A Season of Miracles

For me, Easter and Earth Day are almost synonymous because both signify a God-gifted ability to resurrection, rebirth and eternal renewal. No other time of year is quite the same because the other seasons follow a predictable pattern. Spring is miraculous! You can look at a tree one day and it may appear almost dead and then, overnight, it will be full of budding leaves. By the next morning it may already be blossoming and perfuming the air with a scent so lively it can make you almost giddy.
Many of Spring’s flowers will show up early- like a surprise- and in different numbers. Calla Lilies, Amaryllis, Tulips and Daisies, perhaps even dandelions which can be so prolific and early that they are scorned as weeds by many but not by the bees, however.
The earliest (and sometimes the sneakiest) are the daffodils which are my favorite spring flower. They are so delicate and fleeting that a nursery rhyme has immortalized them forever. It goes like this:

Daffy-down-dilly is now come to town
With a petticoat green and
A bright yellow gown.

Interestingly, the daffodil is a member of the Amaryllis family even though it appears quite different from them and it is referred to by garden geniuses as Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. They are easy to grow but are finicky about location since they like partial shade. They like to hide under trees much like human book worms but need a natural reading light just the same ! They are most prolific in number in well-watered areas or around lakes with lots of tree shade. Mine grow right next to a lilac bush and seem so happy that they haven’t moved for quite a few years!

If you are puzzled a bit about why your daffodils and other spring flowers seem to be in a different place each year you are not losing your mind. Most spring flowers (which start from bulbs) travel by rhizomes which can go great distances over time. Lily of the Valley and Daffodils are just a few of these nomadic spring flowers.

If my daffodils do anything different besides this, they sometimes decide to look like a different type of daffodil as there are several varieties with short or very long stems. In addition to that I get very few and the numbers are always different. I usually don’t get more than three but I got four of them this year. I guess daffodils don’t want to be boring! I wouldn’t be surprised if I found a bunny eating my flowers this year. Those seem to be showing up unannounced, too, these days. Have a wonderful Earth Day filled with the wonder and splendor of Spring !

from The Castle Lady



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On Resurrection Day…

all creation plays a part.

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More poetry for Good Friday

(My friend Cyclamen here wanted

in on the action.

It only blooms in winter and

goes dormant in summer !)

John Dryden was England’s first Poet Laureate and he also had the distinction of being the only poet who stated that English sentences should not end in prepositions. I quite fully agree with that just on premise alone but he also said it was because Latin sentences cannot end in prepositions.

Castles, castles everywhere !

The Castle Lady

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Beauty and the Beast

retold by Madame Leprince de Beaumont
as the original version

Once upon a time there was a rich merchant who had six children-three boys and three girls and his daughters were very beautiful but the youngest was admired the most. Her name was Belle (French for beauty) because the name suited her, which made her sisters green with envy. If this were not enough, she was also more intelligent than her sisters. One day the merchant lost everything he owned, except for a little cottage far away from the city. In tears he told his children that they would have to move to the cottage and that, from now on, they would have make a living by farming. So they moved to the cottage and the merchant and his three sons became farmers and learned to work the land. Each morning Belle would wake up at four o’clock and hurry to clean the house and make breakfast for the family. When she had finished the house work she spent her time reading, playing the harpsichord or singing. By contrast, her two sisters were always bored and they didn’t wake until ten o’clock in the morning; then they would go for long walks and pass their time talking about all the friends and beautiful clothes they’d once had. They looked with scorn and jealousy on Belle’s simple pleasures.
“Look at our youngest sister,” they said to each other. “She is so stupid to be happy in this misery.”
When they had been in the cottage for about a year the merchant received a letter telling him of a ship which would make his fortune. In haste he made ready to travel on the long journey to the port. The good news made the two elder sisters excited. When their father was ready to leave they danced around him and begged him to bring them new dresses and all kinds of presents. Belle, however, said nothing.
“Don’t you want me to buy you anything?” asked her father.
“There is nothing I really need,” she said, “but, since you are so kind as to ask, would you please bring me back a rose if you should see one on your travels? There are no bushes to be found in these parts and they are the one thing that I have truly missed since we have been here.”
So their father left but when he arrived at the port he found that the ship’s cargo was worthless and he had to return home just as poor as he had been before. Dejected, he started the long journey back, disappointed that he could not even afford one present for his children. He was only about thirty miles from home when disaster struck once more. While riding through a vast forest he somehow missed his way and became lost. It began to snow heavily and the wind was so strong that he was twice thrown from his horse. When darkness came he was sure he would starve of hunger or cold or that he would be eaten by the howling wolves.
Suddenly he saw a light at the end of a long tree-lined path. It seemed quite far away but just the thought of shelter gave the merchant a little strength. He walked towards it and saw that the light came from a brightly lit palace. Astonished, he passed through the gateway; the courtyard was quite empty. His horse, which followed him, saw an empty stable and went inside. The cold, starving animal found some hay and oats which it started to eat greedily, while the merchant walked to the house. Still he found no one but when he entered a large hall, there he found a welcoming fire blazing in the fireplace and a table full of food, set for just one person! The merchant was soaked to the skin so he went to the fireplace to dry himself off.

Duns Castle, Scotland

“The master of the house will forgive me for making myself at home,” he thought. “He will probably arrive soon and I can explain.”
He waited for quite a long time, but when still no one had arrived by eleven o’clock he could no longer resist his hunger and helped himself to a chicken which he ate in two bites. Then he drank a couple of glasses of wine which made him very sleepy. He left the hall and passed through several huge corridors, all magnificently decorated. At the end of one he found a bedroom in which there was a comfortable bed. The sight of it was too much for the tired man; without thinking further, he threw himself into it and fell fast asleep. He slept well and did not wake up until ten o’clock the next morning. When he got up and looked for his clothes he was very surprised to find that they had been replace by brand-new ones. After a magnificent breakfast he went outside to find his horse. On the way he walked under a rose-covered archway and remembering Belle’s request, he picked a branch on which there grew several roses.
“At least one of my dear children will have a gift,” he smiled and said to himself.
Suddenly he heard a terrible noise and saw a beast coming toward him, a monster so horrible that he almost fainted in terror.
“You ungrateful wretch,” roared the beast. “I saved your life by letting you into my palace and you reward me by stealing my roses which I love more than anything in the world. Now you will die! The merchant fell to his knees and begged the beast not to harm him.
“Forgive me, Sir, I did not think you would be offended if I picked a rose for one of my daughters. She wanted one so badly.”
“Don’t call me Sir. I am known as The Beast,” answered the creature. “I prefer that people say what they think, so your flattery will not change anything. However, I will forgive you on condition that one of your daughters comes here willingly to die in your place. If your daughters refuse to die for you then you must return to me in three months and receive your punishment. “The man had no intention of sacrificing one of his daughters to the evil monster but he said to himself, “At least I will have the chance to embrace them one more time before I die.”
So he promised that he would return and fetching his horse, he left the palace. A few hours later the man arrived home, tired and sad. His children ran towards him with open arms but the merchant looked at them with tears in his eyes. In his hand he held the branch of roses he brought for Belle. He gave it to her and said, “Take these roses; your unhappy father has indeed paid a great price for them.” Then he told his family all about the worthless ship, the magical palace and the misfortune that had befallen him. After hearing his story his two older daughters started to cry. But Belle said, “There is no need for our father to die. I will willingly offer myself to the beast in his place.”
“No, my sister,” said her three brothers. “We will track down the monster and kill him first. Surely all three of us can defeat him.”
“My children,” said the merchant, “this beast is too powerful even for you. Besides, the beast saved my life, although he now intends to take it. I gave my word: I am old and will not regret losing the last few years of my life, thanks to you, my dear children.”
“I assure you, my father, that you will not go to the palace without me,” said Belle. “You can’t stop me from following you. I would rather be eaten by this monster than die of a broken heart from losing you.”
Her father and brothers begged and pleaded with her but there was nothing they could say to make her change her mind. The two older daughters rubbed their eyes with an onion and pretended to cry when Belle left with her father. Her brothers and her father also wept but Belle didn’t cry at all because she did not want to make her family even more miserable. They rode the horse to the palace and as darkness fell, found it as brightly lit as before. The horse found shelter in the stable and the man entered the large hall with his daughter, where they found a table magnificently laid out and set for two. Belle thought to herself, “The beast wants to fatten me up before he eats me.”
After dinner they heard a great roaring. Belle could hardly stop herself from fainting in terror when she saw the horrible monster but she tried to control her fear and when the beast asked her if she had come of her own choice she told him, with a trembling voice, that she had.
“You are very kind,” said the beast, “and I am very grateful that you decided to come.” He then turned to the man and said to him, “Say goodbye to your daughter. You will leave here tomorrow morning and never come back. Now, goodnight, Belle !”
“Goodnight, Beast,” she answered and the monster disappeared.
That night, while she slept, Belle dreamed of a fairy who told her, ” I like and admire your kind heart, Belle. The good deed you have done will be rewarded.” When Belle woke up she told her father of her dream. Although this comforted him a little, it did not stop him from weeping bitterly when he had to leave his daughter. When he had gone, Belle sat down in the large hall and began to weep herself, thinking that the beast must surely eat her that night. Then, pulling herself together, she decided to explore. She was very surprised when she came to a door with a sign that read, ‘Belle’s Room’. She opened it and was impressed by what she saw: a large library, a harpsichord and several books about music. On a shelf was a book inscribed in gold letters, ‘Wish, command: here you are the queen and the mistress’.
“Alas!” she sighed. “I only wish I could see my poor father to know what he is doing at his very moment.” To her surprise, in the mirror she saw a vision of her father arriving home, looking very wan and sad. All too soon the vision disappeared, but Belle was no longer scared because she believed the beast didn’t mean to eat her after all. At noon she found the table set with food for her. During the meal she could hear beautiful music, although she never saw anyone playing. In the afternoon Belle walked in the palace gardens. She felt quite safe but that evening, as she sat at the table, she heard the noise of the beast arriving and could not quit shivering.
“Belle, would you mind if I watch you have your dinner?” he asked.
“You are the master,” answered Belle, trembling.
“Yes but you are the only mistress here,” assured the beast. “You only have to tell me if I bore you and I will leave at once. Tell me, don’t you think I am very ugly?”
“I admit that is true because I can’t lie,” said Belle, “But I think that you are very kind.”
“But that doesn’t change my dreadful ugliness,” said the monster. “I know very well that I am just a beast.”
“One is only a beast if one thinks it,” Belle assured him, kindly. “Only fools are not aware of that.”
“Enjoy your meal, Belle,” said the monster. “Everything in this house is yours and I would be sad if you were unhappy.”
“You are very kind,” said Belle, “and I appreciate your generosity.”
“Oh, yes, Belle!” answered the beast. “I have a good heart but I am still a monster.”
Belle enjoyed her meal and she was no longer afraid of the monster but she was very shocked when he suddenly said, “Belle, will you marry me?”
She waited a moment before answering fearing that if she refused the monster would be angry. At last she told him with a trembling voice, “No, Beast.” The poor monster wanted to sigh but instead he made a dreadful hissing noise that echoed through the whole palace. Then he quietly said, “Goodnight Belle.” He left the room, sadly looking over his shoulder before he closed the door. Beauty felt sorry for the the poor beast and her thoughts began to overwhelm her. His kindness was evident but she was certain she could never love him.
Belle spent three very happy months in the palace and every evening the beast would visit her and talk to her while she had dinner. Every day she discovered new virtues in the monster and she became quite fond of him. Just one thing troubled her; at night, before the monster went to bed he always asked her if she would become his wife and every time he seemed to be overcome with pain when she refused.
One day she said to him, “You make me sad. I will always be your friend but I could never marry you.”
“If that is how it has to be,” said the beast, “I deserve what I get. I know very well I am horrible to look at, nevertheless, promise me that you will never leave me.”
These words embarrassed Belle. She was missing her father a great deal and although she could see a vision of him in the mirror any time she liked she dearly wished to be able to speak to him again and assure him that she was alive and well. She could also see how much he was missing her.
“I could promise never to leave you but I would so much like to see my father once more. I would die of a broken heart if you were to refuse me this wish,” said Belle.
“I would rather die myself than to make you unhappy,” replied the monster. “But if I send you to your father you will stay there and your poor beast will die of heartbreak.”
“No,” answered Belle. “I promise that I will return within a week. Your mirror has shown me that my sisters have married and that my brothers are now soldiers. My father is all alone- allow me to visit him for a week.”
“You will be there tomorrow morning,” said the beast, giving her a jeweled ring. “Remember your promise. When you want to return you only have to put this magic ring on a table and go to sleep. Farewell, Belle.”
Having said this, the beast sighed as usual and Belle went mournfully to sleep, feeling guilty that she had hurt his feelings. When she woke up the next morning she was in her father’s house. He was beside himself with joy when he saw his sweet daughter again and they embraced each other for a very long time. When Belle’s sisters heard the news they rushed to the house with their husbands. They were furious when they saw her dressed like a princess and more beautiful than ever. She was very sweet to them but nothing could stop them from being jealous. The two girls went to the garden to grumble together.
“Listen my sister,” said the eldest, “I have an idea. Let’s try to make her stay here longer than a week. Her stupid beast will be angry because she didn’t keep her promise and maybe he will tear her to shreds.”
“You are right, my sister,” answered the other. “Let us be very sweet to her.”
When a week had passed the two sisters begged so prettily for Belle to stay that she promised to remain one more week. Yet Belle blamed herself for the grief she must be causing the poor beast and, indeed, she even found that she missed his company. The tenth night she spent at her father’s house, she dreamt that she was in the palace garden. Before her the beast was stretched out on the grass, dying of a broken heart because she had not returned to him. Belle woke up in a start and began to weep.
“How could I break the beast’s heart who has been so sweet to me?” she cried. “Is it his fault that he is so ugly and has given up hope? He is kind and that is more important than anything else. I could never forgive myself if he died because of my ingratitude.”
So Belle got up, put her magic ring on the table and went back to sleep. When she woke up the next morning she was delighted to find that she was back in the beast’s palace. She dressed herself quickly, then spent all that day waiting for the beast to arrive. She waited and waited, until the clock struck nine but the beast did not appear. Belle then feared the worst and ran through the palace, searching desperately for the beast. After she’d looked everywhere she suddenly remembered her dream and ran out to the garden where she had seen him lying. There she found the beast unconscious on the ground and she thought he was dead. She threw herself on him without a thought for his ugliness and felt his heart still beating, although only just. She took some water from the pond and threw it on his face. At last the beast opened his eyes and said, “You did not keep your promise, Belle! But now I will die happily because I have had the chance to see you one more time.” Once more he closed his eyes and Belle stroked his forehead.
“No, my dear beast, you will not die,” she said. “You will live to become my husband; from this moment I will give you my hand in marriage and I promise I will never leave you again. The pain I felt when I could not find you made me realize that I truly love you and I could not live without you.”
Belle looked at her dear beast. Suddenly, she had a great surprise because the beast had disappeared and at her feet she saw the most handsome prince she had ever seen. He got to his feet and stretched then thanks her for breaking an evil spell put on him. Although she had no eyes for anyone except the prince, Belle could not stop herself from asking where the beast had gone.
“You see him here before you,” the prince told her. “An evil fairy changed me into a beast to remain that way until the day that a beautiful girl agreed to marry me of her own free will. Under the spell, I was forbidden to tell any girl the true story. It was hopeless, for who would want to marry a fearsome beast? You were the only one in the world with the heart to give me a chance to show my kind and gentle character and by offering you my crown, I now also show you my gratitude and sincerity. You already know that I love you.”
Belle, who was amazed, took the handsome prince by the hand. Together, they went into the palace and Belle was happier than ever when she saw her father and the rest of her family in the large hall. The fairy who had appeared in her dream had brought them to the palace and she too was there, smiling. “Belle, at last you have received your reward for making the right decision,” said the good fairy. “You have put virtue above beauty and you deserve this prince who has such qualities himself. You will become a great queen and I have no fear that you will rule wisely and well.”
Then the fairy turned to Belle’s two sisters.
“I know your evil hearts,” she said. “You will become two stone statues that will stand at your sister’s palace gate. All you will do each day is to witness her happiness and there you will stay until the moment you admit your mistakes. However, I am afraid that you may well remain statues for a very long time.”
That very day the Prince, who had been the beast, married Belle. She lived with him in the palace in perfect happiness forever after because, after all, their love was an honest virtue.

Enter a contest for a trip to Duns Castle (the inspiration for the Beauty and the Beast castle of the Disney film out now).  http://www.homeaway.com/lp/disney/?

The Castle Lady

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The Bugle Song

A call for poetry month from

The Castle Lady

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The Other England

 by Canon E.W. Eyden
daniel_craig_bondBehind the dark Satanic mills that spoil our native land,
Behind the dismal city streets where crowded houses stand,
There lies another country that’s grounded in the past,
Where rootless city folk still dream they’ll find true peace at last.
armathwaiteThe beauty of our country side beyond the urban sprawl,
Still holds a rich diversity to touch the hearts of of all.
From the rugged border country, through northern dales and fells,
To the gentler southern counties it weaves its magic spells.
greattew_estate_oxFrom England’s Garden in the east with rich and fertile ground,
To Cornwall with its storm-tossed cliffs where Celtic myths abound,
In countless, ancient villages another England lies
With church and inn and manor house whose witness still survives.
Our lovely countryside remains in spite of every threat,
To be cherished and protected, lest one day we should forget
That it’s deep in rural England that our roots are to be found
And the land we treat so lightly is really hallowed ground.
english_modern_afternoon-teaFor beside the village churches with which our land is blest,
The bodies of our forefathers were gently laid to rest.
For all of us were country folk, until industrial change
Transformed the face of English towns and rural life grew strange.
Today Saint George, our patron saint, still flies the banner high,
The symbol of the land we love, its earth, its sea, its sky.
Like him we pray that we may stand in hamlet, village, town,
For this other land of England- our pride, our joy, our Crown !

For the love of all that’s English!

 The Castle Lady

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On the greenest of days…

I want to wish you…

a rainbow, for every tear…
a smile, for every care
a promise and an answer for each and every prayer !


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Valentine Castle Poetry

theage_innocence_pfeifferm_ddaylewisLove is the castle

doubt is the moat

desire is the paddle

and hope is the boat.

Kellie Elmore
We built a castle near the rocks,
we built it out of sand.
Our fortress was an ice cream box
with turret tall and grand.
Our men were twigs
our guns were straws
from which we sipped at lunch.
We had the best of wars
’til someone’s foot went crunch.
Jack Prelutsky
from Read-aloud Rhymes for the Very Young
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French Quotes for Valentine’s Day !

Love is a canvas,
furnished by nature and
Embroidered by imagination.

There is only one kind of love
but there are a thousand different versions.
La Rochefoucauld


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A Hymn of Alfred’s

a_hymn_of_alfreds_frankspreyer_artistThe Story of Alfred the Great

“He seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched,
who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world.”
King Alfred, the Great (849-899)

Leading up to the 10th century, England was divided by four Saxon kingdoms in 865 which warred against each other. All this strife left them ill-prepared for the plunderers from far North European kingdoms. Bands of Norsemen (Vikings), which were actually pirates the English called Danes, were fierce and warlike pagan people who worshipped a god they called Woden. From the Northlands they bore down upon the English coasts in long narrow ships displaying rows of shields along the sides and high curved prows carved with mastheads of beasts such as ravens, dragons and eagles. They plowed through the icy, foaming waves and boldly ran their boats up on the gleaming sands all around the British isle. Swarms of barbarians sprang off the vessels onto the shore and bearing savage horned headdresses they burned, plundered and pillaged while the Saxons fled, terrorized.
england_great_army_map-svgIn the beginning, invasions from the north were primarily motivated by robbing or taking anything they could carry off to their own lands but eventually, as time passed, they began to settle in various parts of England. Eventually, the Saxons were overwhelmed by the power of their savage foes and dropped their differences, uniting in defense, with all eventually acknowledging King Ethelred, of the west Saxons, as their overlord. Ethelred, the third son in line to the English/Wessex throne of Ethelwulf, had fought nobly against the Danes but the chiefs who refused to acknowledge him, Ingwar and Hubba, (sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, the gigantic scourge of the North), took Edmund (the King of East England) prisoner. They demanded that he forsake Christianity and when Edmund stoutly refused, they bound him to a tree, taunted him with cruel jests, shot at him with arrows and finally cut off his head.
After Edmund’s death, King Ethelred died of wounds received in the Battle of Merton in 871, a month after being defeated there. England was suddenly in need of a strong and wise leader who could be a true hero of all the inhabitants. Meanwhile, the Danes were conquering most of Saxon England with only Wessex unoccupied by the invaders. Alfred, a Saxon royal and the last son remaining of Ethelwulf, ascended the throne of Wessex in the same year and he became the greatest King who ever ruled England. They called him Alfred the Great, born in 849 in a Berkshire village called Wanating (in the 9th century) but known today as Wantage within the borders of Oxfordshire. (Wanating was seated very close to the border between Mercia and Wessex.)
Even from childhood Alfred was a remarkable, sturdy, vigorous and intelligent boy. When he was only four years of age his father, Ethelwulf, had planned a journey to Italy to visit the Bishop of Rome. At the last moment, prevented from going himself, he chose Alfred from among all his sons, (one of whom was a grown young man) to go to the Bishop in his place! Alfred, his youngest son was a mere babe! The little fellow was sent with a mighty escort of nurses, servants and churchmen, over the sea to Flanders in an open boat rowed by oarsmen. From Flanders they proceeded on horseback, while Alfred- perhaps- swung in a special basket at the side of a horse. This veritable retinue made their way through the heart of Old Gaul (France) most likely stopping now and again at a warrior noble’s castle, then at a convent, now in a walled town, lingering for a time at the splendid court of Charles the Bald, King of the Western Franks, and from there, on over the towering, snow-capped alps across the Pass of St. Bernard and into Italy.
Northern Italy, at that time, was a place of most unsavory repute by reason of the number of bandit nobles who encamped in the area. Straight through their midst, by miraculous means, the child and his attendants marched by, and at length, in safety and eventually, beneath the great gates of Rome. So, before he was five years old, Alfred had made an incredible journey- tremendously long and difficult- even for adult men in such perilous times.
As a well-traveled youngster and once more at home in England, Alfred was brought to the rambling, drafty building where his father held court. Though he had seen a large part of the world he was still unable to read. For one so young this fact was perhaps not remarkable but his older brothers who were near grown youths, were equally unacquainted with letters. Such learning was disregarded in importance in those early days of England. One day Alfred and his brothers came strolling together into their mother’s room; a handsome chamber with rush-strewn floors and walls hung with magnificent tapestries. Osburga, their mother, was arrayed in a long, loose robe with full, flowing sleeves and sat in a cushioned armchair carved with lions’ heads and claws. On her lap she held a volume of Saxon poetry, and her sons came crowding up around her. Since printing was, as yet, unknown, the book was hand-illumined in richly painted, bright and beautiful letters. All the brothers cried out with admiration of the volume and the mother, hearing their words of praise said smilingly, “As you can see, this book is truly a treasure. I will give it to that one among you who first learns to read.” This challenge spurred little Alfred on to seek out a tutor, without delay and he applied himself so diligently and persistently to learning of letters that he won the volume.
When Alfred’s father Ethelwulf died, the boy by that time grown, served under his elder brothers loyally for a time. His superior talents were faithfully rendered to them in implicit obedience and humbleness. He was only twenty-three years of age when the death of Ethelred made him King of Wessex. All of England was in a panic by then and fearful of the Danes and many Saxon thegns (barons) deserted their homes and fled overseas to escape. Those left behind were far too disorganized, militarily, to offer any solid resistance against these over-proud Vikings. Yet the courage and energy of the young King Alfred lent spiritual strength to the dispirited people and eventually he administered many a sound rapping to these Norse marauders. While he was dealing with the burial, several battles were fought that virtually brought the Vikings to his door.
Initially, he paid off the invaders and they emptied out of Reading by Autumn of 871. During the next five years they moved off to London and other parts of west England. But Alfred had not seen the last of battle with the Norsemen. He had already fought alongside Ethelred through nine battles, beginning in the year 868, many of which they won and the year 871 was called Alfred’s Year of Battles- mostly in Wessex. Under their fierce leader, Guthrum and his men were inhospitable. No matter how faithfully in some hour of defeat, they might swear a strong oath never to plunder or pillage again, they would break their promise the minute it suited them. Following a signature defeat, they swore oaths on the sacred bracelets they wore, supposedly binding their savage pagan hearts but within a short time later they continued to war. During this period Alfred fought not only on land but defeated the Danish in a mighty battle at sea, creating the first naval engagement ever won by the English. He blockaded their ships at Devon and many of their fleet were broken up and scattered by a storm. Their gods clearly had nothing over on Alfred !
Battles continued until the year 878, the most glorious of all Alfred’s reign, albeit with great tragedy, when they swarmed Wessex in such great numbers that, as the old Saxon Chronicle says, “Mickle of the folk over sea they drove and of the others the most deal they rode over; all but the King Alfred. He with a little band hardly fared (survived) after the woods and on the moor-fastnesses.” In January of 878 the Danes made a surprise attack on Chippenham which was a royal stronghold where Alfred just happened to be staying during Christmas. Nearly everyone was killed but Alfred managed to escape and made his way back home by going through the woods and swamps.
a_chronicle_of_england_-_page_050_-_alfred_in_the_neatherds_cottage_jameswedoyleLeft with a few faithful followers, the young King found himself practically deserted. He hid in the marshes and wild bogs of Somerset for months. Though young, he was never arrogant or over-confident in victory and never cast down in defeat. Surely and persistently, steadfastly as ever, he laid plans to drive his foes out of England and from no selfish motives or personal ambition. He sought to save and secure the people over whom he felt that God had called him to rule, engaging him to a mission which he dared not to neglect. It was during this period, that he came to be taken in by a cowherder, who’s wife- not knowing who he was and taking him for a common vagabond- gave him a place to rest by her hearth. She happened to be baking some small cakes of bread and was soon to be called out of the hut on an errand and roughly told Alfred to watch her cakes and see that they did not burn. The King smilingly undertook to obey her but he was working at repairing a bow and arrow and became lost in his thoughts concerning the people of England and their problems. When the cowherder’s wife returned, the cakes were burned to a cinder.
“Now, now, idle dog,” scolded the woman, not realizing she was scolding her liege lord and king, “Could’st thou not even watch the cakes? Thou would’st have been glad enough to eat them!”
This simple but defining moment most likely brought Alfred out of his inclination to think his way out of his country’s problems and finally, to act.
Not long after, Hubba, who was a Danish earl, appeared in Devonshire with his army and awesome raven standard. Woven by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrog- reputedly in a single afternoon- they believed the banner to be enchanted. They claimed the great raven rose up and flapped his wings before every battle in which they gained victory. However, the soldiers of Devonshire who met Hubba boldly on the battlefield, completely defeated him and took the raven banner as proof. The loss of this standard greatly discouraged the Danes and news of the victory was a source of much comfort to Alfred while he was still in his hideout.
By the time Easter came, Alfred had a sufficient number of men to build a fortress of wood and earthworks at Athelney on a little hillock located on an island in the midst of the marshes. Not far from Bridgwater, he planned to attack the foraging parties of Danes as they roved the countryside. Under cover of night he secretly issued forth disguised as a minstrel or gleeman (a serenader) and entered all alone into the camp of the enemy to find out their numbers, how they were armed and the true temper of their leader. He was received as a strolling gleeman and ordered to sing in the very tent of Guthrum himself. Alfred sat alert, with eyes wide open, singing along to the music of his harp, surrounded by those who, if they had known who he was, would have had his head on a stick.
Later, when Alfred knew his company was strong enough to attack the enemy, he ordered a huge bonfire to be built on a hill near Athelney, where the red flames streaking the sky could be seen as far away as the three lower southern counties, where the English were hidden by riding ground. All his men gathered together and even though they were not huge in numbers his men were deeply devoted and determined in spirit. At Ethandun (Edington) they fought a mighty battle against their foes and against the odds, sending them to flight and finally, closely pursuing all the way back to the fortress they had built at Chippenham in Wiltshire. There, they maintained a siege for fourteen long days and at the end of it the Danes were forced to surrender. Alfred finally had his enemies completely at his mercy and could have repaid Guthrum’s frequent treacheries with the same cruelty. Alfred, however, had a heart of courage and the most steadfast firmness in convictions with a strong penchant for mercy and tolerant charity.
Preferring to win his enemy over rather than annihilate him, he stipulated the return of hostages and for the men of Guthrum to become Christians. Alfred had hoped that the Danes might be led to keep the covenants they made and abandon the sureties of their flimsy pagan oaths. Three weeks later, Guthrum arrived with thirty men from his host which were the most worthy, to Wedmore (near Athelney) where Alfred actually lived. There, beneath a huge wide-spreading oak, the savage, stern, old pagan and his thirty bearded warriors, (all who once boasted descent from Woden) knelt before a cross and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. It eventually became evident that this act, in truth, brought about change in the heart and spirit of Guthrum because he personally never broke the covenant made at Ethandun. He promised to remain within a territory allotted him further north and to stay out of Wessex. This boundary treaty, officially signed in 880, ran north from outside London up to Bedford.

For twelve splendid years England enjoyed relative peace. As bold and courageous a warrior that Alfred was, he became anxious to lay aside his sword and it is remarkable that one so able in war never fought a battle of conquest but solely in defense of his countrymen. Now that he had turned England’s occupying Norse foes into friends, he began organizing the country, bringing order out of chaos, and proving himself greater and wiser in peace than in war. He rebuilt the old Roman walls around London in 886 and added fortifications along the south bank of the River Thames. By 890 Alfred had worked out a definite system of laws (which became English common law) where no system had existed before and saw to it that the legal administration held safe and secure. Well documented with eight surviving manuscripts, his Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which were written by monks, laid down Saxon, Roman and Christian legal codes combined with history. An old English saying goes, “Treasures of gold and silver might be left lying on the streets and no man would dare to touch them.” Also, during this period, Alfred reformed a network of burhs (fortifications for cities) throughout southern England which were strategically placed 20 miles apart. This was true foresight because a network of fortified cities made it possible for the military to oversee any attacks in the kingdom and deal with invasion within a single day in most cases. He made his capital city Winchester and repaired stone walls and added ditches reinforced with wooden revetments or palisades-as evidenced at Burpham, Sussex.
Alfred the Great rebuilt fortifications, monasteries, churches and above all else, promoted the advancement of education. In a country where citizens had been kept in the darkest ignorance, he invited the greatest scholars of the age to England and established a school in his own court for the sons of Saxon nobles. He spent every spare moment of his own studying and translating books from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, thereby laying the first foundations of English literature. His broad and active interest in greater knowledge prompted him to send Saxon monks to the far-off Christians of India and a Saxon whaler to explore all the Northern Countries. He also encouraged great artisans, goldsmiths and jewelers in their respective crafts. One such piece of art was found near Athelney mid-20th century- a beautiful bejeweled artifact appearing to be the crest of a scepter with the figure of a man and likeness of Alfred holding a flower in each hand, wrought in colored enamel on gold under a plate of rock crystal and on the rim are the words, “Alfred mec heht gewyrcan,” that is to say, “Alfred ordered me to be made.”
alfred-jewel-ashmoleanThe keynote to all the King’s unselfish persistence in doing good was his simple, sincere, devout Christianity. Always the thought of God stirred him to noble deeds and his days were filled with the activity of one whose whole life was consecrated to the highest form of religious service. He served his people as an extension of his devotion to all that was right and divine, never wasting an hour. Alfred devised a way to gauge the passing of time when, as yet, there were no clocks. He had candles made and set to burn four hours, notched with four notches at regular intervals. Six candles each day gave him the twenty-four hours of the day but he found them often flickering and burning unevenly in the drafty rooms. He next contrived a little case of wood or horn in which they could be set, bringing about the origin of the first lanterns.
In the last years of Alfred’s reign, further Viking attacks were fought during the last decade of his life. Among the many skirmishes, the Danish pirate Hastings sought to harry the land once more, but the Saxons had become so well organized and strong, that Hastings was defeated with very little difficulty. In the struggle with him, Alfred showed the same wonderful depth of charity that had characterized him before. Once the King captured a stronghold where he discovered the wife and children of Hastings, but he did them no harm whatever, letting them leave in safety.
In 901 Alfred died, leaving behind the England that he had taken on so many years before when the British people lived in terror of invasions. Instead of panic, he left a well ordered, strong and free nation all the better for his reign. Never before had the world seen a ruler who lived solely for the good of his people. Practical, energetic, patient as he was, always fair and temperate, always genial and lovable, always deeply religious and profoundly intelligent. Alfred embodied, as no other man had ever before, all that is best and most admirable in the English character. King Alfred is rightfully called Alfred the Saxon and, most of all, Alfred the Great.



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