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Footprint of Alfred the Great

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Alfred, King of the West Saxons, whose fame has endured and grown for more than a thousand years, ascended the throne in the year 871, at a most critical moment in the history of his country; for it was when the whole land was being devastated by hordes of savage marauders from beyond the North Sea that the young prince became king, in succession to his brother Ethelred. The year of his accession was one of such terrible carnage and desolation that it was called by the chroniclers "the year of battles" - a fitting description of a year in which nine pitched battles took place, in addition to many unrecorded fights and to innumerable skirmishes. It was not only the territory of the West Saxons which was being overrun by the fierce northern Vikings; for, as almost the whole of the rest of the country had been crushed into sullen submission, Alfred, who was only twenty-two years of age, had to face alone the furious onslaught which threatened to overwhelm the people and to end in the complete conquest of the land by the Northmen. Needless to say, had the Vikings been victorious the whole course of English history would have been changed. But the West Saxons, led by their gallant king, withstood the storm; and thus was the country saved from a repetition of the conquest by which the Teutonic invaders from whom Alfred was descended had established themselves in the land, when the withdrawal of the Roman legions left the degenerate Britons at the mercy of virile and remorseless foes. The unique position which King Alfred occupies in the annals of England is due, partly to the splendid services which he rendered to his country in the hour of need, and partly-even principally - to the glorious example which he bequeathed to posterity, both as the ruler of a realm and as a man.

According to the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," which is by no means the least precious of the legacies that King Alfred has bequeathed to posterity, the first incursion of the Northmen of which there is any record occurred in the year 787, while Beortric was king of the West Saxons; and the hearts of the people quailed, while their arms were almost paralysed by fear, because the coming of the scourge was said to be the fulfilment of a prediction that had been made more than three hundred years earlier, when the Teutonic tribesmen were setting out for Britain from their northern homes along the banks of the rivers Elbe, Weser, and Ems.

Happily, King Alfred was not amongst those who were dominated by a superstitious belief in the evil destiny of the race. He girded his loins for the mighty struggle; and to the clearness of vision with which he realized that a dangerous foe who arrived by sea would have to be met and defeated upon the water, if the country were to be saved, must be attributed his complete victory over the invaders.

Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of Ethelwulf, King of the West Saxons, and of the Lady Osburga, his wife; and by both his parents the boy was more dearly loved than any of their other children, all of whom he excelled in beauty of feature, of form, and nature. Even in his youth, although he was always the foremost in the chase, he was delicate; for, as a child, he suffered from a painful malady against which only his innate courage enabled him to prevail. This disease or some obscure development of it, became very acute on the day of his marriage to Elswyth, in the year 868; and when it is remembered that during the remainder of his life Alfred was frequently almost incapacitated by excruciating agony, to such an extent that he could not move or even think, the magnitude of his many-sided activities and of his great achievements must arouse the deepest admiration and amazement.

Even from his infancy the fondest care and the highest hopes of his parents were lavished upon Alfred; and it seems, indeed, that they must have foreseen the wonderful future which lay before him, for every effort was made to prepare him to fulfil some great destiny. While he was still very young, for example-a child of five years old, according to his friend and biographer Asser-he was sent by his father to Rome, accompanied by an imposing .retinue of nobles and servants; and it was while he was there that an incident occurred which has been the subject of endless speculation throughout the centuries.

In Rome the boy was very well received-and even affectionately treated-by Pope Leo the Fourth, by whom he was adopted as "bishop's son," created, a Roman Consul, and " hallowed to king," as the record states; and so it is quite evident that little Alfred was the recipient of very signal marks of honour and of favour which were intended to prepare him for some special career.

There are obscurities which surround even the childhood of King Alfred with a hedge of mystery; and these difficult problems increase in number, rather than decrease, when the events of the great king's later life have to be closely examined by the historian. Even the three best-known stories connected with his life-namely, the generally-accepted accounts of how he won a coveted book of Saxon poems, of how he allowed some cakes to burn upon the hearth while he was in the island of Athelney, and of how he penetrated into the camp of Guthrum in the disguise of a minstrel-are of very doubtful historical authenticity; for although all these traditions were, no doubt, originally founded upon a basis of fact, they have become so obscured by the additions of later writers that the grains of truth cannot be discovered. In other words, although the incidents may very likely have occurred, the versions of the narratives, as they are generally related, are unsupported by any reliable historical evidence.

There is, indeed, no purely historical personage who has occupied a position of anything like equal pre-eminence around whom has been spun such a tangled web of romance, in which the warp and the woof of fact and fiction are inseparably interwoven; but although the mysteries which are encountered upon all sides are baffling, the irrefutable greatness of King Alfred remains as an established tact, and his wonderful achievements-those about which there can be no shadow of doubt-entitle him to the unique place of honour that he occupies in the history of England, and in that Temple of Fame which is rightly and justly reserved for the greatest men of all races and of all ages.

Indeed, the fame of King Alfred would have been secured for all time had he bequeathed to posterity nothing more than the gloriously inspiring example of his noble and blameless life.

The exact day upon which King Alfred placed the crown upon his own head-literally upon the battlefield when he was fighting to save the country from the Vikings-is duly recorded by Florence of Worcester, who died about the year 1118; for, if the chronology of the worthy monkish chronicler be correct, King Ethelred died three weeks after Easter, on the ninth day before the kalends of May, in the year 871, having been mortally wounded in the Battle of Merton. Easter in that year was on the 31st of March; and consequently-much against his will, and only in order that the people should not be left leaderless after the death of his brother-Alfred immediately became king, this event taking place on Tuesday, the 23rd of April, 871.

Thus, by a strange and happy coincidence, the national hero of the British race ascended the throne upon the day that is set aside as the festival of S. George, the patron saint of England; and it was exactly thirty years, six months, and three days later -on October 26, 901-when the great king died at Winchester, that his labours for the welfare of his people ceased with the end of his life.

Alfred was in the fifty-third year of his age when he died; but although he was not old, as age is counted by years, he was tired and worn in body and in mind by toil and by sickness. With kingly pomp he was laid to rest in the "Newan Mynstre," dedicated to S. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, which he had built in Winchester as a mausoleum for himself and for his successors. According to a legend which is preserved in the "Liber Monasterii de Hyda," the remains of King Alfred were removed to the Abbey of Hyde during the reign of his son Edward-the reason being that the canons had seen his ghost walking in the church; but be the cause what it may have been, the fact remains that Alfred was re-buried in the New Minster, in the Abbey of Hyde-a building which must not be confused with the first church, that was then known as the Old Minster-some time during the century following his death. His tomb was of "the most precious porphyry marble," and in it his bones rested for more than six centuries, despite another translation in the year 1110, when the monks betook themselves and their treasures to the second Abbey of Hyde, an action owing to a quarrel with King Henry the First.

There is a possibility - but hardly a probability - that the remains of King Alfred may be contained in one of the six leaden chests that are still preserved in the sanctuary of Winchester Cathedral, where relics of great antiquity certainly repose. But whatever the fate of his bones and dust may have been, the great king requires no tomb - no gorgeous sepulchre-to keep his memory fresh and for ever cherished in the hearts of the British people.

There are few authentic links with the great king still in existence, for example, the famous Alfred Jewel which is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, at Oxford, and at Corby Castle there is a tablet bearing his name and a date; while in the British Museum there are coins with his head and name upon them. The British Museum also contains two gold rings which are of great historic interest; for one of them bears the name of King Ethelwulf, and the other the name of the Lady Ethelswyth, who were the father and the sister of King Alfred .

The inscribed tablet which has been already mentioned was found amongst the ruins of the Abbey of Hyde, in the year 1797, by Mr. Henry Howard, who was then quartered at Winchester with his regiment; and by him it was taken to his home at Corby Castle, near Carlisle, in Cumberland, where it is still preserved. Inscribed upon the tablet are the words, "Alfred Rex, DCCCLXXXI"; but it is doubtful whether the inscription was actually made in the year 881.

The famous Alfred Jewel was found in the year 1693, at Newton Park, in Somersetshire, between Athelney and Bridgwater; and this precious relic irrefutably establishes the connexion of King Alfred with the little marshland island, which was formed at the confluence of the rivers Tone and Parret. It was there, in fact, that Alfred, having been surprised and nearly captured at Chippenham, found a safe refuge in the early part of the year 878; and it was from there that he sallied forth five months later, and defeated the Viking leader Guthrum, in the decisive battle of Ethandune.

Moreover, as all the world knows, it was while Alfred was in Athelney, laying his plans for the deliverance of the country, that he is said to have received a sound scolding from the wife of a poor herd, because he had allowed her bread - or cakes - to burn on the hearth; but as to the historical authenticity of this incident no close inquiry need be made. But even though the burning of the cakes may be a legend, there is irrefutable evidence that, while he was hiding from his enemies amidst the Somersetshire swamps, Alfred was hospitably sheltered by a peasant of the island; for when he regained his throne, as a token of his gratitude he richly rewarded and advanced a humble man of Athelney, Denewulf by name, whose curious history is fully recorded by the chroniclers. Alfred met Denewulf, who was then an illiterate swineherd, while he was on the island; and it is said that the king was so grateful for the kindness he received from the poor man, whose intelligence and thirst for knowledge aroused his interest, that he afterwards elevated him to the bishopric of Winchester.

The Alfred Jewel is so famous and so historically interesting that a short description of it must be given. It is, roughly, pear-shaped, being two-and-a-half inches long and half-an-inch thick; and it weighs one ounce and five-eighths. At the narrow end there is the head of a reptile, from which there was originally some projection that has been lost. On the front, set under a crystal, there is a picture in enamel, composed of the three-quarter length figure of a man wearing a green tunic and a red belt, and holding a sceptre in each hand; and the background is in blue enamel. On the reverse there is a floral design; and round the bevelled edge runs the beautifully incised inscription: "ÆLFREDMECHEHTGEWYRCAN" - "Alfred had me made."

There has been much dispute concerning the identity of the man represented; for while it has been contended that the rather strange figure is intended to be a portrait of Alfred or of S. Neot, who was probably his brother, it has also been thought that it represents Jesus Christ, holding in his hands the sceptres of the church in heaven and of the church on earth, respectively.

One thing is certain-namely, that the Jewel bears witness to the well-deserved reputation which had been won by the Saxon goldsmiths who flourished in the ninth century.

London must also be regarded as a place that is very closely connected with the name of King Alfred ; for it was by him that the city was rebuilt after it had been sacked and utterly destroyed by the Vikings. Asser records the fact of the restoration, stating that Alfred "handsomely restored the city of London and made it habitable," in the year 886; and it may be added that the rebuilt city was given to Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, who was the husband of the king's eldest daughter, Aethelflaed.

One of the most persistent of false statements is the one which relates how Alfred was the founder of Oxford University. There is no proof of this claim; and, indeed, the evidence is a palpable exaggeration of the vague statement that was made by John Capgrave in his "Chronicle of England," expanded by the Warwickshire antiquary, John Ross, in his "Historia Regum Anglias," and given definite form by Stowe, in his "English Chronicles" -a work which was written towards the end of the sixteenth century. The earliest form of the legend appears in the fourteenth century "Polychronicon," of Ralph Higden, and the development of the myth may be explained by the fact that the claim was advanced in the year 1377, when the Master and the Scholars of University College sought to extricate themselves from a legal embarrassment, by endeavouring to show that their college had been founded by King Alfred the Great.

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