literal facts, we may reasonably discredit these tales ; but, even if pure inventions, they serve to show the high estimation in which Alfred's administration of justice was held by his posterity.

Learning had fallen into so deplorable a state during the Danish invasions, that, on the accession of Alfred to the throne, his whole dominions could hardly boast of one scholar able to read Latin. The churches and monasteries, the only seminaries of learning in that age, had been destroyed. The king, who never lost his youthful passion for knowledge, endeavoured to promote literary studies among his people. He invited to his court the most distinguished scholars from foreign countries, and, with their assistance, he began, in his thirty-ninth year, to apply himself to the study of Roman literature. He established schools in various places, and made endeavours that the children of every freeman, whose circumstances would allow it, should learn reading and writing, and that all persons, designed for civil or ecclesiastical employments, should be instructed in Latin.

Alfred's judicial reforms constituted the most lasting memorial of his genius. He divided all England into shires or counties, the counties into hundreds, and the hundreds into tythings. In this manner, all the inhabitants of the kingdom were obliged to belong to some tything, and whoever did not was looked upon as a vagabond, and denied the protection of the law. Every householder was held to answer for his wife, his children under fifteen years of age, and his domestics. If any one, by his way of living, fell under suspicion of irregularity, he was compelled to give security for his good behaviour; and, in case he could procure none, the tything threw him into prison, to prevent their being liable to a penalty, should he commit any offence. Thus the householders being responsible for their families, the tythings for the householders, the hundreds for the tythings, and the counties for the hundreds, every one was watchful over his neighbour's actions. If a stranger, guilty of any crime, made his escape, information was taken of the house where he had lodged, and, if he had been there three days, the master was condemned to pay the fine. As Alfred had the sagacity to perceive that the spirit of oppression naturally grew upon men in authority, he studied to prevent abuses in the decisions of the magistrates. For this purpose, he provided, that, in all criminal cases, twelve men, selected for the purpose, should determine concerning the facts alleged, and the judge give sentence according to their verdict. Such was the origin of the English trial by jury, the distinguishing feature of modern jurisprudence.

The progress which this great prince made in learning, while occupied in the busy scenes of war and legislation, affords a remarkable instance of his economy of time, industry, and assiduity in study. He was the best Saxon poet of his age, an excellent grammarian, orator, architect, geometrician, and historian. He translated from the Latin into Saxon, “ Boëthius de Consolatione,” “Gregory's Pastoral," “ Bede's Ecclesiastical History," and the “Epitome of Orosius," besides composing several original works. While he lay concealed at Æthelingay, he made a vow to dedicate to the service of God a third part

his time,


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

as soon as he should be restored to a tranquil condition. He was punctual to this vow, and allotted eight hours every day to acts of devotion, eight to public affairs, and the remainder to sleep, study, and necessary refreshment. As clocks and hour-glasses were not yet known in England, he measured time with wax candles marked with colored lines for the hours ; and, to guard them from irregular consumption on account of the wind, he is said to have invented horn lanterns. This is probably the most humble domestic utensil that ever owed its origin to a king. Napoleon, indeed, invented a pillow with a cavity to fit the ear,but this was a small compensation for having made half the world lie uneasy in their beds.

After a glorious reign of more than twenty-five years, Alfred died on the 26th of October, in the year 900. He made liberal bequests in his will, and, in particular, forbade his heirs to invade the liberty of those persons whom he had set free. - For God's love,” says he, " and for the advantage of my soul, I will that they be masters of their own freedom and of their own will. And, in the name of the living God, I entreat that no man disturb them by exaction of money, or in any other manner, but that they be left at liberty to serve any lord whom they may choose ” :- a striking coin cidence between the last will and testament of two great men, - Alfred and Washington.


[ocr errors]

Canute reproving his Flatterers. AMONG the Danish kings of England, Canute stands preëminent for his wisdom and military prowess. His father, Sweyn, king of Denmark, after a most successful campaign against the Saxons, entered London in triumph, and England was completely conquered. But before the crown could be placed upon his head, he was snatched away by a sudden death, in February, 1014. The dejected spirits of the conquered nation revived at this event, and they again rose in resistance against the invaders. The Danes, taken unawares by this sudden renewal of hostilities, were defeated with great loss, and forced to take refuge on board their ships. Canute, who succeeded his father, sailed to

Denmark to take possession of that kingdom. Haying settled the affairs of his hereditary dominions, he returned to assert his claim to the crown of England.

He quickly subdued several districts, and obtained a firm footing in the country Ethelred, the Saxon king, maintained himself at London, where he died. Ed. mund, his son, was crowned king by the Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by a very few of the English nobility and clergy ; but his affairs were in so unpromising a state, that far the greater part of the nobility attended Canute at Southampton, where they swore allegiance to him as their king, and abjured all the posterity of Ethelred. After these ceremonies, both these princes prepared to contend for the crown of England with such spirit and valor as showed that neither of them was unworthy of the prize. Edmund, who, from his courage and resolution in war, had obtained the surname of Ironside, hastened to Wessex, where his party was in considerable strength. Canute, taking advantage of his absence, laid siege to London, but the bravery of the citizens baffled all his efforts. Ed. mund forced him to raise the siege. Five bloody battles were fought, and London was besieged three times during the year 1016. A treaty followed, by which the kingdom was divided between the rival kings. Ed. mund fell by assassination shortly after this, and Ca. nute was acknowledged king of all England by a general assembly of all the chief persons of the nobility and clergy held at London in 1017.

Having secured himself in his new dominion, this politic prince undertook the performance of several meritorious acts of justice. In the course of the pre

« VorigeDoorgaan »