In my final undergraduate year, I studied the work of JRR Tolkien, and it acted like a violent intellectual catalyst, for it was here that I first discovered Old English, Icelandic and Scandinavian literature, mythology, poetry and history. It was a gateway into a previously hidden world, and I was instantly hooked. I ransacked the campus library for anything I could find, and I devoured every scrap. It was there that I first encountered the Old English language; at once familiar and alien, the words and phrases rising like a sea-serpent beneath the waves almost to comprehension, and then sinking once more into unknowable antiquity. And at the centre of Old English history, there is Alfred the Great. He emerges, enigmatic and strange, from that time of warrior-kings and gold-hoards, a scholar, warrior and Christian king. Like so many Anglo-Saxon figures, it is easy to take him for granted, as most people have at least heard of Alfred the Great, but being such an established figure makes him a victim of the contempt born of familiarity. It can blind us to just how astonishing a man he was, and how considerable were his achievements. In my reading, I did not encounter the timid scholar and absent-minded cake-burner, but rather a passionate, intense and driven man, who underwent enormous suffering and hardship, but who overcame all opposition to realise a singular vision.
He was a man of faith, vision and fortitude, and saw clearly that the Anglo-Saxon peoples could be far greater than the sum of their parts. He foresaw a land for the Angelcynn that did not stand proudly aloof from the world, but a land that could be a centre of learning and justice, incorporating the very best that its constituent peoples and international neighbours had to offer. In this article, I will offer up my arguments for why Alfred truly deserves to be called The Great, starting with a brief overview of the circumstances of his accession and reign.
Here Waes Aelfred Gehalgod to Cinge[i]: The Man Who Would Not Be King
Alfred should never have been king. Three of his elder brothers who reigned before him died by the sword or through illness, propelling Alfred to the throne of Wessex in 871, at just 22 years old. He inherited a kingdom engaged in a life and death struggle for its very existence. Wessex was, to borrow Bernard Cornwell’s phrase, the last kingdom. Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had all succumbed to the predations of the Great Heathen Army, and Wessex’s position was precarious. It was a prosperous kingdom, but its sea and land borders were vulnerably long, stretching from Devon to Kent, and from the Thames to the Severn. It was a haven of fertile farmland and possessed a prospering economy, but these were tempting targets for warlords and would-be kings on the make. After a long struggle, Alfred at last signed a peace treaty with the Viking army, but to no avail. In the winter of 877, when Alfred was celebrating Christmas at his estate at Chippenham, the Vikings broke the truce, and struck without warning, possibly aided by Wulfhere, a traitorous noble of Alfred’s court. The king and his young family fled, barely escaping with their lives. They hid in the vast marshes of Athelney, and there, through the bitter winter, Alfred gathered his forces, laid his plans, and sent out secret messages to allies and followers. Ealdormen loyal to Alfred held out against the invaders, and as the snows melted, Alfred, now aged 29, went on the offensive. He sent word through the shires that the fyrds, the levy armies of Wessex, were to assemble at Egbert’s Stone, a monument to the achievements of his grandfather. From there, they would make a final and desperate bid to regain Wessex. The armies of Alfred and Guthrum, the Viking warlord, met at the Battle of Edington, and England’s history began that day in May 878. Back then of course, there was no cross of St George, no Palace of Westminster, no England. There was only the kingdom of the West Saxons, fighting for their existence. Companies of men grouped around the standard of the wyvern and the cross of Christ, and at their head was King Alfred. In the carnage and crashing shield-walls of Edington, the men of Wessex fought with spear and saex to save their families and kinsmen, to claim back their lands from the invader and defiler.
His plan worked. Alfred gained victory that day, and so began eighty years of near-constant warfare and struggle to realise his vision; that the Anglo-Saxon peoples would be one nation, under one king and one God. This was to be ‘Angla-Londe’, England, the land of the Angelcynn. This was a bold vision to be sure, but why was he accorded the appellation ‘the Great’? It first appears in 16th century writings, and he is the only English monarch to have that title, and considering the deeds of his successors, that is no mean feat.
Gegyred Mid Golde[ii]: The Image of a King
The only contemporary image we have of Alfred is as he appears on the appropriately-named Alfred jewel, which is a work of enamel and quartz, encased in gold, and forms the featured image for this post. It is inscribed with ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred ordered me made), and is probably the handle of an aestel, a device for following the words on a page for a reader. It shows, although stylised, a thin-faced man with a concerned expression, as though bent to a task of some importance. This tallies with what we know of Alfred, being a man who neither illness nor deprivation, hardship nor toil could deter. Though a physically slight man, the biographer’s description gives the impression of an immense will and strength of character that must have been daunting to those in his presence. David Dawson’s recent portrayal of him in The Last Kingdom perfectly captures these qualities, but it is baffling to me that no film has ever been made of Edington. The story of Chippenham, Athelney and Edington lends itself naturally to drama, and the lack of detailed information provides a rich canvas for imagination and creativity.
Hwaet, Ic Swefna Cyst Secgan Wylle[iii]: A Man of Vision
Alfred’s vision of kingship was very different from previous rulers. He was not the first monarch to try and unite the Anglo-Saxons, for many other kings had laid claim to overlordship of the other kingdoms. Oswald of Northumbria, Offa of Mercia or Raedwald of East Anglia had all exercised a kind of imperium, but Alfred’s vision was one of unification, not conquest. He saw not the domination of kingdoms by Wessex, but the unification of the four kingdoms into a single people. A contemporary term was the Angelcynn, ‘The Angle-folk’, meaning the Angle and Saxon peoples who had settled in what is now England. The really interesting question is how was this possible, and from where did Alfred obtain and develop these ideas?
As to the possibility of unification, Alfred was alive in a time of metamorphosis for the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the Wessex he ruled was a much more robust and settled kingdom. Previously, the dominance or survival of kingdoms had depended largely on the charisma and leadership of the leader: as fell the king, so fell the kingdom. They would appoint land and wealth to their allies and followers, but a new king would wish to reward his own followers, so the whole cycle would begin again. But Alfred was the inheritor of a far more stable style of kingship, where the kingdom endured beyond the king. The reasons for this are complex and numerous, but chief among them were advanced coinage, lands held in perpetuity by the Church, and the gradual emergence of what we would recognize at regional and national identities. Close interrogation of the primary sources reveals the truth of this legacy in one salient fact; even with its king in exile, parts of it controlled by an invading army and the nobility divided, Wessex endured as a political and recognizable entity. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) takes that fact for granted, although as it was compiled in Wessex at Alfred’s direction, it probably contains a bias towards his vision.
As to the second point, there is definitely a strong sense of religious destiny in the way that Alfred conceptualised his vision for the Angelcynn. They would be definitively a Christian people, and it was here that events played into his hands. There has been much speculation about whether Alfred could have assumed control over Mercia, had she not been weakened and ravaged by the Vikings, but regardless of these chicken-and-egg arguments, Wessex was the only kingdom left with a functioning leadership free of outside control, and Alfred used that opportunity. It was Wessex-style administration and legal systems that followed in the wake of the marching fyrd-troops, and even today, England retains that legacy. He had visited Rome earlier in his life, and saw himself primarily as a Christian king, not a warlord. The language of the wars against the Great Heathen Army was framed as a moral crusade, and while success on the battlefield would bring temporary relief from the enemy, lasting change would only come through education and reform.
Hiðer on Eorthan Geond Manna Mod[iv]: A Man of Learning
Alfred’s attitude to warfare was similar to Tolkien’s Faramir; ‘I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend’. What Alfred fought to defend was his people and his vision of Angla-Londe. The ASC records that during the second half of his reign, Alfred began to hand field command of his armies over to trusted ealdorman, and particular to his eldest son, Edward. Edward would later inherit the throne and, along with his remarkable sister Athelflaed, would further drive back the invaders, and carry on his father’s work. The inference from Alfred’s own writings is that he had little taste for warfare, and longed for a time when England could become once again a place of learning and education.
For Alfred, the burning issue of his reign was not military conquest, but the education of his people. In fact, although not educated until the late age of 12, educational reform became his focus, and he believed strongly in the power of education to better not only the individual, but society. His view was that the Anglo-Saxon peoples had turned away from God, and so the heathens had come as a scourge, to give them a chance to prove their faith, and return to the ways of righteousness. To Alfred, the plight of Wessex and the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was an echo of ancient Israel, who were invaded and taken into exile as a consequence of turning away from God. Alfred believed that moral and spiritual wellbeing went hand-in-hand with education, and his writings form early examples of what we would call ‘educational theory’. He was not the first to pursue the methods and benefits of education, but he was the first to see it on a national scale, linked to the welfare of a nation. He started a chain of ideas and thought that winds its way throughout English history.
In many ways, Alfred was a man ahead of his time, but in other ways, he was aware that he was part of a long tradition. As soon as his government was re-established and there was a degree of military stability, he began drastic reforms, and promotion of education. He was a skilled linguist and scholar in his own right (indeed, it is interesting to speculate what he would have produced if he had not become king). He drew Churchmen and scholars from across Europe to his court, with the aim that the scholarship and erudition of the Angelcynn would once again be the envy of the world, looking back to the Northumbrian ‘Golden Age’ of the 7th century. It is a testament to his skill, energy and patience that he achieved this very thing. The monastic revival and reform programs of the 9th century saw massive investment in manuscript production and education programs, as we would call them, including revolutionary translations of the Biblical scriptures into Old English, the language of the common people. Indeed, Alfred’s lament was that, ‘Learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services into English’. Other authors and scholars have covered these programs in much greater depth, and I list some of these resources at the end of this blog post.
Alfred was also aware of the other side of the coin. He was not just an educator, but a law-maker. Working from a number of sources, including the laws of his predecessor Ine of Wessex, and Offa of Mercia’s law codes (now sadly lost to us), Alfred instigated wide-reaching legal reforms in Wessex, as soon as he had respite from Viking attacks. What strikes the reader immediately is the careful attention to the welfare of the common man, the ceorl and slave, who are given protection under the law (a man would be fined for drawing a weapon in the house of a ceorl for example, regardless of social rank). Protection is provided for victims of fraud and assault, both men and women. Women are given legal status, and it is clear that peace and justice were the aims of these laws, not martial prowess. The ancient practice of feud is carefully curtailed and controlled, though still permitted under certain circumstances. We only have the ability to infer how thoroughly these laws were adhered to or policed, but the intentions are clear; Alfred wanted his people to receive not only a Christian education, but to live by Christian laws.
Wel Bið Đam Eorle Đe Him On Innan Hafað[v]: A Man of Principle
My third argument for Alfred’s greatness is his personal example. I have reviewed him as a political visionary and innovative educator and law-maker, but he was also a man, a real human being who left behind an incredible example to follow. He suffered from ill-health throughout his life, and current thought is that it was probably Crohn’s Disease, a painful and debilitating condition affecting the intestines. Yet he rode on campaign with his armies in all weathers, in an age before painkillers or modern medicine. He endured the pain because he had set his mind to achieve a goal. He succeeded to the throne of a kingdom on the brink of destruction, inexperienced and largely unprepared, but he did not give up. His children were but infants when they had to flee to a marshy island refuge in the freezing depths of winter, and Alfred was offered the chance of exile. He could have taken refuge on the continent, living in comfort and safety, but he chose to remain and share the suffering of his people until he turned the tables on his oppressors. He had the moral courage to keep his faith, and never to yield to bitterness or a desire for revenge, which is a feat in itself when we consider what was done to his people and his family. His brothers were struck down by war and his people put to the sword or sold into slavery, yet his desire was ever for the rule of law and wisdom, not bloody vengeance. His own writings display a gentleness and humility of outlook that is seemingly at odds with the warrior-king of Edington or the skilled diplomat of the Viking treaties, but he was a complicated man.
Despite all these achievements, the acid test of leadership often comes down to succession. Human history is littered with the destruction of leadership vacuums left by those who did not (or would not) prepare for a successor. But by the time of his Alfred’s death in 899, aged 50 or 51, his son Edward was well-prepared to inherit the throne. Alfred used a number of careful strategies to ensure a smooth transition, and we know that Edward had the support and recognition of the populace, the nobility, the church and the army. Edward appears to have functioned as a sub-King of Kent under his father’s authority for some time, gaining the vital experience of administrative and political leadership, and then as a military leader as Alfred turned his attention to educational, military and economic reforms. Success in the courtroom and on the battlefield ensured a bloodless and almost uncontested transfer of kingship from father to son, itself a rare feat in the early medieval world. It takes a man of great humility and foresight to plan for his own replacement, and yet Alfred prepared for the transition as meticulously and carefully as with all his endeavours.
Cyning Sceal on Healle Beagas Daelan[vi]: Alfred’s Legacy
To conclude, the ultimate tribute to Alfred is England herself. It has been 1,143 years since that day at Edington, and England has endured and grown, but Alfred would recognise the shire borders and the names of many of the towns and cities. He was crowned king of the West Saxons, but died as acknowledged king of the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon idea of the jury is still used in UK law courts, and the national borders are approximately the same as they were at the end of his grandson Athelstan’s reign in 939. That is a remarkable continuity for any nation.
On a personal level, England is my home. I grew up in a small town in Kent, and I ate food grown in England’s good, fertile earth. I was educated in her schools, and delivered by the midwives and doctors of her health service. I speak her strange and beautiful language, and I love her history and literature. I have spent my adolescence and adult life hiking across her moors and mountains with OS map and hiking boots. I have married an English wife, and I worship in an English Church. However, Englishness is defined by its links to other peoples. From its language to its cuisine, from its culture to its political system, it is strong because of its hybrid nature, not in spite of it. I recognise this quality in myself, for I am English, but half-Irish by birth, with a Greek name. Alfred recognised this ‘mongrel-strength’ in his vision to unite peoples that were strong because of their union, a nation stronger than the sum of its parts, particularly as his successors would need to reconcile populations of Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians that had been intermarrying and co-habiting for thirty years before Edington. Alfred was Great because he held to this vision unwaveringly; he was an exemplar as a leader, a Christian, an educator and a human being, and he was, as Sellar & Yeatman would say, a Good King and a Good Thing.
I hope this has inspired you to find out more about Alfred. Below are some the works I have used as references, and they are all excellent reads in their own right:
- Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources, published by Penguin Classics
- Alfred’s Britain: War & Peace in the Viking Age, by Max Adams
- Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons: Forgotten Son of Alfred, by Michael John Key
- A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, edited and translated by Richard Hamer
- Anglo-Saxon England, by Sir Frank Stenton
[i] ‘Here was Alfred Consecrated as King’ from the style of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
[ii] ‘Bedecked with Gold’ from The Dream of the Rood
[iii] ‘Hear, while I tell about the best of dreams’, from The Dream of the Rood
[iv] ‘The joyful tidings spread here on Earth’, from Alfred’s Epilogue to the Pastoral Care
[v] ‘Well shall it be, for the just-minded man’, from Bede’s Almsgiving
[vi] ‘King shall be in hall, giver of gifts’, from Maxims II