In the days before it was fashionable for entire generations of people to believe that the world came into being on the day that they were born, and ended on the day that they died, and that it existed during their lifetimes only to cater to their every whim, many generations of little English children grew up learning about their history, about their country’s place in the world, and about how, if they studied hard and lived a decent life, they could, in their own small way, advance the cause of Western Civilization.
For me, the most enjoyable part of that journey has always been the first part — the stories, poems, and songs I learned as a child, and which I remember, and can recite to this day: Canute, demonstrating the limits of kingly power on earth, showing that even he could not command the tides. The future King Charles II, escaping the Parliamentarians by hiding out in the Royal Oak deep in Boscobel Wood. Bonnie Prince Charlie (not the same Charles) and Flora MacDonald — men in kilts! Over the sea to Skye! — Robin Hood. King Arthur and his knights. Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives (“With her head tucked, underneath her arm, she walks the bloody tower.”) Richard III and the Princes. Richard the Lionheart (not the same Richard) and the Paynim hordes. Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak.
And from Eleanor Farjeon, who probably taught small English boys and girls more than anyone else about each of the monarchs that has occupied the throne:
Perhaps my favorite childhood history story, though, concerns King Alfred.
Alfred reigned from 871-899 and was the first “King of the Anglo-Saxons,” having inherited just the Kingdom of Wessex, but then spent many years slowly and steadily pushing back the recent Viking incursions into Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. Known as a warrior king, he was actually physically frail, suffering from what modern historians believe to be Crohn’s Disease. However, he was a splendid military leader, scholar, historian, lawmaker, and Christian. He believed strongly that those who were in positions of power should be educated and knowledgeable about the world, and he established a system of schools for priests and administrators. Unusually for the time, and at Alfred’s insistence, these schools used English, not the almost universal Latin, to teach their curriculum.
My mother, who, although very bright, was neither scholarly nor bookish, knew all about King Alfred. She knew that one day early in his reign, he was on the run (probably somewhere in Somerset) from the marauding Vikings, when he came across a hovel belonging to a peasant woman and took refuge. She left to collect firewood, instructing the young man who’d appeared in her doorway in such a helter-skelter fashion, to mind the teacakes toasting on the hob. Understandably, Alfred had other things on his mind, forgot about his culinary duties, and by the time the old woman returned, the cakes were burned to a crisp. She boxed his ears, berated him soundly, and threw him out.
It’s my belief that my mother particularly loved this story because she was a terrible cook herself and she found Alfred eminently relatable. In my early years, the slightest malfeasance in the kitchen by any member of the family would always result in nefarious mutterings on her part about Alfred and the cakes.
I do wonder, sometimes, about the peculiar characteristic of the English in that only two of their monarchs regularly have “the Great” appended after their names, and those two are Canute and Alfred, both of whom are as famous in the minds of millions of their countrymen just as much for showing us the limits of their power, as they are for their military, legal, and administrative prowess.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there somewhere for twenty-first century autocrats in this age of COVID-19, and perhaps they’d do well to heed it before they awaken the “terrible resolve” of what appears, for the moment, to be a largely sleeping populace.