National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Alfred the Great (848?-901) Alfred found learning dead and he restored it, Education neglected and he revived it, The laws powerless and he gave them force, The Church debased and he raised it. The land ravaged by a fearful enemy From which he delivered it. Alfred's name will live as long As mankind shall respect the past. A STATUE BEARING this inscription commands the main street in the little town of Wantage, Berkshire, where Alfred, justly called the Great, was born about 848. Although for part of his reign Alfred ruled over only Wessex, he laid the foundation for a unified England and before the close of his life wrested London and Canterbury from the Danes. Fourth and youngest son of King 4Ethel wulf, he succeeded to the West Saxon throne in 871 when his brother AEthelred was slain in battle. The blackest hour in the early annals of England struck in 876 when the Dane Guthrum, usurper of the kingship of East Anglia, invaded the south coast, over whelmed Dorsetshire, and took Exeter. Caught unprepared by this treacherous vio lation of a truce, Alfred retreated to the Somerset fens and threw up an island fort in the well-nigh impenetrable marshes, where, un seen, he could watch the movements of the enemy. He recruited an army of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Somerset men, using the Danish peril to unite his people. When his troops were ready, he made a surprise attack on the Danes at Ethandun (now Edington) in Wilt shire and defeated them in a pitched battle. So signal was his success that in the Peace of Wedmore (879) he forced King Guthrum and some of Guthrum's followers to receive baptism into the Christian faith, and to with draw from the West Saxon land. Wessex was cleared of the Danes, and also Mercia west of the Roman Watling Street. Not since the Vikings' first invasion of England had the English scored so decisive a victory. Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex now stood forth as the only English power in Britain which was stronger than the invaders, and he was regarded by the people as their champion and deliverer. He had saved his kingdom from Scandinavian domination and safeguarded English Christianity. Alfred constructed a new kind of ship better able to withstand the Vikings. To him is due the conception that England is an island realm and must be defended at sea and not on land. He regarded the North Sea and the English Channel as the national frontiers. There was no end to his activities. Draw ing on Mosaic experience, he codified the na- tion's laws; comparing the low state of culture in Wessex with that of the Continent, he de termined to make his capital the greatest seat of learning in the island. When he came to the throne, he found that "not a single priest south of the Thames was acquainted with Latin." He became his own translator and editor, and made available to his people the treasures of Latin manuals in their own tongue. The Anglo-Saxon Chron icle compiled in his reign remains the first vernacular history of any Teutonic people. To him also was due the survival of the first English epic, Beowulf; the Venerable Bede's History; and other priceless books. His zeal for religion and scholarship prob ably had its beginning when as a child he was taken by his father to Rome and to the court of Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks. Confirmed by Pope Leo IV who, legend says, "hallowed him to King," he had opportunities to observe the measures taken by the pontiff for protecting the Eternal City from the Sara cens and to meet many literary characters of the age, both in Rome and in France. He established a school at his court and in sisted that "those whom it is proposed to educate further and promote to a higher office should be taught Latin," which at the time was- the only well-established literary lan guage. Lamenting his own lack of learning, he studied assiduously and asked that "all the youth of England of free men . . . be set to learn . . . until they are able to read English writing." J. R. Green places him among the world's greatest men because of "the moral grandeur of his life." "He is the first instance in the history of Christendom of a ruler who put aside every personal aim or ambition, to de vote himself wholly to the welfare of those whom he had ruled." Methodical in the use of his time, he de vised a candle covered by a lantern to meas ure the hours of his busy day. He had infi nite patience with his subjects and was ever willing to hear complaints. I like to think of him carrying in his bosom "a little hand-book in which he jotted down things as they struck him, now a bit of family genealogy, now a prayer, now a story. . . . The writer of English history may be pardoned if he lingers over the figure of the King in whose court, at whose impulse, it may be in whose very words, English history begins." When Alfred died in 901, his body was brought by the monks to the New M1inster at Winchester, though exactly where he lies in the old city is not known.