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To write the life of a King who was born a thousand years ago, but whose name is as fresh in the mouths of Englishmen as if he had lived in our own times, is an undertaking which, at first sight, may appear perilous to the writer, and more likely to obscure than to illustrate the splendid achievements of his hero. It has been, perhaps, from a feeling of this sort that, if we except one or two short and hasty sketches, no one for more than two hundred years has ventured to delineate, in a full and elaborate work, the life and actions of our favourite King, Alfred the Great.
Neither can it be pleaded in defence of the present work that its author has had superior advantages, or possesses any peculiar talents for succeeding in a labour from which so many preceding writers have shrunk. He may however be allowed to state, that there is one circumstance, likely to have deterred others, which has had a contrary effect upon himself. The want of competent original records may deter an abler pen from being employed on a subject which would give little scope for historical talent,
though it might furnish ample subject for the Poet or the Novelist. Such is the deficiency of original evidence for the splendid deeds of King Alfred, that no one but Sir John Spelman has made them the subject of a separate study; and as his work, from the length of time that has passed since it was written, has become obsolete as regards the train of thought which pervades it, and also, from his less perfect knowledge of records which have been better developed since his time, is deficient in fact, there seems to be a reasonable ground for believing, that a new work on this subject may be favourably received by those who wish to see the history of their country illustrated with faithful adherence to the accounts which our ancient Chroniclers have left us. Those. who know what patient research is required to thread the mazes of a hundred old. authors, to compare their statements, to select one and to reject another, will not lightly treat with contempt the contents of this volume. Few writers can hope that the public will take equal interest with themselves in the hero whose life they have attempted to describe: but this shall not deter me from inviting the attention of those who read History, to a volume which contains the fullest account that has yet appeared of the actions of one of the greatest kings that the world has ever seen. If, however, no more merit than that of its completeness could-be claimed for this work, it ought not on that account to be thought a superfluous addition to our literary stores; for that which, to all practical purposes, is new, may perhaps be any
thing but superfluous; nor can I be fairly censured as having wasted the labour which has been bestowed in writing a work that has not been written before. But, though it might have been excusable if I had no pretensions to have discovered any new facts on a subject so trite as the present, yet it is my belief that I have discovered a new fact, not only of importance, but of the greatest importance, in explaining one of the most interesting parts of Alfred's life. I allude to the obscurity which hangs over the third invasion of Wessex by the Danes in January 878, when Alfred, from being at the head of a gallant army, suddenly found himself a fugitive and an exile. As it would be useless to explain this more fully in a preface, the reader is referred to the fourteenth chapter, where the subject is discussed at length.
It would be improper to dismiss the work without saying something of the sources from which it is drawn, and of the extent to which I have followed the ancient authorities. The task is easy; for the list of these authorities is short. The ancient writings which come the nearest to the age of Alfred the Great are the Life of Alfred by Asser, the AngloSaxon Chronicle, and the Chronicle of Ethelwerd. All these are so well known to those who are acquainted with books, that they require but little description. Asser, being contemporary with Alfred, may be supposed to claim the greatest attention to what he relates; his work will recur to our notice in almost every page of this volume. The AngloSaxon Chronicle is supposed to have been begun in
the time of Alfred, if not sooner, and to have received additions in every following generation, down to the year 1154. Ethelwerd was of princely birth, and related to the family of King Alfred. His work, though it contains little beyond what is to be found in Asser or the Saxon Chronicle, is a valuable commentary on their text, and occasionally notices facts which are recorded no where else. He wrote soon after the death of Alfred. The next writers in point of time, to whom we are indebted for a knowledge of these early times, are Florence of Worcester, Simeon of Durham, and Henry of Huntingdon, all of whom lived soon after the Norman Conquest, and have apparently more or less copied from some common authority. Each of them, however, contributes some new fact, and neither of them may be rejected without loss to a subject, which can only be satisfactorily developed by a reference to all the authorities which have come down to us. These six Chronicles appear to me of primary importance, and have been always quoted before any other in the following work, concerning events which either or any of them have mentioned.
A valuable supplement to these six Chronicles may occasionally be found in Ingulf of Croyland Abbey, who is also next to them in time. William of Malmesbury gives little additional information concerning Alfred, but his mode of grouping facts is sometimes of service. Roger de Wendover, Matthew of Westminister, and John Brompton, who lived many years later, must also not be despised