Thursday, July 14, 2016


Lesson 3 on Kings and Queens of England and Scotland.  Now we are getting to those I've heard of and are in fact a wee bit more interesting than the earlier Kings although there are still many who are strangers to me so I am going to enjoy learning about them too.

ALFRED  (Still spelt with an AE dipthong)   Known as ALFRED THE GREAT

Born: 849 at Wantage.

Succeeded as King of Wessex 71 at the age of 22.  Was declared King of the Saxons and King of the English.  Recognised as overlord of Wales 893.

Younger brother of his predecessor Ethelred, being the fifth son of King Ethelwulf and the grandson of King Egbert.

Married: 868 to Ealswyth who survived him and died in about 902.

Children:  Ethelflaed, EADWARD, Ethelgeofu, Elfthryth, Ethelweard.

Died:  28 October, 899, aged 50, having reigned 28 years.  Buried at Winchester.

Profile:  A clean shaven, barrel chinned, deeply lined perhaps almost tortured face neither senile nor conventionally 'wise' or great.  He was never called Alfred the Great in his lifetime, and the bearded statue of him in Wantage, Berkshire has the face of a local Victorian.

Alfred's brother and brother-on-arms, Ethelred, had two surviving children when he died but it was a time for active, experienced leadership, and they were not even considered as possible successors.  It is interesting, however, to see how powerful connections had their advantages even so many years ago.  One of the boys Ethlhelm, became Archbishop of Canterbury and the other, Etherwald, was King of York and indeed tried to take Alfred's throne after his death.  However, their uncle's immediate problem was to beat off the Danes from their assault on Wessex.  His ultimate achievement, which followed in part from the weakened position of the Mercians and Northmbrians against the Danes, was that when the fragmented English kingdoms collapsed before the foreign assault, Alfred had something to put in its place.  And the concept of England as a nation hardened into a reality, for under asssult it had developed an identity of its own.  Alfred was never crowned King of all England, a title which he has someties been given retrospectively.  That would have been a presumptuous claim, although he well earned his title King of the Saxons, and did style himself on some of his coins as King of the English.  His son and successor Edward the Elder took the title King of the English but the realm was limited, and only Alfred's grandson Ethelstan brought in Northumbria.

Alfred, as a warrior king with an urgent objective, fought nine battles against the Danes in the first year of his reign and won himself a breathing space.  He did not however reorganise the defence of Wessex with conspicuous brilliance.  Though a mature 22 years of age and a hardened commander he was a late developer intellectually and a most tortured man psychologically.  He was troubled by what are nowadays interpreted as psychosomatic illnesses, afflictions reflecting mental unease - and on his wedding day he became mysteriously and incapably sick, a circumstance whiich modern pscychiatrists inevitably  seize with glee.  Alfred is one of the most fascinating characters in history, and a dramatist of perception could do him the justice or resurrection in the same sense that we now know Sir Thomas More, as 'a man for all seasons'.

A quick impression presents Alfred as a combination of the pious imperial dreamer with the shrewd, long tem strategy defensive general.  A deeper analysis suggests a man intolerably teased by ambition and humility with many of his actions being little more than compulsive reactions to the desperate pressure of events. Here he was also a man able to give practical shape to a serene vision of a new land, advancing under thoughtful laws, adequate security, and a new concept of phiosophy and education and culture to meet and appreciate a wider world.  Alfred dissolved the insularity of Saxon England in a secular and cultural sense which was far more influential than the formal concept of the universality of the Christian Church  Two youthful sojourns in Rome, where the Pope robed the boy as a consul and sponsored him as a future leader and a further stay at the court of King of the Franks, gave him a lasting vision of the spaciousness of the world and the richess of life that arose from contact with it.  Yet he was always afflicted by a self-doubt that physically incapacitated him at many crises, and by self-depreciation base on the fact that, like every king's son of his time he was illiterate - until he conquered that disadvantge towards the end of his life.

For the fist seven years of his reign Alfred continued his undistinguished skirmishing with the Danes to try to hold his territory as he had established it during his initial year of vigorous campaigning.  In January, 878 the Danes made an unconventional winter blitzrkreig and Wessex was completely over-run.  But over the next four months Alfred deployed his underground resistance from his base in the Somerset marshes and by superb organisation welded the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire into an army which decisively defeated the Danes in the pitched battle at Edington, Wiltshire.  With impressive statesmanship he consolidated this victory.  He insisted that the Defeated King Guthrum of the Danes should receive baptism into Christianity - probably with less consideration for the welfare of Guthrum's soul than for the well-being of the inhabitants of Danish-occupied Mercia and Northumbria who would undergo less harassment in their native culture if Christianity was a recognised religion.  He then drastically conscripted the manpower of Wessex so that it was efficiently organised as a defence arm and an agricultural workforce, the men taking turns at those complementary duties.  He built a chain of fortified towns which would remain as urban strongholds in future invasions, so that Wessex could never be entirely blotted out as it had been in 878.  Also he built a navy as a new reserve against the sea power of the Danes.

In the uneasy, but generally effective, conditions of peace which followed these imaginative defense measures, Alfred established a much needed judicial system by introducing a new code of laws painstakingly worked out from the best contemporary foreign practice.  Then, having learned to read at the age of 38, and having much that he wanted to say to his people in the old English language, Alfred began a cult of broad education which aimed at giving the English a soul and a sense of corporate history.  This resulted in shaping for them an identity which has its hold today.  His reign was an example of how a sense of vision could be used by a monarch,


  1. Hari OM
    A most wonderful figure of history indeed Mimsie. It is perhaps only once per millenium that we have such true leaders arise... could be time for another such, but this time for the global community. YAM xx

  2. Interesting indeed.
    I wonder what his subjects at the time thought of him...