Alfred the Great: a reappraisal

In the popular imagination, Alfred the Great is the man who single-handedly forged the English nation while saving it from the Vikings. But in the rush to acclaim an Anglo-Saxon superhero, are we whitewashing the truth? Max Adams investigates...

Alfred the Great “managed to ensure history’s enduring affection by making sure that he wrote it himself,” argues Max Adams. (Photo by Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Imagine the perfect Anglo-Saxon king. A man of intellect, a philosophical warrior-king who is devastating in battle yet magnanimous in victory. In the popular imagination, that man is King Alfred. He shines like a beacon out of the ninth century: a kind of Anglo-Saxon superhero, who single-handedly defeated the Vikings and united England under his rule (871–99).

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But there’s a problem: this sounds too good to be true. And as a historian, when something sounds too good to be true, I want to take a closer look.

Alfred is, of course, remembered as ‘the Great’. Yet despite what you might think, he was only given this epithet in the 16th century. Alfred suited the tastes of the time – as a scholar, philosopher and statesman he looked very much like a textbook Renaissance man. As one of the few early Christian English kings who wasn’t a Catholic saint, he could also be co-opted for Henry VIII’s Protestant cause – echoing back to a lost form of Christianity uncorrupted by papal influence. That may be total nonsense, but it suited Henry’s needs at the time.

A century later, Oliver Cromwell’s republicans were hailing Alfred as a man who promoted democracy through his council. This also wasn’t true, but it was a convenient rewrite. Fast-forward to the 18th century, and the Germanic Alfred was even handier to Britain’s Hanoverian kings. Later still, the Victorians – who were attracted by a narrative that advocated benign patriarchal influence – adopted him as the perfect avatar of the English imperial state.

Alfred has been reinterpreted for every age, but if we strip away all of these retrofitted myths, what remains?

Most of what we know about Alfred comes from his own pen, or from people he commissioned to write. Rather like Winston Churchill centuries later, Alfred managed to ensure history’s enduring affection by making sure that he wrote it himself. The most detailed source we have on his reign is the Life of King Alfred, written by the king’s own bishop, Asser, a Welshman and zealous convert to the Wessex cause. Alfred commissioned Asser to write his history during a brief period of peace in Wessex in around 890. Much of it is copied directly out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, another manuscript Alfred was having compiled at the same time.

You wouldn’t expect Alfred to come out of these sources badly. Both texts are propagandist narratives from the Wessex court, so it’s a historian’s obligation to scrutinise more carefully what they tell us. And that scrutiny reveals some sizeable cracks in the heroic narrative that Alfred was trying to project about himself. I don’t want to lower Alfred in anyone’s estimation – he was an excellent king. But even if he was brilliant, that’s not the whole story.

Money talks

One of the most dispassionate sources we have on Alfred’s rule is coinage. Archaeologists trust coins because they tend not to lie about the reality of things. They carry all sorts of clues and hints about the state of affairs, and can reveal how realistic a king’s ideas of grandeur were.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Alfred was combatting the Viking threat alone. At the battle of Edington (fought in May AD 878), he reportedly crushed the Norse pretty much single-handedly. However, a set of coins called the ‘two emperors’ coinage series (one of which is pictured left) gives a different version of events. Minted in Wessex and Mercia, they show not one but two faces in profile. We see Alfred facing another king – Ceolwulf II of Mercia. Issued jointly by Alfred and Ceolwulf, the coins suggest that Wessex had a key ally in the king of Mercia, and that Alfred was far from the lone defender of England. Ceolwulf’s role has been demoted in other documentation – and we can’t be sure that he fought at Edington – but it seems he made a significant contribution to the resistance to the Vikings.

If you read between the lines of Alfred’s own sources, it also becomes apparent that he faced massive amounts of opposition – even rebellions – from within Wessex. This was partly due to the internal politics of the Wessex state. Alfred had four older brothers, all of whom died before him. Some of those brothers had sons who believed that they had a right to the Wessex throne, so there was a continual undercurrent of potential rebellion. One of Alfred’s key generals betrayed him, and in at least two cases, his brothers’ sons sided with Vikings or other enemies in the north to try to overthrow him.

Asser also lets us into a few secrets that suggest Alfred’s policies triggered resentment among his people. He was running what we would now call an austerity government, and the rulers of those regimes don’t tend to be too popular. Asser admits that at times Alfred had to “chastise his nobles”. You can guess what that means: he did some strong-arm stuff (one rebel lord was stripped of his estates). In the decade after Alfred, Wessex was in desperate poverty, and some of the disloyalty shown by his nobles surely came down to the fact that they didn’t like him imposing a command-economy on countryside already devastated by raids. Taxes were an imposition that his subjects bitterly resented, and sometimes they must have thought that living under the Vikings would have been a better option.

A disunited kingdom

We’re often told that Alfred was the ‘founder of England’. If you look at a historical atlas of Anglo-Saxon Britain, as soon as Alfred arrives on the scene, you tend to see all the small kingdoms amalgamated into Wessex, and then England. But in reality that’s nonsense. If Alfred really was the founder of England, we should find his coins all over the place. But we don’t; they don’t go beyond Wessex. Alfred’s rule didn’t extend beyond the Thames. He couldn’t even build forts in Kent or Cornwall.

The British Isles were heavily regional at the time and the majority of people didn’t like the idea of a ‘united kingdom’. In fact, the concept of a ‘nation’ was pretty incongruous – it was really an imposition of the church, resented by the general population. Several ancient territories such as Hwicce (later known as Worcester) had strong regional identities that survived well into Alfred’s period and beyond. Mercia maintained at least three regional identities, none of which got on with one another.

Many other kingdoms and regions also regarded themselves as distinct and therefore actively disliked Alfred’s Wessex project. Northumbria didn’t like it, nor did Cornwall. The Welsh hated it and the Scots had nothing to do with it. Meanwhile, Kent regarded itself as superior to all other kingdoms, and East Anglia rejected Wessex coinage. Asser informs us that that Alfred introduced a system of burhs – a defence and administration network of 33 fortified towns. However, he also admits that, in order to pursue such state-building schemes, the king had to “persuade and cajole his people, who were unwilling to do these things”.

Centuries after Alfred’s time, early medieval Britain remained a highly regional hodge-podge of competing, sometimes incompatible interests. So this attempt to write a unification project over the whole of what we now call England just doesn’t wash. It really is a retrofitted idea that suited the interests of later kings. Alfred didn’t found England, and that wasn’t his ambition. He was content to be an overlord, meaning that those under him were obliged to fight in his wars and follow his political line. Other than that, he more or less left them alone.

Life beyond Wessex

Alfred was a leading figure in a successful dynasty, and it’s this dynastic success that is key. Just as his grandfather, father and brothers laid the foundations for his reign, Alfred left his descendants an idea about the professionalisation of kingship that they were hugely adept at building upon. It was his son, daughter and grandson who rolled out the Wessex state, spreading Alfred’s idea of statehood – supported by administrators, bureaucrats, coinage, efficiency and learning – across England.

In short, we should give Alfred the credit he deserves, but we should also acknowledge that his power was confined to a specific part of England. We need to remember what else was happening at this time – in Wales, Scotland and the huge swathes of England north of Watling Street (which ran from Dover to Wroxeter in Shropshire). These were places that we have little narrative history for in this period. A lack of sources mean it’s much more difficult to reconstruct what was going on in the five boroughs of the Vikings (Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Lincoln and Stamford) in the ninth century than in Wessex.

There are, of course, many other significant figures from this period – it’s just that we don’t have as much documentation for them as we do for Alfred. One generation later, a kingdom was emerging in Wales under a brilliant man named Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), who promulgated an enlightened law code. In Scotland, a king called Constantín mac Áeda ruled for well over 40 years and established a pretty sophisticated state. These are figures that we don’t learn about at school. It’s high time we understood what people other than Alfred were up to at the time because, between them, the Welsh, Scots, Norse and the Irish helped to create a British identity that would become one of the most powerful in Europe.

So, while we shouldn’t denigrate Alfred’s achievements, problems arise when we fall into the trap of assuming that he was the only leader worth our attention in the ninth century. He may have been an unusually gifted and talented man – perhaps even the right man in the right place at the right time – but he was also just one part of a much bigger and more complicated story.

Max Adams was talking to Ellie Cawthorne.

Max Adams is the author of Aelfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age, which was published by Head of Zeus in November.

To listen to the episode of BBC Radio 3’s Anglo-Saxon Portraits dedicated to Alfred the Great, click here.

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine