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Ælfred
Ælfred
153

a union of the kingdom under Harold. His accession in Wessex would have entailed the downfall of Emma, and Ælfred had reason to believe that his mother would favour his enterprise. Earl Godwine met him at Guildford. Convinced of the weakness of the party of Harthacnut, the earl was now on the side of Harold. He set on the company of Ælfred, some he slew outright, some were sold as slaves, others were blinded, scalped, or otherwise cruelly used. Ælfred was taken alive and sent to Ely. As he was in the ship which brought him to the island, he was blinded. He dwelt awhile with the monks, and when he died of the hurts which he had received they buried him in their church. Miracles were said to have been wrought at his tomb. Of no fact in our history have so many different accounts been given as of the death of Ælfred. It forms the subject of a poem in the Abingdon and Worcester versions of the Chronicle. This poem, with one or two additions from other writers, which do not contradict its statements, is the authority for the story here given. Mr. Freeman, by an ingenious course of argument, comes to the conclusion that in this matter ‘the great earl is at least entitled to a verdict of Not Proven, if not of Not Guilty.’ Setting aside all vague conjectures and considerations of possible motives, it is impossible to deny that the weight of written evidence is distinctly on the side of those who believe that Earl Godwine took Ælfred captive and slew his companions in a fearfully cruel manner, though it cannot be ascertained whether he acted treacherously towards the ætheling. The murder of Ælfred was made the subject of accusation against the earl in the reigns of his brothers Harthacnut and Eadward the Confessor, and was used as an accusation against England and as a plea for the Norman conquest.

[A. S. Chron. Abingdon and Worcester; Florence of Worcester; Will. Gemm. vi. 11, 12, vii. 11; Will. Pict. ed. Giles, 78, 79; Encomium Emm. iii. 2–6; Vit. Ead. ed. Luard, 400; Will. of Malm. lib. ii. cap. 188; Henry of Hunt. Mon. Hist. Brit. 758, 761; Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 542–569.]

W. H.


ÆLFRED (849–901), king of the West-Saxons, is the one great character of our early history whose name still lives in popular memory, and round whose well-known historical career a vast mass of legend has gathered. The name of Ælfred is familiar to many who perhaps do not know the name of any other king or other worthy before the Norman Conquest. And popular belief has made him into a kind of embodiment of the national being; he has become the model English king, indeed the model Englishman. As usual, popular belief has got hold of a half truth. It has picked out for remembrance the man most worthy of remembrance, and, as far as his personal character is concerned, its conception of him has not gone far astray. But his historical position is strangely misconceived. As the one Old-English name that is remembered, Ælfred has drawn to himself the credit that belongs to many men both earlier and later, and often to the nation itself. The king of the West-Saxons grows into a king of all England, and he is made the founder of all our institutions. He invents trial by jury, the rude principle of which is as old as the Teutonic race itself, while the first glimmerings of its actual existing shape cannot be seen till ages after Ælfred's day. So he divides England into shires, hundreds, tithings, and institutes the so-called law of frankpledge. In all this we see the natural growth of legend, always ready to find a personal author for national customs which really grew of themselves. It is by a worse process, by deliberate and interested falsehood, that he has been represented as the founder of the university of Oxford and of one of its colleges.

Yet even the legendary reputation of Ælfred is hardly too great for his real merits. No man recorded in history seems ever to have united so many great and good qualities. At once captain, lawgiver, saint, and scholar, he devoted himself with a single mind to the welfare of his people in every way. He showed himself alike their deliverer, their ruler, and their teacher. He came to the crown at a moment of extreme national danger; a great part of his reign was taken up with warfare with an enemy who threatened the national being; yet he found means personally to do more for the general enlightenment of his people than any other king in English history. Ælfred is great, not by the special development of some one or two powers or virtues, but by the equal balance of all. Appearing in many characters, he avoids the special vices and temptations of each. In a reign of singular alternations of overthrow and success, he is never cast down by ill luck or puffed up by good. In any case of war or of peace, of good luck or of bad, he is ready to act with a single mind, as the needs of the moment most call upon him to act.

For the title of Great, often given to Ælfred in modern times, there is no ancient authority. Its use seems to go back no later than the seventeenth century. There is in