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Chapter VII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1 page 2


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Hitherto the English had only acted on the defensive. Exposed to the continual invasions of the Danes, and uncertain where the enemy would land, they were generally surprised before it was in their power to defend themselves; and the sea-coast being uninhabited, there was nothing to prevent the piratical marauders from landing unopposed. Alfred's first care, therefore, was to equip a considerable fleet, the advantage of which he had already experienced, with which he determined to cruise along the coasts, and attack all Danish ships laden with booty. Sixteen were surprised in the port of Harwich, in East Anglia, part of which were captured and the remainder sunk, and a considerable booty was also obtained. Guthrun, incensed at this act of hostility in one of his harbours, suffered the parties aggrieved to endeavour to retrieve their losses, and even furnished them with means; and it was not long before they found an opportunity of attacking and gaining some advantage over Alfred's ships. The Saxon fleet, however, in general maintained the superiority, and kept the Danes in awe.

The king, having thus secured the sea-coasts, fortified the kingdom with castles and walled towns, repairing those that had gone to ruin, and building others in so strong a manner that they could not easily be assaulted; and as London, considerable both for its size and situation, remained in the hands of the Danes, and gave them a passage into Wessex, he resolved to invest it, and the besieged were in a little time obliged to capitulate. He is said to have added both to its strength and beauty, and committed the government of it to Ethelred, who had married his daughter Elfleda, or rather gave it him, with the title of Earl of Mercia. Some historians say that he conferred on him the dignity of king; but there appears to be no authority for such an assertion. The creating Ethelred Earl of Mercia did not invest him with power, except in London, all the rest of the province being in possession of the Danes, over whom he exercised a titular authority. Having some repose from the turmoils of war, Alfred continued to occupy himself in fortifying the towns in his dominions - a precaution which served not only to repel any future attempts of their enemies, but to keep those who had already settled on the island within the limits assigned them.

This state of peace lasted for twelve years, during which time the patriot monarch had time to attend to the amelioration of the laws, and other improvements necessary for the well-being of his subjects.

The Danes, who, under the conduct of their chief, the celebrated Hastings, had ravaged France and the Low Countries, where they acquired immense booty, having been twice defeated by Eudes and Arnulph, the Kings of France and Germany, decided on returning to England, not with the intention of settling there, but led by the thirst of plunder. Dividing their forces into equal parts, they set sail for the island. The first expedition reached the coast of Kent, where they landed and committed dreadful depredations. The second, under the command of Hastings, entered the Thames, and landed at Middleton.

Alfred, who appears to have been in East Anglia at the time of this new invasion, no sooner received the intelligence than he drew together what troops he could; and, after receiving the oaths of the Anglian Danes, marched against the new comers, and defeated the enemy, who were laying siege to Exeter.

We have no very distinct accounts of the wars which ensued. The Danes, under the command of Hastings, returned to France, perhaps on account of the plague which, about this time, was committing great ravages in the island.

The terror which the name of this chief inspired had armed all the sea-coasts of France against him; on discovering which he resolved to change his course, and steer for the Mediterranean, where he contrived, by an act of sacrilege and deceit, to become master of the town of Luna, on the coast of Tuscany.

He pretended that he had merely visited the place in order to gratify his desire of becoming a Christian, and actually received baptism from the bishop. Some little time after he caused the simple prelate to be informed that he was dead, and had left a large sum of money, on condition of his being buried in the church of Luna. By this stratagem Hastings and a considerable number of his followers obtained entrance into the town, under pretence of conducting the funeral, and immediately began, to massacre and pillage the inhabitants.

The adventurer ultimately settled in the city of Chartres, which Charles the Simple, King of France, assigned to him as the price of peace.

The laws, during the war, had been very much neglected^ and were become almost unknown to the people. Alfred made a collection of the best he could find. He inserted some of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, and several of those formerly enacted by Ina, King of Wessex, and Offa, King of Mercia, in their respective kingdoms; and to these he added many of his own, adapted to the circumstances of his people. Throughout these laws may easily be observed an ardent zeal for justice, and a sincere desire of rooting out oppression and violence. They were indeed mild, if compared with those of later ages, seeing they punished most offences by mulcts and fines; but the strictness wherewith Alfred caused them to be observed counterbalanced their lenity. If with respect to private persons the rigour of the law was somewhat abated, it was not so with regard to unjust magistrates, for to such Alfred was ever inexorable; and history informs us that he executed four-and-forty judges within, the space of one year, for corruption.

These precautions seemed to be sufficient to hinder the poor and the defenceless from being oppressed by the rich and great. But as Alfred was sensible the spirit of tyranny grew upon men in authority, he studied to prevent that injustice; and, to that end, ordered that, in all criminal actions, twelve men, chosen for that purpose, should determine concerning the fact, and the judge give sentence according to their verdict. This privilege, enjoyed by the English to this day, is doubtless the noblest and most valuable that subjects can have. An Englishman accused of any crime is to be tried only by his peers - that is, by persons of his own rank. These twelve men, chosen out of many others, with the approbation of the person accused, are called by the collective name of a jury; and these are properly the persons by whom the life or death of a prisoner is determined.

About this time, also, Alfred divided all England into shires - so called from the Saxon word scyre, to divide - and counties; the shires and counties again into hundreds, which were subdivided into tithings, to which the inhabitants were obliged to belong, under pain of being treated as vagabonds.

He also invited over from foreign countries learned men, to whom he gave pensions, and dispersed them in the several dioceses, to instruct the people; and not satisfied with this, being desirous of having in his own kingdom a nursery of learning, he founded four schools or colleges at Oxford. In the first, the Abbot Neot and Grimald read divinity; in the second, Asserius, a Benedictine monk, taught grammar and rhetoric; in the third, John, a monk of St. David's, set up a chair for logic, arithmetic, and music; and in the fourth, Johannes Scotus professed geometry and astronomy.

We find also among the learned men encouraged by Alfred, Plegmund, a Mercian, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, and many others. It is unnecessary to stay to examine whether the colleges founded by Alfred were the first foundations of the University of Oxford, or whether, before that, there were at a place called Greeklade similar schools, which were removed from thence to this city. It is enough to observe that, from very small foundations, the University of Oxford has advanced to its present state.

In all matters relating to the public, Alfred governed with the advice and assistance of the general council or assembly of the nation, called in Saxon Wittena-Gemot, to which rank and office gave a right to sit, and which was independent of the king. This assembly, styled at present the Parliament, a name taken from the French, was composed of the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops, earls, viscounts or high-sheriffs of the counties, and the thanes of the first rank, or barons.

Whilst Alfred lay concealed in the Isle of Athelney, he mad a vow to dedicate to God the third part of his time, as soon as he should be restored to a state of tranquillity. He performed his promise, and allotted eight hours every day to acts of devotion, eight hours to public affairs, and as many to sleep, study, and necessary refreshment. As the use of clocks and hour-glasses was not yet introduced into England, he measured the time by means of wax-candles, marked with circular lines of different colours, which served as so many hour-lines; and to prevent the wind from making them burn unsteady, it is said he invented the expedient of enclosing them in lanterns.

He also divided his revenues in two parts, one of which was wholly assigned for charitable uses, and subdivided into four portions: the first for alms to the poor; the second for the maintenance of the monasteries he had founded , the third for the subsistence of the professors and scholars at Oxford; the fourth for poor monks, foreigners as well as English. The other half was divided into three parts: one was expended on his family; another in paying his architects, and other curious workmen; and the rest was bestowed in pensions upon strangers invited to his court for the encouragement and instruction of his subjects. This monarch is justly distinguished with the surname of Great; and all historians unanimously represent him as one of the noblest that ever wore a crown. It is, however, said that in the commencement of his reign he was subject to great violence of temper; that he was haughty towards his subjects, and indulged the impetuosity of his passions so much, indeed, as to draw down the censure of his kinsman, St. Neot.

He died in 901, in the fifty-third year of his age, after a reign of twenty-nine years and six months, the greatest part of which was spent in war.

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