Mohammed went back to Kadijah and told her what he had seen. He said he was chosen by Allah to spread his faith over the land, and he himself was a prophet greater than any other in the world. Kadijah was a true and faithful wife and loved Mohammed better than herself. She believed that he spoke the truth, and looked upon him as some one who through God's means had become more than a man.
At first Mohammed did not try to preach his new faith to the people of Mecca, but contented himself with teaching the word of Allah to his nearest relatives. Most of them believed in him, but one of his uncles called him a fool and would have nothing to do with the new religion.
After four years of teaching Mohammed had only converted to the new belief forty people, who were mostly men of low degree or slaves. He then thought that Allah called upon him to go forth publicly and preach his new belief to the entire world. And soon afterward Mohammed could have been seen in the market place preaching the word of Allah.
The faith that Mohammed taught was very much like the faith that we ourselves believe in. That is, it was much more like the religion of Christ than the worship of idols or the belief of the Romans and Greeks in gods and goddesses, or the worship of fire or the stars. Mohammed preached that there was one God only, and that this God was greater than all things. If you died and had led a righteous life you went to Paradise; if you had been wicked you went to the lower regions to undergo eternal punishment. And there were a great many things in Mohammed's religion that any one would do well to follow, for he preached that God was merciful and his people on earth must be merciful also, that cleanliness was next to Godliness and that all his followers must wash themselves before they prayed.
In many ways, however, the Mohammedan faith was not so pure as the Christian faith, for the Heaven that Mohammed believed in was a place of feasting and merriment, but little else, and Mohammed also believed that it was right to teach his religion by the sword. In this, however, Mohammed's followers became more zealous than he had ever thought of being, and we must remember also that Christians of those days did not hesitate to use the sword, themselves.
To spread the faith Mohammed set about preparing a great book which was to be the bible of those who believed in his religion. This book was called the Koran. Because Mohammed could not write and still produced this marvelous book, which contained the word of Allah, he claimed that he was divinely inspired. It is thought, however, that he was helped in preparing the Koran by one of his disciples who could read and write.
When Mohammed prepared the Koran there was no paper, and writing materials were far removed from the Arabs who made little use of them. So Mohammed was compelled, as we are told, to write the Koran on any material that came to hand. He wrote it on pieces of stone and strips of leather, and on dried palm leaves,—and some of the verses were even written on the bleached shoulder blades of sheep. Anything that could hold a mark was used by him as writing material, and the verses were later collected and made into a book by his disciples.
When Mohammed commenced to preach before the people, the citizens of Mecca looked on him as a madman. They did not molest him, however, because they held him to be a worthless dreamer who could do no harm to anybody. But as weeks went by, and the number of those who became converted to his faith grew larger, the wise men who still believed in the great stone idols named Hubal and Uzza began to grow afraid.
They were too cowardly to molest Mohammed, because he was a rich man and was protected by his uncle who had much influence among them,—but they vented their spite on the humbler people who followed him and who were unable to protect themselves. So it came to pass that the poor men who were Mohammedans, particularly the slaves, were made to suffer dreadful tortures. They were scourged with whips and placed all day in the burning sunshine without a drop of water for their thirst. At last, however, the people of Mecca became bold enough to go to Mohammed's uncle and tell him that Mohammed must cease preaching against their idols. Mohammed, however, indignantly refused, and went on preaching, and his uncle continued to protect him.
At last Mohammed's enemies became so afraid of the success he was gaining that they decided they must have his life at all costs, and a plot was hatched against him. He was saved by being warned of this and hidden away, but at last he and all his relatives who believed in his teachings, as most of them did, were driven from Mecca and were made outlaws.
His uncle's influence was so strong, however, that after Mohammed had lived in the mountains for three years, he and his relatives were allowed to return to Mecca. But a great misfortune fell upon him, for his faithful wife Kadijah, whom he had loved deeply, and who was the first person to believe in him as a prophet, died, and left him inconsolable. His uncle also died, and Mohammed lost his protection.
Without the influence of his uncle Mecca again became too dangerous for Mohammed to remain in. When he tried to preach he was pelted with stones and mud and mocked on every side. He was consoled, however, by a dream in which he thought that he was preaching to certain spirits whose bodies were made of fire and who were known to the Meccans as Djinns. And these spirits listened attentively to what Mohammed said and did him reverence.
Because he had converted a number of men from the nearby town of Yathrib, Mohammed decided that a better opportunity was given him to teach his faith there than in Mecca itself, and in the year 622 A.D., he and his followers fled to Yathrib and were made welcome. This flight was called the "Hegira," and the date of it is very important to the Mohammedans, for their calendar dates from it, and for them is practically the beginning of time.
In Yathrib the faith of Mohammed spread quickly and he received attention and reverence wherever he went. And when he had a large following he desired to put up a house of prayer, or a temple which he called a mosque. This was done, but the first Mohammedan mosque was a very simple affair indeed and the roof was supported by trees that were not removed from the earth where they had been growing.
And then for the first time began to be heard the call that to-day rings through so large a part of Asia and Africa, when the muezin, or crier, summons Mohammed's followers to prayer five times a day. They must all face toward Mecca as they pray, for that is the sacred city; and Mohammed so considered it because of the mysterious temple or Kaabah that was in it, and because, before the days of the idolaters, this temple had been connected with the religion of Abraham. And every morning since that time up to the present day, Mohammedans have been summoned to prayer with the following words:
"God is great; there is no god but the Lord. Mohammed is the Apostle of God. Come unto prayer! Come unto salvation! God is great. There is no god but the Lord."
Another change was effected by Mohammed. Since Yathrib had been the first place to take him in and receive his religion, its name was changed to Medinat al Nahib, the city of the prophet, to do the place honor. And in Medinah, as it was later called, Mohammed spent the rest of his life.
It was not long before word came to Mecca that the man whom they had driven out had become powerful and mighty in a city not far off and that he was considered greater than a king among the disciples that followed him. Then the Meccans were again afraid, for they feared that some day Mohammed would appear with an army before their walls and revenge himself for the injuries that they had worked upon him. So, when a frightened messenger brought word to the Meccans that a number of Mohammed's followers were plundering the Meccan caravans, the people of Mecca raised an army to raze Medinah to the ground and put an end for all time to the man that had so troubled their affairs.
Mohammed, however, had already designed to march against Mecca and had raised an army for that purpose. And he came upon the Meccan soldiers at a place called Badrh. There were a great many more Meccans than Mohammedans, and should have won the day, for the odds against Mohammed and his followers were huge, but Mohammed had the advantage that every one of his soldiers was glad to die for his leader and his army had the fierce, fanatical zeal which religion inspires in eastern people.
It was a wild fight, for the battle was fought in a furious storm of rain and wind that beat like whips upon the faces of the soldiers as they dashed against each other. It was desperate, too, and lasted nearly all day—and it was one of the important battles of the world, although the numbers engaged in it were not large. At first the fray went badly for the Mohammedans, for the enemy with their superior numbers forced them back. Everywhere Mohammed himself might have been seen, encouraging his followers and urging them to greater efforts. Then, when it seemed as if his forces were breaking and that nothing could be done to hold them together any longer, he stooped to the ground and picking up a handful of gravel, hurled it against his foes.
"May confusion seize them," he cried loudly, and at that the Mohammedans in the vicinity who had seen the act, rushed so furiously upon the Meccans that they recoiled. That was all that was needed. The entire Mohammedan army charged, shouting the names of Allah and Mohammed, and the battle was won. Many horses and camels and much valuable plunder were captured, and word was sent back to Medinah that a great victory had been gained.
The Meccans swore vengeance and in due time another army was advancing against Mohammed. He was engaged in prayer when the word was brought to him that the Meccans were coming and at once he summoned his followers and exhorted them to do their utmost and to die in defense of the faith.
With his army at his heels Mohammed went forth from Medinah and pitched his camp near Mount Uhud, only a bowshot away from his enemies. As soon as it was dawn both sides were drawn up ready for battle—and then the Meccans saw a sight that had never before taken place on any battlefield—for at the call of the Muezin, which took place as though the Mohammedans were at home, the entire army bowed down in prayer.
At first the fight went well for the Mohammedans, but when a group of archers left their post to engage in the pursuit of the defeated Meccans this gave some of the enemy's cavalry a chance to surround or outflank Mohammed's soldiers. The Meccans rallied and attacked him in front and the rear at the same time, and the day was lost. However, the Meccans were too exhausted to pursue his men for a time and they believed that Mohammed himself had been slain, which was the first of their desires. So they returned to Mecca.
For about two years there was little fighting, and then the Meccans planned an attack against Medinah, and advanced upon it with a large army. And now Mohammed showed great military skill, for he conceived a plan that had never been known to the Arabians and that is still employed in modern warfare,—namely that of fighting from the protection of trenches. With the hostile army almost upon them the Mohammedans worked furiously digging a deep ditch around the city, and so well did the ditch answer their purpose that the Meccans could accomplish nothing against them, but were obliged at last to turn tail and retreat to their own city.
In this siege there was a Jewish tribe in Medinah that had been treacherous to the Mohammedans, deserting them in their hour of need, and going over to the enemy. This caused Mohammed great difficulty and might easily have brought about his defeat. So, when the fight was over, he took a large number of soldiers and advanced against this tribe which had taken refuge in a stronghold in the mountains. When they saw the numbers that were against them a great fear came upon them and they surrendered to the Prophet without a fight, throwing themselves upon his mercy. They found, however, that from that mercy they could expect nothing, for all the men were put to death, and the women and children were sold into slavery.
Warfare between the Mohammedans and the Meccans continued in scattered outbursts until at last when both sides were weary of the struggle a treaty was made, and the Mohammedans were to be allowed to make a three day pilgrimage to Mecca to worship at the Kaabah or holy temple which was a part of Mohammed's religion.
This was considered by Mohammed as a great triumph for his cause. Determined now to spread his faith to the uttermost ends of the earth, he sent messengers to the rulers of all the civilized kingdoms that he knew. One went to Heraclius, Emperor of the Romans, who was in Syria at the time; one to the Roman Governor of Egypt, one to the King of Abyssinia and one to each of the provinces of Gassan and Yamam that were also under Roman control.
Then a ten year peace was agreed upon between the Meccans and the Mohammedans. This, however, was not kept long, for the Meccans killed some of Mohammed's followers. In fear for what they had done, they sent a deputation to request that he overlook what had taken place and allow the peace to continue as before, but Mohammed would give them no promises, and told his followers that the death of those who were slain by the Meccans would be amply avenged. With great secrecy he prepared an army and went forth once more against the city with which he had been engaged in warfare for so many years.
So swift was Mohammed's advance and so secret had his plans been kept that the Meccans knew nothing of his approach until they saw the camp-fires of his mighty army shining about their walls. They had no way of resisting his force for they had been surprised, and even if they could have prepared against him, their numbers were now far inferior to his own. And then came the greatest triumph of Mohammed's entire life, for the Meccans surrendered without conditions and promised to embrace the Mohammedan faith.
With ropes and axes Mohammed's followers tore the stone idols of Mecca from their pedestals and hewed them to pieces, while the Meccans sorrowfully beheld the destruction. And from that day to the present there has resounded over the city of Mecca five times each day the cry of "Allah Hu Akbar"—God is great, and the rest of the ritual calling the people to prayer.
Soon after this one desert tribe after another came under Mohammed's power, and finally all of Arabia had acknowledged him as God's prophet. He was planning to extend his religion still farther when a misfortune fell upon him that probably caused his death. With one of his followers he had partaken of a dish that had been prepared for him by a Jewish girl who hated him and all of his sect. The food was poisoned, and while Mohammed discovered it at once and ate but a single mouthful, the poison remained in his body.
Feeling that he was about to die he summoned his followers and preached to them a last sermon in which he exhorted them to obey all the rules of his religion, to treat their slaves and animals kindly and to beware of the works of the devils that were leagued against them. Not a great while after this the Prophet fell ill of a fever, and at last died, to the great grief of those disciples who had known and loved him. Although he had always given his wealth to the poor so that he lived as meanly as the humblest of his followers—for this was one of the first things that he preached,—he was worshipped as being divine and had more than the homage of a mighty king. In the hands of his fanatical followers the scimitar became the symbol of the Mohammedan faith and hundreds of thousands were conquered and made to acknowledge its power. To-day Mohammedanism is still one of the great religions of the world, and the name of the Prophet still sounds from thousands of mosques, when the muezin calls the people to prayer with the same words that were used while Mohammed was living.
ALFRED THE GREAT
More than a thousand years ago England was composed of a number of small kingdoms, which were as separate and distinct as the nations of the world are to-day. They were either making war upon each other, or looking on at the wars of their neighbors; and it seemed impossible, and nobody ever dreamed at that time, that England and Scotland and Wales would be united into one great state.
Among these people were the yellow-haired Saxons, who had entered England as invaders and driven the Celts to the westward. The Saxons brought with them the ideas that they practised in the region north of Gaul, whence they came. They refused to live in walled towns, and tore down or abandoned the buildings left by the Romans, erecting their own mud huts outside the ramparts. Their homes were rude indeed, and they had few comforts and luxuries. Glass was unknown to them, and the cold rain and wind swept through their dwellings. They had no books in their own tongue, and got all their learning from a few scholars and priests. But in spite of all these drawbacks they were a brave and hardy people, lacking only a great leader to become a nation whose influence would be felt throughout the world.
For a time, however, no such leader appeared; and it seemed as if they must be swept away entirely by a new enemy that came upon them from the north—a people called respectively the Danes, the Northmen and the Vikings, who lived on the shores of the creeks and fiords of what is now Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula—a wild and hardy race of sailors, who loved fighting and gained their livelihood by piracy, sweeping forth in their open boats upon unprotected shores and burning and plundering wherever they went.
The Northmen, who were great seamen, speedily found out that because the British Isles were divided into numerous small nations, there would be no concerted resistance when they came to plunder; and forthwith the people in the English kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia beheld to their dismay a number of strange, piratical craft upon the shores. The prows of the boats were shaped like dragons' heads, and round shields ran along the gunwales beside the rowers. From these boats came pouring out a wild horde of gigantic and bloodthirsty men, heavily armed, ravens' wings attached to their helmets and long hair streaming over their armor. The Saxons quickly learned that it was well to flee when these men appeared. Otherwise they would be mercilessly slain. Even the women and little children were not spared, for the Northmen used to make a sport of butchery. And when they fought with the English armies they were nearly always victorious, for they were trained soldiers accustomed constantly to war, with better weapons and better armor than the English.
Such was the state of affairs in England when Ethelwulf reigned over the kingdom of Wessex. Ethelwulf was an easy going king who loved prayer better than fighting, but was forced again and again to defend his kingdom from the Northmen. He had a wife named Osburgha, and five sons who were called Ethelstane, Ethelbald, Ethelbert, Ethelred and Alfred. The two oldest of these, Ethelstane and Ethelbald, aided their father in defending the country, while the others were trained in hunting and warlike exercises with the same purpose in view,—but Alfred, when only five years old, was sent by King Ethelwulf upon a pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome, to receive there the blessing of Pope Leo the Fourth, who was head of the Christian Church and a ruler far mightier than any other in the world.
It is not to be thought that so young a child was sent alone on such a journey which would require months to finish and on which many dangers would have to be encountered. With Alfred were many soldiers and retainers, and also a famous churchman called Bishop Swithin who later became a saint. The object of this journey was to have the Pope's blessing brought back to England by Alfred, and to show the Pope by sending a Royal Prince so far for such a purpose what devout Christians the people of Wessex were.
Ethelwulf himself had desired to go to Rome, but the danger from the Danes was too great and too near at hand. However, after some months he believed he could safely join Alfred, who, although so young, could never forget the marvels that he beheld in the Holy City. Ethelwulf also desired to seek a wife in France, for Alfred's mother, Osburgha, had died since her son departed for Rome.
In due time Ethelwulf and Alfred came back from Rome to Wessex where great troubles awaited them. Ethelstane had died and, during Ethelwulf's absence, Ethelbald had revolted and was trying to take the kingdom away from his own father by force of arms. A number of nobles had joined Ethelbald because they believed that he was the better soldier and would protect them more sturdily against the Northmen. The people were also enraged against Ethelwulf, because, when crossing France, he had married a French Princess named Judith, who was only fourteen years old; and had caused her to be proclaimed Queen, which was against the laws of the Saxons.
True to his peaceful nature Ethelwulf refused to fight against Ethelbald. He said that he would never draw sword against his own flesh and blood no matter what wrong had been done to him—moreover that it behooved the English to draw their swords against their common enemy, the Northmen, rather than to wrangle among themselves when the invader might appear upon their shores at any moment. And Ethelwulf agreed to divide his kingdom with his son, to whom he gave the more important and valuable part, and spent the rest of his life in following the church and its doings—still a king in name to be sure, but with little of the kingly power remaining in his hands.
The baseness of his son in turning against him, however, broke the heart of the old king. And Ethelwulf soon died, leaving the small part of his kingdom which he had continued to rule to his son, Ethelbert. Like his father, this prince was of a peaceful disposition, and did little to stop the raids of the Northmen, never appearing himself against his enemies, but spending his time in prayer and divine worship. Nor was his disposition changed when the base Ethelbald died and the entire kingdom was reunited. The Danes once made a bold raid against the city of Winchester, burning a large part of it and escaping with much plunder—but before they were able to return to their boats they were cut off by a force of English men-at-arms and archers led by the aldermen of Hampshire and Berkshire, and almost all of the invaders were slain. Even in this grave conflict, King Ethelbert was not present, and the victory of the English was not due to their King.
Alfred, however, who was now eleven years old, gave signs that if ever he gained the throne of Wessex his enemies would have good reason to fear him. Although a young boy he used to love to go on foot in the dark forest to hunt the fierce wild boars that lived there—a dangerous sport even for a grown man. He also gave every promise that some day he might be a great ruler and bring the people of England to peace and safety, for not only was he bold and proficient in arms and manly exercises, but a diligent scholar, who spent a great part of his time in acquiring wisdom. And of all his brothers Alfred loved Prince Ethelred best, and when he grew older the two brothers fought side by side against the Danes.
When Alfred was nineteen the Danes raided England again, but did not enter the kingdom of Wessex. And there was so weak a bond between the small English kingdoms that none of the untroubled states felt it their part to go and help their neighbors. After this the Danes invaded East Anglia and captured the king of that country, whose name was Edmund. They offered to spare his life if he would give up Christianity and believe in their own gods whose names were Odin and Thor. He refused and they beheaded him. Later the head was found watched over by a wolf and all the people believed that it had been preserved by a miracle. So Edmund became a Saint, and many churches throughout England were built in his honor.
Then the Danes raided Wessex and terrible trouble began. Ethelred was now king, and Alfred was old enough to go to the wars and take command of an army. So he and his brother went forth against the Danes together at the head of every available fighting man who could be mustered to bear a spear. The Danes had rowed up the River Thames and captured the town of Reading. Ethelred and Alfred attempted to recapture it from them, but pouring out of the gates of the town they routed the English forces. They then marched along the banks of the Thames where they had an idea of settling and holding the land.
The King and Alfred worked desperately to collect their scattered soldiers and lead them again to the combat. At last they gathered a sufficient number and moved against the Danes on Berkshire Downs.
They were advancing to the attack when the Danes poured down the hillside toward them. King Ethelred was at prayers and refused to fight until he had finished—but Alfred, seeing that the English would be defeated if they did not attack at once, took command of the entire army and charged fiercely against the Danes, himself in the foremost rank, a target for the arrows and spears of all his enemies. So fierce was his onslaught and such was the enthusiasm of the soldiers whom he led that, although the Danes outnumbered the English, the pirates were put to flight with terrible slaughter. A Danish king and five earls were killed in this fierce conflict, in memory of which the people of Berkshire cut into the white chalk of the downs the giant figure of a horse—a figure that can be seen at the present day in honor of the victory of more than a thousand years ago.
The Danes, however, though checked, were not sufficiently weakened by this fight to give up thoughts of capturing Wessex, and soon were harrying and plundering again. In another battle with them King Ethelred received his death blow, and upon his death, Alfred, who was still a very young man, became king.
It was a sad entry into the powers of kingship. Practically all of England except Wessex was at the mercy of the Danes, who came so fast and in so many different directions, that when the King had started against one hostile band he would get word of others who had landed and perhaps were burning and plundering the very country he had just left.
Alfred was as shrewd as he was brave, and he knew that if his people could not have a respite from wars and a chance to organize themselves, they must end by submitting wholly to the Northmen, so he offered the Danes a large sum of money to leave Wessex in peace for four years.
This was accepted by the sea-robbers. They believed that they could find rich booty elsewhere and return to Wessex when they chose. And with the English gold in their pouches they sailed from Alfred's dominions.
Now the young King had not bought the Danes off because he was too cowardly to fight with them further—rather did he plan to strengthen his nation for future fighting, and the Danes were highly foolish to accept his terms. No sooner were their sails out of sight than Alfred commenced to build a navy so that he would be able to meet them equally when they next came against him, and he studied the Danish craft to serve as models for the English boats.
The galleys of the Northmen were pointed at both ends and could be rowed in either direction. There were generally from fifteen to thirty rowers on either side, and the boats also carried a number of extra soldiers. They were provided also with square sails pitched about amidships and were steered by a large paddle. These boats were excellent in creeks and rivers, but owing to their low bulwarks were somewhat unseaworthy, and it was necessary for the Danes to cross the sea and the English Channel in fair weather.
For four years the Danes left Alfred alone, but after the time agreed upon had expired they sent a powerful army into Wessex. Alfred at once marched against them and came upon them in Wareham, where he was able to surround them in their camp and starve them until they cried for peace. He then made a treaty with them agreeing to allow them to pass unmolested back to their ships in return for which they were to trouble his kingdom no more.
The Danes, however, like most barbarians, were extremely treacherous. They pretended to fall in with Alfred's plans but in the night, when the English had relaxed their vigilance, they stole past his army and fortified themselves in a strong position, preparing for a siege of many months. At this all the English thanes and lords became discouraged. They came to King Alfred and told him that they could not fight any longer. It would be better, they declared, to submit to the invaders rather than to undergo the ceaseless war and bloodshed that tortured their land. And Alfred, as he listened to them, knew that every word of what they said was the truth.
But the stout-hearted king had no intention of submitting to the Danes. When his nobles were through speaking, Alfred cried: "As long as there is a single man who can wield a sword, I will fight on. Nay, I will fight alone with none to help me, sooner than surrender my kingdom to the barbarians."
At this a lad who was at the gathering drew his sword and shouted: "And I will follow you, my King, wherever you lead me." And the nobles returned to Alfred's side, and took heart to continue the unequal war.
At the head of his army Alfred pursued the Danes to Exeter and laid siege to it. And now it was manifest that he had shown great wisdom in building a fleet, for the English ships prevented reenforcements from joining the Danes, who finally were forced to surrender and were driven from the country. And many pirate ships were sunk by Alfred's vessels.
In the winter, however, the Danes came again in such numbers that the English could not withstand them. The coast swarmed with the pirate galleys and bands of marauders entered Wessex, plundering and burning in every direction. Alfred knew that for the time being further resistance against them was hopeless, and with his wife and only a handful of faithful followers he fled into the marshes of Athelney where he remained in the strictest hiding. To all intents and purposes England had become a Danish country and even the English nobles did not know what had become of their King.
While in hiding Alfred had numerous strange adventures which are told in various old chronicles and legends. On one occasion, when caught in a snowstorm, he sought shelter in the hut of a swineherd who knew him, but who was so faithful to him that even his wife was not taken into the secret. Alfred, who was poorly dressed, was given the task of watching some loaves of bread which were baking at the hearth, but, troubled with gloomy thoughts, did not give as strict an eye to them as he should have done, but suffered them to burn. When the swineherd's wife came back and found the burning bread, she rated the king soundly for his carelessness.
"Idle lout," she cried, "thou couldst not keep an eye to the bread although thou wouldst be glad to fill thy belly with it. Play another trick of the kind and I will thwack thee on the snout."
The king said nothing, but in better days when he had regained his kingdom, he is said to have presented the honest couple with a fine house and land as a reward for their hospitality, if not for their politeness.
While in hiding Alfred was constantly planning how it would be possible to vanquish the Danes, and another story tells how he disguised himself as a musician and boldly entered the Danish lines, to learn for himself how great their numbers might be. Here he wandered from one camp-fire to another, harping and singing, all the while keeping his eyes and ears open and escaping at last with information that would ensure his victory when the cold weather departed.
In the spring the King came forth from his hiding-place and sent forth messengers with a proclamation to the Saxons that they were to join him at a place he gave them word of, for once again they would fight to free their country from the foreign yoke.
The place where he commanded them to meet him was by a rock in the midst of a forest which was known as "Egbert's Stone." Here the thanes assembled with their forces, and great was their rejoicing when they beheld Alfred again, for they believed that he had been killed or had fled to France or Italy. With drawn swords they swore undying devotion and fealty to him and shouted for him to lead them as speedily as possible against the Danes.
In spite of their patriotism, Alfred's army was far smaller than that of the Danes, and he knew that to succeed he must surprise them. The Danes were at a place called Ethandune, and Alfred came upon them by night marches and by passing so far as possible through little frequented paths. When the sea-robbers finally saw the army of the Saxons they could hardly stir for amazement, for they had believed themselves absolute masters of all England and were bringing their women and children from the north. But here were the Saxons and their King, fully armed, their banners flaming in the sunlight.
The battle raged all day, and in it lay the fate of England. If the Danes won, the last chance of the Saxons under Alfred would have departed and the country must necessarily become like the other countries of the far north. At nightfall, however, the pirates gave way and for protection fled into a fortress on Bratton Hill, where the Saxons surrounded them and besieged them. The Northmen at last ran out of food and were forced to surrender.
The result of this battle was a treaty between Alfred and the Danes. The Danish king, Guthrum, desired to settle in England, where he had lived for many months; and he sent messengers to Alfred, offering to be baptized as a Christian, promising never again to bear arms against the people of Wessex. Alfred accepted the Danish proposal gladly, for his people were weary to death of war and hardship, and needed peace to till their lands. So Alfred, while he probably could have conquered all England, left the Danes in the part that had been most thoroughly conquered by them, calling it the Danelaw, and gave the Danes permission to live there unmolested, providing they promised to disturb his kingdom no further. The pact held good, and although at times it was broken, in general it was adhered to for many years. Saxons and Danes intermingled and married into the families of their enemies, and from them a new people gradually came into being.
As soon as peace was assured Alfred provided against future attacks on the part of the Northmen by ordering all the forts and strongholds throughout the kingdom of Wessex to be rebuilt and put into good order. He knew that the Danes could not be trusted and feared that at any time new galleys might be seen bearing down upon the English coast. So he organized his army into several parts and thought out a system by means of which soldiers might always be on guard duty to withstand an invasion, while the rest of the people were peacefully tilling the soil.
He also framed a code of laws. In the war and confusion into which his country had been thrown, the laws had fallen into a sorry state and were frequently disobeyed. In his code Alfred did not introduce new laws, which his people disliked, but rather arranged and put in order the laws then existing, and his dominions soon became so orderly and so free from robbers that it is doubtful if all our police could do better to-day. Also the King found that the law had been hindered and impeded by many corrupt and worthless judges, some of whom knew nothing whatever about the duties of their office—and these he warned to study and acquaint themselves with what a judge must know or renounce their positions in law altogether.
Then the Danes came again. They landed with a large army and tried to take Rochester Castle. Alfred hastened to the relief of this fortress, which was a most important one, and drove them away, pressing them so hard that they scrambled on to their vessels and set sail for the open sea.
However, the Danes did not go back to their native land, but landed in Essex, where they were joined by their countrymen in the Danelaw, who thus broke the word that they had pledged to Alfred. The new Danish army was much larger than Alfred's and at first was victorious,—but the entire navy of Wessex came to the rescue of the English and vanquished sixteen Danish ships in a tremendous sea fight. The war then raged with varying fortunes until Alfred signed another agreement with Guthrum, and laid siege to London which had been taken by the Danes.
In due time London fell. Its capture gave Alfred a tremendous advantage over his enemies. He had the city strongly fortified and it stood as a barrier to Danish vessels that strove to work their way up the River Thames. Moreover it became one of the world's great trading centers, and merchants from all quarters of the earth visited it.
When the Danes were finally defeated, Alfred, according to his custom, lost no time in building up his kingdom. First of all he commenced to rebuild the monasteries and abbeys which had been destroyed by the invaders. The first one that he founded was at Athelney in Somersetshire, in the midst of the marshes where he had fled for refuge when the Danes overran his country. He also founded a number of other monasteries and abbeys, among them the abbey of Shaftesbury, making his daughter, Ethelgeda, the abbess.
Alfred loved books and learning, and had made his chief aim in life to acquire wisdom. He knew that if his people were to become really great they must labor in the arts and letters and acquire knowledge from books. Practically all the books of that time were written in Latin which few could read, so Alfred set himself about the task of making translations of the best and most valuable books of his day. The translation was done either under his direct care, or by his own hand, and the boon to his people was greater than can be told. Alfred ordered the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to be written, which was designed by him to treasure up for future the historical happenings of his own time.
To make the most of his time, the King divided the day into three periods of eight hours each. In the first of these he labored for the Church; in the second for his kingdom, and the third was devoted to rest and recreation. But although he labored hard and gained much by performing these good and wise deeds, Alfred had not yet heard the last of his old enemies the Danes, who were to trouble him almost to the end of his life. After the defeats they had suffered at his hands they had turned toward Europe and followed there their usual course, killing and plundering and bearing the women and children into slavery. At last, however, they were defeated in battle by the Emperor of Germany and they turned once more to England, where they hoped the heroic king had relaxed his vigilance. Under the great viking, Hastings, a large force of them landed in Kent, and prepared to ravage the country.
Alfred sent his eldest son, named Edward, to keep close watch upon their movements, ordering him, however, not to engage them in battle until he himself should arrive with the bulk of the army. When he was on the march and when the Danes knew that a large force was advancing against them, they tried once more their old trick of pretending friendship in order to throw their enemies off their guard. Hastings sent to Alfred professions of friendship, and to show his apparent good faith sent with the messengers his two sons, requesting that they be baptized as Christians. Alfred received the two Danish princes with great joy. After they were baptized he welcomed them to a feast and sent them to their father with many costly presents.
The Danish plan succeeded, for by their professions of friendship the English relaxed their watchfulness and gave their enemies an opportunity to plunder and ravage the country and maneuver themselves into a position favorable to withstand either siege or battle. And Prince Edward sent word to his father that the Danes were doing these things and that he was unable to withstand them. Then Alfred at the head of his army joined his son and came up with the Danes at a place called Farnham in Surrey. There he met them in battle and the bravery of Prince Edward was largely responsible for the victory that followed. The Danes were utterly routed and many of their galleys fell into the hands of the English, with many women and children. And among these prisoners were the wife of Hastings and his two sons, who had so recently been baptized. And when Alfred learned who they were he sent them back to Hastings in spite of his treachery, and, not content with doing this, loaded them down with more presents for the Danish king.
The work of defeating the Danes was not yet finished, for they were in many different strongholds which must all be captured before the country could be wholly rid of them. But after several campaigns Alfred saw if he could obstruct the river Lea near London he would strand their ships and be able to attack them at his pleasure.
The King accomplished his ingenious design by digging a number of ditches that soon drained the water from the river into another channel. And when the Danes beheld that their ships would soon be useless to them, they took to flight, pursued by Alfred's soldiers. Hastings then sought to go back to the Danish women and children on the few boats that were left to him, and finally sailed away for good and all with only a small part of the vast force with which he had attempted to conquer England. And Alfred saw how mistaken he had been to show any kindness to Hastings' force, and had some Danish prisoners hanged as a lesson to the freebooters.
For four years thereafter Alfred was able to lead a peaceful life and continue the good works that were to change history and make England a nation in other things than mere force of arms. All his life, however, the King had suffered from a disease that afflicted him sorely, and it was only his great spirit that had enabled him to continue so arduously in the wars and labors that had made him greater than all others. In the year 901 or close to that time he died, and was succeeded by his son, Edward, who bravely defended his country against any further attacks by the Danes, becoming after his father, one of England's greatest kings, known as Edward the Elder.
One thousand years after Alfred's death a great festival was held in his honor in the city of Winchester which he had defended against the Danes and where he was buried. His statue stands there to-day, watching over and guarding the great nation that would not be in the world at all if his hand and heart had failed it.
When the wicked John tried to sway England many honest men turned outlaws rather than obey or suffer his evil rule. For John and his noblemen tortured and oppressed the poor, driving them from house and hearth to make a hunting ground, and taxing them so heavily that they frequently starved to death. Forests were plentiful in England in those days, but John often tore down houses of his subjects to make the forests even greater so that he might have more sport in hunting the deer and the boar that ran wild there. And while he did not scruple to take the peasants' lands for such a purpose, it was a terrible crime for a peasant to shoot the deer that often fed upon his crops. Even were he starving, he might not slay a deer in his own yard. And if he so transgressed he was punished with the most inhuman cruelty.
Now, as has been said, many men were too high-spirited to suffer the injustice that John laid upon them. They fled into the forests instead and formed armed bands, setting upon travelers and robbing them of their goods; and they lived by shooting the King's deer and whatever game they could catch and kill.
Among these men was an outlaw called Robin Hood, whose fame was known through the length and breadth of England. Although many men at-arms had pursued him, they never could catch him, and his daring surpassed belief. He surrounded himself with the bravest and boldest young men in all England, and if he encountered any stout-hearted man among those whom he robbed, or even among those that the Sheriff sent to pursue him, that man was often added to his band of outlaws.
Robin Hood became an outlaw through no fault of his own, but through the common injustice of the day. When he was a very young man he was journeying to the town of Nottingham, where the Sheriff had prepared a bout in archery and had promised a butt of ale to whatever man should draw the best bow and shoot the most skilful arrow.
As Robin Hood was passing through the forest on his way to Nottingham, he met a group of the King's foresters, who were there to see that nobody transgressed the laws; and they made fun of his beardless face and boyish figure—still more of the bow he carried, since they knew he was on his way to shoot at Nottingham and they did not believe that such a youth could ever hope to gain the prize.
After bearing their jests for a time Robin became angry, and challenged any one of them to test his skill with the bow. They replied that he did but boast, for they had no target. And then, looking down the glade, Robin espied a herd of the King's deer a great distance away and he cried:
"Look you, now, if you think that I am no archer, I shall slay the noblest of that herd at a single shot, and I'll wager twenty marks upon it into the bargain!"
"Done!" cried one of the foresters. Whereupon Robin laid an arrow to his bow and shot so cleverly that the deer lay dead in its tracks.
The foresters were greatly angered that he had succeeded, and not only refused to pay him, but when he set forth again one of them sprang to his feet and sent an arrow after him. Whereupon Robin turned like a flash and made even a better shot than his first one—for the fellow who had loosed his bow upon him lay dead on the greensward with an arrow in his heart.
The King's foresters could not be slain with impunity in those days and Robin was made an outlaw—not only because he had slain his man, but because he had killed the King's deer; and in such a way it came to pass that he gathered a band of followers about him in Sherwood Forest and his fame as an outlaw soon became known throughout the land.
But although Robin Hood was a robber, the common people soon learned to love him, for no poor man was ever the poorer on account of his outlawry—rather were the countryfolk in the neighborhood of Sherwood Forest better off than before, because he made it a point of honor to rob the rich only to bestow large gifts upon the poor—and many a present of food and gold was brought by him to the starving serfs and humble people in the neighborhood.
Now the Sheriff of Nottingham was eager for the King's favor and the deeds of Robin Hood were soon brought to his notice. He sought more than once to capture the bold outlaw, but always failed, and he was so clumsy and so cowardly that Robin Hood became emboldened to defy him openly, and enter the town of Nottingham under his very eyes. On one occasion an outlaw who had been taken by the Sheriff was rescued by Robin from a formidable array of men-at-arms just as the hangman was about to string him up on the gallows.
There are so many tales about Robin Hood that it would be impossible to tell them all here, and one or two will have to suffice, to show what manner of life he led and what sort of men his followers were. One of these was called "Little John," because he was seven feet tall and broad to match, and in all England there could scarce be found his equal with the cudgel. Another was a great, brawny priest or friar, who loved his wine better than prayers, and believed a pasty made of the King's deer was better for the heart than any amount of fasting. This jovial priest was named Friar Tuck and took upon himself the task of looking after the spiritual welfare of Robin's band—which he accomplished more by a free use of his cudgel on the heads of the offenders than by prayer or divine exhortation. But of all the men in the band, Will Scarlet was the strongest.
Will Scarlet came among Robin's outlaws in a curious manner. One day when Robin and Little John were strolling through the woods, they saw a stranger sauntering down a road and he was clad in the most brilliant manner imaginable in rosy scarlet from head to heel. He seemed a very ladylike kind of person and carried in his hand a rose of which he smelled now and then as he walked along, and he sang a little song that sounded for all the world as though it were being sung by a girl in her teens. And Robin's gorge rose at the sight of him for he hated unmanliness and thought that this gaily clad ladylike fellow who seemed to turn his nose up at the ground he walked upon must be a courtier or some nobleman that had never done an honest day's work or robbery in his life.
"When he comes nearer," said Robin to Little John, "I'll show him that there be some honest folk abroad who are not afraid to earn their living, for by my faith I'll take his purse and use the gold therein to far better advantage than he could do." So, when the young man approached, Robin stepped out into the path to meet him with his trusty cudgel in his hand.
The young man, however, seemed in no way to be afraid of the bold and resolute outlaw who stood in front of him, and when Robin demanded his purse he smiled and said it would be better to fight for that article and the better man should have it. Whereupon he went to the side of the road, still humming his snatch of a tune, and to the amazement of Robin and Little John, laid hold of a young oak tree and tore it up by the roots, with apparently but little exertion of his strength. Then, trimming off the branches, he stood on guard.
Robin was warned by this exhibition of power and approached him warily, but the stranger struck with such force that nobody could stand up to him, and although Robin put up a long and furious fight his guard was at last beaten down and he was knocked senseless on the ground.
With an aching head, but with admiration of the strange young man in his heart, Robin asked him to join his band, promising him food, booty and good Lincoln green to wear; and the stranger, after learning who Robin was, disclosed himself as no other than Robin's own nephew, Will Scarlet, whom the outlaw had not seen since he was a baby. Delighted at the meeting, Will Scarlet, Little John and Robin Hood made haste to join the rest of the band beneath the greenwood tree, where a feast was set forth and good brown ale poured out in honor of the newcomer.
On another occasion Robin and his band married two lovers who had been forced to part because the maiden's father had determined that she was to become the bride of a wicked but wealthy old nobleman. The outlaws surrounded the chapel in which the wedding was to take place and when the ceremony was begun Robin stepped between the bride and groom and declared that the ceremony could not continue. When the wedding guests learned that it was indeed Robin Hood that stood before them, they were greatly frightened, and the outlaws with drawn weapons made their appearance among them. Friar Tuck himself finished the wedding—only this time a different groom was substituted and one more after the maiden's heart, for they gave her the man she loved.
There are many tales about the English King Richard, the Lion Hearted, and none is more interesting than that of his meeting with Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. King Richard was the brother of the base-hearted John—who tried to steal the throne from him when he was imprisoned on the continent after the Crusades. But Richard won back his kingdom and pardoned his brother, and later on John regained the English throne.
Richard traveled a great deal in England, and in the course of his journeying came to Nottingham, which was near the woodland retreat of Robin Hood. Now although Robin Hood was an outlaw and had transgressed the King's laws, Richard held something approaching admiration for him, because Robin's adventures greatly resembled his own, when he had been wandering as a knight errant, without a kingdom. So Richard told the Sheriff of Nottingham that he himself would do what the Sheriff had so often tried to do and always failed in—namely drive Robin Hood's band away from the woods. And with some followers he disguised himself as a monk and started across the forest, hoping that Robin Hood and his outlaws would fall on him and attempt to rob him.
This is just what happened. The outlaws fell on Richard and took him prisoner, and after taking his purse they led him to their secluded hiding-place and set before him a feast of meat and wine, a custom of theirs whenever they robbed a worthy monk or priest, to remove some of the sting from the consciousness of his loss.
"I have heard," said the supposed monk, after he had eaten and drunk his fill, "that you have good archers in your band. I fain would see some of them at work."
In answer Robin Hood called for his men to set up a mark, telling them that they must shoot to good purpose, for he that missed, were it only by a hair, should be knocked down by Will Scarlet.
One after one of the outlaws shot, and they all struck the mark. But when Robin himself shot something happened that his band had never before seen, for a gust of wind blew his arrow aside, and he himself, who was the finest bowman in England, had missed the target. With shouts of delight the outlaws called upon their leader to pay the penalty. Robin disliked to do this, for he was the leader of the others and did not think it good for discipline that his men should behold their leader undergo such an indignity; however, he ended the matter by asking the monk, who was Richard, to administer his punishment himself, since he could take from a member of the church what he could not take from one of his own band. Richard consented gladly. He always had loved such adventures,—and the strength of his arm was twice that of Will Scarlet's,—for the English King was the strongest man in all Christendom, if not in the entire world. Rising to his feet he drew back his heavy fist and gave Robin so terrible a buffet that it hurled him senseless on the ground, doubly stunned from the force with which he had hit the earth.
The outlaws were amazed when they saw what had befallen their leader—still more so when a band of the King's horsemen rode up and surrounded them, and called the monk who had so lately been feasting with them, "Your Majesty." Then Richard took off his monk's dress and appeared in his own royal garments; he gave the outlaws a free pardon on condition that they serve with him thenceforward and be archers in his army, for he ever had liked brave men, and he knew that these would lay down their lives to serve him, even if they did cut purses and rob priests in the seclusion of the woods.
In Richard's service many adventures befell Robin Hood even greater than what had befallen to him in Sherwood forest. He returned to his old haunts, however, and again became an outlaw when King Richard died and the wicked John came to the throne once more.
One day Robin Hood was stricken with a fever and he went to a woman who lived nearby to be bled, which he believed would lessen his pain and cure his sickness. But this woman was an enemy of Robin's, although he knew it not; and she rejoiced at her chance to do him evil. So she opened a vein in his arm and gave him a drink that threw him into a deep slumber—and when he awoke he saw that he had lost so much blood that he had not long to live.
With the last of his strength the dying outlaw blew his horn that called his followers around him, and as they supported him he asked for his bow and an arrow, saying that where the arrow fell he desired to be buried. Bending the bow with the last of his power, he let loose the arrow which flew out of the window and struck the ground beside a little path at the edge of the greenwood. And here was laid to rest the bravest heart that England had known for many a day, and one whose fame has lived to the present time. For if we should tell you all of the adventures of Robin, there would be no room left for any other tales, so our counsel is to find the books about him and read these adventures for yourselves.
SAINT ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY
More than seven hundred years ago there was born at Presburg in Hungary, a royal princess, who became one of the most pious women that the world has ever seen and whose good deeds have lived until the present day. This woman was christened Elizabeth. She was the daughter of King Andrew the Second of Hungary and of Gertrude, formerly a princess in Dalmatia; and soothsayers and prophets at the time of her birth foretold her coming greatness.
Elizabeth was born in 1207—a century when religion was more simple than it is to-day and when people believed that miracles were still being performed. It was a time, too, when a fiery passion for religion ruled the world. Soldiers were intent on crusades into the Holy Land to capture the city of Jerusalem and to rescue the tomb of the Savior from the hands of the heathen, and fanatical bands called "flagellants" were soon to appear throughout Europe—men and women who scourged each other with whips in public places until they fell down fainting from pain and exhaustion, believing that this practice was welcome in the eyes of the Lord and would assure them a place in Paradise.
It was a time when unquestioning faith held the minds and beliefs of men. Nothing seemed too marvelous to be accomplished through Divine means. When a great poet of whom we shall tell you later, wrote about Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, his neighbors all believed that he had really visited those places and seen all the wonders that he described. So when soothsayers and astrologers foretold that the infant Elizabeth was to become one of the Saints of Heaven, as the legends tell us they predicted, people marveled, but believed, for it did not seem strange for Angels and Saints to appear to the eyes of mortal men.
It was customary in those days for children of high rank to be betrothed almost before they had quitted the cradle, and when Elizabeth was four years old she was engaged to be married to the eldest son of the Landgrave of Thuringia—a boy named Herman who was about ten years older than herself. And it was also customary at that time for the future bride to be brought up in the house of her intended husband, so a number of lords and ladies came from Thuringia to fetch the Princess Elizabeth away.
She returned with them in great splendor, and many wagons and strong horses were needed to carry back to Thuringia all the costly things that went with her, for she was provided with every comfort and luxury then known. We are told that her dresses were all of the most costly silks adorned with precious stones, that her cradle, which was of silver, accompanied her to the house of the future bridegroom, that even her bath was of silver and so heavy that it was all that her handmaidens could do to carry it, and a large sum of money was allotted as her bridal portion or dowry.
Elizabeth was too young to remain homesick for any length of time after she left her parents, and she was kindly received in her new family. The Landgrave himself, Herman the First, was a kind-hearted man as well as a noble and distinguished ruler, and his second son, Ludwig, had qualities of greatness that gave every promise for the country if it should ever come under his direction. But the other children of the Landgrave, the princes named Conrad and Heinrich, were of different calibre from their brother Ludwig, and so was the girl, Agnes, who was about Elizabeth's own age. Herman, the eldest son, soon died, and Elizabeth was then betrothed to Ludwig.
When she was little more than a baby Elizabeth began to show signs of the religious fervor that was to shape her entire life. She prayed frequently and always tried to bring the forms of religious worship into the games that she played with her companions. She spent long hours at prayer and frequently arose to pray at night, and whenever she had the opportunity she practiced self-denial that was believed to be acceptable in the eyes of Heaven by withdrawing herself from some pleasure that she was taking part in, or abstaining when at table from some dainty that she loved.
Three years after Elizabeth had gone to live in Thuringia something happened that deepened her spiritual ardor, for her mother, Gertrude, was murdered in the absence of the King, and Andrew himself had to engage in war to put down the rebellion that had arisen in his country. This was a great sorrow to the little girl, although she remembered her mother only dimly, and it resulted in her saying more frequent prayers and giving more thought to her religion than before.
Many stories are told us of Elizabeth's piety. On one occasion, when she was dressed in her finest garments she beheld a crucifix supporting a life-size image of the Savior, and with an outburst of tears she threw herself on the ground at the foot of the crucifix, declaring that she could not bear to wear fine raiment and jewels, while her Lord was crowned with thorns. She did many other things of the same sort, and at last reaped the displeasure of the Landgrave's wife, Sophia, and of the courtiers and menials of the royal castle,—for Elizabeth's gentleness and piety were a constant reproach to the more worldly persons that surrounded her.
When Elizabeth was ten years old there took place another of the crusades in which knights, nobles and common peasants set forth for the Holy Land to make war against the heathen; and Elizabeth's father, the King of Hungary, left his dominions to engage in the holy war. There was grave doubt if he would ever return, and it seemed too as if his throne might be wrested from him by rebellion in his absence; so many of the noblemen and statesmen of Thuringia believed that the marriage of Ludwig with Elizabeth would be unwise, since there might be no benefit to be reaped from it on behalf of the State. The Landgravine Sophia, we are told, was inclined to agree with them—all the more so because the kind ruler, Herman, had lately died and Ludwig was now on the throne of Thuringia, and could marry some great princess whose country was not in the danger of civil war.
It is not known if the stories of the ill-treatment that was then visited on the helpless little Elizabeth are true or not, but many writers have told us that Sophia was determined by harshness and unkindness to force Elizabeth to enter a convent so that her son would be free to marry elsewhere. At all events, Ludwig heard of the plans to break off his engagement, and angrily refused to listen to them, declaring that he loved Elizabeth dearly and would marry her in spite of every person and relative in his dominions. And when Elizabeth was fourteen years old, she was married with great magnificence to Ludwig, who was as handsome as he was honorable, and made a fitting husband for the beautiful young girl who had already become famous for her great piety and her charitable deeds.
The marriage was ideally happy, for the young couple was passionately attached, and Ludwig encouraged his wife in her pious and kindly undertakings. He understood her so well and gave her such hearty support in her dealings with the poor and her gifts of food, money and clothing, that after his death he was often referred to as Saint Ludwig, just as his wife was called Saint Elizabeth.
Ludwig, however, did not like to see his wife go poorly dressed, and she wore splendid raiment to please him. Moreover, he disapproved of her giving so much time and effort to her charity and her prayers that she taxed her strength. She had to desist from many of her undertakings, or perform them without his knowledge, when he feared that her severe fasts and her long prayers were wearing out her health; and Elizabeth would steal from her chamber to pray when she thought him asleep, and would wear a coarse sackcloth skirt beneath the silks that pleased him.
One time, when Ludwig was climbing the steep path to the castle of the Wartburg where he held his court, he met Elizabeth, who was carrying in her dress loaves of bread for the poor people in the nearby village of Marburg. Elizabeth always tried to perform her charity secretly, for she believed that it would lose its value if it were widely known—and moreover she feared that her husband would not approve of her taking a heavy burden down the steep path into the village. When he stopped her and gaily asked her what she had in her apron, she opened it shyly, expecting him to blame her when he saw its contents—but how great was her amazement as well as his when there tumbled forth upon the ground a profusion of the sweetest smelling roses of all colors, which had miraculously taken the place of the provisions that Elizabeth had carried!
That was only the first of a series of miracles that those who worshipped her memory have accredited to her lifetime, and Ludwig, astonished and awed by what had taken place, is said to have erected a monument at the spot where the beautiful roses appeared.
Elizabeth pitied the sick and tended them with the utmost kindness—and she was particularly kind to the wretched sufferers from the dreadful disease of leprosy. From earliest times the leper was an outcast from his fellow men. They fled at his approach, and he was obliged to warn them of his coming by outcry, or by use of a clapper or bell. But Elizabeth went to the lepers without fear and fed and comforted them, and even bathed their sores and bandaged them with her own hands.
At last her father, King Andrew, returned from the crusade, and on his way back to his own dominions stopped in Thuringia to see his daughter. By this time Elizabeth had refused to wear her splendid garments any longer and had parted with all except her simplest dresses; and Ludwig feared that her father the King might blame him for not maintaining Elizabeth in the state that was her due as a royal princess, so he inquired of Elizabeth if she had any fine dress to wear when greeting her father. She replied that she had none, but that by grace of God some way would be found out of the difficulty; and when she put on the only dress that was left to her it suddenly changed by a miracle into a gown so beautiful and lustrous that its like had never been seen before, and King Andrew rejoiced in the appearance of his daughter when she came before him.
By this time Elizabeth had two children, and the Landgrave was rejoiced. He was a powerful and a wise ruler, and while he was perfectly just, he punished evil-doers with a hand of iron. On one occasion he was called away from home to give aid to the Emperor Frederick the Second in putting down a revolt in his dominions; and Elizabeth ruled over Thuringia until his return.
Famine and pestilence wasted the country, and the gentle lady was sorely beset to give aid to her suffering people. She spent so much on charity that she nearly emptied the treasury, and even sold the robes of state and the official ornaments to feed the poor. When Ludwig returned he found his coffers nearly empty—but the money had been wisely used, for Elizabeth had saved the lives of many of his subjects.
Then another crusade took place and the brave Ludwig planned to join it and do his share in driving the heathen Saracens away from the tomb of Christ. With bitterness and sorrow he said farewell to his wife whom he loved above all things, and kissed his children for the last time. For when he was waiting at Otranto to embark for the far east, a terrible pestilence broke out among the crusaders and Ludwig sickened and died.
Word of his death was brought to Elizabeth, who had just given birth to her third child. And when she heard of it she wept bitterly, crying out that now the world was dead to her indeed, and she never could know joy again, since her dear lord was taken from her.
For a time she ruled over Thuringia, but she was hated in the court on account of her piety, and according to many stories of her life, the dead Landgrave's brothers, Conrad and Heinrich, conspired against her. At all events, her life was most unhappy, and in the dead of winter she quitted the court and went to live in the village, earning her daily bread by spinning for her living, and eating barely enough to keep alive. And all the villagers whom she had treated kindly, now that they found her alone and poor and out of favor at court, would do nothing for her, and she was laughed at and insulted on the streets.
But in this time she was sustained by divine means, for she began to have visions of Heavenly things and beheld angels, and once, so she declares, she saw the face of the Savior himself, who looked down on her and comforted her.
At last Elizabeth went to live with her uncle, the Bishop of Bamberg, who treated her with the utmost kindness. She had been obliged to send her children away in the bitter winter that she had been through, and soon she was obliged to leave the Bishop's protection, for he desired her to marry again, and this she refused to do. She went to live in a cottage and took with her two of her former waiting women who accompanied her all through the hardships she had suffered, and she busied herself with caring for the sick and giving alms from the small amount of money that was allowed for her support.
At this time Elizabeth came under the influence of a priest and a religious enthusiast called Master Conrad, previously known to her, who was an ardent, though a narrow-minded believer in the Catholic faith; and Conrad encouraged her in the severe rites of self-denial that she practised. At times he punished her with the lash and at last he brought her completely under the domination of his will. But she yielded so readily to all penances and voluntary inflictions of sufferings that even this fanatical zealot was compelled to restrain her, for Elizabeth desired constantly to do more than he suggested or wished. At last, with her two waiting women, Elizabeth became a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, renounced her family and children, and spent all her time in caring for the sick and visiting the afflicted.
She ate almost nothing, and her strength soon gave way under the privations that she endured. Although she was only twenty-four years old, she had suffered so greatly that her vitality was sapped and she had not long to live. She died on November 19, 1231, and Master Conrad himself soon followed her to the grave.
Elizabeth had not wasted herself in vain, in spite of the fanatical zeal of her belief and the needless sufferings that she inflicted upon herself. For years she had cared for nine hundred poor folk every day, and she had founded a hospital of twenty-eight beds that she visited daily. She had encouraged her husband in kindness and generous government, and she saved countless lives in the winter when she herself sat on the throne of Thuringia.
After her death the zealous Conrad set about collecting proofs of the miracles that had happened in connection with her, to submit them to the Pope, who might declare her to be a Saint. Further proofs were forthcoming even after she had died, for when pilgrims visited her tomb many of them were marvelously cured of the sicknesses from which they had been suffering. Her brother-in-law, Conrad, repenting of his former treatment of her, built a splendid church in her honor, and her bones were laid in their last resting-place a few years after her death. In the meantime the Pope examined all the proofs of her piety and holiness, as well as of the cures that had been effected at her tomb, and at last Elizabeth was made a Saint, and became known as Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. For centuries pilgrims have worshipped at her shrine, and the church that was built in her memory still stands as a monument of the wonderful life of this holy woman who lived and died the better part of a thousand years ago.
In the year 1265 there was born in the city of Florence in Italy a man who was destined to become one of the four greatest poets that the world has ever produced. This man was Dante, the son of Alighiero, a Florentine who was popular and well known as a man of affairs.
When Dante was born Italy was very different from what it is to-day, for instead of being formed of a single nation, or even of a number of smaller ones, the cities themselves were nations and made their own laws. These cities, moreover, were constantly at war with one another, and fighting was the order of the day. Even within the cities there were often bloody frays and brawls between the supporters of one or another noble family. These brawls sometimes became so extensive that they grew into civil war, and penetrated beyond the limits of the cities in which they were hatched. Such was the state of affairs in Dante's time, and it is important to remember this, because the quarrels of these different factions had a great effect upon his life.
Particularly long and bloody in Florence and other cities had been the strife between two families and factions who called themselves respectively the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Dante's father belonged to the Guelf party and the boy was brought up with the idea that he must always serve the Guelfs, and support them in all their quarrels. The Guelfs, moreover, were high in the affairs of Florence and had overcome their opponents there. And for this reason those who belonged to the Guelf cause had the chance to rise in the affairs of the city.
So Dante's boyhood was not spent like that of some other poets, in the midst of books alone, or in the quiet seclusion of school and college. He was thrown neck and heels into the midst of the fiery Italian politics of an age when one could poniard his enemy on the streets and go unpunished, providing he had power or influence. And it is probable that he saw many wild doings. He was, however, of studious habits and loved reading more than the air he breathed. And while little is known of his boyhood years, it is certain that he mastered then and in his early manhood many of the best books that had been written since the beginning of the world. Moreover, as Dante later said, he had taught himself "the art of bringing words into verse"—an art that he mastered so thoroughly that his name was to live forever.
When Dante was still a young boy there befell something that proved to be the most wonderful happening in his entire life. This was nothing else than meeting a little girl named Beatrice Portinari. Although Beatrice was only a child, and Dante himself hardly ten years old, he felt a love for her that lasted from that minute until the day of his death and that inspired him to write the great poem that made his name famous throughout the world.
A festival was given by the family of the Portinari which was a noble one and possessed such wealth that its members afterward became bankers for King Edward the Third of England. Among the guests was the boy, Dante, and he beheld Beatrice there as a beautiful little girl. How strangely he was affected by the sight of her he told in later years, and his words have been translated and quoted as follows: "Her dress, on that day," said Dante, "was of a most noble color,—a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited her very tender age. At that moment, I say most truly, that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith. From that time Love ruled my soul."
Dante did not speak to Beatrice on that occasion,—in fact, he saw her, or addressed her, only two or three times in his entire life. But from the day when she first appeared to him in her crimson dress, he sought to perform some deed that would make him worthy of her love, and the result was the great poem in which he placed her name beside his own.
In spite of his love, Dante did not become an idle dreamer, but developed into an active and studious young man, ready to take up the sword to defend his city whenever it might call on him to do so. And when he was twenty-four years old he put on his armor and went forth to battle against the citizens of Arezzo, a town where the Ghibellines were powerful and had been acting in a hostile manner toward the Guelfs, who controlled Florence.
War was not so serious an affair then as it is now, and everyone engaged in it. Moreover, the towns that warred against each other were so near that it was sometimes an easy matter to go forth and fight on one day and be back in your own home on the day following. Everyone was expected to bear arms for his city, and going to war was held to be a matter of course; but in spite of these things Dante gained great praise for the way in which he conducted himself in the war with Arezzo, perhaps because he was braver than the rest, or perhaps because a poet is not generally considered to be as warlike as other men.
After the fighting had ended, Dante returned to Florence and prepared to take his part in city politics. Before he could accomplish anything it was necessary for him to go on record that he belonged to one of the great guilds into which all the citizens at that time were divided, and which controlled all the different branches of business and manufacturing, and all the sciences. So Dante entered the guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries—not because he knew anything about their professions—that was not necessary—but to give himself an apparent vocation when he came to assume some one of the city offices.
By this time Dante's great intellect and scholarly attainments had made him well known in Florence, although he was only a young man. He was high in the esteem of many learned men and had a great many poets and artists for his friends. Among them were the artist named Giotto and the poet called Guido Cavalcante. So well did he appear in their eyes and to the men of the city of Florence who ran its affairs that in the year 1300 Dante was made one of the Priors of Florence, that is, one of the chief rulers of the city.
It was not to be thought that a man could gain such a position in those turbulent times without making many enemies, and as Dante belonged to the controlling faction, others who were not in power planned his overthrow and that of his fellow rulers. Dante himself, however, disliked this civil strife and did all in his power to bring the opposing factions together. But his enemies got the upper hand, and he was finally driven from the city in exile.
Another sorrow had befallen him. Beatrice, whom he still continued to love ardently (although he had married a good woman named Gemma Donati and had three children) had died some years before, leaving him nothing but her memory. But Dante's love for Beatrice had not interfered in his relations with his wife. It was not an earthly love. He had not wanted Beatrice as his wife, but rather as an ideal that he could worship. And after her death he became both gloomy and unhappy.
His exile, moreover, was a bitter blow to Dante, for he had loved Florence dearly and could not imagine making his home elsewhere. With bitterness in his heart he wandered from city to city, and then he set out in earnest to write the great poem which is called the Divine Comedy. Dante had already written a number of beautiful poems, but they were more in the style of other Italian and Latin poetry. What he now planned was entirely new and so daring that it had never been thought of since the beginning of the world.
He planned in this poem to describe a journey into the nethermost regions of Hell, then into Purgatory and finally into Heaven, where Beatrice should be his guide and conduct him to the throne of God Himself.
Such a poem, as we have said, had never been written or even wildly imagined, but Dante's imagination was so vivid that it seemed as if he really had beheld the scenes that he described. And he told the story of the poem as though the adventures in it were real and had happened directly to himself.
Hell, according to Dante's belief, and that of the religion of his day, was a gigantic funnel-shaped gulf directly beneath the city of Jerusalem, shaped into nine vast circles or pits with a common center that reached down to the center of the earth like a circular flight of stairs. In the lowest pit of all Satan himself was to be found, ruling his kingdom. On the other side of the earth was a wide sea, from which arose a mighty mountain called the Mount of Purgatory—the place where the souls of human beings did penance for their sins until they were fit to enter Heaven. Heaven itself was composed of nine transparent and revolving spheres that enclosed the earth, and in which were fastened the sun, the moon and the stars. The motion of these heavenly bodies as they rose and set above the earth's horizon was believed by Dante to be due to the turning of the spheres, which were moved by the hand of God.
It was in accordance with this idea of Heaven and Hell that Dante began his poem.
One day, he said, when he was lonely and sad in spirit, he found himself standing in the midst of a deep forest that was so gloomy, wild and savage that no mortal eyes had ever seen its equal—and even to think of it afterward caused him a bitterness not far from that of death itself.
As he stood there he was aware of a presence close by, the stately figure of a man, who proved to be the great Roman poet, Vergil,—and Vergil told him that Divine Will had ordered him to guide Dante through Hell and as far as the gates of Paradise.
He made clear to Dante that this journey was the part of a Heavenly order and had been decreed by Heaven itself, and Dante, in great fear at what he was about to see, was led by Vergil through the forest until he came to the mouth of a black cavern. Carven on the rock above it was a verse that told Dante that here was the entrance to the lower world,—the gateway to Hell. And the verse concluded with the grim words—"All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here."
Sighs, groans, lamentations and terrible voices were heard from the depths below as they passed through this evil doorway, and now they were in a region of murky gloom, where no ray of sunlight ever had entered. All around them were the spirits of the dead. They came flocking to the Acheron or River of Death, where the ferryman named Charon, with eyes like flaming wheels, bore them across. When Charon saw a living man among the dead he sternly ordered Dante to return whence he had come. Vergil interceded for him, and they passed on.
After they had crossed the River of Death they entered the first circle of Hell, where those who had the misfortune to die without being baptized, or who had believed in some other religion than Christianity, must spend the rest of time. Here were a number of noble spirits from the days of Rome and Greece, including many of the poets, mathematicians and astronomers of olden days. Dante would gladly have remained with them, for they were not unhappy and spent their time in learned discourse and scholarly friendship, but Vergil urged him onward.
Deeper and deeper they descended. They passed through great spaces where mighty winds swept before them the souls of the dead, whirling them around forever without rest; through regions of chill rain and sleet, where the spirits of those who had been gluttonous in their lifetime were perpetually torn into pieces by a three-headed dog called Cerberus. And after many awful scenes that Dante could hardly bear to witness, he saw in front of him the towers of the dreadful city of Dis, or Satan, in which the spirits of the damned underwent punishments that were worse than any he had witnessed thus far.
Guarding the walls were the three Furies of the Greek legends. When they beheld Dante they howled for the Gorgon, Medusa, with the snaky locks to come quickly and turn him into stone—a fate that must befall all men that gazed upon her face. But Vergil bade Dante hide his eyes, and to be sure that he might be saved he covered them with his own hand.
They entered the city—and there and from that time on the punishments became so fearful that we shall not describe them here.
In their journey they had constantly to be on their guard against the monsters of Hell that strove to arrest their progress. And in passing by a lake of burning pitch, in which tortured souls were burning, the demons that guarded them rushed at Dante and pursued him, eager to hurl him into the lake to lose his life and the hope of Heaven at one and the same time.
Lower and lower they descended, passing from one horror to another still more terrible, until they came to the nethermost pit of all, where Vergil told Dante that now he would need all his courage to sustain him, for he had come at last to the abode of Satan. This was a region of eternal ice and a bitter wind blew on them, so cold and dreadful that Dante was half dead from it and it seemed that his numbed senses could not support life any longer. The wind, he saw, was caused by the bat-like wings of Satan himself—a gigantic and hairy monster, with only the upper half of his body protruding from the icy pit in which he stood. He had three heads, one red, one green and one white and yellow; and in his three mouths he munched the three greatest traitors of all time—Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius.
When Dante was about to swoon from the terrible sight, Vergil watched his opportunity, and as the great wings of Satan rose he sprang beneath them, with Dante following him. Grasping the hairy side of the monster, they commenced to descend still lower. And soon, to Dante's amazement, their downward path became an upward one, for Satan's waist was at the center of the earth and after they had passed it they must climb instead of descend.
Up and up they went, toiling with the greatest difficulty, passing through a chimney-like passageway that led for an incredible distance to the open air above; and when they arrived beneath the blue sky they were at the base of the Mountain of Purgatory, where men's spirits that were not doomed to Hell must purify themselves before they could hope to enter the Heaven that lay above them.
After the soot of Hell was washed from Dante's countenance he began with Vergil to ascend the mountain. They passed countless spirits all engaged in severe tasks, to cleanse themselves of sin before they could hope to attain the wonderful regions above; but these spirits were almost happy, although many of them were undergoing pain and suffering, for their trouble was not endless as was the case with the spirits of Hell, and they would certainly find happiness at last.
When they came to the summit of the mountain a wall of fire lay between them and Paradise. Through this they passed, and once on the other side Dante lost sight of Vergil, who could accompany him no further.
Dante was then greeted by his long lost Beatrice, now a radiant spirit, who had been chosen by divine will to show him the glories of Heaven. And with Beatrice guiding him, Dante passed upward through the crystal spheres, once getting a glimpse of the earth in his heavenly progress as it lay beneath him shining in the light of the sun. At last Dante had ascended to so great a height in Heaven that he beheld God Himself—but what he saw was so wonderful that it was impossible for him to write about it, and in this way his wonderful poem came to an end.
After completing the Inferno Dante went to Paris, where he met a great many scholars and wise men, who treated him with the utmost respect, but all the time he desired to be in his native city of Florence. When Henry of Luxembourg planned to lay siege to it, Dante encouraged him, hoping that he might enter with the conquerors and that his enemies might be overthrown. The siege took place, but it was unsuccessful, and the poet was compelled to wander far and wide among strangers for the rest of his life. As he lacked money, he had to take many humble offices to earn his bread, and more than once had to undergo the indignity of sitting among the jesters and buffoons at some great house that had honored him with its favor.
At last, weary of life and sick at heart, Dante went to Ravenna, where his genius was honored more worthily. His name had now penetrated throughout the greater part of the civilized world and he was known as one of the greatest geniuses that had ever lived. Many people believed that Dante had actually beheld the scenes that he described. When they met him on the streets they would draw aside to let him pass, thinking him a man whose destiny was different from their own, and they would whisper to each other that he was the man who had descended into Hell and come forth again alive and had looked with his own eyes at the horrors of the Infernal Regions.
No doubt the fame and the almost frightened homage that he received were pleasing to the sad soul of Dante, but he always remembered that he was still an outcast from his native city. Florence stubbornly refused to remove her ban and when Dante died he was buried at Ravenna. There his body still lies, with a Latin inscription on his tombstone that tells the world of the ingratitude of the city of Florence to her greatest son, who is also the greatest poet that Italy has ever seen.
If you ask a Scot who is the greatest man that ever lived he will probably say Robert Bruce. It does not matter that Robert Bruce died six hundred years ago—his name is as bright in Scotland as though he had lived yesterday. Songs and stories are told about him there and every school boy hears of him as soon as he is old enough to listen to the tales of his country.
The reason for this is that Robert Bruce made the Scots free from the rule of England, which country they used to hate. Also because he was a great warrior, so strong in body and with such courage that it was almost impossible for any foe to stand against him.
When Edward the First ruled over England he extended his power over the free land of Scotland, where the race and the speech were different from those of the English. A dispute had arisen among the Scottish chiefs as to who was to succeed to the Scottish throne. Many claimants came forward, and as a result of this the chieftains were embroiled among themselves, giving Edward a chance to seize their country which he was not slow to take.
So great had been the jealousy among the Scots that many joined Edward's army to fight against their fellow countrymen. Among them was a young nobleman named Robert Bruce, whose grandfather had himself been one of the claimants to the Scottish throne.
It was not a noble deed on the part of Robert Bruce to serve under the English banner. Indeed, in his younger years he does not seem to have been a hero at all. While the great Scottish chief, Wallace, was waging bitter war against King Edward, Bruce was content to rest under Edward's protection,—even after Wallace was captured and put to a cruel death in Berwick castle, where he was beheaded at Edward's order.
At last, however, Bruce began to show that he intended to become a champion of the Scottish cause. He did not do this all at once, and, in fact, he acted treacherously both to the Scots and to the English—for he renounced his fealty to Edward on two separate occasions, and each time was won back to him and received gifts and forgiveness from him. At last, however, Bruce was obliged to fly for his life from the English court and trust his fortunes to the Scottish cause.
He had been betrayed to Edward by a nobleman called Lord Comyn, and he now determined that Comyn must be slain. He sent his two brothers as messengers to Comyn, asking this lord to accompany them to a church in Dumfries, where Bruce was waiting for him at the altar. When Comyn approached, Bruce told him that his treachery was discovered. "Be assured you shall have your reward," he cried loudly, and drawing his dagger he plunged it in Comyn's breast.