King Alfred the Great of Wessex ruled in a time of fire and carnage. His kingdom, like all the Christian principalities on the British Isles of that day, was constantly harried by the formidable onslaught of the Vikings. Often in ill-health, he was a warrior by necessity, and it seems he had abiding interests and talents outside the martial sphere. A Churchill put it, “he had a lively comprehension of the great world”: he perceived the importance of naval power, and was perhaps given a glimpse of a future England, unified under a common law — a thriving nation rather than a gaggle of fractious petty kingdoms. His people benefited greatly by his encouragement of learning and the arts as well as by his statesmanship, but it was the latter that saved them from ruin and probable extinction. Churchill’s judgment is that, had Alfred failed, “all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy.”
He won and lost several battles against the Danes, fearsome contests of bludgeoning force which must have been awful to behold. That he won at all is evidence of his quality, for history discloses few who were at that time capable of resisting the terror of these proud Northern raiders. Again from Churchill: he “began as second-in-command to his elder brother, the King. There were no jealousies between them, but a marked difference of temperament. Ethelred inclined to the religious view that faith and prayer were the prime agencies by which the heathen would be overcome. Alfred, though also devout, laid emphasis upon policy and arms.” Ethelred was killed in battle and the crown passed to Alfred, who in turn lent all his considerable talent at arms and policy to the protection of his land and her people. We might reasonably conclude that both men were right on the question of agency.
A saint of both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches — the great ecclesiastical breach is reconciled in the Wessex king’s antiquity — Alfred shines an unquestioned hero of the English-speaking peoples. Ever shall “men signed of the cross of Christ” venerate his memory.
Rarely has that veneration been rendered more powerfully, more enchantingly, than in Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse (1911). Loyal readers will recall my love of his magnificent poem. Lately I have been reading it to my little girls. If ever you feel that oppression of despair, which Christians are obliged to resist, consider repairing to Chesterton’s retelling of Alfred’s tale. What follow are simply a few stanzas that I fancy supply a sense of the poem; but of course only a complete reading (out loud) will do it justice.
Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured
As the broidery of Bayeux
The England of that dawn remains,
And this of Alfred and the Danes
Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns
Too English to be true.
Of a good king on an island
That ruled once on a time;
And as he walked by an apple tree
There came green devils out of the sea
With sea-plants trailing heavily
And tracks of opal slime.
Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran,
He also looked forth for an hour
On peopled plains and skies that lower,
From those few windows in the tower
That is the head of a man.
And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope:
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
Hardened his heart with hope.
A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand.
He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all.
He broke them with a broken sword
A little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.
The Northmen came about our land
A Christless chivalry:
Who knew not of the arch or pen,
Great, beautiful half-witted men
From the sunrise and the sea.
Misshapen ships stood on the deep
Full of strange gold and fire,
And hairy men, as huge as sin
With horned heads, came wading in
Through the long, low sea-mire.
Our towns were shaken of tall kings
With scarlet beards like blood:
The world turned empty where they trod,
They took the kindly cross of God
And cut it up for wood.
And then my favorite part. Legend has it that the drunken Danes discovered Alfred wandering with his harp and, ignorant of his royal status, conscripted him to play with them.
And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre,
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire.
He heaved the head of the harp on high
And swept the framework barred,
And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
Of horses flying hard.
“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;
“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.
“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.
“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?
“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,
“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord's broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.
“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.
“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.
“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.
“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;
“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;
“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.
“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.
“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.
“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”
And the King, with harp on shoulder,
Stood up and ceased his song;
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
And the Danes laughed loud and long.