Here today for your enjoyment, I present the second of William Thackeray’s Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History (satires published in Punch magazine in 1842) in which Miss Tickletoby’s passion for Alfred the Great blazes forth with a vigour as yet unseen in her serene countenance.
THE ANGLO – SAXONS AND ALFRED THE GREAT
I did not in my former Lecture make the least allusion to the speech of Queen Boadicea to her troops before going into action, because, although several reports of that oration have been handed down to us, not one of them as I take it is correct, and what is the use, my darlings, of reporting words (hers were very abusive against the Romans) – of reporting words that never were uttered? There’s scandal enough, loves, in this wicked world without going back to old stories – real scandal too, which may satisfy any person. Nor did I mention King Caractacus’s noble behaviour before the Roman Emperor Claudius; for that history is so abominably stale that I am sure none of my blessed loves require to be told it.
When the Britons had been deserted by the Romans, and found themselves robbed and pillaged by the Picts and Scots, they sent over to a people called the Saxons (so called because they didn’t live in Saxony): who came over to help their friends, and having turned out the Picts and Scots, and finding the country a pleasant one to dwell in, they took possession of it, saying that the Britons did not deserve to have a country, as they did not know how to keep it. This sort of argument was considered very just in those days – and I’ve seen some little boys in this school acting Saxon-fashion: for instance, Master Spry the other day took away a piece of gingerbread from Master Jones, giving him a great thump on the nose instead: and what was the consequence? I showed Master Spry the injustice of his action, and punished him severely.
To Master Spry. How did I punish you, my dear? Tell the company.
Master Spry. You kept the gingerbread.
Miss T. (severely). I don’t mean that: how else did I punish you?
Master Spry. You whipped me; but I kicked your shins all the time.
Unruly boy! But so it is, ladies and gentlemen, in the infancy of individuals as in that of nations: we hear of these continual scenes of violence, until prudence teaches respect for property, and law becomes stronger than force. To return to the Saxons: they seized upon the goods and persons of the effeminate Britons, made the latter their slaves, and sold them as such in foreign countries. The mind shudders at such horrors! – How should you like, you naughty Master Spry, to be seized and carried from your blessed mother’s roof?
[Immense sensation, and audible sobbing among the ladies present]. How should you like to be carried off and sold as a slave to France or Italy?
Master Spry. Is there any schools there? I shouldn’t mind if there ain’t.
Miss T. Yes, sir, there are schools, and RODS.
[Immense uproar. Cries of “Shame!” “No flogging!” “Serve him right!” “No tyranny!” “Horse him this instant!” With admirable presence of mind, however, Miss TICKLETOBY stopped the disturbance for unfolding her GREAT HISTORICAL PICTURE!]
It chanced that two lovely British children, sold like thousands of others by their ruthless Saxon masters, were sent to Rome, and exposed upon the slave-market there. Fancy those darlings in such a situation! There they stood, weeping and wretched, thinking of their parents’ cot in the far Northern Isle, sighing and yearning, no doubt, for the green fields of Albin! – Albin, the ancient name of England: not to be confounded with Albin, hairdresser and wig-maker to the Bar, Essex Court, Temple.
It happened that a gentleman by the name of Gregory, who afterwards rose to be Pope of Rome, but who was then a simple clerical gent, passed through the market, with his friends, and came to the spot where these poor British children stood. The Reverend Gregory was instantly struck by their appearance – by their rosy cheeks, their golden hair; their little jackets covered all over with sugar-loaf buttons, their poor nankeens grown all too short by constant wash and wear – and demanded of their owner of what nation the little darlings were. The man (who spoke in Latin) replied that they were Angli – that is, Angles or English. “Angles!” said the enthusiastic Mr Gregory; “they are not Angles, but Angels;” and with this joke, which did not do much honour to his head, thought certainly his heart was good, he approached the little dears, caressed them, and made still further inquiries regarding them.
[Miss Tickletoby did not, very properly, introduce the other puns which Gregory made on that occasion; they are so atrociously bad that they could not be introduced into the columns of ‘Punch’].
Miss Pontifex (one of the little girls). And did Mr Gregory take the little children out of slavery, and send them home ma’am?
Miss T. Mr Hume, my dear good little girl, does not mention this fact; but let us hope he did. But this is certain, that he never forgot them, and when in process of time he came to be Pope of Rome –
Master Maximus Pontifex. Pa says my name’s Lat’n for Pope of Rome; is it, ma’am?
Miss T. I’ve no doubt it is, my love, since your papa says so: and when Gregory became Pope of Rome, he dispatched a number of his clergy to England, who came and converted the benighted Saxons and Britons, and they gave up their hideous idols and horrid human sacrifices, and sent the wicked Druids about their business.
The Saxons had ended by becoming complete masters of the country, and the people were now called Anglo or English Saxons. There were a great number of small sovereigns in the land then; but about the year 830 the King called Egbert became the master of the whole country; and he, my loves, was the father of Alfred. Alfred came to the throne after his three brothers, and you all know how good and famous a king he was. It is said that his father indulged him, and that he did not know how to read until he was twelve years old; but this, my dears, I cannot believe – or, at least I cannot but regret that there were no nice day-schools then, where children might be taught to read before they were twelve, or ten, or even eight years old, as many of my dear scholars can.
[Miss TICKLETOBY here paused for a moment, and resumed her lecture with rather a tremulous voice.]
It is my wish to amuse this company as well as I can, and sometimes, therefore – for I am by nature a facetious old woman, heartily loving a bit of fun – I can’t help making jokes about subjects which other historians treat in a solemn and pompous way. But, dear, I don’t think it right to make one single joke about good King Alfred, who was so good, and so wise, and so gentle, and so brave, that one can’t laugh, but only love and honour his memory. Think of this, how rare good kings are, and let us value a good one when he comes. We have had just fifty kings since his time, who have reigned for near a thousand long years, and he the only Great one. Brave and victorious many of them have been, grand and sumptuous, and a hundred times more powerful than he; but who care for one of them (except Harry V., and I think Shakespeare made that king), who loves any of them except him – the man who spoiled the cakes in the herdsman’s cottage, the man who sung and played the harp in the Danes’ camp?
There are none of you so young but know these stories about him. Look, when the people love a man, how grateful they are! For a thousand years these little tales have passed from father to son all through England, and every single man out of millions and millions who has heard them has loved King Alfred in his heart, and blessed him, and was proud that he was an Englishman’s king. And then he hears that Alfred fought the Danes, and drove them out of England; and that he was merciful to his enemies, and kept faith at a time when everyone else was deceitful and cruel; and that he was the first to make laws, and establish peace and liberty among us.
Who cares for Charles the Second, secured in his oak, more than for any other man at a pinch of danger? Charles might have stayed in his tree for us, or for any good that he did when he came down. But for King Alfred, waiting in his little secret island until he should be strong enough to have one more battle with his conquerors, or in the camp of the enemy singing songs to his harp, who does not feel as for a dear friend or father in danger, and cry hurrah with all his heart when he wins?
All the little children. Hurray! Alfred for ever!
Miss T. Yes, my dears, you love him all, and would all fight for him, I know.
Master Spry. That I would.
Miss T. I’m sure you would, John; and may you never fight for a worse cause! Ah, it’s a fine thing to think of the people loving a man for a thousand years! We shan’t come to such another in the course of these lectures – except mayhap, if we get so far, to one George –
Mr Mortimer (aloud, and with much confidence). George the Fourth, you mean, miss – the first gentleman in Europe.
Miss T. (sternly). No, sir; I mean GEORGE WASHINGTON, the American Alfred, sir, who gave and took from us many a good beating, and drove the English-Danes out of his country.
Mr Mortimer. Disgusting raddicle!- De Lancey, my dear, come with me. – Mem! I shall withdraw my son from your academy.
Miss T. Let them go. As long as honest people agree with me, what care I what great mens’ flunkeys choose to think? – Miss Budge, make out Mr Mortimer’s account.