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father, he learned not only the manly sports of the AngloSaxon youth, -- running, leaping, wrestling, hunting, -but also the various occupations pertaining to the household, the workshop, and the tilling of the soil. He had a passion for the heroic songs of his people, and even before learning to read he had committed many of them to memory. Blessed with a healthful precocity of mind, he treasured up all this varied knowledge, and utilized it with rare wisdom in after years.
At the age of twenty-three he ascended the throne, and spent a considerable part of his subsequent life in conflict with the Danes, who in great numbers were making a descent upon the cultivated districts of England and France for the sake of pillage. At one time he was reduced to the extremity of fleeing with a few followers before the pagan invaders. But adversity, as with every vigorous nature, called forth a greater energy and determination. Gathering about him a body of strong and true men, he at length turned upon the foe, surprised and defeated them, and conquered a favorable peace. By the superior military organization of his people, by the founding of an English navy, and, above all, by his pre-eminent ability as a commander, he succeeded in repelling all subsequent attacks by the northern invaders, and saved England to the Anglo-Saxon race.
In the leisure that followed his treaties of peace, Alfred devoted himself assiduously to the elevation and welfare of his people. He rebuilt ruined towns, restored demolished monasteries, established a fixed code of laws, and encouraged every form of useful industry. The king himself set the example of diligent labor. By means of six wax candles which, lighted in succession, burned twenty-four
hours, he introduced a rigid system into his work. He carried with him a little book in which he noted the valuable thoughts that occurred to him from time to time. When he came to the throne, the learning which a century before had furnished Europe with some of its most eminent scholars had fallen into decay. "To so low a depth has learning fallen among the English nation," he says, "that there have been very few on this side of the Humber who were able to understand the English of their service, or to turn an epistle out of Latin into English; and I know that there were not many beyond the Humber who could do it."
With admirable tact and wisdom he set about remedying the evil. He studied Latin himself that he might provide his people with useful books; he invited learned scholars from the continent to his court; and he established in the royal palace a school for the instruction of noble youth. His efforts were grandly successful; and in less than a generation England was again blessed with intelligence and prosperity. Among the books he translated into Anglo-Saxon were Bede's "Ecclesiastical History;" Orosius' "Universal History," the leading text-book on that subject in the monastic schools for several centuries; and Boethius' "Consolations of Philosophy," a popular book among thoughtful people during the Middle Ages. These translations were not always literal. Alfred rather performed the work of editor, paraphrasing, omitting, adding, as best served his purpose. In the work of Boethius he frequently departed from the text to introduce reflections of his own. To him belongs the honor of having furnished England with its first body of literature in the native tongue.
He died in 901. The governing purpose of his life he pointed out in a single sentence: "This I can now truly say, that so long as I have lived, I have striven to live worthily, and after my death to leave my memory to my descendants in good works." In him the Anglo-Saxon stock reached its highest development. His character was based on a profound belief in the abiding presence of God. But rising above the ascetic spirit of his time, he devoted himself to the duties of his royal station. To great vigor in action he added the force of patient and invincible endurance. While he watched with capacious intellect over the interests of his entire realm, he led with great simplicity a genial and affectionate life with his family and friends. After ages have made no mistake in calling him Alfred the Great.