There was a great deal of superstition in the days when Alfred was called to the throne, and there was also, with it, a great deal of genuine honest piety. The piety and the superstition, too, were inextricably intermingled and combined together. They were all Catholics then, yielding an implicit obedience to the Church of Rome, making regular contributions in money to sustain the papal authority, and looking to Rome as the great and central point of Christian influence and power, and the object of supreme veneration. We have already seen that the Saxons had established a seminary at Rome, which King Ethelwolf, Alfred’s father, rebuilt and re-endowed. One of the former Anglo-Saxon kings, too, had given a grant of one penny from every house in the kingdom to the successors of St. Peter at Rome, which tax, though nominally small, produced a very considerable sum in the aggregate, exceeding for many years the royal revenues of the kings of England. It continued to be paid down to the time of Henry VIII., when the reformation swept away that, and all the other national obligations of England to the Catholic Church together.
In the age of Alfred, however, there were not only these public acts of acknowledgment recognizing the papal supremacy, but there was a strong tide of personal and private feeling of veneration and attachment to the mother Church, of which it is hard for us, in the present divided state of Christendom, to conceive. The religious thoughts and affections of every pious heart throughout the realm centered in Rome. Rome, too, was the scene of many miracles, by which the imaginations of the superstitious and of the truly devout were excited, which impressed them with an idea of power in which they felt a sort of confiding sense of protection. This power was continually interposing, now in one way and now in another, to protect virtue, to punish crime, and to testify to the impious and to the devout, to each in an appropriate way, that their respective deeds were the objects, according to their character, of the displeasure or of the approbation of Heaven.
On one occasion, the following incident is said to have occurred. The narration of it will illustrate the ideas of the time. A child of about seven years old, named Kenelm, succeeded to the throne in the Anglo-Saxon line. Being too young to act for himself, he was put under the charge of a sister, who was to act as regent until the boy became of age. The sister, ambitious of making the power thus delegated to her entirely her own, decided on destroying her brother. She commissioned a hired murderer to perpetrate the deed. The murderer took the child into a wood, killed him, and hid his body in a thicket, in a certain cow-pasture at a place called Clent. The sister then assumed the scepter in her own name, and suppressed all inquiries in respect to the fate of her brother; and his murder might have remained forever undiscovered, had it not been miraculously revealed at Rome.