Due to all the enthusiasm about medieval history, with the BBC’s medieval season on BBC Four, I thought I’d write a little about everybody’s favourite King of England: Alfred the Great, and what exactly was it that made him so great.
Of course, this question can be answered pretty quickly when we think of his most famous achievements, other than burning the cakes, his success in fighting the pagan Vikings, protecting the Kingdom of Wessex and struggling against all odds in battle maintain some of England. However, as a King, Alfred must have been expected to do well in battle and it has to be taken into account that the term ‘great’ was only given to him around the 16th century. Therefore, we mustn’t imagine that he fought one epic battle, saving England, and gaining the love of his people for the rest of time. Alfred had many other achievements that made him not only great, but unique.
With three older brothers as heirs to their father, King Æthelwulf of Wessex’s throne, being King certainly couldn’t have been at the forefront of Alfred’s mind and this perhaps gave him opportunity in life to pursue other interests, that may have led to his future ‘greatness’. He was, however, anointed by Pope Leo IV as a boy and many take this to be a representation of his future accession to the throne. Although this was very unlikely due to Alfred’s not even being heir to the throne at this point, it can possibly be thought of as recognition of great things to come. This aspect of Alfred’s life is still disputed. In terms of warfare, Alfred was somewhat successful and fought beside his brother Ethelred and then later as King against the Vikings. He suffered many defeats, but did succeed in protecting the Kingdom of Wessex as the last English Kingdom, while the east of England was occupied by the Viking force.
Alfred’s unique achievements as king were more concerned with scholarship and the communication of knowledge to the people of Wessex. He began to study Latin works when he was 38 and in improving his own education, he felt the need to spread this to others in the kingdom. He believed that it was necessary for his bishops and others in power to improve their knowledge and reading skills, as recognised by historian Barbara Yorke:
From his reading, Alfred seems to have gained a much clearer idea of his own responsibilities as a Christian ruler, and to have felt that others in his kingdom who were also in positions of responsibility would benefit similarly if they got down to study.
For this reason, Alfred began to translate Latin texts into English, with the help of any scholars he could gather from around England and Europe. Again, as commented upon by Yorke, ‘Alfred did much to launch English as a language of learning’ and this was certainly true as it was the first time that Old English was used in intellectual documents and this extended its influence on the rest of England. The Wessex from of Old English became the standard form, spreading throughout the island and Alfred’s efforts have also given us the incredible historical resource, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Alfred was the first King to recognise the importance of scholarship as well as warfare in extending the influence of a Kingdom, especially when that Kingdom is surrounded by an occupying enemy force. The famous Alfred Jewel with the Old English inscription, ‘Alfred had me made’ is suggested to have been used as an æstel, a pointer stick used to help people learn to read and if this is true, it says a lot about the importance Alfred placed on the education of his bishops and others in authority.
Although eh description, ‘great’ is usually attributed to Alfred’s military achievements, which were incredibly important, what separated him from all other Kings of the period was his enthusiasm for knowledge and the expansion of the culture and influence of Wessex, through education and the translation of Latin texts into English. In terms of the greater view of English history, surely these actions were what made Alfred truly great.
I haven’t really touched on the numerous battles that shaped the Kingdom during Alfred’s reign which are incredibly significant and if you want more discussion of these battles and Alfred himself, listen to this great programme in the BBC radio 4, In Our Time Archives: Alfred and The Battle of Edington.