"Every craft and every power soon grows
old and is passed over and forgotten, if it
be without wisdom.... This is now to be
said, that whilst I live I wish to live nobly,
and after life to leave to the men who come
after me a memory of good works."
So wrote the great Alfred, looking back over his heroic life. That he lived nobly none can doubt who reads the history of the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings; and his good works include, among others, the education of half a country, the salvage of a noble native literature, and the creation of the first English prose.
For the history of Alfred's times, and details of the terrific struggle with the Northmen, the reader must be referred to the histories. The struggle ended with the Treaty of Wedmore, in 878, with the establishment of Alfred not only as king of Wessex, but as overlord of the whole northern country. Then the hero laid down his sword, and set himself as a little child to learn to read and write Latin, so that he might lead his people in peace as he had led them in war. It is then that Alfred began to be the heroic figure in literature that he had formerly been in the wars against the Northmen.
With the same patience and heroism that had marked the long struggle for freedom, Alfred set himself to the task of educating his people. First he gave them laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments and ending with the Golden Rule, and then established courts where laws could be faithfully administered. Safe from the Danes by land, he created a navy, almost the first of the English fleets, to drive them from the coast. Then, with peace and justice established within his borders, he sent to Europe for scholars and teachers, and set them over schools that he established. Hitherto all education had been in Latin; now he set himself the task, first, of teaching every free-born Englishman to read and write his own language, and second, of translating into English the best books for their instruction. Every poor scholar was honored at his court and was speedily set to work at teaching or translating; every wanderer bringing a book or a leaf of manuscript from the pillaged monasteries of Northumbria was sure of his reward. In this way the few fragments of native Northumbrian literature, which we have been studying, were saved to the world. Alfred and his scholars treasured the rare fragments and copied them in the West-Saxon dialect. With the exception of Caedmon's Hymn, we have hardly a single leaf from the great literature of Northumbria in the dialect in which it was first written.
WORKS OF ALFRED
Aside from his educational work, Alfred is known chiefly as a translator. After fighting his country's battles, and at a time when most men were content with military honor, he began to learn Latin, that he might translate the works that would be most helpful to his people. His important translations are four in number: Orosius's Universal History and Geography, the leading work in general history for several centuries; Bede's History, the first great historical work written on English soil; Pope Gregory's Shepherds' Book, intended especially for the clergy; and Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy, the favorite philosophical work of the Middle Ages.
More important than any translation is the English or Saxon Chronicle. This was probably at first a dry record, especially of important births and deaths in the West-Saxon kingdom. Alfred enlarged this scant record, beginning the story with Caesar's conquest. When it touches his own reign the dry chronicle becomes an interesting and connected story, the oldest history belonging to any modern nation in its own language. The record of Alfred's reign, probably by himself, is a splendid bit of writing and shows clearly his claim to a place in literature as well as in history. The Chronicle was continued after Alfred's death, and is the best monument of early English prose that is left to us. Here and there stirring songs are included in the narrative, like "The Battle of Brunanburh" and "The Battle of Maldon." The last, entered 991, seventy-five years before the Norman Conquest, is the swan song of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The Chronicle was continued for a century after the Norman Conquest, and is extremely valuable not only as a record of events but as a literary monument showing the development of English language.