Alfred’s early years.
Before commencing the narrative of Alfred’s administration of the public affairs of his realm, it is necessary to go back a little, in order to give some account of the more private occurrences of his early life. Alfred, like Washington, was distinguished for a very extraordinary combination of qualities which exhibited itself in his character, viz., the combination of great military energy and skill on the one hand, with a very high degree, on the other, of moral and religious principle, and conscientious devotion to the obligations of duty. This combination, so rarely found in the distinguished personages which have figured among mankind, is, in a great measure, explained and accounted for, in Alfred’s case, by the peculiar circumstances of his early history.
It was his brother Ethelred, as has already been stated, whom Alfred immediately succeeded. His father’s name was Ethelwolf; and it seems highly probable that the peculiar turn which Alfred’s mind seemed to take in after years, was the consequence, in some considerable degree, of this parent’s situation and character. Ethelwolf was a younger son, and was brought up in a monastery at Winchester. The monasteries of those days were the seats both of learning and piety, that is, of such learning and piety as then prevailed. The ideas of religious faith and duty which were entertained a thousand years ago were certainly very different from those which are received now; still, there was then, mingled with much superstition, a great deal of honest and conscientious devotion to the principles of Christian duty, and of sincere and earnest desire to live for the honor of God and religion, and for the highest and best welfare of mankind. Monastic establishments existed every where, defended by the sacredness which invested them from the storms of violence and war which swept over every thing which the cross did not protect. To these the thoughtful, the serious, and the intellectual retired, leaving the restless, the rude, and the turbulent to distract and terrify the earth with their endless quarrels. Here they studied, they wrote, they read; they transcribed books, they kept records, they arranged exercises of devotion, they educated youth, and, in a word, performed, in the inclosed and secluded retreats in which they sought shelter, those intellectual functions of civil life which now can all be performed in open exposure, but which in those days, if there had been no monastic retreats to shelter them, could not have been performed at all. For the learning and piety of the present age, whether Catholic or Protestant, to malign the monasteries of Anglo-Saxon times is for the oak to traduce the acorn from which it sprung.