Perception of Alfred's personality, policies, and methods depends largely upon his seemingly intimate hagiographical biography by Asser. But there was probably a different side to Alfred's character. And if the denial of the text's authenticity, powerfully reasserted in 1995, should carry the day, then significant elements of the traditional reconstruction of Alfred's career will disappear.
Asser says Alfred was born in 849 in Wantage and married a Mercian lady in 868. The quality of his own writings suggests that he had a sound education in Latin. He assisted Æthelred against the ‘great army’ which invaded in 865, and his accession in 871 was most likely not a certainty. The 870s saw continuing war against the Danes, who were numerous, skilled, treacherous, well led, wanting conquest and settlement, not unattractive as allies or lords to rivals. They also damaged Christian faith and institutions. In 878, surprised by Guthrum at Chippenham, Alfred fled to Athelney (Somerset), but defeated the Danes in a desperate last-stand battle at Edington. The results were the treaty of Wedmore, Guthrum's baptism and retirement to be king of East Anglia. The army of Hæsten invaded in 892, and proved more difficult, but left in 896.
The West Saxon dynasty was the only one to survive the Viking threat and to this achievement Alfred added authority over all the English outside Danish control. Mercia (under Burgred) had been an ally, and was handled tactfully. Alfred married his daughter Æthelfleda to Ealdorman Æthelred, probably of Mercian royal stock, allowed him to operate as subking, and the Mercian witan to survive, and ceded London after its recapture from the Danes (886). After this, all the English not subject to the Danes submitted to Alfred, and he represented them all in a treaty with Guthrum. Asser asserts that the Welsh too submitted.
Alfred's success depended on his own abilities and on his administration. Earlier dynastic stability will have contributed to royal control over local government, though Alfred's rota system for thegns' attendance at court and the system of division of his revenues are recorded by Asser alone. His new 60-oared design for ‘long ships’ was not immediately successful, his division of the fyrd into two (home and away) was perhaps to safeguard agriculture, or to allow military expense to be shared. His most ambitious and effective reform was the development of burhs (33 of them recorded in the slightly later Burghal Hidage). Various sites—old Roman towns, new towns, old or new forts—chosen so that nowhere in Wessex was further than 20 miles from one, were fortified and their defence and maintenance imposed on the people. Some 27,000 men were required in all. The burhs caused the 890s wars to be fought largely outside Wessex.
Some burhs, including Winchester, were given a common town-plan, suggesting that they were intended to be permanently inhabited commercial centres. Alfred's government was expensive. It is probable that he bought peace with heavy Danegelds, for example in 896. Wealth was necessary to ensure aristocratic support, for building, against Vikings, and also against dynastic rivals. Alfred's nephews Æthelhelm and Æthelwold challenged his disposition of Æthelred's property and could be expected to challenge his son Edward for the kingship. Asser asserts that Alfred spent lavishly on art, architecture, alms, and gifts to the church. His coinage shows he was not short of silver, and his will that he was hugely wealthy in 899.
Alfred's relationship with the church seems superficially harmonious. Ninth-cent. West Saxon kings seem not to have pressured the church economically: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Alfred sending alms to Rome, and receiving gifts from Pope Marinus, and Asser recounts his foundation of monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury (for women). Churchmen took part in war, and the archbishop of Canterbury was influential and probably predisposed towards the creation of one, unified kingdom. Ecclesiastical support may have facilitated Alfred's success. Yet evidence from Abingdon suggests Alfred was resented there as a despoiler, other evidence that he appropriated monastic properties, and it is as a threat to the church that he appears in a papal letter in 878.
The support Alfred needed was not automatic, so he attempted to teach his subjects about their duties, his authority, and their collective destiny. The authorship and dates of texts produced in his reign have been much discussed, and depend in part on the degree of credence given to Asser's account of Alfred's intellectual development. Alfred's law code referred to the laws of Æthelbert of Kent and of Offa of Mercia, and included Ine's, perhaps to appeal to Kentish and Mercian sentiment and to indicate historical continuity. A law on treason and an oath of allegiance to the king (more fully documented in later codes) were introduced. The code's purpose was to promote the king as lawgiver on Roman and biblical models, and Alfred's preface offers a history of law beginning with the Ten Commandments, suggesting that his people were a new people of God. The Chronicle was perhaps composed in 896–7 under Alfred's direction, its content and structure suggesting that it was commissioned to tie Alfred into West Saxon history and Wessex into world history, to emphasize Alfred's fitness to rule, to represent the West Saxon kings as struggling for Christianity against paganism, to set Alfred's cause and people in a context of contemporary world powers and events, and to celebrate his achievement (strong, peaceful rule in Wessex, destined to rule all England) as an inevitable result of history. The translations of Orosius' History against the Pagans and Bede's Ecclesiastical History, both likewise offering 9th-cent. Wessex a historical context, were also, probably, composed at Alfred's request.
Alfred proposed, in his prose preface to his translation of Pope Gregory I's Pastoral Rule (a treatise about the role of bishops but also applied to the kingly office), a programme of translation of books ‘most necessary for all men to know’. He complained that clerical knowledge of Latin and educational standards generally had greatly declined. But his own and his team's activities betray this to be an exaggeration. Alfred himself refers to Asser, Plegmund, Wærferth, Grimbald, and John. For their attendance on and education of Alfred, some of their work, the plans for mass education, and for reading tests for ealdormen and reeves (administrators and judges), we depend on Asser. Alfred's Pastoral Rule was sent to his bishops, to educate them and to urge them to teach. He wanted all free men to be literate in English, and Latin teaching to be available to those intended for holy orders. Alfred also translated, more freely, two contemplative works, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Augustine's Soliloquies, and a number of psalms.
Alfred's guiding principle in selecting texts is subject to debate. One factor was belief that to defeat their enemies the people needed God's help, and to deserve it they needed help in understanding his message. Contemplation was recommended by Gregory to prevent pride, the greatest danger of office. The translations emphasized what the authors thought, or implied, about power, authority, and social cohesion: the power of the king is awesome, the subject's duty to be his tool; wisdom, acquired through reading and study, will lead to office, power, success, and riches as well as happiness in the next world. These messages are deeply political.
The West Saxon take-over of England, 10th-cent. economic development, the burhs as sites of mints and centres of administration, can all be traced back to Alfred. Though vernacular literature failed to take off, the education of bishops may have contributed to the 10th-cent. reform movement. Alfred's legal innovations may have laid a foundation for the English common law of Henry II's time.
That Alfred was open to Carolingian influence is detectable in the oath of allegiance, his bridge-building, his educational programme, and his concept of kingship. Asser exaggerated his contemplative quality into something approaching neurosis. The reality was a ruthless, shrewd ruler with a keen historical sense, a sensitivity to public opinion, and a genuine sense of duty. He had learned his lesson from Pope Gregory, with whose character and situation he had much in common, and whom he may have made in part his model. The only early medieval monarch to combine significant personal activity in both rule and scholarship, he was doing what he wanted of his underlings and what Gregory enjoined.
A. E. Redgate
Frantzen, A. J. , King Alfred (Boston, 1986);
Keynes, S., and and Lapidge, M. (trans.), Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth, 1983);
Smyth, A. P. , King Alfred the Great (Oxford, 1995).
The Anglo-Saxon Alfred (849-899), sometimes called Alfred the Great, was king of Wessex from 871 to 899. He successfully halted the advance of Danish armies seeking to conquer the English, and he stimulated a revival of learning among his war-ravaged people.
The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who had migrated to the island of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries and had wrested control of what is now England from the native Britons. After their conversion to Christianity in the 7th century, they absorbed much Latin culture, which blended with their Germanic traditions to form a distinctive civilization and increasingly stable political and social institutions. The process of reducing the many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to a unified nation under a centralized monarchy was still in its early stages when the Danes, another Germanic nation far more warlike than the Anglo-Saxons had become, began raiding the English coast in the last years of the 8th century. The raids became full-scale invasions. Alfred's courage and military skill, however, prevented the Danes from conquering England, although they were later successful, early in the 11th century.
Alfred was born in 849, the youngest of six children of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex. Alfred's youth was highlighted by two trips to Rome in 853 and 855, where he was honored by the Pope; it was also plagued by sickness and the insecurity of his position as youngest son. Although Alfred could neither read nor write, he loved the traditional poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, which he memorized as it was read to him. Asser, his biographer, says that on one occasion he was stimulated to learn these heroic songs by a desire to outdo his older brother and win the praise of his mother.
All of Alfred's brothers were dead by 871, and he became king at age 22. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom that had not been conquered by the Danes during the invasion of 866, and by 871 the Danes had established permanent settlements in the North Midlands and in East Anglia. Early in 878, while Alfred's armies were scattered for the winter, an army under Guthrum left Gloucester in Danish-controlled Mercia and made a surprise attack on the West Saxons, capturing much of the kingdom. Alfred, facing disaster, withdrew to the marshlands of Dorset with a small troop. The famous story of his taking refuge in the house of an old lady and, in his distracted state, letting her cakes burn through inattention, is unfortunately a later legend. But Alfred's situation was indeed desperate.
At Easter 878 he fortified the Isle of Athelney in Somerset, and his battles with Danish raiding parties encouraged more and more West Saxons to join him secretly. Seven weeks after Easter, Alfred left Athelney for a rendezvous of the militias of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Ten days later at Edington, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, Alfred's army decisively defeated the Danes. The invaders swore to leave Wessex, and Guthrum was baptized a Christian. The English were saved, and the King began at once to reorganize the land and sea defenses of the West Saxons in order to prevent further Danish inroads. These strategic innovations and Alfred's ability to use his forces well allowed him to turn back another major Danish attack during his reign. Launched from Scandinavia in 892, this invasion ended in 896 without appreciable success despite aid from the Danes already settled in England.
Having gained a respite from military crises, Alfred gathered around himself a dedicated group of English and foreign clerics. In 887, when he was 38, he began to learn to read English and Latin. Between 893 and 899 he and his scholars translated several major Latin works to make them accessible to his subjects and thus restore the preeminence in religion and culture England enjoyed before the Danish invasions. Alfred explained his aims in a moving preface to the translation (893) of St. Gregory's Pastoral Care. The later translations which he probably initiated or undertook himself included Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Orosius's Universal History, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine's Solioquies. In his first attempts at translation, Alfred seems to have had the Latin text read and explained to him and then to have dictated a translation or paraphrase to scribes. In later works the quality of his prose improved, and he interpolated his own views on man's nature, trials, and destiny along with interesting comments on the world as the Anglo-Saxons knew it.
Alfred codified a set of laws for his kingdom and probably aided in the wide dissemination of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a quasi-official record of the experiences of his people. His intellect, imagination, and energy seemed to grow in his last years. On his death in 899, he left a record of achievement which earned him his reputation as the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, as well as a legacy of military preparedness and strategy on which were based the victorious campaigns of his immediate successors against the Danes.
The main source of information about Alfred is Asser's Life of King Alfred, edited by William Henry Stevenson (trans. 1904), written by Alfred's chaplain, Asser. A modern biography is Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great (1956; published in England as Alfred the Great and His England, 1957). Also useful is the chapter on Alfred in Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963). Alfred's reign and achievements are recorded in G. N. Garmonsway, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1953). His career is thoroughly considered and placed in the context of Anglo-Saxon history in R. H. Hodgkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (2 vols., 1935; 3d ed. 1952), and F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947). For an assessment of Alfred's contribution to Anglo-Saxon culture see Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965). □