This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The 2014 hunt for the bones of Alfred the Great in Winchester ended in disappointment, but its outcome was entirely to be expected. The family tombs had already been moved twice from their original home in the New Minster, and they had been thoroughly disturbed. Even if the remains were in roughly the right area, they still might not have been Alfred’s – they could have belonged to his sons Edward and Æthelweard, and his grandson, the short-lived King Ælfweard. And one pelvic bone is no match for the skeleton of Richard III!
But still, all the brouhaha reminded us of one thing: as Churchill thought, Alfred was not only the greatest Briton, but also one of the greatest rulers of any time and place. His achievement, remember, was conditioned by the Vikings (on whom a terrific exhibition opens this month at the British Museum). From the 860s, England was assailed by large, professional armies. The kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia were destroyed and their royal lines ended.
That was the bleak situation when Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He can never have expected to be king, as the youngest of five brothers, but all of them died young. He was 21, pious and brave, but in poor health, with a crippling hereditary illness, perhaps Crohn’s Disease – the attacks were evidently brought on by stress and must have been agony for someone who spent his life in the saddle. As Alfred himself said, what he achieved was not only through all his external struggles, but the “manifold troubles” of his personal life.
He fought three wars with the Vikings. The first in 871 bought him time. Then in the mid-870s Mercia was dismembered when two sections of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ carved up the east Midlands and the north, settled down “and began to plough and make a living”.
This was a turning point. From now on England was Anglo-Scandinavian, and whoever wanted to rule all England had to deal with that. But Alfred’s dream of one kingdom of the English was only made possible by his dramatic victory in 878 at Edington. Had he lost, the history of Britain might have been radically different: no English state perhaps, no English law, or English ideas about government; maybe no English language as the world’s language.
Alfred made peace with Vikings but that didn’t stop further battles, indeed he never stopped fighting. His third war lasted from 892–97. But, by his death in 899, he had saved Wessex, and, as it turned out, England.
That story is as exciting as any in our history, but it is not war that sets Alfred apart. He was a man with great practical talents, planning and executing long-term administrative change; refounding cities, and laying out new ones; making provision for coinage, law and trade.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was in learning. As a young man Alfred was barely literate. But he was a Christian king, touched by the great cultural revolution in Europe under the Carolingians, when the principles of Christian humanism guided kingship, learning and law. So he gathered together an international team of scholars, several from Mercia, bishop Asser from Wales, John ‘the Old Saxon’ from Germany, and Grimbald from Francia, who brought knowledge of the achievements of the Carolingian renaissance to Alfred’s court.
These men set out to translate into the vernacular what Alfred thought were the key books for the times, “the ones it is most needful for people to know”. Some of these survive in manuscript today in the Bodleian and the British Library, and in the Vatican a late ninth‑century commentary on The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is covered with marginal notes in a Welsh hand – perhaps a text used by Asser himself.
Alfred’s reign, then, was a founding moment in English politics, culture, language and literature. The roots of English law and poetry are Anglo-Saxon, and the continuity of English vernacular prose runs from Alfred to Chaucer and on down to us.
So while the dig for Alfred’s bones drew a blank, if it made more people aware of his story, then it served its purpose. If you want one example of why Anglo-Saxons matter to us today, it’s Alfred the Great.