By Lisette Merry
The Vikings’ blood lust continued. And when spring arrived in 852, King Aethelwulf decided that if he were to stem the tide of their raids, he must remain at home.
The King was deeply disappointed. For it meant, that for the time being at least, he would not be able to fulfil his lifetime ambition of making his own pilgrimage to Rome. And a pilgrimage would have to be made now. For it had become a diplomatic necessity. So if he could not go, who would he send in his stead?
The King sat alone in his chambers with the Abbot of Ferrieres’ letter in his hand, and contemplated this question. He considered, in turn, each of the thegns, warriors and eminent clergymen in his court. They were all loyal and pious men, and therefore suitable to represent him to Pope Leo IV. But one, by one, he dismissed them all. For he believed that God wanted him to send someone of his own blood. And, as he searched his heart, God provided him with the answer to his question. It was his youngest son, four year old Prince Alfred.
The King put down the letter, and smiled. God’s answer did not surprise him, for Alfred despite his tender years was already wise. And not only wise …..What a phenomenal memory he had too! He had seen it for himself just two weeks before, when Alfred had recited the entire ‘Book of English Poems’ to him and his wife Osburh. The book was a favourite of Queen Osburh, and she had asked Alfred to learn it and then recite it to her.
King Aethelwulf closed his eyes and pictured the scene again in his ‘mind’s eye’….. When Alfred had arrived he had told them both that he had learned the poems by listening to his tutor recite each one. And, once he had heard the poem, he recited it back. In this way he had memorised all of them. Alfred, he remembered, had then handed him the book, and he had silently read the poems as Alfred had recited them ….. He had been word perfect! Osburh knew all of the poems by heart, and he remembered seeing tears of joy in her eyes as she witnessed Alfred’s accomplishment.
And there was more evidence of God’s work in the way that Alfred had thrived at court. ……Hadn’t he been so impressed by Alfred’s abilities that he had arranged for him to be at his side whilst he conducted his kingly duties?
The King knelt down and bowed his head in prayer. God be praised for these your blessings on my son Alfred. Thy Will be done this day and always. Amen.
Early next morning King Aethelwulf summoned Lothart, his Frankish secretary, and instructed him to make all the necessary arrangements for Alfred’s pilgrimage.
It was customary for Kings to request permission to travel through another King’s lands, and after he had dismissed Lothart, King Aethelwulf wrote just such a letter to his ally, King Charles the Bald of Francia. In it he asked that Alfred’s presence was kept between themselves, so as not to attract unwanted attention. And when he received King Charles’ consent to his request, just a few days later, he allowed Alfred’s pilgrimage to proceed.
* * * * *
Four year old Alfred stood on the ship’s deck and watched the sailors work. When they had finished, the crew lined up ready for Captain Eastelwelf inspection. As he completed it he nodded his approval, and ordered them to weigh anchor.
Alfred could not wait to be underway. What an adventure this is! He thought, as he gazed out across the water.
Lothart stood beside him and followed his gaze, but he turned to look at Alfred as he suddenly exclaimed
‘Look Lothart! The sun beams are lighting the water and making the sea sparkle.’
‘Indeed they are, my lord.’
‘The sea is calm today.’ Alfred continued in a quieter voice. ‘It is a sign that God blesses our pilgrimage.’
‘Yes, my lord of that I have no doubt,’ he replied.
Whilst they had been talking the crew had cast off, and Alfred watched Captain Eastelwelf turning the ship’s wheel as the crew began to unfurl the sails. Now Alfred could feel the ship moving forward, and he clasped his hands together with excitement. My pilgrimage has begun! He thought
Alfred wanted to go to the bow of the ship, but he knew that would be unseemly, and so he forced himself to stay where he was, and instead, he looked across the deck at the men in his entourage. Alfred knew them all as ‘King’s men’ which meant they had all personally sworn their loyalty to his father…….. And here they are, standing together on the deck, dressed in their fine courtly vestments. They look a little out of place. Alfred thought, and then he smiled. Probably as I do myself……
He looked at each man in turn. There was Aethel, his bodyguard, who was at this moment, thanking the sailor who was collecting his luggage to stow below deck. And as he watched more sailors arrived to collect luggage from the two men standing next to him, Aetheldrum, the King’s physician and Ceoloth, the eminent clergyman. And then Alfred saw more sailors come over to collect luggage from the rest of his entourage, who were seven high ranking court officials, and thegns of Wessex.
Captain Eastelwelf shouted orders to his crew, as he turned the ship’s wheel and brought the vessel ‘about’. With the manoeuvre completed, he then ordered the crew to pull in the sails and once the ship was moving forward he ordered them to ‘close haul’ the sails to increase the ship’s speed through the water.
With the wind and tide in his favour, Captain Eastelwelf made port at Etaples-sur-Mer, on the northern coast of France by early afternoon.
* * * * *
As soon as the ship dropped anchor, the pilgrims stepped confidently ashore. They gave thanks to God for their safe voyage, and afterwards Lothart went into the quayside market to purchase a pack mule to carry King Aethelwulf’s gifts. And when all was ready, the pilgrims set off along via francigena, towards their first place of rest, St Judoc.
It was Aethels who caught sight of him first, standing at the open door to the monastery. Aethels could not believe his eyes! And he closed them for a moment and then opened them again, just to check…..but his eyes had not deceived him… it was Abbot Lupus. Straightaway he passed the word on to the others, and they talked excitedly amongst themselves in hushed voices about the renowned clergyman. As they drew closer, Abbot Lupus stepped outside with his arms outstretched to them in greeting. His welcome warmed their hearts, and it was not long before Alfred felt able to ask him if they could meet.
‘Of course, Prince Alfred,’ he replied. ‘We shall speak presently.’
‘Thank you, your eminence’ Alfred said. ‘I will ask Lothart to accompany me, if you are agreeable.’
‘Certainly,’ he replied.
In the letter he wrote to the King later that evening, Lothart reported all the events of that day. Lothart wrote that the meeting had been a ‘resounding success’, and that Abbot Lupus had been delighted by Alfred, and by the King’s gift of lead for the roof of his abbey, and so much so that he had blessed Alfred’s pilgrimage, the King and his people.
And the lead was just the first of many gifts that Alfred would present to the Church on his father’s behalf. King Aethelwulf was a pious and generous man. He had ordered that gifts were to be given to the abbot of each of the monasteries in which the pilgrims rested on their journey. His gifts were all magnificent gestures of his generosity. But even so, or so it seemed to Alfred, each gift appeared to be slightly grander than the last one had been.
However there was still a wonderful surprise gift awaiting them all. And not even Alfred could have predicted how magnificent King Aethelwulf’s gift would be for the last monastery they rested in at Pavia. The gift was a crucifix made of 24 carat gold, and it was decorated with four rubies the size of hen’s eggs. It stood as tall as Alfred, and when the time came for him to present it to the Abbot of the monastery, Rudolpho, Alfred had to ask Aethel and Lothart to help him lift it. The Abbot was overwhelmed with joy when he received it, and when he found his voice, he blessed the King, his people, and Alfred’s pilgrimage.
Alfred and Lothart stood side by side on the flat roof of the monastery where the pilgrims were resting. The monastery was built beside St Mary’s Church, in the Schola Saxonum district, and from their vantage point they had a wonderful view of Rome.
The noon day sun beat down upon them. It was so hot, that Lothart had to take off his velvet hat, and they both had to shield their eyes from the glare as the sun’s rays lit the buildings clad in white marble all around them.
Alfred thought about his father, and what he had told him. His father had been right, Alfred thought. Pope Leo IV was a man of great vision and ability. He had seen that now for himself. The evidence was everywhere. The Holy Father had repaired and replaced the marble cladding so that the buildings now ‘shone white’ in the sunlight again….And there was so much more…..Hadn’t he also restored the eighteen city gates to their former glory? And Alfred smiled as he remembered the magnificent gate through which he had entered Rome. And here, before him now he could see the wall that Pope Leo IV had ordered to be constructed to enclose Vatican Hill.
Alfred stared at St Peter’s Basilica. He was spell bound by its size and beauty. And the spell was only broken by a papal guard as he tapped him gently on the shoulder, and ushered him inside.
As Alfred walked behind the papal guard he took in every detail of the splendour of his surroundings…. Even when he saw the imposing figure of Pope Leo IV waiting to greet him, attired in his full papal vestments, Alfred was not overwhelmed. The Pope, for his part, was deeply impressed by the young Prince. He smiled at him as he approached, and he placed his hand on Alfred’s shoulder as they walked together to the altar. It was here that Alfred knelt before the Pope, and bowed his head as the Holy Father anointed him to confirm him. And Alfred remained kneeling as he announced to the congregation……
‘I will write to Prince Alfred’s father King Aethelwulf of Wessex, and inform him of all that has passed here today. I confirm that from this time forth Prince Alfred of Wessex, is by God’s Grace, my godson, and confirmed as a member of God’s Holy Church. I also appoint Prince Alfred a Consul of Rome.’
Lothart sat with the congregation and noted down everything. He would use his notes in the letter he would write to the King later that night.
In the days that followed his audience with the Pope, Lothart escorted Alfred to all of the buildings in Rome that the Pope had recommended for Alfred to see. Lothart was fascinated by the size of Rome, and stunned by its magnificence, as was Alfred.
Every building brought new wonder, and when they first looked upon the Coliseum, Lothart had to hold his hand against his chin to stop his mouth from dropping open. And when he looked at Alfred’s reaction he found him staring at the Coliseum, with eyes that were wide with wonder. Lothart smiled, and looked back at the Coliseum, and there they stood in silence until Alfred found his voice, and said.
‘The building is so tall and wide…. Each stone is bigger than ten men standing shoulder to shoulder…It must be very heavy. How does the building stand?’
Lothart was impressed by Alfred’s perception.
‘The stones are held together with a substance called mortar, my lord.’ .
‘Do we use it in Wessex?’ Alfred asked.
‘We use it, yes, when we build with stone, my lord…. But we mainly build with timber,’ Lothart replied.
They toured the Vatican City, and the churches that the Pope had recommended. In each of them the priests proudly showed Alfred their church’s collection of Holy relics. Alfred was fascinated.
‘I shall collect relics,’ he told Lothart later. ‘For they are holy things that Jesus touched….and his Apostles too. They are in the Bible.’
‘Indeed my lord.
‘When I am grown I will ask the Holy Father if I might have some of them to keep by me always in Wessex. I hope he will agree.’ Alfred said.
‘I am sure he will my lord,’ replied Lothart, and he quickly brushed a tear from his eye, so moved was he by Alfred’s piety.
* * * * *
Once they had completed their tour of Rome, Lothart gathered the pilgrims together for their journey home. And as soon as they had finished packing their belongings, they knelt and prayed together.
And their prayers were answered, for they arrived home safely in the early spring of 854, barely a year after their departure.
King Aethelwulf, Queen Osburh, and their family gathered together with the king’s court for Easter that year at Wilton.
With so many important individuals gathered together under one roof, King Aethelwulf took the opportunity to attend to his most pressing diplomatic duties. And therefore everyone soon knew of the diplomatic triumph that Alfred’s pilgrimage had been for the Royal House of Ecgberht.
As soon as King Aethelwulf had completed his work, Queen Osburh went over to where Alfred was sitting and talked to him about his pilgrimage. Their lively conversation soon attracted the attention of the prestigious Ealderman Hereberht and Ealderman Wulfhere, who were landowners in Wiltshire, and they asked Queen Osburh if they might join their conversation.
‘Of course gentlemen,’ Queen Osburh replied, and soon they were also listening to Alfred’s fascinating recollections. Alfred was delighted to see their eyes widen with amazement as he recounted in detail everything he had seen and done there. Alfred particularly enjoyed the moment when they sat in silent wonder as he repeated from memory everything that Pope Leo IV had said to him.
* * * * *
When the court gathered in the King and Queen’s presence later that evening, Ealdermen Hereberht and Wulfhere praised Prince Alfred, saying that they had both been encapsulated by his phenomenal memory of his pilgrimage.
The King’s court were soon agreed. The child Prince Alfred was exceptional, and he had clearly been chosen by God for greatness.
Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. She has a number of favourite historical periods including the life and time of King Alfred the Great. She lives in Kent, England with her husband.