Page images

pressed themselves in the language, though not with the eloquence, of Cicero. In the same tongue the polished Alcuin expressed all the effusions of his cultivated mind. The immortalised classics had not been as yet familiarised to our ancestors by translations; he, therefore, who knew not Latin, could not know much.

From the period of his father's death in 858, to his accession in 871, Alfred had no opportunity of procuring that knowledge which he coveted. Such feelings as his could not be cherished by elder brothers who were unacquainted with them, or by a nation who despised them. When he verged towards manhood he was still unable to obtain instructors, because his influence was small, and his patrimony was withheld (1). The hostilities of the Northmen augmented every obstacle : on every occasion they burnt the books which the Anglo-Saxons had collected, and destroyed the men who could use them, in their promiscuous persecution of the Christian clergy. Their presence also compelled Alfred repeatedly into the martial field, and from these united causes his ardent thirst for knowledge remained ungratified, until the possession of the crown invested him with the wealth and influence of the WestSaxon kings.

But on receiving the crown, he exerted himself to remove the ignorance of divine and human learning which he had been so long lamenting in himself. He sent at various intervals to every part, abroad and at home, for instructors capable of translating the learned languages. Like the sagacious bee, says his honoured friend, which, springing in the dawn of summer from its beloved cells, wheels its swift flight through the trackless air, descends on the shrubs and flowers of vegetable nature, selects what it prefers, and brings home the grateful load; so Alfred, directing afar his intellectual eye, sought elsewhere for the treasure which his own kingdom did not afford (2).

His first acquisitions were Werfrith, the bishop of Alfred's subseWorcester, a man skilled in the Scriptures; Pleg- quent instructors. mund, a Mercian, who was made archbishop of Canterbury, a wise and venerable man; Ethelstan and Werwulf, also Mercians, and priests. He invited them to his court, and endowed them munificently with promotions; and by their incessant exertions, the studious passion of Alfred was appeased. By day and by night, whenever he could create leisure to listen, they recited or interpreted to him the books he commanded; he was never without one of them near him and by this indefatigable application,


(1) Alfred details the particulars in his will: he says, that Ethelwulph left his inheritance to Ethelbald, Ethelred, and Alfred, and to the survivor of them; and that on Ethelbald's death, Ethelred and Alfred gave it to Ethelbert, their brother, on condition of receiving it again at his decease; when Ethelred acceded, Alfred requested of him, before all the nobles, to divide the inheritance, that Alfred might have his share, but Ethelred refused. Asser, 73.

(2) Asser, p. 45.

[ocr errors]

though he could not himself understand the learned languages as yet, he obtained a general knowledge of all that books contained (1).

The information which the king acquired rather disclosed to him the vast repositories of knowledge, of which he was ignorant, than satisfied him with its attainment. The more he knew, the more tuition he craved. He sent ambassadors over the sea into France, to inquire for teachers there. He obtained from that country Grimbald, the priest and monk, who had treated him kindly in his journeys, and who is described as a respected man, learned in the writings he revered, adorned with every moral excellence, and skilled in vocal music. He obtained another literary friend, of talents and acquisitions much superior, and indeed worthy of Alfred's society. This was Johannes Erigena, or John the Irishman, a monk of most penetrating intellect, acquainted with all the treasures of literature, versed in many languages, and accomplished in many other arts. By these acquisitions the mind of Alfred was greatly expanded and enriched, and he rewarded their friendship with princely liberality (2).

The merit of Asser also reached the king's ear, which was open to every rumour of extraordinary merit.

His invitation of "I was called by the king," says this plain, but Asser. interesting biographer, "from the western extremities of Wales. I accompanied my conductors to Sussex, and first saw him in the royal city of Dene. I was benignantly received by him. Amongst other conversation, he asked me earnestly to devote myself to his service, and to become his companion. He requested me to leave all my preferments beyond the Severn, and he promised to compensate them to me by greater possessions (3). ” Asser expressed an hesitation at quitting without necessity, and merely for profit, the places where he had been nourished, and taken orders. Alfred replied, "If this will not suit you, accommodate me with at least half of your time. Be with me six months, and pass the rest in Wales." Asser declined to engage himself till he had consulted his friends. The king condescended to repeat his solicitations, and Asser promised to return to him within half a year; a day was fixed with a pledge for his visit; and on the fourth day of their interview, Asser quitted him to go home (4).

A fever seized the Welshman at Winton, and continued to oppress him for a year (5). The king, not seeing him at the appointed day, sent letters to inquire into the cause of his tarrying, and to accelerate his journey. Asser, unable to stir, wrote to acquaint him with the disease; but, on his recovery, he advised with his friends, and, on receiving their assent, he attached himself to Al

(3) Ibid. 47.

(1) Asser, p. 46. (4) Ibid. 47, 48.

(2) Ibid. 46, 47.
(5) Ibid. 48.

fred for a moiety of every year. The clergy of St. David's expected that Alfred's friendship for Asser would preserve their patrimony from the depredations of Hemeid (1)."I was honourably received in the royal city of Leonaford," says Asser, "and that time staid eight months in his court. I translated and read to him whatever books he wished, which were within our reach ; for it was his peculiar and perpetual custom, day and night, amidst all his other afflictions of mind and body, either to read books himself or to have them read to him by others." Asser states the donations with which Alfred remunerated his attachment (2). No eloquence can do more honour to any human character, than this unadorned narration. The condescension, benignity, the desire of improvement, and the wise liberality of Alfred, are qualities so estimable, as to ensure the veneration of every reader.

The manner of his obtaining the society of Grim- His invitation of bald, was an evidence of the respect and delicacy Grimbald. with which he treated those whom he selected for his literary companions. He sent an honourable embassy of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and religious laymen, to Fulco, the archbishop of Rheims, within whose district Grimbald resided (3). He accompanied his mission with munificent presents (4), and his petition was, that Grimbald might be permitted to leave his functions in France, and to reside in England. The ambassadors engaged for Alfred that Grimbald should be treated with distinguished honour during the rest of his life (5). The archbishop, in his letter to Alfred, speaks highly of the king's administration of his government (6), and commends the merit of Grimbald (7). Fulco adds, that it was with

(1) Asser, 49. Hemeid was one of the Welsh princes contiguous to St. David's. (2) Asser, 50. On the morning of Christmas eve, when Asser was determining to visit Wales, the king gave him two writings, containing a list of the things which were in the two monasteries at Ambresbury, in Wiltshire, and Banwell, in Somerset. In the same day, Alfred gave him those two monasteries, and all that they contained, a silk pall, very precious, and as much incense as a strong man could carry; adding, that he did not give him these trifles as if he was unwilling to give him greater things. On Asser's next visit, the king gave him Exeter, with all the parishes bolonging to it in Saxony and Cornwall, besides innumerable daily gifts of all sorts of worldly wealth. He gave him immediate permission of riding to the two monasteries, and then of returning home, p. 50, 51.

(3) Fulco's letter to Alfred on this subject is yet extant. It is printed at the end of Wise's Asser, p. 123-129. He says, p. 128., "Eum ad vos mittendum cu suis electoribus et cum nonnullis regni vestri proceribus vel optimatibus tam Episcopis scilicet, Presbyteris, Diaconibus, quam etiam religiosis Laicis," etc. In p. 126., he starts a curious metaphor. He says, "Misistis siquidem nobis licet gcnerosos et optimos tamen corporales atque mortales canes, etc. This rhetorical metamorphosis is pursued for thirteen lines. These noble dogs were to drive away the irreligious wolves; and he says, they came to desire some other dogs, not the dumb dogs mentioned by the prophet, but good noisy dogs who could bark heartily, "Pro domino suo magnos latratus fundere." One of these was Grimbald. Fulco may have strayed into a joke, but he intended a serious compliment.

(4) Wise's Asser, p. 126.
(6) Ibid. p. 123.

(5) Ibid. p. 128.
(7) Ibid. p. 127.

great personal pain that he permitted him to be taken from France. The liberality of Alfred overcame his reluctance, and Grimbald became a companion of the king of Wessex.

In 887, Alfred obtained the happiness he had long coveted, of reading the Latin authors in their original language. Asser has noted the date of the circumstance, and described its occurrence. As the monarch and his friend were sitting together, and, as usual, discoursing in the royal apartments, it happened that Asser made a quotation. The king was struck with it, and taking from his bosom his little book of devotion, he required that it might be inserted in it. Asser found no room in the little manual of his piety, and after some hesitation, calculated to increase his desire, proposed to put a few other leaves together, for the purpose of preserving any passages that might please the king. Alfred assented; the new book was made; the quotation was entered, and soon two more, as they occurred in the conversation. The king, pleased with the sentiments, began to translate them into Saxon. The book became full of diversified extracts. The first were from the Scriptures, others from all subjects. Alfred was delighted with his new talent; and the book became a perpetual companion, in which he declared he had no small recreation (1).

To John Erigena, to Grimbald, to Asser, and Plegmund, Alfred himself ascribes his acquisition of the Latin language (2).

His desire to improve his people was so ardent, that he had scarcely made the attainment before he was active to make it of public utility. He beheld his subjects ignorant and barbarous, and he wisely judged that he should best amend their condition by informing their minds. Let us hear his own phrases giving voice and perpetuity to his patriotic and intelligent feelings.

He first recalls to the mind of his correspondent, Alfred's preface. that even the Anglo-Saxons had once been more

learned than he found them. "I wish thee to know that it comes very often into my mind what wise men there were in England, both laymen and ecclesiastics, and how happy those times were to England! how the kings, who then had the government of the people, obeyed God and his messengers! how they both preserved their peace, their customs, and their power at home, and increased their territory abroad, and how they prospered both in wisdom and in war! The sacred profession was diligent both to teach and to learn, and in all the offices which they should do to God. Men from abroad sought wisdom and learning hither in this country,

(1) Asser, 56, 57. In quo non mediocre, sicut tunc aiebat, habebat solatium. (2) Swe swe ic hie geleornode æt Plegmunde, minum ærcebiscewe; and et Asserie, minum biscewe; and æt Grimbolde, minum messewreoste; and æt Johanne, minum messewreoste. Alfred's Preface to his Gregory's Pastorals. Wise, p. 85.

though we now must go out of it to obtain knowledge, if we should wish to have it (1).”

The king contrasts with this account the state of England in his time.

“So clean was it fallen out of England, that there are very few on this side of the Humber who understand to say their prayers in English, or to translate any letter from Latin into English; and I know that there were not many beyond the Humber; so few were they that I indeed cannot think of a single instance south of the Thames, when I took the kingdom."

Recollecting here the success of his own exertions, he exclaims, “Thanks be to Almighty God, that we have now some teachers in our stalls (2) !”

The father of his people, and the benevolent man, appear strikingly in the expressions which he continues to use: "Therefore I direct that you do, as I believe that you will, that you who have leisure for the things of this world, as often as you can, impart that wisdom which God has given you, wherever you can impart it. Think what punishments will come upon us from this world, if we shall have neither loved it ourselves, nor left it to others: we shall have had only the name of Christians, and very few of their proper habits.

"When I recollect all this, I also remember how I saw, before that every thing was ravaged and burnt, that the churches through all the English nation stood full of vessels and books, and also of a great many of the servants of God."

This statement alludes to the times in which Bede flourished, and when Alcuin was educated; but after that period, the Saxon mind declined from its beginning literature. Other occupations occurred during the interval in which their octarchy was passing into a monarchy, from the feuds and wars, and mutations of fortune which this political crisis occasioned, which the Northmen's invasions increased, and which monopolised their time, passions, and activity.

"They knew very little of the use of their books, because they could not understand any thing in them, as these were not written in their own language, which they spoke. Our ancestors, that held these places before, loved wisdom, and through this they obtained abundance of it, and left it to us. Here we may yet see their treasures, though we are unable to explore them; therefore we have now lost both their wealth and their wisdom, because we have not been willing with our minds to tread in their steps (3).

"When I remembered all this, then I wondered greatly that of those good wise men who were formerly in our nation, and who had all learnt fully these books, none would translate any part into

(1) This preface is published by Wise, at the end of his life of Asser, from the Bodleian MSS. Jun. 53.

(2) Wise, p. 82.

(3) Ibid. p. 83.

[ocr errors]
« EelmineJätka »