Alfred The Great

In a new endeavor for the Postil, we will publish interesting works which have been passed over by the hurrying flow of years. We believe that such works still have the ability to teach and please, and thus deserve an afterlife. Our first offering is by John Henry Haaren (1855-1916), who a native of New York, a teacher, and president of the Brooklyn Institute. This brief biography of Alfred the Great was published in 1904.


The Danes were neighbors of the Norwegian Vikings, and like them were fond of the sea and piracy. They plundered the English coasts for more than a century; and most of northern and eastern England became for a time a Danish country with Danish kings.

What saved the rest of the country to the Saxons was the courage of the great Saxon king, Alfred.

Alfred was the son of Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. He had a loving mother who brought him up with great care. Up to the age of twelve, it is said, he was not able to read well, in spite of the efforts of his mother and others to teach him.

When Alfred was a boy there were no printed books. The wonderful art of printing was not invented until about the year 1440—nearly six hundred years later than Alfred’s time. Moreover, the art of making paper had not yet been invented. Consequently the few books in use in Alfred’s time were written by skillful penmen, who wrote generally on leaves of parchment, which was sheepskin carefully prepared so that it might retain ink.

One day Alfred’s mother showed him and his elder brothers a beautiful volume which contained a number of the best Saxon ballads. Some of the words in this book were written in brightly colored letters, and upon many of the leaves were painted pictures of gaily-dressed knights and ladies.

“Oh, what a lovely book!” exclaimed the boys.

“Yes, it is lovely,” replied the mother. “I will give it to whichever of you children can read it the best in a week.”

Alfred began at once to take lessons in reading, and studied hard day after day. His brothers passed their time in amusements and made fun of Alfred’s efforts. They thought he could not learn to read as well as they could, no matter how hard he should try.

At the end of the week the boys read the book to their mother, one after the other. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Alfred proved to be the best reader and his mother gave him the book.

While still very young Alfred was sent by his father to Rome to be anointed by His Holiness, the Pope. It was a long and tiresome journey, made mostly on horseback.

With imposing, solemn ceremony he was anointed by the Holy Father. Afterwards he spent a year in Rome receiving religious instruction.


In the year 871, when Alfred was twenty-two years old, the Danes invaded various parts of England. Some great battles were fought, and Alfred’s elder brother Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, was killed. Thus Alfred became king.

The Danes still continued to fight the Saxons, and defeated Alfred in a long and severe struggle. They took for themselves the northern and eastern parts of England.

Moreover, Danes from Denmark continued to cross the sea and ravage the coast of Saxon England. They kept the people in constant alarm. Alfred therefore determined to meet the pirates on their own element, the sea. So he built and equipped the first English navy, and in 875 gained the first naval victory ever won by the English.

A few years after this, however, great numbers of Danes from the northern part of England came pouring into the Saxon lands. Alfred himself was obliged to flee for his life.

For many months he wandered through forests and over hills to avoid being taken by the Danes. He sometimes made his home in caves and in the huts of shepherds and cowherds. Often he tended the cattle and sheep and was glad to get a part of the farmer’s dinner in pay for his services.

Once, when very hungry, he went into the house of a cowherd and asked for something to eat. The cowherd’s wife was baking cakes and she said she would give him some when they were done.

“Watch the cakes and do not let them burn, while I go across the field to look after the cows,” said the woman, as she hurried away. Alfred took his seat on the chimney-corner to do as he was told. But soon his thoughts turned to his troubles and he forgot about the cakes.

When the woman came back she cried out with vexation, for the cakes were burned and spoiled. “You lazy, good-for-nothing man!” she said, “I warrant you can eat cakes fast enough; but you are too lazy to help me bake them.”

With that she drove the poor hungry Alfred out of her house. In his ragged dress he certainly did not look like a king, and she had no idea that he was anything but a poor beggar.


Some of Alfred’s friends discovered where he was hiding and joined him. In a little time a body of soldiers came to him and a strong fort was built by them. From this fort Alfred and his men went out now and then and gave battle to small parties of the Danes. Alfred was successful and his army grew larger and larger.

One day he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and went into the camp of the Danes. He strolled here and there, playing on a harp and singing Saxon ballads. At last, Guthrum (Guth’-rum), the commander of the Danes, ordered the minstrel to be brought to his tent.

Alfred went. “Sing to me some of your charming songs,” said Guthrum. “I never heard more beautiful music.” So the kingly harper played and sang for the Dane, and went away with handsome presents. But better than that, he had gained information that was of the greatest value.

In a week he attacked the Danish forces and defeated them with great slaughter in a battle which lasted all day and far into the night. Guthrum was taken prisoner and brought before Alfred.

Taking his harp in his hands, Alfred played and sang one of the ballads with which he had entertained Guthrum in the camp. The Dane started in amazement and exclaimed:

“You, then, King Alfred, were the wandering minstrel?”

“Yes,” replied Alfred, “I was the musician whom you received so kindly. Your life is now in my hands; but I will give you your liberty if you will become a Christian and never again make war on my people.”

“King Alfred,” said Guthrum, “I will become a Christian, and so will all my men if you will grant liberty to them as to me; and henceforth, we will be your friends.”

Alfred then released the Danes, and they were baptized as Christians.

An old road running across England from London to Chester was then agreed upon as the boundary between the Danish and Saxon kingdoms; and the Danes settled in East Anglia, as the eastern part of England was called.

Years of peace and prosperity followed for Alfred’s kingdom. During these years the king rebuilt the towns that had been destroyed by the Danes, erected new forts, and greatly strengthened his army and navy.

He also encouraged trade; and he founded a school like that established by Charlemagne. He himself translated a number of Latin books into Saxon, and probably did more for the cause of education than any other king that ever wore the English crown.

The photo shows King Alfred, from a 14th-century roll chronicle.

Henry VIII – The Good King

When we look back at the reign of Henry VIII, the common view is that he was power-besotted man, who was fond of young girls and great revelry, and had an enormous appetite that saw him grow from a handsome, athletic youth to a bloated old man, who could barely walk.

This extreme view certainly makes for good press copy, but is rather distant from the truth of the man and his reign. It is this image that Carolly Erickson, in her biography, Great Harry, successfully explodes, and instead gives us a version of Henry that is often overlooked – that of a sober, forthright and indeed forceful man, who was not only a loyal Catholic, but a good king, who was much beloved by his subjects.

Nevertheless, there was a transition as well, which no doubt has given rise to the image of Henry VIII as an ogre, who was happily divorcing or beheading six wives. And this transition was part and parcel of the turbulent times during which Henry reigned, for it saw the establishment of the Protestant faith in England, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and a path of independence from Rome for England.

The approach that Erickson takes is one of insight into the character of Henry, rather than any attempt on her part to either extol or destroy the “legend of Henry.”

In fact, Erickson examines the great intellectual and physical vivacity of the young Henry, as he became a king at the age of eighteen, and his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and then his slow decline into middle age and rather decrepit old age.

Thus, the contours of her book can also be seen as her examination of a great king, who declines into an ogre, desperately seeking an heir to his throne, while controlling those around him with fear.

The underlying question that Erickson seems to be asking is how does a gifted, talented young man become a vengeful executioner? There is, of course, no one answer to this question, as Erickson shows.

Indeed, the contours of Henry’s life show this transformation, as Erickson reminds us again and again. Henry was a man of “majestic childishness,… absurd mixture of naïveté and cunning, boldness and poltroonery, vindictive cruelty and wayward almost irresistible charm.”

Therefore, the actions of such a complex person need to be examined not only carefully, but also sensitively, since Henry struggled not only with internal problems, but also external ones, especially with France and Spain.

But he also saw himself as above other rulers, a mythic knight of old: “Henry appeared to incarnate all the ardent vitality of Christian knighthood, the dauntless zeal that for the right could outbrave all dangers.”

But at home, he needed to assure his subjects of the rightful claim of the Tudors for the English. The problem lay with his father, Henry VII, whose grab for the crown came only as result of a precarious win at the Battle of Bosworth, in which King Richard III was defeated. In fact, other than the victory, Henry VII had no right to the English throne at all.

The only way Henry VIII could expound the myth of the Tudors was to produce a male heir, who would not only secure the Tudor line, but also demonstrate that God was firmly on the side of the Tudors, whom He continually favored.

As well, a generation earlier, the War of the Roses had left England devastated, and Henry VIII did not want the plague of dynastic instability to run rampant in the nation.

Thus, Erickson astutely explains his relentless quest for an heir, within the context of Henry’s political reality, since this was an age in which children (especially royal ones) were seen as being gifts from God. What would it say about Henry and the Tudors, if God withheld this gift?

Erickson demonstrates that this quest became all consuming for Henry, and because of it, Henry undertook monumental decisions that would change England forever.

The problem, as he saw it, lay with his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had not produced an heir. Henry sought for an explanation. He found one, in that Catherine was the widow of his older brother, Arthur, who had died while Henry was young, thus bringing Henry to the throne.

In his own eyes, marrying Catherine was incest, and he asked the Pope, Clement VII, to dissolve their marriage based upon this fact, which became known as the King’s Great Matter.

The Pope refused, and Henry sought other measures. Henry found resolved the Great Matter, by accepting Protestantism, and bringing about the English Reformation, and all the ensuing legal and political changes, such as the Oath of Succession, the Act of Appeals, the Act of Supremacy, the Supplication against the Ordinaries, and the Ten Articles.

Thus, Henry steered the course of England away from the rule of Rome towards a greater role, which would be realized by his daughter Elizabeth, and afterwards.

The man that Erickson presents to us is also one of great and boundless energy: “ Along with his tough, untiring physique Henry had a superabundance of nervous energy which urged him on from one diversion to another and which put a keen edge on his every movement.”

Erickson excels in this sort of description, which not only captures the true character of Henry, but also the very vitality of the man, for we see him full of life, someone reveling in the powers of his own body and mind.

It is this character of Henry that captured the hearts of his subjects, for they saw in him a king who was not only energetic, but more importantly as a man of action – and action was the most defining characteristic of the Renaissance, and Henry embodied the spirit of his age perfectly.

Thus it was that Cardinal Wolsey referred to him as the “‘prince of royal courage’” who would rather lose half his kingdom than abandon his undertakings/” It was this tenacity that marked the entire length of Henry’s reign.

Thus, the portrait that emerges from Erickson’s book if one of a man, who is both a shrewd reader and manipulator of men, and a rather moving man, who is seeking to do everything in his power to leave a great legacy behind.

In effect, Erickson takes the legend of Henry VIII, and places it side-by-side with his reality, which he documents minutely.

The result is a complete portrait of Henry VIII, as he really was, a man at once worldly and political, boyish and shrewd, playful and vindictive, loving and cruel. It is within these polarities that Erickson’s portrait of VIII greatly excels.


The photo shows, “The New Learning, Erasmus and Thomas More Visit the Children of King Henry VII at Greenwich, 1499 ” by Frank Cadogan Cowper, painted ca. 1910.

Thoughts On Two Plays By Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s two plays, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, both express similar ideas, but the results are the exact opposite.

In Hamlet, we see deception, malice, intrigue and lies leads to death and great tragedy, while the same sort of things lead to marriage, happiness and comedy in Much Ado About Nothing.

The reason for this difference lies in the fact that both plays use these strategies in a completely opposite way. In Hamlet, deception, intrigue, malice and lies are used to further revenge; while in Much Ado About Nothing these same elements are used to ensnare lovers, and the entire façade is nothing more than a game.

Therefore, it is the result of these strategies that determine how each play will turn out, whether it will be a tragedy, or a comedy.

In Much Ado About Nothing, there is of course endless deception. Both Claudio and Don Pedro are deceived, and this leads to Hero’s discredit, but this dishonor is overcome by the lie of her death.

And by way of this death, she is reborn, or resurrected into a state of redemption, where she becomes part of her lover, Claudio.

This intrigue is mirrored in a more comic way by Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom are fooled into thinking that the one loves the other, and because of this pretense they actually do fall in love. In both of these instances, we find that deception is merely a means to an end – to gain love and happiness.

However, it is important to realize that even in this comedy, there is good deception as well as bad. For instance, when Claudio declares his intention of wooing Hero, Don Pedro decides that he will help Claudio, and he woos Hero on behalf of Claudio.

This only leads to a mix-up of intentions, because Claudio (encouraged by Don John) now comes to believe that Don Pedro has betrayed him. Suddenly, the illusions have become reality, and reality has become an illusion, and the characters have a hard time keeping the two apart.

As well, during the ball, Beatrice and Benedick flirt with each other, while pretending they do not know who is behind the mask.

The deception becomes evil, or sinister, after Claudio rejects Hero, and her family announces that she is dead; this is done to punish Claudio.

Full of remorse, Claudio tries to make amends, and comes to Leonato in order to marry his niece, who is actually Hero. But suddenly, a group of masked people enter and force Claudio to marry while blindfolded. This points to the saying that love is blind.

But strangely, this method of marrying suggests that it is no longer a matter of love, but an attempt at redemption on behalf of Claudio, who says: “Which is the lady I must seize upon?”(V.iv.53).

Therefore, deception is an illusion that brings characters to the brink of disaster, to tragedy, but then veers away and returns to reconstruct reality back into what it was, and in this reality, the lovers find happiness and true love.

This allows for Claudio and Hero is be who they really – lovers. In fact, tragedy is avoided precisely because deception has not been allowed to play itself out entirely.

There comes a time for unmasking, when truth is revealed. And when truth is revealed it brings great happiness and joy, as Benedick says: “Come, come we are friends: let’s have a dance ere we are married that we may lighten our own hearts…”(V.iv.120ff).

The mood is entirely different in Hamlet. Again we have deception and lies, but the outcome is tragedy and not happiness.

The reason for this lies in the fact that where in Much Ado About Nothing the attempt was to find a wife, in Hamlet the attempt is get revenge.

In Hamlet too there is much masking, where people hide their true intents, chief among them being Hamlet himself, who hides his true feelings in order to spur himself into action.

In fact, the only truthful person in the entire play is Ophelia, who never swerves in her love for Hamlet; it is only he who thrusts her away. He does this in order to make sure that nothing will hinder him as he seeks his goal – revenge for his dead father.

In fact, he tells Ophelia: “You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish it: I loved you not”(III.i.119-120).

This revelation is also a lie that Hamlet tells in order to get rid of Ophelia. As in Much Ado About Nothing, deception does have its own results. In the comedy, there was a brief dark period, when Claudio feels remorse for causing the supposed death of Hero.

But in Hamlet, the death is very real – for it is Hamlet’s deception (his rejection of Ophelia) that ultimately kills her. The truth is that he does love her, but he must hide his love from everybody, in order to carry out the revenge that his father’s ghost has asked him to do.

Hamlet knows that he must deceive in order to get revenge. If he tells the truth, he will fail, because truth will force him to reveal what he wants to do.

This is why he assumes the role of the madman. But this madness is also a lie. It is important to note that the only truthful person in the entire play, Ophelia, is the one who is driven made because of lies and deception.

As the Prologue King states: “This world is not for aye, nor ‘tis not strange that even our loves should with our fortunes change”(III.ii.210-211).

Therefore, Hamlet is deceiving not to win the heart of Ophelia; in fact he is not interested in love: “Love! His affections do not that way tend,” observes Claudius (III.i.169).

Rather, he is deceiving in order to find the murderer of his father, and then give justice to the ghost of his dead father by executing the murderer.

Therefore, there is an entire detective story and a legal drama unfolding as well; and Hamlet must carry on both roles – the investigator and the avenger.

When he finally gets the chance to kill Claudius, he discovers that the force of revenge consumes not only the killer but also the avenger himself, and so when the play ends, the stage is literally littered with dead bodies: “Take up the bodies: such a sight as this becomes the field, but here shows much amiss,” states Horatio at the end (V.ii.412ff).

Thus, both Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet involve deception, lies and malice, and yet one play ends in love, happiness and marriage, while the other ends in death and bloodshed.

This is the result of the intended outcome of this deception. In the comedy, the outcome is to ensnare a lover; in the tragedy the outcome is to get revenge.


The photo shows, “Children acting the ‘Play Scene’ from Hamlet, Act II, scene ii,” by Charles Hunt, painted in 1863.