King Alfred the Great

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

Alfred, the Great King of England

"I,  Alfred, endowed with royal dignity by the grace of Christ, have truly understood and often heard through the reading of holy books that the One God has given to us so much greatness of earthly things. There is the greatest need that we for a time should soften and bend our mind to divine and spiritual services, amid this earthly care …"  - King Alfred

Throughout her rich and turbulent history England has known many distinguished monarchs, yet, only one, Alfred,  holds the title “Great.” As providence often wills, and as happens with any country, a hero comes in  troubled times to change the course of events for the better. For England, Alfred the Great was such hero. His story was told in “The Life of King  Alfred” by a man who knew him well: Asser, a Welsh monk, court scholar, and the King's personal friend. Thanks to Asser's detailed writings, we know about the deeds, aspirations and character of an exceptional man.

Alfred was born in 849 in Berkshire, Wessex, to King Ethelwulf and his wife Osburga. Both parents were reputed for their piety: in his youth Ethelwulf, a quiet and kindly man, wanted to become a monk; Osburga, daughter of the royal cup-bearer, was “a most religious woman and noble in character.” Of their six children, the couple seemed to have a special affection for Alfred. He grew up in a close-knit family as a happy, intelligent boy. He was “more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour.” There were no scholars at the Wessex court at that time. The family lived under perpetual threat of invasion. King Ethelwulf was busy repelling Danish attacks, and education of the royal children had been largely neglected, although the boys were trained in riding and hunting. Alfred could not read until he turned twelve, but he was an attentive listener, had a good memory and loved to learn Psalms and English poems by heart when somebody recited them. Once Osburga promised her children that she would give a treasured gift – a volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry –  to the child who could memorize the poems faster than the others. Alfred, her youngest, won the prize. He was only six at the time.

Thirst for learning remained strong in Alfred all his life, and the King frequently related how sorry and even shameful he had felt for the lack of a solid education. He had to spend many years on the battlefield – when he would rather have read and studied. For the most part Alfred was self-taught and, due to his discipline, he acquired a good knowledge of Latin, law, geography and classical literature.

In 853, Alfred, followed by a train of Anglo-Saxon nobles, was taken on a pilgrimage to Rome. His father was unable to accompany him, as Wessex was suffering from continuous and devastating Danish raids. In Rome, Pope Leo IV, as if knowing about the boy's future, showed the four-year-old great honour and adopted him as his spiritual son. He made Alfred a knight, arraying him in a cloak of white and purple and dubbing him with a sword. It was also recorded that Leo anointed Alfred king – to the surprise of many, as Alfred had three brothers before him. (King Ethelwulf's first-born, Ethelstan, was killed in a battle against the Vikings in 853.) Alfred's oldest brother, Ethelbald, was especially upset by Leo's puzzling action.

In 858, when Alfred was only nine years old, his father died, leaving the kingdom to his second and third sons. Ethelbald reigned in Wessex, and his younger brother, Ethelbert, took the eastern sub-kingdoms. As Alfred was growing up, he observed how the entire lives of his father and brothers were occupied with either war or preparation for it. The Vikings, numbering thousands of men, had been coming on their long boats and plundering the coasts of England since the end of the 8th century. In the 840s the Danes began attacks all over the Island, particularly to the east: in Kent, Essex and East Anglia. By 865, the nature of the Vikings' attacks changed. Their raids became larger and better organized; the Danes started a large-scale invasion  to conquer and colonize the Saxon kingdoms. The kings of Mercia and East Anglia tried to negotiate a peace, but it lasted only long enough for the Danes to secure their power in order to strike again.

Two of Alfred's brothers died in short sequence: Ethelbald reigned two years,  Ethelbert – six. Alfred's only remaining brother, Ethelred, was also his comrade-in-arms. They fought together, and in January of 871 met the Vikings in a decisive battle at Ashdown. After fierce fighting, the Saxons managed to drive the Danes away, however, 24-year-old Ethelred was killed. Thus, Alfred, the youngest son of Ethelwulf, at age of 22, was called upon to assume all the burdens of “the sole king” of Wessex. Two of his brothers left children, but it was not a time when boys could reign: the kingdom needed a man who could lead armies.

In the neighbouring kingdoms things grew worse and worse. The Danes became undisputed masters of Mercia, and East Anglia was wholly in their power. Soon afterwards, Northumbria was conquered. The King of Mercia was driven to despair and fled to Rome, where he died soon after his arrival.  Wessex alone remained independent. New streams of Norsemen poured into the only part of the Island that still stood against them. Alfred was often forced to make treaties with the Danes, paying them tribute at the same time. But peace with a treacherous enemy was always uneasy, shaky – and didn't last.

King AlfredOn the Eve of the Nativity, January 6, 878, the Vikings under king Guthrum launched a surprise attack on Alfred’s base at Chippenham. Alfred was forced to flee to the marshes of Somerset with just a small group of his men. It was there that the famous “cake” story, so loved by English schoolchildren, took place. Alfred and his men were living from day to day, dependent on the local people for food and shelter. Alfred took refuge in the home of an old peasant woman who didn't know he was the king. Once, the woman was baking cakes, and before she had gone outside to tend farm animals, she asked Alfred to watch over the cakes. Alfred was so preoccupied with the war, that he forgot about the cakes and they burned. When the woman returned, she scolded the king for “not doing his duty.” The king humbly apologized.

Alfred decided to base himself at Athelney, a small island in the marshes. Here, in early 878, he built a fortress and planned his new campaign. Archaeological excavations revealed evidence of metal work on the site, suggesting Alfred’s men forged weapons in readiness for battle. Gathering an army of around 3,000 men from Somerset, Alfred attacked Guthrum at Edington in May of 878. This was a ferocious battle with great losses on both sides. The Saxons destroyed the Danish army and pursued the survivors to their camp where the enemy surrendered. On June 15th, heathen Guthrum and dozens of his men were baptised. At the ceremony Alfred stood as Guthrum’s godfather and gave him the second name of Ethelstan. Afterwards, a big feast was held in honour of the new Christians and victorious Saxons. Alfred established a treaty with the Vikings, according to which they were allowed to settle freely on the north-eastern lands of the Island. This treaty, known as the Danelaw, also allowed the Danes to keep their customs, and granted them equal rights with the Saxons. To the end of his life, Guthrum remained faithful to his promise and didn't attack again.

For most of Alfred’s thirty-year reign he was a soldier who led his people in a desperate fight for survival. He personally commanded in 54 battles, often fighting against overwhelming odds. Alfred realised that, in order to be safe on an island, it was vital to create a navy – and, for the first time in the history of England, a fleet was constructed. The navy steadily gained strength and experience, and by the early 890's the Saxons were able to defeat the  invading Danes at sea. The Vikings withdrew from Alfred’s territory until 884 when they attempted another invasion. This time Alfred gained a swift victory, retaking London and fortifying it strongly.

A true Christian, King Alfred practised Jesus' commandment “love thy enemy” – which in those cruel times seemed an impossible task to follow –  and always chose forgiveness over revenge. He spared the lives of the ones who surrendered or were wounded, and never hurt Viking women and children. His compassion touched the most hardened hearts. Once, after a particularly difficult battle, the leader of the Danish army fled, leaving his family behind. Alfred let the man's wife take her sons and go; soon she safely reunited with her husband. In gratitude, the Viking leader never bothered Alfred anymore.

After the decades of destruction the invaders brought to his land, Alfred lamented the desecration of monasteries and the fact that in all Wessex there was no educated clergy. He invited scholars from the continent; more than  half of the royal revenues went to church schools so that the English should be a literate nation. Latin texts were translated into Anglo-Saxon. Alfred himself translated fifty Psalms and a series of religious books, such as St. Gregory's Pastoral Care. The king commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which – together with the writings of St. Bede –  is the basis of our knowledge about early Medieval England. Alfred also founded monasteries; one of his daughters, Aethelgifu, was an abbess. The King's charities were numerous. In his court, he cared for foreigners and strangers, and gave money to the poor and needy. He instituted a system of fortified posts and established a national militia (the fyrd) ensuring that the Saxons were organised for local defense.

Alfred believed that the power placed in his hands was a trust for which he would have to answer to God. Showing a genuine concern for the wellbeing of his people, the monarch wrote a new legal code which ensured fairness and equality for all before the law. As a preface to his Laws, Alfred used the Ten Commandments and the Christ's Golden Rule. Seeking to extend trust and goodwill far beyond his kingdom's borders, Alfred sent ambassadors to Ireland, Rome and even India. For a number of years he corresponded with Elias, bishop and Patriarch of Jerusalem. By the time of his death in 899, the King had mitigated the Viking threat, reformed the government and restored cultural life. He also ensured that – when the time came for the country to be united – it was the kings of Wessex that would become England's monarchs.

Alfred was married to Ealswitha, daughter of a Mercian nobleman. Judging by all known accounts, it was a happy union. The couple had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Ealswitha was never called “queen”: the Anglo-Saxons didn't have a tradition of giving royal titles to kings' wives. Not much is known about Alfred's physical appearance. He was not great in statue, rather on a slim side; not very strong, but an excellent horseman. All his life the King suffered from a number of ailments, the chief of which seems to have been epilepsy. The first episodes of the disease came when Alfred was in his early twenties, and the fits recurred frequently during the remainder of his life.

The last three years of Alfred's reign were peaceful, and the King spent more time with his family than he ever had. A man with a loving heart, he became a doting grandfather and “spoiled” his grandchildren with gifts. To his favorite grandson, Ethelstan, he gave a colorful robe and brightly embroidered belt. Alfred was a skilled craftsman and made beautiful jewelry. This pastime helped him survive the darkest periods of his life, when he was defeated, depressed, without an army and with little hope. One of Alfred's ornaments – made of gold and clear quartz – was found many centuries after his death, and is now kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. On its side, the ornament has an engraving in Anglo-Saxon: “Alfred made me.” England could say the same.

After Alfred's death, his son Edward became King of Wessex. As his father before him, Edward continued to protect the Island from the Vikings and was a devoted patron of education: Cambridge University opened its doors during King Edward's reign. Ealswitha entered a nunnery soon after the passing of her husband; she survived Alfred only by a few years.

*    *    *

What made King Alfred “great”? He was a valiant defender of his kingdom and an exceptional military leader. Yet, winning battles was only one part of his accomplishments. There were a number of competent war leaders before and after him, and Alfred's own son, Edward, was as good a general as his father. What distinguishes King Alfred from other English rulers was the originality of his mind and unique ability to see beyond the daily strife. Amidst ruins and despair he dreamed of a prosperous, just and educated country. He was the first king of England who identified himself with the “English.” Alfred's predecessors were tribal kings – either of Northumbria, Wessex, Kent, or Mercia – who waged wars on neighbouring kingdoms, subjugated them, and imposed tributes. They did not think of themselves as countrymen. If the English were to protect their Island from future destruction, they had to change their outlook. Thanks to Alfred's diplomacy, hostility and suspicion among rivals were gradually replaced by cooperation and trust. The former warring neighbours started seeing themselves as one nation. Alfred was a true philosopher and seeker of wisdom whose every step was guided by faith. In the most merciless of times he showed mercy – which is an undeniable virtue of the truly great.