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Alfred the Great: The Most Perfect Man in History?

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Barbara Yorke considers the reputation of King Alfred the Great - and the enduring cult around his life and legend.

Alfred the Great plots the capture of the Danish fleet. By James William Edmund Doyle, 1864King Alfred of Wessex (r.871-99) is probably the best known of all Anglo-Saxon rulers, even if the first thing to come into many people’s minds in connection with him is something to do with burnt confectionery. This year sees the 1100th anniversary of his death on October 26th, 899, at the age of about fifty. The occasion is being marked with conferences and exhibitions in Winchester, Southampton and London, but the scale of celebrations will be modest compared with those which commemorated his millenary, and culminated in the unveiling by Lord Rosebery of his statue in Winchester.

Alfred’s reputation still stands high with historians, though few would now want to follow Edward Freeman in claiming him as ‘the most perfect character in history’ (The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 5 volumes, 1867-79). Alfred is someone who has had greatness thrust upon him. How and why did he acquire his glowing reputation, and how does it stand up today?

There can be no doubt that Alfred’s reign was significant, both for the direction of the country’s development and for the fortunes of his descendants. After the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia had fallen to the Vikings, Wessex under Alfred was the only surviving Anglo-Saxon province. Alfred nearly succumbed to the Vikings as well, but kept his nerve and won a decisive victory at the battle of Edington in 879. Further Viking threats were kept at bay by a reorganisation of military service and particularly through the ringing of Wessex by a regular system of garrisoned fortresses. At the same time Alfred promoted himself as the defender of all Christian Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Viking threat and began the liberation of neighbouring areas from Viking control. He thus paved the way for the future unity of England, which was brought to fruition under his son and grandsons, who conquered the remaining areas held by the Vikings in the east and north, so that by the mid-tenth century the England we are familiar with was ruled as one country for the first time.

His preservation from the Vikings and unexpected succession as king after the death of four older brothers, seem to have given Alfred a sense that he had been specially destined for high office. With the help of advisers from other areas of England, Wales and Francia, Alfred studied, and even translated from Latin into Old English, certain works that were regarded at the time as providing models of ideal Christian kingship and ‘most necessary for all men to know’.

Alfred tried to put these principles into practice, for instance, in the production of his law-code. He became convinced that those in authority in church or state could not act justly or effectively without the ‘wisdom’ acquired through study, and set up schools to ensure that future generations of priests and secular administrators would be better trained, as well as encouraging the nobles at his court to emulate his own example in reading and study. Alfred also had the foresight to commission his biography from Bishop Asser of Wales. Asser presented Alfred as the embodiment of the ideal, but practical, Christian ruler. Alfred was the ‘truthteller’, a brave, resourceful, pious man, who was generous to the church and anxious to rule his people justly. One could say that Asser accentuated the positive, and ignored those elements of ruthless, dictatorial behaviour which any king needed to survive in ninth-century realpolitik. Alfred and Asser did such a good job that when later generations looked back at his reign through their works they saw only a ruler apparently more perfect than any before or after. Alfred is often thought to have provided his own epitaph in this passage from his translation of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius:

I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.

Alfred, particularly as presented by Asser, may have had something of a saint in him, but he was never canonised and this put him at something of a disadvantage in the later medieval world. The Normans and their successors were certainly interested in presenting themselves as the legitimate heirs of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, but favoured the recognised royal saints, especially Edmund of the East Angles, killed by the Danish army which Alfred defeated, and Edward the Confessor, the last ruler of the old West Saxon dynasty. St Edmund and St Edward can be seen supporting Richard II on the Wilton diptych, and members of the later medieval royal houses were named after them. Nor were Alfred’s heroic defeats of the pagan Vikings enough to make him the favoured military hero of the post-Conquest period. None of the Anglo-Saxon rulers qualified for this role. After Geoffrey of Monmouth’s successful promotion, the British Arthur was preferred – a man whose reputation was not constrained by inconvenient facts, and who proved extremely adaptable to changing literary conventions. However, Alfred was lauded by Anglo-Norman historians, like William of Malmesbury, Gaimar and Matthew Paris, and their presentations, and occasional embellishments, of his achievements would be picked up by later writers. Alfred’s well-attested interest in learning made him the obvious choice to be retrospectively chosen as the founder of Oxford University when that institution felt the need to establish its historical credentials in the fourteenth century.

Alfred’s lack of a saintly epithet, a disadvantage in the high Middle Ages, was the salvation of his reputation in a post-Reformation world. As a pious king with an interest in promoting the use of English, Alfred was an ideal figurehead for the emerging English Protestant church. The works he had commissioned or translated were interpreted as evidence for the pure Anglo-Saxon church, before it had become tainted by the false Romanism introduced by the Normans. With a bit of selective editing, Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical provision came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism. Archbishop Matthew Parker did an important service to Alfred’s reputation by publishing an edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred in 1574, even if he could not resist adding the story of the burnt cakes which came from a separate, later, Anglo-Saxon source. Perhaps even more significant for getting Alfred’s reputation widely known was the enthusiastic notice of him in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1570 edition), where material derived from sources of Alfred’s own time was mixed with stories with a later currency, such as his visit to the Danish camp as a minstrel which was first recorded in a post-Conquest account. It was also writers of the sixteenth century who promoted the designation of Alfred as ‘the Great’, an epithet that had never been applied to him in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Comparable claims of the contribution of the Anglo-Saxons to English life were used to support radical political change in the seventeenth century, when it was argued, for instance, that the right of all freemen to vote for representatives in Parliament was a lost Anglo-Saxon liberty. The relative abundance of sources from Alfred’s reign, including his surviving law-code and Asser’s description of his interest in law and administration, naturally meant that attention was drawn to him by those searching for an ancient constitution to serve contemporary needs. Alfred himself was an unlikely champion for the more radical movements, and was more readily adopted by those who wanted to show Stuart, and eventually Hanoverian, rulers, how they could become successful constitutional monarchs by emulating their most famous Anglo-Saxon ancestor. Robert Powell, in his Life of Alfred, published in 1634, attempted to draw parallels between the reigns of Alfred and Charles I, something which often called for considerable ingenuity, and his hope that Charles would share the same respect for English law as that apparently shown by Alfred proved misplaced. Rather more impressive as a work of scholarship was Sir John Spelman’s Life of King Alfred, which drew upon an extensive range of primary material and itself became a source for later biographers. The work was dedicated to the future Charles II when Prince of Wales, and was completed during the Civil War in 1642, in the royalist camp at Oxford. Spelman was to die the following year of camp fever, and publication of the biography was delayed until more propitious times. In fact, any attempts to interest Stuart monarchs in their Saxon forebears had only a limited success. The Stuarts’ preferred cultural reference points were from the classical world rather than the history of their own islands.

The common Saxon heritage of the Hanoverians and the Anglo-Saxons provided more fertile ground for the promotion of a cult of King Alfred. His first aristocratic and royal backers came from the circle which gathered around Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-51), the eldest son of George II, and was united by the opposition of its members to the prime minister Robert Walpole. Walpole’s opponents called themselves ‘the Patriots’, and Alfred was the first ‘Patriot King’, who had saved his country from tyranny, as it was devoutly hoped Frederick himself would do when he succeeded his father. A number of literary works centred upon Alfred were dedicated to the prince. Sir Richard Blackmore’s Alfred: an Epick Poem in Twelve Books (1723) enlivened the conventional accounts of Alfred’s reign with an extensive description of his imaginary travels in Europe and Africa, in which were concealed many heavy-handed compliments to Prince Frederick. Of much more lasting worth was Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred, which was first performed in 1740 at the prince’s country seat of Cliveden. The main text was provided by two authors already active in Frederick’s cause, James Thomson and David Mallett, but included an ode by Viscount Bolingbroke, one of the leaders of the opposition to Walpole who had defined their political philosophy in his essay ‘The Idea of a Patriot King’ (1738). A visual representation of this political manifesto was provided in Lord Cobham’s pleasure grounds at Stowe. Alfred’s bust was included alongside those of other Whig heroes in ‘The Temple of British Worthies’ completed in 1734-35 by William Kent. Alfred is described as ‘the mildest, justest, most beneficient of kings’ who ‘crush’d corruption, guarded liberty, and was the founder of the English constitution’, in pointed reference to qualities which George II was felt to lack. Alfred’s bust was placed next to that of the Black Prince, a Prince of Wales whose noble qualities were perceived as having been inherited by Frederick, particularly if he followed the example of King Alfred rather than that of his father.

The Stowe landscape gardens also contain a Gothic Temple, in which ‘Gothic’ should be understood as ancient Germanic. The building was dedicated ‘to the Liberty of our Ancestors’, and was surrounded by statues of Germanic deities (albeit in Classical pose), while the ceiling of the dome was decorated with the arms of the earls of Mercia from whom Lord Cobham claimed descent. This new interest in the Germanic past began to trickle down to other sectors of society. Those who could not afford to erect their own monuments to Alfred’s greatness might nevertheless find remembrances of him in the Wessex landscape. In 1738, the antiquarian Francis Wise, hoping to improve his promotion prospects at the University of Oxford, produced a pamphlet ‘concerning some antiquities in Berkshire’ in which he argued that the White Horse of Uffington had been cut to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Vikings at the battle of Ashdown, and that all other visible antiquities nearby had some connection with the campaign. His claims were entirely spurious, but helped to publicise the idea that Alfred’s influence permeated the very fabric of the country. Those who could not have a Saxon memorial in their grounds or in the nearby countryside could at least own a print of the new genre of History painting. Alfredian topics, especially ‘Alfred in the neatherd’s cottage’ (the cake-burning episode), were among those frequently reproduced.

Alfred at Stowe was also remembered as one ‘who drove out the Danes, secur’d the seas’, and his role as defender of the country and supposed founder of the British navy ensured him increasing fame as the country found itself embroiled in frequent foreign wars as the reign of Frederick’s son, George III, progressed. A series of patriotic Alfred plays, opera and ballets were performed, particularly during the French Wars (1793-1815). More often than not they ended with the rousing anthem which had closed Arne’s Alfred, ‘Rule Britannia’, which became increasingly popular as an expression of loyalty to the crown under the threat of foreign attack. It was from this period that ‘Alfred’ became favoured as a Christian name at all levels of society.

As in other European countries, a new national pride in nineteenth-century England had an important historical dimension, and an accompanying cult of the heroes who had made later success possible. The English, it was believed, could trace language and constitutional continuity back to the fifth century when they had defeated the effete Romans, and it became increasingly felt that other, positive, facets of ‘the national character’ could be traced back this far as well. These characteristics were felt to have made those of Anglo-Saxon descent uniquely programmed for success, and to rule other less fortunately endowed peoples, and the best of them were represented by King Alfred himself. Alfred was fast being rediscovered as ‘the most perfect character in history’, and alongside his defence of constitutional liberties, his country and true religion, was added renewed admiration for his Christian morality and sense of duty.

Anglo-Saxonism, and the accompanying Alfredism, could be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Thomas Jefferson had ingeniously argued that, as the Anglo-Saxons who had settled in Britain had ruled themselves independently from their Continental homelands, so the English settlers of America should also be allowed their independence. He believed both countries shared an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and proposed a local government for Virginia based on a division into hundreds, an Anglo-Saxon institution widely believed then to have been instituted by Alfred. A less attractive side of this fascination with Anglo-Saxon roots was that it helped foster a belief in racial superiority, as celebrated in a shortlived periodical called The Anglo-Saxon (1849-50), which aimed to demonstrate how ‘the whole earth may be called the Fatherland of the Anglo-Saxon. He is a native of every clime – a messenger of heaven to every corner of this Planet.’

One of the chief supporters of The Anglo-Saxon, who wrote large segments of it if no other copy was available, was Martin Tupper, the author of several volumes of popular, highly sentimental and moralistic verses. Alfred was one of Tupper’s particular heroes, largely because he felt many of the King’s writings anticipated his own, and it was through his impetus that the millenary of Alfred’s birth at Wantage was celebrated in 1849, one of the earliest of all such jubilees. The event was not the success for which Tupper had hoped, largely because he left arrangements rather late in the day and had no influential backers. Many of the details were still not fixed on the eve of the event to the indignation of the few local gentry inveigled into attending, but the event still managed to attract crowds estimated at 8,000-10,000 who enjoyed traditional games and an ox-roast, as well as Tupper’s specially composed Jubilee song:

Anglo-Saxons! – in love are we met
To honour a name we can never forget!
Father, and Founder, and King of a race
That reigns and rejoices in every place,
Root of a tree that o’ershadows the earth
First of a Family blest from his birth
Blest in this stem of their strength and their state
Alfred the Wise, and the Good, and the Great!

 

During the reign of Victoria, who gave birth to the first Prince Alfred since the Anglo-Saxon period (b.1844), King Alfred was accepted as founder of the nation and its essential institutions to such an extent that one commentator was moved to complain ‘it is surely a mistake to make Alfred, as some folks seem to do, into a kind of ninth-century incarnation of a combined School Board and County Council’. Alfred was no longer a mirror for princes, but an exemplar for people at all levels of society and, above all, for children. Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England (1851-53) can stand for many such works where Alfred was used to demonstrate the best of the English character:

The noble king ... in his single person, possessed all the Saxon virtues. Whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance, nothing could shake. Who was hopeful in defeat, and generous in success. Who loved justice, freedom, truth and knowledge.

 

So much had Alfred become the epitome of the ideal Victorian that Walter Besant, in a lecture on Alfred in 1897, thought it entirely appropriate to apply to him verse that Alfred, Lord Tennyson had written to commemorate Prince Albert.

Alfred was no longer the totem of one political party. In 1877 Robert Loyd-Lindsay, Conservative MP for Berkshire and a perfect exemplar of the paternal landlord of Disraeli’s ‘Young England’ movement, provided Wantage with the statue that Tupper had hoped to raise in 1849, but for which he had failed to get funds. Wantage also got the grand occasion it had missed then as Edward, Prince of Wales, to whom Lindsay had once been an equerry, unveiled the statue carved by Count Gleichen, one of the Prince’s German cousins. In 1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death, there were even greater celebrations to commemorate the millenary of that of Alfred. Problems with the calculation of Anglo-Saxon dates meant it was widely believed then that Alfred had died in 901, rather than 899, which is now recognised as the true date of his death, but at the time it seemed particularly apposite to many that the great Queen and her illustrious forebear had died a thousand years apart. On the surface the Alfred millenary appeared to fulfil its aim, as advertised in the National Committee’s prospectus, of being ‘a National Commemoration of the king to whom this Empire owes so much’. The procession through the heart of Winchester to the site of Hamo Thornycroft’s giant statue of the King, included representatives of Learned Societies and Universities ‘from all lands where the English speaking-race predominate’ (needless to say, they were all white males) and members of the different armed forces. Alfred was further commemorated in the same year by the launching of a new Dreadnought, the HMS King Alfred.

But in 1901 Britain was embroiled in the Boer War, and the priority was the reality of the present rather than an imagined past. The National Committee did not raise nearly as much money as it had expected and had to abandon many of its ambitious plans, including one for a Museum of Early English History. Many were worried at the direction Britain’s imperial policy was taking. Charles Stubbs, Dean of Ely, took advantage of the millenary year to suggest that Alfred’s standards were not only in advance of his own age, but in advance of those of many statesman of the present day, especially in their conduct of the Boer War, which had been prompted by ‘insolence of pride ... by passion of vengeance ... by lust of gold’. But there was also a more positive side to the celebrations when Alfred was used, as he had been in the past, as a cloak for the introduction of change in society. It was not by chance that the statue was unveiled by the Liberal leader Lord Rosebery, for the former Whig support for British Worthies had never completely died away, and Liberals were prominent in the many commemorations of the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was a row over the statue of Oliver Cromwell, commissioned in 1895 by Rosebery from Thornycroft for the House of Commons, that precipitated the former’s resignation as Prime Minister. The most active members of the National Committee were leading Liberals and others, like the positivist Frederic Harrison and litterateur Walter Besant, who were associated with them in the promotion of Working Mens’ Colleges or the London County Council, formed in 1888 with Lord Rosebery as its first Chairman. Most active of all in the promotion of Alfred was the secretary of the National Committee and mayor of Winchester, Alfred Bowker, who used the millenary as an opportunity to develop the profile and scope of the Corporation of Winchester by, for instance, purchasing the site of Alfred’s final resting-place at Hyde Abbey with adjoining land that could be used for public recreation (as it still is today).

Lord Rosebery commented that the statue he was to unveil in Winchester

can only be an effigy of the imagination, and so the Alfred we reverence may well be an idealised figure ... we have draped round his form ... all the highest attributes of manhood and kingship.

 

Alfred, though no doubt gratified by his posthumous fame, would have trouble recognising himself in some of his later manifestations, and would find it difficult to comprehend, let alone approve, some of the constitutional developments he was supposed to have championed. One hopes that it will not be possible for such a wide divorce between an idealised Alfred and the reality of Anglo-Saxon rule to occur again, but it is possible that Alfred’s symbolic career is not over. Now that Britain is relapsing into its regional components, who better than Alfred, the champion of the English language and Anglo-Saxon hegemony, to be a figurehead of the new England?

Barbara Yorke is Reader in History at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. Her latest book is Anglo-Saxons (Sutton Pocket Histories, 1999).

Further reading: 
  • R. Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Longman, 1998)
  • J.W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge University Press, 1981)
  • R. Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Harvard University Press, 1981)
  • S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (eds.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Penguin,1983)
  • R. Quinault, ‘The Cult of the Centenary, 1789-1914’, Historical Research 71 (1998), 303-23
  • B.A.E. Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester University Press, 1995).
Historical dictionary: Anglo-Saxons


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