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King Alfred And The Danes
by [?]

In his royal villa at Chippenham, on the left bank of the gently-flowing Avon, sat King Alfred, buried in his books. It was the evening of the 6th of January, in the year 878, a thousand years and more backward in time. The first of English kings to whom a book had a meaning,–and the last for centuries afterwards,–Alfred, the young monarch, had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a thirst then difficult to quell, for books were almost as rare as gold-mines in that day. When a mere child, his mother had brought to him and his brothers a handsomely illuminated book, saying,–

“I will give this to that one of you four princes who first learns to read.”

Alfred won the book; so far as we know, he alone sought to win it, for the art of reading in those early times was confined to monks, and disdained by princes. Ignorance lay like a dismal cloud over England, ignorance as dense as the heart of the Dark Ages knew. In the whole land the young prince was almost alone in his thirst for knowledge; and when he made an effort to study Latin, in which language all worthy literature was then written, we are told that there could not be found throughout the length and breadth of the land a man competent to teach him that sealed tongue. This, however, loses probability in view of the fact that the monks were familiar with Latin and that Alfred succeeded in acquiring a knowledge of that language.

When little more than a boy Alfred became king. There was left him then little time for study, for the Danes, whose ships had long been descending in annual raids on England’s shores, gave the youthful monarch an abundance of more active service. For years he fought them, yet in his despite Guthrum, one of their ablest chiefs, sailed up the Severn, seized upon a wide region of the realm of Wessex, made Gloucester his capital, and defied the feebly-supported English king.

It was midwinter now, a season which the Danes usually spent in rest and revelry, and in which England gained some relief from their devastating raids. Alfred, dreaming of aught but war, was at home with his slender store of much-beloved books in his villa at Chippenham. With him were a few of his thanes and a small body of armed attendants, their enjoyment the pleasures of the chase and the rude sports of that early period. Doubtless, what they deemed the womanish or monkish tastes of their young monarch were objects of scorn and ridicule to those hardy thanes, upon whom ignorance lay like a thick garment. Yet Alfred could fight as well as read. They might disdain his pursuits; they must respect his prowess.

While the king lay thus in ease at Chippenham, his enemies at Gloucester seemed lost in enjoyment of their spoils. Guthrum had divided the surrounding lands among his victorious followers, the Saxons had been driven out, slain, or enslaved, and the brutal and barbarous victors dwelt in peace and revelry on their new lands, spending the winter in riot and wassail, and waiting for the spring-time budding of the trees to renew the war with their Saxon foes.

Not so with Guthrum. He had sworn revenge on the Saxons. Years before, his father, a mighty chieftain, Ragnar by name, had fallen in a raid on England. His sons had vowed to Odin to wash out the memory of his death in English blood, and Guthrum now determined to take advantage of the midwinter season for a sudden and victorious march upon his unsuspecting enemy. If he could seize Alfred in his palace, the war might be brought to an end, and England won, at a single blow.

If we can take ourselves back in fancy to New-Year’s day of 878, and to an open plain in the vicinity of Gloucester, we shall see there the planted standard of Guthrum floating in the wind, while from every side armed horsemen are riding into the surrounding space. They know not why they come. A hasty summons has been sent them to meet their chieftain here on this day, armed and mounted, and, loyal to their leader, and ever ready for war, they ride hastily in, until the Danish champion finds himself surrounded by a strong force of hardy warriors, eager to learn the cause of this midwinter summons.