Great Rulers

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The third of these great men was the greatest, Baeda,--or Bede, as the name is usually spelled. He was a priest of the great abbey church of Weremouth, in Northumbria, and was a master of all the learning then known. He was the life of the famous school of Jarrow, and it is said that six hundred monks, besides strangers, listened to his teachings. His greatest work was an "Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation," which extends from the landing of Julius Caesar to the year 731. He was the first English historian, and the founder of mediaeval history, and all we know of the one hundred and fifty years after the landing of Augustin the missionary is drawn from him. He was not only historian, but theologian,--the father of the education of the English nation.

It was one hundred and fourteen years after the death of the "venerable Bede" before Alfred was born, A.D. 849, the youngest son of Aethelwulf, king of Wessex, who united under his rule all the Saxon kingdoms. The mother of Alfred was Osburgha, a German princess of extraordinary force of character. From her he received, at the age of four, the first rudiments of education, and learned to sing those Saxon ballads which he afterwards recited with so much effect in the Danish camp. At the age of five Alfred was sent to Rome, probably to be educated, where he remained two years, visiting on his return the court of Charles the Bald,--the centre of culture in Western Europe. The celebrated Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims,--the greatest churchman of the age,--was the most influential minister of the king; at whose table also sat John Erigena, then engaged in a controversy with Gotteschalk, the German monk, about the presence of Christ in the eucharist,--the earliest notable theological controversy after the Patristic age. Alfred was too young to take an interest in this profound discussion; but he may perhaps have received an intellectual impulse from his visit to Rome and Paris, which affected his whole subsequent life.

About this time his father, over sixty years of age, married a French princess of the name of Judith, only fourteen years of age,--even in that rude age a great scandal, which nearly resulted in his dethronement. He lived but two years longer; and his youthful widow, to the still greater scandal of the realm and Church, married her late husband's eldest son, Ethelbald, who inherited the crown. It was through this woman, and her subsequent husband Baldwin, called _Bras de Fer_, Count of Flanders, that the English kings, since the Conqueror, trace their descent from Alfred and Charlemagne; for her son, the second Count of Flanders, married Elfrida, the daughter of Alfred. From this union descended the Conqueror's wife Matilda. Thus the present royal family of England can trace a direct descent through William the Conqueror, Alfred, and Charlemagne, and is allied by blood, remotely indeed, with most of the reigning princes of Europe.

The three elder brothers of Alfred reigned successively over Wessex,--to whom all England owned allegiance. It was during their short reigns that the great invasion of the Danes took place, which reduced the whole island to desolation and misery. These Danes were of the same stock as the Saxons, but more enterprising and bold. It seems that they drove the Saxons before them, as the Saxons, three hundred years before, had driven the Britons. In their destructive ravages they sacked and burned Croyland, Peterborough, Huntington, Ely, and other wealthy abbeys,--the glory of the kingdom,--together with their valuable libraries.

It was then that Alfred (already the king's most capable general) began his reign, A.D. 871, at the age of twenty-three, on the death of his brother Ethelred,--a brave and pious prince, mortally wounded at the battle of Merton.

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