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).

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.

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