Statue of St. Alfred the Great in Winchester, England.
In this incomparable prince were united the saint, the soldier, and the statesman in a most eminent degree. Sir Henry Spelman (Conc. Brit.) gives us his character in a rapture. “O, Alfred,” says he, “the wonder and astonishment of all ages! If we reflect on his piety and religion, it would seem that he had always lived in a cloister; if on his warlike exploits, that he had never been out of camps; if on his learning and writings, that he had spent his whole life in a college; if on his wholesome laws and wise administration, that these had been his whole study and employment.”
It may be doubted whether ever any king showed greater abilities on a throne; but in this circumstance he was perfectly happy,—that all his wonderful achievements and great qualifications were directed and made perfect by the purest motives of piety and religion, and a uniform heroic sanctity. Alfred was the fourth and youngest son of Ethelwolph, the pious king of the West-Saxons, and second monarch of all England.
St. Albert’s father, Ethelwulf of Wessex.
He was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in 849. His wit, beauty, and towardly disposition endeared him from his infancy to the whole kingdom, especially to his father, who sent him to Rome when he was only five years old, that he might receive the pope’s blessing. Leo IV who then sat in St. Peter’s chair, adopted him for his son, and, as Malmesbury says, by a happy presage of his future dignity, anointed him king. Leland rather thinks this unction was the sacrament of confirmation; but this, according to the discipline of the English, Spanish, and several other churches, was given to infants as soon as it could be done after they were baptized. Montfaucon and other French historians observe, that Pepin in France was the first Christian king who (in imitation of the Jewish kings by God’s appointment) was anointed at his coronation; and Alfred was the first among our English princes who received that rite. Whether the pope thought it due to so promising a son of a great king, or whether he looked upon it that some sovereignty in England would fall to his lot, is uncertain. Ethelwolph soon after, making himself a pilgrimage to Rome, carried Alfred thither a second time.
Æthelbald, King of England
Through the confusion of the times, amidst the Danish invasions, this prince was twelve years old before he learned to read. He had a happy memory and an excellent genius, and we have a proof of his eagerness and application in the following instance. His mother one day showed him and his brothers a fine book in Saxon verse, promising to give it to him who should first read and understand it. Alfred was only beginning to learn to read; but, running straight to his master, did not rest till he not only read it but got it by heart. He naturally loved poetry, and in his childhood got several poems by heart. He excelled more in all other arts and sciences than in grammar, that study being then at a low ebb in this country, says Bishop Tanner, from an ancient chronicle.
His elder brothers, Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred, successively filled the throne; Alfred, though very young, appeared often at the head of their armies. The death of Ethelred, which happened on the 22nd of April, set the crown upon his head in the year 871, the twenty-second of his age.
The Danes at that time poured upon this island like a tempest, landing in several parts at once; they had lately martyred St. Edmund, were possessed of the three kingdoms of the East-Angles, Northumbrians, and Mercians, and with several armies were in the very heart of that of the West-Saxons, which then comprised all the rest. The English having fought eight or nine great battles within the compass of the preceding year, were exhausted and dispirited, and seeing new armies rise up against them on every side, were at a loss whither to betake themselves.
St. Ethelbert, King of Kent & second brother of St. Albert
The young king had scarcely solemnized his brothers’ funerals, when, in a month’s time, he was obliged, with an inconsiderable army, to engage the whole power of the Danes near Wilton. By his courage and valour they were at first forced to fly; but, finding the number of the pursuers to be small, they rallied, and became masters of the field. Twice they were compelled to leave West-Sex, and to promise never to return; but new armies immediately renewed their depredations. Contrary to their oaths and obligations, in the beginning of the year 878, they entered West-Sex with a great power, took Chippenham, the royal palace in Wiltshire, and laid waste the whole country.
King Alfred was constrained, with a small number of attendants, to retire among the woody and boggy parts of Somersetshire, and conceal himself between the rivers of Thone and Paret, in the isle of Athelingay, now called Athelney, where he built a little castle. Here he lay hid six months, making reading and prayer his chief employment, and frequently visiting St. Neot, his spiritual director. With a small troop of stout men he often surprised his enemies with good success, and if he happened to be overpowered by numbers, he always appeared formidable to them in the manner in which he made his retreat. His afflictions were to him a school for the exercise of all virtues, and he sought in the first place, by his penance, patience, and confidence in God, to appease the divine indignation.
Queen Osburga with her son Alfred
While he lay in this little castle, or rather, according to the terms of the historian, in a poor cottage in that country, it being winter, and the waters being all frozen so that no fish could be got in that place, his companions went out at some distance to get some fowl or fish for provisions. In the mean time a poor man came to the door, begging an alms. The king, who was reading, ordered some bread to be given to him. His mother, who was alone with him, said there was but one loaf in the castle, which would not suffice for themselves that day. Yet he prayed her to give half of it to the poor man, bidding her trust in him who fed five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes. Several of our best historians add, that the king, soon after falling into a slumber, received, in recompence of his charity, an assurance from St. Cuthbert in a vision, that God would shortly restore him to his kingdom.
Soon after he heard that Hubba, the Danish general, brother to Hinguar, landing in Devonshire, had been defeated and slain by Odun, the loyal earl of Devon, near the castle of Kenwith. The place where Hubba was buried, under a great heap of stones, is called to this day Hubble-stones. The Reafan, or Raven, the sacred standard of the Danes, who placed in it a superstitious confidence, and on which that bird was painted, was found among the spoils.
Prince Alfred boar-hunting
Upon this news Alfred left his retreat, assembled an army in Selwood forest, and marched against the Danes at Edingdun, where, having chosen his post on a rising ground, he gave the infidels a total overthrow, so that they were obliged to receive his conditions. The chief of these were, that all the idolaters should quit the island, and that those Danes that embraced the Christian faith should confine themselves to the kingdom of the East-Angles, which they had possessed ever since the martyrdom of St. Edmund, in 870; but which they were now to hold of King Alfred. Gunthrum, one of their vanquished kings, received baptism, with a multitude of his people, at Aller, Alfred’s palace, in Somersetshire. King Alfred stood godfather to him, and made him king of the East-Angles, where he reigned twelve years; and after him Eoric; after whose decease Edward the Elder reunited that kingdom to the English monarchy. Alfred drew up a particular body of laws, adapted to the Danish converts, which he gave to King Gunthrum, and obliged him and his people to observe. They are extant in Spelman, Wilkins, and the ninth volume of Labbe’s Councils.
In 883, Alfred vanquished and slew Hinguara and Haltdene, two Danish leaders in the north, took great care to repeople and cultivate those depopulated provinces, and constituted Guthred king of the Northumbrians, who, being a most religious and valiant man, defended his dominions, and gave to the church of St. Cuthbert at Durham, the country which is since called the bishopric of Durham, as Simeon of Durham and the Chronicle of Mailros relate. Alfred was no less active in restoring the desolate provinces of Mercia, where the Danes, in 874, had burnt Rependune, now Repton upon Trent, in Derbyshire, the ancient burial place of the Mercian kings, and had laid waste the whole country.
The Submission of Guthrum to King Alfred by Herbert Alfred Bone
The infidels made again formidable descents in Kent and other places in the following years: but were as often totally routed by this vigilant and valiant king, who is said to have fought fifty-six battles. He every where encouraged the English to resume their spirits, and taught them to conquer. But the detail of his military exploits we leave to the writers of the civil history of our country, and only repeat with William of Malmesbury, that when this king seemed cast down on the earth, he was still a terror to his enemies; that in all battles he was every where present, striking fear into their breasts, and paleness over their countenances, and inspiring his own soldiers with courage. He alone would restore the combat when his army was ready to disperse; he alone would present his breast to the swords of the enemy, and by his example force his soldiers to repulse the insulting and pursuing infidels.
Charles the Simple giving his daughter, Gisele, to Rollo.
About the year 890, the Normans, or barbarians from the northern coasts of the Baltic, landed in England, but being repelled by King Alfred made a descent upon the western coasts of France, carried their aims into the heart of that kingdom, thrice laid siege to Paris, and during fourscore years compelled the provinces to redeem themselves from plunder by exorbitant sums of money, which were an allurement to repeat their invasions, till Charles the Simple gave his daughter Gisele in marriage to Rollo, their leader, in 912, with part of Vexin, and that part of Neustria which from that time has been called the duchy of Normandy. Rollo, receiving baptism, took the name of Robert.
King Alfred, being aware that the safety and natural strength of this island consists in its navies, became himself well skilled in maritime affairs, and spent three years in building and fitting out a fleet, by which, in 883, he gave the Danish pirates every where the chase, and asserted the dominion of the British seas. This fleet he afterwards much increased, and, with wonderful sagacity, devised himself a kind of ships of a new construction, which gave him infinite advantages over a people continually practised in naval armaments. Sir John Spelman was not able to determine whether they were ships or galleys. But it appears, says Mr. Campbell, (Lives of Admirals, t. 1. p. 56,) that they were galleys, for the facility of running them close unto shore, or up into creeks. We are at least assured, that they were longer, higher, and swifter than the vessels in common use in a duplicate proportion.
At the same time this king extended the commerce of his subjects with other nations, knowing of what advantage this is to a kingdom, by which foreign riches perpetually flow into it; also how necessary it is for the improvement of navigation, and for a constant supply of able and skillful seamen for the navy. He sent out ships to discover and describe far distant countries, and employed Ohther the Dane for the discovery of a north-east passage, and afterwards Wulfstan, an Englishman, to explore the northern countries. In the manuscript accounts of these voyages, and the survey of the coasts of Norway and Lapland, we find, says Mr. Campbell, so surprising accuracy and judgment as must oblige us to confess, that the age of Alfred was an age of good sense; and far superior in knowledge to those that succeeded it. Alfred’s victories over the Danes procured him frequent intervals of peace; and this became at length fixed and lasting, the latter part of his reign not being disturbed with any fears of invasions.
19th century Portrait of Alfred the Great
If the conduct and courage of this great king in war was admirable, his wisdom appeared still more conspicuous in the care and prudence wherewith he improved his kingdom by the arts of peace, and by wholesome laws and a constant attention to see them well executed. When he came to the throne, the whole country was become a desert, and it was a difficult matter for men to find subsistence even when they were freed from the fear of enemies. Alfred encouraged agriculture, and all the necessary and useful arts, in which he was himself the author of many new improvements. For, by conversing with men of abilities, and by comparing together his informations not only in the sciences, but also in various arts, he came to the knowledge of many things; and by his penetration, the justness of his reasoning and reflections, and a superior judgment, he made many important discoveries, and arrived at a degree of skill, of which even they from whom he received his intelligence, were often ignorant. Such was the desolate condition to which several provinces were reduced by the late devastations and wars, that he was obliged to order seed to be distributed gratis to sow the earth, and to encourage tillage by premiums. It is a just remark of Felibien, that the state of architecture has always been in every country the sure proof in what degree arts flourished, and true taste and elegance prevailed. This appeared in the reign of Alfred, as it had done among the Greeks and Romans.
This prince adorned his kingdom with many magnificent churches, and other buildings, directing himself the artificers. He taught the people to build their houses of brick or stone, which till then had been usually made of wood and mortar. He erected several castles and fortresses, repaired the walls of London, and founded three monasteries, a rich nunnery at Shaftesbury, in which his daughter Algiva or Ethelgiva was the first abbess, and a monastery at Athelingay, now Athelney, into which he turned the castle in which he lived during his retreat there.
Athelney Abbey was a religious house for monks of the Order of St. Benedict in 888. It was dedicated to Our Lord, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Egelwine. It was demolished under Henry VIII in 1539. The monastery’s location is marked by this monument which was built by Sir John Slade in 1801.
London was a flourishing Roman colony under Nero, and probably had been founded under Julius Cæsar soon after his landing in Britain. King Alfred is justly styled its second founder, as he was of the constitution of this kingdom, of its legislation, and of its fleet and navigation. He was himself the inventor of many necessary arts to the great advantage of all his subjects, and the restorer of the military art, in the highest perfection, and established in every branch of the administration, perspicuity, order, wisdom, activity, and life. He protected and cultivated the arts and sciences; was the wisest, the most eloquent, and the most learned man in his kingdom, and the best poet, which adds a true lustre to his name and dignity, as he was not less attentive to every branch of his government, and was at the same time the greatest, the most excellent, and watchful of kings. The ingenious Gaillard, in his history of the rivalship of France and England, t. 1, p. 75, says of him, that Charlemagne, the glory and founder of the western empire, and the greatest of all the kings of France, formed the English Egbert in the arts of war and of government, and taught him by uniting kingdoms to form an empire. But confesses that England seems to have possessed a greater prince than Charlemagne in Alfred, grandson to Egbert: though conqueror in fifty battles by land and sea, which he fought in person against barbarous invaders flushed with victory, and though he was obliged to be always armed, yet it was only in the defence and against the most cruel and unjust oppressors of his own kingdoms, and of all the rights of humanity. His reign is more interesting than that of Charlemagne in this circumstance, that he had learned to suffer with heroic constancy, and had learned all perfect virtues by practising them in the school of adversity: that having raised his kingdom from a state of entire ruin into which it was fallen by his personal valour, military skill, and prudence, and subdued all his enemies, he was always an enemy to conquests, and a stranger to the rage and ambition of commanding great empires; the love of peace was the constant reigning disposition of his great soul; and he consecrated all his talents to its arts and to the study of the happiness of his people.
A Stained glass window of St. Alfred in Chester, England.
One useful discovery or institution does more honour to his memory than a hundred great victories could ever have done. If, like Charlemagne, he converted his enemies to the Christian faith, he did this by the rules of the gospel and the apostles, without baptizing them through rivers of blood. His reign had not the taste of that of Charlemagne, but it had more of the paternal character of the truly great king and Christian saint. Master of all his passions, (no small miracle of grace, especially in his station,) he never was enslaved to or warped from the purest view of justice and virtue by any; was equally free from the allurements of all the softer passions, and from the rage of the fiercer. He was a prince of so great abilities, natural and acquired, and endowed with so extraordinary virtues and prudence, that no historian was ever able to find a but or flaw in his reign, or charge him with the least reproach, or the want of any single virtue, either in his regal, religious, or civil character. In him we have an exception to the trite distich:
Si Nisi non esset, perfectus quilibet eset
Et non sunt visi, qui caruere Nisi.
Whilst Charles the Simple dismembered Neustria to settle a fierce enemy within his own kingdom to be a seed of an eternal rivalship and unquenchable wars carried with the Normans into England and Sicily, and perpetuated during above nine hundred years, Alfred, far more wisely, incorporated the converted Danes into his own people, and strengthened himself by increasing the number of useful subjects at home.
Nothing is more famous in the reign of this king than his care and prudence in settling the public tranquility of the state, by an exact administration of justice. In the preceding times of war and confusion, especially whilst the king and his followers lurked at Athelney, or up and down and in cottages, the English themselves became lawless, and in many places revolted and plundered their own country. Alfred, by settling a most prudent polity, and by a rigorous execution of the laws, restored so great a tranquility throughout the whole kingdom, that, according to the common assertion of our historians, if a traveler had lost a purse of money on the highway, he would find it untouched the next day. We are told in Brompton’s Chronicle, that gold bracelets were hung up at the parting of several highways, which no man durst presume to touch.
Alfred compiled a body of laws from those of Ina, Offa, and Ethelbert, to which he added several new ones, which all tended to maintain the public peace and safety, to enforce the observance of the divine precepts, and to preserve the respect which is due to the church and its pastors. For crimes they inflict fines or mulcts proportioned to the quality and fortune of the delinquent: as, for withholding the Peter-pence, for buying, selling, or working on the Lord’s day, or a Holyday, a Dane’s fine was twelve ores or ounces, an Englishman’s thirty shillings: a slave was to forfeit his hide, that is, to be whipped. The mulct of a Dane was called Lash-lite, that of an Englishman, Weare-wite, or gentleman’s mulct. Were or Weregild was the mulct or satisfaction for a crime: it was double for a crime committed on a Sunday, or Holyday, or in Lent. By these laws it appears that slaves in England enjoyed a property, and could earn for themselves, when they worked at times in which they were not obliged to work for their masters: in which they differed from strict slaves of whom the Roman laws treat.
Alfred’s laws were mild, scarcely any crimes except murder being punished with death; but only with fines, or if these could not be paid, with the loss of a hand or foot. But the severity with which these laws were executed, maintained the public peace. Alfred first instituted trials to be determined by juries of twelve unexceptionable men, of equal condition, who were to pass judgment upon oath as to the evidence of the fact or crime: which is to this day one of the most valuable privileges of an English subject. To extirpate robberies which, by the confusion occasioned by Danish devastations, were then very common, this king divided the kingdom into shires, (though there were some shires before his time,) and the shires into hundreds; and the hundreds into tithings or tenths, or in some places into wapentakes, and every district was made responsible for all robberies committed within its precincts. All vagabonds were restrained by every one being obliged to be enrolled in some district.
The capital point in Alfred’s administration was, that all bribes or presents were most rigorously forbid the judges, their conduct was narrowly inspected into, and their least faults most severely punished. Upon any information being lodged against a judge or magistrate, he was tried by a council established for that purpose by the king, who himself presided in it; he is said to have condemned in one year forty-five judges to be hanged for crimes committed by them in their office. By this severity he struck a terror into all his magistrates; and such was the effect of his perspicacity and watchfulness in this respect, that, as Milton says, in his days justice seemed not to flourish only, but to triumph.
This prince, who was born for every thing that is great, was a lover and zealous patron of learning and learned men. He considered that arts and sciences cultivate and perfect those faculties in men in which the excellency of their nature consists, and bestow the empire of the mind, much more noble, pleasant, and useful than that of riches; they exceedingly enhance all the comforts and blessings of life, and extend the reputation and influence of a nation beyond any conquests. By this encouragement of learning have so many great geniuses been formed, to which the world stands most indebted; and to this the greatest nations owe their elegance, taste, and splendor, by which certain reigns have been distinguished. By what else did the golden elegant ages of Rome and Athens differ from the unknown brutal times of savage nations? Certainly nothing so much exalts the glory of any reign, or so much improves the industry and understanding, and promotes the happiness of a people, as the culture of leading geniuses by well-regulated studies. As Plato says, (l. 6. de leg.) man without culture and education is the most savage of all creatures which the earth nourishes. But sciences are still of infinitely greater importance with regard to religion; and this consideration above all others recommended the patronage of learning to this pious king.
The ancient public schools being either destroyed or almost fallen to decay with the monasteries during the wars, Alfred founded the University of Oxford. Alfred, canon of Beverley, in 1120, writes in his manuscript history, that king Alfred stirred up all gentlemen to breed their sons to the study of literature, or if they had no sons, some servants or vassals whom they should make free. He obliged every free man who was possessed of two hides of land, to keep their sons at school till they were fifteen years of age; for, said the king, a man born free, who is unlettered, is to be regarded no otherwise than a beast, or a man void of understanding. It is a point of importance, that persons of birth, whose conduct in life must necessarily have a strong and extensive influence over their fellow-creatures, and who are designed by providence to be charged with the direction of many others, be formed from their infancy to fill this superior rank which they hold with dignity, and to the general advantage of their species. In order to be qualified for this purpose, their tender hearts must be deeply impressed with the strongest and most generous sentiments of sincere piety and religion, and of true honors: by being inured to reason in their youth they must acquire a habit of reasoning well and readily, and of forming right judgments and conclusions. Their faculties must be raised and improved by study, and when by passing through the circle of the sciences, their genius has been explored, their studies and employs ought be directed into that channel, which, by their rational inclinations, talents, particular duties, and circumstances of life, the great Author of nature and Master of the world shall point out to each individual.
Statue of St. Alfred the Great in Winchester, England.
King Alfred also exhorted the noblemen to choose, among their country vassals or villains, some youths who should appear by their parts and ardent inclinations to piety, particularly promising to be trained up to the liberal arts. As for the rest it was not then the custom to give the poorer sort too much of a school education, which might abate their industry and patience at manual labor. But this prince was solicitous that care should be taken for the education and civilizing of all by religious instructions and principles. Agriculture, in the first place, and all the useful and mechanical arts never had a greater patron or protector.
He regretted his having applied so late to his studies; and, during his whole life afterwards, redoubled his diligence in them. It is incredible how he found time for so many and so great employments; but he was never idle, knowing the value of every moment, and squandering away no part of his time in idle amusements and diversions, which the great ones often look upon as the privilege of their rank; though if they well considered all their obligations, they would confess this maxim to be very inconsistent with their duties. This great prince in his youth, as soon as he had learned to read, got the whole Psalter and other prayers of the Church by heart, as monks then usually did in their novitiate.
Whilst he was king he translated paraphrastically from Latin into the Saxon tongue, Bede’s Church History; which work was published first by Wheloc, at Cambridge, in 1644, and again by John Smith, in 1722. He also translated St. Gregory’s Pastoral, (of which book he sent a copy, with a pencil, to every bishop in his dominions,) Orosius’s Roman History, and Boëtius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, which last book he always carried about with him. These translations, with those of the flowers of St. Austin’s Soliloquies, and the dialogues of St. Gregory, and a book of the parables of King Alfred, are extant in several of our libraries, in manuscripts. Alfred also wrote an Enchiridion, or manual of meditations. He began an interpretation of the Psalms, which he never finished, being prevented by death. This imperfect work was published by Sir John Spelman, in 1640. King Alfred’s Saxon translation of the New Testament was printed at London, in 1571, and more correctly at Dort, with notes, in 1664. A beautiful manuscript copy, which belonged to Archbishop Piegmund, is preserved in the Cottonian Library. Alfred’s laws are most accurately published by Wilkins, (Conc. Brit., t. 1, p. 186, 191.) King Alfred, as Asserius and William of Malmesbury write, whenever business allowed him leisure, was always reading, or conversing with learned men, or hearing others read; in his chamber he had always some book open before him, and in all his journeys he carried books with him. He substituted the use of the Italian or French alphabet for that of the old Saxon, which till then was used in writing Saxon books: a specimen of which is exhibited in the notes to the Latin edition of Spelman’s life of King Alfred, though imperfect and inaccurate, says bishop Tanner. (Bibl. Script. Britan., p. 32.)
Notwithstanding so many great employments and achievements in the world, piety and religion engrossed the soul of this great king, and to this he referred all his views and studies. To promote this in himself and in others was all his ambition, and the sole end of all his endeavours. Sir John Spelman throws out a surmise that he could not have been in the interest of the Roman see; otherwise his name would have been found in its calendar. But it is manifest that though all the greatest kings among the Saxons seemed to vie with each other in their devotion to the apostolic chair, yet Alfred stands among the foremost in that respect. His laws testify, that he raised even with rigor the Peter-pence, or annual charitable contribution to the apostolic see. Asserius, William of Malmesbury, Matthew of Westminster, and the Saxon chronicle mention frequently his sending the same to Rome with large additional alms of his own: they often name the great nobleman or prelate who was the bearer of these royal largesses to Rome: they speak of a vow which he made of sending thither an extraordinary alms, which he afterwards fulfilled. At the same time he sent Sigelin, bishop of Shireburn, to carry a considerable alms to the poor Christians of Saint Thomas’s, in the East Indies; for his ships sailed thither for commerce, though the navigation of the ocean, if known, was afterwards lost, till restored by the Portuguese. It is indeed hard to imagine that King Alfred’s merchants could make this voyage round Africa, all by sea, before the use of the compass; and it is more probable, that they traveled through Egypt or Chaldæa and the Indies, sailing only through the Mediterranean.
The Saxon Chronicle, Asserius, and Matthew of Westminster inform us, that at this king’s request, Pope Marinus freed the English school at Rome from all taxes and tribute, and that in gratitude for his liberalities to the Holy See, he sent him the most precious present of a considerable portion of the sacred cross of Christ, with other great gifts. This relic of the cross the king bestowed on the abbey of Glastenbury, as John, the historian of that monastery testifies.
King Alfred the Great was fond of reading and learning.
The great actions and exploits of this glorious king are truly admirable, because they were the result of heroic piety and religion, and free from stains of base human passions. It is necessary to give a short sketch of the eminent virtues which he practised in private life, as they are set forth by Asserius, who conversed familiarly with him, and is a writer of so great authority, diligence, and veracity, that no one ever suspected or called in question any thing which he affirmed, as Dr. Cave remarks. (Hist. Liter., t. 2, p. 66.) This historian tells us, that Alfred was from his infancy a diligent and devout visitor of holy places, and that in his whole life he feared nothing so much as to offend God in the least thing.
It was his custom to rise privately at the cock crowing, and to repair to some church or chapel in which was kept the shrine of some saint, and there he continued long prostrate, praying with great fervour: he was wont to repeat the same prayer often over, redoubling each time his earnestness in it, in imitation of our Saviour in the garden. No hurry of public affairs, even in the midst of his wars, ever made him interrupt this custom. After he had happily finished his wars with the Danes, he made it his rule to spend every day eight hours out of the four-and-twenty, in reading and prayer: other eight in giving attendance to the affairs of his kingdom, leaving the other eight for his corporal refections and sleep. He was very exact in observing all the canonical hours of the divine office in the church with the clergy or monks. As to the use of clocks: sun-dials, by observing the shadow of the sun on certain steps were known among the Jews in the time of Achaz, and probably from the beginning of the world. Hour-glasses were in use among the Greeks and Romans. St. Boniface, about the year 730, seems to have sent for a clock from England, Cloccam, (ep. 9, Serarius, not. ib.,) but probably of a frame not fit for a private closet or church. Gerbert, preceptor to King Robert of France, afterwards archbishop of Rheims, then of Ravenna, and at length pope under the name of Silvester II., about the year 995, invented clocks with a balance, which continued in use till pendulums began to be employed, in 1650. (See Rivet, Hist. Liter., and Henault Chron. de Tr., t. 1, p. 126.) However, in England no clocks were then known fit for apartments, as Asserius assures us. Whence Alfred, by his own contrivance, ordered six wax candles, of the same length and bigness, to be kept always burning before the relics of saints, in his private oratory, which he caused always to be carried about with him wherever he went. Each candle was divided into inches, which were all marked; and by these he measured time in his oratory, that he might observe the canonical hours with the most punctual exactness: such was his spirit of religion in the minutest circumstances. Lest the wind should at any time put out these candles, or make them burn faster, he had them put in lanthorns, made of cows’ horns, cut into thin plates: and this, as we are assured, was the first invention of such lanthorns, at least in England; for Plautus (Amphit. Act. 1, v. 185,) and other Roman writers seem to speak of the like. Windows were formerly low, and generally of lattice, whence this invention of King Alfred was found very useful to keep in the church lamps.
Statue of King Alfred in Wantage Market Square, England.
His great piety, and the ardour and even ecstacy of his devotion were still more worthy admiration than his assiduity in prayer. From a sincere and humble sentiment of religion proceeded the reverence which he showed to bishops and other ecclesiastical persons, at whose feet he would often prostrate himself, as Ingulphus testifies. He constantly and attentively heard sermons, and often caused some of his servants to read the holy scriptures and other holy books to him. His affability and liberality towards persons of all ranks and conditions, were proofs of his sincere humility and charity. He was bountiful to the poor, whether subjects or strangers. When his wars were at an end, he divided the yearly revenues of his patrimony into two parts; the first of which he subdivided into four equal portions, one for the poor, the second for the subsistence of the monasteries which he founded, the third for his schools, and the fourth for other occasional charities at home and abroad; for he often sent large alms into distant parts, especially Gaul and Ireland, and to remote monasteries. The other moiety of his revenues he distributed into three equal shares, of which the first he allowed to pay the officers and servants of his court, the second to pay his workmen, and the third to defray the expenses of hospitality and of his household.
He loved his clergy and nobility, and he took delight in causing the children of the latter to be educated in his own court; and instructed in learning under his own eyes. He always entertained many learned men about him: among these are named Asserius of Menevia, Telmund, who was afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, Athelstan, Werwalf, etc.
Never, perhaps, was any king more justly or more cordially honoured, or more tenderly beloved by his nobility and people. Envy itself dropped its sting, respected him, and paid a just tribute to his extraordinary talents and virtues. So transcendent were these that slander itself seems never to have touched him: and no historian, whether Catholic or Protestant, ever so much as laid to his charge the least reproach or imputation of any vices. His virtue was perfected by the weight of many trials; besides external afflictions, he is said scarcely ever to have passed a day without feeling some extraordinary pain or aching; and he performed so many and so great things in a very infirm and crazy body.
This great and good king ended his most glorious reign by a happy death on the 25th of October, in the year 900, the fifty-first year of his age, having reigned twenty-nine years and about six months. His body was deposited in the cathedral of St. Swithun, at Winchester, called Ealdenminster, or the Old Minster, but removed into the church of the new monastery called Newanminster, when it was finished. His remains were translated with this monastery from the close near St. Swithin’s, where it first stood, to the suburb without the north gate, since called Hyde, and laid before the high altar in the same tomb with the bones of his son and successor, Edward the Elder, with their names inscribed on two tables of lead. St. Grimbald was interred in the same church.
Asserius of Minevia wrote the life of King Alfred, and died bishop of Shirburn, in 909, according to the additions made to the chronicle of St. Neot’s, not in 893, as Godwin mistakes. The best edition of this excellent life was published by Fr. Wise, at Oxford, in 1722. On this king see also Malmesbury, and our other historians both ancient and modern. His life is compiled by Sir John Spelman, (son to our learned antiquarian, Sir Henry Spelman,) first in English, afterwards in Latin, at Oxford, in 1678, with learned marginal notes added by the best scholars in Oxford, at that time, especially in University-College, which glories in the title of Alfred’s-College. In its library is a copy of this book with large manuscript notes of Obadiah Walker in the margin.
King Alfred is only placed among the saints by certain private biographers. He is named among the saints in two Saxon calendars mentioned in a note on the Saxon translation of the New Testament; also in some other private calendars, and in Wilson’s inaccurate English Martyrology on the 28th of October. Yet it does not appear that he was ever proposed in any church to the public veneration of the faithful.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume X: October.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.