Alfred (849-899), the ninth century king of Wessex, is the only king in English history to be titled “the Great”, although that sobriquet always made me wonder if Alfred just had an excellent public relations department. Many historians have tried to make that case, their main point being that almost all of our information about Alfred comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which originated under Alfred’s rule and guidance. But Alfred was not given the title “the Great” until the 16th century, and it cannot be denied that he accomplished much for the English people at a time of terrible troubles.
Therein lies the problem with much of the study of history. There is a lack of primary resources, and those that do (or did) exist may be biased. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are the first biography of an English king written by a contemporary. The author, the Welsh bishop Asser of Sherborne, knew the king well in the last decade of Alfred’s life, acting as his tutor, chaplain and confidante at court. While he writes of Alfred’s successes as a warrior and king, he also portrays him as oversensitive, high strung, strong-minded, inventive and a hypochondriac.
But there has been controversy over whether Asser really wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles during Alfred’s lifetime or if they were written a couple of centuries later by someone else. Although it is believed it was originally sponsored by Alfred, it was kept for two centuries after Alfred’s death and is the most valuable source available for early English history. It came to an end in 1154, but no other country in Europe has anything to compare to it as a resource.
There are some generally accepted facts about Alfred’s life, but there are also many legends that have been built up over the centuries. As I mentioned, he was not called “the Great” until the 16th century.
Alfred was born in 849, son of Aethelwulf, who ruled from 839-858 as the king of the West Saxons. Alfred was the fourth of four sons, so never expected to become king. He was a religious and contemplative young man, as befitted a son expected to enter the church rather than reign.
In the middle years of the ninth century, England was divided among four great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex. I’ve mentioned Ivar the Boneless before, and it was during Alfred’s lifetime that Ivar and his Vikings came to England. By 878 only Wessex remained, the other English kings having been replaced by the Danes.
Alfred became king at the age of 21 after his third brother was killed in battle. In 871 there were nine major battles between the men of Wessex and the invading Vikings. After being defeated, Alfred offered to buy off the Danes, to pay Danegeld (a tribute tax), and they took his money and went to Mercia. He knew the Danes would be back, and that they had better weapons, better discipline and more experience. What Alfred actually bought with the Danegeld was time: time to regroup and to prepare the English defenses.
And it worked. Alfred defeated the Danes in 879, but knew they would be back again and again. As part of a peace agreement, the Danish king and 30 of his men agreed to accept baptism as Christians and an English/Danish border was arranged.
Although Alfred was an impressive warrior, his true greatness was in times of peace. In the final two decades of his reign he planned and built about 25 towns, about half the number built by the Romans in three and a half centuries of occupation.
He also created a system of fortified strongholds called burhs. The core of his kingdom was protected by a ring of these burhs, and no village was more than 20 miles away from one. He reorganized the army, dividing it into two parts so that the soldier/farmers could split their time between serving in the army and working their fields. He also established a semi-professional corps of soldiers whose only duty was military.
In my view, the most important achievement of Alfred’s reign was the revival of learning, which had seriously declined during the half century of Viking invasions. The monasteries and schools had been burned, his people were living in ignorance and squalor, and the nobility and clergy were illiterate. The use of Latin had declined to the point that important books were neglected because no one could read them. Alfred’s goal was literacy. He wanted to translate all Latin texts into Anglo-Saxon so his people would not need to know Latin in order to learn. He made an economic commitment to learning, devoting nearly half of the kingdom’s revenue to education.
Alfred died at the age of 50 in 899 after 20 years of peaceful rule. One more thing that comes from Asser, if it really was Asser, is his detailing of Alfred’s illnesses. Using those descriptions, doctors in more modern times have given a possible diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.
There is much more I want to tell you about Alfred and his life, so I’m sure I will revisit and flesh out some of this basic outline. More than 1100 years after his death, Alfred the Great is remembered for his ability as a warrior and military leader, rebuilding Wessex, his belief in education, his deeply held faith, and the fact that he accomplished all this while in poor health. That’s a lot to put on one man, but I prefer to believe that this was all possible. People can be amazing when they need to be.
One of the reasons I return again and again to the history of Alfred the Great is because it exemplifies two of the aspects of history that most interest me. The first is the idea that historical reputations change over time as the people of various ages seek to accentuate those traits that support their own ideals.
The second is that I most enjoy history that is incomplete or lacks certainty. Historians generally specialize in a specific subject, but I have never wanted to know everything about any one specific topic. Maybe I just like the anticipation, the hope, that some new piece of evidence may be discovered and blow up an entire area of study, requiring us to re-evaluate our suppositions about history. Whatever the reason, I like a little mystery in my history.