“No man recorded in history seems ever to have united so many great and good qualities... A great part of his reign was taken up with warfare with an enemy [the Danes] who threatened the national being; yet he found means personally to do more for the general enlightenment of his people than any other king in English history.”
After a Danish leader had outrageously broken his oaths to Alfred, the Dane’s two boys and their mother fell into Alfred’s hands, and he returned them unharmed. “Let us love the man,” he wrote, “but hate his sins.” His revision of the legal code, known as Alfred’s Laws, shows high moral aim. He does not forget the slave, who was to be freed after six years of service. His administration of the law endeavored to secure the same justice for the poor as for the rich.
Alfred’s example has caused many to stop making excuses for not doing more for their kind. If any one ever had an adequate excuse for not undertaking more work than his position absolutely demanded, that man was Alfred; yet his ill health and the wars with the Danes did not keep him from trying to educate his people or from earning the title, “father of English prose.” Freeman even says that England owes to Alfred’s prose writing and to the encouragement that he gave to other writers the “possession of a richer early literature than any other people of western Europe” and the maintenance of the habit of writing after the Norman conquest, when English was no longer used in courtly circles.
[Illustration: THE BEGINNING OF ALFRED’S LAWS. Illuminated MS., British Museum.]
Although most of his works are translations from the Latin, yet he has left the stamp of his originality and sterling sense upon them all. Finding that his people needed textbooks in the native tongue, he studied Latin so that he might consult all accessible authorities and translate the most helpful works, making alterations and additions to suit his plan. For example, he found a Latin work on history and geography by Orosius, a Spanish Christian of the fifth century; but as this book contained much material that was unsuited to Alfred’s purposes, he omitted some parts, changed others, and, after interviewing travelers from the far North, added much original matter. These additions, which even now are not uninteresting reading, are the best material in the book. This work is known as Alfred’s Orosius.
Alfred also translated Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Rule in order to show the clergy how to teach and care for their flocks. Alfred’s own words at the beginning of the volume show how great was the need for the work. Speaking of the clergy, he says:—