Once again I want to thank Jason for inviting me to Guest Post on his blog. Jason does so much to help authors promote their work and I know we all really appreciate it.
King Alfred the Great is one of the two protagonists in my Sons of Kings trilogy. I first became interested in his story when I lived and taught in Wantage, his place of birth, for six years in the 1970s. The story of his long fight against the invading Danes had intrigued me even before I moved to the town, and in Wantage I learnt so much more about him. Unfortunately, it was to be many more years before I could actually set to and write about him.
Over the past three thousand years there have been fewer than twenty individuals to have been given the title of ‘the Great’. Among them are Cyrus and Alexander in Ancient Greece and at the beginning of Christian times we have Pompey and Herod – then Constantine almost three centuries later. In the Western Empire we see the Frankish king and Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), and the German Otto 1 becoming known as ‘the Great’.
Among the many monarchs in Britain over the centuries, we have two kings who became ‘Great’. One is King Cnut (more commonly known as Canute) the king of Denmark, Norway and England in the 10th century, best known for supposedly holding back the waves. Although he is often described as the ‘most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history’ Cnut was Danish, not British or Anglo-Saxon, so is often overlooked as a ‘great’ British king.
But King Alfred of Wessex was definitely a Saxon – although the title of ‘greatness’ wasn’t bestowed upon him until post medieval times.
Compared to other ‘greats’ like Constantine and Charlemagne, whose exploits covered huge areas and involved enormous decisions, Alfred’s story is significant only when we consider the poverty of his resources and lack of means – as well as his own personal battle against a debilitating illness throughout his adult years. In the face of such adversity, his story is one of triumph of character.
Alfred’s military engagements are generally the best known events of his reign. Starting with his defeat of the Danes at Ashdown while he was still only second-in-command to his brother, King Aethelred, his long struggle against overwhelming numbers of Norse invaders is one that has been loved by story-tellers down the centuries. His desperate withdrawal to the Somerset marshes over the Christmas of 877-78 continues to spark the imagination. At his lowest ebb, when all seemed lost, the tale of him burning the woman’s cakes (loaves of bread) has been compared to that of Robert the Bruce encountering the spider in the Scottish cave.
These stories illustrate men being inspired by a simple event to take heart and start rethinking plans for reaching their goals. The stories are turning points.
This beautiful jewel made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold, is called ‘The Alfred Jewel’. It was ploughed up in a field in North Petherton in Somerset in 1693, only a few miles from Athelney – where Alfred had made his camp on his withdrawal into the Somerset marshes. Written on the jewel in Anglo-Saxon English is ‘Alfred had me made’. The jewel is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Alfred never looked back from his time in the marshes. He went on to raise another army and win a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington in early May, 878.
Although this was by no means the end of Alfred’s battles with the Danes, it was the start of his great leadership and his putting many defensive measures into practice across his kingdom, including the construction of burhs – settlements with defensive outer walls.
Alfred’s ‘greatness’ is a tribute to his far-reaching views in many aspects of ruling his kingdom and his boundless constructive energy. He made military and naval advancements and is often regarded as the founder of the English Navy. As an administrator, Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage.
He had a strong belief in the importance of education and learnt Latin in his late thirties. He then arranged, and himself took part in, the translation of books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.
The first step towards the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was made by Alfred’s father, King Aethelwulf, when he made a treaty with King Beorhtwulf of Mercia. But Alfred paved the way still further, firstly by marrying a Mercian woman and later, by marrying his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, to a Mercian ealdorman.
In doing this – and the fact that his son-in-law never took the title of King of Mercia – Alfred, and his own son, Edward, after him, could take on that role. It was Alfred’s grandson, Aethelstan, who extended control as far as the Scottish borders and became known as ‘the first king of the ‘English’.
Many stories about Alfred refer to him as ‘the wise king’, ‘England’s darling’ or ‘Truthteller’. But one chronicler (in the Abingdon Chronicle) didn’t like Alfred at all, calling him ‘a Judas … piling bad deeds on top of each other’. The reason he gives is that Alfred ‘violently alienated estates from the monastery’.
It is true that Alfred became very unpopular with many of the monastic orders. At times during his long fight, it had been necessary to ‘pay off’ the Danes. In other words he needed huge sums of money to pay them ‘tribute’, or Danegeld, in order to buy peace for a while. For the means to do this, he was forced to turn to both the Wessex nobility and the Church. The monasteries, in particular, were not at all pleased about that!
Perhaps, in this case, the monks should have been told, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it…’ If Alfred hadn’t taken their lands and money, the Danes would have done. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Alfred did, indeed, say something very similar – in his politest Anglo-Saxon, of course.
Alfred the Great died at the age of fifty in October AD 899 and was buried at his capital city of Winchester.
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The Life and Times of Atlfred the Great by Douglas Woodruff
In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood
Wikipedia for several images.