war, and
it makes a nation love its land, its customs, homes, and law ; and
when the spirit of a people, with Alfred, thinks little of wealth,
power, and rank in comparison with the invisible wealth and power
of goodness and love, and refers its national life to God it secures
that strong foundation on which it can rest steadfastly in the day
of trouble, and graciously in the hour of prosperity. These were
Alfred's thoughts, and the after-history of England has shown, both
in pursuit and in neglect of his ideal, how right he was.

It was an ideal too far advanced for the time in which he lived.
He failed in his effort. But the seed he sowed did not perish ;


abiding its time. In the end, under EP ""^ar and his successors,
fruitage came ; and for centuries after, even under the Norman
oppression, even among the Normans themselves, Alfred's ideal
shone like a constant star above the realm of England. It shines
still, and England will do well, in times when power and wealth
claim a gross authority, to reverence and follow its light.



, whom men have called the " Great " and the " Truth-
teller"; whom the England of the Middle Ages named "England's
Darling"; he who was the Warrior and the Hunter, the Deliverer
and the Law-maker, the Singer and the Lover of his people, -
" Lord of the harp and liberating spear " w r as, above all, for the
purposes of this book, the creator and then the father of English
prose literature. The learning w r hich had been lost in the North
he regained for the South, and York, where the centre of liter-
ature had been, was now replaced by Winchester. There,
ylfred in his king's chamber, and filled with longing to educate
his people, wrote and translated hour by hour into the English
tongue the books he thought useful for that purpose. They are
the origins of English prose.

He was born in 849, at Wantage in Berkshire, the youngest
son of ^Ethelwulf and grandson of the great Ecgberht. At the
age of four years the boy saw Rome, voyaging with an embassy to
the centre of the world of thought and law. Leo IV. ordained
and anointed him as king and received him as his adopted son.
Two years later he went thither again with his father, who loved
him more than his other sons, and stayed in the city until he
was seven years old. The long journey through diverse countries,
the vast historic town, its noble architecture, the long tradition of
its law and story, its early Christian life; the spiritual power of


the Roman Church, even the temporal power which flowed from
it into Charles the Great of whom Alfred had heard so much,
must have made a profound impression, for inspiration and
education, on a boy of genius. We can trace some of the
results in his after-life. He was never satisfied till he was able
to read Latin literature ; he knit the Church of Rome and the
crown of Wessex into a close friendship. We know from the
Chronicle how often he sent embassies and gifts to Rome.

But this was not the only foreign influence which played
upon his youth. He lived, on his return from Rome, for three
months with Charles the Bald at the Frankish Court. The
memory of the intellect and power of Charles the Great still shed,
after nearly fifty years, a departing ray over the dying empire,
and it shone into the mind of the child. We may be sure that
the learned men of the court did not forget to talk with him of
the English scholar, Alcuin, who had brought, to the kingdoms
of Charles the treasures of learning from York. His own country
and his own folk had done this great work, and ^Elfred never
forgot it. When years had passed by, he recalled it in one of
his prefaces.

With these new impulses he returned to England, desiring
knowledge, but, as afterwards, there was none to teach him.
One thing, however, he could do he could learn the songs and
stories of his own people in his own tongue ; and the tale, with
all its difficulties, which Asser tells, at least embodies his early
love of books and of English verse. As he stood with his
brothers at his mother's knee, she read to them out of a
book of English songs. /Ethelstan and /Ethelred had no care for
book or poetry, but /Elfred, delighted by the beauty of the
illuminated letters, eagerly turned over the pages. " Whoever
of you first learns the songs," said the Queen, " shall have the
book," and ./Elfred had no rest till he won the prize. The love of
his native literature never left him. Night and day, we are told,
he was eager to learn the " Saxon songs," and in after-life one
of his chief pleasures was to recite English songs, to hear the


singers of the court declaim them, to collect Saxon poems, to
teach them to his children, to get his nobles to care for them,
and to have them taught in his schools. He knew the English
sagas, and the heroic names. He mentions Weland, the mighty
smith ; he told Asser the story of Offa's daughter Eadburga, a
tale which was imported into Mercian history from the legend
of OfTa of the ancient Engle-land ; and he recorded, with
added touches of personal interest, the story of the first poet of

It may be imagined, then, with what bitter sorrow he heard at
the age of eighteen, in 867, that there was not one religious house
from the Tyne to the Humber which was not ravaged and burnt
by the heathen ; that not one trace, save perhaps in York and in
a few abbeys north of the Tyne, was left of the learning and
libraries of Northumbria. And his sorrow would be still more
bitter when in 869 the rich abbeys of East Anglia were destroyed
by the pirates Ivar and Hubba, and Wessex, his own land, lay
open to the ravager. Guthrum or Gorm led this new attack, and
the long-gathered wrath of the patriot and the lover of learning
whetted Alfred's sword when, on the height of Ashdown, around
the stunted and lonely thorn-tree, he and his brother ^Ethelred
made their final charge and beat the invaders down the hill with
a pitiless slaughter. In the battles that followed ^Ethelred was
wounded to death, and in 871 Alfred, now twenty-two years old,
became the king.

The first years of his reign were dark as the night. Wessex
barely held to life ; Mercia was a desolation ; all the seats of
learning in Bernicia were now ruined, and at the beginning of 878
the Danes were in the heart of Wessex, apparent conquerors.
But ^Elfred was greatest when all seemed lost. He refuged
himself at Athelney (the yEthelings' isle) a hill, defended by
morass and forest, at the confluence of the Parret with the Frome,
among the deep-watered marshes of Somersetshire. It is here
that legend places the scene of the cowherd's hut and Alfred
watching and forgetting the burning loaves; and it was here that


the famous jewel of gold and enamel was found, with the inscrip-
tion "^Elfred bade me to be wrought." There he sat for three,
perhaps for seven months, gathering a host ; and broke forth from
his solitudes in the spring of 878, attacked the Danish army at
Ethandun, drove them to their camp, forced their surrender in
a fortnight, and dragged from them the peace of Wedmore. That
peace, in spite of the later struggle of 885-886, settled England.
It broke the advance of the Danes and weakened their power in
England and abroad. It left Wessex and Kent in the hands of
/Elfred ; it secured for the English that part of Mercia which was
west of Watling Street from the Ribble to the Severn valley and
to the upper valley of the Thames. The rest of England from
the Tees to the Thames, including London (which Alfred, how-
ever, got in 886), was in the power of the Danes and is called the

Over the Danelaw to interrupt for a moment the tale of
Alfred Danish customs, religion, and commerce prevailed ; the
Danish sagas were sung, and the Danish spirit grew. One would
think that these folk, especially when they became Christian,
would have left some traces of their keen individuality on the
poetry or prose of the Danelaw. The stories of Horn and
Havelok, rooted in Danish and Celtic traditions, were taken
up by the Anglo-Norman, and then by Middle-English poets.
There are, moreover, a few Danish legends in Layamon's poem.
But now, and after the Norman Conquest, there is nothing but
place-names and folk-tales to show us that more than half, and
in after-years, the whole, of England belonged to Danish kings
and to Danish folk. But the Danes who took England were
scarcely a nation ; when they settled down they became part of
the English people and absorbed their ways. And they did this
the more easily because they were of the same race and tongue
as the men they conquered. Christianity also knit them to the
English who made them Christians. With the loss of their wild
gods half their individuality fled away. The land also and its
scenery had their assimilating power on the new indwellers,


When /Elfred was forced to leave the Danelaw in Danish hands,
he little thought that he was making Englishmen.

But at present the English and the Danes were two, not one ;
and /Elfred had to keep the English elements uppermost. It was
well then, having this stern work at hand, that he was not only
the student and the singer, but also a great warrior, and active in
all bodily exercises. He was a keen hunter, falconer, rider, and

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Online LibraryStopford Augustus BrookeKing Alfred as educator of his people and man of letters ... with an appendix of passages from the writings of Alfred → online text (page 1 of 6)