Alfred the Great: Some Thoughts

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage (Photo credit: Philip Jelley)

I’m compelled to write about Alfred the Great today. Alfred was King of the West Saxons from 871-899. At the end of his reign he was considered King of the Anglo-Saxons, the greatest ruler in England.

When I hear someone use the term “Dark Ages”, I become a little annoyed. Without even talking about the exquisite, grand and long lasting cathedrals that were built in the later Middle Ages, there are some shining beacons of civilization from this early era. Alfred was one of them.

He was a brilliant military tactician. The Vikings had been attacking England for many years. Alfred fought alongside his brothers before he was king and later in his reign against the Viking threat. At one point, early in his reign during the fighting, Alfred was forced into exile from the Vikings. He settled on the island of Athelney in the marshes of Somerset for a few months and he contemplated on how to fight the Vikings. He emerged from exile with a plan and had a resounding victory over the Vikings, freeing his people from devastating attacks. What followed was a period of peace.

When he was in exile he had also thought about how to better his kingdom. During the peaceful years, he began a program of building, rebuilding and fortifying burhs (towns) all across the kingdom. Most importantly, the towns were garrisons holding troops to protect against any attacks. They were centers of administration, religion, commerce and trade. Each burh had a church. Some of them had mints where his government’s currency was manufactured. These burhs drew people to them.

In order to defend against the Vikings he realized he needed ships so he built a navy. He also codified the laws of his kingdom and set up a system to enforce the laws. Alfred was a great proponent of education, highly unusual for this time. He set aside some of his own personal income to educate young men. He had all his children educated, even his daughters.

Alfred loved the English language. Later in life he learned Latin and actually translated some religious works from Latin into English. Alfred commissioned his great and good friend Bishop Asser to write his autobiography and this is how we know so much about him. I find him to be an incomparable leader and someone to greatly admire. A beacon of light in the “Dark Ages”!

Further reading: “Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England” by Justin Pollard, “Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources” edited by Simon Keynes and Michael LaPidge

14 thoughts on “Alfred the Great: Some Thoughts

  1. There’s a clue in the last 2 paragraphs. We know so much about him versus his brothers and father and those before or kings of the other Kingdoms, because he knew the value of propaganda in commissioning an official glorified history of himself. Even the Chronicles which were written in Wessex were modified later to reflect this cultivated myth of greatness, like how he travelled to Rome to be blessed and anointed King of England. He was around 4 at the time. We only know of his father’s odd will through him. He was sickly and 6th in line to the throne. The chronicles leaves out most of the strife of that period while highlighting great victories. No surprises. It’s not a history book. And so he ruled with peace throughout the land, or so we are told by the Chronicles and Asser. Alfred’s father and grandfather, King Egbert and Aethelwulf, were great kings in their own right, firmly establishing Wessex where the other kingdoms were embroiled in infighting and sucession wars. But they didn’t commission biographies to be written about themselves and their deeds. And documents from the other Kingdoms are long lost. Alfred is remembered because he ensured he was, and was great because he tells us so.


  2. Do you think Alfred fled from Chippenham and the Vikings, or was expelled by his magnates who were not satisfied by his leadership up to that date?


    • Yes. A combination of both. He remained in virtual exile for a few months, presumably to decide who was with him and who was against him. The Vikings were the common enemy and a rallying point for creating a coalition to defeat them.


    • The weather had nothing to do with it. The “Dark Ages” is a historical periodization traditionally referring to the Middle Ages. It emphasizes the demographic, cultural and economic deterioration that supposedly occurred in Western Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire, and the relative scarcity of written records from the period. The term employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the era’s “darkness” with earlier and later periods of “light”. The concept of a “Dark Age” originated in the 1330s with the Italian scholar Petrarch, who regarded the post-Roman centuries as “dark” compared to the light of classical antiquity. The phrase “Dark Age” itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th centuries. The concept thus came to characterize the entire Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance; this became especially popular during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment.


      • Am I not wrong in also suggesting that ‘dark ages’ as a term, applies primarily to Western Europe? I’m no expert, but the world outside this region, particularly the Middle East and China, had significant cultural and technological advances beyond those recorded in Western Europe.


  3. Well said, Susan. I don’t know how I missed this article when it was first published! Alfred is one of my heroes, too. His comeback after Athelney is nothing short of miraculous. He is truly an inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Super piece, yet again. Just belatedly read your Jane Seymore piece this evening, (a year or so after it was posted!) left a huge note there, but then realized you had moved address for the Sisters, Saints and Sluts blog. Anyway, hope you get the note, and either way,keep up the super work. -Arran.


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