The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Hyde Abbey and King Alfred
by the Editor
Follow the Itchen up through Eastgate Street, and you find yourself in a tract which might well be in Northamptonshire, every field being bounded on its four sides by "brooks," otherwise dykes, in some cases. three or four of these brooks running side by side. You pass Danemark Mead, suggestive of the days when the "mark" or boundary of "lord Dane" enchroached on the city walls; keep without the walls, and bear to the north, and you reach the scanty ruins of Hyde Abbey, not Alfred's original "Newan Mynstre," ["new monastary"] which stood side by side with the cathedral, but that abbey built by Henry I. to relieve the cathedral of an embarrasing neighbour. Hither the monks brought the tombs and remains of how many royal persons is matter of conjecture, but, within the last century, three stone coffins were discovered, conceivably the coffins of Alfred, his wife (Alswitha), and his son (Edward the Elder), most interesting relics, being the only memorials left of England's greatest king.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, this one spot directly associated with King Alfred was decided upon as a fitting site for a county Bridwell, and there as a great clearing away of venerable "rubbish," and using up of old material. In 1850 the Bridewell was pulled down and rows of mean houses were built upon the spot; even then objects of interest were turned up.
That the life of Alfred belonged to Winchester as entirely as some of its historians assert, is probably a mistake. The Saxon kings were not stationary; in Hampshire alone we have three or four royal "vills," and the neighbouring counties were as freely provided. It would seem as if it were held to be part of the king's duty to move about freely in his dominions, living now here, and now there, so that he should be accessible to his subjects wherever the bounds of their habitations were fixed. The Bishop of Winton or of Sherborne usually traelled with the King of Wessex, and no doubt, Alfred's "Palace School" followed the king. But he would not be in Winchester for the meetings of the Aitanagemot? That is another common error made about Winchester as the royal city of the Saxon kings; the Witan appears to have followed the king, or rather to have been convened to meet at the villa which he happened to be at; thus we have a Witanagemot at Andover, more than one at Southampton, and, of the one hundred and seven of these great councils of which Mr. Kemble has been able to find some record, only seven took place at Winchester within a period of three centuries. Of these there was that great Witan which sets its seal to the laws of Cnut, and that which the Confesor—Norman at heart and in habit—was crowned, leaving only five purely Saxon meetings of the wise men; and not one of these was during the reign of Alfred.
For one year, at any rate, we have indirect evidence that Alfred was not at Winton, for Asser, then on his way to the king, was laid up at Winton for a whole year with a fever, and the king sent letters to know why he tarried, but did not see him until Asser was able to resume his journey. Then, "I was honourably received in the royal city of Leonaford," says Asser, "and that time stayed eight months in his court. I translated and read to him whatever books he wished which were within our reach; for it was his peculiar and perpetual custom, by day and night, amidst all his other afflictions of mind and body," (Alfred, with all his vigour and courage, laboured all his life under a distressing and painful disease) "either to read books himself or to have them read to him by others."
There are, however, grounds enough for supposing that Alfred loved Winton and was often there; to say nothing of early associations, the special splendour with which the three great yearly festivals of the church were observed in Ethelwold's cathedral would draw him as it did later kings. Then there was his own Newan Mynstre; Asser's remark, "that he caused edifices to be constructed from his own new designs, more venerable and precious than those which his predecessors had raised," may very well include the minster, and may be a delicate way of saying that Alfred's abbey (which he did not live to finish) was finer than that of Ethelwold. That he would be on the spot to see his works carried out there is little doubt, being himself an enthusiastic architect, who brought artificers from many nations, and "regularly appropriated a sixth of his yearly revenues to pay their expenses." [History of the Anglo-Saxons, by Sharon Turner] But the king built a great deal, not only halls and royal apartments fo wood or stone, astonishing for their splendour, but cities and towns, sometimes destroying those on their ancient sites, and building of stone what had hitherto been of wood, and there is no doubt that royal Winton had its full share in the king's improvements.
One other circumstance would draw Alfred to Winchester— his hungry desire for books and learning and learned men. It is true he carried these last about with him. The four learned Mercians, Plegumund, Werfrith, Ethelstan and Werwulf; John (the Irishman), Grimbald, and Asser himself; but a rich abbey under a learned abbot would have books and means of study which a royal villa might very well want. Here was Swithun's Priory and the Newan Mynstre ready for habitation. He placed Grimbald at the head of it, and here we may imagine the king taking counsel with this knot of learned men over some difficult passage in the ancients; for what the king had set himself to do was no less than to provide his people with a literature in their own tongue, to give them in Anglo-Saxon the best that had ever written in the Latin tongue. "He put into English a great part of the Roman compositions," says Geoffrey of Malmsbury, "the number of his versions was not known."
"When I remembered," says Alfred himself, "how the learning of the Latin tongue before this was fallen through the English nation, and yet many could read English, then began I, among much other manifold business of this kingdom, to turn into English the book named Pastoralis, or the herdsman's book, sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense, so as I had learned of Plegmund, my archbishop; and of Asser, my bishop; of Grimbald, my mass priest; and of John, my mass priest; and, as I understood and could most intellectually express it, I have turned it into English."
How Alfred got his learned men together, we see in the case of this Grimbald of Winton, whom he appears to have met so long ago as when his father took him to Rome. "He sent an honourable embassy of bishops, prebysters, deacons, and religious laymen to Fulco, the Archbishop of Rheims, within whose district Grimbald resided," and these carried munificent presents, and prayed of Fulco on the king's behalf, that Grimbald might be allowed to leave his functions in France, and come to the king in England.
Every trace of this noble and beautiful nature is so attractive that we are tempted to linger too long in establishing associations between Alfred and his Winton. Just an extract or two, to show the quality of his mind and the enlightenment of his piety, and we have done:—
"Then said I, 'I wonder why so many wise men should have laboured so much on this subject, and have found out so little that was wise.'
"Then quoth he (Alfred), 'Why wonderest thou so much? Is it so easy to be understood? How! knowest thou not that many things are not understood so as they exist, but according to the quality of understanding of him that inquires after them. Such is wisdom. No man from this world can understand it, such as it really is; though every man strives according to the quality of his understanding, that he may perceive it if he can. Wisdom may entirely comprehend us, such as we are, though we may not wholly comprehend that, such as it is in itself, because wisdom is God."
And this prayer of the King:—
"Grant now, O Lord, to our minds that they may ascend to Thee from the difficulties of this world; that from the occupations here they may come to Thee. With the opened eyes of our mind may we behold the noble fountain of all good! Thou Art This. Give us then a healthy sight to our understanding, that we may fasten it upon Thee. Drive away this mist that now hangs before our mental vision, and enlighten our eyes with Thy light. For Thou art the brightness of the true light. Thou art the soft rest of the just. Thou causest them to see it. Thou art the beginning of all things, and their end. Thou supportest all things without fatigue. Thou art the path and the leader, and the place to which the path conducts us. All men tend to Thee."
The second Hyde Abbey, built by Henry I., to which the remains of a great Alfred were borne in solemn procession, became a very distinguished monastery indeed, the head of it a mitred abbot. The "fire-balls" reached thus far during the blockade of the royal castle in Stephen's reign. That the abbey was burnt to the ground is a common tradition; at any rate, it suffered greatly, but was rebuilt, with more magnificence than before, by Henry II., since which time it continued to flourish till the dissolution of the greater houses in 1537. All that is left of it is some fragments of wall, a gateway, and two or three low and narrow doorways. The old church of St. Batholomew, on the spot, appears, from its Norman door and lancet windows, to be fully as great antiquity as the abbey.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009
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