St. Paul’s Cathedral rose on the hill once sacred to Diana but was wholly built within the ruins of the vast temple which had once occupied the site, and which, magnificent in decay, still surrounded it like an outwork. Further on were the wrecks of the citadel, where once the stern legionary had watched by day and night, and where Roman discipline and order had held sway, while the wall raised by Constantine, broken and imperfect, still rose on the banks of the river. Near the Ludgate was the palace of the Saxon king, and the ruins of an aqueduct overshadowed its humbler portal, while without the walls the river Fleet rolled, amidst vineyards and pleasant meadows dotted with houses, to join the mighty Thames.
Edred, the reigning king of England, was the brother of the murdered Edmund, and, in accordance with the custom of the day, had ascended the throne on the death of his brother, seeing that the two infant sons of the late king, Edwy and Edgar, were too young to reign, and the idea of hereditary right was not sufficiently developed in the minds of our forefathers to suggest the notion of a regency. It must also be remembered that, within certain limits, there was an elective power in the Witenagemot or Parliament, although generally limited in its scope to members of the royal family.
Edred was of very delicate constitution, and suffered from an inward disease which seldom allowed him an interval of rest and ease. Like so many sufferers he had found his consolation in religion, and the only crime ever laid to his charge (if it were a crime) was that he loved the Church too much. Still he had repeatedly proved that he was strong in purpose and will, and the insurgent Danes who had settled in Northumbria had owned his prowess. In the internal affairs of his kingdom he was chiefly governed by the advice of the great ecclesiastic and statesman, with whose name our readers will shortly become familiar.
Upon the morning after the arrival of Elfric in London, Edwy, the young prince, and his new companion, sat in a room on the upper floor of the palace, which had but two floors, and would have been considered in these days very deficient in architectural beauty.
The window of the room opened upon the river, and commanded a pleasant view of the woods and meadows on the Surrey side, then almost uninhabited, being completely unprotected in case of invasion, a contingency never long absent from the mind in the days of the sea kings.
A table covered with manuscripts, both in Latin and Anglo-Saxon, occupied the centre of the room, and there Elfric was seated, looking somewhat aimlessly at a Latin vocabulary, while Edwy was standing listlessly at the window. The “library,” if it deserved the name, was very unlike a modern library; books were few, and yet very expensive, so that perhaps there was no fuller collection in any layman’s house in the kingdom. There were Alfred’s translations into Anglo-Saxon, the “Chronicle of Orosius,” or the history of the World; the “History of the Venerable Bede,” both in his original Latin and in English; Boethius on the “Consolations of Philosophy;” narratives from ancient mythology; extracts from the works of St. Augustine and St. Gregory; and the Apologues or Fables from Aesop.[viii]