The First Great English Imperialist
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 8 Dec 1904, p. 52-60
Keys, Professor D.R., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
England's darling, Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, whom the speaker claims to have been the first great English Imperialist. A detailed description of Alfred's life and accomplishments. Lessons that Alfred's life teaches us. The position of Canada today. How Canada is going to stand in relation to the United States. Promoting Anglo-Saxon unity. The role of Canada to increase the good feeling of the great nation to the south of us to the British Empire. Endeavouring to show to the world two nations on this continent living together in peace, without any quarrelling, without any paltry jealousies and bickerings.
Date of Original
8 Dec 1904
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Full Text
Address by Professor D. R. Keys, of Toronto University, on December 8th, 1904.

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Empire Club,-

I would introduce this subject by a little anecdote. Most of you have seen that picture of Du Maurier's in which there is a real English couple sitting at one end of a bench, Edwin and Angelina, and on the other end of the bench is a bilious old gentleman. Edwin says to Angelina, " Darling?" Angelina answers, " What, darling?" Edwin replies, " Nothing, only darling? darling?" and the old gentleman at the other end of the bench shows signs of being sick. Now, this little incident is related to show you that I have only one subject. I have only to deal with England's darling. Who England's darling is I presume you all know. It is a very old subject; it is one that is pretty well worn, though some may be disappointed when they hear who the man is about whom I would like to say a little today. My subject is Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, whom I claim to have been the first great English Imperialist.

Now, a few words first about Alfred's life. I take it for granted that you know a great deal about Alfred's life. but it may be worth while to refresh your memories a little. It is some time since some of us were at school. Alfred the Great was the son of King Ethelwulf, who was the son of King Egbert, the first English king. He was descended, according to the English Chronicles, from Adam-which is a claim that most of us may make. His descent from Adam was however more particularly manifest than most of us can make it, because every one of the forty-five individuals who lay between him and Adam has his name given in the old Chronicles.

His mother, Osberga, was the daughter of the King's butler. She went back through a series of generations, which are not given to us in the Chronicles, to the great Cerdic, one of the early Saxon kings; so that Alfred had also descended from the royal connection of Wessex, and he was the descendant of two of the early conquerors who landed in England in the sixth century. Alfred's mother died. Ethelwulf, his father, was a very excellent King. It seems, however, that in his later years he lost that common sense which characterized him in his earlier years, for when his wife died he married Judith, a girl who was about twelve years of age, and whom he left a widow about two years after. Then, a very extraordinary thing happened. This Judith married the eldest remaining son of her former husband, a thing almost unexampled in history. Two years after that he died also, and she went home to her father, the King of France, Charles the Bald, and was still able to make a runaway match with Baldwin, Forester of France, before she was twenty years of age. This you will remember was Alfred's stepmother. She was supposed to be the heroine of that story of the book. Alfred was presented with a beautiful book by his mother, having at once won it by a very rapid learning of all its contents, which showed that he was a good boy to " cram."

Alfred, as a youth, was brought up under the most excellent auspices. He had this good father and mother. It is a good thing to choose your parents well; and if you can choose your grandparents, so much the better. Alfred having chosen his parents well, was well educated. His father sent him to Rome when a boy of four or five years old. You, gentlemen, being commercial men and knowing the difficulty of travel, will be able to appreciate what it meant for Alfred when only a boy of five, taking that long journey, which was much more difficult in those days than travelling around the world would be today. Going through France, visiting the Court of Charles-where on his return the father met Judith and married her-then through Provence, and across the Alps, which was in those days a journey of great peril; then down through the Provinces of Italy until he came to Rome itself.

At that time Rome was under the rule of Pope Leo IV., the one who originated the Leonine City, the city in which St. Peter's Church is; which has been, and is, the centre of Roman influence; for there the Vatican is. Leo's name is preserved in the name of that city. He was also the pope from whom the Peter's Pence took their name, because this same father of Alfred, Ethelwulf, left his money largely to the Church. He set aside one-third of it which was to be perpetually devoted to keeping up certain of the churches-two of the churches in Rome, St. Peter's and St. Paul's. These two churches had been plundered and desecrated by the Saracens when they attacked Rome in 847. Leo IV directed his efforts to the restoration of these churches and it was for this purpose Ethelwulf presented his gifts to the Papal purse. This early training that Alfred got, it would appear, was rather through his observation than from books. We read that he did not learn from or see books until he was twelve years old. In view of his subsequent success the early training that we give our children nowadays may seem a little overdone. The parents who teach children when they are too young at the present time do not give them a chance to get their growth.

I don't want to worry you with facts, gentlemen. I haven't got you yet to his marriage. He grew up with a good deal of strenuousness. He seems to have been as strong a candidate for .the " strenuous life " as our great hero across the line, President Roosevelt, because we read that on his reaching the age of manhood he prayed-being very pious-that some great affliction might come upon him in order to keep him from becoming too much uplifted. His prayer was answered, for on the occasion of his own marriage he fell in an epileptic fit, and these fits came upon him at intervals during his life. His great efforts were therefore made under the tremendous stress of permanent ill-health, and he never knew the moment when he might be stricken down by his mysterious foe. Alfred came to the throne a little after his marriage, at a time when England was having dark days. In the early part of that century, the ninth, England had been a centre of light for Europe. With Ireland she had sent missionaries to Germany, Prussia and Scandinavia. Those two western Islands were centres of civilization; the rest of Europe being in a state of dissolution owing to the furious and devastating invasions of the Saracens. At the time of Alfred's coming to the Throne this position had been reversed. England was practically in the hands of the Danes.

It was Alfred's task to rid his country of these invaders. It was an enormous task. I couldn't tell you how he did it. Battle after battle was fought, until the great Battle of Ethandune when thousands of Danes were slain, and in that year, the year 878, the famous Convention of Wedmore was signed, and Guthrum, the Danish King, was baptized, and the incorporation of the Danes with Christendom was secured. Then began a new era, peace reigned in England for a number of years, and the King was able to devote his attention to the wants of his country. He showed that he had a very strong, firm hand, and proved himself to be a man of admirable qualities in every way. One thing he had to do was to make the judges do their duty. One thing he did was to hang forty-four judges. What he would have done to the stuffers of ballot boxes I don't know. (Laughter.) In this way, in a very short time, he put down iniquity in high places and, of course, as a natural result iniquity disappeared in the lower orders of society. England became so well governed that it is said-as the old story goes which you may have seen a hundred times-that you could hang up bracelets at night by the roadside, and come back the next morning and find them. Human life was as safe as human property, and this after a time during which England was worse than the United States is today. I was told by your good Secretary that during the last three years there were 32,000 murders in the United States, more murders than occurred in the legitimate way in the battles of the Boer War. A terrible fact! I have no doubt that England was worse off than the United States is when Alfred came to the throne. Alfred put down all lawlessness during those years from 878 to 891.

The next thing Alfred did was to endeavour to educate his people, and this he did by bringing in the best men he could find from all parts of the civilized world. Thus he brought scholars from. France, from Prussia and from those other countries from which scholars were to be obtained, and among others he brought in John Scotus Erigena, claimed by some of us to have been Irish, and by some to have been Scotch. Perhaps he came from the North of Ireland, whence, it is said, come the best kind of Scotchmen. A famous joke made by this John Scotus Erigena, this Irishman from Scotland, or Scotchman from Ireland-he was very witty-was when he was at table with King Charles the Bald. Charles wanted to be witty at the expense of Scotus, and said: " What is the difference between a sot and a Scot?" Scotus, who was sitting opposite, said: " The width of the table, Sire." I don't think Charles appreciated this humour, for John Scotus took his flight from France not long after, and went over to England where he was one of those men I have spoken of as being called by Alfred in order for train the English people. Alfred took his best scholars from where he could get them, a wise thing to do. Now, I find that my time is flying very fast. I must give you briefly the character of this Alfred. What he did was not merely to bring scholars to teach his people, but he translated himself by the aid of those scholars the best books he could find for his people. He translated for them the history and geography of Orosius. He also made his own geography, sending out expeditions into the North Sea and the Baltic. He afterwards translated into English from the Latin the famous work of Pope Gregory, "Pastoral Care," which was written by the Pope with the object of training priests for their work-a book of admirable qualities, as anybody who likes to read it will see, a book that shows you all the tact and skill of the great Gregory from whom it came. Alfred wanted to have books in English as well as in the original language.

His purpose was to raise the quality of the people intellectually; he being a man of high intellect himself we know by the way in which he applied the knowledge which he gained.

Very shortly after the period of which I am now speaking--I am speaking of 892--the Danes made another incursion. Under the great Hastings they came over to land in England. They had been landing in France without difficulty, and they thought they would do the same thing in England. The invaders came ashore in two places, and advanced up the Thames and Lea rivers. Alfred got the waters of the Lea turned from their natural bed and left the Danish boats high and dry. Having thus cut his enemies off from the sea he proceeded to surround them and as a result he fairly wiped them out. Not long after there was another incursion, and Alfred showed his power in another line; showed himself to be the first of the great English naval heroes. Another fact is lost sight of in claiming greatness for Alfred. He invented a new kind of ship. He made a ship that was longer and stronger and swifter in every way than those of the invaders-just as the English have been doing for the last half century in connection with their transAtlantic vessels-and by this larger vessel he managed to defeat his opponents. The last few years of Alfred's life were spent in the repose that he had well earned, and he died in the year 901, leaving as a legacy,, not only what I have told you, but certain other things which I will now dwell upon to some slight extent.

The application of these lessons is pretty clear. I think some of you have seen what the application would be as I have been speaking. I have not spoken of one of the very important acts of Alfred, the foundation of the City of London. We have spoken of him as a man who showed insight. Now, here you notice he really showed the same insight that Alexander the Great did when he founded Alexandria, which was in the centre of his Empire. Alfred showed his far-sightedness by founding the City of London which before his time had been wiped out by the incursions of the Danes. The Canadians are not far from Alfred in some respects. Probably the population of Canada is about that of the population of England in the days of Alfred. We, like England in those days, lie away to the north of the ordinary travel. We should, like Alfred, make Canada the centre of the world's trade. Certain natural advantages will help us to attain that end. For many centuries the Mediterranean was the centre of the world's commerce; then the Atlantic during the last hundred years has been the centre. In the near future it is quite evident that the Pacific will be the great centre. America is going to stand between Europe on the one hand and Asia on the other. We have an admirable position. We stand on the highway of commerce across the North American Continent between Europe and Asia. We can ourselves "hold the fort" if we have enough intelligence and-what shall I say-enterprise to do it. It requires the application of Alfred's policy in founding London, and the making of Toronto an ocean port. If our business men in Toronto would but take this matter up seriously it might be that in three or four years the canals should be deepened and Toronto would be sending ships all over the world as London does. That being done Toronto might be the centre of the world's commerce at no very distant date. It is a matter of human enterprise.

Another of the lessons that Alfred's life teaches us is that of the obligation of conscience. That lesson was one which showed Alfred more than an Englishman--Christian. The English race is, take it all in all, a race of brave men, as Alfred was brave. It is a race of wise men, as Alfred was wise. It is a race which does not know defeat-it never knows when it is beaten, as Alfred did not know when he was beaten. Alfred showed that courage which the English race has showed all through its history, and may have reason to show again before very long in the dark days which may be ahead of England. We, as Canadians, of course have English blood in our veins, and we may be thankful that the English race is also like Alfred in their benevolent qualities. Alfred's benevolence was perhaps his greatest and highest excellence. London is the great centre of charitable effort for the world. Alfred's benevolence was illustrated by the fact that he left a will emancipating his slaves--another English trait. In Alfred's day slavery was a recognized institution, and could not be done away with in general, but Alfred set the example of freeing his own slaves. An American humorist might say he had no further use for them.

As Alfred wanted to teach his people in their own language I might say it behooves our Government to follow his example in that way, and see that the English language is taught in the most scientific manner. We live in the greatest epoch in the world's history, and it behooves us especially, as Canadians, to take to ourselves thought as to these lessons taught by Alfred's life. In the morning's paper it has been stated that England is going to withdraw the last soldier from Canada. I haven't the least doubt we will be able to defend Canada, and have been able for a long time. But this is something more than that. What is the position of Canada today? We occupy a position on the north of this continent, which makes Canada as I have said, the centre of the world at the present time; and more and more the centre of the world as time goes on. We have to the south of us a great nation, a nation which has had the nineteenth century as its century, but will not Canada have the twentieth century for its century? Well, I will be glad to see Canada in the twentieth century take the place the United States has taken in the nineteenth. The United States is still there. How are we going to stand in relation to the United States? Are we going to be swallowed up by the United States? Are we going to stand hostile to the United States? I hardly see how we can stand in the relation to the United States of having hostility between us; that is hardly possible. Let us at any rate act as I think we can act, and we may act, for in my opinion the part of Canada is the greatest part.

It is to promote Anglo-Saxon unity, that we all may be united together, the Englishman, the Australian and the American, in the interests of humanity; the Anglo-Saxon world will then stand against the whole world. I do not mean to intimate by this that I believe in annexation; I do not believe in annexation, but I believe it is the role of Canada to increase the good feeling of the great nation to the south of us to the British Empire. Gentlemen, I say that if we maintain ourselves here as we may and can do, and as we shall do, we will show the world what it is to live in harmony with another great nation on the same continent; and the two great nations living together on this continent in peace and amity will be an object lesson to the rest of the world which will teach the benefits of peace as plainly as at the present time that terrible war being carried on in the East is an object lesson of the terrors of war. Then, let us endeavour to show to the world two nations on this continent living together in peace, without any quarrelling, without any paltry jealousies and bickerings, and this will help in the building up of civilization throughout the world.

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The First Great English Imperialist

England's darling, Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, whom the speaker claims to have been the first great English Imperialist. A detailed description of Alfred's life and accomplishments. Lessons that Alfred's life teaches us. The position of Canada today. How Canada is going to stand in relation to the United States. Promoting Anglo-Saxon unity. The role of Canada to increase the good feeling of the great nation to the south of us to the British Empire. Endeavouring to show to the world two nations on this continent living together in peace, without any quarrelling, without any paltry jealousies and bickerings.