It was the Wessex of Alfred the Great that prevented Anglo-Saxon Christian civilization from being submerged by what one might call pagan ‘cultural norms’. The Battle of Edington of 878 was the decisive turning point for England – some would say for Christian Europe. Others have argued that the survival of the English language itself could have been in jeopardy. But no serious historical commentator would contest that had Wessex gone under, so would the kingdom of the English or, as Alfred came to call it, ‘the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’.

When he first used the term, in a charter of 885, the idea of a united kingdom even of the West Saxons was still comparatively new, as was the family in power. Alfred’s kin could show descent from Cerdic (it was a condition of the kingship); they also claimed Beowulf’s Scyld Scefing among their ancestors, who in turn descended from Sceaf, a supposed fourth son of Noah. Apparently Alfred kept a little handbook by him with a genealogical note on West Saxon kings. On the other hand, his grandfather Ecgberht was the first of their branch of the dynasty to occupy the throne. In fact, one biographer of Alfred suggests that Ecgberht’s background was ‘essentially Kentish’, his father apparently ‘among Kent’s last independent kings’ before the old kingdom became a sub-kingdom or province of Mercia. Following Ecgberht’s defeat of Mercia at Ellendun in 825, Mercian hegemony in southern England was broken. Ecgberht’s son Æthelwulf now led an army down into Kent and expelled its last king, Baldred, so that it became the great eastern province of the West Saxon kingdom.

The old rivalry of Wessex with Mercia was fading. About 852–4 the Mercian king Burgred (852–74) had married Æthelswih of Wessex, Alfred’s sister, following a successful joint campaign with Wessex against the Welsh. Then about 867 Alfred’s brother Æthelred effectively inaugurated a monetary union by adopting the Mercian type of lunette penny. A common currency based on coins minted exclusively at London and Canterbury now circulated from Dover to Chester and from Exeter to Lincoln.1

The making of a king

Alfred was born between 847 and 849 at Wantage in Berkshire, according to Asser, the youngest of the five sons of King Æthelwulf (839–58) by his wife Osburh, who died when he was still a boy. She was of noble birth and through her father could claim part-Jutish ancestry – ‘useable’ antecedents for a prince who would one day rule in Kent. With four brothers ahead of him there must have been doubts that he would in fact become king. Was he originally intended for a career in the church? He was declared heir only at age fifteen.

Yet his public life began early: aged six he was witnessing charters and participating in the activities of the court. He was soon learning the business of the hunt, the handling of weapons and the beginnings of horse mastery. He was also hanging around the falconers in the royal mews, where he no doubt learnt the English manner of carrying the falcon on the left wrist and, in handling, of grasping the bird across her back to reduce the danger of injury from flapping wings.2 As a father, Alfred would insist that his children, and the noblemen’s sons sent to be fostered at his court, learn to read and write in English and Latin before they mastered the manly skills associated with the hunt. For literature was a passion – a passion that extended as much to the courtly epic and the minstrel’s lay as to the history and philosophy and the Psalms that he himself would translate. A famous anecdote, which his biographer Asser presumably heard from the king himself, tells how Alfred’s mother promised a beautiful book of English poetry to whichever of her sons could first understand and recite it. The boy, who could not yet read, took the volume to his tutor, had him read it aloud, memorized it and claimed the prize. It no doubt came easily, for he was already memorizing the lays and epics declaimed in his father’s mead hall. Later Alfred, the scholar king, evidently prided himself also as a worthy lord in the heroic manner. Bishop Wulfsige of Sherborne, wishing to flatter the king, used the language of the epic scop to hail him ‘the greatest treasure giver of all the kings . . . ever heard of’.

Rome and Alfred

Simon Keynes has shown that references in a manuscript in Brescia confirm that Alfred twice visited Rome as a boy. On the first occasion, in 853, it would seem he was sent as a harbinger of a visit planned by his father; the pope, we are told, ‘decorated him, as a spiritual son, with the dignity of the belt [cingulum] and the vestment . . . customary with Roman consuls’.3 The boy was to remember the impressive ceremony as a royal consecration. Æthelwulf’s victory over the Vikings at Aclea in 851 was still being feted in Europe in the Annals of St Bertin at Troyes. Two years later the boy prince returned, this time as part of his father’s entourage. Together with ‘a multitude of people’, they were received with great honour by Pope Benedict III – Alfred as the spiritual son of the papacy, Æthelwulf as a warrior against the heathen and bearer of lavish gifts to St Peter, among them a gold crown four pounds in weight, a fine sword bound in gold, four luxury ‘Saxon bowls’ and much else, including largesse for the citizens of Rome.

Returning from Rome in 856, Æthelwulf and Alfred visited the court of the West Frankish ruler Charles the Bald. Evidently, a marriage had been arranged between Charles’s daughter Judith, a girl aged about twelve, and Æthelwulf, now a man in his fifties. Perhaps because he knew kings’ wives were not treated with special deference in Wessex, perhaps to give any child she might bear added status, or perhaps simply because it was becoming standard practice in West Francia, Charles insisted that the bride be consecrated queen during the marriage service. Archbishop Hincmar of Reims, expert in ritual, officiated at the ceremony. That spring, Danish raiders had penetrated to the heart of France and ravaged Orléans and in August a large force rowed up the Seine to within a few miles of Paris. Charles, possibly accompanied by his English royal guest, led an army against them and did great slaughter but failed to drive them from their fortified base. They were to return.

Arrived back in Wessex, Æthelwulf found himself faced by a general rebellion led by his eldest son Æthelbald. The cause is unknown. Maybe the heir was worried by the new queen’s consecration ceremony. He need hardly fear a second wife as such, but the nubile youngster now installed was a full queen, sanctified by the church. Any son of hers might take priority over him. Æthelwulf retired with his young spouse to Kent. A charter dated November 857 suggests the kind of problems Wessex had to fear from Æthelwulf’s Continental interests: it is a confirmation of a gift of lands at Rotherfield, Hastings, Pevensey and London to Saint Denis, the great monastery outside Paris; in other words the ‘export’ of substantial revenues.

When his father died the following year, Æthelbald neutralized any threat from Judith by marrying her (marriage with a stepmother, not unheard of in pagan practice, does not seem to have caused any technical problems for the church, though it scandalized Bishop Asser). King Æthelwulf had maintained the domestic prestige of the monarchy left him by his illustrious father (a tenth-century archbishop of Trier who was proud to trace his descent from Ecgberht of Wessex). He also assured the ascendancy of his house in Kent so that minsters there turned to him for protection, rather than the archbishops of Canterbury. Indeed by the end of the century Alfred, his son, was able to appoint his own candidate to the see. He had a better than average record against the Vikings and he had promoted the standardization of the coinage carried forward by his sons. By his marriage into the Carolingian dynasty he had increased its standing abroad. Yet by his will he confirmed the division of the kingdom, leaving Kent and the eastern dependencies (Surrey, Sussex and Essex) to Æthelberht and Wessex, along with the former British territories of Dumnonia and Cornwall, to Æthelbald (who was to be followed by Æthelred and Alfred in the West).

On Æthelbald’s early and childless death in 860 the surviving brothers agreed that Æthelberht should succeed to the kingdom as a whole, with the prospect of Æthelred and Alfred to follow. Five years after this Æthelberht, too, died childless. Again Alfred ceded the entire succession to his brother Æthelred. When he too died in 871, Æthelred left a baby boy. It was out of the question to have an infant on the throne during these times of Danish raiding and Alfred succeeded as sole king. There would be problems when the baby, Æthelwold, grew to manhood (see page 263).

We must assume that the consular installation ceremony at Rome coloured Alfred’s entire life. He conducted a similar ceremony for his four-year-old grandson, Æthelstan, son of Edward. The child was invested ‘with a scarlet cloak, a belt set with gems and a Saxon sword with a gilded scabbard’. To some present it seemed like a secular consecration. For Alfred one imagines there were powerful associations with the duties of a Roman consul, which he translated in Anglo-Saxon as heretoga (i.e. ‘leader’). He saw himself as championing civilization against the forces of pagan barbarism.

He saw, too, comparisons between Wessex and himself facing the Danes and Rome under barbarian attack centuries before, then yielding to the impious rule of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (d. 520), the heretic Arian Christian. Theodoric’s chief minister was Boethius, a Roman Christian of ancient patrician family who for unknown reasons was arrested on treason charges. In prison awaiting trial (he was executed in 524) Boethius wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy, which Alfred was to translate lovingly. In his view of history Boethius had been a model champion of the moral way withstanding a violent and unrighteous usurper. Similarly he, under threat from the pagan Danes, was a just man, like Boethius, suffering for a righteous cause. He ascended the throne conscious that the aura of a Roman authority was about him and as consciously prepared to defend the Christian Roman legacy in his kingdom of Wessex against the pagan invaders. His new 870s coin types from the London mint show ‘design elements deliberately and carefully copied’ from Roman models.4

Biography and history

The Vita Alfredi Regis Angul Saxonum is a Latin account of the ‘Life of Alfred King of the Anglo-Saxons’ from his birth, through his accession in 871 and up to the year 887 – that is twelve years before the death of its subject and almost twenty years before the death of its named author, the Welsh monk-bishop Asser (d. 908/9). About half the text is a Latin translation of texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle covering the years between 851 and 887. The single known manuscript of the Vita, made about the year 1000, was destroyed in 1731 by a fire in the Cotton Library in Westminster; various transcriptions and editions made before that time provide the basis of modern editions of the book. Alfred had called Asser to the West Saxon court to be his tutor in Latin, the lessons beginning on St Martin’s Day, 11 November 887. He became a valued royal confidant and divided his time between the court and his monastery in St David’s. He rose in the West Saxon church to become bishop of the rich see of Sherborne and received rich gifts, such as a most valuable silken robe. So it was that the biography of the English king renowned for promoting the English language as a vehicle of history and scholarship came to be recorded by a Welshman writing in Latin. But then Asser was heir to the old British tradition of Latin scholarship reaching back to the time of Gildas. He depicts the king more as saint or pope. James Campbell observed that ‘Asser [wrote] with the zeal of the well rewarded’.

The idea for the project may have been inspired by the ‘Life of Emperor Charles the Great’ (Vita Caroli) written by the German churchman Einhard, who in turn had studied under Alcuin. But there are differences. Asser, writing in England, uses many AD dates, Einhard only one; Asser has anecdotes from his subject’s childhood, Einhard none; Asser lays stress on the importance of the carmina Saxonica (‘Saxon songs’) in Alfred’s upbringing. No such vernacular frivolities feature in Einhard.

Inevitably the Bible (particularly the Jewish Old Testament) provided themes for Christian monarchy. The inauguration of Saul as king of Israel, the example of Solomon as judge and law-maker, the decrees of God himself in the Ten Commandments were all seen as models. But even in military matters the ‘Good Book’ could seem relevant. When he read that ‘King Rehoboam dwelt in Jerusalem and built cities for defence in Judah’ (II Chronicles 11:5) Alfred would surely have found confirmation for his ‘burh’ building programme. Asser himself had an excellent command of the detailed Latin military terminology for defensive war and battlefield manoeuvres. Possibly he had read De rei militaris, the military treatise by the late fourth-century Roman patrician Vegetius and ‘the most heavily used of all classical texts in Western Europe from the 5th to the 15th century’5 that according to David Hill, was known in England. Even the Venerable Bede seems to have based his description of the rampart raised by the Romans against the Picts on it.6 Perhaps Alfred too was familiar with it: Vegetius had much to say on the need for good intelligence gathering, the decisive importance of terrain and the correct use of reserves, all aspects of warfare in which Alfred was expert.

We do not know why Asser, who seems to have begun work in 893, ended the biography when he did, and there are factors that have led people to question whether he in fact was the author. The most extended argument for this thesis in King Alfred the Great(1995) by Professor Alfred P. Smyth. At the moment, though, the balance seems to be in Asser’s favour. For just one example, Asser’s book draws on texts that would have come naturally to a Welsh scholar, such as the ‘Old Latin’ version of the Bible, which was displaced in England by St Jerome’s ‘Vulgate’ text a good fifty years before Alfred came to the throne but was still in use in Wales.7

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (or, better, Chronicles), is a series of annals purporting to record events from the year 494 to 1154. It has been said that ‘Anglo-Saxon history would be virtually impossible to write without it.’8 Being Europe’s only vernacular chronicle of such detail over such a long stretch of time, it has been and is still subject to intense and critical scrutiny (see chapter 9). Probably inaugurated under the aegis of King Alfred, its origins are in fact unclear. The hand of the first scribe has been dated to the very end of the reign. Up to that point, together with the regnal list and genealogy as preface, it is a panegyric to the dynasty’s conquest of southwest Britain followed by its triumph over the Danes. Whoever the compiler was, he could probably rely on ‘back-up knowledge’ of the oral traditions among his audience. If we add Alfred’s law book, which records also the laws of King Ine, we have the testament of a dynasty as notable in the arts of peace as successful in the arts of war.

The value of the Chronicles to the royal house of Cerdic becomes obvious if we look at the other powerful kings and dynasties mentioned in its annals. None of them, not even the kings of Mercia, present us with the same sense of root or of destiny. Moreover, by its coverage, albeit selective, of other kingdoms in the land of the English ‘Angelcynn’ the Chronicle does have the aspect of a ‘national’ chronicle. While there is no direct evidence of Alfred’s personal involvement, it is hard to believe that he was not associated with the enterprise. At the very least, Alfred’s encouragement of learning and his deep sense of history support the supposition. After all, he did make additions to Orosius’ Old English translation of world history. What is more, the first part of the Chronicle manuscript, which runs from 494 to 891, was written in the kingdom of Wessex, very possibly in Winchester, Alfred’s favourite town. This record of the Anglo-Saxons and their success against the Danish ‘Great Army’ may well have been intended as morale-boosting ‘propaganda’, as we are told it was placed in Winchester, presumably in the Old Minster, attached by a chain to a reading desk. Moreover, it appears that copies were being sent out to the large churches of Wessex about the year 892 at the time of renewed Viking raids.9

This ‘Winchester’ Chronicle also covers many Continental events during Alfred’s reign and not only events relating to Viking incursions into Europe, where England did have a common interest with the Frankish lands. There were at this time a number of Frankish monks in the fortified monastery founded by Alfred at Athelney, who no doubt kept up with their contacts in Francia and could have been the source of such information. Athelney input could also account for the Chronicle’s well-informed coverage of local Somerset news. This combination of the local, the national and the international adds to the perennial fascination of the source.

It may be that almost all the sources regarding Alfred’s reign ‘originated with either Alfred himself or his immediate entourage’ or, as another scholar somewhat acidly remarked, that ‘We hold that Alfred was a great and glorious king in part because he tells us he was.’10 But if the king was ‘telling the tale’, was he not also perhaps telling the truth? In any case there were Continental precedents for royal propaganda programmes. Einhard’s Vita Caroli is an obvious parallel and the Royal Frankish Annals was straight propaganda for Charles’s dynasty. Given the severity of the Danish Viking threat it would not be surprising if Alfred had a ‘profound sense of dynastic insecurity’ and turned, as has been suggested, to Frankish ‘experts on kingship’.11 We can assume that the Chronicle’s, principal target audience was not posterity but rather Alfred’s contemporaries; his aim, to rally them to take pride in the West Saxon royal house and support it in the struggle against the national enemy.

Apart from perhaps St Boniface, there is no Anglo-Saxon about whom we know more. The youngest of five brothers, it was noteworthy that he came to the throne at all. His sexuality seems to have been more or less normal for a king, with at least one illegitimate child credited to him by rumour. Unusually for a monarch of his time, and laughably by twenty-first century social convention, he valued personal chastity and prayed for some painful disease to inhibit his lusts. As a young man he did suffer from an extremely painful complaint, possibly haemorrhoids, possibly Chrohn’s disease, which seems to have recurred throughout his life. It hardly hampered his achievement. A king who could read was remarkable; one who authored books was unheard of elsewhere in western Christendom before the millennium.

For Patrick Wormald, Alfred was the ‘translucent mind of Old English authority’,12 for Bishop Wulfsige, as we saw, the greatest of treasure-givers. The quality praised is that of the heroic war leader and Alfred was certainly that; but the context, the bishop’s preface to a translation commissioned by the king, is that of cultural patronage. For Alfred, recruits for the war against ignorance demanded the same kind of largesse as warriors against terror raids. In his own translation of Boethius the king claimed to have no interest in money or power for their own sakes but only as means to his job of administering his kingdom ‘virtuously’.

The birth of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ idea and cultural renewal

In the 870s Burgred, ruler of Anglian Mercia, had been expelled by the Danes. He made an English king’s pilgrimage to Rome, where he died. He was followed by Ceolwulf, who gave hostages to the Danes and whom the Chronicle considered a mere puppet, though he issued a joint currency with Alfred. Nothing more is heard of him after 880 and Alfred placed Mercia under the rule of Æthelred, as ealdorman.

By adopting the style ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’, Alfred clearly made a statement of unity within the Angelcynn. In the mid-870s coinage minted by Alfred in London had already represented him as ‘king of the English’ or as ‘king of the Saxons and Mercians’. Such changes heralded ‘a new and distinctive polity’ and a combined effort to restore the glories of Anglo-Saxon culture. The reign’s unparalleled output of vernacular literature was obviously the result of ‘a conscious policy’ carried through by the king and a small group of advisers and doers, to generate texts and see to their dissemination.13

The programme owed much to outside help, including the presence at Winchester of Continental Europeans – initially Fulco of Reims, and then the Frankish scholars Grimbald of St Bertin (proposed by one scholar as the man who suggested the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and John the Old Saxon (presumably from Saxony) – and the books they brought with them. But there were Welshmen, too, as well as the Franks, Frisians, Irishmen, Bretons and even Scandinavians, all drawn by the king’s reputation for generosity. And, of course, Mercians such as Wærferth, who translated Pope Gregory’s Dialogues at the king’s request, and Plegmund, possibly Cheshire-born and described by Asser as a man of great learning. Alfred named him as one of those who, along with Asser and Grimbald of St Bertin, helped him with the translation of Pope Gregory’s Liber regulae pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’), the handbook for bishops that was the foundation for Alfred’s cultural reform programme. Alfred was to appoint Plegmund as archbishop of Canterbury. During a long reign (890–923) Plegmund would officiate at the coronation of Alfred’s son Edward the Elder in 900 at Kingston upon Thames (it was here that Edward’s grandfather Æthelwulf had been formally acknowledged as heir to his father, Ecgberht), and reorganize the church in Wessex, a preparation for the extensive church reforms later in the tenth century.

In his preface to the Pastoral Care, Alfred famously deplored the decay of learning and modern historians have commented on the ‘atrocious quality’ of, particularly Kentish, surviving charters, although Kent was not typical. English cultural life was certainly at a low ebb – even the transmission of Bede’s works from this period depends heavily on manuscripts preserved on the Continent. The outflow of talented scholars probably meant a shortage of Latin teachers in the early ninth century with a consequent impact on later generations of clergy.14And Alfred may have been exaggerating so as to shock people into action.

The preface presents his plans for cultural and literary reform. A copy of the translation is to be sent to all bishops, for the ‘cure of souls’ is the beginning of wisdom. In former (i.e. pre-Viking) days, he reflects, men had come to England in quest of knowledge; in his day the country had to send abroad for help. Latin was in deep decline. Important books must be translated from the Latin into English. While peace prevails young men of free birth and apt ability should learn to read English and, those who could, Latin as well, since learning was not to be a clerical preserve. A school was to be set up in the royal household for his sons, young nobles being fostered and some boys of non-noble rank.

Alfred believed it was his duty to God to revive the kingdom of the English in learning and devotion and rally his people to the good fight against the heathen. The programme of historical writing, religious education and literary productions had its part to play by boosting the dynasty and recruiting the energies of his subjects to the common good. The most famous part of the programme, the translation from Latin into English of those books ‘necessary to know’, was unique in Christendom. Even Ireland, with Europe’s other tradition of vernacular writing, had ‘no parallel for the translation into the vernacular from Latin, such as was the hallmark of Alfred’s reform’.15

The intervention of Continental scholars was a just payback for the Anglo-Saxon contribution to the Carolingian Renaissance. (There are indications that Alfred first considered Grimbald instead of Plegmund as archbishop of Canterbury.) After all, its central figure Einhard had been educated at Fulda, founded by St Boniface, and then graduated to study under Alcuin. But Alfred’s English revival was not sympathetic to the contemporary Carolingian ethos of grandiloquence. No doubt England did not have the money and resources to match those of Charles the Bald, that ‘Carolingian renaissance prince’. But the real difference lay in the contrasting personalities of king and emperor. The sumptuous bibles and psalters created for Charles glorified the monarch and distanced him from his subjects. Alfred’s books, much more modest and workmanlike, were meant for circulation among courtiers and clergy as part of a dialogue between king and subjects.

Fittingly, it seems almost certain that the famous Alfred Jewel, the most familiar object from the period, was part of an aestel, a reading aid. Originally it seems a pointer was fitted in the gold animal head to be used, somewhat like the cursor on a computer screen, to locate the point in the text where attention was focused, much as the yad is used in Jewish synagogues to this day when reading the Torah. Depicting a figure with large staring eyes that may be meant to symbolize the sense of sight, and bearing the legend AELPRED MEC HÆT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred had me made’) picked out in gold filigree, it was found in the marshes at Athelney, site of the king’s retreat and monastic foundation, and is indeed a charismatic icon of the Alfredian age. There seems no doubt that the sponsor of the piece was King Alfred the Great, though some have suggested it might have been intended as a pendant.

Four such objects survive of different types. All make striking use of unusual materials, such as, in the case of the Jewel, ‘recovered’ rock-crystal, that is a pre-existing piece of crystal shaped for a Roman jewel and reused.

As beautiful as it is, the famous jewel is perhaps outdone in sophistication by the Fuller Brooch, a silver and niello ornament of complex iconography relating to the five senses and product of a highly intellectual court circle.

The practicalities of government and a reform programme

Because virtually nothing remains above ground, it is hard to realize the impact that Alfred’s building programme must have had. In addition to the fortified burhs springing up the length and breadth of the kingdom, contemporaries wondered at ‘the royal halls and chambers marvellously constructed of stone and wood’.

Government needed tools and resources. By the nature of his office a king was a figure of opulence in dress and of wealth in land. Alfred viewed riches as essential tools of the king’s trade. A kingdom, if it is to flourish, must be peopled with fit and capable subjects to discharge the functions of war, prayer and labour; and the king (the ring-giver) needs the wherewithal to reward them with weapons, lands, drink, victuals and luxurious gifts if he is to keep their loyalty and service. The significance of such a list fills out when we realize that a ‘weapon’ might be a sword such as that Alfred bequeathed to his son-in-law Ealdorman Æthelred, which was valued at 3,000 silver pennies, enough to purchase more than 100 oxen or 300 acres of land.16

Much was indeed demanded. Nobles were required to lead their followers to the king’s wars; to help him in the administration of public order; to mobilize the work forces on roads and fortifications and generally in the running of the kingdom. Some were charged with additional responsibilities as senior royal officials or ‘ealdormen’. At first a kind of prefect in a sub-kingdom of Wessex, the ealdorman was the principal administrator of a shire from the time of King Ine. The high standing of men such as Ceolmund, ealdorman of Kent, or Wulfred of Hampshire, equivalent to a bishop in rank, was signalled by their wergild: 1,200 shillings as they were noble, and another 1,200 shillings as they held office. By 970 there were certain ealdormen (after c. 1020 the term gave way to ‘earl’ from the Danish jarl) with responsibility for many shires – regional governors in effect. They were however, always royal appointees and not, like French ducs and comtes, regional territorial dynasts.

In the Pastoral Care Alfred describes St Peter as receiving the ‘ealdordom’ of the Holy Church from God, which is as much a comment on the king’s estimation of his own standing as on that of an ealdorman. Alfred describes the king on great occasions as seated ‘on a high seat, in bright raiment’, surrounded by thegns wearing ornamented belts and gold-inlaid swords.17 The most celebrated lawsuit in Anglo-Saxon legal records concerns a man’s loss of standing at law because of his conviction for the theft of a ceremonial belt. Perhaps the king had in mind the meeting of his witan convened to approve the will that excluded his nephews from the succession in favour of his son Edward.

Alfred relied on the council of his ealdormen and, of course, of his senior churchmen, but he might well consult less exalted but nevertheless important people, such as Beornwulf, the town-reeve of Winchester. A royal servant such as his ‘horse thegn’ or marshal could be in a position of influence: the king’s own mother had been the daughter of his father’s famous butler Oslac. Alfred divided his staff into three groups, who served at court for one month alternating with two months at home. Those in residence had their appointed sleeping quarters: those allocated to the royal chamber apartments might be the king’s drinking and hunting companions and have their place in the great hall; others were relegated to sleeping ‘on the threshing floor’ in the barn. Then there would be noblemen’s sons being ‘fostered’ in the royal household, and the household warriors. Outside the immediate entourage, royal officers in the country at large, and also prominent local landowners or ‘king’s thegns’, could claim to be of what a later age would call the king’s ‘affinity’, that is to have a special connection with the king. He communicated with them by sealed letters and the messengers could expect handsome lodging. At grassroots level the presence of kingship in a locality resided in the king’s reeves, to whom a traveller or merchant in a district made his first report; they were agents of the king’s interest in his estates, and among the villagers and local thegns, and were men of note.

The counsellors he summoned most regularly to advise him were accorded a status of respect as his ‘witan’, though their meetings never achieved the formalized standing of an institution of government suggested by the later (essentially Victorian) coinage ‘witanegemot’ (‘wisemen’s meeting’). Compared with the quasi-imperial court of this grandson Æthelstan, Alfred’s seems to have comprised rarely more than two or three bishops, four ealdormen and eight or so king’s thegns, or ministers.18 In earlier times nobles did not only hold land in their own right, but could be awarded ‘loan-land’, to use the term Alfred used, by the king in gratitude for services, which would revert to him on their death. The church by contrast had established the principle that lands granted to them by noble patrons or by the king himself could be secured by written charter to the recipient in perpetuity. By the late 700s the principle of ‘bookland’ was established for secular landowners too. The terms of his charter would probably require him to take armed forces to the king’s army and mobilize labour for the king’s works (see below), but the land could now remain in his family.

At the practical level, Alfred’s cultural programme (the term is hardly too strong) required an extraordinary amount of scribal activity based on his own and other groups of clerics, most of whom would have learnt their trade copying charters. After all, much administration was via letter, and some 200 charters survive from the ninth century for Wessex and Mercia. In the less polished examples scribal errors could creep in, which once prompted unjust suspicions of forgery (though some forgeries do exist). Some, notably those of the West Saxon type of the 830s–870s, remind us that beyond the bustle and sophistication of Winchester lie meetings of king and counsellors in shire towns, with the local reeves in attendance.

No doubt the network of book scribes was based on a ‘headquarters’ staffed by experts in the production and multiplication of bound manuscripts and where (surmises Michael Keynes) master copies were kept. He has identified a team of six: five of varying skills A, B, C, D and E (‘the rather superior scribe’), who did the work while a sixth scribe, X, ‘hovered behind them keeping track of their work’. The distribution network comprised various copyists at fixed points for the further duplication of exemplars. The preface to the Pastoral Care tells us that ‘Alfred translated me into English’ and then ‘sent [the exemplar] south and north to his scribes (writerum) . . . to produce more copies [to be sent] to his bishops’. We know that at least ten bishops received copies in the 890s and can assume that they had further copies made for their parish clergy.19

Today the generally accepted canon of Alfred’s literary work comprises the Pastoral Care, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, St Augustine of Hippo’s Soliloquies and the first fifty of the prose versions of the Psalms. To these four works, which it is felt share characteristic features of style and vocabulary, the prefatory material to the laws is also added. While he almost certainly did not make the translation of Orosius it seems reasonable to suppose that it dates from his reign and may have been composed as part of his programme. Although Alfred had his children taught to write, he himself probably dictated his manuscripts and, for translations, may have dictated a first draft, to be worked up by a group of scholarly assistants.20

However it was done, we feel the presence of a vigorous and sympathetic imagination. When the writer of the Old English book of reflections loosely based on Augustine’s Soliloquies, which is cast in the form of a dialogue between Augustine and Reason, compares himself, as a researcher in the groves of scholarship, to a forester going out to select timbers suited for his new structure of learning and his assistants to axemen following up with wagons, it is hard not to think of the architect-king supervising work for a new burh. Elsewhere a striking passage expounds trust in divine revelation in terms of the trust accorded to a secular lordship, when Reason asks

Have you not a lord [the emperor] whom you trust in all matters better than yourself? . . . and do you think that the Emperor, the son of an emperor, is wiser or more truthful than Christ the son of God? 21

There is nothing mechanical or hack about Alfred’s English prose works, which are among the very earliest of the genre. It is a sophisticated style derived from the rhetorical devices of Latin models and deploying the typical patterns of Anglo-Saxon verse, alliteration and wordplay.

Alfred loved the dialogue as a literary form. A foundation text in his programme was the Dialogues of Pope Gregory (an exchange between Gregory and his friend Peter the deacon). It was followed by Alfred’s own adaptation of Boethius. Conceived as a dialogue between the author and Lady Philosophy, the book became one of the most popular of the Middle Ages and its devotion to wisdom immediately seized Alfred’s imagination. The king’s version, internalized as a dialogue between Wisdom and the Mind, creates an authorial person called ‘Boethius’, who is the victim of a tyrant king and invites us to see the world from his perspective.

The Church, the junior partner?

Alfred strongly associated the church with the governance of his realm but it seems he was the dominant partner: indeed the balance of power between church and court seems to have shifted in favour of the king so that ‘the reign of Alfred should be put in a context of major constitutional change’. By the 790s the church in England had acquired immense wealth, both in treasure and in real estate: in Kent, for example, more than 30 per cent of all the landed wealth seems to have been in the hands of the clergy. Monasteries, it seems, were everywhere. By 800 there were almost thirty in the Worcester diocese alone. Senior clergy were pivotal figures: the archbishop often dominated the synods even when the king was present and Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury (805–32) struck coins bearing his name alone. But as the ninth century advanced, thanks in part to the Viking raids, the church’s grip was loosened and many religious estates passed into lay control. Alfred gave the huge see of Sherborne to Asser without papal intervention, and after the Welshman’s death King Edward the Elder would divide it into three sees.22

Disposable land was an essential tool of kingcraft – the currency in which the great men who served a king in peace expected payment, as well as the traditional inducement to attract warriors to his following in the days when warfare among the English kingdoms had ensured a supply from among the defeated. For Alfred this course was not open, but on occasion it seems he would appropriate church lands recovered from defeated Vikings.

Justice under law

The administration of law was grounded on the oath of an oath-worthy man solemnly given before God and accepted as valid. Charged with a crime, a man acquitted himself not by a trial on evidence but by giving his own oath and finding oath-helpers to bear out his statements and claims and his good faith. To lose one’s oath-worthy status was to risk falling out of the law and be at the mercy of anyone with a claim against one’s property or a grudge. But the powers of law enforcement were limited and in the most extreme crime, that of murder, the maintenance of order depended on the enforcement of a code of vendetta or feud supervised by the king according to strict rules of compensation based on the scale of wergild (or ‘wergeld’) payments. The laws of King Alfred, which also incorporate those of his predecessor King Ine, are represented by the stately ‘domboc’ (‘law book’) set down in about 893. They have been described as ‘the product of deep thought, intensive research, and great political vision’,23 an expression of ideological aspirations perhaps, rather than practical guidance for judges.

Legislation was not necessarily promulgated by the king in written form and judgement was validated more by the word of the king (per verbum regis) than by any text. In a celebrated case Alfred delivered judgement by word of mouth while washing his hands in his private chamber. The king, however, seems to have conceived law as a written text, for he remarks in his preamble that he had ‘ordered to be written’ (awritan het) many of the laws that his forefathers observed, and how he had not presumed to set down in writing many of his own. His code survives in just six manuscripts, the earliest of them dating from 925–50.

Alfred considered an ability to read English an essential requirement for a man in authority if he were to make sound judgements. Cases determined in local assemblies by ealdormen or reeves were to be referred to the king if they were disputed by the litigants. He was liable to intervene at random if he considered any judgement unfair and would order the judge to apply himself forthwith to ‘the pursuit of wisdom’ at risk of losing his job. The reading might be records of legal cases heard, or more likely it meant reading in ‘those books that it is necessary to know’. For ‘wisdom’ in Alfredian terms, as described by Asser, was that which taught a man to care for truth and seek the common good rather than his own personal advantage. Rather than lose the king’s favour, illiterate ealdormen, reeves and thegns would apply themselves to the mastery of the unfamiliar discipline of reading and learning, following, if need be, the king’s advice to find someone to read books aloud to him ‘by day and night, at any opportunity’ – the very way Alfred the boy had memorized the poetry book offered by his mother.

Alfred’s London

London comprised the old Roman civitas within the walls, the ‘burh’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the extramural settlement, the port of Lundenwic, which had a population of about 5,000 and covered some 148 acres (60 hectares) on the north bank of the Thames, running westward from Chancery Lane to Trafalgar Square. The first recorded Viking attack here is in 842, the second about 851: coin hoards have been unearthed for the first date at the Middle Temple and for the second a ‘purse-hoard’ of Northumbrian coins was found near the Royal Opera House. Other hoards have been unearthed near Waterloo Bridge (872) and within the city walls, dated to 880. Found in the early 2000s it contained coins of the special London Monogram type, which Alfred probably issued to mark his resumption of control of London after Ceolwulf’s departure. Then for the year 886 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records ‘gesette Ælfred cing Lundenburh’, in other words he occupied Roman London and made it habitable again. In this year, too, ‘all the English people who were not in captivity to the Danes submitted to him’. By 893 and again in 895 the ‘citizens’ (burgwara) of London were sufficiently numerous to mount a body for effective military action. In 898 the king presided over a meeting, attended by among others his son Edward, the archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Wærferth of Worcester and Ealdorman Æthelred of the Mercians and his wife, Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, that confirmed the ‘instauration’ of the borough and the establishment of a grid plan of streets between what is now Thames Street and Cheapside. Digs in the early 2000s revealed just such market streets running off a central spinal thoroughfare. The archaeology indicates that from 900 onwards the main business and residential quarters were within the city walls. In other words, by the end of Alfred’s reign, London had ‘entirely changed its shape and focus’24 away from the Aldwych Strand back into the Roman walled city.

Preparations for the return of the heathen and defence of the realm

For much of the 880s the Viking raiders were harrying the northern lands of West Francia so that, in the lament of the chronicler of St Vaast, ‘the Christian folk [were] brought to utter ruin and desolation.’ These same years saw the kingdom of the West Saxons engaged in public works programmes and military reorganization. Three English kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, had been removed from the map. Alfred planned a system of defence round his borders and land. His plans rested on the known tactics of the enemy, best practice overseas and antecedents in the English tradition.

Asser writes of ‘the cities and towns that he restored, and the others he built where none had been before . . .’, though he does not claim that Alfred was the first to build such towns and fortifications. In the 1970s archaeologist Martin Biddle, excavating the ‘Roman’ burh of Winchester, revealed rectilinear street patterns adapted to military defence and trade. The basic pattern comprised a main street, with parallel back streets linked at right angles to the high street by side streets, and a perimeter boulevard running round inside the wall. Similar planning has subsequently been detected in other Alfredian foundations such as Wareham, Wallingford and Oxford. It is argued that such sites stand at the beginning of the continuous history of the medieval English town. The once flourishing cross-Channel trade of early ninth-century Hamwic was a thing of the past when Alfred came to the throne, probably in part because it was an undefended site. Thanks to him and his new urban developments, however, a vigorous internal market was to spring up.25

The Viking raiders generally avoided battle. Their preferred tactic was to seize some defensible site as their base of operations and plunder the surrounding region before the English could mobilize forces and then to retreat behind the fortifications until the English should disperse – or they made good their escape under cover of night. It is probable that Alfred knew of the fortified bridges that Charles the Bald had built on the River Seine and similar defensive works, though they were hardly more advanced than the fortified burhs known in eighth-century Mercia.

The basic text here is the Burghal Hidage. It gives a list of some thirty ‘burhs’ (defended settlements or fortifications), each with its own garrison and established around Wessex, Sussex and Surrey in such a way that no place of importance was more than a day’s march from the nearest and that every navigable waterway, Roman road or major track way penetrating Wessex was commanded. Even the best landing beaches were accessible from a garrison in a burh. The system was reinforced by army tracks (herepaths) skirting estate boundaries for the muster of local contingents. Some burhs seem to have been intended as towns from the start, others were emergency forts, hurriedly thrown up as part of a crash building programme. Quite apart from the actual construction, huge quantities of gravel, flints and timber had to be shifted on site before work could begin, calling for high logistical capacity and administrative skills. It has been estimated that labour on the defensive banks for the burh at Wallingford alone would have required more than 120,000 man hours.26

The actual labour force would be recruited at the expense of local landowners, as indicated above, under the convention known by historians as the ‘common burdens’, apparently first established by the Mercian king in the mid-eighth century, when monks were obliged to fulfil it, much to the horror of St Boniface. The so-called ‘trinoda necessitas’ (or, as Eric John proposes, ‘trimoda . . .’; or ‘three mode necessity’), required those liable to supply work on bridges, fortifications (‘burhbot’) and troops for the levy. Alfred exploited the system as fully as possible and after him it was stretched to embrace ship-building.

The ‘Hidage’, based on the hide, an ancient unit of land considered sufficient to support one peasant family, designates the number of ‘hides’ assigned to each burh for its structural maintenance and defensive manning. A formula specifies that one man was to go from every hide and dictates the length of wall that such a force was expected to defend. Altogether the document calls for some 27,000 men to be employed in the maintenance and defence of the forts. One man from each hide; the idea seems simple enough but recruiting and managing men in such numbers could only have been done by thegns who commanded the loyalty of the men and already took services from their land.

Maybe Alfred’s programme of town fortifications, which perhaps included the late Saxon work on Exeter’s Roman wall, was also coloured by childhood experiences in Rome. In 846 a Saracen fleet had sailed up the River Tiber and attacked the city; the residents at the foreign schools – Franks, Saxons, Lombards and Frisians – helped defend the fortifications. After the raid a high wall, completed in 852, was built round the basilicas of St Peter’s and its vicinity; the area enclosed was known as the Leonine City. The postern gates were surmounted by an inscription recording its builders, among them the Posterula Saxonum. Nearby, hostels housed the Saxon community in a compound known as their burh (borgo). No doubt the inscription over the Saxons’ postern had been pointed out to Alfred and his father on their visit to Rome in 855, along with accounts of deeds of prowess by the school’s trained bands back in 846.27

The other essential element in the defence strategy was the creation of a standing army. Alfred reorganized the kingdom’s military resources, starting from existing West Saxon military traditions of the ‘fyrd’ or army. The West Saxon fyrd was not a levy en masse but a mobilization of king’s men and their retainers – the king’s following arrayed for battle with, in summer, local territorial forces from the shires. This meant landowners and their personal followings led by ealdormen, reeves and local king’s thegns, operating either as divisions in the king’s army or as local defence forces. Raising these forces as need arose took time, and by the time they had arrived on the scene the enemy was probably gone. Alfred ordained that the force be divided in two, one half active for military service while the other remained to work on the land; he doubled the length of the service, probably from forty to eighty days, establishing in effect a fighting force available through most of the campaigning season. These seems to have been a standing elite that amounted to a King’s lifeguard: no king of Alfred’s line fell in battle, despite their exposed position of command fighting at close quarters in the middle of the shield wall.28

In the autumn of 892 famine threatened in northeast Francia. The Vikings made their way to Boulogne, where the Franks provided them with 250 ships so that they could cross the Channel ‘in one journey, horses and all’. These were heterogeneous war bands of diverse allegiances under an experienced leader like Hæstan, who came ‘with eighty ships in the mouth of the Thames, and built himself a fort at Milton’. In that same season ‘the other host’ was at Appledore. Wessex was ready. In the 870s the raiders had campaigned through the heartlands more or less at will. Now a yet larger force made hardly any serious penetration of the frontiers.

After a faltering start, the Alfredian defence system worked, in the words of Richard Abels, ‘precisely as planned’. The enemy was able to land because there was an uncompleted burh on the Lympne. They set up fortifications under the watchful eyes of an army in the field and the new, year-round garrisons of the burhs. In land, instead of towns and settlements open to attack, they would find garrisoned burhs fortified with earth banks and palisades, proof against storm assault. To lay a siege now meant being attacked from neighbouring garrisons or the field army division of the fyrd. To leave the garrison in place was out of the question. From Maidstone Alfred could monitor the enemy through pickets along the Downs while patrols could pick off raiding parties. Alfred’s ability to maintain his troops in the field proved decisive. However, his physical distance from the centre of military action in 893 meant that the exploits of his son Edward as field army commander, recorded fifty years later in the chronicle of Ealdorman Æthelweard but unmentioned by the official chronicle, may have seemed more dramatic.

Alfred had designed his system of burhs not so much to prevent conquest as to minimize the possibility of raiding. As a result he was able to fight Vikings simultaneously on the east, west and north frontiers of the kingdom. His son Edward was able to use the system for aggression, conquest and settlement.

A king’s navy

King Alfred ordered the building of a fleet of ships – it seems that his son Edward had about a hundred in 910 – England’s first royal navy. The ships were to be built to a new design that he stated ‘could be most serviceable’. They were commanded and crewed by Frisians and English, although the actual ship designs owed nothing to Frisian example. The Chronicle reports they were twice as long as the Danes’, were faster and, having more freeboard, steadier in the water. This presumably offered a firmer fighting platform in hand to hand combat: during an encounter in 882 two ships’ companies were slaughtered, whereupon two more surrendered. As with the system of burhs, Wessex arranged for the financing of its ships. Specific estates thought capable of raising the necessary funds were designated ‘ship sokes’ and each was required to provide a warship and provision its crew.29

Thanks to demonstration sailings by Edwin and Joyce Gifford in the mid-1990s of half-scale models built after ten years’ research, we have a good idea of how Alfred’s longships may have performed. Built in the Sutton Hoo manner (a vessel unearthed at Graveney in Kent, dated to about 900, indicates that Alfred’s naval architects may have been aware of that tradition) but with up to 60 oars, they ‘could have carried a complement of 140 men at speeds of up to 12 knots when sailing and 7 knots under oar’. Since Alfred’s coastal burhs were rarely more than 25 miles (40 km) apart, the Giffords estimated that squadrons could have reached any stricken beach within two hours of receiving the alarm. Given the improved signalling facilities and coastal fortifications we may have another part of the explanation for the decrease in Viking successes. The Anglo-Saxon state put high store on its naval defence. According to William of Malmesbury, King Edgar (957–75) patrolled the coasts of Britain on the look out for pirates on an annual basis. His account indicates that Edgar maintained three fleets, one each on the east and west coasts and one in the north. Presumably each flotilla returned to its home waters under its own commander once it had sailed its stretch of coastline. Admittedly it is highly improbable that the king regularly circumnavigated Britain, but it was hardly less impressive that he was reported to have maintained a standing navy. At his death the Chronicle said that while he lived ‘no fleet however flaunting of itself was able to win booty in England.’ Writing in 1996, M. Strickland argued that the navy was ‘the arm to which the Anglo-Saxons attached great, if not supreme significance’.30 Indeed, the English may have set a trend. A longship found at Hedeby in the late 1990s, with space for sixty-four oars, suggests that Alfred’s model found imitators.31

A warship could make a spectacular gift to the king ‘who had everything’. Bishop Ælfwold of Crediton (later the see of Exeter) bequeathed a longship of 64 oars to Æthelred II. Earl Godwine gave a great ship to Edward the Confessor. Emperor Henry III asked England for a flotilla of ships to support him in his campaign against Count Baldwin V of Flanders.

Threnody of triumph

Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, died on 26 October 899, aged either 50 or 51, after a reign of twenty-eight years – a momentous epoch in the history of England. By holding the line against the Viking Danes, Alfred prevented the establishment of a pagan power on one of the pillars of European civilization. Triumphant in the field, he structured a national defence in depth, organized the reform of the demoralized clergy as leaders of a programme of education, commissioned or himself carried through translations into English of major works of history and philosophy, and almost certainly inaugurated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

His reputation seems to have faded somewhat after his death. No other English king bore his name. But it was he who brought Wessex and West Mercia through the decades of danger. There was little likelihood of his subjects following the fashionable reinvention of Vikings, begun by gallery curators in the 1970s, as over-aggressive traders and salesmen pressing their wares on somewhat unappreciative customers.

Archaeological digs from the 1960s on may have revealed new dimensions of this Viking trade, but they have also heightened awareness of Winchester as the ‘traditional’ capital of Wessex; by identifying Alfredian towns and fortifications on the ground they have also substantiated Alfred’s activities as defensive strategist. Ealdorman Æthelweard, the king’s distant kinsman who died a century after him, dubbed him ‘the Magnanimous’, ‘unshakable pillar of the people of the west a man full of justice, active in war, learned in speech and, before all, instructed in divine learning . . .’32

Later generations took as given the platform of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Alfred had rescued and upon which they built the kingdom of England. Comparisons are often made between Charles the Great and Alfred the Great, so it is worth noting that whereas the successors of Charles, the Carolingians, fragmented his empire, Alfred’s successors strengthened the ties that united his kingdom and created an English ‘empire’ in Britain. Whether because of childhood memories of public inscriptions in Rome, or because he knew of the Latin-literate public policy of Carolingian Europe, or, more probably, because of his own passion for learning, Alfred profoundly believed that exploitation of the power of the written word, above all the ‘Englisce’ written word – whether in charters, the Guthrum treaty, the law code, the Chronicle or the translations of those books ‘needful to know’ – was indispensable to good government. In the words of Simon Keynes,

Soldier, law-maker, statesman, educator, and scholar, not to mention ship-builder . . . all were . . . inseparable [from] his determination to discharge the responsibilities of his high office for the good of his subjects and in the service of God.33

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