The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

KING ALFRED THE GREAT AND HIS ENGLAND

Category: 09th century

They are many in these busy days — who, if they were sud­denly asked just what the name of Alfred the Great meant to them would promptly answer with one or more of the fol­lowing: “He conquered the Danes, whoever they were in those times”; “Wasn’t he the king who burned some cakes in some woman’s cottage?”; “He dressed up as a minstrel and spied upon the enemy’s camp”; “He cut out White Horses in the Hills to celebrate his victories”; “Didn’t he trans­late some old books?”; “Was he the king who started Eng­land’s navy?” All these answers are honoured by tradition; they rest, some on truth, some on romanticism.

The Ninth Century, with its break-up of tribal structure and an advance to feudalism, in all its course was the century of Alfred the Great. He was the youngest son of King Ethel-wulf ofWessex. Around Alfred as a little child men and women talked constantly of the Danish invaders. He was hardly two years old when word came that king Ethel-wulf’s eldest son had won a great victory at sea over the Danes off Sandwich, had killed very many of their men and put the rest to flight. About the same time no fewer than three hundred and fifty Danish ships had appeared at the mouth of theThames. These ships had not yet reached the awesome size and array which they were to assume later on. But even now the ships of the leaders surely struck terror into south-easternEnglandby their high sterns ending in a drag­on’s or in a serpent’s head.

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers nothing is heard of Alfred. But with the accession of the third brother Ethelred, in 866, the public life of Alfred begins, and he en­ters on his great work of deliveringEnglandfrom the Danes.

At the age of sixteen Alfred turned to face with his broth­er years of assault and battle such as they had never known or dreamed could come in their time upon their land. For six years we shall find him side by side with the king ofWessexas his second in command both in conference and on the field of battle. At the age of 20 he was recognised as standing next in rank to the king— in the strange expression of Asser, his first biographer, he was “secundarius”, which seems to indi­cate a position of a recognised successor, closely associated with the reigning prince. It is probable that this arrangement was definitely sanctioned by the witenagemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Ethelred fall in battle.

Three or four months before his accession a national crisis had arisen. The “great army” of the Danes, established inEnglandsince the autumn of 865, fell uponWessexat the end of 870.

The Scandinavian invaders had had their fill of scattered raids, of single winters spent inEngland. Suddenly they de­scended in multitude, determined to conquer and to occupyEngland, to dwell and settle in performance with their fami­lies and kinsmen.

The year which followed has been rightly called “Alfred’s year of battles”. The campaign, in which Alfred played a leading part, included nine general engagements fought with varying fortunes. In April Ethelred died; Alfred became king and succeeded to the whole burden of the contest. To­wards the end of May he was defeated atWiltonand com­pelled to buy peace. The reign began badly but worse was to follow. Complicated operations in 876—77 around Ware- ham and Exeter were only a prelude to the sudden and crush­ing blow dealt by the Danes in January of 878 which drove Alfred into the Somerset marshes; “and most of the people they reduced except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way … by wood and swamp, and after Easter he … made a fort at Athelney, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe”, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred’s remarkable resilience, soon enshrined in legend, enabled him to win the decisive battle of Edington in mid- May, 878, and the Danes leftWessex. Attacks, however, per­sisted right to the end of the reign and there was one serious invasion in 892—96 which culminated in three great raids acrossEngland. But the real crisis had occurred in the first quarter of 878; after Edington the possibility of a West Saxon collapse gradually receded.Wessexalone had withstood the Danish onslaught and to a great extent it was Alfred’s person­al triumph. He was recognised as the natural leader of all Englishmen, an important step towards national unity.

The military genius of Alfred, his capacity for learning from the enemy and then going one better, was one of the main reasons for the defeat of the Danes. The other was the undeveloped social structure of the Scandinavian peoples which made them incapable of a prolonged effort on the grand scale. The host always tended to split up into fragments when faced with unexpectedly stout resistance, each minor leader taking his men off elsewhere to look for easier game.

Alfred’s military achievement was no accident; his abil­ity to profit by experience amounted to genius. He saw and remedied the defects in the English defensive system. He built a fleet of ships which were longer, higher, steadier and faster than Danish ships; the ships were built according to the king’s own designs. By allowing one part of the peasant militia to remain at home he created a mobile land force which, being less liable to disperse, could be used for more am­bitious operations. He enforced the obligations of thanehood on all owners of five hides of land thus giving the king a nucleus of highly equipped troops. And he began to build the network of permanent fortifications, burgs, garrisoned by trained soldiers, which later became the central feature of the national defences. These burgs are the earliest English towns and play an important part in the transformation of the English from a purely rural folk. Alfred’s defensive arrange­ments enabled the mass of the people to live and work in peace and the remarkable recuperative powers of all primitive agricultural peoples had full opportunity to come into play.

Despite the urgency of military problems Alfred did not neglect other aspects of government, Alfred’s care for the administration of justice is testified both by history and legend. He revived the dying practice of law-giving: no English code had been issued for a century and no West Saxon code for two centuries. His legislation, based upon but not slavishly copied from earlier codes, helped to stabilize a society badly shaken by the impact of the Danish invasions.

The cultural and material havoc of these invasions can hardly be overestimated. A picture of it is given in Alfred’s laws, where the scale of payments for various offences (wer­gild) is on the average only half that of the laws of two cen- tures earlier, a clear sign of a land stripped of its moveable wealth. English scholarship had decayed and Alfred set him­self to a stupendous task of reviving it. “So great was the de­cay of learning among Englishmen”, Alfred lamented, “that there were very few on this sideHumberand I ween not many north of it who could understand the ritual and translate a letter from Latin into English. No, I cannot remember one such, south of theThames, when I came to the throne.”

It was to remedy these evils that he established a court school; for this he imported scholars from various parts of the island and from the Continent; for this, above all, he put himself to school, and made the series of translations for the instruction of his clergy and people, most of which still sur­vive. He was anxious to disseminate the elements of learning more widely: it was his ambition “that all the freeborn youth ofEngland… be set to learning … until they can well read English writing” and that those destined for higher office be also taught Latin. This educational programme, centu­ries ahead of its time, required an adequate supply of English translations and Alfred, nearing the age of 40, learned to read Latin in order that he might make his own contribution. He sought eagerly for the best knowledge that the age afford­ed and in a less illiterate time would probably have attained a really scientific outlook.

The earliest work Alfred commanded to be translated was the “Dialogues” of Gregory, a book enormously popular in the middle ages. He himself, assisted by his scholars translated Gregory’s “Pastoral Care”; copies of this work, which discusses the duties of a bishop, were sent to the cathe­dral churches, an obvious attempt to range the clergy be­hind his educational programme. He also translated the world history of Orosius and Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” What is in many ways the most inter­esting of Alfred’s works is his translation of Boethius’s “Consolation of Philosophy”, the most popular philosophical manual of the middle ages. Alfred deals very freely with his original and there is much in the work which is solely Alfred’s and highly characteristic of his genius. It is here that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: “My will was to live worthi­ly as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works.”

Alfred also inspired the collection and systematic arrange­ment of the earlier annals and traditions of the English race, the compilation now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Mistakes and mistranslations were inevitable but Al­fred’s literary labours made available to English readers a library of standard works on religion, English history, ge­ography and philosophy.

The last of Alfred’s works is one to which he gave the title “Blotsman”, that is “Blooms” or Anthology. It is drawn from various sources, and contains much that is Alfred’s own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings:

“Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”

How Alfred passed to “the life where all things are made clear” we do not know. The very year is uncertain. The ar­guments on the whole are in favour of 900. The day was Octo­ber 26. Alike for what he did and for what he was, there is none to equal Alfred in the whole line of English sovereigns. He stands alone: warrior and organizer, legislator and admin­istrator, man of letters and philosopher. Legends early accu­mulated around his character, especially around his behav­iour in adversity.

Constantly in ill health, never long at peace, the extent of his work is remarkable, and its thoroughness is attested by the long period of peace which followed his death.

From Encyclopaedia Britannica; Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, A Peo­ple’s History of England by A. L. Morton; King Alfred the Great and His England by E. Duckett

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