Southern Anthology

Families on the Frontiers of the Old South

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex[1, 2]

Male 849 - 899  (50 years)

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  • Name Alfred the Great 
    Suffix King of Wessex 
    Born 849  Wantage, Berkshire Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    House House of Wessex 
    Died 26 Oct 899 
    Buried Hyde Abbey, Winchester, Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Alfred the Great
    Alfred the Great
    • ÆLFRED (849-901), king of the West-Saxons, is the one great character of our early history whose name still lives in popular memory, and round whose well-known historical career a vast mass of legend has gathered. The name of Ælfred is familiar to many who perhaps do not know the name of any other king or other worthy before the Norman Conquest. And popular belief has made him into a kind of embodiment of the national being; he has become the model English king, indeed the model Englishman. As usual, popular belief has got hold of a half truth. It has picked out for remembrance the man most worthy of remembrance, and, as far as his personal character is concerned, its conception of him has not gone far astray. But his historical position is strangely misconceived. As the one Old-English name that is remembered, Ælfred has drawn to himself the credit that belongs to many men both earlier and later, and often to the nation itself. The king of the West-Saxons grows into a king of all England, and he is made the founder of all our institutions. He invents trial by jury, the rude principle of which is as old as the Teutonic race itself, while the first glimmerings of its actual existing shape cannot be seen till ages after Ælfred's day. So he divides England into shires, hundreds, tithings, and institutes the so-called law of frankpledge. In all this we see the natural growth of legend, always ready to find a personal author for national customs which really grew of themselves. It is by a worse process, by deliberate and interested falsehood, that he has been represented as the founder of the university of Oxford and of one of its colleges.

      Yet even the legendary reputation of Ælfred is hardly too great for his real merits. No man recorded in history seems ever to have united so many great and good qualities. At once captain, lawgiver, saint, and scholar, he devoted himself with a single mind to the welfare of his people in every way. He showed himself alike their deliverer, their ruler, and their teacher. He came to the crown at a moment of extreme national danger; a great part of his reign was taken up with warfare with an enemy who threatened the national being; yet he found means personally to do more for the general enlightenment of his people than any other king in English history. Ælfred is great, not by the special development of some one or two powers or virtues, but by the equal balance of all. Appearing in many characters, he avoids the special vices and temptations of each. In a reign of singular alternations of overthrow and success, he is never cast down by ill luck or puffed up by good. In any case of war or of peace, of good luck or of bad, he is ready to act with a single mind, as the needs of the moment most call upon him to act.

      For the title of Great, often given to Ælfred in modern times, there is no ancient authority. Its use seems to go back no later than the seventeenth century. There is in truth no need for it. Alexander, Charles, William, needed it to mark them off from many smaller bearers of their several names; Ælfred practically has his name to himself. It is a name which has always been in use without ever being very common, but it has never been borne by any one who could possibly be confounded with the West-Saxon king. In the West-Saxon kingly house it is never found before him and only once after him, nor has it been borne by any king of the enlarged English kingdom. In his own age the single male Ælf-name in the family stands out in a marked way among the Æthels and Eads. Ælfred is Ælf-red, the rede of the elves; it can hardly be needful to point out the mistake of those who fancied that its meaning was all-peace. Nor can it be necessary to distinguish the name Ælf-red from the utterly distinct name Ealh-frith, borne by a Northumbrian king who, owing to a likeness in the corrupt Latin forms of the two names, has been sometimes confounded with the great West-Saxon (see Sir T. D. Hardy's note, Will. Malm. Gest. Regg. ii. 123). The cognate names are Ælfwine, Ælfthryth, Ælfgifu, and others of the same class. Unlike so many of the Old-English names which are purely insular, it seems to have had, like Ecgberht and a few others, a slight currency on the continent (see Norman Conquest, i. 779), perhaps owing to some kindred Lombard form, as in the case of some other English names.

      Ælfred was the fifth and youngest son of Æthelwulf, king of the West-Saxons, and of his wife Osburh, daughter of his cupbearer Oslac, of the old kingly house of the Jutes of Wight (Asser). He was born at Wantage in Berkshire in 849. In 853 he was sent to Rome by his father, where the pope, Leo IV, took him to his 'bishopson' and hallowed him to king. It seems impossible to gainsay this last statement of Asser and the Chronicles, strange as it is; and it may help to explain some things that follow. If we literally follow the words of Asser, we must believe that the child was brought back, and that he went again with his father two years later, when Æthelwulf made his own pilgrimage to Rome in 855. But it is perhaps easier to suppose that he stayed at Rome for three years and came back with his father in 856. He was Æthelwulf's best-beloved son, and his hallowing at Rome, an act so contrary to all English precedent and English law, no doubt helped with other causes to set the elder sons of Æthelwulf against their father. On his way home Æthelwulf married and brought back with him Judith, the young daughter of Charles the Bald, king of the West-Franks, and afterwards emperor. And we are driven, however unwillingly, to suppose that Osburh, the mother of Æthelwulf's children, was put away to make room for her (see Wright, Biographia Britannica Literaria, Anglo-Saxon Period, p. 385), a step which, among the Franks at least, would be in no way wonderful. In no other way can we understand the well-known story told by Asser, how Ælfred's mother showed him and his brothers a book of poems with a beautiful initial letter, and promised to give it to the one who should first learn to read it. Ælfred found a master, and was soon able to read. This story is placed in Ælfred's twelfth year, about 861, when the mention of his brothers is in any case a difficulty. But in no case could we put the story before the return of Æthelwulf in 856. It follows therefore that Osburh must have outlived her husband's second marriage. The notion that by Ælfred's mother is meant, not his own mother, but the Frankish girl, younger than some of his brothers, whom their father had put in her place, is too wild to be discussed.

      Whatever may have been designed by Ælfred's childish hallowing at Rome, no attempt was made to set him up as the immediate successor of his father. And when Æthelwulf tried to fix the succession beforehand, by a will confirmed by the Witan, Ælfred was put in the line of succession after those of his brothers who were put in the line of succession at all. We hear nothing of him directly during the reigns of his brothers Æthelbald and Æthelberht; but on the accession of Æthelred in 866 he at once comes into prominence. During Æthelred's reign Asser gives Ælfred the title of secundarius?possibly equivalent to subregulus?but he seems rather to look on him as a general helper to his brother than as the local under-king of any particular land. He also (871) implies that he had held that title during the time of his elder brothers. This is very puzzling, and might almost seem to suggest that something of special kingship, beyond the common kingliness of the kin, was held to attach to Ælfred from the Roman hallowing. Anyhow, under Æthelred, Ælfred, young as he still was, was clearly the second man in the kingdom. In 868 he married Ealhswith, daughter of Æthelred surnamed the Mickle, ealdorman of the Gainas (a people whose name survives in Gainsborough), and his wife Eadburh. In 869 he shared the expedition of his brother to Nottingham for the relief of their brother-in-law Burhred, king of the Mercians, against the Danes who had settled in Northumberland. In 871 the Danes first invaded Wessex, and Ælfred appears as the leading spirit of that great year of battles. He shared in the great victory on Æscesdún (not the place now specially called Ashdown, but the whole long hill with the battle-field on the top) and in the following battles of Basing and Merton. When Æthelred died soon after Easter in that year, Ælfred succeeded to the West-Saxon crown. He succeeded, as Asser assures us and as we certainly have no reason to doubt, with the general good will. But it is to be noticed that neither Asser nor the Chronicles contain any formal notice of his election and coronation. Neither do they in the case of his brothers or in that of many other kings. But the fulness of the narrative at this point makes the omission in this case more remarkable, and we are again led to think what may have been the effect of the will of Æthelwulf and the hallowing by Pope Leo. But that Ælfred should succeed his brother in preference to his brother's young sons was only according to the universal custom of the nation then and down to the election of John.

      Ælfred's accession to the crown came in the very thick of the fighting with the Danes. A month afterwards the new king fought with the Danes at Wilton, the ninth and last battle of the year. It is one of those fights in which we read that the English drove the Danes to flight, and yet that the Danes kept possession of the place of slaughter. In battles between irregular levies and a smaller but better disciplined band of invaders, this result is not so unlikely as it seems at first sight. But in any case the West-Saxon kingdom was so weakened by the warfare of this year that Ælfred was glad to make peace with the Danes, doubtless on the usual terms of payment of money. They then left Wessex, and the immediate kingdom of Ælfred had rest for a season.

      The second invasion of Wessex by the Danes who remained in England is the event which has made Ælfred's name famous. Some smaller attacks went before the main blow. Thus in 875 the king met and drove away some pirate ships. In 876 the host ?stole? into Wessex and attacked Wareham. The king now made peace with them, and they swore on the holy bracelet, their most solemn oath, that they would leave his dominions. The land-force, however, 'stole' away to Exeter; there, in 877, they renewed their oaths, and left Wessex for Gloucester. It was in the next year, 878, just after Christmas, that the whole Danish power burst upon Wessex. They entered the land at Chippenham; of the eastern part of the kingdom we hear nothing; in Devonshire there was fighting, for a Danish leader was killed, and the banner, the famous Raven, was taken. Somerset seems to have been overrun without a battle, and there is no sign of general resistance till about Easter, when the king, with a small company, raised a fort at Athelney (Æthelinga ige) among the marshes. This acted as a centre for winning back what was lost. The king's force grew, and seven weeks after Easter he marched to Brixton (Ecgbrihtes stán) on the Wiltshire border. There, at the head of the whole force of Somerset and Wiltshire and part of that of Hampshire, he defeated the Danes in the battle of Ethandún (seemingly Edington in Wiltshire), and took their stronghold. The Danes and their king Guthrum now again agreed, with oaths and hostages, to leave Wessex, and further engaged that the king should receive baptism. Guthrum was accordingly baptized at Aller in Somerset. His 'chrisom-loosing' at Wedmore followed, and this last seems to have been the occasion of the peace between Ælfred and Guthrum, which became the model for several later agreements of the same kind.

      Such is the historical account, from the Chronicles and from the genuine text of Asser, of the momentary fall and recovery of the West-Saxon kingdom under Ælfred. It is an affair of a few months of one year. The shire in which the king seems to have been at the time is overrun by a sudden inroad, and a short time passes before any military operations can be set on foot in this district. But fighting still goes on to the west. The only difficulty is that we hear nothing of anything that happened in any part of the West-Saxon kingdom besides Somerset and Devonshire. But so striking an event has naturally been seized on as material for legend. Thus one version, forming part of the legend of Saint Neot, and devised for his exaltation (see John of Wallingford, Gale, i. 535, et seqq.; Asser, Mon. Hist. Brit. 481; and see Lingard i. 189), tells us that Ælfred in the early part of his reign rules harshly, and he is rebuked by the saint and punished by being forsaken by his people when the Danes invade the kingdom. He hides in various lurking-places, and now comes in the famous story of the cakes. But there is no trace of all this in the genuine work of Asser. Here is no forsaking and no hiding; Ælfred is reduced to extreme distress, but he never lays down his arms. Another legend is preserved by William of Malmesbury (Gest. Reg. lib. ii. cap. 121), which cannot be said to contradict the historical account, except the strange statement that Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Somerset were the only shires that remained faithful. The king while in Athelney has a vision of Saint Cuthberht, and he afterwards goes into the Danish camp disguised as a harper. In a story preserved in the so-called chronicle of Brompton (Twysden, Decem Script. 811) we get the tale of his giving the loaf to the poor man who turned out to be Saint Cuthberht. In a northern version (see Simeon of Durham, Hist. Eccl. Dun. lib. i. cap. 10, and the History of Saint Cuthbert, Twysden, Decem. Script. 71) the few weeks' sojourn at Athelney grows into a three years' sojourn at Glastonbury, a name doubtless better known at Durham. It is possible that some small kernel of truth may be found in these tales, but, as accounts of the events of the year 878, they are altogether fabulous.

      By the treaty now made between Ælfred and Guthrum, a frontier, answering in the main to the Watling Street, was drawn between the immediate dominions of the two kings. That is to say, the West-Saxon king kept the whole of his own kingdom and added to it all south-western Mercia, establishing also an overlordship, however nominal, over the land which was yielded to the Danes. By this arrangement, Ælfred, as compared with his predecessors before the Danish invasions, lost as an overlord, but gained as an immediate sovereign. Ecgberht and Æthelwulf had been kings only of the later Wessex and its eastern dependencies, the land south of the Thames, with such supremacy as they might be able to enforce over the other English kingdoms. And this supremacy was undoubtedly more real than any that Ælfred could for some while enforce anywhere beyond his own kingdom. But his own kingdom was greatly enlarged, and that to a considerable extent by lands which had been lost by earlier West-Saxon kings. And this immediate enlargement of the West-Saxon kingdom was not all. Wessex and her king now stood forth as the only English power in Britain, the one which had lived through the Danish inroads and had come out stronger from them. From this time the recovery of the part of England held by the Danes, and the union of the whole into one kingdom, was only a question of time. The English people everywhere now learned to look to the West-Saxon king as their champion and deliverer.

      Ælfred did not however at once bring the recovered part of Mercia under his own immediate government. The Mercian kingdom had come to an end by the flight of its king Burhred, Ælfred's brother-in-law, and the Danish occupation of the country. The part of Mercia which Alfred won back he put into the hands of Æthelred, a man of the old kingly house of Mercia, and who held under the West-Saxon king a position more like that of an under-king than of an ordinary ealdorman. To him he gave in marriage his daughter Æthelflæd, the renowned Lady of the Mercians. Æthelred and Æthelflæd proved the most loyal of helpers both to Ælfred and to his successor Eadward.

      The question now suggests itself whether it is not in this extension of the West-Saxon kingdom that we are to look for the origin of the legend which makes Ælfred the author of the division of England into shires and hundreds. As far as regards the hundreds, this notion is as old as William of Malmesbury. It is not at all unlikely that Ælfred may have done in his new dominion what his son Eadward clearly did in the much larger territory which he recovered from the Danes. That territory Eadward clearly mapped out into new shires without regard to the boundaries of the older settlements. It may be that Ælfred had already begun the work in his Mercian acquisitions, and that some of the shires in that quarter may be of his formation.

      In 879 Guthrum and his Danes left Wessex for Cirencester, where they were in the part of Mercia ceded to Ælfred. The next year they altogether left Ælfred's dominions, and settled in East-Anglia. For a few years there was quiet, but in 884 we have the marked entry in the Chronicles that the hosts in East-Anglia broke the peace. This was seemingly by failing to renew their hostages, and by giving help to a Scandinavian host which, after much ravaging on the continent, landed in Kent and attacked Rochester. Ælfred drove them back to their ships, and then sent a fleet against East Anglia which came in for both a victory and a defeat (see the Chronicles, sub an. 884, 885, and Æthelward as explained by Lappenberg). In 886 Ælfred took an important step for the defence of his kingdom by occupying and fortifying London, which he put into the hands of Æthelred of Mercia (see the collation of the authorities in Earle's Parallel Chronicles). This seems to have been accompanied by a general submission to Ælfred of the Angles and Saxons throughout Britain, except so far as they were hindered by Danish masters. This is not very clear, as the only separate English state left was that of Bernicia or aBmburgh. Its prince Eadwulf is said in another account (Twysden, Decem Script. 1073) to have been on friendly terms with Ælfred, which most likely implies some measurable overlordship on the side of the greater potentate. Indeed from the language used by the chronicler in recording the events of the year 893 we might be led to think that the Danes themselves, not only in East-Anglia but in Northumberland, had given oaths and hostages at some time before that year. About the same time also as the fortification of London, Ælfred received the submission of several princes of Wales, who agreed to pay to him the same subjection which Æthelred paid in Mercia. Ælfred was thus, in name at least, restored to the position of his grandfather Ecgberht, as overlord of all England, with a much greater immediate dominion than Ecgberht had ever held.

      For several years no warlike acts are recorded. We hear chiefly of Ælfred sending alms to Rome, and of his reception of his British friend and biographer Asser, and of saintly wanderers from Ireland. This was the chief time of his literary work, and most likely of his legislation also. When the time of strife came again, it began with an attack from the continent. In 893 the Northmen who had been defeated by King Arnulf of Germany crossed to England, and landed on the borders of Kent and Sussex, while the famous wiking Hasting sailed up the Thames. Ælfred now exacted fresh oaths and hostages from the Danes in England, both in East-Anglia and in Northumberland; but they presently broke their oaths, and joined the invaders. The campaigns which followed in 894 and following years to 897 are told with great detail in the Chronicles. They are remarkable for the great extent of country which they cover. The war begins in south-eastern England, but it presently spreads into the distant west. While the king goes to defend Exeter, attacked by sea by the Danes from Northumberland and East-Anglia, Ealdorman Æthelred has to follow the other army along both the Thames and the Severn. Defeated at Buttington, they go back to Essex; then, with new forces from Northumberland and East-Anglia, they cross the island again, and winter in the Wirrall in Cheshire, within the forsaken walls of the city which had been Deva and which was before long to be Chester. The two next years there is fighting in nearly every part of England. The king, the men of London, and the South-Saxons, show themselves vigorous in resistance, and the war goes on as far north as York. In 897 the invaders seem to have been tired out. Some withdrew to the continent, some to East-Anglia and Northumberland. Warfare by land comes to an end; and, by improvements in the build of his ships, Ælfred is able to put down the small parties of wikings which still infest the channel. We do not read of any renewed peace, of any more oaths or hostages; perhaps Ælfred had learned how little they went for. But the war clearly came to an end, as for three years more the Chronicles have nothing to record.

      Two personal notices of Ælfred during this war are worth noticing. At some early stage of it, the details of which are not easy to settle, Hasting himself swore oaths to Ælfred, and consented to the baptism of his two children, Ælfred being godfather to one and Æthelred to the other. At a later stage, when Hasting had broken his oaths, the two boys and their mother fell into the king's hands, and Ælfred gave them back to Hasting. On the other hand, at the very end of the war, Ælfred hanged the crews of the captured Danish ships. After their repeated oath-breakings and harryings, there was nothing wonderful in this; but it may be noticed as the only act of Ælfred which looks at all like harshness.

      In the fourth year after the end of the last Danish war, 28 Oct. 901, Ælfred died in his fifty-third year, and was buried in the New Minster, afterwards Hyde Abbey, at Winchester. By his wife Ealhswith, who survived him till 902 or 905, he left five children?two sons, his successor Eadward, who succeeded him, and Æthelward, and three daughters, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, Ælfthryth, married to Baldwin, Count of Flanders, and Æthelgifu, Abbess of Shaftesbury.

      The general outward result of the reign of Ælfred is thus perfectly plain. When the Scandinavian invasions threatened the utter overthrow of England, and especially of English Christianity, he saved his own kingdom from the general wreck, and made it the centre for the deliverance and union of the whole country. The Danish invasions did more than any other one cause to bring about the unity of England; but that they did so was only because Ælfred was able to use them to that end. The Danes, by breaking to pieces the other kingdoms and leaving one, gave that one an altogether new position. Ecgberht brought all England under his supremacy as a conqueror; Ælfred and his successors were able to win back that supremacy as deliverers. Ælfred did not form a single kingdom of England, but he took the first steps towards its formation by his son and grandsons. His royal style is remarkable. Besides the obvious title of 'West-Saxonum rex,' he very often calls himself 'Rex Saxonum,' a title unknown before, and not common afterwards. No other style so exactly expressed the extent of Ælfred's dominion. It took in all, or nearly all, of the Saxon part of England, and not much besides. For the Mercian ealdormanship of Æthelred consisted to a great extent of lands which had been won by the West-Saxons in the first conquest, and which had afterwards passed under Mercian rule. Of the high-sounding titles which were taken by the kings who followed Ælfred we see no sign in his time. Asser however more than once speaks of him as ?Angul-Saxonum rex,? the earliest use of a name which, as expressing the union of Angles and Saxons under one king, became not uncommon in the next century. Asser, as a Welshman, naturally speaks of the tongue of Ælfred as Saxon, and his land as Saxony. But Ælfred himself, while with minute accuracy he uses the Saxon name in his title, always in his writings speaks of his people and their tongue as English.

      As Ælfred extended the bounds of his kingdom, there can be little doubt that his reign greatly tended to the increase of the royal authority within his kingdom. This was the natural result both of his position and of his personal character. It is a mere legend which charges him with oppressive or even harsh rule at any time of his life. But when a king has won the position, both legendary and historical, of Ælfred, even the most suspicious witness against him becomes of importance. Unless we assume sheer invention for contradiction's sake, it must be an exaggeration or distortion of something. Something must have suggested the story. There seems no reason to charge Ælfred, as a great scholar (Kemble, Saxons in England, ii. 208) has done, with 'anti-national and un-Teutonic feeling.' But we may believe that the king who had been marked out for kingship by a papal hallowing in his childhood, and who had come to the kingship of his people by what might seem so marked a course of destiny, may from the beginning have held the kingly authority somewhat higher than the kings who had gone before him, somewhat higher than pleased all his subjects. In fact, the strengthening of the kingly power would be the almost necessary result of Ælfred's career. He made his kingdom afresh, and he enlarged its borders. Of all that was done he himself was pre-eminently the doer. We see the same thing in France under Saint Lewis, a king in whom the warlike side was less prominent than in Ælfred, and who never had to fight for the being of his kingdom. Under kings like Ælfred and Lewis the kingly power grows, simply because every man knows that the king is the power that can best be trusted. Asser emphatically says that Ælfred was the only man in his kingdom to whom the poor could look for help. The circumstances of Ælfred's reign did much also to quicken a change which was then going on both in England and in other parts of Europe. This is the change from the old immemorial nobility of birth to the new nobility of personal service, that is in England the change from eorlas to þegnas. Rank and power become attached to service due to the king as a personal lord, a process which, in the beginning at least, does much to strengthen the authority of that personal lord. But it does not appear that Ælfred was the author of any formal legal or constitutional changes. In his legislation his tone is one of singular modesty. 'He did not dare to set down much of his own in writ, for he did not know how it would like them that came after.' He speaks of himself as simply choosing the best among the laws of earlier kings, and as doing all that he did with the consent of his witan. And the actual legislation of Ælfred is of exactly the same character as the legislation of the earlier kings. What strikes us most in his laws as compared with the laws of his own predecessor Ine is the absence of any reference to the distinction of English and Welsh. The Britons within the immediate West-Saxon kingdom (that is, no doubt, mainly in Somerset and Devonshire) had now practically become English. And the events of Ælfred's own reign must have done much to wipe out the distinction. Fighting with the Danes had made Britons and Englishmen one people within the West-Saxon realm.

      What is specially characteristic of Ælfred's laws is their intensely religious character. The body of them, like other Christian Teutonic codes, is simply the old Teutonic law, with such changes?more strictly perhaps such additions?as the introduction of Christianity made needful. What is peculiar to Ælfred's code is the long scriptural introduction, beginning with the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew law is here treated very much as an earlier Teutonic code might have been. The translation is far from being always literal; the language is often adapted to Teutonic institutions, while, on the other hand, some very inapplicable Hebrew phrases and usages are kept, and the immemorial Teutonic (or rather Aryan) institution of the wergild is said to be a merciful invention of christian bishops. This last error is specially strange, as Ælfred commonly shows a thorough knowledge of the institutions and traditions of his own people. There is some difficulty as to the language of Asser (M. H. B. 497), when he praises Ælfred's zeal for the administration of justice and his censures on corrupt or incompetent judges. As Kemble (Saxons in England, ii. 42) shows, it is not very easy to see who the 'comites' and 'præpositi' are; Kemble suggests that the reference may be to the king's own þening-manna-gemót, his own court for his own immediate following, and that Ælfred may have begun the system of royal missi, controlling to some extent the popular courts, which was in full force in the eleventh century, and out of which sprang our present judicial system. It is hardly needful to say that the story of his hanging the corrupt judges is purely mythical.

      The personal character of Ælfred, as set forth by his biographer Asser, certainly comes as near to perfection as that of any recorded man. He gives us not only a picture of a man thoroughly devoted to his work, faithfully discharging the acknowledged duties of his office, but the further picture of one who, as a king, the father of his people, sought for every opportunity of doing good to his people in every way. Many of the details have become household words. His careful economy of time, by which he found means to carry on his studies without interfering with the cares of government, his deep devotion, his constant thought for his people, the various expedients and inventions of a simple age, all stand out in his life as recorded by the admiring stranger. And we must not forget his physical difficulties. The tale of the sickness which beset him on the day of his marriage and at other times of his life seems to have received legendary additions; but the general outline of the story seems to be trustworthy. His bounty was large and systematic. He laboured hard to restore the monastic life which had pretty well died out in his kingdom, by the foundation of his two monasteries, one for women at Shaftesbury, the other for men on the spot which had seen his first resistance to the Danes on Athelney. And besides gifts to the poor and religious foundations at home, he sent alms to Rome and even to India (Chron. sub an. 883). In his many-sided activity, he looked carefully after his builders and gold-workers, his huntsmen and falconers, in a state of things when hunting was no mere sport but a serious business.

      But it is after all the strictly intellectual side of Ælfred's character which is most specially his own. Any other king would have thought it enough to defend his people with courage, to rule them with justice, to legislate for them with wisdom. Ælfred did all this and more also. He made it his further business to be the spiritual and intellectual teacher of his people. For in all his writings Ælfred is emphatically the teacher. He writes from a sheer sense of duty, to profit his own folk. He undertakes the humble office of a translator, and turns into his native tongue such writings, religious, historical, and scientific, as he thinks will tend to the instruction of his people. As a teacher, he does not bind himself to a servile reproduction of his author; as men do still in writings designed solely for edification, he altered and added to his original, whenever he thought that by so doing he could better profit his readers. He is eminently a national writer; we read that, like Charles the Great, he loved the old Teutonic songs and traditions and taught them to his children, and their effect on himself is often seen in his writings. He grasped the fact, which perhaps it was easier to grasp in his day than it was somewhat later, that men can be really stirred and taught only through their own tongue. It is undoubtedly to what he preserved, to what he himself wrote, to what his example encouraged others to write, that we owe our possession of a richer early literature than any other people of Western Europe, and that the habit of writing in English never died out, even when the English tongue had for a while ceased to be a learned and courtly speech in its own land.

      Ælfred himself, in the preface to the Pastoral of Gregory, sets forth and laments the sad lack of learning which he found in his own kingdom at the time of his accession. It was one of the dead times of English intellect; the literary eminence of Northumberland had passed away; the continuous literary eminence of Wessex was to begin with himself. His foundation of schools at Oxford?a tale as old as the so-called Brompton?is purely fabulous; but he did all that he could for the advancement of learning by planting the best scholars in the monasteries which were the schools of the time, and by giving some of them high ecclesiastical preferment. To this end he invited men both from other parts of Britain and from lands beyond sea. He brought Archbishop Plegmund and Bishop Werfrith from Mercia; he brought Grimbold and John the Old-Saxon from other Teutonic lands; from the land of the Briton came Asser, while John the Scot, John Scotus Erigena, might be said to come from both Celtic and Teutonic lands at once. But it was not only men of book-learning that he brought from other lands. Strangers from all parts flocked to become his men, and he gladly received all who brought with them any knowledge or any useful art, the seafaring Othhere no less than Grimbold or Asser. And it should be noticed that his reception and encouragement of strangers, forming as it did a marked feature in Ælfred's character, seems never to have been turned against him as a fault, as it was against some other kings.

      But for us Ælfred's greatest and most abiding work in his character of promoter of knowledge is that he gave us our unique possession, a history of our own folk in our own tongue from the beginning. The most reasonable belief seems to be that it was at Ælfred's bidding that the English Chronicles grew into their present shape out of the older local annals of the church of Winchester. We thus have, what no other nation of Western Europe has, a continuous national record from our first coming into our present land. In its earlier parts some mythical names and reckonings may have found their way into its text; but the essential truth of the record becomes more and more strengthened every time it is put to the test. In the course of Ælfred's reign it grows into a detailed contemporary narrative of the most stirring years of his life.

      Of Ælfred's own writings the chief are his translations of Boetius's 'Consolation of Philosophy,' of the Histories of Bæda and Orosius, and of the 'Pastoral Care' of Gregory the Great ('þa boc þe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis and on Englisc Hirdeboc'). The order in which they were written is a matter of some interest which is discussed by Dr. Bosworth in his preface to the Orosius. He is inclined to place them in this order, Boetius, Bæda, Orosius, Gregory. The first three he places in the time of peace, between 887 and 893, and the fourth in the last years of peace after the war with Hasting, between 897 and Ælfred's death. And we may perhaps safely infer that the Boetius is the earliest, and that it was begun in the year 887. For it is in that year that Asser (M. H. B. 492) places the beginning of Ælfred's work of translation, and William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, lib. ii. cap. 122) speaks of Asser as giving Ælfred help in the translation of Boetius. The Gregory cannot be earlier than 890, as Ælfred speaks of Plegmund as archbishop, which he did not become till that year. And, even without dates, we might set down the Boetius as earlier than the Orosius. It is perhaps the most interesting of all Ælfred's works, and best shows the spirit of the man and the way in which he went to work. He wrote for the edification of his people, and a literal translation of the Latin writer was not that which would be most edifying. Whether Boetius was personally a Christian or not is a difficult question; the popularity of his name and writings was largely due to the belief that he was a martyr for orthodoxy at the hands of an heretical prince, and to the existence of several theological treatises bearing his name. These were doubtless the grounds which suggested the works of Boetius to Ælfred or to Asser as a subject for study and translation. But, whatever its author was, the 'Consolation' is certainly not a christian book, though, like many writings of the last days of paganism, it is to some extent tinged with christian thoughts and phrases. It is also a learned book, full of allusions which would be quite unintelligible to Ælfred's unlettered West-Saxons, many of which were not well understood by Ælfred himself. It is also a book written partly in prose and partly in verse. The book needed a thorough recasting to suit Ælfred's purpose. He did thoroughly recast it; the pagan book became christian, the learned book became popular. Short allusions of Boetius to historical or mythological points are expanded into full narratives under the hand of Ælfred. In these expansions Ælfred sometimes makes historical mistakes which he would hardly have made after he had mastered the history of Orosius, and which thus help us to fix the Boetius as the earlier work of the two. On the other hand, he sometimes catches historical analogies with the happy grasp of true genius. The 'Consolation' of Boetius is interspersed with poems, which are specially crowded with allusions which for Ælfred's readers needed a commentator. In Ælfred's hands therefore the Metres become prose, and prose of a very different kind from that of the original. Ælfred made it his business to explain whatever would be puzzling. Thus in the Metre in iv. 3 of the 'Consolation,' Boetius tells the story of Odysseus and Kirkê without mentioning the name of either. Odysseus is merely pointed at as 'Neritius dux,' as in iv. 7 he is pointed at as 'Ithacus.' Ælfred explains at length who 'Aulixes' was. He was king of two kingdoms??Ithacige? = Ithaca insula, and 'Retie,' seemingly a corruption of Nêritos. These two kingdoms King Aulixes held of the Emperor Agamemnôn ('Aulixes ? hæfde twa þioda under þam kasere ? and þæs kaseres nama wæs Agamemnôn'). The over-king at Winchester understood the position of the over-king at Mykênê so much better than many much deeper scholars that we may forgive him his little slip in the geography of Western Greece.

      Then come the two strictly historical works, Bæda and Orosius. The choice of Bæda was obvious. And Orosius, author of a history of the world written from a specially christian point of view, was just the kind of work that suited Ælfred's purpose. But he treated it in his usual way; he added and left out at pleasure. In the first book, where Orosius treats of the geography of Europe, he works in the long original narratives of Othhere and Wulfstan, describing the northern lands which were unknown to Orosius. The historian, in short, no less than the philosopher, is not simply translated by Ælfred, but recast. But, as dealing with a more technical book, Ælfred keeps to technical language in the Orosius in a way in which he did not in the Boetius. Then a Roman consul was turned into an English heretoga; now he remains a Roman consul.

      Of these writings the Gregory is the only one that has been edited by any scholar of the latest critical school. It appeared from the hand of Mr. Sweet among the publications of the Early-English Text Society, 1871?72. The Orosius was edited in 1851 by Dr. Bosworth, who in his preface describes the manuscripts and earlier editions. The translation of Bæda is printed in Smith's great edition of Bæda, 1722. The Boetius was edited in 1864 by Mr. Samuel Fox for Bohn's 'Antiquarian Library.' Strange to say, in this edition the Old-English text is printed in the so-called 'Saxon' characters, though Dr. Bosworth had, thirteen years before, had the sense to print in ordinary type. A uniform critical edition of all the great king's writings would be no small gain to Old-English learning.

      Of other writings or alleged writings of Ælfred it appears that a translation of the 'Soliloquies' of Saint Augustine remains unprinted. The separate version of the Metres of Boetius?that is, the separate version of the metrical passages in the 'Consolation'?which is printed in Mr. Fox's edition, seems clearly not to be Ælfred's. The 'Encheiridion,' or 'Handbook'?a book of entries and jottings of all kinds, of the beginning of which Asser (M. H. B. 491) gives an account?seems to have been extant in William of Malmesbury's time, and he quotes a story about Saint Ealdhelm from it (Gest. Reg. lib. ii. cap. 123; Gest. Pont. Rolls Ser. pp. 333, 336). William also mentions a version of the Psalms, which Ælfred began but did not finish. The so-called Proverbs of Ælfred, a work of the thirteenth century, simply bears witness to the veneration in which his name was still held. There seems also to have been extant in the same century an English version of Æsop's Fables by an English king, the authorship of which strangely fluctuates between Ælfred and Henry I (see Wright, Biographia Britannica Literaria, Anglo-Saxon Period, p. 396, and Freeman, Norman Conquest, iv. 796). The wonder is, not that some spurious writings should have been attributed to Alfred, but that there are not many more.

      But, among the writings of Ælfred, we must not forget his will, of which the English text is given by Kemble, Cod. Dipl. ii. 112, and a Latin version in Cod. Dipl. v. 127, where the preface, reciting the will of Æthelwulf, is given at much greater length. In its many special bequests to his children and to other persons, and in its legal and other allusions, especially the account of the minute arrangements made by Æthelwulf for the disposal of his property, it is one of the most instructive documents of the time.

      [Our main authorities for the reign and life of Ælfred are his life by Asser and the English Chronicles during his reign. The genuineness of Asser's work was called in question by Mr. Thomas Wright, but it has been generally accepted by later scholars. It has no doubt been interpolated, as in some of the passages about Saint Neot and in the more shameless forgery about Grimbald at Oxford. But the original text can be recovered with no great trouble, very much by the help of Florence of Worcester, who has so largely copied Asser. The work of Asser, thus distinguished, bears every mark of genuineness. It seems quite impossible that any forger could have invented the small touches which bespeak the man writing from personal knowledge, and that man no Englishman but a Briton. The constant use of the word 'Saxon' where Ælfred himself would have used 'English' is of itself proof enough; a later forger might have thought of it, but hardly one so early as to have been mistaken by Florence for the genuine Asser. His notices of York (M. H. B. 474) and of the table-land of Æscesdún (ibid. 477) are evidently, as the writer says of the latter, the result of personal knowledge. It is enough to compare the true Asser with the false Ingulf to see the difference between the two. A few other notices, which seem to come from independent sources, are preserved by Æthelward and William of Malmesbury.

      A list of the earlier modern writers on Ælfred is given by Wright, Biographia Literaria, 384. The best known is the life by Sir John Spelman, son of the better known Sir Henry, which first appeared in 1678. In modern times there has been a life of Ælfred by Dr. Giles (London, 1848) and a German life by Wyss. More important is the youthful work of Dr. Pauli, the English version of which was edited by Mr. Thomas Wright. Mr. Wright's notices of Ælfred's works, in his Biographia Literaria, have referred to already. Of notices of Ælfred in more general writers of English history, the most valuable narrative is certainly that of Lappenberg in the first volume of his Geschichte von England, in the second volume of the English translation by Mr. Thorpe. The constitutional aspect of the reign is treated by Dr. Stubbs, Constitutional History, i. 99, 127, 191?7.]

      E. A. F.
    Person ID I11255  Dickinson
    Last Modified 19 May 2014 

    Father Æthelwulf, King of Wessex,   b. Abt 795,   d. 13 Jan 858  (Age ~ 63 years) 
    Mother Osburga 
    Family ID F3290  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Ealhswith,   b. Abt 848,   d. 904  (Age ~ 56 years) 
    Married 868 
    +1. Edward the Elder, King of Wessex,   b. Abt 872,   d. 17 Jul 924, Farndon-on-Dee, Cheshire Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 52 years)  [Birth]
    +2. Ælfthryth of Wessex,   b. Abt 877,   d. 7 Jun 929  (Age ~ 52 years)  [Birth]
    Last Modified 19 May 2014 
    Family ID F2432  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBuried - - Hyde Abbey, Winchester, Hampshire Link to Google Earth
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    Alfred the Great
    Alfred the Great
    Market Square, Wantage

  • Sources 
    1. [S336463] Medieval Lands: A prosopography of medieval European noble and royal families, Charles Cawley, (The Foundation for Medieval Genealogy),,,%20AngloSaxon%20&%20Danish%20Kings.htm#Alfreddied899B.

    2. [S12] Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd, (New York: St Martin's Press, 2011), 64-68.
      Alfred not only resisted the tide of Danish paganism with military force, but with an active program to promote the intellectual tradition of Christendom. He himself translated Gregory, Augustine and Boethius.

    3. [S336351] Dictionary of National Biography, 63 volumes, Sir Sidney Lee, ed., (New York: McMillan and Company, 1885-1900), Public Domain., vol. 1, 153-62 (Edward Augustus Freeman).