Alfred the Great

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Russ Foster | Published in History Review

Russ Foster asks whether the legend of the heroic king is simply too good to be true.

The market town of Wantage in Berkshire is dominated by a lifesized statue of its most famous son, Alfred, the fifth surviving son of King Aethewulf of Wessex, born in 849. As well as a statue, the Victorians who erected it provided him with an incomparable curriculum vitae:

Alfred found learning dead

And he restored it

Education neglected

And he revived it

The laws powerless

And he gave them force

The church debased

And he raised it

The land ravaged by a fearful enemy

From which he delivered it

Alfred’s name will live as long

As mankind shall respect the past

Perhaps mankind’s respect for the past has diminished over the past century. It is certainly true that, though Alfred’s name remains familiar, his standing in the national pantheon has slipped considerably. Whilst he did not even make the top ten in a millennium poll of the greatest Britons in 2000, those commemorating the thousandth year of his death in 1899 hailed him as the founder of the nation and saviour of its Christian faith. More esoterically, he was credited as being the inventor of the candle clock, founder of Oxford University and the Royal Navy, even putatively of the British Empire. Were the Victorians really so wrong?

Alfred the Soldier: the war on terror

In 849 ‘England’ comprised a heptarchy of kingdoms of which Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex were the most powerful. Wessex’s pre-eminence by the time of Alfred’s birth owed most to the efforts of his grandfather, Egbert (802- 839), and father, Aethelwulf (839-858). They expanded Wessex to include most of England south of the Thames except Mercian-controlled London. For half of Alfred’s lifetime, however, the accent was less on the expansion than the survival of Wessex because of the increasingly dangerous attacks from Scandinavia by those we now popularly remember as ‘Vikings.’ A translation more accurately conveying the terror the invaders conjured in the minds of Christian Englishmen would be ‘Pagans.’ Something of that terror is conveyed in the contemporary prayer ‘From the fury of the Northmen, Good Lord deliver us.’ In 865 the ‘Great Army’ of Vikings landed in England. Within a decade they had subjugated Northumbria and East Anglia and installed a puppet ruler in Mercia. Wessex would surely follow.

After Aethelwulf ’s death Wessex had been ruled in turn by Alfred’s three elder brothers. The third of these, Ethelred (865-871), regarded Alfred as his trusted lieutenant. The two together confronted the pagan invasion when it came in 871. Although they inflicted a notable defeat on the invaders at Ashdown, they failed to prevent the pagan advance into the heart of Wessex, at which dangerous juncture Ethelred died. One of Alfred’s first acts as king was to buy his enemies’ departure: presumably Wessex had resisted enough to convince them that easier pickings in the short term lay in Europe.

Alfred’s respite was relatively brief. Pagan forces returned in 876-877. Then, early in 878, an army led by King Guthrum took Alfred unawares at Chippenham. Though he escaped capture, his hold on Wessex hung by a thread, whilst he took refuge in the Somerset marshes on the Isle of Athelney. For weeks, all he could do was conduct a guerrilla-style resistance, fortunate that another invading force which threatened his base was destroyed on the north Somerset coast by Earldorman Odda. Only in early May did Alfred feel strong enough to rendezvous with the fighting men of Wessex and engage Guthrum in open battle. The resulting victory at Edington proved the most decisive encounter of his reign: it paved the way for the Treaty of Wedmore with Guthrum, who agreed to be baptised as a Christian.

Magnanimity in victory was accompanied by hard-nosed realisation that only greater preparedness would guard against renewed calamity. Alfred spent the remainder of his reign constructing at least a rudimentary navy. He also oversaw an administrative reorganisation of the Wessex military machine, hitherto not unlike the modern territorial army, in order to render it more effective. Above all, he gave orders for the construction of a series of over 30 carefully-sited burhs, garrisoned and fortified settlements which would afford protection to his people and the ability to disrupt further invading forces.

Future attacks on Wessex duly took place, in particular by the ‘Great Horde’ which plagued Wessex from 891 until the remnants of it disintegrated in 896. But dangerous though this was, it was never a plague that threatened to spread a fatal contagion. Alfred reaped the benefit of his reforms, harrying an invader who never succeeded in wresting the military initiative from him. At his death Wessex, which now included London, was twice as large as the kingdom he had inherited.

Alfred the Scholar: education, education, education!

The best-known story of Alfred’s early life involves a book of poetry belonging to his mother. She promised it to whichever of her sons could recite it first. The youngest, Alfred, won the prize. The vignette may be apocryphal but Alfred undoubtedly loved learning for its own sake: ‘I cannot find anything better in man than that he know, and nothing worse than that he be ignorant,’ he said. He aspired perhaps to be a new King Solomon, or a second Charlemagne (768-814), the great Frankish soldier-scholar. This involved more than simply royal patronage of learning. Alfred played a direct part in what Abels calls ‘a systemic overhaul of religious and educational life’ in Wessex. This was the more remarkable because he was at best semiliterate before the 880s and chose to learn Latin in adulthood from scratch. His wider purpose was achieved by recruiting a coterie of distinguished clerical scholars to his court: Plegmund from Mercia, Grimbald from Rheims and, most significantly, Asser from Wales. The great project he set for them was to provide vernacular translations of books ‘most necessary for all men to know’. The major achievements were Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and St Augustine’s Soliloquies. At court a school was established to instruct the children of the nobility – the future governors of Wessex – in the liberal arts. The great law code which he subsequently issued required ealdormen and reeves to learn to read on pain of losing their offices. It could hardly have been lost on him that a better-educated elite would facilitate the kingdom’s defence.

A complementary, if not even more important motive, in driving Alfred’s educational programme was religion. He believed that the moral failings of the people had led to the punishment from God that was the Vikings. Certainly this much is implied in his translation of Pastoral Care. In it he paints a grim picture of the church and the state of learning which existed before the Northmen descended. Part of his conception of his duty as a Christian ruler was to atone for these shortcomings and, by so doing, restore to his people both wisdom and happiness.

What this all amounted to in reality, it must be admitted, is impossible to gauge. There was no great religious revival. Alfred’s father, Athelwulf, was a more pious man than he: Alfred only founded two modest religious houses, at Athelney and Shaftesbury. One bishop even dared to criticise him privately to the pope for not having done enough to crush paganism beyond his kingdom. But in the decade or so available to him he had perhaps done as much (or more) as could reasonably be undertaken. The most suggestive clue is the so-called Alfred Jewel discovered near Athelney in 1693, which may well be one of the aestels (or pointers) which he promised to send to every diocese with a copy of Pastoral Care. It provides in itself substance to Keynes and Lapidge’s claim that his later reign witnessed ‘nothing less than a cultural renaissance’.

And Alfred Alfred the Great?

That evaluations of Alfred have tended to be favourable owes much to the nature of the source material for his reign. Both his law code and his translations provide insights into the mind of the king. Crucial too is the Life written by Asser, the scholarly Welsh monk who became his friend. though incomplete (it appears to have been written in about 893), there is simply no comparable source for a pre-Conquest monarch. Indeed, as it is so remarkable and as there is nothing close to an extant original, its authenticity has often been questioned. the consensus remains that it is genuine, if for no other reason than that a convincing motive for its having been a tenth or eleventh century forgery has not been established.

Much of Asser’s Life is a plagiarism of various medieval manuscripts known today as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is plausible that Alfred patronised a formalised version of it in the 890s as part of his wider vision for educational reform. Whether true or not, it patently exhibits a Wessex bias in general and an Alfred bias in particular, of which the modern reader must be wary. Thus, whilst we are treated to a relatively detailed account of Alfred’s triumph at Ashdown, his various defeats are usually referred to euphemistically as engagements where the pagans were left in control of the battlefield. Similarly, it is quite possible that the magnitude of Alfred’s plight in 878 has been overdrawn in order to make his subsequent victory the more heroic.

Caveats about Alfred’s greatness are also suggested by questions of perspective. His contemporaries were not always impressed: Asser records Alfred’s frustration that people were reluctant to make the sacrifices necessary to effect his plans for reforms. Clearly, too, Wessex was only in a position to resist invasion in the first place because of the earlier efforts of his brothers, father and grandfather. In his own reign he owed much to loyal subordinates such as earldorman Odda. And Alfred today is rightly styled as King of the West Saxons. The re-conquest of the Viking controlled Danelaw only came about in the reigns of his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), and grandson, Athelstan (924- 939). The latter, in defeating the northern Vikings and their Scottish allies at Brunanburh in 937, might meaningfully be styled as King of England.

The fact remains, however, that Alfred and Wessex alone survived the mid-ninth century pagan onslaught. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was right to describe him when he died as king of those english not under pagan control. The idea of ‘England’ had clearly been advanced during his reign. Even if there had been no Viking threat, his interest in, and contribution to, learning would mark him out as an unusually distinguished Anglo-Saxon king. But there was a Viking threat which he countered triumphantly. It is thus the sum of his parts that makes Alfred remarkable, suggesting that the sobriquet attached to him first by the elizabethans may not be so very far from the mark. The best epitaph is provided by words he himself wrote in his translation of Boethius: ‘I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.'

Russ Foster is Head of History at Hampshire Collegiate School in Romsey.

Further reading:
  • Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Longman, 1998)
  • Simon Keynes and Simon Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (Penguin, 1983)
  • H. R. Loyn, Alfred the Great (Oxford University Press, 1967)
  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great: The man who made England (John Murray, 2005)
  • Timothy Reuter (ed.), Alfred the Great: papers from the Eleventh-Centenary Conferences (Ashgate, 1999) 
  • Alfred P. Smyth, Alfred the Great (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • David Sturdy, Alfred the Great, 1995 (Constable, 1995)

Alfred the Great | History Today

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