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his countrymen. In the beginning of the year 878, his followers received an unexpected summons to meet him on horseback at an appointed place. By a sudden attack they made themselves masters of Chippenham, and Alfred narrowly escaped being taken prisoner. The Saxons were surprised by the enemy before they heard of the war, and the king saw himself surrounded by the invaders without any force to resist them. Many of the inhabitants fled the kingdom, others submitted to the conquerors, and Alfred, almost entirely abandoned by his people, was compelled to betake himself to flight, and wander, a solitary fugitive, on foot, among the morasses of Somersetshire. This is the period of the lowest depression of his fortunes, and the point of most romantic interest in his history. At length he found a secure retreat in a small island situated in a marshy spot at the confluence of the Thone and the Parret, which afterwards obtained the name of Æthelingay, or Prince's Island.
During his lone wanderings, as the Saxon histories inform us, he found a shelter at one time in the house of a man who kept his cattle. On a certain day, the good woman of the house made some cakes and put them before the fire to bake, charging Alfred, who sat by, trimming his bow and arrows, to take care that they did not burn; but the king, either absorbed in thought or intent on his work, neglected the task, and the careful housewife on her return found them spoiled by the fire. She gave the monarch a severe scolding, and reminded him, sarcastically, that he was always ready enough to eat her cakes, though he was too lazy to see to their baking. Few of Alfred's biographers
have been willing to omit this curious anecdote, which stands upon as good evidence as the case will admit. The reader will excuse us for adding another. After Alfred had established himself in his retreat at Æthel. ingay, he was joined by his queen. While they sat alone one day, the king beguiling the tedium of the hours by reading aloud to his wife, he was interrupted by a poor beggar who entreated for something to eat. Alfred bade the queen see what they had in the cup.
she examined and answered, “ One small loaf.” He directed her to divide it with the beggar, and trust to Providence for a further supply for themselves. We omit the marvellous and miraculous circumstances with which the monkish historians have embellished the narrative of this simple deed of charity.
By degrees the retreat of Alfred became known to his countrymen, and he was joined by many trusty adherents. At their head he occasionally issued from his concealment, intercepted straggling parties of the Danes, and returned laden with the spoils of the enemy. As his associates multiplied, these excursions were more frequent and successful ; a fort was built on the island, and a bridge to connect it with the main land. In the mean time another strong body of Danes had landed in England, and laid siege to the castle of Kynwith. It had no other fortification than a loose wall, after the manner of the ancient Britons, but its position, on the summit of a lofty rock, rendered it almost impregnable. The Danish leader was too prudent to hazard an assault, and pitched his camp at the foot of the rock, in the confident expectation that the want of water would compel the garrison to surrender.
But the Saxons, gathering courage from despair, left their intrenchments at the dawn of morning, burst into the enemy's quarters, slew their leader with twelve hundred men, and drove the remainder to their feet. Among the trophies of this victory was the mysterious standard of the Raven, woven in one noon-tide by the three daughters of Ragnar. Great importance was attached by the superstitious Danes to this magical banner. As they marched to battle, they were accustomed to observe the picture of the raven embroidered upon its folds. If it appeared to flap its wings, it was a sure omen of victory ; but if it hung motionless in the air, they anticipated a certain defeat.
Highly encouraged by this brilliant success, the Saxons obeyed the summons of Alfred to meet him at Selwood forest, and flocked in great numbers to the rendezvous. At the appearance of their sovereign, the wood reëchoed with their acclamations, and every heart beat with the confidence of victory. The spot, however, was too confined to receive the multitudes that hastened to the royal standard, and the next morning the camp was removed to Icglea, a spacious plain in the neighbourhood. The day was spent in making preparations for the conflict. A strong army of Danes was encamped not far off; and, if we may believe the Saxon historians, Alfred engaged in a bold adventure to inform himself of the strength and position of the enemy. Disguising himself as a wandering harper, he ventured into the Danish camp, which he traversed in all parts, critically examining every object. He was even admitted into the tents of the Danish leaders, whom he entertained by an exhibition of his musical skill. Having thus obtained full information of the
state of the enemy's forces, he returned unsuspected, and prepared for the attack.
The two armies met at Eddington. As they approached each other, they vociferated shouts of mutual defiance; and, after the discharge of their missiles, rushed to close combat. The shock of the two nations, the efforts of their leaders, the fluctuations of victory, and the alternate hopes and fears of the contending parties, we shall not attempt to describe.
At length the perseverance of the Saxons bore down all opposition, and the Danes, after an obstinate defence, fled in crowds to their camp. The pursuit was not less sanguinary than the engagement. The Saxons put to death every fugitive who fell into their hands. The Danes were besieged in their camp, and Guthrum on the fourteenth day offered to capitulate. The terms imposed by Alfred were, that the king and principal chieftains should embrace Christianity, and that the Danes should entirely evacuate the Saxon territory. These terms were complied with, and the victory of Eddington established the independence of Alfred's kingdom.
From this period he suffered comparatively little annoyance from enemies for the space of fifteen years, and found himself at leisure to attend to the improvement and civilization of his people. The towns and villages were put in a state of defence, and the naval force was strengthened. Ships were built of larger dimensions than those of the Danes ; they were double the length, and constructed with higher decks, which gave the Saxons great advantage in battle. Several of these ships had above thirty oars on each side.
Alfred then turned his attention to the domestic con. cerns of the country. During the ravages of the Danes, the whole fabric of civil government had been nearly dissolved. The courts had been closed, and all sorts of crimes committed with impunity. The Saxons, during this period of license and rapine, had caught from the Danes a spirit of insubordination, a contempt for peace, justice, and religion. Alfred undertook the arduous task of remedying these evils, and, by the most untiring assiduity and vigilance, he accomplished his great purpose. The ignorant, capricious, and despotic judges were displaced or reformed. The salutary institutions of the ancient Saxon kings were restored, and a new code of laws was digested, supplying existing deficiencies, and adapted to the circumstances of the times. Alfred heard appeals with the most patient attention. In cases of importance, he revised the proceedings at his leisure, and the inferior magistrates trembled at the impartiality and severe justice of their sovereign. Forty-four magistrates are said to have been put to death by his order in one year, for illegal and iniquitous proceedings. This severity caused a complete revolution in an important branch of public manners. The judges not only became upright, but the people honest and orderly. Theft and murder were now as remarkable for their rarity as in former times for their frequency. To prove the reformation of his subjects, Alfred, we are told, caused valuable jewels to be hung up in sight along the highways, which no man ventured to remove; and it is further stated, that, if a traveller lost his purse on the road, he would, at the end of a month, find it lying, untouched, on the same spot. As