ENGLAND, King Alfred - I29952

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King Alfred of England

Alfred the Great.jpg

King Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon - "It has ever been my desire to live honourably while I was alive, and after my death to leave to them that should come after me my memory in good works." -- King Alfred.

This biography of Alfred the Great begins with a premise that is certain to shake up Anglo-Saxon studies for years to come. After careful study, Alfred P. Smyth has determined that the celebrated Life of King Alfred, routinely attributed to the Welshman Bishop Asser, Alfred's friend and tutor, is actually a forgery fabricated in the 10th century, most likely by a monk of Ramsey Abbey named Byrhtferth. Smyth's conclusion is bold. After all, for centuries scholars have considered the biography attributed to Aser the most reliable source on Alfred's life. If this text is bogus, what can we know about the man historians have long considered the greatest Anglo-Saxon king?

The genuine Alfred - Actually, Smythe argues, we can learn quite a lot. And the Alfred who emerges from other documents is a more interesting man than the conventional figure Byrhtferth invented. As this biography proves, kingship in the late 9th and early 10th centuries was a tough business. And no man "who shrank from treading on the entrails of the dying," as Smyth puts it so vividly, "could ever hope to gain the respect of his warband in that life and death struggle with the Norse enemy." Yet Byrhtferth's accout of Alfred's life portrays a man who was reluctant to take the throne. Instead of the firm assured leader Alfred was, Byrthtferth offers us a self-effacing "pious wimp." With three older brothers, Alfred may never have expected to rule. But once all his brothers were dead, Alfred took the crown without hesitation. And as king and warlord of Sessex during repeated Viking invasions, he demanded obedience and full cooperation from his subjects--and he got it. If instead of being an efficient military man Alfred had been the meek and mild reformer of monasteries Byrhtferth presents, the outcomes would have been disastrous for England.

Another fancy of Byrthtferth is that Alfred was an illiterate most of his adult life who only learned to read in English and Latin when he was 39. That would explain, in Byrthtferth's view, why Alfred describes St. Augustine's servant Alippius as his "knight" and replaces the Latin term "actors" with the Anglo-Saxon term "jesters." The king is new to literature, Byrthtferth suggests, brimming with raw intellectual energy, but rather crude and quaint in his interpretation of Late Latin texts. Nonsense, says Smyth. The fact that Alfred tackled such sophisticated philosophical works as Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and St. Gregory the Great's Dialogues and Pastoral Care indicates that here was a an who was familiar with literary culture. Furthermore, Smyth asserts that Alfred's Anglo-Saxonisms are not signs of the King's earthiness, but reveal keen understanding that he must translate Classical texts in a way that would make sense to his English audience. Alfred was no overgrown, over-eager schoolboy; he was a learned man earnestly seeking to keep Classical learning alive in his kingdom. The problem with Asser - How did Smyth conclude that the Life of King Alfred was not written by Asser? The argument is carefully laid out in the book so that even nonspecialists can follow Smyth's linguistic and historical detective work. First of all, it is important to note that Smyth is not the first scholar to have serious reservations about the biography attributed to Asser. Nineteenth-century scholars who studied the Life "were wise enough to know there was something wrong, but ... drew back from the awesome consequences of outright rejection."

One issue that has puzzled scholars is the presence of Frankish terms in the biography . What are Frankish terms in the biography. What are Frankish words doing in biography. What are Frankish words doing in a biography of an Anglo-Saxon king written by a Welshman? Using techniques that are standard among medievalists, Smyth searched through Anglo-Saxon biographies to find others in which the same unusual Frankish terms appear. And to make a long story short, Smyth discovered those same uncommon Frankish words in a 10th century Life of St. Oswald written by a monk named Byrhtferth of Ramsey Abbey. Exposing the Life to be a forgery does not lessen Alfred's importance in English history. The wars he waged against the Danes assured the survival of England as a nation. The dynasty he founded would in time unite the country. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which he instituted became the cornerstone of early English history. And the Latin texts he translated into English revitalized learning in England and endure today as classic examples of Anglo-Saxon prose. Smyth's King Alfred the Great does not diminish the man; it helps us know him better. [1]

Alfred's mother Osburh enjoyed reading Anglo-Saxon verses to her children, and Alfred was a particularly apt pupil, curious and eager to learn. It is said that his mother offered to her four sons a prize to be given to the first boy who learned to read a book of Anglo Saxon poems. By sheer diligence and the help of his tutor, the five year old Alfred, the youngest child, memorized the poems and won the prize, that very book. Alfred did not, however, learn to read Anglo Saxon until his twelfth year, in part because of the great lack of education of even royal children at that time. Before he was seven, Alfred had traveled to Rome twice, and had been confirmed by Pope Leo IV. [2]

Alfred became King of the West Saxons (Wessex) in 871. He saved Wessex from Danish conquest, laid the basis for the unification of England under his monarchy, and led a revival of learning and literature. He was such an outstanding leader in both war and peace that he was deemed "the Great." Alfred is the only English king to be so titled. Alfred inherited a long-standing feud with the Danes. He finally conquered Gunthrun the Dane at the Battle of Ethandune (Edington) in 878, and compelled the survivors to sign the peace of Wedmore. This successful campaign diminshed the Viking threat, but could not remove it. The Danes broke the peace, which culminated in their major defeat in 886. This Conquest of London was Alfred's greatest military victory. The Danes withdrew to the eastern third of England, and all the English people not subject to the Danes, both in and out of Wessex, then recognized Alfred as their king. [3]

Alfred built forts at strategic points and stationed a fleet of ships along the coast to protect his kingdom, thus forming the basis for the first British navy. He issued a great code of laws to improve government (probably ca 890. We still have that code in its Anglo-Saxon words, and its introduction declares that Alford's laws were based on the Ten Commandments. Alfred brought educators to Wessex from Wales, to supplant the decline of scholarship that the Danes engendered through their looting of monasteries and churches (the only centers of learning). In the last twelve years of his life, Alfred was giving all the time he could spare from the continuing campaigns of war and the burden of government to his work of enlightening the ignorance of his people by making books available to them in their own language. He helped translate books from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, and he kept a record of current events. Called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the record was continued after his death until 1154. It is the best source for Anglo-Saxon history. Alfred's ideology became apparent in his Latin Consolation of Philosophy. In it he drew upon the works of others to compile his own philosophies. His strong faith is exemplified here. "All is of God, the greater and the less: the sun and the little stars which twinkle in the right; the tiny brook which runs to meet the river and the river winding to the sea; all come from Him and find in Him once more their home. As the wall of every house is fastened securely both upon the floor and in the roof, so God is both floor and roof for the soul of every man." By such simple words and illustrations of everyday life, Alfred tried to pass on to his men of Wessex his profound philosophy and faith. His faith was also shown in Alfred's regular generosity to the church. Alfred's creativity was shown on many occasions. In order to reckon time throughout the right and on shadowless days, he ordered candles, calculated to last four hours, to be made. These were burned in succession, and although many variables would be interest in such a plan, it does demonstrate Albert's inventive mind. Both for what he did and for what he was Alfred has become known to all generations of Englishmen as their best and greatest king. On his death bed, he spoke this message: "This I can now most truly say, that I have sought to live worthily while I lived, and after my life to leave to men who come after me a remembering of me in good works."

His five axioms were: (1) A wise God governs. (2) All suffering may be accounted blessing. (3) God is the chiefest good. (4) Only the good are happy. (5) The fore-knowledge of God does not conflict with man's free will.

An excerpt from King Alfred the Great:

"Alfred's true genius--and the one which impressed medieval writers as well as men and women of a modern age--was his ability not so much to excel, as to possess the qualities of a great all-rounder. He lacked the regorous scholarship of Bede and the uncompromising piety of Cuthbert. He lacked the reforming zeal of Aethelwold and the ability to rival the prose of Aelfric. He lacked, too, the military resources and the ruthless qualities of Offa even if he made up for this by possessing political acumen and the ability to present an argument with cunning. But while he failed to match all those men in any one of their characteristics, he possessed nevertheless the qualities of all of them in great measure. And he possessed more than most of them, perhaps, qualities of moderation which were indicative of his great humanity. It was inevitable that such a gifted ruler, imbued with such obvious principles of Christian piety, should have been held up as a model of Christian kingship by a later generation of writers in Anglo-Saxon England. Alfred's promotion of the vernacular was centuries ahead of its time and doomed to failure in an age when the very few who could read at all were also capable of reading Latin. But when the monastic reformers of the later-tenth century recovery, it was natural that they would turn to the example of men in an earlier age who had stood out against the viking menace--the saintly Edmund of East Anglia and the learned and successful warrior, Alfred, who stood alone as the survivor of English Christian kingship in the wars of the 870s."


Crewkerne is a town in Somerset, England, situated 9 miles (14 km) south west of Yeovil and 7 miles (11 km) east of Chard in the South Somerset district close to the border with Dorset. The civil parish of West Crewkerne includes the hamlets of Woolminstone and Henley. The town lies on the River Parrett, A30 road and West of England Main Line railway and has won "Village of the Year" 8 times in a row. The earliest written record of Crewkerne is in the 899 will of Alfred the Great. After the Norman conquest is was held by William the Conqueror and in the Domesday Survey of 1086 was described as a royal manor. Crewkerne Castle was possibly a Norman motte castle. The town grew up in the late mediaeval period around the textile industry, its wealth preserved in the fifteenth century Church of St Bartholomew. During the 18th and 19th centuries the main industry was cloth making, including webbing, and sails for the Royal Navy.


  1. Author: Alfred P. Smyth is Professor of Medieval History and Master of Keynes College at the University of Kent. by Alfred P. Smyth, Prof. of Medieval History/Master of Keynes College at the University of Kent. ------------------------- Ref: Duckett, Alfred the Great, pp. 21-31 and 189-191.
  2. Ref: Michael St. John Parker, Britain's Kings and Queens (London: Pitkin Pictorials Ltd., 1988), pp. 2-4. Duckett, Alfred the Great, p. 85.)
  3. Ref: The World Book Encyclopedia, 1985 ed. S.v. Robert S. Hoyt, "Alfred the Great." Duckett, Alfred the Great.
  4. Ref: Virginia Historical Genealogies by John Bennett Boddie 1. For Percy-Harris conection see chart Brennan's History of the House of Percy, Vol. 1, 169 2. For Drury-Walgrave-Harris see Brydges Collins Peerage, Vol. 4. p. 235-236. 3. For Stapleton-Calthorpe see the Complete Peerage, Vol. 7, p. 34 4. For Drury-Woodliffe see Burke's Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies (1838), p. 169. 5. For Drury see chart Nichols Bibliotheca Topographica Brittannica, Vol. 5, p. 115