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