Book 2, Chapter 5, 878 AD to 901 AD – Summary of Alfred’s Character
Slavery existed to a large extent in England at that time, and the number of slaves was largely disproportionate to the number of the nobility and of the various grades of freemen. Captives taken in constant wars helped to swell the ranks, which were also increased by purchase. These slaves were regarded as chattels, and were transferred with the land, as numerous legal instruments, still existing, attest. Alfred could not emancipate those who were in servitude, without a violation of the rights of property, as then subsisting, and to have attempted it would have provoked resistance, and perhaps rebellion, but he had induced the witenagemot to enact that in future the period of service should be restricted to six years in the case of a newly bought Christian slave, and that on the seventh he should be free without any payment to depart with his wife, if previously married. If, however, his lord had given him a wife, she and her children were to remain, and if the man chose to continue, he might do so.
This law struck a decisive blow at slavery in England, and from that time the free population increased year by year. “Greater and better earned glory,” says Lappenberg “has never been attached to the memory of any chieftain than that which encircles the name of Alfred. Even when we compare him with all those great princes who, in external circumstances and by the magnitude of their deeds, may be likened unto him with the energetic and sagacious Egbert with the lord of half and the wonder of the whole cotemporary and after world, the Frankish Charles with the Czar Peter, or the great Frederick yet to none of those wonderful men can we yield precedence over the West Saxon king, whose life course at once reminds us of all those great rulers, without being sullied by pernicious ambition and lust of conquest.
Without the power of those princes, he performed not less by battle and victory, against the enemies of Europe and their most formidable leaders, and when the sword had ceased, by the noiseless but certain conquest of conversion to Christianity.” And .Sir James Macintosh, in an eloquent passage has summed up Alfred’s character and abilities, “In any age or country such a prince would be a prodigy. Perhaps there is no example of any man who so happily combined the magnanimous with the mild virtues, who joined so much energy in war with so remarkable a cultivation of the useful and beautiful arts of peace, and whose versatile faculties were so happily inserted in their due place and measure as to support and secure each other, and give solidity and strength to the whole character.
That such a miracle should occur in a barbarous age and nation, that study should be thus pursued in the midst of civil and foreign wars by a monarch who suffered almost incessantly from painful maladies, and that it so little encroached on the duties of government as to leave him for ages the popular model for exact and watchful justice, are facts of so extraordinary a nature, that they may well excuse those who have suspected that there is some exaggeration and suppression in the narrative of his reign.
But Asser writes with the simplicity of an honest eye-witness. The Saxon Chronicle is a dry and undesigning compend. The Norman historians, who seem to have had his diaries and. note-books in their hands) choose him as the glory of the land which had become their own. There is no subject on which unanimous tradition is so nearly sufficient evidence, as on the eminence of one man over others of the same condition. The bright image may long be held up before the national mind. This tradition, however paradoxical the assertion may appear, is in the case of Alfred rather supported than weakened by the fictions which have sprung from it. Although it be an infirmity of every nation to ascribe their institutions to the contrivance of a man rather than to the slow action of time and circumstances, yet the selection of Alfred by the English people as the founder of all that was dear to them is surely the strongest proof of the deep impression left on the minds of all of his transcendent wisdom and virtue.
Juries, the division of the island into counties and hundreds, the device of frankpledge, the formation of the common or customary law itself, could have been mistakenly attributed to him by nothing less than general reverence. How singular must have been the administration of which the remembrance so long procured for him the character of a law-giver, to which his few and general enactments so little entitled him.” (History i. 41, 42.)
Chapter 5, Alfred’s Fortifications
Chapter 5, Revolt in the Danelagh
Chapter 5, Alfred’s Educational Efforts
Chapter 5, Alfred’s Industry and Zeal
Chapter 5, Saxon Laws
Chapter 5, Summary of Alfred’s Character
Summary of Character
Categories: Book 2