Alfred the Great (871-899)

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

-Author’s note in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy

Alfred (or “Aelfred) is the only king of England ever to be given the epithet “The Great.” He earned his moniker as a result of a fervent defense of the homeland against the invading Danes (or Vikings and Norsemen, “North Men” from Scandinavia), as well as his support for literacy, education, the arts, and architecture. Alfred is popularly the most celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and with good reason.

Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex, and he was clearly the favorite child. Bright, learned, well-traveled, and curious, Alfred lived a charmed life. He was known to have a keen mind from a young age -entirely memorizing books of poetry. In AD 855 he traveled to Rome with his father on a pilgrimage. They visited the court of Charles the Bald, of the Frankish King, and Alfred gained an appreciation for Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne.

Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf died shortly after their return to Wessex in AD 858 and Alfred’s three older brothers each assumed the throne in succession (a fourth brother died before their father Aethelwulf’s death).

In the mid 9th century the Danes began to raid England. They were lured from their homes in present-day Denmark and Norway by the promise of riches strewn about the English isle in defenseless castles and monasteries. For many kingdoms, there was little time to prepare, however the kingdom of Wessex found a measure of success against the Danes. Alfred quickly learned the art of war alongside his brother Aethelred. The Danes began by raiding the coasts, including an infamous raid on Lindisfarne island, the seat of Christian culture in Northumbria. There they stole riches and torched buildings (“Viking” is a word that comes down to us meaning something akin to “pirate”). The monks of Lindisfarne carried away the bones of St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan, the Celtic patron saint of Northumbria and the founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne. However some of these same Vikings later returned to Northumbria from the cold shores of Denmark and Norway after finding the English soil and climate more hospitable. What began as wanton acts of piracy gradually became a process of invasion and settlement. Their newly acquired lands became known as Danelaw.

In 865-866 a “Great Army” arrived in East Anglia and overwhelmed the region. From there, they ventured north to York and took the city, thus conquering Northumbria. When an attempt to re-gain the city by King Aella had failed, he was captured and, according to legend, Aella was mercilessly tortured and executed in the hideously gruesome procedure known as the “blood eagle.” From the mid-860s onward, the Danes were dominant under the leadership of Ivar “The Boneless.” After conquering all surrounding kingdoms, the Danes eventually turned their gaze southwest to Wessex.

Meanwhile Alfred had married a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith in AD 867. Asser, Alfred’s medieval biographer, notes that Alfred suffered from some sort of affliction, perhaps what we might call a psycho-somatic illness. Asser writes that Alfred’s illness was particularly acute on the day of his wedding.

AD 871 became known as the ‘Year of Battles’ as the Danes and Wessex squared off. After the death of his elder brother Aethelred, Alfred assumed the throne in his early twenties. He came to power with a kingdom in chaos and under threat. Following an immediate string of disappointing losses to the Danes, young Alfred was forced to negotiate a peace for five years, but his battle with the Danes would continue for years to come. He paid them off with the “Danegold” and they “swore upon the holy ring” not to invade Wessex again -a foreboding act of treachery. The Danes retreated north divided their forces and the new Viking leader Guthrum led his forces back southward into Wessex territory. In this milieu Alfred became a skilled military leader, defending his burhs (or as we now know them as “burroughs”). He used a variety of tactics to starve out and terrorize the invading Danes, and he also built up the Wessex naval forces, hence Alfred is known as the father of the British navy (one of the earliest American naval vessels was also called the U.S.S. Alfred).

However, Alfred continued to suffer crushing losses as well as a surprise attack that put him on the run on the Twelfth Night Christmas holiday. Thus during the Christmas of AD 878, Alfred went incognito tailing Guthrum through Wessex while the Danes ventured deep into his kingdom. Alfred was forced to travel undercover ‘into the wilderness’ through the marshes as he fell back to Athelney. There is an old popular legend in which Alfred, dressed as a commoner, was taken in by a swineherd and while sitting pensively he was scolded by the lady of the house whose bread-cakes had started to burn.

Alfred was also a man of the people. In order to build up defenses against the Danes, he strengthened relationships with the surrounding shires (or what we today might call counties). Historically, Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devonshire, Wilshit, Dorset, and Hampshire. Each shire was governed with open-air juries led by ealdermen -a relic of the early Anglo-Saxon era.

From the egalitarian, ealderman-led communities of rural Wessex, Alfred was able to regather his forces and launch a final, all-out campaign against Guthrum and the Danes. The two armies met likely on a hill above Edington in AD 878 (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests they fought over a legendary ‘Stone of Egbert’) where a savage and bloody battle was fought for the soul of Wessex. Guthrum knew all that stood in the way of a Viking conquest of England was Alfred and his army, and the men of Wessex knew this was their last chance to fight for an independent kingdom. Hundreds of years later, mutilated bodies buried in the dirt were uncovered, revealing what must have been a harrowing day. The Battle of Edington, as it has come to be known, was the turning point in Alfred’s reign as king. After a score of latter victories, Alfred successfully muted the advance of the Norsemen, pushing them back to eastern England and redefining the borders.

The battle was an extraordinary success for Wessex. It unified Alfred’s leadership over his nobles, put the Danes on the run, and as part of Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes were forced to convert to Christianity. It was baptism by the sword. Alfred had succeeded where his predecessors had stalled. However despite the new peace agreement, Alfred was prepped for war. he built up his extensive fortifications throughout the burhs of Wessex, which successfully held off the Danes for years to come.

Woodforde, Samuel; King Alfred ‘The Great’ (846/849-899); National Trust, Stourhead;

Alfred is known widely for his enlightened disposition -his advocacy for reading, writing, and learning. Despite latter day interpolations, and Asser’s enthusiastic but less-than-truthful picture of the king, Alfred only learned to read in early adulthood. However, he was a profound reformer and an advocate of an english renaissance in literacy education -perhaps drawing inspiration from Charlemagne before him. He built a new court school, in the manner of Charlemagne. He translated several Latin texts into Old English, including Pope Gregory the Great’s On Pastoral Care (a manual for clergy which he eagerly distributed to his bishops), Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s writings, and other Biblical texts, like the Latin Psalters. Alfred was also the patron of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred was great legal reformer, issuing a legal code (the Doom Book, or “book of laws”). At the outset of his laws, Alfred highlights several ancestral kings he bases his new Christian laws upon -Ine, Offa, and even Aethelbert. While his elder brother, Aethelred, was an inwardly pious leader, the flame of the intellect and the liberal arts took hold of Alfred’s mind. They were distinct in their approach to kingship.

After the defeat of the Danes at Edington, each of the fortified burhs grew into a rapidly urbanized marketplaces and communities under the direction of the king, and thus trade in Wessex flourished. The crown jewel of the burhs was London, formerly Londinium under the Romans, and Lundenwic under the rule of Offa, and Mercia, before it feel into the hands of the Vikings, but Alfred’s reclamation of the port city was a re-founding of sorts for this future capital.

Of Alfred’s general demeanor, Asser writes:

Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour…[and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.

— Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred 1983, pp. 74–75

Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of either 50 or 51. He had five sons, including Edward “The Elder” who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would later unify the kingdoms under one single banner -he is sometimes considered the first king of England.

Finally, there is a controversy regarding Albert’s final resting place. He was buried at Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery in Winchester, the capital of Wessex (Alfred’s body was moved to the newly re-consecrated abbey during the reign of his son Edward “The Elder”). However, hundreds of years later King Henry VIII made the fateful decision to destroy many Catholic churches, monasteries, and abbeys throughout the land as part of his personal conflict with Catholicism. Hyde Abbey was unfortunately one of those churches that was destroyed. For over 250 years, the final resting place of Alfred and his son Edward was forgotten. Eventually, in the late 18th century, the county acquired the land where Hyde Abbey once stood with the hopes of constructing a prison. The future convicts were put to work digging the foundation of the new prison edifice. As the prisoners dug deeper, they likely destroyed the interred bones of Alfred, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England (there were reports among the prisoners of discovering gold and all manner of treasure beneath the surface).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. Asser was a monk of St. David’s.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part I

After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, first spurred by the Visigothic sack of Rome in AD 410 followed by the collapse of the western Empire in AD 476, a cloud of darkness overcame the island of Britain. Very little writing or culture emerged as the world of the Britons became immersed in constant war. The bloody and murderous assaults were regularly perpetrated by the Picts and the Scots as they overran Hadrian’s Wall and fought the kingdoms of the Britons. However, a growing threat also emerged from the East: the seafaring Germanic warring culture known as the Saxons. Amidst this hazy picture of anarchy, Winston Churchill notes, there were four windows into a “dim and coloured glass” offering us a glimpse into what truly happened between the Britons and the Saxons: Gildas, Bede, and then much later, the Historia Britonium, and the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The first writer who documented the destruction of Britannia by the Saxons was Gildas “The Wise.” In the 6th century, he penned a diatribe from the perspective of the Britons entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (or “On the Ruin of Britain”). Gildas was a monk and his Latin text is composed of a series of sermons condemning many of the political and religious leaders of post-Roman Britain. In contrast, nearly 200 years later, from the perspective of the invaders, the Saxons, came the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a provincial Anglo-Saxon monk from Northumbria, born in 673. He was sophisticated and well-educated and his chronological history is sober and reflective, with just a hint of contempt for early Britain. Still the haze enveloping this epoch makes it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Hundreds of years later Geoffrey of Monmouth celebrated this era for its fabled aristocracy, chivalry, Christian faith, knights and ladies and so on. Out of the cloud of this mist emerged the legend of King Arthur, a defiant British king who upheld the chivalrous customs of his ancestors while defending his kingdom against the Saxons. King Arthur was made popular in the chivalric romance tradition, and his story is echoed in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory.

How did the Saxons ultimately succeed over the Britons? After many years of coastal raids along the British isle, Gildas writes of how a naive king of the Britons, King Vortigern (“Mighty king”), was in need of military support to defend against the Picts and the Scots. Finding no help from Rome, he regrettably called upon the Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern fatefully invited them to the British island like a Trojan Horse being led across their network of coastal defenses. The Saxons were lured with the promise of payment in exchange for military support. However, in the absence of Roman bureaucracy, payment was difficult, slow, and not always accurate. Money became a growing bone of contention between the Britons and the Saxons. Thus, the Saxons soon turned their swords against the Britons, and eventually an all-out war erupted. Whole towns were sacked and entire populations were horrendously murdered across the entire island. Scores of Saxons flooded into Britain. The invaders were merciless, running naked through the countryside, sparing none, slaughtering all. Where once stood walls and roads, now sat piles of human bodies, toppled architecture, and scattered limbs with blood lining the roads and villas. However, at the Battle of Mount Badon (late 5th or early 6th century), one lone British royal hold-out secured a victory under the military guidance of Ambrosius Aurelianus around AD 490. But by the end of the 6th century, almost everything south of Hadrian’s Wall had been completely re-populated by Saxons.

From the opposite perspective, Bede tells us of three primary Germanic groups who invaded Britain: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. They were a mostly egalitarian people without kings, ruled by blood and kin. They were part of the greater diaspora of Germanic tribes, forever the enemies of Rome. Their German homeland lay on the plains between the River Elbe to the east and the River Ems to the west in a region still known as “lower Saxony” (Neidersachsen) in present-day northern Germany. For the Saxons, the tribe was the family unit and money was the supreme law, and the position of king grew in purpose and authority following their invasion of Britain. Upon the takeover of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons began creating feudal hierarchies intended to dominate their subordinates. Saxon leaders began referring to themselves as rex (“king”) and new laws were created. Much of the ethnographic information on the Germanic tribes, like the Saxons, comes down to us in the writings of the late Roman aristocrat, Tacitus because the Saxons were illiterate.

The Saxons had no cities, they disliked close neighbors. They lived in a smattering of hamlets throughout the countryside. Their houses were made of wood and their garb was simple, muted.

There is a rousing debate that continues to this day between whether the invading Saxons wholly exterminated the native Britons or instead intermingled and reproduced with at least some of them. I tend to agree with the latter -there is enough evidence to suggest the Saxons kept some living Welsh noblemen on their lands, and they likely took some British women as concubines. However, the overwhelming majority of the Britons were wholly massacred by the Saxon incursion.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, Historia Britonium (perhaps written by Nennius), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.