H́nh ảnh trang
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

He was scarce come to the throne,' when he was obliged to oppose the Danes, who had seized Wilton, and were exercising their usual ravages on the country around. He marched against them with the few troops he could assemble on a sudden, and a desperate battle was fought, to the disadvantage of the English. But it was not in the power of misfortune to abate the king's diligence, though it repressed his power to do good. He was in a little time enabled to hazard another engagement: so that the enemy, dreading his courage and activity, proposed terms of peace, which he did not think proper to refuse. They, by this treaty, agreed to relinquish the kingdom; but, instead of complying with their engagements, they only removed from one place to another, burning and destroying wherever they came.

Alfred, thus opposed to an enemy whom no stationary force could resist, nor no treaty could bind, found himself unable to repel the efforts of those ravagers, who from all quarters invaded him. New swarms of the enemy arrived every year upon the coast, and fresh invasions were still projected. Some of his subjects therefore left their country, and retired into Wales, or fled to the Continent. Others submitted to the conquerors, and purchased their lives by their freedom. In this universal defection, Alfred vainly attempted to remind them of the duty they owed their country and their king; but finding his remonstrances ineffectual, he was obliged to give way to the wretched necessities of the times. Accordingly, relinquishing the ensigns of his dignity, and dismissing his servants, he dressed himself in the habit of a peasant, and lived for some time in the house of a herdsman, who had been intrusted with the care of his cattle. In this manner, though abandoned by the world, and fearing an enemy in every quarter, still be resolved to continue in his country, to catch the slightest occasions for bringing it relief. In his solitary retreat, which was in the county of Somerset, at the confluence of the rivers Parret and Thone, he amused himself with music, and supported his humble lot with the hopes of better fortune. It is said, that one day, being commanded by the herdsman's wife, who was ignorant of his quality, to take care of some cakes which were baking by the fire, he happened to let them burn, for which she severely upbraided him for neglect.

Previous to his retirement, Alfred had concerted measures for assembling a few trusty friends, whenever an opportunity should offer of annoying the enemy, who were now in pos

session of all the country. This chosen band, still faithful to their monarch, took shelter in the forests and marshes of Somerset, and from thence made occasional irruptions upon straggling parties of the enemy. Their success, in this rapacious and dreary method of living, encouraged many more to join their society, till at length, sufficiently augmented, they repaired to their monarch, who had by that time been reduced by famine to the last extremity.

Meanwhile Ubba, the chief of the Danish commanders, carried terror over the whole land, and now ravaged the country of Wales without opposition. The only place where he found resistance, was in his return from the castle of Kenwith, into which the Earl of Devonshire had retired with a small body of troops. This gallant soldier finding himself unable to sustain a siege, and knowing the danger of surrendering to a perfidious enemy, was resolved, by one desperate effort, to sally out and force his way through the besiegers, sword in hand. The proposal was embraced by all his followers; while the Danes, secure in their numbers and in their contempt of the enemy, were not only routed with great slaughter, but Ubba, their general, was slain.

This victory once more restored courage to the dispirited Saxons; and Alfred, taking advantage of their favourable disposition, prepared to animate them to a vigorous exertion of their superiority. He soon, therefore, apprized them of the place of his retreat, and instructed them to be ready with all their strength at a minute's warning. But still none was found who would undertake to give intelligence of the forces and posture of the enemy: not knowing, therefore, a person in whom he could confide, he undertook this dangerous task himself. In the simple dress of a shepherd, with a harp in his hand, he entered the Danish camp, tried all his musical arts to please, and was so much admired that he was brought even into the presence of Guthrum, the Danish prince, with whom he remained some days. There he remarked the supine security of the Danes, their contempt of the English, their negligence in foraging and plundering, and their dissolute wasting of such ill-gotten booty. Having made his observations, he returned to his retreat, and detaching proper emissaries among his subjects, appointed them to meet him in arms in the forest of Selwood, a summons which they gladly obeyed.

It was against the most unguarded quarter of the enemy that Alfred made his most violent attack; while the Danes,

C

surprised to behold an army of English, whom they considered as totally subdued, made but a faint resistance. Notwithstanding the superiority of their numbers, they were routed with great slaughter; and though such as escaped fled for refuge into a fortified camp in the neighbourhood, being unprovided for a siege, in less than a fortnight they were compelled to surrender at discretion. By the conqueror's permission, those who did not choose to embrace Christianity embarked for Flanders under the command of one of their generals, called Hastings. Guthrum, their prince, became a convert, with thirty of his nobles, and the king himself answered for him at the font.

Alfred had now attained the meridian of glory: he possessed a greater extent of territory than had ever been enjoyed by any of his predecessors; the Kings of Wales did him homage for their possessions; the Northumbrians received a king of his appointing; and no enemy appeared to give him the least apprehensions or excite an alarm. In this state of prosperity and profound tranquillity, which lasted for twelve years, Alfred was diligently employed in cultivating the arts of peace, and in repairing the damages which the kingdom had sustained by war.

His care was to polish the country by arts, as he had protected it by arms. He is said to have drawn up a body of laws. His care for the encouragement of learning did not a little tend to improve the morals and restrain the barbarous habits of the people. When he came to the throne, he found the English sunk into the grossest ignorance and barbarism, proceeding from the continued disorders of the government, and from the ravages of the Danes. He himself complains that, on his accession, he knew not one person south of the Thames who could so much as interpret the Latin service. To remedy this deficiency, he invited over the most celebrated scholars from all parts of Europe; he founded, or at least re-established, the university of Oxford, and endowed it with many privileges; and he gave, in his own example, the strongest incentives to study. He usually divided his time into three equal portions: one was given to sleep, and the refection of his body, diet, and exercise; another to the dispatch of business; and the third to study and devotion. He made a considerable progress in the different studies of grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, architecture, and geometry. He was an excellent historian; he understood music; he was acknowledged to be the best Saxon poet of the age, and left many works behind him, some of which remain to this day. To give a character of this prince, would only be to sum up those qualities which constitute perfection. Even vir

tues seemingly opposite were happily blended in his disposition: persevering, yet flexible; moderate, yet enterprising; just, yet merciful; stern in command, yet gentle in conversation. Nature also, as if desirous that such admirable qualities of mind should be set off to the greatest advantage, had bestowed on him all bodily accomplishments, vigour, dignity, and an engaging open countenance.

His second son, Edward, succeeded him on the throne. To him succeeded Athelstan, his natural son; the illegitimacy of his birth not being then deemed a sufficient obstacle to his inheriting the crown. He died at Gloucester, after a reign of sixteen years, and was succeeded by his brother Edmund, who, like the rest of his predecessors, met with disturbances from the Northumbrians on his accession to the throne; but his activity soon defeated their attempts. The resentment this monarch bore to men of an abandoned way of living, was the cause of his death. He was killed by Leolff, a robber, at a feast, where this villain had the insolence to intrude into the king's presence. His brother, Edred, was appointed to succeed; and, like his predecessors, this monarch found himself at the head of a rebellious and refractory people. Edred implicitly submitted to the directions of Dunstan the monk, both in church and state; and the kingdom was in a fair way of being turned into a papal province by this zealous ecclesiastic; but he was checked in the midst of his career by the death of the king, who died of a quinsy, in the tenth year of his reign.

Edwy, his nephew, who ascended the throne, his own sons being yet unfit to govern, was a prince of great personal accomplishments, and a martial disposition. But he was now come to the government of a kingdom, in which he had an enemy to contend with, against whom all military virtues could be of little service. Dunstan, who had governed during the former reign, was resolved to remit nothing of his authority in this; and Edwy, immediately upon his accession, found himself involved in a quarrel with the monks; whose rage neither his accomplishments nor his virtues could mitigate.

Among other instances of their cruelty, the following is recorded. There was a lady of the royal blood, named Elgiva, whose beauty had made a strong impression upon the young monarch's heart. He had even ventured to marry her, contrary to the advice of his counsellors, as she was within the degrees of affinity prohibited by the canon law. On the day of his coronation, while the nobility were giving a loose to the more noisy pleasures of wine and festivity, in the great hall,

[ocr errors]

Edwy retired to his wife's apartment, where, in company with her mother, he enjoyed the more pleasing satisfaction of her conversation. Dunstan no sooner perceived his absence, than, conjecturing the reason, he rushed furiously into the apartment, and upbraiding him with all the bitterness of ecclesiastical rancour, dragged him forth in the most outrageous manner. Dunstan, it seems, was not without his enemies; for the king was advised to punish this insult, by bringing him to account for the money with which he had been intrusted during the last reign. This account the haughty monk refused to give in; wherefore he was deprived of all the ecclesiastical and civil emoluments of which he had been in possession, and banished the kingdom. His exile only served to increase the reputation of his sanctity with the people: among the rest, Odo, Archbishop of Canterbury, was so far transported with the spirit of party, that he pronounced a divorce between Edwy and Elgiva. The king was unable to resist the indignation of the church, and consented to surrender his beautiful wife to its fury. Accordingly, Odo sent into the palace a party of soldiers, who seized the queen, and, by his orders, branded her on the face with a hot iron. Not contented with this cruel vengeance, they carried her by force into Ireland, and there commanded her to remain in perpetual exile. This injunction, however, was too distressing for that faithful woman to comply with; for being cured of her wound, and having obliterated the marks which had been made to deface her beauty, she once more ventured to return to the king, whom she still regarded as her husband. But misfortune continued to pursue her. She was taken prisoner, by a party whom the archbishop had appointed to observe her conduct, and was put to death in the most cruel manner: the sinews of her legs being cut, and her body mangled, she was thus left to expire in the most cruel agony. In the mean time, a secret revolt against Edwy became almost general; and Dunstan put himself at the head of the party. The malecontents at last proceeded to open rebellion: and, having placed Edgar, the king's younger brother, a boy of about thirteen years of age, at their head, they soon put him in possession of all the northern parts of the kingdom. Edwy's power and the number of his adherents every day declining, he was at last obliged to consent to a partition of the kingdom; but his death, which happened soon after, freed his enemies from all farther inquietude, and gave Edgar peaceable possession of the govern

[merged small][ocr errors]

Edgar, being placed on the throne by the influence of the

« TrướcTiếp tục »