But his mind was far from being prisoned within his own island. He listened with keen attention to tales of far-off lands, to the Norwegian Othere's account of his journey round the North Cape to explore the White Sea, and Wulf-stan's cruise along the coast of Esthonia; envoys bore his presents to the churches of India and Jerusalem, and an annual mission carried Peter's-pence to Rome. Restless as he was, his activity was the activity of a mind strictly practical. aelfred was pre-eminently a man of business, careful of detail, laborious and methodical. He carried in his bosom a little hand-book in which he jotted down things as they struck him, now a bit of family genealogy, now a prayer, now a story such as that of Bishop Ealdhelm singing sacred songs on the bridge. Each hour of the king's day had its peculiar task; there was the same order in the division of his revenue and in the arrangement of his court. But active and busy as he was, his temper remained simple and kindly. We have few stories of his life that are more than mere legends, but even legend itself never ventured to depart from the outlines of a character which men knew so well.
During his months of waiting at Athelney, while the country was overrun by the Danes, he was said to have entered a peasant's hut, and to have been bidden by the housewife, who did not recognize him, to turn the cakes which were baking on the hearth. The young king did as he was bidden, but in the sad thoughts which came over him he forgot his task, and bore in amused silence the scolding of the good wife, who found her cakes spoilt on her return. This tale, if nothing more than a tale, could never have been told of a man without humour. Tradition told of his genial good-nature, of his chattiness over the adventures of his life, and above all of his love for song. In his busiest days aelfred found time to learn the old songs of his race by heart, and bade them be taught in the palace-school. As he translated the tales of the heathen mythology he lingered fondly over and expanded them, and in moments of gloom he found comfort in the music of the Psalms.
Neither the wars nor the legislation of aefred were destined to leave such lasting traces upon England as the impulse he gave to its literature. His end indeed even in this was practical rather than literary. What he aimed at was simply the education of his people. Letters and civilization had almost vanished in Great Britain. In Wessex itself learning had disappeared. "When I began to reign," said aelfred, "I cannot remember one south of Thames who could explain his service-book in English." The ruin the Danes had wrought had been no mere material ruin. In Northumbria the Danish sword had left but few survivors of the school of Ecgberht or Baeda. To remedy this ignorance aelfred desired that at least every free-born youth who possessed the means should "abide at his book till he can well understand English writing." He himself superintended a school which he had established for the young nobles of his court. At home he found none to help him in his educational efforts but a few prelates and priests who remained in the fragment of Mercia which had been saved from the invaders, and a Welsh bishop, Asser. "Formerly," the king writes bitterly, "men came hither from foreign lands to seek for instruction, and now when we desire it we can only obtain it from abroad." He sought it among the West-Franks and the East-Franks. A scholar named Grimbald came from St. Omer to preside over the abbey he founded at Winchester; and John the Old-Saxon was fetched, it may be from the Westphalian abbey of Corbey, to rule a monastery that aefred's gratitude for his deliverance from the Danes raised in the marshes of Athelney.
The work, however, which most told on English culture was done not by these scholars but by the king himself. aelfred resolved to throw open to his people in their own tongue the knowledge which had till then been limited to the clergy. He took his books as he found them; they were the popular manuals of his age; the compilation of Orosius, then the one accessible book of universal history, the history of his own people by Baeda, the Consolation of Boethius, the Pastoral of Pope Gregory. He translated these works into English, but he was far more than a translator, he was an editor for the people. Here he omitted, there he expanded. He enriched Orosius by a sketch of the new geographical discoveries in the north. He gave a West-Saxon form to his selections from Baeda. In one place he stops to explain his theory of government, his wish for a thicker population, his conception of national welfare as consisting in a due balance of the priest, the soldier, and the churl. The mention of Nero spurs him to an outbreak on the abuses of power.
The cold Providence of Boethius gives way to an enthusiastic acknowledgement of the goodness of God. As aelfred writes, his large-hearted nature flings off its royal mantle, and he talks as a man to men. "Do not blame me," he prays with a charming simplicity, "if any know Latin better than I, for every man must say what he says and do what he does according to his ability." But simple as was his aim, aelfred created English literature. Before him, England possessed noble poems in the work of Caedmon, and his fellow-singers, and a train of ballads and battle-songs. Prose she had none. The mighty roll of the books that fill her libraries begins with the translations of aelfred, and above all with the chronicle of his feign. It seems likely that the king's rendering of Baeda's history gave the first imffulse towards the compilation of what is known as the English or Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was certainly thrown into its present form during his reign. The meagre lists of the kings of Wessex and of the bishops of Winchester, which had been preserved from older times, were roughly expanded into a national history by insertions from Baeda; but it is when it reaches the reign of aefred that the Chronicle suddenly widens into the vigorous narrative, full of life and originality, that marks the gift of a new power to the English tongue.
Varying as it does from age to age in historic value, it remains the first vernacular history of any Teutonic people, the earliest and most venerable monument of Teutonic prose. The writer of English history may be pardoned if he lingers too fondly over the figure of the king in whose court, at whose impulse, it maybe in whose very words, English history begins.