A Knight for Wisdom
By Travis Copeland
Few of us think of monarchs from the "Dark Ages" as models of learning and wisdom, but we should take another look.
Alfred the Great, the only English king to be endowed with the epithet “the Great,” is one of the most important monarchs of the early Middle Ages. Alfred ruled the Kingdom of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon realm in the southwest of modern-day England, from 871 until his death in 899. He embodied an ideal of medieval kingship, both in his military prowess against Viking raids and invasions, and as a learned man, fluent in Latin and devoted to the Catholic Church. Most importantly, Alfred is widely considered the first King of England properly so called, as it was under his leadership that Britain moved from a fractured landscape of warring kingdoms to a unified Anglia, collectively opposing the Viking invasions.
Alfred (or Ælfræd, as he was known in Anglo-Saxon—the name means “Elf-counsel” or “Elf-wisdom”) was the last of five brothers, born in 849 in Wantage to Wessex’s ruling king, Æthelwulf. Wessex and the other kingdoms of Britain, as well as many realms on the continent, were under regular attack by Vikings. Sometimes these Vikings were simply plunderers, but in other cases, they meant to conquer. From around Alfred’s time until the middle of the tenth century, about half of modern England fell under what was called the Danelaw. There the Danish were sovereign, with or without local Anglo-Saxon lords as their agents; it was spearheaded, literally and figuratively, by the invasion of the Mycel Hæþen or Great Heathen Army in 865, so named because the Danes at this time were not only foreigners to the British, but pagans. Alfred would stand as a bulwark against their attacks after his accession.
But in 849, there was no anticipation that this youngest son would ever be king. Instead, he was prepared for a life of devotion to the Church, or possibly as a member of the royal court; he learned Latin and traveled to Rome twice in the 850s; at nineteen, he was married to Ælswith, a princess from the midland Kingdom of Mercia. It was after this that fate cleared a path for his ascension to the throne. By 871, all four of Alfred’s elder brothers had died, at least one in battle with the Danish. Thus Alfred came to the throne at twenty-three years old. Viking threats persisted and much remained to be rebuilt and defended, but Alfred paid off the Viking army and established a tenuous peace for a few years.
Like Charlemagne before him, Alfred assembled a council of learned men to inhabit his court. His natural inclination toward scholarship led him to a litany of literary ventures; notably, he translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. Aiding the king in his scholarly pursuits was the Welsh Bishop Asser of Sherborne. Under Alfred’s oversight, the bishop composed the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the unfinished Life of King Alfred.
The Chronicle recounts history from the earliest Roman records, beginning with 60 B.C. and continuing after the end of King Alfred’s life, elevating English identity and especially glorifying Wessex. Asser concluded working on his Life of Alfred in 893, a few years before the monarch’s death. It elevates Alfred as a learned, wise, and mighty king; though (largely) factual, Bishop Asser takes liberties to exalt his subject on nearly every page! Taken with a grain of salt, both sources are thought to present a generally accurate view of Alfred, albeit with a decidedly rosy perspective.
As a scholar-king, Alfred reformed the laws of Wessex by bringing in other English kings’ statutes, processes, and rulings—if not always in clear harmony. Passages from Exodus and Acts, possibly translated by King Alfred’s own hand, played an important role in Alfred’s establishment of Wessex law, as did the codes of Mercia. With Christian Scripture and English tradition bound together, Alfred established the most enduring, holistic approach to jurisprudence in Anglo-Saxon history.
Yet the Vikings tested his learning with bloodshed. To truly earn the name “great,” he would have to withstand a very literal onslaught from the Great Heathen Army. By the time of his coronation, Alfred had already paid off an invading force. Only five years later, the Vikings again began raiding the countryside of southeastern England and reducing the Anglo-Saxon realms to ruin; by 877, only Wessex remained. As the “Last Kingdom,” Wessex and Alfred stood as the last English bulwark against the Scandinavian alliance. Forced to flee into the Somerset marshes after a surprise attack at Christmas, the light of his kingdom flickered. But King Alfred defied the odds and won a decisive victory over the Mycel Hæþen in May of 878, just before Pentecost. With their surrender, Guthrum, the leader of the Vikings occupying East Anglia, was baptized and permitted settlement in that territory. Alfred only saw one more invasion, which took place and was promptly turned back in 885—now with the help of Guthrum.
In the quiet spell between 885 and his death in 899, Alfred pursued learning and piety, closing out his days in contemplation. Alfred, the first true rex Anglorum, died at Winchester in a more peaceful England than he inherited. He was laid to rest a symbol of the noble, classical, Christian warrior-king, the ideal Medieval symbol.
Though only a minor note in most works of Medieval history and classical learning, Alfred is one of the most impressive examples of medieval scholarship, virtue, and courage. He is much overshadowed (in part perhaps thanks to the mythology of his ostensible predecessor, King Arthur), but offers us an example of courage, civic virtue, and jurisprudence—both the inheritor of the Greco-Roman world and primitive Church, and a model for their later heirs. To put it bluntly, most teachers are ignorant of the significance of Alfred. Teaching the Anglo-Saxon age is challenging: it does not easily fit in with modern ideas of the nation-state, as do rulers like Charlemagne or even the Popes. Nevertheless, he is truly worthy of the title “great,” not only in English annals but the classical classroom.
Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy these profiles of the Roman poet Ovid and the American author James Baldwin, or these essays from top CLT students on the subtleties of courage and the idea of utopia. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored.
Published on 13th July, 2022. Page image of a stained glass depiction of Alfred the Great from Bristol Cathedral, constructed in 1905; photo by Charles Eamer Kempe (source).