A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Ælfred

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ÆLFRED (849-901).—King of the West Saxons, and writer and translator, s. of Ethelwulf, b. at Wantage. Besides being the deliverer of his country from the ravages of the Danes, and the restorer of order and civil government, Æ. has earned the title of the father of English prose writing. The earlier part of his life was filled with war and action, most of the details regarding which are more or less legendary. But no sooner had he become King of Wessex, in 871, than he began to prepare for the work of re-introducing learning into his country. Gathering round him the few scholars whom the Danes had left, and sending for others from abroad, he endeavoured to form a literary class. His chief helper in his great enterprise was Asser of St. David's, who taught him Latin, and became his biographer in a "life" which remains the best original authority for the period. Though not a literary artist, Æ. had the best qualities of the scholar, including an insatiable love alike for the acquisition and the communication of knowledge. He translated several of the best books then existing, not, however, in a slavish fashion, but editing and adding from his own stores. In all his work his main desire was the good of his people. Among the books he translated or edited were (1) The Handbook, a collection of extracts on religious subjects; (2) The Cura Pastoralis, or Herdsman's book of Gregory the Great, with a preface by himself which is the first English prose; (3) Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English; (4) The English Chronicle, which, already brought up to 855, he continued up to the date of writing; it is probably by his own hand; (5) Orosius's History of the World, which he adapted for English readers with many historical and geographical additions; (6) the De Consolatione Philosophiæ of Boethius; and (7) a translation of some of the Psalms. He also made a collection of the best laws of his predecessors, Ethelbert, Ine, and Offa. It has been said "although King Alfred lived a thousand years ago, a thousand years hence, if there be England then, his memory will yet be precious to his country."