The cases, however, in which the Danish chieftains were either entirely conquered or finally expelled from the kingdom were very few. As years passed on, Alfred found his army diminishing, and the strength of his kingdom wasting away. His resources were exhausted, his friends had disappeared, his towns and castles were taken, and, at last, about eight years after his coronation at Winchester as monarch of the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms, he found himself reduced to the very last extreme of destitution and distress.
[Footnote 1: For an account of Henrietta’s adventures and sufferings at Exeter, see the History of Charles II., chap. iii]
Notwithstanding the tide of disaster and calamity which seemed to be gradually overwhelming Alfred’s kingdom, he was not reduced to absolute despair, but continued for a long time the almost hopeless struggle. There is a certain desperation to which men are often aroused in the last extremity, which surpasses courage, and is even sometimes a very effectual substitute for strength; and Alfred might, perhaps, have succeeded, after all, in saving his affairs from utter ruin, had not a new circumstance intervened, which seemed at once to extinguish all remaining hope and to seal his doom.
This circumstance was the arrival of a new band of Danes, who were, it seems, more numerous, more ferocious, and more insatiable than any who had come before them. The other kingdoms of the Saxons had been already pretty effectually plundered. Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex was now, therefore, the most inviting field, and, after various excursions of conquest and plunder in other parts of the island, they came like an inundation over Alfred’s frontiers, and all hope of resisting them seems to have been immediately abandoned. The Saxon armies were broken up. Alfred had lost, it appears, all influence and control over both leaders and men. The chieftains and nobles fled. Some left the country altogether; others hid themselves in the best retreats and fastnesses that they could find. Alfred himself was obliged to follow the general example. A few attendants, either more faithful than the rest, or else more distrustful of their own resources, and inclined, accordingly, to seek their own personal safety by adhering closely to their sovereign, followed him. These, however, one after another, gradually forsook him, and, finally, the fallen and deserted monarch was left alone.
In fact, it was a relief to him at last to be left alone; for they who remained around him became in the end a burden instead of affording him protection. They were too few to fight, and too many to be easily concealed. Alfred withdrew himself from them, thinking that, under the circumstances in which he was now placed, he was justified in seeking his own personal safety alone. He had a wife, whom he married when he was about twenty years old; but she