Yet am I set by God as king over His holy Mount Sion to teach His will and His law.
Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts; and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know Thy wisdom.
Psalm 50, 6
Inscription on the Statue to Alfred the Great in Wantage
I discovered King Alfred the Great and the stories connected with him as a nine-year-old child. I was at once most attracted to him. As a student, by the hand of Providence, I went to study at University College, not the establishment which legend said Alfred had founded, but certainly in the town which Alfred had founded. There, with his seventeenth-century portrait, I read more of his achievements. Legend, yes, but spiritual truth is contained therein. As an Orthodox clergyman for nearly twenty years, I have come to see in Alfred not only a righteous man, but also a holy man. All my life King Alfred the Great has been a haunting presence.
And over the last two decades an increasing number of English Orthodox Christians, as well as Non-Orthodox, have come to recognise in King Alfred the Great (849-99) a saint. In 1992 one Orthodox wrote a short life of St Alfred, and he has been included in an Orthodox calendar; a number of Roman Catholics also refer to him as St Alfred. Below we publish a Life of the King and respond to questions raised as a result of this spreading veneration.
Let us say that if the question of Alfred's holiness is coming up now, over a thousand years since he lived, it is no coincidence. It seems to us that at the present time Alfred's England is going through a process of repaganization. It could be said that history is being reversed, that we are returning to the situation of English Christianity in the first centuries. If Alfred was in charge of making England, then today we are witnesses to the unmaking of England. We are seeing again what happened in Alfred's time, when the pagan Danes attacked England. Today we are faced with the same sort of process. True, we are not being attacked by pagans from outside the country, but we are witnesses to a process of heathen decomposition from within. Today you can actually meet people who quite openly and fashionably call themselves pagans, have their own rites and are proud to be pagan. This is similar to what happened as a result of the heathen attacks and occupation of England in the ninth century.
As a result of the assault on Christian values, English national identity is under threat. We cannot forget that England and the English only exist as a nation because of the Church which brought the light of Christ to our forebears, the early English, from 597 on, bringing to her people a single national organization and then unity of government. It was in the last half of the ninth century that Christendom was threatened by the heathen Vikings. England almost disappeared then. The same thing appears to be happening now - England as a Christian country is now disappearing. And heathenism is one and the same, in its old form or its new one. We believe that we need Alfred now. He was the first real King of the English and our only true 'Defender of the Faith'. For this reason there are those who dare to call out:
Holy and Righteous Alfred, pray to God for thy land and thy people!
ENGLAND BEFORE KING ALFRED
In the Year 800 the most powerful Kingdom in England was undoubtedly Mercia in the Midlands, which had come to the fore under King Offa (+796). However, under the rule of King Egbert (802-39), the Kingdom of Wessex in the west of England, gradually began to dominate the rest of the land, in particular all England south of the Thames. In 825 Sussex, Surrey and Kent, and later Essex and East Anglia came under its control. By 829 even Mercia was under its sway. Despite the first raids of heathen Vikings from Denmark which also had to be fought off, Wessex then received the submission of Northumbria, Wales and finally, in 838, Cornwall.
King Egbert died in 839 and was succeeded by his son Ethelwulf, who was a less military personality and more devoted to building up the Church. It was in 839 that the new King Ethelwulf decided at some point to go on pilgrimage to Rome. This was the direct result of a terrifying vision revealed to an English priest. In it an angel had appeared, warning that the sins of Christians were crying out in their iniquity and that even the prayers of the saints could no longer stay the justice of heaven. Unless folk turned swiftly to repentance and worshipped God worthily, keeping the Lord's Day, heathen would come upon the land, with an immense multitude of ships and destroy it and its people with fire and sword. Repentance, fasting and almsgiving alone could save the land from disaster.
This vision and its prophetic foreboding were fulfilled only too soon. Each year from 840 to 843 heathen Vikings launched a series of terrible assaults on English Christendom. Each time they won their cause, in Dorset, Lincolnshire, East Anglia, Kent, Canterbury, London, Hampshire and Somerset. Thus began the destruction, which was to haunt and harry the life of Ethelwulf's youngest son, Alfred, from childhood unto death. Ethelwulf would have to wait to go on pilgrimage for another sixteen years. The world into which Alfred was born did indeed pray the litany: 'From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord'. All the more so when for the first time in 850-851, the heathen wintered in England, ominously threatening settlement.
ALFRED'S CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH: 849-871
'Now, he was greatly loved'.
From 'The Life of King Alfred', attributed to Bishop Asser
Alfred was born in 849 in the now small town of Wantage, a few miles to the south of the Thames, in central southern England. Midway between Bristol and London, in the ninth century the royal estate of Wantage occupied a strategic situation on the border of Wessex and Mercia. Alfred's birthplace is believed to have been quite near the parish church, by where his statue now stands.
Alfred was the youngest of five children, four sons and one daughter, of Ethelwulf, King of Wessex and his wife Osburh. Both were reputed for their piety, it is even said that in his youth Ethelwulf had wanted to become a monk in Winchester. Osburh is recorded as 'a most religious woman, noble in character and noble by birth'. Alfred was the youngest of all King Ethelwulf's six children - the King had already had by a first union a son, Athelstan, who was to die relatively young.
Alfred was greatly loved by his parents and indeed by all who encountered him. He was brought up at the royal court and was 'more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour'. From childhood his noble mind was characterized by the desire for wisdom, more than anything else. He was a careful listener and at that time he used to learn English poems by heart, memorizing them from recitals.
One day his mother, showing him and his brothers a book of English poetry, said: 'I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest'. Then aged only five or six, Alfred, was attracted by the beauty of the first letter, which was illuminated. He at once took the book from her hand, went to his teacher, and learnt it by heart. Then he took it back to his mother and recited it, thus winning the book from his brothers, who though older, did not show the same abilities as Alfred.
In 853 when Alfred was aged four, he was taken to Rome on pilgrimage, accompanied by a company of nobles and servants. His father was unable to accompany him, as he had long wished, because of the heathen raids. Here the Pope, the future St Leo IV, adopted Alfred as a spiritual son. He made him a Roman consul, girding him with a sword and arraying him in a cloak of white and purple, showing him great honour, awarding him a spiritual kingship.
In 855 Alfred's father, the newly-widowed King Ethelwulf, was at last able to venture to Rome, accompanied by Alfred. Here at the tombs of the martyrs the English King no doubt prayed for the salvation of his land. Now aged six, on this second visit, the orphan Alfred remained in Rome a whole year. As usual his father made generous and splendid presents to the new Pope, Benedict III, and to the Church in Rome. All of this must have made a great impression on the young boy.
On returning to England, his fifty-year-old father was remarried for political reasons, to the thirteen-year-old Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. The two Kings no doubt wished to seal in this way an alliance against the heathen who, together with the Saracens in Italy, were menacing all Europe. However, Ethelwulf died only two years after this marriage, which turned out to be highly imprudent, in January 858.
Alfred showed great practical ability, skill and success in every branch of hunting. Here he learnt something of the beauty and mysteries of nature, for Alfred was spiritually gifted too. Since he had to wait until the age of twelve before he began to learn how to read and write, he also learnt the daily services of the hours and many psalms and prayers by heart. These he collected in a single book, which he kept by him day and night, into adulthood. He would have liked to pursue studies but at that time there were no scholars at the Wessex court. This was a matter of no little regret to him in later life. Then he was to have little time for education, whereas in childhood and boyhood he could have learnt so much more, had the instruction been available.
It is said that Alfred showed great devotion to the saints, for example St Cuthbert. Certainly he knew many of the churchmen of the day, for instance Bishop Elstan of Sherborne, and perhaps especially the future St Swithun of Winchester who was his father's spiritual father. Bishop of the Wessex city of Winchester from 852, Swithun had been King Ethelwulf's teacher as a child. It was said that it was the humble and mild Bishop Swithun who inspired Ethelwulf to leave one tenth of all his lands to the Church when he died.
From childhood Alfred used to visit the shrines and revere the relics of the saints and was given over to prayer and alms. But he is also said to have suffered from an illness, which he feared might be blindness or leprosy. One story, which may or may not be true, tells us that once, when out hunting at what is now St Neot in Cornwall, Alfred stopped at the church of St Gwinear. Here he prayed for his healing from this painful illness which was afflicting him. He prayed that it might be replaced by a less crippling and unseen illness, which would not make him useless to the Kingdom. His prayer was granted with healing, but later, as we shall see, he was to be afflicted with the new illness.
As Alfred grew up, political changes were happening around him. As we have already said, in the 830s and 840s the heathen Danes had begun attacks all over England, especially to the east in Kent, Essex and East Anglia, but also in Devon. In 853 the Kingdom of Wessex, combining its heartland of south-west England with all the south-east, joined its might with that of Mercia to face the ever-growing menace of the heathen Vikings. Thus, in the spring of 853 Alfred's sister married the King of Mercia. Faced by the pagan menace of one fleet of up to 350 ships, the two historic Kingdoms now worked as one, but with Wessex dominant. The raids continued into the 850s and great armies of thousands of Vikings, mainly Danes, began to settle in England, posing new problems.
Alfred's father, King Ethelwulf, had been succeeded amid great controversy in 858 by his rebellious son, Ethelbald, but he had died only two and a half troubled years later in 860. He in turn was succeeded by the next son, Ethelbert, who brought a measure of unity to the Kingdom of Wessex after the foolishness of his elder brother. That year marked a victory for the men of Wessex against the heathen Vikings, who had laid waste their capital, the city of Winchester. The heathen turned their attention once more to Kent, the eastern part of which they pillaged in 864.
Unfortunately, after a reign of peace, love and honour, Ethelbert died after only five years. Thus in 866 he was succeeded by the next brother, Ethelred. Now the heathen were showing ever more daring. Having conquered Northumbria in 867, they were about to enter East Anglia with their 'Great Army' and ransack its monasteries. It was at this time that Alfred, heir to the throne, ably seconded his brother King Ethelred, supporting him in great feats of arms.
In 868, when he was nineteen, Alfred married Elswith, the daughter of a Mercian nobleman. Unfortunately, it is said that Alfred was struck down by a mysterious and painful illness on his wedding-day. Some have speculated that it may have been a bladder infection or else kidney stones. In any case he was to suffer great pain from it for most of the rest of his life. Elswith, his wife, was to bear several children, of whom five lived into adulthood.
In that same year the heathen Vikings went down from Northumbria and headed for Mercia and Nottingham. Here the young Alfred defended the town side by side with the future saint, King Edmund of East Anglia, whom the heathen were to martyr in November 869. In December 870 and January 871 the heathen headed from conquered East Anglia into Berkshire in Wessex.
Here the English Christians were victorious in a skirmish at Englefield, but lost in attacking the Danes at Reading. On 8 January a major battle took place at 'Ashdown' on the Berkshire hills and here too Alfred distinguished himself, and was shown to be a greater leader with more initiative and daring than his brother, King Ethelred. At Ashdown the heathen were routed by the English Christians. Two weeks later, however, in January 871, the English were defeated at nearby Basing. Towards the end of March another battle near Marlborough in Wiltshire was lost and in addition in April a new heathen 'summer-army' arrived from Europe to reinforce the victorious one already there. The scene was set for a new and heroic period in England's history - and a new and heroic leader.
ALFRED THE KING AND THE SURVIVAL OF ENGLAND: 871-878
'True nobility is in the mind'.
Alfred the Great in 'On the Consolation of Philosophy'
Soon after Easter 871 the pious King Ethelred died and Alfred inherited the kingdom. He was to reign, now as 'King of Wessex', but eventually as 'King of the English', from 871 to 899. This was an unexpected and extraordinary destiny for the youngest and sickliest of five sons. Only a few years earlier nobody could have imagined that one day Alfred would have come to the throne. Fewer still could have imagined that the young Alfred would take part in a Great War against the heathen, lasting for years. And there would be a time when even fewer would imagine that Alfred could possibly emerge victorious from that war. Indeed Alfred himself could not have been enthusiastic at the prospect of being King of a land under such dire threat. As he was to write much later in his version of 'On the Consolation of Philosophy': 'Covetousness and the greatness of this earthly power never will please me, nor did I altogether very much yearn after this earthly authority'.
Surpassing all his brothers in wisdom, good habits and prowess as a warrior, the new King, aged only twenty-two, was very popular. Although he continued to fight vigorously, Alfred knew that his army had been weakened by previous losses; in humility he knew that only divine help could aid him. It is said that no fewer than nine battles were fought against the heathen in 871. The King rode with his army against the pagans, inflicting losses but also suffering losses. A month after his accession at Wilton in Wiltshire, the English sustained a great loss against the heathen. His army exhausted, Alfred paid them a ransom or 'danegeld' to leave Wessex and between 872 and 875, the Vikings gave Wessex a period of relative peace. During this time Alfred began to organize an army and also a navy.
In 872 the Vikings occupied London. From there by 874 they reduced all Mercia and Northumbria (the Midlands and the North of England) to their authority. With East Anglia and the rest of eastern and northern England under their sway, they even ravaged the south of Scotland. In all England only Wessex remained under Christian control and in 875, Alfred, who had restored something of the strength of his Kingdom, fought a naval battle against six heathen ships and was victorious.
However, in autumn 875, the heathen left their base in Cambridge and embarked on their second invasion of Wessex. They came to Wareham in Dorset and then went on to Exeter in Devon. Here they had gathered a fleet of 120 ships in order to finish off Wessex, but it was wrecked in a storm off Swanage. The heathen constantly broke their oaths to leave Wessex and slaughtered and ravaged everywhere they went. From here they crossed into Gloucester in the south of Mercia in 877 but just after Twelfth Night in January 878 they moved in a surprise attack to the royal estate in Chippenham in Wiltshire. As usual they pillaged the churches, destroyed opposition and the people of that area submitted to their authority. Wessex had all but collapsed.
Now had come the third heathen invasion of Wessex and the lowest point of Alfred's life. He and a small band of his most trusted and able men were forced to lead a nomadic life in sorrow and unrest among the woods and fen fastnesses of the marshes of Somerset. He and his men had nothing to live off and were obliged to forage from local peasants. Stories from this period, like that of the burnt cakes, passed into folklore. It seemed as though all were lost. Indeed, Alfred stood alone, the King of the last Christian Kingdom in England.
After Easter, in late March 878, Alfred and his company retreated through the alder forests and reedy marshes to the strategic island of Athelney, meaning the 'island of the princes'. This may have been a hunting-lodge of the princes of Wessex, or it may have taken its name from that time, when Alfred made it into a family stronghold for the princes of the Royal House. For on this island, a low hill of some thirty acres, surrounded by marsh and thicket with a well-protected causeway, Alfred built a fortress. This was to be the ark of salvation for Christian England.
For seven weeks, from his flood-encircled isle, Alfred prepared and plotted a counter-attack and began to harry the heathen. He sent out messengers to plan a concerted campaign against the heathen. It is said that his spiritual father, the holy hermit Neot, who had died shortly before these events, appeared to him in a vision, assuring him of victory. St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, whom Alfred had always greatly honoured, also appeared to him as a pilgrim, asking for food. Alfred set aside half of all that he had, but when a servant took him the food, the mysterious guest had vanished. Moved by the King's generosity, St Cuthbert then worked a miracle for him and appeared to him in a vision, giving him advice on how to defeat the heathen and promising him victory and future prosperity with the words: 'All Albion is given to you and your sons'.
Some time before Easter a fleet of twenty-three Viking ships had attacked north Devon at Countisbury and facing organized resistance, they suffered a great defeat, losing over 800 men. With the threat of heathen attack from the west passed, now Alfred would be free to attack to the east. After the Feast of the Ascension in early May 878, at 'Egbert's Stone', somewhere near Stourton on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, Alfred and his men went out and met up with other loyal forces from three shires. It is recorded that thousands gathered and, 'when they saw the King, they received him like one risen from the dead, after so many sorrows, and they were filled with great joy'. This memorable scene, when spring was at its greenest, was the sign which gave hope and strength to the Christian cause.
The next morning at Edington in Wiltshire, then called 'Ethandune', and actually on the uplands above Edington, Alfred fought fiercely against the whole heathen 'Great Army'. Here he won a victory 'by God's will'. It is reckoned that up to some eight thousand men fought one another. This battle in 878 was the turning point not only of English history, but also of early Western European history. This was the victory of right over wrong; here the White Christ overcame the Norse Odin, cynical, ruthless and deceitful. Alfred had saved the Kingdom of England and given new hope for the survival of all Christian civilization in Western Europe. Alfred had stood alone in Europe and unaided had vanquished those who elsewhere were considered unvanquishable. He had saved Wessex and in so doing he had saved England, and in saving England, he had saved Western Europe from becoming a heathen power. A little island had given birth to a great man.
Alfred pursued the heathen to their stronghold at Chippenham and seized all that they had, horses and cattle, and then laid siege. After two weeks the heathen, cold, hungry and fearful, made a peace-treaty. They swore that they would leave the Kingdom at once. In victory Alfred now showed his true greatness. He did not slaughter his former enemy like the murderous Charlemagne, but he fed them. Wisdom took the place of the sword; Alfred had defeated his enemies, but did not make enemies. He had overcome barbarism without becoming barbaric. Showing true Christian virtue and statesmanship, Alfred knew that the only real conquest is the conquest of the heart. As Churchill, emulating Alfred, said over a thousand years later: 'In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will'.
Three weeks later at Aller in Somerset together with some thirty of his leading men, Guthrum, the Danish King, received baptism taking the noble English name 'Athelstan', with Alfred standing as his godfather. After eight days, as is the tradition, he had the holy oil or chrism removed at the nearby royal estate at Wedmore and King Alfred, his conqueror and godfather, feasted with him and honoured him with gifts.
Alfred's victory here discouraged yet another heathen fleet which had arrived in the Thames from seeking its fortune. They turned away from England to Europe. In 878 the Danes left Chippenham and moved north to Mercia. In the following year they left for East Anglia where they began to settle. It was now time to turn from war to peace, restoring the spiritual and moral health of the English, re-establishing the civilization and ordered government of Christian England after the destruction of the heathen.
ALFRED THE BUILDER: 878-892
'These are a king's materials, and the tools with which he governs: a land well-peopled with men of prayer, men of war, and men of work. Without these tools no king can do work'.
Alfred the Great in 'On the Consolation of Philosophy'
Amid the assaults on his Kingdom and all England by the heathen, and amid his bodily infirmities, the King had not laid aside his other duties. That he was no mere warrior-king is proved by the next period of his life. With the heathen gone to Europe, he now had the long-awaited opportunity to prove his true greatness, embarking on a programme of military, civil, cultural and spiritual reform of his Kingdom - all the south-western half of England.
Although now at peace, Alfred next spent time reforming royal government and organizing a standing army, a Home Guard, in order to protect England from any future heathen assaults. Throughout the land that he ruled, he began to set up a system of thirty fortified towns or 'burhs', garrisoned by local men in a reorganized army. His wish was that nobody would live more than twenty miles from such a fortified town. Since these towns were to be manned from the areas surrounding them, Alfred thus helped establish new 'shires', that is land from which garrisons for these burhs could be drawn. This is particularly clear in the cases of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Some of the boundaries of these shires, fixed at this time and immediately after, remain to this day.
In this way, if ever the heathen attacked again, as they would, the Christians would be protected. Although it was his son, Edward the Elder, who completed this programme of towns encircling Wessex, it had started under Alfred. In 886 he set about rebuilding London and many other towns which he planned in grids of streets. He also paid attention to the building of royal halls of wood and stone.
Neither did Alfred forget that the heathen had come by sea. The only way to defeat them was therefore to build up a 'ship-army', that is a navy. Already in 882 Alfred was able to launch a naval attack on four Viking ships, capturing two and forcing the surrender of the other two. In 884-5, when the heathen besieged Rochester in Kent, King Alfred came to the rescue and the enemy fled to Europe. However, they had been joined by heathen from East Anglia who were tempted into breaking their peace with Alfred. Therefore in the same year Alfred attacked the heathen in East Anglia with a fleet of ships in the mouth of the River Stour. Here, although many Viking ships were captured or destroyed by the Christians, the heathen finally won the day.
Having started tentatively, eventually in the 890s, Alfred came to order longships of his own design to be built, twice as long as the Danish ones, with sixty oars and more. These first ships were swifter and higher than the enemy's, though less manoeuvrable. This navy was to prove its worth and by the beginning of his son's reign in the next century, England would possess a navy of over a hundred ships.
In 886, after a siege, Alfred took London back from the heathen. He made governor of this traditionally Mercian city his new son-in-law, Ethelred of Mercia, by whose marriage he had forever sealed the alliance between Wessex and its former rival Mercia. Next he drew up a treaty with his godson, Athelstan-Guthrum, defining a border between English England and the Danelaw, consisting of Essex, East Anglia and a large part of Mercia. This brought some seven years of peace. It was only after Athelstan-Guthrum's death in 890 and his burial at Hadleigh in Suffolk that the Danes dared attack Alfred once more. As a result of these moves, Alfred received the recognition of all the English outside the Danelaw. This was a historic moment; for the first time there was one King of all free England, of Englishkind, giving all free English people a common identity for the first time.
Very wisely, Alfred was also much occupied with the building of good relations with other countries, both near and far. He needed friends and they needed him. First he started with the Welsh, then the Northumbrians. If he was not actually King of all England, he was certainly King, Overlord and Protector of all Christian England, 'King of the English'. Even in the Danelaw, he had influence, for he was 'Ruler over all Christians in Britain'. Alfred received embassies from many countries and, as we shall see, he had friendly relations with Irish, Scandinavians, Frisians, Franks, Gauls, Bretons. He cultivated relations with Flanders and indeed his daughter was to marry the Count of Flanders. Alfred's hospitality and generosity to foreign travellers was legendary.
Always the deep thinker, Alfred considered that the source of all the problems of England was not political, civil and military, but spiritual and moral. He believed that the heathen invasions had happened because of Christian England's spiritual decline during the late eighth and ninth centuries. The heathen men had come as a punishment for English decadence and unworthiness, ignorance and materialism. Alfred therefore struck at the heart of the problem and instituted a rebirth of religion and learning, which was to be enshrined in the revival of monasticism, culture and the law. Only this spiritual rebirth and cultural renaissance could ensure peace, respect for authority, morality and prosperity in the future.
Just as he had saved Christian England militarily, Alfred now set about saving English Christendom through piety and learning. Thus Alfred personally directed and set an example for the affairs of his Kingdom. He went to the divine services and the communion service every day. He took part in the reading of certain psalms and prayers in the daytime and at night. He listened while the Scriptures and other books were read aloud and learned by heart. Later he was to begin a translation of the psalms, which survives. He continued his habits of almsgiving and charity to the poor and showed immense generosity and hospitality to native people and foreign visitors. He cherished his bishops and clergy, his nobles and servants.
Alfred especially regretted the lack of divine learning and knowledge. The extraordinary ignorance of Latin among clergy is well-known. Indeed the Popes of the period, John VIII and Formosus, all justly reproached the English Church for its decadence. In this respect Alfred resembled King Solomon of old who came to despise the things of this world and sought for the Wisdom of God. The Lord heard Alfred's prayer and supplied him with learned men. From Mercia in the early 880s there came the learned Bishop Werferth of Worcester who translated the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great into English. Then also from Mercia there came Plegmund, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury and to be venerated as a saint, and also the priests Athelstan and Werwulf. Spending time with these four constantly, Alfred later sought new instructors from overseas.
Showing great curiosity in the acquisition of new religious knowledge, Alfred wished to restore learning in general. He set an example by personally learning Latin over a period of about five years between 887 and 892. This began on St Martin's Day, 11 November 887. Then aged thirty-nine, Alfred was beginning an apprenticeship. As we shall see, eventually aided by his scholars, he was to become a translator from Latin into English of essential works from the early Church for the benefit of the faithful. This idea started from Alfred's handbook of quotations, which he had kept from his youth.
Alfred also gave instructions to the sons of the people who spent time with the King, loving them no less than his own children. Of this he later wrote in his foreword to 'Pastoral Care': 'Let all the free-born youth now in England and who are able be set to learning'. The importance of his cathedral-schools he set up for this purpose should not be underestimated in shaping the next generation of the English elite.
Alfred encouraged craftsmen who designed new treasures and paid much attention to the adornment of churches with gold and silver. Alfred was also, it seems, something of a church architect. He began a programme of building in stone, importing builders and craftsmen from Europe. One historian of church architecture, E. A. Fisher, has pointed out that the result was a new beginning in English church architecture. Although based on European motifs, it was by no means a copy of a foreign style, but a truly national development, which continued right until the Norman Conquest.
There was contact too with the Papacy and in 883 Pope Marinus I sent him a splinter of the True Cross. Throughout that period Alfred sent alms to Rome virtually every year. Later, from about 885, relations started to become strained as Rome and the Papacy declined into political chaos and decadence. At this time Alfred was also in written contact with the Church further afield too. Thus he was in contact with Patriarch Elias III of Jerusalem who sent Alfred gifts. It is recorded that Alfred sent alms to both Patriarch Elias and 'to India'. This may have meant Syria, but could actually mean even further east.
In thanksgiving for his victory planned on the isle of Athelney, from where England had been saved, Alfred built his first monastery. Linked by a bridge with two towers to the mainland, it was square in plan with four rounded arches. It appears to have followed the plan of a Greek cross and was inspired perhaps by the church at Germigny on the Loire in France. Here Alfred brought artists and craftsmen from overseas and gathered priests, deacons and monks of several nationalities, so that his own people could relearn the traditions of monastic life. Although his attempt to restore monastic life was to be unsuccessful here, it was at least to sow great seeds for the future.
From the far north of France, in about 886 there came the elderly but learned priest, Grimbald, and then from Saxony the priest John who became Abbot of Athelney. Both John and Grimbald were later esteemed to be saints. Other clergy also came from France, and even one convert from among the Vikings. At that time, in about 887, there also appeared the priest, or possibly bishop, Asser, from St David's in Wales, under whose name was written an unfinished life of King Alfred. This life survives to this day and regardless of when, where and by whom the version with its interpolations which we now have, was actually written, it is one of the main sources for the life of Alfred.
Alfred's second foundation, a convent, begun in 880, was established at Shaftesbury. It was here that his own daughter, Ethelgifu, became Abbess. Many other noble nuns lived with her. Alfred endowed both monasteries, and many others already existing, abundantly. In his love for the English character and English life, his vision and his care were to restore Christian England to something of the glory that she had held before the heathen wars.
Alfred also planned two more foundations, a monastery and a convent, in the main city of Wessex Christendom, Winchester. Although these were not to be completed until after his death, Alfred was to be buried and for over 500 years honoured in Winchester, and his widow was to retire to the convent, the Nunnaminster. Such facts make the much later medieval accusation that Alfred 'despoiled' the monastery of Abingdon sound strange indeed.
Such was Alfred's faith that he resolved to devote to God one half of his service, both by day and by night, and one half of his riches. His time was measured accurately by a candle, which burned inside an ox-horn lantern, so that he actually consecrated exactly half of all his energies to God.
Between 890 and 893 Alfred drew up a great law-code, which has led many to give him the title, 'Alfred the Lawgiver'. He wished to restore the rule of law, enforcing justice, wherever law and order had broken down because of the heathen invasions and the breakdown of church and monastic life. His laws were based on the Ten Commandments of Hebrew Mosaic Law, on the best of the traditional English laws of Kent, Mercia and Wessex, and on Roman government. Much was based on the Ten Commandments, given to Moses, fulfilled and interpreted by the love and compassion of Christ, continued by the teachings of the Apostles and handed down through the ordinances of the Church Councils down the ages. In it Alfred emphasised the importance of the Golden Rule of St Matthew (Matt 7, 12): 'Do as ye would be done by', which he enshrined in his laws as: 'Judge as ye would be judged'.
Alfred's laws, drawn up by consulting councillors from the whole Kingdom and based on previous laws of other kingdoms, were designed to draw all English people together, building up their common identity. They stressed the sacredness of a man's oath and the faith he owed to his lord and the King. Alfred limited the use of the death penalty and physical punishments and tried to stop blood-feuds. Physical punishments were to a large degree replaced by fines and the ability to prove one's innocence before God and man. And it was no light matter to destroy God's handiwork through use of the death penalty.
Written in Old English, so that all could understand, his laws set out the punishments for all manner of crime, from murder to theft and injury to sacrilege. Crimes were tried by monthly 'folk-moots', or local courts under the supervision of the king's reeve or local representative. The reeves, the judges and other officials had to be instructed too and Alfred was very strict on this. One rule, said Alfred, applied everywhere: 'Judge not one judgement for the rich, and another for the poor'. Such were the foundations of English justice that he laid.
His laws also emphasized the importance of keeping the Church's feasts and fasts. For example, it set forth the keeping of Holy Week and Easter Week, the twelve days of Christmas, the Dormition of the Mother of God on 15 August, the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul on 29 June, the Feast of the Apostle of the English, St Gregory the Great, on 12 March. Those who failed to keep Great Lent were to be fined. Alfred was seen to be a just and painstaking judge who loved the pursuit of wisdom and took special care of the poor. There were two things that he abhorred in particular. These were ignorance and laziness. Despite his illness, sustained by the help of God, Alfred continually set an example to others, encouraging, instructing, urging, chastising, showing special concern for education and books, tirelessly toiling to rebuild Christian England.
At this time, perhaps starting even before his law-code, King Alfred sponsored the translations of several books. The first of these may well have been the translation into English of most of St Bede's History of the English Church and People. Although translated mainly by Bishop Werferth, Alfred had a hand in this. Through it Alfred wished to show the glories of the golden age of the seventh and early eighth centuries of English Christianity, the story of pagans converted to Christianity, the model to be restored.
Possible next came another free translation under Alfred's guiding hand of the histories against the pagans of the early Church writer and historian, the priest Paulus Orosius. This author, a pupil of Blessed Augustine and Blessed Jerome, born in what is now Spain, described the history of the world from the Creation to the Year 417. He detailed the woes of paganism, proving that disasters came because of paganism, not because of Christianity.
In a condensed version, Alfred wished to give consolation to his much-tried compatriots. They as Christians had been attacked and invaded, but this was nothing to the disasters suffered by the pagans. Alfred added to this work with personal additions of geographical knowledge. These had come to him via travellers and seamen who had been both to the far north, Lapland and the White Sea, and also to what is now Germany, Poland and Estonia. Alfred's additions extended knowledge of northern and central Europe and were read for at least three centuries after him.
In a similar historical vein there also appeared at about this time the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This was not a translation, but the assembling of a national chronicle of English history, written with Alfred's encouragement and patronage. Begun under Alfred's editorship and direction and stretching back into the distant past, it was compiled consistently in the 890s. It was designed to show the continuity and thread of English history and filled the gap after 731, when St Bede's book had stopped. It was to be continued for some 250 years after Alfred's death and forms one of our most important sources of knowledge for early English history. Above all, it too helped give all Englishkind an awareness of their national identity, a common history and so unity.
ALFRED'S ENGLAND DEFENDED: 892-899
'To seek truth is to seek God'.
Alfred the Great in 'The Soliloquies'
Alfred's battles against ignorance were not the last he was to fight. Restoring the rule of law and civilization, new trials were to come upon him which put to the test his reforms and new defences between 892 and 896. In late autumn 892, a new heathen Great Army arrived from Europe in a fleet of 250 ships. They landed in the south of Kent. Another fleet of 80 ships sailed to the Thames and settled in north Kent. These were supported by heathen from the Danelaw. Showing exceptional qualities of leadership, Alfred began a campaign of harassment. The Danish chief, Haesten, was compelled to parley with Alfred and forced to give up his two sons for baptism.
However, after Easter 893, Alfred was obliged to send his army, commanded by his son Edward, to fight against them in the Weald of Kent. But his new system of burhs and their garrisons worked and the Danes were thwarted by them. The Danes therefore sent a new fleet of some 60 ships from East Anglia and Yorkshire to attack Wessex from the west through Devon. Alfred defeated both this fleet and also the Danes to the east who had tried to penetrate westwards into Hampshire and Berkshire. They were repelled and defeated again in the south of Essex. In early autumn 893 the Danes, now reinforced, tried new tactics, sailing up the Severn. Again they were defeated, thanks to Alfred's system of fortified towns and reorganized army. Later in the same year, the heathen went up as far as Chester, seeking to penetrate Christian defences, but here too they were forced into north Wales and then had to return to Essex. And then at Chichester they were defeated yet again.
In summer 895 they tried to penetrate through into Wessex via Hertfordshire. However, Alfred took control of the River Lea with forts, leaving the heathen ships unusable. Their mobility lost, in the spring of 896, the Danes gave up their futile struggle against united Christian England and its inspired leader in despair, and either settled down as peasant-farmers in the Danelaw, or else returned to Europe.
Although the English were regularly harassed after this by heathen Danes from the Danelaw, they faced no more invasions from Europe for decades to come. And as regards the raids from the Danelaw, these were minor and the superior English navy put paid to their attacks. Eventually, Alfred's son and successor, Edward the Elder would end all these attacks by simply conquering the Danelaw altogether and bringing the territory back under English Christian jurisdiction.
Before, during and after the heathen attacks, Alfred's work of translation 'of the books which men need to know most of all', continued with the work of the scholars whom he had gathered around him. From Bishop Werferth, he asked for the translation of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, a book of lives and miracles of the saints, written by the Apostle of the English. This, Alfred deemed, would be for the spiritual and moral uplifting of English people. This translation had been completed by 892 at latest. This was sophisticated English prose, English expressing the theology and philosophy of the Church Fathers. Alfred, finding and 'searching out the things of heaven', as he wrote in his foreword to the translation, was presenting the things of heaven to English people. As we shall see, this work was to continue, with Alfred translating personally. This was indeed the 'King's English', for Alfred was in effect the father of English prose.
The next translation was perhaps that of St Gregory's book on 'Pastoral Care', a practical guide or handbook for bishops and to some extent all rulers, called in English 'The Shepherd's Book'. This was wholly or partly translated by Alfred himself in about 893. It was a relatively free translation in which Alfred, as was his wont, made more concrete some of the relatively abstract thoughts of St Gregory. Its purpose was to enlighten the English. In his foreword to it, Alfred indeed wrote of the happy times that had once been in England, how the sacred orders were zealous for instruction and teaching, how even foreigners came to England in search of wisdom. Now the situation was just the opposite.
In this 'Shepherd's Book', Alfred praised the Apostle of the English, St Gregory the Great, and then at the end of the book wrote a hymn to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Learning. He also wrote of how those who had done things famous and wonderful and were praised, were wont to become puffed up with pride. He described the need for rulers to be sincere and humble and of how rulers should be vigilant, in case the desire for popularity should overcome them, or their speech become perverted into futile wordiness. This was clearly not Alfred's case.
Other translations, perhaps made between 896 and 899, perhaps earlier, were, as befitted a man coming to the end of his life, more theological in character. The first was a Christianized version of Boethius' On the Consolation of Philosophy.
The Christian Boethius, who had died in 524, had been imbued with the pagan philosophies of Aristotle and even more, Plato. Imprisoned and awaiting execution under the Goths, Boethius hankered after the true representative of the Christian Empire and Rome, the Emperor Justinian. King Alfred applauded him for this. Boethius tried to console himself with the pagan Greek and Roman philosophies given a Christian veneer. However, under the influence of other Christian teachers, in Alfred's 'translation' the implicitly Christian in Boethius was made explicitly Christian. It becomes in 'translation' not a philosophical work, but a theocentric work. Alfred stamped the whole book with his character and inspired it with his faith. In it, in warm and lively, clear and simple language, the Christian God is revealed as the centre and foundation of all, the everlasting life of all souls. 'The Way is God', and 'Fasten your mind's eye on God', wrote Alfred. Translating Boethius' hymn, he wrote:
'O Thou Creator of heaven and earth, Who rulest on the eternal throne, Thou that makest the heavens to turn in swift course and the stars to obey Thee, and the sun with its shining beams to quench the darkness of black night: ... Thou that givest short hours to the days of winter, and longer ones to those of summer, Thou that in harvest-tide with the strong north-east wind spoilest the trees of their leaves, and again in Lententide givest them fresh ones with the soft south-west winds, lo! all creatures do Thy will, and keep the ordinances of Thy commandments, save man only; he setteth Thee at naught'.
In this work, God is described as the hub of the universe, around which the wheel of human society turns. Some were at the centre near the hub, others preferred to remain far from God in the filth by the rim. Nevertheless all were together: the spokes joined to form one wheel. We are saved together. Here was Alfred's vision of a Christian society. Here was the Christian conception of kingship as opposed to the wicked rulers whom Alfred described:
'We see them seated on high seats, bright with many kinds of raiment, decked with belts and golden-hilted swords and war dress of many kinds ... But if you were to strip off the robes from such a one, and take away his company of retainers, then you would see that he is no more than any one of the thanes who serve him, if he be not someone of even lower degree'.
Not so much the Consolation of Philosophy, but more the Consolation of Theology. Alfred took a Platonic original and then illuminated it with the teachings of Christ, with Wisdom. In the getting of Wisdom, Alfred Christianized not only the pagan philosophy of the Greeks, but also the pagan fatalism of the early English, teaching Christian free will: 'It is divine foreknowledge and not fate that rules man'. Those who could not understand this are simply those who 'are blinded by the darkness of their sins'. Knowledge and wisdom are accessible only through purity of heart. No wonder others said that in the King's translation, the book seemed to come alive. Showing a certain mastery of Latin and adapting the text freely, Alfred wrote an English classic of Christian philosophy, which was not to be surpassed for centuries. Here is Alfred's translation of the closing hymn of Boethius to the All-powerful Spirit:
'To God all is present, both that which was before and that which is now, yea, and that which shall be after us; all is present to Him. His abundance never waxes, nor does it ever wane. He never calls any thing to mind, for He has forgotten no thing. He looks for no thing, ponders no thing, for He knows all. He seeks no thing, for He has lost no thing. He pursues no creature, for none may flee from him; nor does He dread any thing, for none is more mighty than He, none is like unto Him. He is ever giving, yet He never wanes in any thing. He is ever Almighty, for He ever wills good and never evil.
He needs no thing. He is ever watching, never sleeping. He is ever equally beneficent. He is ever eternal, for the time never was when He was not, nor ever shall be ... Pray for what is right and needful for you, for He will not deny you. Hate evil, and flee from it. Love virtue and follow it. Whatever you do is always done before the Eternal and Almighty God; He sees it all, and all He judges and will requite'.
The theme of the only true happiness, Wisdom, which cannot be taken away from men, was continued in Alfred's last two works. These were very free translations, not to say rewritings, of The Soliloquies of Augustine, and finally, King Alfred's swansong - his partial translation of the Psalter.
The Soliloquies of Blessed Augustine were written in 386-7 in the mountains to the north of Milan before its author was baptized by St Ambrose, the great Church Father. Unfinished dialogues between the soul and God, they were translated by Alfred in selected extracts, or, 'gathered flowers', as he called them. However, in many ways with so much revised, adapted and added from the Fathers, the Bible and himself, the work is Alfred's. This was after all an immature work of Blessed Augustine before his baptism and enlightenment, written after a misspent youth and illegitimate child. Alfred in fact took the least philosophical parts, for translation, omitting the young Augustine's rationalism. He included the most theological parts for the edification of the reader, expressed them in simple words, and made them come alive in his own words.
Whatever the doubts there may have been in the mind of the immature and not yet baptized Augustine, there was no doubt in Alfred's mind about the relationship between Faith and Reason. Once more he had taken the somewhat Platonic work of a Latin writer and Christianized it, showing that the way is God. He considered that we are all pilgrims to 'The House of Wisdom'. And Wisdom would give light according to Her Will and the ability of the pilgrims to see. Our destiny was either the Vision of God or else torment.
Alfred knew that to see Wisdom and therefore to see God, the soul had first to be cleansed, gaining spiritual health through virtue. Truth has her home in the soul, not in the reason. Some matters can only be known by Faith: 'I know who built Rome, not because I saw it myself, but because it was told me'. Again Alfred wrote that: 'The highest wisdom is the highest good'. Or: 'Men come to wisdom by different paths'. And: 'Inasmuch as man loves wisdom, he loves God'. As Alfred aged, it was Wisdom which became his main theme, indeed it was Alfred who himself strove all his life to build the House of Wisdom.
There is no clearer example of this Wisdom than the fact that in the last year or so of his life, Alfred began translating the Psalter into English. He had probably known the Psalter by heart since his early years. He certainly identified with King David, for Alfred was also a King who was pursued by enemies and consoled himself with hymn and song, and he too had triumphed over his enemies only by the grace of God. Like David he too had vanquished Goliath. Like King David, Alfred also sought wisdom and placed his faith and trust in God. Using a version of the Roman Psalter, Alfred had reached Psalm 50 when his translating was cut short by his death. His translation of the first 50 Psalms still survives.
A woman of note, Alfred's wife, Elswith, was to survive her husband by only three years. Held in high respect, she completed the work of Alfred's monastic building of the convent or Nunnaminster in Winchester, which was dedicated to the Virgin. There she lived in great piety and after her repose she was revered as a saint, calendars recording St Elswith under the date of 20 July. As regards the children of the royal couple, each had a special destiny.
The eldest, a daughter, was called Ethelfled. Aged sixteen, she had married Ethelred, the ruler under Alfred of English Mercia and guardian of London. She played a distinguished role as an energetic strategist and diplomat, especially between her husband's death in 911 and her own in 918. Then she built fortresses and recovered Derby and Leicester for England. History knows her as 'The Lady of the Mercians'.
The second child was Edward. He succeeded his father as King and is known to history as Edward the Elder, one of England's greatest Kings, ruling from 899 to 924. In effect Ethelfled and Edward virtually ruled together, realizing full national unity in 917 with the collapse of the Danelaw. Alfred was particularly fond of Edward's son, Athelstan. Crowned in 925 as the first true King of all England (and indeed, in some ways, all Britain), he continued his grandfather's work and become one of the greatest English Kings of the greatest English dynasty. He had an international vision and made many alliances in Western Europe. Indeed no fewer than three of Alfred's grand-daughters married European rulers - Otto I, Charles the Simple and Hugh Capet, the founder of the French monarchy.
Then came Ethelgifu (Ethelgiva) who was to become a nun and future Abbess of Shaftesbury which convent Alfred had founded. She died young in 896 and, like her mother, is feasted locally as a saint, being commemorated on 9 December. Then came Alfthryth who married Baldwin II, the Count of Flanders. Finally came the youngest son, Athelward, who turned into a scholar. King Alfred ensured that all his children received a good education, learning the Psalms. All Alfred's children were renowned for their humility, gentleness, friendliness and obedience to their father.
It is interesting that each of his children reflected a facet of their much-talented father, who had shown such courage in adversity and like David overcome Goliath. Tenth-century England, with the strongest government in Western Europe was very much the creation of Alfred the Great through his family, and it stood far ahead of any other Western country in terms of civilization.
Towards the end of his life Alfred attended a Council in Chelsea and was planning to rebuild London with the help of his son-in-law and also the future saint, Archbishop Plegmund. Not long before his death in the last foreword to his 'Flowers' or Soliloquies, he had prayed that God 'will so enlighten the eyes of my understanding that I may find the right road to the everlasting home, to everlasting glory and everlasting rest, promised to us through the Holy Fathers. Amen'.
On his death-bed, it is recorded that he called his eldest son and heir to his side, instructing him to honour St Cuthbert and asking him to love God. Alfred died on 26 October 899, probably fifty years old. He was buried in the Old Minster in his capital at Winchester. In 903 his relics were translated to the New Minster. The King's last will and testament still exists. In it the King divided out his lands and money among his family, his bishops, his officials, for priests and the poor.
ENGLAND AFTER KING ALFRED
Alfred born in Wantage
G.K. Chesterton, 'The Ballad of the White Horse'.
The first supposed biographer, and certainly personal acquaintance of Alfred the Great, Bishop Asser, was fulsome in his praise of King Alfred and declared that Alfred was 'beloved of all men' and 'truthful'. He emphasized the King's piety, wisdom, justice, courage, perseverance and generosity. His contemporary, Bishop Wulfsig of Sherborne, also expressed his admiration of his friend 'Alfred of the English, the greatest treasure-giver of all the kings he has ever heard tell'. Another contemporary, probably John, Abbot of Athelney, also wrote in honour of the King, comparing his Christian kingship to Christ's.
Later, in the tenth century, the chronicler Athelward referred to 'the magnanimous Alfred king of the Saxons, unshakeable pillar of the western people, a man replete with justice, vigorous in warfare, learned in speech, above all instructed in divine learning'. He was seen as 'the English Solomon', the wise dispenser of laws. Slightly later in the same century, the learned Alfric Abbot of Eynesham called Alfred 'wise' for his work of translation and singled out Alfred as an English king 'often victorious through God'. Also two charters, probably of about the Year 1000, call him 'Alfred the Wise'.
Of the Norman historians in the twelfth century, Orderic Vitalis wrote of Alfred that, 'in goodness, nobility and statesmanship he stood head and shoulders above all the kings of England who came before and after him'. Simeon of Durham held Alfred up as a model to the clergy of that time. Florence of Worcester described him as 'most dear to his own race most watchful and devout in the service of God'. Henry of Huntingdon wrote that 'your labour has given you an enduring renown'. William of Malmesbury also wrote in praise of the King. One of the most enduring themes was Alfred's wisdom and a still extant poem with the title 'Proverbs of Alfred' was compiled. At this time Alfred, who 'made the laws of England', was called 'The Shepherd of the English' and 'the wisest man in all England'.
In the thirteenth century, the monk Matthew Paris contrasted the national hero Alfred very favourably with the French Henry III. Alfred's fame thus now came to eclipse that of all other English kings. Perhaps it was only by standing back in hindsight that people were able to appreciate the huge and unique achievements and gifts of King Alfred. In the fourteenth century poem, 'Laymon's Brut', Alfred is called 'England's Darling'. Consciousness of his greatness and wisdom were certainly maturing in the minds of his contemporaries. In any case, in 1441 King Henry VI petitioned Pope Eugene IV that Alfred, 'in whom the Lord has deigned to work miracles both in his life and in his death', be canonized. The petition was not granted, relations between England and the Papacy were not at their best and the Pope was in any case too preoccupied with the political chaos and schism of the time. Nevertheless, in Winchester people continued to honour his earthly remains until the Reformation.
After the Reformation, in 1574, Archbishop Parker of Canterbury, produced the first printed life of Alfred, combining patriotism with learning. For that Protestant age Alfred stood clear of medieval superstition and Gothic barbarism and it was in the sixteenth century that Alfred came to be known as 'the Great'. In the seventeenth century, after a first Life of Alfred written in 1634 by Robert Powell, in 1642-3 the royalist Sir John Spelman wrote his classic 'Life of Alfred the Great' for the edification of Charles I, but in Latin. Here was 'a man beyond the hopes of emulation'. A still standing statue to Alfred was raised in London. Milton called Alfred 'the mirror of princes'. Spelman's Life was published in 1678 and then popularized in 1709 by an English version of the Life.
In the 1700s the philosopher David Hume considered Alfred to be 'the model of that perfect character which, under the denomination of a sage or wise man, philosophers have been fond of delineating'. In the eighteenth century the writer James Thomson called him 'the best of kings'. The historian Gibbon called him 'the greatest of English kings'. In France Voltaire wrote that, 'I know not whether there has ever been a man on earth worthier of the respect of posterity'. Many at that time considered Alfred to be a model of the English culture that the Normans had destroyed in their tyrannical occupation. He was widely celebrated in a dozen or so novels, poems and plays and all considered him to be a national hero.
In 1801, then thought to be the ninth centenary of Alfred's death, a monument was raised to him at Athelney. In the nineteenth century Alfred stood for the freedom of England in the works of Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Longfellow, who wrote of 'Alfred, the lover of truth'. During the Victorian period, he was revered by all and in 1849 a huge crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Wantage to celebrate the millenary of his birth. Statues were erected to his memory in his birthplace at Wantage in 1877 after the millenary of his accession to the throne and then in Winchester for the millenary of his death.
The poet Alfred Austin wrote a poem called 'England's Darling' in reminiscence of the medieval description. The popular historian J. R. Green said that, 'The love which he won a thousand years ago has lingered round his name from that day to this'. The eminent Victorian historian Freeman wrote: 'There is no other name in history to compare with his'. The historian Bishop Stubbs wrote of him as one of the five greatest Englishmen ever. And in Victorian style, another statue of King Alfred followed, at Pewsey in Wiltshire near Edington. And a daffodil was named after him, and innumerable companies and tea-rooms.
In the age without heroes, the twentieth century, academics did not cease to praise his name. The Oxford historian, R. H. Hodgkin, wrote that: 'Alfred displayed the faculty that we call genius'. Churchill said: 'He had by policy and arms preserved the Christian civilization in England'. The Cambridge Medieval History of the 1960's called Alfred, 'one of the most remarkable characters known to history'. Alfred was vigorously defended by scholars such as Stenton, Duckett, Deanesly, Godfrey, Whitelock and Bately, as well as by popular writers like Helm, Mapp, Woodruff and many others.
One of the main Anglo-Saxon scholars of that period, Peter Hunter Blair, justified the title of 'Great'. Writing in that period, another, Sir Arthur Bryant, concluded: 'Alfred created two things that were to survive disaster and conquest - a kingdom to which all Englishmen instinctively felt they belonged and a native literature to enshrine their culture and tradition. More than any other man he was the first maker of England'. Recent studies by academics like Keynes and Lapidge, and the more controversial and idiosyncratic work of Alfred Smyth, have not diminished King Alfred's stature. We cannot forget that the Sovereign of the age, Queen Elizabeth II, is herself thirty-fifth in descent from King Alfred the Great.
Alfred was a genius centuries ahead of his time. He was great in victory, even greater in peace. He did not massacre his prisoners and enemies like Charlemagne, he left no bitterness to be avenged after his death. He did as he would be done by. He vanquished heathendom by Christendom. The father of English prose, of quite literally 'the King's English', he established an English culture which even the Normans could not destroy. Indeed English survived as a literary language, whereas its inferior Norman-French rival died. No wonder that he was called 'England's Darling'. This model of Christian kingship was by far the greatest leader in Western Europe between 450 and 1050.
In English history the many-sided genius of Alfred, the Maker of England and Father of the English Crown, is indeed unique, as is his title 'the Great'. The House of Alfred is the House of England. He was the saviour of English Christian civilization from the barbarian conquest of the heathen, the maker of the English character. Here was an energetic military leader, a gifted town planner, a pious and learned national hero who was a founded of the navy and gave a library to his people. He established a literary language, the oldest in Western Europe apart from Latin, centuries ahead of anyone else, and he set forth a Christian philosophy of life. He made his Kingdom the richest in Western Europe, but never forgot that poverty dwells where there are no riches of mind and spirit. He sought Wisdom, knowing that Wisdom is of God.
King Alfred the Great
Alfred is an English hero, 'the greatest Englishman ever', as Churchill called him. However, the question of Alfred's holiness is most certainly not a racial question. The survival of England is not about the English as a 'worthy race', even less as a race. Today we actually see the same situation as in Alfred's time. He too considered that heathen attacks on England had occurred precisely because the English had become a race unworthy of their Christian Faith. It was for that reason that their existence was under threat. Therefore he invited foreign monks and priests to come to England to revive and teach the English the monastic life, which they had all but forsaken. He himself also set about translating foreign books in order to enlighten the English. Alfred had no racial prejudice against the heathen, who were mainly Danes, a kindred race to the English. Rather he was against their heathenism, which was infecting the English and destroying English Christian values - everything worthwhile in England.
Therefore in speaking of the survival of England, we are not talking of a racial England, but an England of the Faith, of Christian English values. Traditional English values, the Golden Rule of the Gospel, lived out by Alfred. The words 'Do as you would be done by', have been and are admired by many nationalities and can be shared in by anyone of any race, Eastern European, Asian, African, South American or other. Most foreign people I know are saddened at the loss of those Christian values in England and would like English people to restore them as an example. And it is precisely these values that Alfred protected and still protects, for he put Christ at the centre of his world.
At the end of Alfred's reign, the word English meant Christian. I believe that the only return to England possible is through the return to the Christian God, the 'White Christ', as the heathen called Him. If we do not return to Christ, then our national identity will be lost, that identity being dependent on the Christian Faith, which Alfred confessed, lived for and restored after heathen attack. Alfred's programme was the restoration of Christian England. His true greatness was not in war, but in peace, in defences and town-planning, in the building of churches and monasteries, in literature and the law. Our programme too is restoration, the restoration of Christian England and English Christian culture.
There is a current fashion to associate Christianity with wimps and the weak. This is not part of the Christian Tradition. Many warriors have been recognized as saints. For example, there are St Alban, St George, also the two St Theodores or St Demetrius. The Archangel Michael is a military figure. St Constantine was also a warrior. Of course none of them is a saint, because he was a warrior. Their holiness depended on what they did with their abilities, how they used them to build up the Kingdom of Christ on earth. Those who built up the Kingdom - like Alfred the Great - were recognized as saints. Alfred was devoted to the Church and loved Her. This is why we believe that he is a saint.
Remember that Alfred fought to defend a Christian Kingdom, not to attack others. Self-defence and, even more, the defence of others, of a peaceful civilian population, women and children, monks and nuns, is not the same as aggression. It is the opposite. Once Alfred had won against the Danes, he did not massacre them or expel them, he baptized them and gave them presents, standing godfather to their leader and giving him a Christian name. He defeated enemies, he did not make them. Against all the odds, he first won the war and then won the peace. He showed generosity in victory, showing true Christian nobility and wisdom, proving that the only true conquest is not that of the sword, but that of the heart. He allowed the Danes to keep their own customs and laws and language, but he insisted that, if they remain in England, they become Christian.
For Alfred, the Christian Faith was the essential factor in England and English culture and identity. If the Danish heathen were to integrate, then they had to accept baptism. All the rest was secondary. And Alfred's policies were successful. Thirty years after the Danes had martyred St Edmund in East Anglia, they were honouring him as a saint. In the middle of the tenth century, St Oda, called 'the Good', became the first Danish Archbishop of Canterbury and another Christian saint. Another example, a little later, is St Oda's kinsman, St Oswald of Worcester, later Archbishop of York, who was also of Danish descent and was truly loved by all for his holiness and compassion.
There are a number of reasons why Alfred has not yet been canonized. First of all, Alfred's descendants in tenth-century England were too busy continuing Alfred's work of rebuilding England in most spectacular ways. To some extent, in a worldly way, they eclipsed him, and people tended to forget that Alfred's work was the survival of England and the building of the foundations on which their more spectacular, but actually less substantial, achievements were made. They were not the people to promote their own forebear as a saint.
As regards the Church authorities, it took another fifty years to the mid-tenth century for the Church to start functioning normally and a full monastic revival to take place. The Church in Canterbury had largely been destroyed in the heathen raids and was restored only under Alfred's great-grandson, King Edgar the Peaceful, who was locally revered as a saint. By the time that the Church could have turned her attention to canonizing Alfred, She was then preoccupied by the problems caused by the martyrdom of Alfred's descendant, his great-great-grandson, St Edward, in 979. Then there were the new heathen raids in the early eleventh century and then the last and successful Viking raid, that of 1066.
The Norman invaders had no reason to revere Alfred as a saint, indeed just the opposite. Firstly, he was an English hero, he was one of the enemy. Secondly, he had defeated their cousins, the heathen Danes. The Normans replaced the symbol of English resistance, Alfred, with their fictions on 'King Arthur' and Celtic romanticism, rather than English facts. Thus their descendants even placed a 'King Arthur's Round Table' in King Alfred's Winchester. That French fashion lasted for well over 300 years after 1066.
It was actually the fifteenth century before King Henry VI had the opportunity to ask the Pope of the time, Eugene IV, to canonize King Alfred in 1441. (By that time, in Western Europe only the Pope could canonize, unlike in pre-Conquest England, where any bishop could canonize). Henry VI wrote of Alfred as, 'the first monarch of the famous realm of England in whom the Lord has deigned to work miracles both in his life and in his death'. Henry's request was turned down for political reasons. Then came the Reformation, and canonization became impossible, because Protestantism does not have saints.
Finally, there is the fact that Alfred had such far-sighted vision that his achievements were not fully appreciated for a very long time. I believe that it is perhaps only now, over eleven centuries on, that we are truly able to appreciate his achievements. This is because it is precisely in the last few decades that his essentially Christian work has started to be undone. For example the abolition of local, shire-based army regiments, the reduction of the navy, changes to the county boundaries in the 1970s, the recent toppling of the supremacy of Common Law, the disintegration of Christianity, the proposed EU regionalization of England and so on.
The fact is that God does not always choose to reveal His saints at once. There are many cases where saints have not been revealed until centuries after their deaths. When folk are not ready for them at a particular time, God reveals them later, when people are able to appreciate them and give them due honour. Such is the case with Alfred. It was only in the sixteenth century that he was given the title 'the Great' - a title which has not been challenged since. The last five hundred years have indeed seen an appreciation of his greatness as a statesman and national leader in all areas. It may be only in the twenty-first century that we are finally fully able to appreciate his spiritual qualities also.
There is much confusion associated with the word 'canonization'. Nobody can canonize or 'make a saint'. God reveals saints to the faithful and then a bishop, locally, or a synod of bishops, regionally, accept the revelation and confirm that the person is a saint. This is called 'canonization', accepting someone as a model (canon) for emulation. In other words, veneration for a figure has to start in hearts and minds first. Only then can a bishop or bishops be concerned. Our hope and aim is to spread the veneration of Alfred the Great as a saint. 'Canonization' is the last step in the process of veneration and revelation.
True, we are hindered in the spread of his veneration by the question of his relics. His remains had been moved from the Old Minster to the New Minster in Winchester in 903 by his son King Edward. But in the twelfth century they were moved again, this time to Hyde Abbey, just outside Winchester. Here Alfred's remains were revered until the Reformation, when the Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII. In 1788, when workmen were building on the site, they discovered three stone coffins. One of them could have contained the earthly remains of King Alfred. In any case, the remains they uncovered were mixed together, placed in wooden caskets and set above the chancel in Winchester Cathedral. Others deny this possibility and suggest that King Alfred's remains were uncovered in 1863 and then reburied in St Bartholomew's church in Winchester. More recently, an excavation in 1999 concluded that his remains had been lost 'forever'. At least it does seem that King Alfred's earthly remains must be somewhere in Winchester, so at least Alfred's cult could be centred there.
Then there is the question of an icon-portrait (without a halo) being painted and the question of writing a service. All this is why some Christian people wish to establish a small group called 'The Call from Athelney'. It would be a society named after the place from where Alfred, standing alone, brought salvation to Christian England and new hope to all Western Christendom. It would be a society to further the reverence for Alfred the Great as a saint and protector of Christian England. We could only encourage veneration of Alfred the Great as a saint; the final decision of the Church, 'canonization', would clearly not be ours to make. However, among certain Roman Catholics and members of the Orthodox Church, and perhaps others, Alfred is already considered to be a saint.
As regards Alfred's much-respected family, both his wife, Elswith, and his daughter, Ethelgiva, were and are commemorated locally as saints. Indeed, King Alfred stands at the head of a dynasty of seven saints. Apart from his wife and daughter, a grand-daughter, St Edburgh of Winchester, and a grandson's wife, St Elgiva of Shaftesbury, are honoured as saints. Moreover the latter was the mother of St Edgar, who was the father of St Edward the Martyr and St Edith of Wilton.
There is no doubt that with Alfred everything was centred around Faith. Faith came first and last, communion preceded battles, which ended with baptism. His Laws were prefaced by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule of Christ. One half of his income was dedicated to God, as was one half of his time. He was filled with the Love of Wisdom, that is, the Love of Christ. As a lover of True Wisdom, he was therefore a true philosopher.
Alfred's life can be summed up as follows: Firstly, he showed patient
goodness and thus overcame his own weaknesses. Secondly, he showed friendship
and thus overcame the Danes. Thirdly, he showed faith in good works and
thus overcame the indifference of his people. Finally, he showed love
of Wisdom, and thus overcame the ignorance of his people. Surely this
Holy and Righteous Alfred, pray to God for us!