Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Alfred the Great


George Vertue's 18th century lithograph of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great (at left) says a great deal about Alfred's status within British culture. Vertue depicts the king as a vigorous middle-aged king, at the height of his powers -- bearded, crowned and wearing an ermine-lined robe. For Vertue and his fellow Britons, Alfred is the archetype of English royalty.

Although he would not receive the title "Great" until the 16th century, Alfred's memory has persisted through history with almost Arthurian mythic proportions. Without doubt, he embodied the virtues that the English people often seem to cherish most: evident military might and scholarly diligence.

King Ethelwulf's youngest son would seem to have gained a taste for both at his father's knee, accompanying him on his pilgrimage to Rome to visit Pope Leo IV and his trip to the Frankish court of Charles the Bald. Although Ethelwulf was probably grooming Alfred for a religious career, when his older brother Ethelred died at the hands of the Danes in 871, the Witan council passed over Ethelred's two sons in favor of Alfred as the new king of the West Saxons.

Almost immediately, Alfred found himself locked in a flip-flopping series of battles with the Danes. He was not a man of great personal physical strength, but he was tactically adept, and though he kept the Danes at bay, he concluded that buying peace was better than wasting any further time with fighting by the end of the first year of his reign. He used the purchased peacetime to rebuild his army, which he began to use when the next wave of Danish chieftains began to move on him in 876.

In 878, a Danish army surprised Alfred at his court in Chippenham, causing Alfred to flee into the marshes. While he regrouped, legend had it that Alfred disguised himself as a harper, entering the Danish camp to spy, and incurring the wrath of a swineherd's wife for burning cakes left in his care. If true, Alfred was none the worse for the scolding, because later that year he maneuvered the Danes into a defeat at Ethandune.

During the peaceful years that followed, Alfred created 25 new fortifications around his kingdom, developed schools (decreeing that the sons of all freemen should learn to read and write in English, and then Latin), revised the law code of the old West Saxon king Ine and introduced it to his people, encouraged scholars to join his court, commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and even translated works from Latin into English (notably Gregory the Great's Pastoralis). By 885, Alfred had also developed the English navy into a formidable fleet, which helped him (along with those fortifications) to stave off the Danes during renewed onslaughts in 885 and from 893 to 897.

After putting the Danes away for one last time, at age 50, Alfred succumbed to a chronic illness that dogged him through much of his adulthood -- assumed by some to have been the royal malady, porphyria -- on this date in the year 899.

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