Famous Men of the Middle Ages
Alfred the Great
King from 871-901 A.D.
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 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.