Book 2, Chapter 4, 857 AD to 878 AD – Treaty between Alfred and Guthrun
While the remainder of the detached parties, were secreted in safe hiding places. Alfred himself, with a very few followers, after many difficulties and hardships, escaped into the middle of Somersetshire, then a vast district of fens, morasses, rivulets, and woods, the resort of wild boars, wild goats, deer, and other game, and there on an island formed by the conflux of the rivers Thone and Parret, (and after-wards, from his residence, called Athelney, or Prince’s Island) he found a safe though comfortless retreat. The following is a description given by one of the ancient writers.
“In the extreme borders of the English people towards the west, there is a place called Ethelingeie, or the isle of nobles. It is surrounded by marshes, and so inaccessible that no one can get to it but by a small vessel. It has a great wood of alders, which contains stags and goats, and many animals of that kind. Its solid earth is scarcely two acres in breadth. Alfred having left the few fellow soldiers whom he had, that he might be concealed from his enemies, sought this place alone, where, seeing the but of an unknown person, he turned to it, asked and received a shelter. For some days he remained there as a guest, and in poverty, and contented with the fewest necessaries. But the king being asked who he was and what he sought in such a desert place, answered that he was one of the king’s thanes, had been conquered with him in battle, and flying from his enemies had reached that place. The herdsman believing his words, and moved with pity, carefully supplied him with the necessaries of life.” In this spot he passed about five months, during which the place of his retirement was known only to his more immediate and trusty friends, who gradually joined him and waited for better times, subsisting, hardly enough occasionally, upon the produce of fishing and the chase, or upon such plunder as they could seize from straggling parties of Danes, and also (it may be presumed, for necessity made them nowise particular) from such of their own people as had the misfortune to possess anything seizable.
It was during this period of seclusion that the well known incident with the neatherd’s wife occurred, which Asser thus describes: “It happened on a certain day, that the countrywoman, wife of the cowherd,’ was preparing some loaves to bake, and the king, sitting at the hearth made ready his bow and arrows and other warlike instruments. The unlucky woman espying the cakes burning at the fire, ran up to remove them, rebuking the brave king, and exclaiming, ‘ You man, you will not turn the bread you see burning, but you will be very glad to eat it when it is done.’ The blundering woman little thought it was King Alfred.” Alfred was wont, when hap-pier times arrived, to recount his adventures to his friends, and probably Asser recorded it from the king’s lips. One curious fact remains to be added.
The king wore an ornament of gold and enamel, which, being lost by him in Athelney was found there in Newton Park, in 1693, entire and undefaced. It is now preserved in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and it has around it the inscription, Aefred mec heht gewyrcan, i. e., Alfred commanded me to be made. The miniature is formed of enamelled mosaic work, and is protected by an oval plate of rock crystal. The back consists of a plate of gold, on which is engraved a fleur-de-lys-shaped figure. The relic terminates in a dolphin’s head, in the mouth of which is a small tube with a gold pin, which probably served as a rivet to hold a wooden stem.
To the same period belongs the incident, which tradition has preserved, that on one occasion, when his friends were away on a foraging expedition, and Alfred remained behind with his queen and one or two attendants, a poor wanderer arrived and besought food. Although but one small loaf remained in the store, the king ordered one half of it to be given, saying, ” He who could feed five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, can make the other half sufficient for our wants.” This story may be true, or it may be a mere tradition. Even if it be the latter, the fact of its universa1 credence during so many centuries, indicates the popular opinion of the patriot king. Other important events now occurred to bring him out of his enforced retirement and to change the fortunes of the country, and these events, strange to say, appeared at first to threaten alarming and disastrous consequences.
Chapter 4, Reign of Ethelbald
Chapter 4, Destruction of Croyland Abbey
Chapter 4, Alfred the Great
Chapter 4, Fresh Troubles with the Danes
Chapter 4, Treaty between him and Guthrun
Temporary retirement of the king to Athelney
Categories: Book 2