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Asser of Saint David’s Annals of the reign of Alfred the Great From A.D. 849 to A.D. 887.

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Asser of Saint David’s
Annals of the reign of Alfred the Great From A.D. 849 to A.D. 887.
page 4

 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 Ethelwulf, 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 Ethelbald, king of the West-Saxons, and was buried at Sherborne. His brother Ethelbert, 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, earl of Hampshire, with his men, and earl Ethelwulf, 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. Ethelbert 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. In the year of our Lord's incarnation 864, the pagans wintered in the isle of Thanet, and made a firm treaty with the men of Kent, who promised them money for adhering to their covenant; but the pagans, like cunning foxes, burst from their camp by night, and setting at naught their engagements, and spurning at the promised money, which they knew was less than they could get by plunder, they ravaged all the eastern coast of Kent. In the year of our Lord's incarnation 866, which was the eighteenth of king Alfred, Ethelred, brother of Ethelbert, king of the West Saxons, undertook the government of the kingdom for five years; and the same year a large fleet of pagans came to Britain from the Danube, and wintered in the kingdom of the Eastern-Saxons, which is called in Saxon East-Anglia; and there they became principally an army of cavalry. But, to speak in nautical phrase, I will no longer commit my vessel to the power of the waves and of its sails, or keeping off from land steer my round-about course through so many calamities of wars and series of years, but will return to that which first prompted me to this task; that is to say, I think it right in this place briefly to relate as much as has come to my knowledge about the character of my revered lord Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, during the years that he was an infant and a boy. He was loved by his father and mother, and even by all the people, above all his brothers, and was educated altogether at the court of the king. As he advanced through the years of infancy and youth, his form appeared more comely than that of his brothers; in look, in speech, and in manners he was more graceful than they. His noble nature implanted in him from his cradle a love of wisdom above all things; but, with shame be it spoken, by the unworthy neglect of his parents and nurses, he remained illiterate even till he was twelve years old or more; but, he listened with serious attention to the Saxon poems which he often heard recited, and easily retained them in his docile memory. He was a zealous practiser of hunting in all its branches, and hunted with great assiduity and success; for skill and good fortune in this art, as in all others, are among the gifts of God, as we also have often witnessed. On a certain day, therefore, his mother(*) was showing him and his brother a Saxon book of poetry, which she held in her hand, and said, "Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own."

(*) We must understand this epithet as denoting his mother-in-law, Judith, rather than his own mother, who was dead in A.D. 856, when Alfred was not yet seven years old. When his father brought Judith from Franco Alfred was thirteen years old.

Stimulated by these words, or rather by the Divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, he spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered, "Will you really give that book to one of us, that is to say, to him who can first understand and repeat it to yon?" At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said. Upon which the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master to read it, and in due time brought it to his mother and recited it. After this he learned the daily course, that is, the celebration of the hours, and afterwards certain psalms, and several prayers, contained in a certain book which he kept day and night in his bosom, as we ourselves have seen, and carried about with him to assist his prayers, amid all the bustle and business of this present life. But, sad to say, he could not gratify his most ardent wish to learn the liberal arts, because, as he said, there were no good readers at that time in all the kingdom of the West-Saxons. This he confessed, with many lamentations and sighs, to have been one of his greatest difficulties and impediments in this life, namely, that when he was young and had the capacity for learning, he could not find teachers; but, when he was more advanced in life, he was harassed by so many diseases unknown to all the physicians of this island, as well as by internal and external anxieties of sovereignty, and by continual invasions of the pagans, and had his teachers and writers also so much disturbed, that there was no time for reading. But yet among the impediments of this present life, from infancy up to the present time, and, as I believe, even until his death, he continued to feel the same insatiable desire of knowledge, and still aspires after it. In the year of our Lord's incarnation 867, which was the nineteenth of the life of the aforesaid king Alfred, the army of pagans before mentioned removed from the East-Angles to the city of York, which is situated on the north bank of the river Humber.

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