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The beginning of The Life of Alfred

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 849, was born Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, at the royal village of Wanating, in Berkshire, which country has its name from the wood of Berroc, where the box-tree grows most abundantly. His genealogy is traced in the following order. King Alfred was the son of king Aethelwulf, who was the son of Ecgberht, who was the son of Elmud, was the son of Eafa, who was the son of Eoppa, who the son of Ingeld. Ingeld, and Ine, the famous king of the West Saxons, were two brothers. Ine went to Rome, and there ending this life honourably, entered the heavenly kingdom, to reign there for ever with Christ. Ingeld and Ine were the sons of Coenred, who was the son of Ceolwald, who was the son of Cudam, who was the son of Cuthwin, who was the son of Ceawlin, who was the son of Cynric, who was the son of Creoda, who was the son of Cerdic, who was the son of Elesa, who was the son of Gewis, from whom the Britons name all that nation Gewissae, who was the son of Brond, who was the son of Beldeg, who was the son of Woden, who was the son of Frithowald, who was the son of Frealaf, who was the son of Frithuwulf, who was the son of Finn of Godwulf, who was the son of Gear, which Geat the pagans long worshipped as a god. Sedulius makes mention of him in his metrical Paschal poem, as follows:

When gentile poets with their fictions vain,
In tragic language and bombastic strain,
To their god Geat, comic deity,
Loud praises sing, &c.

Geat was the son of Taetwa, who was the son of Beaw, who was the son of Sceldi, who was the son of Heremod, who was the son of Itermon, who was the son of Hathra, who was the son of Guala, who was the son of Bedwig, who was the son of Shem, who was the son of Noah, who was the son of Lamech, who was the son of Methusalem, who was the son of Enoch who was the son of Malaleci, who was the son of Cainian, who was the son of Enos, who was the son of Seth, who was the son of Adam.

The mother of Alfred was named Osburga, a religious woman, noble both by birth and by nature; she was daughter of Oslac, the famous butler of king Aethelwulf, which Oslac was a Goth by nation, descended from the Goths and Jutes, of the seed, namely, of Stuff and Whitgar, two brothers and counts; who, having received possession of the Isle of Wight from their uncle, King Cerdic, and his son Cynric their cousin, slew the few British inhabitants whom they could find in that island, at a place called Gwihtgaraburgh; for the other inhabitants of the island had either been slain, or escaped into exile.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 851, which was the third after the birth of king Alfred, Ceorl, ealdorman of Devon, fought with the men of Devon against the pagans at a place called Wiegambeorg; and the Christians gained the victory; and that same year the pagans first wintered in the island called Sheppey, which means the Sheep-isle, and is situated in the river Thames between Essex and Kent, but is nearer to Kent than to Essex; it has in it a fine monastery.

The same year also a great army of the pagans came with three hundred and fifty ships to the mouth of the river Thames, and sacked Dorobernia, which is the city of the Cantuarians, and also the city of London, which lies on the north bank of the river Thames, on the confines of Essex and Middlesex; but yet that city belongs in truth to Essex; and they put to flight Berthwulf, king of Mercia, with all the army, which he had led out to oppose them.

After these things, the aforesaid pagan host went into Surrey, which is a district situated on the south bank of the river Thames, and to the west of Kent. And Aethelwulf, king of the West-Saxons, and his son Aethelbald, with all their army, fought a long time against them at a place called Aclea, i.e. the Oak-plain, and there, after a lengthened battle, which was fought with much bravery on both sides, the greater part of the pagan multitude was destroyed and cut to pieces, so that we never heard of their being so defeated, either before or since, in any country, in one day; and the Christians gained an honourable victory, and were triumphant over their graves.

In the same year king Athelstan, son of king Aethelwulf, and ealdorman Ealhere slew a large army of pagans in Kent, at a place called Sandwich, and took nine ships of their fleet; the others escaped by flight.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 853, which was the fifth of king Alfred, Burhred king of the Mercians, sent messengers, and prayed Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons, to come and help him in reducing the midland Britons, who dwell between Mercia and the western sea, and who struggled against him most immoderately. So without delay, king Aethelwulf, having received the embassy, moved his army, and advanced with king Burhred against Britain, and immediately, on entering that country, he began to ravage it; and having reduced it under subjection to king Burhred, he returned home.

In the same year, king Aethelwulf sent his son Alfred, above-named, to Rome, with an honourable escort both of nobles and commoners. Pope Leo IV at that time presided over the apostolic see, and he anointed for king the aforesaid Alfred, and adopted him as his spiritual son. The same year also, ealdorman Ealhere, with the men of Kent, and Iluda with the men of Surrey, fought bravely and resolutely against an army of the pagans, in the island, which is called in the Saxon tongue, Tenet, but Ruim in the British language. The battle lasted a long time, and many fell on both sides, and also were drowned in the water; and both the ealdormen were there slain. In the same year also, after Easter, Aethelwulf, king of the West-Saxons, gave His daughter to Burhred, king of the Mercians, and the marriage was celebrated royally at the royal vill of Chippenham.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 855, which was the seventh after the birth of the aforesaid king, Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles began to reign, on the eighth day before the kalends of January, i.e. on the birthday of our Lord, in the fourteenth year of his age. In this year also died Lothaire, the Roman emperor, son of the pious Lewis Augustus. In the same year the aforesaid venerable king Aethelwulf released the tenth part of all his kingdom from all royal service and tribute, and with a pen never to be forgotten, offered it up to God the One and the Three in One, in the cross of Christ, for the redemption of his own soul and of his predecessors. In the same year he went to Rome with much honour; and taking with him his son, the aforesaid king Alfred, for a second journey thither, because he loved him more than his other sons, he remained there a whole year; after which he returned to his own country, bringing with him Judith, daughter of Charles, the king of the Franks.

In the meantime, however, whilst king Aethelwulf was residing beyond the sea, a base deed was done, repugnant to the morals of all Christians, in the western part of Selwood. For king Aethelwald and Ealstan, bishop of the church of Sherborne, with Eanwulf, ealdorman of the district of Somerton, are said to have made a conspiracy together, that king Aethelwulf, on his return from Rome, should never again be received into his kingdom. This crime, unheard-of in all previous ages, is ascribed by many to the bishop and ealdorman alone, as resulting from their counsels. Many also ascribe it solely to the insolence of the king, because that king was pertinacious in this matter, and in many other perversities, as we have heard related Ly certain persons; as also was proved by the result of that which follows.

For as he was returning from Rome, his son aforesaid, with all his counsellors, or, as I ought to say, his conspirators, attempted to perpetrate the crime of repulsing the king from his own kingdom; but neither did God permit the deed, nor would the nobles of all Saxony consent to it. For to prevent this irremediable evil to Saxony, of a son warring against his father, or rather of the whole nation carrying on civil war, either on the side of the one or the other, the extraordinary mildness of the father, seconded by the consent of all the nobles, divided between the two the kingdom which had hitherto been undivided; the eastern parts were given to the father, and the western to the son; for where the father ought by just right to reign, there his unjust and obstinate son did reign; for the western part of Saxony is always preferable to the eastern.

When Aethelwulf, therefore, was coming from Rome, all that nation, as was fitting, so delighted in the arrival of the old man, that, if he permitted them, they would have expelled his rebellious son Aethelbald, with all his counsellors, out of the kingdom. But he, as we have said, acting with great clemency and prudent counsel, so wished things to be done, that the kingdom might not come into danger; and he placed Judith, daughter of king Charles, whom he had received from his father, by his own side on the regal throne, without any controversy or enmity from his nobles, even to the end of his life, contrary to the perverse custom of that nation. For the nation of the West-Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king's wife; which stigma the elders of that land say arose from a certain obstinate and malevolent queen of the same nation, who did all things so contrary to her lord, and to all the people, that she not only earned for herself exclusion from the royal seat, but also entailed the same stigma upon those who came after her; for in consequence of the wickedness of that queen, all the nobles of that land swore together, that they would never let any king reign over them, who should attempt to place a queen on the throne by his side.

And because, as I think, it is not known to many whence this perverse and detestable custom arose in Saxony, contrary to the custom of all the Theotisean nations, it seems to me right to explain a little more fully what I have heard from my lord Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, as he also had heard it from many men of truth, who in great part recorded that fact.

There was in Mercia, in recent times, a certain valiant king, who was feared by all the kings and neighbouring states around. His name was Offa, and it was he who had the great rampart made from sea to sea between Britain and Mercia. His daughter, named Eadburga was married to Beorhtric, king of the West-Saxons; who immediately, having the king's affections, and the control of almost all the kingdom, began to live tyrannically like her father, and to execrate every man whom Beorhtric loved, and to do all things hateful to God and man, and to accuse all she could before the king, and so to deprive them insidiously of their life or power; and if she could not obtain the king's consent, she used to take them off by poison: as is ascertained to have been the case with a certain young man beloved by the king, whom she poisoned, finding that the King would not listen to any accusation against him. It is said, moreover, that king Beorhtric unwittingly tasted of the poison, though the queen intended to give it to the young man only, and so both of them perished.

Beorhtric therefore, being dead, the queen could remain no longer among the West-Saxons, but sailed beyond the sea with immense treasures, and went to the court of the great and famous Charles, king of the Franks. As she stood before the throne, and offered him money, Charles said to her, "Choose, Eadburga, between me and my son, who stands here with me." She replied, foolishly, and without deliberation, "If I am to have my choice, I choose your son, because he is younger than you." At which Charles smiled and answered, "If you had chosen me, you would have had my son; but as you have chosen him, you shall not have either of us."

However, he gave her a large convent of nuns, in which, having laid aside the secular habit and taken the religious dress, she discharged the office of abbess during a few years; for, as she is said to have lived irrationally in her own country, so she appears to have acted still more so in that foreign country; for being convicted of having had unlawful intercourse with a man of her own nation, she was expelled from the monastery by king Charles's order, and lived a vicious life of reproach in poverty and misery until her death; so that at last, accompanied by one slave only, as we have heard from many who saw her, she begged her bread daily at Pavia, and so miserably died.

Now king Aethelwulf lived two years after his return from Rome; during which, among many other good deeds of this present life, reflecting on his departure according to the way of all flesh, that his sons might not quarrel unreasonably after their father's death, he ordered a will or letter of instructions to be written, in which he ordered that his kingdom should be divided between his two eldest sons, his private inheritance between his sons, his daughters, and his relations, and the money which he left behind him between his sons and nobles, and for the good of his soul. Of this prudent policy we have thought fit to record a few instances out of many for posterity to imitate; namely, such as are understood to belong principally to the needs of the soul; for the others, which relate only to human dispensation, it is not necessary to insert in this work, lest prolixity should create disgust in those who read or wish to hear my work. For the benefit of his soul, then, which he studied to promote in all things from his youth, he directed through all his hereditary dominions, that one poor man in ten, either native or foreigner, should be supplied with meat, drink, and clothing, by his successors, until the day of judgment; supposing, however, that the country should still be inhabited both by men and cattle, and should not become deserted. He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of Saint Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of Saint Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of Saint Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff.

But when king Aethelwulf was dead, and buried at Stemrugam, his son Aethelbald, contrary to God's prohibition and the dignity of a Christian, contrary also to the custom of all the pagans, ascended his father's bed, and married Judith, daughter of Charles, king of the Franks, and drew down much infamy upon himself from all who heard of it. During two years and a half of licentiousness after his father he held the government of the West-Saxons.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 856, which was the eighth after Alfred's birth, the second year of king Charles III, and the eighteenth year of the reign of Aethelwulf, king of the West-Saxons, Humbert, bishop of the East-Angles, anointed with oil and consecrated as king the glorious Edmund, with much rejoicing and great honour in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat, in the fifteenth year of his age, on a Friday, the twenty-fourth moon, being Christmas day.

In the year of our Lord's incarnation 860, which was the twelfth of king Alfred's age, died Aethelbald, king of the West-Saxons, and was buried at Sherborne. His brother Aethelbert, as was fitting, joined Kent, Surrey, and Sussex also to his dominion.

In his days a large army of pagans came up from the sea, and attacked and destroyed the city of Winchester. As they were returning laden with booty to their ships, Osric, ealdorman of Hampshire, with his men, and ealdorman Aethelwulf, with the men of Berkshire, confronted them bravely; a severe battle took place, and the pagans were slain on every side; and, finding themselves unable to resist, took to flight like women, and the Christians obtained a triumph.

Aethelbert governed his kingdom five years in peace, with the love and respect of his subjects, who felt deep sorrow when he went the way of all flesh. His body was honourably interred at Sherborne by the side of his brothers.

Part of The Life of Alfred written by Asser, based upon the translation of JA Giles published in 1847 and therefore within the public domain.

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