The real Alfred the Great

Barbara Yorke reveals intriguing details about the talents that made King Alfred - the Anglo-Saxon ruler who famously beat back the Vikings - a unique early 
medieval monarch...

This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine

A silver penny showing King Alfred, c886-899. It may have been minted to celebra

In 878 King Alfred had to flee for his life when Twelfth Night celebrations at his residence in Chippenham, Wiltshire, were rudely interrupted by a surprise Viking attack, well outside the normal campaigning season. Alfred took refuge in the marshes at Athelney in Somerset, where he allegedly burnt the cakes, a story first recorded in the 11th century. The point of this anecdote was to emphasise how low the King’s fortunes had sunk in order to make his comeback at the battle of Edington (also Wiltshire) later in the same year all the more dramatic. By defeating the Viking leader Guthrum, Alfred ensured that his kingdom of Wessex in southern England remained free of the Viking occupation that had overrun the eastern half of the country, and set the stage for his successors to make themselves kings of all England.

Alfred’s victory at Edington did much to earn him the epithet “the Great”, though this was not widely applied to him before the 16th century. However, his successes against the pagan Vikings are arguably not the most remarkable thing about him; medieval kings, after all, were expected to win battles. No, what really makes Alfred stand out in the canon of Anglo-Saxon leaders are skills and interests that few of his contemporaries shared.

A chance find near Athelney in 1693 brings us closer to what made Alfred such an unusual king. This is the famous Alfred Jewel, which incorporates the Old English inscription “Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”: “Alfred had me made”, and it is believed that the Alfred in question must be the ninth-century king. But what sort of artefact is the Jewel, and why may Alfred have commissioned it? The answer probably lies in the socket at the end of the artefact’s animal-head terminal. This presumably once held a thin rod, giving us reason to suspect that the Jewel is an æstel, a pointer to help those who were not experienced at reading to spell out the words. A unique reference to the gift of an æstel occurs in a letter sent by Alfred to his bishops, some of whom, it appears, were in need of improving their reading skills which they were expected to hone on the volume that accompanied the gift. The book was a translation into Old English of a key Latin work of the early Middle Ages, the Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great, and the leader of the translation team was the King himself.

 
 
The Alfred Jewel, which was discovered in 1693 near Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings in 878. It bears the inscription ‘Alfred had me made’. (Ashmolean Museum/Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum)
 

Kings who read books in the early Middle Ages were pretty unusual, but a king who was an author as well as a successful military commander was as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Alfred was an adult learner. His Welsh biographer and adviser Asser describes how in 887, when the King was 38, he began to study Latin works. From his reading, Alfred seems to have gained a much clearer idea of his own responsibilities as a Christian ruler, and to have felt that others in his kingdom who were also in positions of responsibility would benefit similarly if they got down to study. Not only were his bishops expected to find time to do so, but so were his secular leaders and administrators. In addition to the translation of Pastoral Care, Alfred was involved in the translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first 50 Psalms. Such books were usually only available in Latin, but Alfred was not afraid to break with convention, and so did much to launch English as a language of learning. 

The works selected for translation were not so far removed from Alfred’s other concerns as king as they might at first appear. King David of the Psalms, and many of the classical characters referred to by Boethius, were military and political leaders with similar concerns and problems to those faced by Alfred himself. To a certain extent we can see the King treating these works as self-help guides. In the letter he sent to his bishops with the æstel and their copy of Pastoral Care, Alfred looked back on earlier periods and concluded that those in which rulers had been successful in warfare and wealth were also those in which wisdom had flourished. By wisdom, the King meant the knowledge to act and think correctly as defined by the Bible and those who commented upon its meaning. The bishops were further encouraged to make the same connection through the gift of a valuable æstel. They had literally acquired wealth (ie the æstel) with wisdom, (their copy of the translation of Pastoral Care) whose import they were to pass on to the wider population via the priests whom it was their duty to train. The people would learn that it was their duty to fall into line behind the King and to accept the demands that he needed to make upon them in order to be successful in warfare against the Vikings.   

An enquiring mind and willingness to adopt original solutions for practical problems appear to have been characteristics of King Alfred. The æstels may be an example of the “wonderful and precious new treasures made to his own design” described by Asser. Another may be the splendid silver Fuller brooch, with its depiction of the five senses in which “Sight” bears a close resemblance to the enigmatic central figure on the Alfred Jewel. When the King wanted a more accurate way of allocating his time equally to his different responsibilities, he designed a candle-clock, and when the winds whistling around his wooden palaces caused his candles to gutter, he ordered lanterns of wood and horn to be made to contain them. When he saw how the Vikings were making use of fortified sites, he ordered new fortresses to be built in Wessex, existing ones to be strengthened and garrisons to be placed within them. These burhs, as they were known, played a major role in Alfred’s ability to see off further Viking attacks after his defeat of Guthrum at Edington in 878. 

But in Asser’s biography, and through comments in the translations associated with him, Alfred also appears as an introspective man who was troubled by the problems of reconciling the expectations of him as a military and Christian leader. He also suffered serious illness from adolescence onwards. Illness had first come upon him when he was worrying about how to avoid teenage lust, and entered a new phase when he fell ill at his wedding in 867 when he was about 20. From this time we are told he had recurring agonising attacks and was always on edge because he never knew when he might be struck down again. (One modern diagnosis of Alfred’s symptoms is that he suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic abdominal disorder.) 

Some modern historians have found this picture of Alfred as an apparent neurotic invalid with sexual hang-ups difficult to reconcile with Alfred the man of action who excelled in hunting and warfare (as Asser also tells us). Yet, whatever their doubts, it would appear that Alfred found a way of turning illness to his advantage. When he was able to achieve so much in spite of bad health and his many other preoccupations as king, it was rather difficult for his nobles to claim they did not have time to learn their letters.

 

Harry Mileham’s 1909 oil  painting showing King Alfred translating Pope Gregory the Great’s key Latin work, Pastoral Care. (Bridgeman) 
 

An early medieval micro-manager

Alfred’s demands on his subjects seem to have caused some resentment. Asser speaks of resistance to the building of fortresses as well as to the need to improve literacy skills. A document about a land dispute from the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, asks “if one wishes to change every judgement which King Alfred gave, when shall we finish disputing?”, so reinforcing the picture that Asser paints of a King who was given to enquiring closely into legal cases. Alfred was much more of a micro-manager than many early-medieval kings and was aware of how his administrators might abuse their positions. But any resentment towards his demands is likely to have been countered by another of his characteristics – generosity. Generosity and conspicuous bravery, which Alfred also seems to have possessed, were the two most valued traditional attributes of early medieval kings. The converse of that was that Alfred could be harsh to those who defied him. Without going into details, Asser reveals that Alfred dealt severely with those who shirked fortress work or plotted the death of one of his foreign ecclesiastical advisers. In fact, it was fear of the consequences, as well as the lure of treasures like the Alfred Jewel, that persuaded members of the nobility to at least make a show of following their ruler’s interest in books, and encouraged defeated Vikings to embrace Christianity.

It is almost impossible to get a full understanding of the character of any early medieval person, even one as relatively well recorded as King Alfred. Asser’s biography and the translations may provide some genuine insights, but they are also deliberately concerned with presenting a persona that promoted contemporary ideals of Christian kingship, what today we might refer to as spin. Asser makes no bones about revealing that King Solomon of the Old Testament, another ruler closely associated with the pursuit of wisdom, was a model for some of what he says about Alfred. Perhaps such a persona was actively adopted by the King to impress his subjects and mark his difference from them. The end result was, as the 19th-century historian Edward Freeman put it, that Alfred appears as “the most perfect man in history”. 

In the reign of Victoria in particular, he was adopted as an exemplar of all that was best in the English character and as the founder of English institutions and empire. The desire for Anglo-Saxon origins for 19th-century innovations led to some startling claims. For instance, Alfred’s modest provision of better schooling at the royal court led Arthur Conan Doyle to assert that “his standard was that every boy and girl in the whole of the nation should be able to read and write”. It was in this spirit that international celebrations were held in Winchester for Alfred’s millennium in 1901 which culminated in the unveiling of the statue of the King by Hamo Thornycroft. In 2008 a more 21st-century evaluation of Alfred is to be made in Winchester in the exhibition, Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom, which will explore the interaction between these concerns – something on which Alfred himself seems to have reflected to exceedingly good effect. 

 

A statue of Alfred in Winchester. (Alamy)
 

What did Alfred actually do?

1) Alfred travelled twice to Rome as a young boy, at the ages of four and six, and was received by the Pope. On his second visit he was accompanied by his father, King Æthelwulf. On the return journey they stayed with the great Frankish king, Charles the Bald, whose daughter married Æthelwulf.

2) Alfred succeeded his brother Æthelred I as king of Wessex in 871, when he was 22 years old, in the midst of a major assault on the kingdom by a Viking army. Nine major battles were fought between Vikings and West Saxons in that year. They ended in stalemate and a temporary truce.

3) After narrowly escaping capture by Vikings in 878, Alfred rallied to decisively defeat the Danish leader Guthrum at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire. Guthrum agreed to convert to Christianity, take the Anglo-Saxon name of Athelstan and retire to East Anglia, where the Anglo-Saxon royal family had been ousted in earlier Viking attacks. 

4) In 886 Alfred restored the city of London and moved the settlement from the Strand to inside its refurbished Roman walls. Control of London was given to Ealdorman Æthelred, the ruler of the western part of Mercia, who also became Alfred’s son-in-law. Their alliance was a major factor in countering Viking attacks.  

5) Alarmed by poor standards of learning in Wessex, Alfred recruited scholars from other parts of Britain and Europe in the late 880s. These included Asser from Wales and Grimbald and John from the Frankish empire. These men assisted Alfred in the translation of key Latin works into Old English. 

6) Alfred issued a new law code for his subjects that drew upon previous Anglo-Saxon laws and contemporary Frankish practice. Parallels were drawn between Anglo-Saxon and Old Testament law-making. The royal officials who administered the local law courts were encouraged to learn to read and also to act impartially.

7) Between 892 and 896 Alfred had to face a second phase of major Viking attacks. Thanks to the reforms he had instigated in military service, and his foresight in having additional fortresses built and garrisons placed within them, the Vikings were unable to establish themselves and eventually dispersed. 

8) Alfred founded a monastery at Athelney and also a nunnery at Shaftesbury where one of his daughters became abbess. A new religious community was established in Winchester which was greatly enlarged after Alfred’s death in 899 by his son and successor Edward the Elder to become New Minster and the place of Alfred’s burial. 

 

Alfred’s World: Kingdoms under Viking attack

When Alfred was born in 849, there were four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms still in existence – Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and his own kingdom of Wessex, which consisted of England south of the Thames, plus Essex. Wales was also divided among a number of kingdoms and Alfred’s biographer Asser came from one of these, Dyfed in the south west. A further Welsh-speaking province was the kingdom of Strathclyde, but the two most significant players in the north of Britain were the Picts and the Irish of Dalriada (Argyll and adjacent islands) who were in the process of amalgamating to form Scotland. 

The greatest kingdom in mainland Europe was that of the Franks. Their famous king, Charlemagne, (768–814) had ruled a huge swathe of land consisting of the modern countries of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and most of Italy. However, during the ninth century these were divided into smaller kingdoms ruled by his heirs. Charlemagne had sponsored a major revival in Christian learning and culture, and in the ninth century it was to Francia that kings of less sophisticated areas, such as Wessex, looked for inspiration. Alfred had two Frankish clerical advisers, Grimbald from St Bertins and John from Saxony.

The stability of all areas of western Europe was seriously threatened in the ninth century by attacks from Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway. Although similar in most respects to other peoples of western Europe, the Scandinavians were not Christians, and their raids became increasingly aggressive and difficult to counter as the century progressed. In fact, during the period 866–78, Viking leaders took over East Anglia, and much of Mercia and Northumbria. Wessex alone survived the onslaught and at the time of Alfred’s death in 899 he was the only Anglo-Saxon king still ruling in Britain. 

 
Barbara Yorke is professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester. 
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