Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: Alfred (The Great) II

(Editor's note:  I have assembled the entries to date (and going forward) onto a single page, Old English, which I link directly in future posts for ease of reference.)

 When we last left Alfred (still not quite The Great, but at least The Quite Remarkable), he had succeeded in defeating the remains of the Great Heathen Army at the battle of Ethandun (Edington) in 878 decisively enough that they retreated to East (and, as luck would have it, the defeat was resounding enough that it drove off a second fleet of invaders).  Parts of Wessex had been held and other parts reclaimed.  But it was a tenuous peace at best.  There was a kingdom to be rebuilt and who knew where or when the Vikings might reappear?

Alfred took the learnings he had seen from the defeats of his brothers and himself to heart. He reorganized the kingdom by creating the burh, fortified locations located within twenty miles of each other.  These burhs (eventually our Modern English word "Boroughs") provided a defense network in the event of another invasion.  Indirectly, these also ended up become the nuclei of towns and cities which would spring up around them.

(Source.  Note that this is from the 10th Century Burghal Hidage; not all of these would have been built by Alfred but by his successors as well.)

He also reorganized the fyrd, the standing army of all military aged men.  He simplified it and organized it such that at all times, some men were available for service and others for campaigning. This also directly or indirectly began to emphasize the responsibility of the nobility and their standing retinues to take a more active role in defenses.

Finally, he is recorded as also designing ships - "neither Frisian nor Danish, but as seemed to himself to be most serviceable".  While earlier Anglo-Saxon kings (such as the Sutton Hoo ship) had existed, and Wessex had possessed a navy (Alfred had commanded some of those ships), We know little enough about those ships although there is one ship, the Graveney boat, that has been dated to 895 A.D.  It interesting to speculate (though completely ridiculous, of course) that some part of that boat was influenced in some small way by Alfred's ship building program.

His preparations were the tonic that was needed:  A follow on invasion by Guthrum and the Danes from the Danelaw in 886 was turned back and a formal treaty put in place between Alfred and Guthrum.  London was reconquered by Wessex.  As a part of this recapture, parts of Mercia were recaptured:  Edward created an Ealdorman (Modern English Aldorman) named Æthelred to act as as sort of royal officer or sub-king of Mercia (and promptly married his daughter Ethelfleda to him). The future of Mercia would be that as determined by Wessex.

A second thing happened as a result of the reconquest of London.  For the first time, as Asser the Chronicler records, "all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him  (Alfred)".  By the late 880's and into 890s charters style Alfred as "king of The Angles and The Saxons" or "king of the Anglo-Saxons".  For the first time, the concept of a king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples - not just a breatwalda, a sort of "first among equals - appears.

Another Viking army returned in the year 892 A.D. and did not leave until 896. During that time the defenses that Alfred had built in the burhs held back the Vikings to the outer defenses of Wessex In a series of battles across those years - Farnham, Benfleet, the Siege of Exeter, Buttington - Alfred, his son, and his ealdormen harried and defeated the Vikings until in 896 A.D., threatened by Alfred blocking the River Thames, the Vikings fell back, first to Southeastern England, then to the Continent.

But Alfred was not only a great leader, military strategist, and naval designer.

Previous Anglo-Saxon kings had issued law codes but they were fragmentary and specific at best.  Alfred undertook a comprehensive law code update, the first in over a century.  By doing so, it "...would have represented a dramatic assertion of his role as the shepherd and guardian of an amalgamated English people" (Keynes and Lapidge, p. 39).  Basing his on the Bible, previous law codes of older Anglo-Saxon kings, and his own thoughts - "Then I, King Alfred, collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did not like, I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and ordered them to be differently observed".  For the first time since Romans rule, a law code was introduced for the country (Less those in Wales and the Danelaw - for now).

Finally, there was Alfred The Reviver of Knowledge.

Alfred was, from childhood (so his chronicler Asser tells us) a lover of stories and when young although he could not read, he could memorize.  He memorized a book of English poetry (with the help of a teacher) that his mother had offered to give to whichever of her sons could learn its contents first.  He learned the daily Christian services, some psalms and prayers.  He had the favorite passages from them copied out for him into a small book which he carried.

After the initial victories over the Vikings, Alfred realized that that great age of Anglo-Saxon learning - the Age of Bede The Venerable and the world of the 7th to 8th Century - was decayed and nothing had come up to take its place.  He is recorded as saying "So completely fallen away was learning now in the English race that there were very few on this side of the Humber who would know how to render their service book (from Latin- Ed.) into English, and I doubt that there would be any on the other side of the Humber.  There were so few of them that I cannot think of so much as a single one south of the Thames when I took the realm".

Alfred at some point had learned to read Anglo Saxon.  He then undertook to learn Latin - this, while planning for defenses and conducting campaigns and leading armies and generally rebuilding the realm.  He gathered a group of scholars - first as many as he could find from the neighboring former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Wales, then across the continent to the Kingdom of The Franks.  Most of these men were bishops and monks - Asser, Werferth, Plegmund, Werwulf, John the Old,  Grimbald, Æthelstan.  These men taught - and they translated.

Alfred wanted learning to be made available - not just to the clergy but to his own royal officials as well, as he expected them to be educated.  And so a series of translation took place not only of religious works, but of secular works that Alfred thought would be useful.  Four of the books so translated - Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care,  Augustine of Hippo's Soliloquies,, and a prose translation of parts of the Psalms, were done in part or in whole by Alfred himself.  In some cases they were not word for word, but more of idea to idea, reflecting what the king felt were the needs of the his subjects (and their educational levels).

To Alfred as well we owe the formalization of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  While the chronicles had likely existed in older forms, it was Alfred that commissioned a gathering of the other Chronicles which were collated and turned into a single documented distributed to several monasteries.  Henceforth, there was a common starting point for Anglo-Saxon events.

He believed in personal development as well.  The book that he recorded passages in as a child he continued to carry all his life - his chronicler Asser records at one point the King asking for more entries than could be held so he asked for a new book to be made.  (An interesting side note:  the book actually was known to have existed as late as 1204 A.D., although it was lost to history after that.  Oh, to see what a man like Alfred would have considered worthy of recording in his own personal journal.)

Alfred's last few years (897-899 A.D.) we know little about; his newly created Chronicle records nothing of the era.  We can imagine him continuing to work away on his translations and strengthening the kingdom's defenses against future attacks, working on implementing his revised law code, counseling his son Edward (his heir) and his son-law Æthelred  and daughter Ethelfleda  about the eventual reconquest of the Danelaw, attending divine office almost every day as he had for years, until he passed away on 26 October 899 A.D.

Alfred remains unique in the history of England and in some ways, perhaps the world.  A man who saved his country from invasion multiple times, instituted defensive measures and redesigned an army, legislated a law code, and not only encouraged learning but translated books from one language to another after learning that language late in life - any one of these would be worthy of admiration; the fact that he did all of them - and before he was 50 - is truly astounding.

Of all the Kings and Queens of England, he certainly is worth to be called "The Great".


Keynes, Simon and Lapidge, Michael:  Alfred The Great:  Asser's life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources.  Penguin:  Great Britain, 1983.

Brooke, Christopher:  From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272.  Norton Library:  USA,  1961.

Trevelyan, G.M.:  History of England Volume 1:  From the Earliest Times to the Reformation.  Anchor Books:  USA, 1953

Hollister, C. Warren:  The Making of England 55 B.C. to 1399.  D.C. Heath and Company:  United States,  1976.

Nicolle, David:  Arthur And The Anglo-Saxon Wars.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1984

Heath, Ian:  The Vikings.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1985

Harrison, Mark:  Viking Hersir 793 - 1066 AD.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1993.

Wikipedia:  DanelawAlfred The Great


  1. Nylon125:01 AM

    Alfred certainly had an interesting life, thanks for expanding my knowledge TB.

    1. You are welcome, Nylon12. He was quite a fellow - would that I had accomplished 1/20th of the things had done in his time.

      I cannot imagine a single world leader today learning a second language in their 40's or 50's or beyond - and then translating works into it.

  2. Very enlightening. Thank you for the history lesson. If we had to add adjectives to our current world "leaders", few would be The Great. Most would be The Conniver, or The Twisted. The Debased, The Prostituted, The Tainted, The Debauched...

    1. You are welcome STxAR. And yes, most of our current leaders are lucky we do not include such names in reference to them...

  3. I always found the life of Alfred's body after his death to be a pretty fascinating read.

    1. I just read that perhaps some of his bones were found 10 years ago?

      A few of the Anglo-Saxon Kings had their bodies "moved" about over the years.

    2. If I recall, it may have been a hip bone but I don't think it was every specifically identified as his other than it was from a male. His son's body (and I think others) also traveled with his so it could be from one of them.

    3. That is what I found as well Ed - Either Alfred or Edward the Elder's hip bone.

  4. Alfred is indeed a fascinating person from history. He seems to have had much more in mind than personal power. I find it interesting that he learned to read Anglo-Saxon before he learned to read Latin. You've inspired me to see what bibliographies our public library has on him.

    1. He does, Leigh. At least from Asser's biography, there is no real "hint" of what made him different in that sense, other than he seems to have been different from childhood.

      The good (?) news is that he is important enough that even general English history books have a chapter about him, and he probably figures more heavily into Anglo-Saxon history. Asser's biography (my version is published by Penguin, possibly available as a free book on the InterWeb) is the major extant work we have of his that is contemporaneous (beyond the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of course).


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!