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MONARCHY UNDER EGBERT.
erudition and zeal as a teacher induced Charlemagne, emperor of France, Germany, and Italy, to invite his co-operation in founding schools, and in encouraging letters, a scheme which forms one
of the glories of that great monarch's reign.
The Saxon kings in emergencies convoked an assembly of the estates of the realms. This assembly was styled the Witenagemote,1 or council of wise men, who, at stated periods, met for the enactment of laws, the ratification of public acts, levying taxes, and raising armaments, and, in conjunction with the king, declaring peace or war.
The less powerful kingdoms were gradually absorbed by the greater, till, in the year 828, they all became tributaries to Wessex, in the reign of Egbert, of the Cerdic dynasty, who had passed many years of his youth at the court of Charlemagne, studying the arts of war and government. But scarcely had Egbert established his ascendency, when the island again became the prey of a new and still more formidable invasion. The long conflict with the Danes dates from this reign. Their destructive energies were amply exercised upon the monasteries, which then, in some degree, served the purposes of universities, being centres of learning and education. In the reign of Ethelbert, third in succession from Egbert, the Danes, commanded by their famous sea-king, Regner Lodbrog, landed on the coast of Northumberland, where he was made prisoner by Ælla, the tributary king of that part of Britain (A.D. 865), and thrown into a dungeon filled with vipers. This cruelty was afterwards terribly avenged by the sons and relatives of Regner.
Questions.-1. State in writing the causes which led to the occupation of England by the Saxons. 2. Under whom did the Heptarchy become a monarchy; and what great event distinguished his reign?
1 Witan, wise; and gemote, meeting.
2. Alfred the Great.
DEFEAT OF THE DANES-THEIR SETTLEMENT IN THE COUNTRY, AND PEACE— THE PROMOTION OF RELIGION AND LEARNING-THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE LAW-DANISH INVASIONS-ANGLO-SAXON SOCIETY.
Egbert Ethelwolf 1
Ethelbald Ethelbert Ethelred Alfred.
In 871 Alfred, the fourth son of Ethelwolf, succeeded to the throne of Wessex, over which his three elder brothers had reigned succes
sively. Their reigns were marked by constant combats with the Danes, who, at Alfred's accession, were masters of the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, and in possession of Reading, in Wessex. Guthrum, one of the Danish chiefs, contrary to the practice of the times, began hostilities in winter, when the Saxons were unprepared, and thus completed their discomfiture. Alfred sought safety in concealment, and took refuge in the swamps of Somersetshire, near the confluence of the Thone and Parret. Here, in a herdsman's hut, the royal guest lived in disguise. We are told that on one occasion, when his thoughts were no doubt meditating schemes for rescuing and saving his kingdom, he was so unlucky as to let the housewife's cakes get burned, and received a harsh rebuke in consequence. A happy turn was at length given to Alfred's fortunes by a victory gained over the Danes by Odun, Duke of Devonshire, in which their chief, Hubba, the last of Regner Lodbrog's sons, was killed, and their sacred banner, the Reafen or raven, taken. This victory was followed by another of greater importance at Ethandune, in Wiltshire (Edington, Westbury), gained under the leadership of Alfred, who had suddenly issued from his place of retreat. After this, the Danish chief, Guthrum, surrendered, and Alfred was once more in possession of his kingdom.
Seeing the impossibility of extirpating a people who had been
IMPROVEMENT OF THE LAW.
so long settled in the country, Alfred assigned to Guthrum and his followers the kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria, on condition of their embracing Christianity, and engaging to join him in resisting the encroachments of any new marauders. A more difficult task remained, the accomplishment of which constitutes Alfred's chief claim to the title of Great-namely, to raise the country out of the chaos caused by the Danish depredations to restore order, justice, industry, and learning. began by building strong castles for the defence of the coast, and by forming a powerful navy.
To facilitate the administration of justice, he divided England into shires; these again were subdivided into hundreds and tithings, or decennaries, the latter, composed each of ten householders, who were made answerable for each other's conduct. If a criminal escaped, the decennary was compelled to pay a fine proportioned to the offence. Punishment by pecuniary fine formed, indeed, a prominent feature of Anglo-Saxon law. Even murder could be atoned for by fine, the rate of which was proportioned to the rank of the victim. To Alfred we further owe the institution of the Jury, that great safeguard of liberty and justice. By collecting the scattered laws of his ancestors, and with the sanction of his Witan, forming them into one consistent code, Alfred endowed his country with the blessing of settled law, to which he required magistrates rigidly to conform in their decisions. He severely punished corruption, and arbitrary exercise of authority. Such were among the great reforms accomplished by Alfred; and it is said that he tested their efficacy by hanging a gold bracelet of great value in the highway unguarded, and that no one ventured to touch it.
But the restoration of the monasteries, the founding of schools, and the encouragement of learning, were the aims he had most at heart; and, with this view, he invited to his court men of learning; amongst others, Asser, bishop of St. David's, who assisted him in acquiring the Latin language. By a careful arrangement and economy of time, he was enabled, notwithstanding the vast mass of kingly duties he imposed on himself for
his country's welfare, to write several works, and translate others into English; among the latter, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, and Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy. In Alfred's will is found the often-quoted expression, "Englishmen should be free as their own thoughts." He invited foreign artists to his court, and their conversation aided the development of his own natural gifts. Asser tells us that the works of architecture completed in his reign were marked by grandeur of style.
Alfred's reign closed, as it had begun, in repelling another invasion of the Danes, under their celebrated chief, Hastings, who sought, like Guthrum, a kingdom in England, but without success. Amongst this truly great king's services to his country, we must not omit the foundation or extension of Oxford (886), as a grand centre of learning. After thus establishing order, consolidating his kingdom, and instructing his people, he died A.D. 900 or 901,-leaving a noble example of integrity and of duty to his country. With all truth, and in no boastful spirit, he could write, "This I can now truly say, that, so long as I lived, I have striven to live worthily, and after my death to leave my memory to my descendants in good works." He was succeeded by his son Edward.
The long Saxon anarchy had effaced Roman civilisation, and eclipsed for a while the Christian worship. But this was the destined means for introducing into England a great and free people. The Romans gave the island municipal institutions, and impressed on it a sense of law; the Saxons brought with them the grand principle of individual freedom. The best tribute of the Anglo-Saxons to the civilisation and greatness of this country, was the introduction into it of a race such as theirs, which, with many shortcomings, possesses a strength, soundness, and purity, which, when fairly dealt with, could form a nation whose grandest, fullest type was realized in the great Alfred. The Saxon nobles held their lands by a free tenure, and, though acknowledging a king, were not bound to render him service as their superior. Hence arose
THE SAXON LAWS.
a large amount of individual freedom, which penetrated all classes, and which, by its steady and persistent character, has given to England its free institutions. The king was counselled by the Witenagemote, an assemblage of the bishops and the leading nobles and proprietors of the land, and the germ of the future British parliament. This body seems to have met three times a year, and they had the power of declaring war, imposing taxes, and enacting laws. In the hundred-motes and shire-motes, again, the various districts of the country were represented by nobles and freemen, and thus the people were trained to self-government.
We thus see how true is the trite observation, that it is from our Saxon forefathers that we inherit that love of liberty, combined with respect for law, which has always been England's safeguard alike against despotism and anarchy.
Under the king there were three social grades,—the thanes, or great landed proprietors; the freemen or husbandmen, divided into various classes, according to their property; and the serfs or slaves, who possessed no property, and were bound to the land.
The prominent feature of the Saxon laws was, that all crimes, injuries, and offences might be atoned for by the payment of money to the injured individual, or to his relatives. The life of every
That of a
man had its fixed money value, according to his rank. bishop was double the king's; that of a woman double a man's; and so on to the lowest degree of the scale. Each limb and feature had its price. The custom of awarding damages in our lawsuits is no doubt derived from this practice of our Anglo-Saxon
Cotemporary Events.-Charlemagne, Emperor of the West, 800. The Christians of Spain were driven northward by the Moors (or Saracens). In the first half of the ninth century, the Saracens make rapid progress in the European countries of the Mediterranean. The Normans make descents on France, Spain, Italy, and England, 843-4. Normans besiege Paris, 887.
Questions.-1. How did Alfred treat the Danes? 2. In what respects is he entitled to the appellation Great?