The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

A King They All Agree Was “Great”

Category: 09th century

Alfred is the only English king to whom this title “Great” has been given. One may add that of the monarchs so called he is the only one whose right to it has never been seriously contested.

How strange this is! Here was the ruler of a small, ob­scure, semibarbarian kingdom, at the edge of civilisation and the beginning of our history.

He fought no wars except in its defence, he made little impact on the outer world. The little we know of him is confused with legend and fable.

Yet we all feel about him the indubitable stamp of great­ness. Why was this? And in what did it consist?

Partly, perhaps, because of his many-sidedness. He was a capable soldier, but whereas many of the famous fighting kings were moral and intellectual monsters Alfred really did embody the civilisation that he fought to preserve.

He fought when he had to fight, but never a day longer. And in the intervals of peace he turned immediately to restore his devastated kingdom, to organise its finances and administration.

Above all, he tried to preserve and develop its culture. In middle age he taught himself Latin in order to translate into his own tongue “some books which are most needful for all men to know”.

In an age when it seemed to many that the fabric of civili­sation was about to crumble he never allowed himself to despair.

It is perhaps as much for this integrity of mind as for any particular thing he did that every succeeding generation has acknowledged his claim to a greatness that he would never have claimed for himself.

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