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King Alfred (AD 873-900)

by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)

Image of Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane.
Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1823-1894)

The history of King Alfred, and his noble efforts in the cause of learning, are so familiar to all readers that it may seem unnecessary to say much of the restoration of letters which took place in England during his reign. From our childhood, the stories of his life have been as familiar to us as those of Scripture, and it is probable that the illuminated manuscript which first tempted him to learn his alphabet has encouraged not a few of us in our childish love of picture-books. Every one knows that at the time of his accession England was plunged in her darkest night of ignorance; and every one who has studied Hume, Hallam, and other standard writers, knows that the illiteracy of the English clergy at that precise period is commonly cited as a sample of the state of things which prevailed throughout Europe during the Dark Ages. Hallam, indeed, in a note appended to his remarks on the subject, admits that before the Danish Invasion, the churches were well furnished with books, but adds that “the priests got little good from them, being written in a foreign language they could not understand.” The fact that the state of things complained of was not normal, but accidental, is uniformly ignored by these writers; they beheld the waters of an inundation, and would have their readers believe them to be the ocean in its natural bed. However, far from wishing to deny the ignorance which existed in England at the time of Alfred’s accession, I will add to the colouring of the picture by quoting Dr. Lingard’s brief but emphatic summary of the grievances under which the kingdom then groaned. “At the close of this calamitous period,” he says, after a graphic sketch of the devastations perpetrated by the Danes, “the Anglo-Saxon church presented a melancholy spectacle; the laity had resumed the ferocious manners of their pagan forefathers; the clergy had grown indolent, dissolute, and illiterate; the monastic order was apparently annihilated, and it devolved on Alfred, now victorious over his enemies, to apply remedies to all these evils.”

The Whitsuntide of the year 873 had been signalised by the great battle of Ethandun, gained by Alfred over the Danes; and this was followed by a short but brilliant campaign, at the close of which the “heathen men” retired into East Anglia and made their submission to the crown of Wessex. This final success was succeeded by fifteen years of comparative tranquillity, which were employed by Alfred in those multifarious acts of wise legislation which restored order to his distracted kingdom, and gained for himself the well-merited title of “the Great.” No work, however, lay closer to his heart than the restoration of learning, for though at this time quite as illiterate as the rest of his people, Alfred’s desire to become learned had very early evinced itself. He had learned to read and write at twelve years old, in spite of many obstacles, no good masters being then to be obtained in all Wessex. His reading, however, was not extensive; it seems to have been confined to a little book in which were collected the day hours of the church, and a few psalms and collects, and which he always carried about him. The manuscript which by its brilliant illuminations had first excited his curiosity was a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and there is no reason for supposing that Alfred was at this time possessed of any other books.

But an intellect like his finds other food than that which can merely be extracted from books. In company with his father, Ethelwulf, Alfred had made the pilgrimage to Rome, where Ethelwulf rebuilt the Saxon school which had been founded by King Ina. On their homeward journey he had visited the court of Charles the Bald, and seen and talked with learned men; he had assisted at his father’s second marriage with the Princess Judith, which was celebrated by Hincmar of Rheims; and at St. Omer’s he had made acquaintance with the Provost Grimbald, whose conversation left a lasting impression on his mind. All this had been a kind of education to him, and by showing him the superior enlightenment of other countries, made him more bitterly regret the rudeness of his own. The first step he took in order to begin a reform was to search out the few learned men still to be found among the Anglo-Saxon clergy. How few they were he lets us know in that oft-quoted passage from the Preface to his translation of St. Gregory, and which, after speaking of the “blessed times” formerly existing in England, when there were holy kings and a zealous clergy, and people came hither from foreign countries in quest of instruction, he laments over the change that has fallen on the land, and declares that knowledge has now so escaped from the English people, that few priests south of the Humber can be found who understand the divine service, or can explain a Latin epistle in English. “They are so few,” he adds, “that I cannot remember one, south of the Thames, when I began to reign.”

And yet, says Hallam, the district south of the Thames was “the best part of England.” This, however, is clearly a mistake, for every one of the surviving Saxon scholars whom Alfred succeeded in hunting out and drawing to his court were Mercians. They were Werefrith, Bishop of Worcester; Plegmund, who when the Danes were ravaging the country had fled into Cheshire and there became a hermit; and two other Mercian priests, named Ethelstan and Werwulf. Plegmund was drawn out of the solitude called from him Plegmundesham, and in 890 was chosen by God and the people to be Archbishop of Canterbury, says the Saxon Chronicle, of great part of which he is supposed to have been the compiler. Werefrith, whom Asser calls most erudite in the divine Scriptures, was sufficiently a Latin scholar to undertake the translation of St. Gregory’s dialogues. Ethelstan and Werwulf were appointed royal chaplains, and had no light office, for they were required by the king to read to him at every leisure moment, “both by day and by night,” that so he might become acquainted with books which he could not read for himself. In Wessex Alfred found no one fitted to take part in the proposed reform, with the exception of a poor swineherd named Denewulf, whom he fell in with whilst hunting in the forest of Selwood; and, charmed with the native genius he betrayed in his conversation, had him educated, and eventually raised him to the see of Winchester. These, however, were not sufficient for the work which the king contemplated, and his thoughts turned to the foreign monks whose acquaintance he had formed on his journey from Rome. He specially desired to obtain possession of Grimbald, who was renowned for his knowledge of the Scriptures and his proficiency in the musical science, and for this purpose despatched an embassy to Fulk, Archbishop of Rheims, begging that the learned provost might be sent to him without delay. Mr. Turner, in his interesting account of the literary labours of Alfred, informs us that Fulk addressed the king a very singular letter in reply, wherein he calls both Grimbald and the English prelates who formed the embassy by the name of dogs. “You have sent me some noble generous dogs to drive away the irreligious wolves, and they came desiring other dogs, not dumb dogs like those spoken of by the prophet, but good noisy dogs that can bark and make themselves heard.” Reference to the original letter of Fulk however, which is printed at the end of Asser’s Life of Alfred, will show that this is a very free translation of a passage capable of simple explanation. The neighbourhood of Rheims was, it seems, infested with wolves, no uncommon thing even in the suburbs of great cities in those wild times; and Alfred, among the costly presents which he sent to the archbishop, had included a pack of English wolf-hounds. Fulk in his letter thanks him for the welcome gift. “You have sent us,” he says, “noble and generous, although mortal and corporal dogs, to drive away the visible wolves with which, among other scourges of God’s justice, our country abounds; and you have asked of us, other dogs, not corporal, but spiritual ones; not such as those of whom the Psalmist speaks, saying, ‘Dumb dogs not able to bark,’ but such as may guard their master’s house by their barking, and wisely keep his flock from the wolves of the unclean spirit, which are the devourers of souls, of which number one is Grimbald the priest and monk,” whose learning and sanctity he then proceeds to extol. Grimbald arrived in England in 884, and, after being honourably received by Alfred and Archbishop Ethelred, is said to have made an excellent oration to the clergy and nobility in a Synod held at London, calling on them, one and all, to embrace a devout life, and to lend their aid in remedying the disorders which had followed on the Danish invasions. According to most writers, he began to teach sacred letters in the schools opened by Alfred at Oxford, and afterwards became abbot of the monastery which the king had founded at Winchester. Another of Alfred’s foreign scholars was John of Old Saxony, a monk of Corby, who has been erroneously confused with John Scotus Erigena. He appears to have brought with him a small community of French monks who were placed by Alfred in the monastery newly erected in the Isle of Athelney.

But none of these rendered Alfred such effectual help in his literary labours as the British scholar Asser, a monk of St. David’s monastery, whose fame having reached the King’s ears, he was invited to the royal “vill” of Dene, in Sussex, and travelled thither “through many wide intervening ways,” under the conduct of some Saxon guides, in the same year that witnessed the arrival of Grimbald. Asser, who has told us much concerning his royal patron, and has traced his genealogy through Woden up to Bedwig, the grandson of Noe, has been provokingly concise in his account of himself, and the history of his first introduction to the Saxon court. We only know that Alfred vainly endeavoured to induce him to give up his own country, and devote himself entirely to his service; and that Asser steadily refused to do so, thinking, as he says, that it was not right to forsake the holy place where he had been nurtured and consecrated for the prospect of earthly gain and honour. A compromise was, therefore, agreed to, by which Alfred secured his services for six months in every year; and the direction of the court school was delivered into his hands. The plan of this school was the same as that of Charlemagne’s Palatine academy; and in it not only the princes and sons of the nobility, but many also of humbler rank, received their education. They read both Saxon and Latin books, and wrote in both languages, so that before they were strong enough to take part in the chase and other manly sports, they were fully instructed in what Asser calls the liberal arts. Ethelward, Alfred’s youngest son, is specially commended for his diligence and love of learning; and his elder brother, Edward, and their sister, Ethelswitha, continued their studies even after they were grown up. We have not the same accurate information with regard to the nature of their acquirements as we have of those of Alcuin’s scholars; but Asser says they pursued all the liberal sciences, learnt the Psalter, and read Saxon books very frequently, especially Saxon poems. Another school was opened at Athelney, which seems to have been exclusively intended to educate future monks and clergy, and among its scholars the greater number were foreigners. Asser speaks of having seen one of the pagan youths studying there, by which expression he probably means a Dane. He himself had no reason to complain of not being well paid for his services, for Alfred had the merit, so highly prized among his nation, of possessing an open hand. He conferred on his favourite scholar the monasteries of Congresbury and Banwell in one day; and another time gave him Exeter and all the parishes annexed to it in Wessex and Cornwall, as well as a silk pallium and a man’s load of incense, with promises of more at a future time. These liberal grants of land and possessions were possibly made with the covert design of eventually fixing Asser altogether on the Saxon side of the Severn, and not without success, if, as seems probable, he afterwards became Bishop of Sherborne.

It was Alfred’s own desire to extend the blessing of education to all his free-born subjects; and he even made it a law that every freeman possessed of two hides of land should keep his sons at school till they were fifteen, “because a man born free, who is unlettered, is to be regarded no otherwise than as a beast, having, like them, no understanding.” If they had no sons of their own, he encouraged them to choose among the sons of their vassals those of most promise, who might at their expense be trained in good learning, and fitted to fill offices in church and state. He was literally dismayed at the amount of ignorance which he found among his judges, and by his reproofs shamed some of them into seeking in their old age for the instruction they had neglected in their youth. “I marvel,” he would say, “that you who have been intrusted with the office of the Wise (Witan) should have neglected the studies of the wise. Therefore, either at once resign your offices, or apply yourselves to gain wisdom.” Many, urged by words like these, placed themselves under the court teachers, and those who considered the labour of learning to read too gigantic to be undertaken at their age, had their sons and freed men educated, and employed them to read to them, lamenting their own ignorance, and extolling the superior advantages enjoyed by the youth of the present times.

But though the good work was begun, Alfred knew well enough that the only way to perpetuate it was the foundation of monastic schools; and here lay his great difficulty, for not only were all the old monasteries destroyed by the Danes, but the religious spirit that had formerly peopled the cloisters of Malmsbury, and Jarrow, and Croyland, and Lindisfarne with communities numbering their hundreds, were now entirely extinct. Asser informs us that the monastic institute was held in such contempt at that time, that no freeman was to be found in all Wessex willing to embrace it, and those from other provinces who had embraced it neglected all its rules. A gross sensuality had taken possession of the English people, and resulted in a wide-spread neglect on the part of the secular clergy of the sacred canons which bound them to a single life. Their example was ruinous to the morals of the laity, and the practice of divorce was becoming common among all ranks; and to complete the moral degradation of the English, drunkenness was frightfully on the increase among them, that vice the progress of which St. Boniface had so often lamented in his letters to the English prelates, saying that he blushed to find England alone disfigured by a brutal habit to which the very pagans were strangers. In such a state of society we are not surprised to find that the monastic profession was generally regarded with dislike. Athelney had to be peopled with foreign monks, and the murderous attempts they made on the life of their abbot seems to show that the community was made up of worthless members. The only other religious house of any importance which owed its foundation to Alfred was that at Winchester, and in consequence of the support it received from the king it seems to have enjoyed a larger share of prosperity. Still, it must be admitted that Alfred’s efforts to restore monasticism in England were a failure; and in this respect his restoration of learning differed from that of Charlemagne. The Frankish monarch found himself surrounded by institutions which only needed encouragement to become the fit instruments for his work. The monastic spirit was vigorous in France in the eighth century, and he had but to speak the word to see schools and libraries starting up in connection with the cathedrals and monasteries. But in England the case was far different, and hence the real good achieved by Alfred was effected less by the schools that he founded than by the books that he wrote.

It is truly astonishing to think that we should number among our authors a king who, when he came to the throne, could barely read and write, and who during the whole of his reign was overwhelmed with business of all kinds, and worn down by constant bodily sickness. If Charlemagne’s greatness had a more brilliant character, that of Alfred is perhaps more admirable when we remember how very few he had to assist him in his toils. He had to regenerate every branch of government, and to see to each department with his own eye. If Asser’s statement is to be received as literally correct, the king found himself called on to teach his officers even their most homely duties. In the midst of Danish incursions and daily infirmities, he had not only to guide the rudder of the State, but to instruct his goldsmiths and other artificers, his huntsmen, falconers, fowlers, and dog-keepers. Many useful arts he himself taught his people; they were so barbarised and discouraged by their long continued sufferings that agriculture was becoming neglected in many parts, and the king was forced to offer premiums to those who would apply themselves to it, and to distribute seed from the royal storehouses. He was likewise a great builder, and introduced the fashion of building brick and stone houses instead of wooden hovels, himself furnishing the necessary directions and designs. I need not speak of what he did as a lawgiver, or of the numberless social and political institutions which he created. He was at once head, eye, and hand to the kingdom, and found so few among his nobles capable of seconding him in his efforts for the good of his people, that we are told he had to hang forty-five of his judges for gross crimes in the execution of their duty. How in the midst of all these multifarious cares he contrived to find time for the liberal arts, is only to be explained when we remember that he was pre-eminently a good manager and an economist of time; not an economist in that sense of the word in which we understand one who sacrifices everything to business, for according to this practical view Alfred might certainly have made more of his time than he did; and his method of disposing of the eight hours a day which he devoted to prayer and study, would probably by some be regarded as anything but economical. A man who was in the habit of hearing mass and reciting the divine office daily, and of satisfying his devotion by frequent and stealthy visits to the church, at such times as he judged himself least likely to be observed by his attendants, seemed to be expending his few and precious leisure moments on duties not of obligation. But this holy prodigality of the time given to God is a speciality in our early Christian scholars on which it is profitable to dwell. It formed a part of their system, and was as remarkable in Alfred as it was in Bede. And however familiar the reader may be with the anecdotes of his life, some, perhaps, will not be equally familiar with them as they stand in their original garb, from which the religious element has been carefully pared away by each successive story-teller. I shall, therefore, make no apology for introducing so threadbare a subject as King Alfred and his horn lanthorns, persuaded that comparatively few of those who have heard of him as their inventor, have ever dreamt that they had any sort of connection with the spiritual side of our great king’s character. Here, then, is the story as it appears in the pages of Asser. After telling us of the many undertakings happily brought to completion by the king, and his incessant activity in the government of the realm, he continues: “Having set all these things in order, mindful of that saying of Holy Writ, ‘Let him who would give an alms begin with himself,’ he reflected on what he could offer to God of the service of his own mind and body, wishing to consecrate these to God as well as his exterior riches. So he promised, as far as infirmity, possibility, and means would permit, willingly and with all his might to give to God one-half of the service of his mind and body, both by day and night. However, as he could not any way reckon the night hours, by reason of the darkness, nor equally divide those of the day, because of the frequent rain and clouds, he began to think how he might, with God’s help, observe the tenor of his vow even until death. At last he hit on a useful and clever device. He ordered his chaplains to provide a sufficient quantity of wax, which when brought he caused to be weighed out in pennyweights. When seventy-two pennyweights of it had been measured out, he ordered his chaplains to make thereof six candles, all of equal dimensions, each candle being marked out into twelve inches of length. This being done the six candles were burnt day and night without intermission through the twenty-four hours before the holy relics of many saints, which he took with him wherever he went. But as sometimes the candle would not burn through a whole night and day up to the same hour at which they had been lighted the preceding evening (doubtless because of the violence of the winds, which often blew through the doors and windows of the church, or through the many chinks in the walls and roofs, and their hangings), and as thus they burnt out more quickly than they should have done, Alfred began to consider how he might prevent this effect of the wind, and caused a lanthorn to be beautifully constructed of wood and cow’s horn (for white cows’ horns carefully scraped are no less transparent than glass), and the candle, being placed in this lanthorn, shone as brightly without as it did within, unimpeded by the blasts of wind.”

So, then, it was in fulfilment of a religious vow that King Alfred cast about to discover how he might accurately measure out his time, and his horn lanthorns were but the means he hit on to help him how to give the half of his service of mind and body, day and night, to God. Truly a vow worthy of a Christian hero, and right faithfully and heroically kept. Of course, in the time thus consecrated to God, he included those hours he devoted to study, for this with him was a religious exercise. How, indeed, he contrived to secure his eight hours a day of prayer and reading, is a mystery of the same nature with those marvellous facts which we meet with in the lives of the saints, whose days and nights seem to have had forty-eight hours in them, if we measure them by the amount of prayer and work they accomplished during their course. Alfred, whilst thus disposing of his time by vow, had, as it might seem, no time to himself. However, he made the most of what with most men are idle moments, and when not actually engaged in business was always reading or hearing others read. In his chamber he always had a book open before him, and never travelled without carrying his books with him. The attainment of wisdom, both human and Divine, was his absorbing desire; and Asser, after speaking of his incomparable affability and cheerfulness with others, and the great love and honour he showed to all those whom he drew around him, as well foreigners as natives, and his exceeding tenderness for his own children, and for the other youths whom he caused to be bred up in his palace, as though they were all members of his own family, goes on to say that he had no real consolation in any of these things, but that day and night he was devoured with one thought, and with what he calls an anxious sadness, which he poured out to his familiar friends; and this was his ceaseless desire that Almighty God would make him skilled in divine wisdom and in the liberal arts; so that he sought for wisdom even as did King Solomon, esteeming it to be preferable to glory and riches, and, like him, found them also together with her; according as it is written, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all other things shall be added to you.” This coupling together of divine wisdom and the liberal arts, as equal objects of solicitude, is easily understood when we remember the plan according to which human knowledge was then pursued, always in subordination to that which is divine, and mainly in connection with it. Intellectual pursuits not having yet been set free from their holy servitude to the faith, were not recognised as possessing any peculiar dangers; nay, rather, they seem invariably to have been regarded as something meritorious; and knowledge, far from being preached against as perilous to the soul, was ranked among those better gifts which a good man might earnestly covet.

Asser has related to us the circumstances which led to the king’s first applying himself to earnest study. Hitherto, as we have seen, he had been content with making his chaplains read to him, and when Asser first took up his residence at the Court of Leonaford, he also was employed to read to his royal master all the books he desired to become acquainted with, or that could be at that time procured. “One day, as we were sitting together,” he says, “conversing as was our wont, I chanced to recite to him a passage out of a certain book. He listened with great delight, and showing me the little book containing his prayers, which he always carried about with him, asked me to transcribe in it the passage I had quoted.” But every corner was found to be filled up, and Asser suggested writing out the quotation on a separate leaf. “We cannot tell,” he said, “whether we may not meet with other passages which you may like, and if so we should be glad to collect them.” Some fresh sheets were accordingly procured, and the same day three more quotations were entered, and so it went on till at last the new book was filled as completely as the old one; and this very day, being the feast of St. Martin, 885, Alfred, then thirty-six years of age, resolved without delay to commence the study of Latin, that he might himself be able to read and translate books into English for the benefit of his people.

His first work, of which unhappily nothing has been preserved but a few fragments, was the very collection alluded to above, and which Asser and William of Malmsbury speak of as his “Enchiridion” or manual. But there yet remain his more important translations from St. Gregory, Orosius, Boethius, and Bede, the first of which contains that admirable preface which explains so modestly and simply the intention of the writer, and the way in which he executed his work. In the mere verbal translation he was assisted by the learning of others, for he tells us with regard to his version of the “Regula Pastoris” of St. Gregory, that it was done by him into English, sometimes word for word, and sometimes sense for sense, “as I learnt it from Plegmund, my archbishop, and Asser, my bishop, and John and Grimbald, my mass-priests.” But both in this and his other works, he was far more than a translator, and continually expands the ideas of his authors, introducing new matter of his own; sometimes even he substitutes whole chapters for those which he omits, so as to make his translation almost an original work. In the passages which are from his own pen, we admire at once the philosophic lucidity of his thoughts and the noble simplicity with which he expresses them. A brief sentence of Boethius is thus expanded. “Then, said Reason, Dost thou like fair lands? and Mind answered to Reason, and said, Why should I not like fair lands? How? Is not that the fairest part of God’s creation? Full oft we rejoice at the mild sea, and admire also the beauty of sun, moon, and stars. Then answered Wisdom and Reason to the Mind, and said, How belongeth Heaven’s fairness to thee? Desirest thou to glory as though its beauty were thine? It is not, it is not. Knowest thou not that thou madest none of these things? If thou wilt glory, glory in God…. Wherefore now dost thou rejoice in the fair blossoms of Easter, as if thou hadst made them; canst thou make any of such things? Not so, not so. Or is it now in thy power that the harvest is so rich in fruits? I know that this also is not in thy power.” Boethius says, “Survey the space, the firmness, and the rapidity of the heavens, and cease to admire vile things.” This is enlarged by Alfred as follows: “Behold now the spaciousness, the firmness, and the swiftness of the heavens. Yet all this is not to be compared to its Creator and Governor. Why do ye not let yourselves be weary of admiring and praising, that which is unprofitable? That is, worldly riches. For as heaven is better, and fairer, and more precious than all within it, excepting only man, so is man’s body better and more precious than all his possessions. But much more bethink thee that his soul is better and more precious than his body. Every being is to be honoured in fit proportion, and always the highest, most. And therefore the Divine Power is to be honoured, adored, and worshipped above all other things.” The following remarkable passage on free-will is entirely his own. “I said, I am sometimes very much disturbed. Quoth he, at what? I answered, It is at this, that thou sayest, that God gives to every one freedom to do evil as well as good, whichsoever he will. Now I wonder much at this. Then, quoth he, I may very easily answer thee this remark. How now would it look to thee if there were any very powerful king, and he had no freemen in all his kingdom, but only slaves? Then, said I, it would not be thought by me right or reasonable if servile men only were to wait on him. Then said he, It would be more unnatural if God, in all His kingdom, had no free creatures under His power; therefore he made two kinds of rational creatures free, angels and men, and he gave them thus this great gift of freedom.” Mr. Turner, in quoting this passage, remarks that Alfred’s solution of the difficulty shows him to have been a true king of the English people. He felt from his own great heart that the Divine Sovereign must prefer to govern freemen rather than slaves, because this was his own sentiment as a king. If it were derogatory to the dignity of an earthly ruler to have none but slaves for his subjects, far more so would it be for the King of Heaven to have no creatures endowed with free-will.

But perhaps the most interesting of all these interpolated passages is that which occurs in his paraphrase of Boethius, where, treating of the duties of a king, he speaks thus in his own person: “I never well liked or strongly desired this earthly kingdom; yet when I was in possession of it I desired materials for the work I was commanded to do, that I might fitly steer the vessel, and rule the realm committed to my keeping. There are tools for every craft, without which a man cannot work at his craft; and a king also must have his materials and his tools. And what are these? First, he must have his land well peopled, and he must have prayer-men, and army-men, and work-men. Without these tools no king can show his skill. His materials are provision for these three brotherhoods; land to dwell in, gifts, and weapons, and meat, and ale, and clothes, and whatever else they need. Without these he cannot keep his tools, and without his tools he cannot work. Therefore I desired materials that my craft and power might not be given up and lost. But all craft and power will soon be worn out and put to silence if they be without wisdom. Therefore I desired wisdom. This is now what I can truly say. I have desired while I lived to live worthily, and after my death to leave to men that should be after me a remembrance in good deeds.”

In his version of the Chronicle of the World, by Orosius, he followed the same plan, and took occasion to insert a great many corrections and additions, specially in those parts relating to geography, a study for which, like most Anglo-Saxon scholars, Alfred evinced a special liking. His most important additions are a description of Germany, and an account of the voyages of Wulfstan and Othere, the latter of whom was a Norwegian whale-fisher, who sailed round the North Cape into the White Sea, and also entered the mouth of the river Dwina. The narrative was taken down from the lips of the adventurers by the king himself, and is given with the brief biblical simplicity which marks all the compositions of the writer. A considerable portion of the coasts of Prussia and the Baltic are here described for the first time; neither Wulfstan nor Othere removed the impression then prevalent that the Scandinavian peninsula was an island, nevertheless, their discoveries added considerably to the existing geographical knowledge, and the industry shown by the king in collecting and publishing these important facts is well deserving of praise.

The treatise of St. Gregory on the pastoral office was translated by Alfred with peculiar care, and his object in selecting such a work is sufficiently obvious. It contained the instructions of that great Pope whose name was venerated in England as that of her first apostle, on the duties of the pastoral office, and the good king doubtless trusted that its study would revive a better spirit among his clergy. It had in fact a very special degree of authority, and in all the Synods held under Charlemagne was commonly referred to as the standard of ecclesiastical discipline, and would naturally have a special claim on the interest of English readers, as being one of the books bestowed on St. Augustine by the author, and laid up in the Canterbury Library. So highly did Alfred value the translation of the “Hirde-boc,” as he calls it, that he caused a copy to be sent to every cathedral church in his dominions, with strict injunctions that they should never be removed thence except for the purpose of transcription, or for the bishop’s own reading. Three of these copies are still preserved, with the names of the bishops inserted in the prefatory letters; they are those belonging to Wulfsige of Sherborne, Werferth of Worcester, and Plegmund of Canterbury.

Many other writings and translations are attributed to Alfred by Malmsbury and other historians, and we are assured by the former that he was engaged on an Anglo-Saxon version of the Psalter when attacked with his last sickness. An Anglo-Saxon translation of the New Testament also exists bearing his name, and was printed at London in 1571. Indeed the literary reputation of their “darling,” as the Anglo-Saxons popularly termed him, induced them to ascribe to his pen any English writing of uncertain authorship. The real part to be assigned to him in the history of learning is, in fact, that of the founder of Anglo-Saxon literature. Up to this time few books had appeared in the native idiom, with the exception of the national ballads. But it was his wish to substitute that noble tongue, which none knew better how to write than himself, in place of the incorrect Latin which had been used by earlier scholars; his own translations and paraphrases were the first attempts at anything like extensive prose works in the vernacular, but from that time the number of Anglo-Saxon writers rapidly increased.

I have said that the good achieved by Alfred was accomplished rather by his writings than his schools. Mr. Craik, in his history of English literature, speaks of it indeed as “probable” that Alfred restored many of the old episcopal and monastic schools, though he admits there is no satisfactory evidence of his having done so. We may safely affirm, from the absence of all historic evidence, that no such restorations took place, and the reason is obvious; to effect them he must first have restored the monastic institute, and however ardently he desired to do so, it is quite clear that his efforts were crowned with very imperfect success. But his claim to be regarded as the founder of Oxford University rests on more respectable tradition, which, to use the words of Hallam, “if it cannot be maintained as a certain truth, at least bears no intrinsic marks of error.” It is assumed by most historians that the schools to the support of which Alfred devoted one-fourth part of the moiety of his revenues, were those which he founded or restored at Oxford, by the advice, as it is said, of St. Neot, and where it is further stated that Grimbald taught theology on first coming to England. Hardyng, the historian, tells us that these schools were founded in virtue of a brief from Pope Martin II.

In the yere Eight hundred four score and tweyne The Pope Marteyne graunte to Kynge Alwerede To founde and mak a studye then ageyne, And an universitie for clerkes in to rede, The whiche he mad in Oxenforde, in dede, To that intent that clerkes by sapience Agayn heretiks suld mak resistence.

The passage, indeed, which occurs in one manuscript of Asser’s history, giving an account of certain dissensions between Grimbald and the old scholastics whom he found already established at Oxford, is now very generally held to be an interpolation of later writers, who were anxious by this means to stretch back the antiquity of their university to a date of indefinite remoteness.

For the Cambridge professors having, in Queen Elizabeth’s time, unblushingly claimed for their founder, Eneas, the son of Brute, those of Oxford cast about for some way of lengthening their own pedigree to “pre-historic” times, and not content with the reputation of having Alfred for their founder, boldly asserted that Oxford had been a place of study for at least a thousand years before the Christian era; and appealed to the “old scholastics” whom Grimbald is said to have found in possession, in support of their statement. But though the disputed passage is not to be found in the more authentic manuscripts of Asser, yet in them he makes mention of certain schools founded by Alfred, the locality of which he does not name, and there seems no solid ground for rejecting the tradition that fixes them at Oxford, and represents Grimbald as exercising there the office of teacher. The same tradition assigns St. Peter’s Church as the scene of his labours, and the Saxon crypt of that church, which is beyond all doubt one of the highest antiquity, is commonly called St. Grimbald’s crypt, and is said to have been built by him and intended as his own place of sepulture. But even granting thus much to the Oxford antiquarians it is evident that the circumstantial account which represents the university as founded by Alfred in the same regular form which it assumed in the thirteenth century is altogether fabulous. And it must be allowed that national pride has considerably overstated the work achieved by Alfred as a reviver of learning, and a reformer of discipline. How small an improvement had taken place in the general tone of the Anglo-Saxon clergy may be gathered from the severe reproof addressed to them in the following reign by Pope Formosus, in which it is declared that the impieties of paganism had been suffered to revive in England, while the bishops “remained silent like dogs unable to bark.” Such a deplorable state of things can in no way be attributed to any negligence on the part of Alfred, but as he himself has told us, “without tools no man can do his work,” and in his day the right tools were wanting. Hence, though several of his successors inherited his learned tastes, they were able to accomplish but little for the promotion of letters. Edward the Elder is said to have founded or restored some schools at Cambridge, and Athelstan is not only styled a doctarum artium amator, but is even to be numbered in our list of royal authors, some of his books being discovered by Leland in the library of Bath abbey. But the renewed incursions of the Danes, and the continued wars in which these princes were engaged, prevented their devoting much attention to the encouragement of literature, and, as Wood expresses it, the drum of Mars forced Minerva into a corner. The dearth at this time of monastic houses, and consequently of schools, is proved by the fact that the very few Englishmen who were attracted to a religious life either chose the eremitical state, or emigrated to the foreign cloisters of Fleury or Montfaucon. But in England the old sanctuaries of learning and piety were suffered to lie desolate. The collegiate clergy formerly attached to the cathedrals were exchanged for secular canons, and in the reign of Edgar the Peaceable, that monarch was able to affirm, as a fact known to all men, that, under the rule of his predecessors, monastic institutes had entirely decayed.

The only surviving establishment that still kept up something like a monastic school was the little colony of Irish clergy who served the church of Glastonbury, and it was here that the rudiments of education were received by that extraordinary man who was destined to restore the monastic institute in England, and thus to become the author of a revival of learning more real and lasting than that which Alfred had attempted. This was a work demanding something more than royal power and human greatness for its accomplishment; it implied a struggle with the corrupt sensualism of the world, and a conquest of those powers of evil which are not to be cast forth save by prayer and fasting. A spirit had to be breathed into the dry bones, and the dead, in a certain sense, to be raised to life; and all this called for nothing less than the ministry of a saint. And in the hour of the darkest need, a saint was granted to the English Church, which had for more than a century borne the curse of sterility. Or rather not one, but a cluster of glorious stars suddenly illuminated her clouded heavens, whose labours, if they were primarily directed to the reform of ecclesiastical discipline, embraced at the same time, and as a necessary means for accomplishing that end, the establishment of monasteries and schools.

Source:  Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .

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