In the year of our Lord's incarnation, 886, which was the thirty-eighth since the birth of Alfred, the army so often before mentioned again fled the country, and went into the country of the Western Franks, directing their ships to the river called the Seine, and sailed up it as far as the city of Paris, and there they wintered and measured out their camp. They besieged that city a whole year, as far as the bridge, that they might prevent the inhabitants from making use of it; for the city is situated on a small island in the middle of the river; but by the merciful favour of God, and the brave defence of citizens, the army could not force their way inside the walls.
In the same year, Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons, after the burning of the cities and the slaying of the people, honourably rebuilt the city of London, and made it again habitable. He gave it into the custody of his son-in-law, Aethelred, ealdorman of Mercia, to which king all the Angles and Saxons, who before had been dispersed everywhere, or were in captivity with the pagans, voluntarily turned and submitted themselves to his dominion.
In the same year there arose a foul and deadly discord at Oxford, between Grimbald, with those learned men whom he had brought with him, and the old scholars whom he had found there, who, on his arrival, refused altogether to embrace the laws, modes, and forms of praelection instituted by the same Grimbald. During three years there had been no great dissension between them, but there was a secret enmity which afterwards broke out with great atrocity, clearer than the light itself. To appease this quarrel, that invincible king Alfred, having been informed of the strife by a messenger from Grimbald, went to Oxford to put an end to the controversy, and endured much trouble in hearing the arguments and complaints which were brought forwards on both sides. The substance of the dispute was this: the old scholars contended, that literature had flourished at Oxford before the coming of Grimbald, although the number of scholars was smaller than in ancient time, because several had been driven away by the cruelty and tyranny of the pagans. They also proved and showed, by the undoubted testimony of ancient annals, that the orders and institutions of that place had been sanctioned by certain pious and learned men, as for instance by Saint Gildas, Melkinus, Nennius, Kentigern, and others, who had all grown old there in literature, and happily administered everything there in peace and concord; and also, that Saint Germanus had come to Oxford, and stopped there half a year, at the time when he went through Britain to preach against the Pelagian heresy; he wonderfully approved of the customs and institutions above-mentioned. The king, with unheard-of humility, listened to both sides carefully, and exhorted them again and again with pious and wholesome admonitions to cherish mutual love and concord. He therefore left them with this decision, that each party should follow their own counsel, and preserve their own institutions. Grimbald, displeased at this, immediately departed to the monastery at Winchester, which had been recently founded by King Alfred, and ordered a tomb to be carried to Winchester, in which he proposed, after this life, that his bones should be laid in the vault which had been made under the chancel of St. Peter's church in Oxford; which church the same Grimbald had built from its foundations, of stone polished with great care.]
In the year of our Lord's incarnation 887, which was the thirty-ninth of king Alfred's life, the above mentioned army of the pagans, leaving the city of Paris uninjured, because they could not succeed against it, sailed up the river Seine under the bridge, until they reached the mouth of the river Marne; where they left the Seine, and, following for a long time the course of the Marne, at length, but not without much labour, they arrived at a place called Chezy, a royal vill, where they wintered one year. In the following year they entered the mouth of the river Yonne, not without doing much damage to the country, and there remained one year.
In the same year Charles, king of the Franks, went the way of all flesh; but Arnulf, his brother's son, six weeks before he died, had expelled him from his kingdom. After his death five kings were appointed, and the kingdom was split into five parts; but the principal rank in the kingdom justly and deservedly devolved on Arnulf, save only that he committed an unworthy offence against his uncle. The other four kings promised fidelity and obedience to Arnulf, as was proper; for none of these four kings was hereditary on his father's side in his share of the kingdom, as was Arnulf; therefore, though the five kings were appointed immediately on the death of Charles, yet the empire remained in the hands of Arnulf.
Such, then, was the division of the kingdom; Arnulf received the countries on the east of the river Rhine; Rodulf the inner parts of the kingdom; Oda the western part; Beorngar and Guido, Lombardy, and those countries which are in that part of the mountains; but they did not keep these large dominions in peace, for they twice fought a pitched battle, and often mutually ravaged their kingdoms, and drove each other out of their dominions.
In the same year in which that pagan army left Paris and went to Chezy, Aethelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire, carried to Rome the alms of king Alfred and of the Saxons.
In the same year Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, so often before mentioned, by divine inspiration, began, on one and the same day, to read and to interpret; but that I may explain this more fully to those who are ignorant, I will relate the cause of this long delay in beginning.
On a certain day we were both of us sitting in the king's chamber, talking on all kinds of subjects, as usual, and it happened that I read to him a quotation out of a certain book. He heard it attentively with both his ears, and addressed me with a thoughtful mind, showing me at the same moment a book which he carried in his bosom, wherein the daily courses and psalms, and prayers which he had read in his youth, were written, and he commanded me to write the same quotation in that book. Hearing this, and perceiving his ingenuous benevolence, and devout desire of studying the words of divine wisdom, I gave, though in secret, boundless thanks to Almighty God, who had implanted such a love of wisdom in the king's heart. But I could not find any empty space in that book wherein to write the quotation, for it was already full of various matters; wherefore I made a little delay, principally that I might stir up the bright intellect of the king to a higher acquaintance with the divine testimonies. Upon his urging me to make haste and write it quickly, I said to him, "Are you willing that I should write that quotation on some leaf apart? For it is not certain whether we shall not find one or more other such extracts which will please you; and if that should so happen, we shall be glad that we have kept them apart." "Your plan is good," said he, and I gladly made haste to get ready a sheet, in the beginning of which I wrote what he bade me; and on that same day, I wrote therein, as I had anticipated, no less than three other quotations which pleased him; and from that time we daily talked together, and found out other quotations which pleased him, so that the sheet became full, and deservedly so; according as it is written, "The just man builds upon a moderate foundation, and by degrees passes to greater things." Thus, like a most productive bee, he flew here and there, asking questions, as he went, until he had eagerly and unceasingly collected many various flowers of divine scriptures, with which he thickly stored the cells of his mind.
Now when that first quotation was copied, he was eager at once to read, and to interpret in Saxon, and then to teach others; even as we read of that happy robber, who recognized his Lord, aye, the Lord of all men, as he was hanging n the blessed cross, and, saluting him with his bodily eyes only, because elsewhere he was all pierced with nails, cried, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom!" for it was only at the end of his life that he began to learn the rudiments of the Christian faith. But the king, inspired by God, began to study the rudiments of divine Scripture on the sacred solemnity of St. Martin, and he continued to learn the flowers collected by certain masters, and to reduce them into the form of one book, as he was then able, although mixed one with another, until it became almost as large as a psalter. This book he called his Enchridion or Manual, because he carefully kept it at hand day and night, and found, as he told me, no small consolation therein.
But as has already been written by a certain wise man,
"Of watchful minds are they whose pious care
It is to govern well,"
so must I be watchful, in that I just now drew a kind of comparison or similarity, though in dissimilar manner, between that happy robber and the king; for the cross is hateful to every one, wherever there is suffering. But what can he do, if he cannot save himself or escape thence? Or by what art can he remain there and improve his cause? He must, therefore, whether he will or no, endure with pain and sorrow that which he is suffering.
Now the king was pierced with many nails of tribulation, though placed in the royal seat; for from the twentieth year of his age to the present year, which is his fortieth, he has been constantly afflicted with most severe attacks of an unknown complaint, so that he has not a moment's ease either from suffering the pain which it causes, or from the gloom which is thrown over him by the apprehension of its coming. Moreover, the constant invasions of foreign nations, by which he was continually harassed by land and sea, without any interval of quiet, were a just cause of disquiet. What shall I say of his repeated expeditions against the pagans, his wars, and incessant occupations of government? Of the daily embassies sent to him by foreign nations, from the Tyrrhenian sea to the farthest end of Ireland? For we have seen and read letters, accompanied with presents, which were sent to him by Abel the patriarch of Jerusalem. What shall I say of the cities and towns which he restored, and of others which he built, where none had been before? Of the royal halls and chambers, wonderfully erected by his command, with stone and wood? Of the royal vills constructed of stone, removed from their old site, and handsomely rebuilt by the king's command in more fitting places? Besides the disease above mentioned, he was disturbed by the quarrels of his friends, who would voluntarily endure little or no toil, though it was for the common necessity of the kingdom; but he alone, sustained by the divine aid, like a skilful pilot, strove to steer his ship, laden with much wealth, into the safe and much desired harbour of his country, though almost all his crew were tired, and suffered them not to faint or hesitate, though sailing amid the manifold waves and eddies of this present life.
For all his bishops, ealdormen, nobles, favourite ministers, and prefects, who, next to God and the king, had the whole government of the kingdom, as is fitting, continually received from him instruction, respect, exhortation, and command; nay, at last, when they were disobedient, and his long patience was exhausted, he would reprove them severely, and censure at pleasure their vulgar folly and obstinacy; and in this way he directed their attention to the common interests of the kingdom. But, owing to the sluggishness of the people, these admonitions of the king were either not fulfilled, or were begun late at the moment of necessity, and so ended less to the advantage of those who put them in execution; for I will say nothing of the castles which he ordered to be built, but which, being begun late, were never finished, because the hostile troops broke in upon them by land and sea, and, as often happened, the thwarters of the royal ordinances repented when it was too late, and blushed at their non-performance of his commands. I speak of repentance when it is too late, on the testimony of Scripture, whereby numberless persons have had cause for too much sorrow when many insidious evils have been wrought. But though by these means, sad to say, they may be bitterly afflicted and roused to sorrow by the loss of fathers, wives, children, ministers, servant-men, servant-maids, and furniture and household stuff, what is the use of hateful repentance when their kinsmen are dead, and they cannot aid them, or redeem those who are captive from captivity? For they are not able even to assist those who have escaped, as they have not wherewith to sustain even their own lives. They repented, therefore, when it was too late, and grieved at their incautious neglect of the king's commands, and they praised the royal wisdom with one voice, and tried with all their power to fulfil what they had before refused, namely, concerning the erection of castles, and other things generally useful to the whole kingdom.
Of his fixed purpose of holy meditation, which, in the midst of prosperity and adversity he never neglected, I cannot with advantage now omit to speak. For, whereas he often thought of the necessities of his soul, among the other good deeds to which his thoughts were night and day turned, he ordered that two monasteries should be built, one for monks at Athelney, which is a place surrounded by impassable marshes and rivers, where no one can enter but by boats, or by a bridge laboriously constructed between two other heights; at the western end of which bridge was erected a strong tower, of beautiful work, by command of the aforesaid king; and in this monastery he collected monks of all kinds, from every quarter, and placed them therein.
For at first, because he had no one of his own nation, noble and free by birth, who was willing to enter the monastic life, except children, who could neither choose good nor avoid evil in consequence of their tender years, because for many previous years the love of a monastic life had utterly decayed from that nation as well as from many other nations, though many monasteries still remain in that country; yet, as no one directed the rule of that kind of life in a regular way, for what reason I cannot say, either from the invasions of foreigners which took place so frequently both by sea and land, or because that people abounded in riches of every kind, and so looked with contempt on the monastic life. It was for this reason that king Alfred sought to gather monks of different kinds to place in the same monastery.
First he placed there as abbot, John the priest and monk, an old Saxon by birth, then certain priests and deacons from beyond the sea; of whom, finding that he had not as large a number as he wished, he procured as many as possible of the same Gallic race, some of whom, being children, he ordered to be taught in the same monastery, and at a later period to be admitted to the monastic habit. I have myself seen a young lad of pagan birth who was educated in that monastery, and by no means the hindmost of them all.
There was also a deed done once in that monastery, which I would utterly consign to oblivion, although it is an unworthy deed; for throughout the whole of Scripture the base deeds of the wicked are interspersed among the blessed deeds of the just, as tares and darnel are sown among the wheat: good deeds are recorded that they may be praised and imitated, and that their imitators may be held in all honour; wicked deeds are there related, that they may be censured and avoided, and their imitators be reproved with all odium, contempt, and vengeance.
For once upon a time, a certain priest and a deacon, Gauls by birth, and two of the aforesaid monks, by the instigation of the devil, and excited by some secret jealousy, became so embittered in secret against their abbot, the above mentioned John, that, like Jews, they circumvented and betrayed their master. For whereas he had two servants, whom he had hired out of Gaul, they taught these such wicked practices, that in the night, when all men were enjoying the sweet tranquillity of sleep, they should make their way into the church armed, and shutting it behind them as usual, hide themselves therein, and wait for the moment when the abbot should enter the church alone. At length, when he should come alone to pray, and, bending his knees, bow before the holy altar, the men should rush on him with hostility, and try to slay him on the spot. They then should drag his lifeless body out of The church, and throw it down before the house of a certain harlot, as if he had been slain whilst on a visit to her. This was their machination, adding crime to crime, as it is said, "The last error shall be worse than the first."
But the divine mercy, which always delights to aid the innocent, frustrated in great part the wicked design of the wicked men, so that it should not turn out in every respect as they had proposed.
When, therefore, the whole of the evil counsel had been explained by those wicked teachers to their wicked agents, and the night which had been fixed on as most fit was come, the two armed ruffians were placed, with a promise of impunity, to await in the church for the arrival of the abbot. In the middle of the night John, as usual, entered the church to pray, without any one's knowing of it, and knelt before the altar. The two ruffians rushed upon him with drawn swords, and dealt him some severe wounds. But he, being a man of a brave mind, and, as we have heard say, not unacquainted with the art of self-defence, if he had not been a follower of a better calling, no sooner heard the sound of the robbers, before he saw them, than he rose up against them before he was wounded, and, shouting as loud as he could, struggled against them, crying out that they were devils and not men; for he himself knew no better, as he thought that no men would dare to attempt such a deed. He was, however, wounded before any of his people could come to his help. His attendants, roused by the noise, were frightened when they heard the word devils, and both those two who, like Jews, sought to betray their master, and the others who knew nothing of the matter, rushed together to the doors of the church; but before they got there those ruffians escaped, leaving the abbot half dead. The monks raised the old man, in a fainting condition, and carried him home with tears and lamentations; nor did those two deceitful monks shed tears less than the innocent. But God's mercy did not allow so bold a deed to pass unpunished; the ruffians who perpetrated it, and all who urged them to it, were taken and put in prison, where, by various tortures, they came to a disgraceful end. Let us now return to our narrative.
Another monastery, also, was built by the same king as a residence for nuns, near the eastern gate of Shaftesbury; and his own daughter, Aethelgif, was placed in it as abbess. With her many other noble ladies bound by the rules of the monastic life, dwell in that monastery. These two edifices were enriched by the king with much land, as well as personal property.
Part of The Life of Alfred written by Asser, based upon the translation of JA Giles published in 1847 and therefore within the public domain.