« ForrigeFortsett »
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. Ele 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 caldorman 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 ; Ofta, 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
construction of any new theory, that Alfred directed his attention. In practice the judges had become shamefully corrupt. Asser mentions that he exercised great vigilance over the judges, frequently reprimanding those who did amiss, and threatening them with deprivation and other punishments. We have the same good authority for the facts that the courts became pure ; that the laws, such as they were, were fairly administered ; and that town-people and yillagers kept such good police that robbery and theft became almost unknown. Towards the close of his reign it was generally asserted, that one might have strewed golden bracelets and jewels on the public highways and cross-roads, and no man would have dared to touch them for fear of the law.
Alfred, who felt that if the divine law were duly observed there would be no necessity for human legislation, opened his code of laws with the ten commandments, a selection from the Mosaic precepts, and the canons of the First Apostolic Councils. “Do these,” he said, “and no other doom-book will be needed."
But if Alfred did not introduce many new laws, he rejected some of the old ones. For this we have his own word. He says in his doom-book, “I then, Alfred, King, gathered these laws together, and commanded many of those to be written which our forefathers held, those which to me seemed good ; and many of those which seemed to me not good, I rejected them, by the counsel of my Witan, and in otherwise commanded them to be holden ; for I durst not venture to set down in writing much of my own, for it was unknown to me what of it would please those who should come after us. But those things which I met with, either of the days of Ina, my kinsman, or Offa, King of the Mercians, or of Ethelbert, who first among the English race received baptism, those which seemed to me the rightest, those I have here gathered together and rejected the others. I then, Alfred, King of the West-Saxons, showed these to all my Witan, and they then said that it seemed good to them all to be holden.” It was Alfred's grand object to consolidate the dominions of England, to make one consistent and inseparable whole of the various states into which it had been divided by the Saxon conquerors (states which were still separated by old jealousies and antipathies), to regenerate the whole Anglo-Saxon people, and to create a new national spirit; and as he effected this not ostentatiously, but by unwearied political activity, he was in reality the King, the Liberator, the Reformer of all England.
19.-ALFRED.-Continued. Alfred was not only the first warrior, the first statesman and legislator, but he was also the first scholar in his dominions. From Asser's interesting memoirs the fact may easily be gathered that Alfred vastly exceeded even the most learned of his prelates in scholar-like accomplishments. He states that the king's noble mind thirsted for knowledge from the very cradle, and that when a mere child he had got many of the Anglo-Saxon poems by heart. It appears highly probable that Alfred diligently studied the language between his twelfth and eighteenth year ; that he had a few Latin books with him in his solitude at Athelney, and that he was (for that time) a good Latin scholar before he invited Asser to his court. But whenever or however he obtained his knowledge of that learned tongue, he certainly showed in his literary works a proficiency in Latin which was almost mira culous for a prince in Alfred's age. The style of his works in his native language proves that his acquaintance with a few good classical models was familiar, and extended to higher things than mere words and phrases.
Alfred was accustomed to say that he regretted the imperfect education of his youth, the entire want of proper teachers, and the many difficulties which then
barred his progress to intellectual improvement, much more than all the hardship and sorrows and misfortunes that befell him afterwards. As one of his greatest impediments had been the difficult Latin language, he earnestly recommended from the throne, in a circular letter addressed to the bishops, that thenceforward “ all good and useful books be translated into the language which we all understand ; so that all the youths of England, but more especially such as are of gentle kind and in easy circumstances, may be grounded in letters—for they cannot profit in any pursuit until they be well able to read English.” His mind was too lofty for pedantry to reach it
, and too liberal and expansive to entertain the idea that learning ought to be kept in a foreign disguise and out of the reach of the people. He looked to the intellectual improvement of the people and their religious instruction as to the only solid foundation upon which a government could repose or a throne be established. It was left to a later age to advance the monstrous principle that the bulk of mankind can be governed only by the suppression or debasement of their intellectual faculties, and that governments and all the institutions of civil life are best supported by the ignorance of the greatest part of those who live under them. The doctrine of this enlightened English king of the ninth century was—let there be churches, abbeys, schools, books; let the churches be served by active and conscientious priests ; let the abbeys be filled by the most learned men that can be found; let the schools be taught by able masters; and let the books be in the language which is spoken by all the people. And the theory was carried into practice to an extent which is surprising for those times. He never rebuilt a town without furnishing it with a good capacious school; he founded or restored churches and monasteries at Athelney, Shaftesbury, Winchester, and many other places, in some of which the people had almost relapsed into heathenism; he sent into various countries in search of learned and industrious teachers; and in order that there might be books for the people to read, he wrote many himself. Even as an author, no native of England of the old Saxon period, except the venerable Bede, can be compared to Alfred either for the number or for the excellence of his writings. These works were in good part translations from the Latin into Anglo-Saxon. He thus translated for the instruction of his subjects—1, Orosius's History, six books ; 2. St. Gregory's Pastorale ; 3, St. Gregory's Dialogues ; 4, Bede's History, five books ; 5, Boetius, on the Consolation of Philosophy ; 6, The Merchen-Lage (Laws of the Mercians); 7, Asser's Sentences; 8, The Psalms of David. His original works—all in the same plain-spoken language of the people, were—1, An Abridgment of the Laws of the Trojans, the Greeks, the Britons, the Saxons, and the Danes ; 2, Laws of the West-Saxons ; 3, Institutes ; 4, A Book against Unjust Judges ; 5, Sayings of the Wise ; 6, A Book on the Fortunes of Kings; 7, Parables and Jokes ; 8, Acts of Magistrates ; 9, Collection of Chronicles ; 10, Manual of Meditations.
He was an elegant poet, and wrote a great many Anglo-Saxon poems and ballads, which were sung or recited in all parts of England, but of which we believe no trace has been preserved, though we have a few verses of a still more ancient date. Iu his original works the extent of his knowledge is not less astonishing than the purity of his taste: the diction is classically easy and simple, yet not deficient either in strength or in ornament. Asser tells us that his first attempt at translation was made upon the Bible, a book which no man ever held in greater reverence than King Alfred. He and the king were engaged in pleasant conversation, and it so chanced that Asser quoted a passage from the Bible with which the king was much struck. Alfred requested his friend to write the passage in a collection of psalms and hymns which he had had with him at Athelney and which he always carried in his bosom ; but not a blank leaf could be found in that book. At the
monk's suggestion the king called for a clean skin of parchment, and this being folded into fours, in the shape of a little book, the passage from the Scriptures was written upon it in Latin, together with other good texts : and the king setting to work upon these passages, translated them into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
Bishop Alfric, reputed the best philologist of his age, undertook a new version of the Pentateuch, and of some of the apocryphal books; and in his preface he refuted certain objections which had already been raised against similar labours, or against the practice of giving the Scriptures to the common people in a language they could understand. “The rubrics prefixed to the lessons of the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels,” says Sir Francis Palgrave, “leave no reason to doubt but that they were regularly read in the churches on Sundays and festivals. Large portions of the Scripture were also reproduced in the Anglo-Saxon homilies or sermons, and the study of the Holy Scriptures was most earnestly recommended both to clergy and laity, as the groundwork of their faith.
.. From the AngloSaxon age, down to Wicliffe, we in England can show such a succession of Biblical versions, in metre and in prose, as are not to be equalled amongst any other nation in Europe."
Nothing is more astonishing in the story of this marvellous man than how he could find time for these laudable literary occupations ; but he was steady and persevering in all things, regular in his habits, when not kept in the field by the Danes, and a rigid economist of his time. Eight hours of each day he gave to sleep, to his meals, and exercise ; eight were absorbed by the affairs of government; and eight were devoted to study and devotion. Clocks, clepsydras, and other ingenious instruments for measuring time, were then unknown in England. Alfred was no doubt acquainted with the sun-dial, which was in common use in Italy ; but this index is of no use in the hours of the night and would frequently be equally unserviceable during our foggy sunless days. He therefore marked his time by the constant burning of wax torches or candles, which were made precisely of the same weight and size, and notched in the stem at regular distances. These candles were twelve inches long; six of them, or seventy-two inches of wax, were consumed in twenty-four hours, or fourteen hundred and forty minutes; and thus, supposing the notches at intervals of an inch, one such notch would mark the lapse of twenty minutes, and three such notches the lapse of an hour. These time-candles were placed under the special charge of the king's mass-priests or chaplains. But it was soon discovered that sometimes the wind, rushing in through the windows and doors, and the numerous chinks in the walls of the royal palace, caused the wax to be consumed in a rapid and irregular manner. This induced Alfred to invent that primitive utensil the horn lanthorn ; which now-a-days is never seen except in the stable yard of some lowly country inn, and not often even there. Asser tells us that the king went skilfully and wisely to work; and having found out that white horn could be rendered transparent like glass, he with that material, and with pieces of wood, admirably (mirabiliter) made a case for his candle, which kept it from wasting and flaring. And therefore, say we, let none ever look upon an ostler's horn lanthorn, however poor and battered it may be, and however dim the light that shines within it, without thinking of Alfred the Great.
In his youth he was much addicted to field sports, and a perfect master of hunting and the then newly introduced art of hawking ; but in after life he begrudged the time which these exciting arousements demanded.
No prince of his time made such strenuous efforts in favour of education and the diffusion of knowledge among his people. Charlemagne acted upon a much Faster stage ; but in this, as in several other respects, he was left far behind by our Alfred. Since the days of the venerable Bede the civilization of the country had
sadly retrogaded. the Danes, by directing their chief fury against the churches, abbeys, and monasteries, had destroyed the most learned of the Anglo-Saxon priests and monks—had burned their little libraries, and scared literature away from its only haunts. The schools had disappeared, there being at this period no schools or libraries in the country, except such as belonged to the monastic establishments. Alfred's own account of the state in which he found the kingdom in this respect, at his accession to the throne, is most interesting; and his feeling of his own merits in effecting a change for the better is expressed with all the modesty of a truly great mind. In the circular letter wbich he prefixed to his translation of St. Gregory's · Pastorale,' he says—“ Knowledge had fallen into such total decay among the English, that there were very few on the other side of the Humber who understood the common prayers, so as to be able to tell their meaning in English, or who could have translated into that language a Latin passage ; and I ween there were not many on this side of Humber who could do it. Indeed there were so few such, that I do not even recollect one to the south of the Thames, at the time I succeeded to the crown. God Almighty be thanked, there are now some holding bishoprics who are capable of teaching."
His own large mind was ever open to instruction on any subject. The science of geography was then in a most imperfect, mutilated state. The works of the Creek and Roman geographers (themselves very defective) were unknown in England, and very little known in any part of western Europe. The dark ages had furnished nothing to supply their place. But barbarous invention had disfigured this fair world by promulgating the most absurd fables about distant countries and the men who inhabited them. Johannes Scotus had been a great traveller before he came to Alfred's court to impart the varied knowledge of which he was master. Other travelled men preceded or followed him; and it was evidently one of the greatest delights of the king's life to converse with these men about the distant lands in which they had been, and the still remoter parts of the earth of which they had obtained some information by reading books in other languages, or by hearsay. One of these adventurous men was Audher, or Othere, who had coasted the continent of Europe towards the North Pole, from the Baltic to the North Cape, with the view of ascertaining how far that continent extended ; and who, in his skiff, had run along all the northern coast of Lapland, and had ventured to the shores occupied by the wild men of Finland. Another of these travellers was Wulstan, apparently a born subject of the king, who undertook a voyage all round the Baltic, and who succeeded in gathering many particulars concerning the divers countries situated on that sea. Others among these bold men who either had been sent out expressly by Alfred, or had been brought by him into England op account of the journeys they had previously made, had visited Germany, Bulgaria, Sclavonia, and Bohemia. All the information about foreign parts that Alfred obtained from these, his rough but honoured guests, he committed to writing in the plain mother tongue, and with the noble design of imparting it to his people ; and in enlarging the text of Orosius, the Spanish chronicler, whose work he translated, he introduced a geographical account of Germany, and the voyages of Audher towards the North Pole and of Wulstan in the Baltic; this new, and for the time most valuable matter, being the cream of his conversations with his travelled guests.
Having obtained information—probably from Johannes Scotus, who had been in the East—that there were colonies of Christian Syrians settled on the coasts of Malabar and Coromandel, who spoke the same tongue which Christ spoke when he was upon earth, Alfred, partiy from feelings of devotion, and partly no doubt to increase his geographical knowledge, resolved to send out his well-instructed friend Seithelm, Bishop of Sherburn, to India, a tremendous journey in those days, and