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Those who are desirous of popular information on the interesting subject of Anglo-Saxon literature, may be abundantly gratified in Mr. Sharon Turner's ‘History of the Anglo-Saxons,' in Mr. Conybeare's 'Illustrations of Saxon Poetry,' and especially in Mr. Wright's admirable volume of 'Literary Biography of the Anglo-Saxon period.' The study of the Anglo-Saxon language and literature is reviving in our times ; and we have little doubt that the effect will be, in conjunction with that love of our elder poets which is a healthful sign of an improving taste, to infuse something of the simple strength of our ancient tongue into the dilutions and platitudes of the multitudes amongst us " who write with ease." Truly does old Verstegan say, “Our ancient English Saxons' language is to be accounted the Teutonic tongue, and albeit we have in latter ages mixed it with many borrowed words, especially out of the Latin and French, yet remaineth the Teutonic unto this day the ground of our speech, for no other offspring hath our language originally had than that." The noble language_“the tongue that Shakspere spake"-which is our inheritance, may be saved from corruption by the study of its great AngloSaxon elements. All the value of its composite character may be preserved, with a due regard to its original structure. So may we best keep our English with all its honourable characteristics, so well described by Camden :-“Whereas our tongue is mixed, it is no disgrace. The Italian is pleasant, but without sinews, as a still fleeting water. The French delicate, but even nice as a woman, scarce daring to open her lips, for fear of marring her countenance. The Spanish majestical, but fulsome, running too much on the o, and terrible like the deril in a play. The Dutch manlike, but withal very harsh, as one ready at every word to pick a quarrel Now we, in borrowing from them, give the strength of consonants to the Italian ; the full sound of words to the French; the variety of terminations to the Spanish; and the mollifying of more vowels to the Dutch ; and so, like bees, we gather the honey of their good properties, and leave the dregs to themselves. And when thus substantialness combineth with delightfulness, fulness with fineness, seemliness with portliness, and currentness with staidness, how can the language which consisteth of all these, sound other than full of all sweetness ?" (* Remains.)
The late Sir James Mackintosh said of Alfred_“The Norman historians, who seem to have had his diaries and note-books in their hands, chose Alfred as the glory of the land which had become their own. There is no subject on which unanimous tradition is so nearly sufficient evidence, as on the eminence of one man over others of the same condition. His bright image may long be held up before the national mind. This tradition, however paradoxical the assertion may appear, is, in the case of Alfred, rather supported than weakened by the fictions which have sprung from it. Although it be an infirmity of every nation to ascribe their institutions to the contrivances of a man rather than to the slow action of time and circumstances, yet the selection of Alfred by the English people, as the founder of all that was dear to them, is surely the strongest proof of the deep impression left on the minds of all of his transcendant wisdom and virtue."
This darling of England was of the most ancient and illustrious lineage: his father Ethelwulf traced his descent from the most renowned of Saxon heroes, and his mother Osburga descended from renowned Gothic progenitors. He was born at the royal manor of Vanathing (now Wantage) in Berkshire, in the year 849. Of four legitimate sons, Alfred was the youngest ; yet in 853 when King Ethelwulf repaired to Rome, partly as a pilgrim to that holy city and partly to take counsel of the pope, and carried Alfred with him, Leo IV., who then wore the tiara or triple crown, consecrated the boy as king. This conferring of royal inaugural honours upon a child in the fifth year of his age, and the youngest of his family, has often been made matter of wonderment. The fact is, however, most distinctly stated by Asser and by the Saxon Chronicle. But at this time the seven states which had formed the Heptarchy were not thoroughly fused and amalgamated into the one great undividable kingdom of England ; and Ethelwulf, who allowed one of his sons to reign in Wessex during his own life, may have contemplated, as other Saxon sovereigns did even at a later period, a re-division of the kingdom, and may have been eager to secure one of the crowns for Alfred, his darling boy, and the fairest and most promising of his sons.
It is not known how long Alfred remained at Rome, but it has been reasonably conjectured that, young as he was, he derived from his own observation some advantages from his sojourn in what was still the greatest and most civilized city in Europe. His father could not have failed of deriving improvement from the visit, and from his residence in various other cities in Italy and in France, for in both those countries there was then much more civilization than in England, and what was learned by the affectionate father could hardly have failed from being communicated at a later date to the intelligent and inquiring son.
The earliest story related of Alfred treats of his aptitudo for learning and his love for poetry and books. He learned to read before his elder brothers, and before he could read he had learned by heart a great many Anglo-Saxon poems by hearing the minstrels and glee-men recite them in his father's hall. This passionate love of letters never forsook him. In the year 871, when Alfred was in the twentv-second year of his age, Ethelred, the last of his kingly brothers, died of wounds received in battle with the Danish invaders, and the voice of the nobles and people immediately designated him as successor to the crown of all England. Alfred had already fought on many fields and had given proofs of political ability and wisdom, but it was with reluctance that he shut up his books and took up the sceptre. At this point his exciting and well-recorded adventures commence.
For many years the hero has to fight for territory and for life against the formidable Danes, who, having conquered a large portion of the kingdom in the time of his brothers and predecessors, continued to receive every spring and summer fresh forces from the Baltic. He has scarcely been a inonth upon the throne ere he fights the great battle of Wilton. In the next year he fits out a small fleet of ships, a species of force which the Saxons had entirely neglected, and forms the embryo of the naval glory of England. His enemies, however, are too numerous to be resisted, and too faithless and cruel to be trusted ; and after fighting many battles, he is obliged to retire to an inland island called Athelney, or the Prince's Island, near the confluence of the rivers Thone and Parret. It is Asser who tells the story that is endeared to us all by our earliest recollections. In one of his excursions from Athelney Alfred takes refuge in the cabin of a swineherd, and tarries there some time. On a certain day it happens that the wife of the swain prepares to bake her loudas, or loaves of bread. Alfred chances at the time to be sitting near the hearth, but he is busied in thinking of war and in making ready bows and arrows. The shrew soon beholds her loaves burning, and ruus to remove them, scolding the stranger. “You man,” saith she, “you will not turn the bread you see burning, but you will be glad enongh to eat it.” “This unlucky woman,” adds Asser,“ little thought she was talking to King Alfred, who had warred against the Pagans and gained so many victories over them.”
Some of his friends have gathered armies together, and have obtained successes over
the enemy in various parts ; Alfred himself has raised a small band into a formidable force, and he has good reason to believe that the Danes are becoming incautious and negligent. Putting on the gleeman's dress, and carrying instruments of music in his hand, he gains a ready entrance into the Danish camp ; and as he amuses these idle warriors with songs and interludes, he espies all their sloth and negligence, and hears much of their counsels and plans. The Danes love his company and his songs so much, that they are loth to let him depart ; but he is soon enabled to return to his friends at Athelney with a full account of the state and habits of this army; and secret and swift messengers are sent to all quarters to request all true Saxons to meet in arms by a given time, at Egbert's stone, on the east of Selwood Forest. The true Saxons meet, and fight, and defeat the Danes in the great battle of Ethandune, on the banks of the river Avon. And now follows the touching picture of the conversion and baptism of Guthrun the Dane with King Alfred standing by him at the baptismal font as his sponsor.
It was about this time that Alfred, who had solaced his misfortunes during his retirement in Athelney by frequently reading in a book, sent into Wales to invite Asser to his court or camp, in order that he might profit by the instructive conversation of the most learned man then in the island of Britain. The monk of St. David's obeyed the summons, and, as he himself tells us, was introduced to the king at Dene in Wiltshire, by the thanes who had been sent to fetch him. A familiar friendly intercourse followed a most courteous reception, and then the king invited the monk to live constantly with him. The vows of Asser and his attachment to the monastery of St. David's interfered with this arrangement; but it was finally agreed that he should pass part of his time in his monastery and the rest of the year at court. When Asser returned to Alfred, he remained eight months constantly with him, conversing with him, and reading with him all such books as the king possessed. Few were these books in number-scarce and more precious than the most costly jewels, nor were there many contemporary sovereigns much better provided than the king of England. But efforts were made to obtain more books on the Continent, and to collect such as had escaped the destructive fires kindled by the Danes, and were scattered about the country, and to procure scribes learned enough to copy manuscripts, and so multiply the books. Alfred's gratitude to Asser knew no bounds. At first he gave the learned monk an abbey in Wiltshire, and another abbey at Bar well in Somersetshire, and a rich silk pall, and as much incense as a strong man could carry on his shoulders, assuring him that he considered these as small things for a man of so much merit, and that hereafter he should have greater. Asser was subsequently promoted to the bishopric of Sherburn, and thenceforward remained constantly with the king, enjoying his entire confidence and affection, and sharing in all his joys and sorrows.
The converted Guthrun kept his contract, but other hosts of pagan Danes came from beyond the sea. After six years of warfare, with several battles fought in each year, Alfred was enabled to rebuild and fortify the city of London, which the Daues had burned. His infant Navy gained divers victories; and when a Danish host sailed up the Medway and laid siege to Rochester, Alfred with a land force fell suddenly upon them, and drove them back to their ships. But in the course of six or seven years Hasting, the greatest and ablest of all the Danish warriors and seakings, came over to England with a more desperate army than had ever been seen before ; and a new war was commenced, which was prosecuted successively in nearly every corner of England, and which lasted with scarcely any intermission for four years. The combats were many, and King Alfred was personally present in most of them. Great was the aid he received fronı the restored citizens of London, whose gratitude and affection knew no bounds. These generous citizens not only furnished him with money and provisions, but they also put on warlike harness and went out, young and old, and fought under him. The valley of the Lea, from its mouth on the Thames near London up to Ware and Hertford and the country above Hertford, was the scene of many remarkable exploits in war, in which the Londoners had a very distinguished part. The pleasant river Lea was very different a thousand years ago from what it now is. It was both broader and deeper, being filled by a far greater volume of water from the then undrained country. Nor did the Danish ships of war draw so much water as a modern trading sloop. Thus Hasting was enabled to carry his great fleet of ships up the river as far as Ware, or, as some think, Hertford, where he established one of his fortified camps, in the construction of which this Danish commander displayed extraordinary skill. On the appro: ch of summer, the burgesses of London, with many of their neighbours, who saw that their ripening corn was exposed to be reaped by a Danish sickle, attacked Hasting in this stronghold, but were repulsed with great loss. But presently Alfred, marching from a distant part of the country, came and encamped his army round about the city of London, and stayed there until the citizens and their neighbours got in their harvests. He then marched away to the Lea, which seemed covered by the enemy's ships, and at great personal risk surveyed with his own eyes this new fortified camp of the Danes. His active mind presently conceived a plan which was much safer and surer than any assault that could be made upon those formidable works. Bringing up his forces, and calling upon the brave and alert Londoners for assistance, he raised two fortresses, one on either side the Lea, a little below the Danish camp, and then dug three deep canals or channels from the Lea to the Thames, in order to lower the level of the tributary stream. So much water was thus drawn off, that the whole fleet of Hasting was left aground and rendered useless. Upon this the terrible sea-king broke from his intrenchments by night, and hardly rested till he had traversed the whole of that wide tract of country which lies between the river Lea and the Severn. While King Alfred followed Hasting, the Londoners fell upon the Danish ships and galleys, and some they broke to pieces, and some they got afloat again, and carried round in triumph, and with Saxon horns and other music, to the city of London. At Quatbridge, on the Severn (the place is now called Quatford ; and it lies not far from Bridgenorth in Shropshire), Alfred found the Danish host in another camp, which they had already strongly fortified. The Saxon king was compelled to respect the intrenchments at Quatbridge, and to leave the Danes there undisturbed all through the winter ; but he established so good a blockade that the Danes could not plunder the country or often issue from their works, and at the approach of spring hunger drove them all out of England ; and Hasting, after escaping with difficulty from the sword of Alfred, crossed the channel without profit or honour, as Asser says. The sea-king ascended the river Seine, obtained some settlement in France, and never more troubled King Alfred. This was the last great campaign of our Saxon hero.
Alfred, who had much mechanical skill, and who thought it no unkingly occupation to wield the ship-carpenter's tools, now applied himself more vigorously than ever to the creation of a national Navy. For a long time he went daily to the ship-yard, with his good steel adze in his hand. He caused vessels to be built far exceeding those of his enemies in length of keel, height of board, swiftness, and steadiness ; some of these carried sixty oars or sweepers, to be used, as in the ancient Roman galleys, when the wind failed ; and others carried even more than sixty. They were all constructed after a plan of Alfred's own in vention, anil they were soon found to be peculiarly well adapted to the service for which they were intended. Before the close of his reign, the flag of Alfred floated over more than a hundred vessels of this sort. This truly royal fleet-the first that England ever had, and as such entitled to our veneration—was divided into squadrons, some of which were stationed at different ports round the island, while some were kept constantly cruising between our island and the Continent and the outlet from the Baltic Sea. The flag of England was already a meteor flag, and no ship of any other nation met it at sea without paying honour to it.
Alfred, who had learned the importance of fortifications during his wars with the Danes, and especially in his long contest with Hasting, who was a great master in the art of castrametation, and the art of choosing and fortifying positions, erected defensive works round all the towns he rebuilt, and taught the people how to keep them in constant repair. He caused a survey to be made of the coast and navigable rivers, and ordered castles to be erected at those places which were most accessible to the landing of the enemy. Fifty strong towers and castles rose in different parts of the country; and the number would have been threefold if the king had not been thwarted by the indolence, ignorance, and carelessness of the nobles and freemen.
The Danes and Norwegians, with whom Alfred had to contend, were the most accomplished warriors of the age. The appellation of the Scandinavian Hannibal has been conferred on Hasting, and his extraordinary campaigns in England will justify the title, even without looking to his exploits in France and other countries. The skill, the untiring perseverance, the indomitable courage, the consummate prudence which Alfred displayed in his long contest with the greatest of the sea-kings, and the complete triumph he obtained over him in the end, must assuredly give him rank among the greatest military commanders of that age. Yet was he even greater in peace than in war. In every interval of repose allowed him by the furious invaders, he gave himself up to study and contemplation, and occupied his mind by devising the means of improving the moral as well as the physical condition of the people, and of advancing their civilization by books and schools, and a better administration of the laws. When he rebuilt London he gave to it many admirable civil institutions and laws, and appointed the ealdorman Ethered to be its governor, He rebuilt Winchester and many other cities, and instead of wood, the only material which had been used before his time, he introduced the use of stone and bricks, and taught his people to build houses like those he had seen at Rome and Milan, And wherever he re-edified a town he gave the people rules for reconstructing and improving their municipal institutions, and trained them to that system of selfgovernment which has since become the pride and strength of England, and without which there can be no lasting liberty in any country. There had been codes of law in England long before the days of Alfred, and some of these, though rudely simple, had a fine free spirit about them. Ethelbert, King of Kent; Ina, King of Wessex ; Offa, King of Mercia, and other Anglo-Saxon sovereigns, had been legislators, and had promulgated their several codes or Dooms : but all law and order had well nigh perished during the devastations, the horror, the anarchy, and the breaking up of society occasioned by the Danish invasions; and the memory of them, together with all instruction and enlightenment, seemed to be wearing out in the popular mind. Alfred collected the codes and dooms of his predecessors, and apparently without adding much of his own, and without introducing any new matter whatsoever, he compiled a very intelligible and consistent code, and submitted it to the Witenagemot, or parliament, or great council, for their sanction. He tells us himself that he was afraid to innovate, and that he thought it better to permit a continuance of a defective law than to destroy that respect for established authority, which is the foundation upon which all laws must rest. Plain and simple laws might do for a simple state of society, if they were only properly and impartially administered ; and it was rather to this proper administration, than to the