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Alfred the Great

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ALFRED THE GREAT, King of the West-Saxons: b. 848, at Wantage in Berkshire. He was the youngest son of 2Ethelwulf, suc ceeding to the throne in 871, after the three short reigns of his brothers 2Ethelbald, 2Ethel bert and /Ethelred. The day of his death was 28 October, the year is doubtful, 900 of 901 the weight of the evidence favoring the earlier date. Of the early years of Alfred little is known. The indications are that he was a favorite son. For at the age of five he was sent to Rome by his father, where Pope Leo °hallowed Alfred as King and took him as his bishop's son" (Asser, 'Chronicle)). The allu sion to Alfred as °bishop's son)) refers to his confirmation, the Pope standing as his sponsor according to a not unusual practice of the times. The allusion to his hallowing as king is less clear; since his three older brothers were still alive, it probably refers to some titular dignity conferred upon him. Two years lhter /Ethel wulf himself went to Rome and Alfred accom panied him. The story of Alfred's learning to read falls in the period before the second pil grimage to Rome. It is found in Asser, who states that Alfred "remained illiteratex' (illitera tes permansit) to his 12th year or more, al though he knew many Saxon poems by heart. By °illiterate° Asser undoubtedly means ignor ant of Latin. Alf red could certainly read Anglo Saxon before his 12th year, and the mother who, according to the story, promised a book of Anglo-Saxon poems to that one of her sons who first learned to read it to her, was without question Alfred's own mother, Osburh. It was not until after his accession that Alfred acquired a knowledge of Latin. Asser states that at Alfred's marriage festivities, in 868, he was attacked by a grievous illness which af flicted him for 20 years or longer. This story has obviously been exaggerated for hagiological purposes, although it probably has some foun dation in the fact that Alfred was never in robust health.

Alfred first appears in public life in the year 866, as the assistant of his brother 2Ethel red in repelling the attacks of the Danes. In the midst of these Danish wars Alfred suc ceeded to the throne, nine general engagements being fought in this year. Alfred's own wars with the Danes centre in two great campaigns. As result of the first the Danes, in 878, prom ised to leave Wessex and their King, Guthrun, received Christian baptism. It was in this cam paign that Alfred retreated to lEthelney in the fens of Somerset. Later tradition has added many unauthentic details to this episode, no tably the story of the cakes and that of Alfred's playing as a disguised harper in the camp of the Danes. After 14 years of comparative peace the Danes returned to the attack. In the meantime, however, Alfred had strengthened his army and his defenses. At one brilliant engagement after another the Danes were de feated, and in 897 they fled into East Anglia and Northumbria and over sea into France. For the remaining years of Alfred's life, Wessex was at peace. The 'Chronicle' says, in record ing Alfred's death, that he was king over all the English people except that part which was under the power of the Danes. But practically

all England north of the Thames was in the Danelagh, and Alfred's authority extended only over Wessex and a part of Mercia. In saving Wessex, however, Alfred had saved England for the English people; for it was from Wes sex as a centre that his successors began the task of reconquering England from the Danes.

In his years of peace Alfred was engaged in strengthening and organizing his army, in sys tematizing the government of the country and in laying those plans for advancing the intellec tual interest of his people which made him so much more than merely the soldier. Unable to find teachers in England, Alfred brought schol ars from abroad, and with their aid planned to have translated into English all those Latin books which he thought it most needful that his people should know. Alfred himself bore the greater part of this burden. His first transla tion was one of Pope Gregory's 'Pastoral Care,) made about 894. This was followed by the 'Universal History' of Orosius, and Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History,) though there is some question whether or not this latter work pro ceeded directly from the hand of Alfred. These were followed by his interesting version of Boethius' 'Consolation of Philosophy.' His last work was a translation and adaptation of writings of Augustine and Gregory. Other un dertakings undoubtedly due to Alfred's influ ence are a translation of Gregory's (the preface of which was written by Alfred), the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) (see ENGLISH CHRONICLES), and a translation of the Psalter. Popular tradition has ascribed a number of other works to Alfred which belong to much later periods. Asser refers to Alfred's book,' a commonplace book or anthology, but this work is no longer extant. Historians agree in placing a high estimate on the charac ter and achievements of Alfred. Freeman I, 49) calls him "the most perfect character in Ranke ('Weltgeschichte,' VI, II, 46) declares him to be "one of the greatest figures in the history of the It should be borne in mind, how ever, that it is not the magnitude of Alfred's military achievements, nor the extent of the country which he governed, that lift him into the ranks of the world's great men, but the beauty and moral grandeur•of his character. In him were combined the virtues of the scholar and the patriot, the efficiency of the man of affairs with the wisdom of the philosopher and the piety of the true Christian. His character, public and private, is without a stain, and his whole life was one of enlightened and mag nanimous service to his country.

Bibliography.— The primary sources of in formation concerning Alfred are Asser's 'Life of King Alfred) (ed. W. H. Stevenson, Oxford 1904) ; the 'Chronicle) (ed. Earle and Plum mer, Oxford 1892-99) ; and the translations from Gregory, Bede and Boethius, texts of which are contained in Grein-Wiilker, thek der angelsichsischen Prosa.) Numerous modern lives of Alfred have been written, the best being that by Plummer (Oxford 1902).