Page images
PDF
EPUB

Alfred's education

escaped the notice of history. The new queen, moreover, was the daughter of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, who would hardly have allowed her to occupy so invidious a position as the consort of a sovereign whose legitimate wife was still alive. Some clue may be afforded to the problem of Alfred's birth-year by the curious fact that in Camden's edition of Asser 855 is stated to be his eleventh year, which is inconsistent with all the rest of the chronology. It looks very much as though a variant chronology existed in some MS., and this conjecture is favoured by the circumstance that Asser, whose history of Alfred ends in 887, speaks of him as in his forty-fifth year, which would precisely agree with his birth in 843.

The date of Alfred's birth is no idle question, for his age at the period of his visit to Rome has an important bearing on his after history. It continued froin 853 to 856. The influence of the Eternal City, and all else that a prolonged visit to the continent implied, must have been slight upon a child between four and seven years of age, compared with that which it might exert upon a boy between ten and thirteen. In the former case Alfred could only bring back impressions of childish wonder and curiosity, in the latter his stay would have been fertile in knowledge and instruction absorbed by one of the most receptive of human minds, and in external impressions registered and elaborated by one of the most intelligent. Rome indeed no less than other cities of Western Europe lay immersed in barbarism; yet in comparison with Alfred's own country its intellectual condition must have been as light to darkness. If the abstract love of humane studies was insufficient to keep these alive, ecclesiastical and political interests compelled their maintenance at as high a standard as the circumstances of the age allowed. There must have been much better schools than then possible in England, distracted by Danish invasions; and a boy between ten and thirteen would be just at the age when their teaching would be most helpful. The indirect influences, nevertheless, would be more potent and valuable than any direct instruction. We can but feebly imagine the transition from the incivility of the West Saxon capital to the spiritual metropolis of Latin Christendom, with the actuality of a spiritual empire and the memories and traditions of a secular, its monuments of the past, more numerous and imposing than now, the undimmed gorgeousness of its recent works in mosaic and incrusted metal, the art-ideal of their time, its embassies and its pilgrims, the constant coming and going of men from all lands bound upon all errands, Greeks, Jews, Syrians, perhaps even Saracens, tribes and nations regarded in Anglo-Saxondom as strange creatures, whose existence was easier to admit than to realise. The character of the Pope and the circumstances of his day would also be powerful educational influences, supposing Alfred old enough to profit by them. Leo the Fourth was one of the greatest of the Popes. An Italian of Northern extraction, as it would seem, he had been elected as the fittest person to defend 45

[ocr errors]

ALFRED'S VISIT TO ROME Rome against the Saracens, who had pillaged churches within its precincts under his predecessor. He had successfully repulsed their attacks, and at the time of Alfred's visit was constructing the fortified bulwark which, as the Leonine city, preserves his name to this day. This state of things must have been deeply impressive to Alfred, fresh from a land also scourged by the attacks of heathens, and barbarians beside, which the Saracens were not. Here he might in a manner foresee and rehearse the part reserved for himself. Nor can anything be more likely than that Leo took a deep interest in the hopeful young prince, son of one of the most religious kings of his day. Ethelwulf's own pilgrimage to Rome, indeed, has been, though hardly upon sufficient authority, said to have produced the national tribute of “Peter's pence,” afterwards rightly deemed a disgrace, but in which no one at the time saw anything humiliating. The germ had been deposited by Offa's promise of thirty pence a day towards the relief of the poor and the lighting of St. Peter's. Alfred's visit to Rome was con

Alfred's

visit to Rome nected with a singular event. The Pope “took him to his bishopson, and hallowed him to king.” Mr. Freeman is no doubt right in considering that a circumstance so clearly asserted by Alfred's biographer should not be rejected merely from the difficulty of under

Pope Leo IV.

From Platina's " Lives of the Popes" standing it. The difficulty is unquestionably very great. Perhaps some light may be thrown upon it by the comparison with the action of the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus in the seventh century in sending locks of the hair of his sons Justinian and Heraclius to Rome, thereby making them the adopted children of St. Peter and his successors. No question of the succession could arise in this instance, as both the sons were thus consecrated; and if it was now intended to give Alfred any right to the crown superior to his brothers the ceremony remained a dead letter. He was named by his father's will in the regular order of succession, and he did not come to the throne until after the deaths of all his brothers, although under the last, Ethelred, he seems to have borne the title of king. The incident of his “hallowing," whatever interpretation may be put upon it, confirms the view that Alfred's visit to Rome was paid in boyhood and not in infancy. It would be more appropriate in the case of a young prince who was manifesting abundant promise than of a child whose capabilities must be uncertain.

In 855 Alfred's father, Ethelwulf, appeared in Rome. He had

[graphic]
[ocr errors]

Life of Alfred until his accersion

travelled through the dominions of Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks, who received him with great honour. On his arrival in Rome Leo the Fourth was either dead or dying, and Ethelwulf was a witness of the tumultuous proceedings which attended the election of his successor, Benedict the Third. These did not impair his devotion to the Holy See; his piety required a year's stay in Rome, at the end of which he departed homeward, taking his son with him. The incidents of his journey must have had a strong influence upon the intellectual development of the young prince if of sufficient age. It may be reasonably conjectured that at his stay at Charles the Bald's court in the preceding year Ethelwulf had become enamoured of Charles's daughter Judith, then scarcely of marriageable age. At all events he was betrothed to her on his return in July 856, and the marriage took place in France in October. The Anglo-Saxon king and his son must have spent the intervening period at the Frankish king's court, where Alfred would meet the chief literary characters of the age-Rabanus Maurus, Servatus Lupus, above all Scotus Erigena. The example of a royal court where learning was highly honoured must have been most suggestive and stimulating to him, and Englishmen are probably under much obligation to the involuntary causes of his residence, King Ethelwulf and Queen Judith. They did not think so at the time. The foreign marriage was most unpopular. The sons Ethelwulf had left behind him refused to accept their girl-stepmother, and resisted his endeavours to reseat himself on the throne of Wessex. Ethelwulf retired with his young wife to the sub-kingdom of Kent, where he died in 858, and Ethelbald, his successor in the kingdom of Wessex, healed the family breach in the most effectual manner by marrying Judith himself. Of Alfred's attitude in these transactions we have no knowledge, on any hypothesis respecting his age he was too young to take a prominent part in them. The special affection shown him by his father justifies the supposition that he abode with him until his death, and he would participate in the ensuing family reconciliation. He certainly made no attempt to avail himself of any claim to the throne which the papal consecration might be supposed to have given him, and appears to have lived in retirement until, in 866, the death of his brothers Ethelbald and Ethelbert without issue left him heir-presumptive to their successor Ethelred. From this time he appears prominent in peace and war, and during the five years of his brother's reign is described as his “secundarius” or lieutenant.

It is foreign to our purpose to detail the numerous battles by which, as Professor Freeman sums up the matter, “When the Scandinavian invasions threatened the utter overthrow of England, and especially of English Christianity, Alfred saved his own kingdom from the general wreck, and made it the centre for the deliverance and union of the whole country." The point for the historian of literature is that in so doing Alfred, aside from his own writings and his works as an educator of his

Alfred's vict es over the Danes

ALFRED'S INFLUENCE ON LITERATURE

- 47

ócent.creatgem fact people, enacted a great literary part. But for him Anglo-Saxon

ditat humiliar. Guilleuat: letters would have perished; and aliqc diebus pauper o mo although England would not

tal ordem diltutc. Factum have been illiterate, its literature would not have been et autern wuna labor ut foto English. From 866, the year bulatis moue Coleto.gregem Cowhen Alfred first appears con lua derreflet adpakua: Iolore spicuously in public life, the

ge aun edem groue dorm rema Danish plan of operation alters. The Danes are no longer mere

nextte. Porro mulier war depot freebooters; they settle down cebat accelintal egne lubpolaco and establish regularly or panel adcoquendum Cartagem ganised kingdoms, and but for comderar:quofnou nulli lou their ultimate defeat would have

das apdlanta qutby marrus papatogo pero Scandinavianised the whole

Siwne octo que country. They must have even di rediens æră ucicerentur. -promet

magbmr. tually embraced Christianity, Cumą moze plebero limele but before things had come to

senccefiitate Jalöf aliqñidur that point the Anglo-Saxon speech would in all probability

cc occupata negraifa-tandë have been absorbed or ex adignem Colliata recurrense pelled. Alfred rescued our lan

panem galieta parte cöbultai guage as well as our independence and nationality. There

tepient: panul regeni talıbz is no contemporary partner or aggresla z cortaumeluis-Quad rival in his glory, and no K homo sedenf meditar.epa. ground for thinking that Eng

ned grare dedignaris.odde gest land could have been preserved if Alfred had not existed,-a

dum qui mouef. que ignauia: scathing rebuke to the histori que tabr de fuauif fiducia: On cal theories which disparage te nobilitats te tipfum pa individual action in compari nel quos uegligif apparnaiap son with assumed general laws.

paramos nou differas máducart. Alfred's more direct

Twelfth Century MS. Life of St. Neot. Here first occurs

the story of Alfred and the Cakes services to the literature of his country fall under two heads, his authorship and his endeavours to pro

Description.- A late twelfth-century copy of a work composed shortly after the Norman Conquest, purporting to narrate the life of St. Neot, the Cornish anchorite. It is in this romance that the story of Alfred and the cakes first makes its appearance, and hence it was adopted into the interpolated version of Asser's Life of Alfred.

Translation,-"Now it happened one day that the swineherd (with whom Alfred had taken refuge) had driven out his herds as usual to their pasture, and the king was left alone with his wife in the house. Thereupon the woman, in the course of her household duties, had lit a fire, and placed the cakes for her own and her husband's dinner in a cooking-pan upon it to bake. Being then, as is apt to happen with poor folks, occupied for some time with other business, presently he ran back anxiously to the fire, and found the cakes burnt on one side. Whereupon she forthwith assailed the king with reproaches: 'What are you sitting thinking here for, fellow, and can't take the trouble to turn the cakes? What's your country? Where did you learn manners? What idleness! What do you expect to become of you? You call yourself a noble? You won't help to cook the cakes, but you are not slow to eat them when they are cooked.' The king, thus vehemently scolded, did not make any impatient answer, but, fortified with gentleness and patience, like a second Job, in all this sinned not with his lips, nor charged God foolishly.'"

mote

lettered

culture. The former was the chief instrument of the latter, and the two are

so combined as hardly to admit of separation. Alfred as a The sovereigns who have deserved the highest praise as protectors of man of letters latters have

letters have not always been themselves distinguished as authors. Except the Mogul Emperor Akhbar, to whom, with Marcus Aurelius, among all rulers, he seems to offer the strongest resemblance, Alfred stands highest in both departments together, though far from attaining the first rank in either taken by itself. Inferior to the first Roman Emperor as an author, to the second as a patron, he yet achieved more in authorship than Augustus, and was a more useful patron of letters than Cæsar. His eminence here is not so much due to any extraordinary force of genius as to the circumstances of his time and country. We have seen that the Anglo-Saxons possessed a poetical literature by no means to be slighted; but we have encountered hardly any examples of a literature in prose, except a few homilies. Such a literature remained to be created. The first man who should attempt it with adequate faculty could hardly fail of making a deep mark, provided that his writings were such as were required by the age. Here Alfred is truly great in his modesty. He does not, as without any imputation of vanity he might have done, seek to celebrate his own exploits, or to gain reputation for wit and wisdom of his own. He simply considers what books are most likely to benefit his own people, and, his choice once made, sits down to the humble employment of a translator. In so doing he is quite unconsciously discharging a more important function than he deems, he is laying the foundation of English prose. He is, moreover, shifting his country's literary centre of gravity. Hitherto Anglo-Saxon literature has been poetical and Northumbrian; henceforth Wessex is to provide the dominant dialect, and the literature is mainly to run into prose. The literature of Northumbria is almost a

blank for several centuries. Alfred's If it is a proof of Alfred's good sense that he rather chose to translate translations

the works of others likely to be of substantial use to his countrymen than to strive for literary renown as an original author, this good sense is no less evinced in his selection of the books to be rendered into the vernacular. Those undoubtedly rendered by him or under his direction meet, in every instance, the needs of his age at some important point. They are :-.

The History of Orosius, not merely an historical narrative, but as satisfactory an approach to a philosophy of history as the limited outlook and theological prejudice of the age of its composition allowed.

The Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great, as good a manual for a clergy depressed into ignorance and barbarism by the misfortunes of the times as could well be compiled for an age in which the sacerdotal conception of the pastoral office was as yet the only one possible.

Gregory's Dialogues. A book of moral and religious tales, intended to be edifying, and all the more effective in the middle ages from its liberal infusion of the grotesque.

« PreviousContinue »