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Alfred [Ælfred]free

  • Patrick Wormald

Alfred (848/99–899)

silver penny, 871–99

© Copyright The British Museum

Alfred [Ælfred] (848/9–899), king of the West Saxons and of the Anglo-Saxons, was born at Wantage. He was the youngest of at least six children of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858) and of Osburh, daughter of Oslac, the king's butler (said to be descended from the family that founded the kingdom of the Isle of Wight). Three of his elder brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, and Æthelred, were successively kings of Wessex before him; his sister, Æthelswith, was wife to Burgred, king of the Mercians. In 868 he married Ealhswith (d. 902), daughter of a Mercian ealdorman, Æthelred Mucel, and of Eadburh. Their children were Æthelflæd, 'lady of the Mercians', Edward the Elder, king of the Anglo-Saxons, Æthelgifu, abbess of Shaftesbury, Ælfthryth, wife to Baudouin (II), count of Flanders, and Æthelweard. Among their grandsons were Æthelstan, Edmund, and Eadred, kings of the English; their many granddaughters were married into half the princely houses of Europe. Alfred's grandfather, Ecgberht, had been the first of his line since the later seventh century to be king of Wessex. His family vividly documents the ability of early medieval aristocrats to move in quite a short time from apparent obscurity to unprecedented power and glory.


From the perspective of a modern biography, the central point about King Alfred's life is that so much information is not available for any earlier Englishman, nor for any in the next two centuries. It is not usually possible to identify the birthplace or daughters of Anglo-Saxon kings, still less their in-laws. So high a level of documentation carries a danger of magnifying the king's image, and must itself be explained. The pre-eminent source is a seemingly contemporary life by his teacher and counsellor, the Welsh Bishop Asser. Although known to a few eleventh- and twelfth-century writers, it survived into modern times in only a single manuscript that was destroyed in 1731 by the fire in the Cotton Library. The sole access to it since the development of modern standards of scholarly enquiry has been through transcripts and editions made between c.1570 and 1722. For that reason, but also because of oddities in its presentation, and above all distaste for its account of the king's behaviour, the authenticity of the life has often been challenged. Yet to do so raises such problems in turn that there is really no option but to take it, with all its imperfections and difficulties, as the work of a man who came to know Alfred very well. That does not mean accepting all it says as literal truth. It does mean coming to terms with the fact that these things could be said by someone who influenced the king and was vastly impressed by him.

Second, and linked to Asser in that it was the main ingredient of his narrative, is a set of annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is itself a much debated source. It is extant in a series of vernacular manuscripts and in Latin renditions like Asser's. The versions that seem closest to its original form blend the chronological summary in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum with materials like the West Saxon genealogical regnal list (which prefaces some chronicle texts but was also transmitted separately), and with other annalistic information on the early church, the English settlements, and Wessex from the seventh to ninth centuries. There is a marked break in the chronicle's transmission in the early 890s, with the hand changing in the only contemporary copy, and the sundry texts tending to go separate ways thereafter; it is reasonably deduced that the ‘core’ chronicle was assembled about then. Linguistic analysis suggests that a series of compilers was involved. But it is hard to resist the suspicion that royal patronage stands somewhere behind a work whose theme may be read, and for many centuries was read, as the rise of the house of Alfred to the leadership of the English struggle with their Danish enemy. The activity of Danish armies increasingly dominates events as the story proceeds, with the first great battles following the alleged recognition of Ecgberht as Brytenwalda (‘Britain-ruler’) in succession to the kings said by Bede to have held imperium over the southern English; and with the first continuation of the ‘core’ chronicle offering a close account of Alfred's campaigns in 893–6. Most telling of all, perhaps, is the way that the annals of the 880s almost abandon English history to follow the continental progress of the Danish army that in 892 crossed to attack the English. It follows from all this that the chronicle, like Asser, is as good or bad a source as anything connected with Alfred would be. It may be trusted for insight into royal views but was hardly disinterested.

Other sources pose less risk of a massaged record but still tend to raise Alfred's profile. His ‘law book’ is the first English legislation of its type for at least one century and perhaps two. It is matched by a short statement of the legal terms agreed between Alfred's realm and the Danes to the east. Each is a further sign of determination that his rule be recorded in writing. On the other hand, the surviving charters of his reign are strangely few: a mere twenty-one for the area he directly ruled, of which just fifteen (ignoring a few palpable forgeries) are records featuring Alfred's name, six from Kent and nine from Wessex. The contrast with his immediate predecessors is clear: the reigns of his elder brothers produced twenty-one extant charters, eleven Kentish, in under thirteen years; his father's nineteen-year rule saw a minimum of twenty-five. The dearth of Alfredian records is, however, more than compensated by the document known as the Burghal Hidage, which shows every sign of being an official memorandum (though at one or more removes from the original) of the chain of forts that the king organized, together with arrangements for their upkeep and defence. Moreover, a text of the king's will was preserved. Quite apart from the important light it sheds on the politics of Alfred's close family, and one or two intriguing personalia, this is the earliest record of the resources in money and land at the disposal of an early English king.

Lastly, but above all, there is what Alfred wrote himself. Not all the works sometimes attributed to him were his: some, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself, were clearly by other hands, if probably done under his aegis. But there is no good reason to doubt that the four books that stand in his name, plus one other, were in a real sense composed by him: these are his law book, together with more or less free translations of Pope Gregory's Book of Pastoral Rule, of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, of Augustine's Soliloquies, and of the first fifty psalms. The only books for centuries either way to express the ideas of a secular monarch, they on their own establish that there was something extraordinary about Alfred. They would be grounds enough to study him closely, even if his other achievements were less epoch-making.

‘Deeds’ and their setting: Ecgberht's dynasty

Early medieval kings and their historians inherited from the Roman empire the notion that a ruler's gesta, by which was especially meant his victories, were the most important thing about him. Alfred's were of quite special importance, because they were the foundation for the eventual emergence of a kingdom of the English. But any account of them should begin with notice of their background. The near monopoly exerted by the Danish wars over the ninth-century English narrative has obscured the politics that set the pattern of Alfred's career and perhaps of his character.

The kingdom ruled by Alfred's predecessors was almost certainly a more loose-knit structure than appears from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's retrospect. Its kings from the mid-seventh century to the early ninth were all credited with descent from the alleged founders of the kingdom; but there is little to suggest any close relationship between successive kings. The evidence is at least compatible with a kingship disputed and/or exchanged between the realm's chief families. That might help to explain one of the strangest things about Alfred's grandfather, Ecgberht (r. 802–39): the hints, none in itself conclusive but cumulatively persuasive, that whatever his West Saxon ancestry, his background was essentially Kentish; his father seems to have been among Kent's last independent kings. After they wrested south-east England from Mercian control (825–7), Ecgberht and his son Æthelwulf were more careful of Kentish sensitivities than were Mercian overlords. Whether or not they were outsiders, they did break with West Saxon tradition in another way: Ecgberht insisted on being succeeded by his son, as no West Saxon ruler since 641 demonstrably had. Æthelwulf's accession was perhaps buttressed by his unction at the Council of Kingston in Ecgberht's final year; until at least 979, Kingston would remain the site for royal inaugurations, just as after 1066 kings were (preferably) crowned at Westminster since it was thence that English kingship took its new direction. One reason for Æthelwulf's marriage to Osburh was no doubt to strengthen his position by an alliance with one of the chief West Saxon princely families.

If this is the correct construction to put upon the policy of Ecgberht and Æthelwulf, it very nearly failed. Asser reveals, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle perhaps typically does not, that when Æthelwulf came back in 856 from a journey to Rome and the West Frankish court (accompanied by the young Alfred), he was faced with a revolt by his eldest surviving son. Æthelbald may have been alienated by his father's return with a fresh royal bride, Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald (d. 877), and potential mother of illustrious competitors for the throne: Æthelbald eventually married her himself. But his supporters were the ealdorman of Somerset and the bishop of Sherborne, pillars of the West Saxon establishment; and the outcome could have effectively broken the Kentish connection. By what Asser thought superhuman forbearance, but what looks as much like an admission of defeat, Æthelwulf left Wessex to Æthelbald, and settled for rule of his family's original south-eastern base. Partition was to continue on his death in 858, with the accession to Kent of his next son, Æthelberht.

Nevertheless, Æthelwulf did not forget the dynastic imperative. Two years before they journeyed together to Rome, he had sent four-year-old Alfred on a visit to the pope. The chronicle's story that Leo IV had consecrated him to kingship has naturally raised doubts. But a letter of Leo survives to show that he did make Alfred a ‘consul’; a procedure that in other early medieval contexts was easily confused with royal ceremony. The inspiration for the episode was pretty clearly the papal unction in 781 of two infant sons of Charlemagne (742–814), Pippin and Louis, who went on to rule Italy and Aquitaine respectively. Yet had Æthelwulf meant to subdivide his kingdom in 853, he should have sent all junior sons. His move is best read as an effort to underpin his dynasty by a gesture in favour of its youngest and least secure scion. A complex scheme in his will as relayed by Alfred's own seems to have bestowed on his younger sons enough of the land that was his to dispose of (his ‘bookland’) to maintain them in strength and style. From the perspective of the 850s, the danger of a fraternally disputed throne may have paled beside that of the displacement of the whole dynasty by one of the lineages that had previously aspired to kingship of Wessex.

Alfred's accession

As it turned out, Æthelbald's childless death in 860 gave Ecgberhtian strategy a second chance. Æthelred and Alfred temporarily transferred their endowments to Æthelberht, so endorsing his rule over Wessex as well as Kent. When Æthelberht too died heirless, in 865, the arrangement was repeated in Æthelred's favour, though not without hesitation on Alfred's part. Æthelred did leave sons at his own early death in 871, but they were so young that, in the dire emergency of the moment, Alfred's accession could not be challenged. He was, however, obliged to guarantee his nephews' previously agreed property rights; and here lay a foretaste of the trouble that would erupt between his son and nephew when he died. Alfred's dynasty, therefore, was neither monolithic nor stable. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and still more Asser, liked to dwell on the disastrous outcome of dynastic splintering in other kingdoms under Scandinavian attack. The problem could have imperilled Alfred too, as it did his heir.

A second corollary of Alfred's background is more elusive but possibly more important. In the nature of ninth-century politics, there were at least two views as to what to do with younger sons. If Æthelwulf were bent on maintaining Alfred's kingly potential, others (most obviously his elder brothers and their contacts) would wish to steer him in other directions. The counter-influences may have included the boys' mother, who in Asser's famous tale gave Alfred a book of 'Saxon' poems as reward for precociously memorizing it, thereby prefiguring his scholarship. Alfred, in other words, may very well have grown up under conflicting impulses. The life of a warrior and of a clerk had never yet been fully blended in the Germanic kingdoms of northern Europe. In Alfred they were. But he paid a price in loss of inner peace. One of Asser's most obscure—and to doubters of his authenticity suspect—chapters gives a long account of a series of illnesses that Alfred actually prayed to be inflicted upon him as a penitential discipline, though not so as to disfigure him or impede the performance of his duties. (These disorders are now diagnosed as culminating in Crohn's disease.) Since the disorder flared again on his wedding day, it is a fair deduction that it was fuelled by a conflict in Alfred's mind between secular and clerical callings. If so, the conflict was never resolved. But it was arguably the key to his unique creativity.

The Danish assault

Over the last generation, studies of ninth-century Scandinavian action have been driven by debate as to whether ‘vikings’ were as destructive of life and property as is suggested in sources produced by their Christian victims. There is no doubt that Scandinavian expansion, like most of history's major developments, was a complex process with many-sided effects. Nor is there much doubt that the typical activity of vikings, properly so-called, was raiding in quest of moveable wealth, whether in the form of treasure itself or of captives for ransom or sale as slaves. Most of those who experienced such visitations did indeed recover from them in due course. None the less, there were times when raiders consolidated their efforts under formidable leadership, and on those occasions the outcome could be something like a conquest. There is reason to believe that the armies which descended on Anglo-Saxon Britain from 865 were expeditions of this more ambitious type. A persistent but elusive tradition represents the first 'great army' as led by Ivarr the Boneless, a hero of later Scandinavian saga, and his brothers Hálfdan and Ubba.

To appreciate the threat that Alfred faced, it is only necessary to contemplate this army's record in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumbria was overrun and its kings killed in 866–7. East Anglia followed suit in 869–70. Mercia was reduced to a west midlands rump after attacks in 868–9 and 872–4, and King Burgred departed for Rome. Native kings were initially replaced by indigenous rivals, but before long Scandinavian kings and ‘earls’ took control. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explicitly records the organized settlement of armies in Northumbria (876), Mercia (877), and East Anglia (880). There is ample linguistic and toponymic evidence for a Danish and Norwegian presence in Yorkshire, the east midlands, East Anglia, and also the Lake District. Scandinavian political ascendancy in these areas lasted at most for eighty years, so it is hard to imagine what could have had that effect if not relatively numerous settlers. Many stories of the desecration of churches are late and unreliable; Christianity survived and soon enough spread to the invaders. But the succession to all bishoprics bar York and Lindisfarne was disrupted, and nearly every church lost all its muniments. Whether or not Scandinavians took their paganism seriously, and the family of Ivarr seems to have done, their arrival clearly did not make for a thriving church.

If, therefore, Alfred was not fighting for the existence of English identity and Christian civilization, as Victorians thought, much was at stake for his people, for their spiritual guides, and for himself. Contemporary Anglo-Saxons could indeed have had as strong a sense of impending catastrophe as Victorians thought appropriate. They did not need to know much about their past to be aware of what a pagan people, their very selves, had once done to the Britons; the word wealh, which increasingly meant ‘slave’ as well as ‘Welshman’, was a reminder. Scandinavians for their part wanted what Germanic invaders usually wanted: a political context they could dominate, land on which to settle their followers, and treasure with which to cement their warbands and prime their less predatory enterprises. They would take as much of lowland Britain as they could get at less than ruinous cost. If these objectives made them difficult to get rid of, steady resistance could induce them to go off in search of easier targets.

In the winter and early spring of 870–71, before Alfred became king of the West Saxons, their forces fought five times against the Danish enemy and lost thrice. A month after his accession, Alfred fought again and again lost. The clashes included one on the Berkshire downs (then called Ashdown) which English sources represent as a spectacular victory, perhaps because it was Alfred's first; but the ensuing defeats took the Danes into the heartland of Wessex, into what is now Wiltshire. It was not because they were beaten in battle or outmanoeuvred that they left Wessex alone for the next five years. They were simply sufficiently discouraged by months of fighting to come to terms—not improbably in return for what other ages would call danegeld. But the real crisis had merely been put off.

In early 871 the first 'great army' had been joined by a second force under Guthrum. It was this army, when Hálfdan had settled the first in the north, that conquered Mercia. Alfred, who may well have thought that the West Saxons had invited the 870–71 assault by the assistance they had given Burgred in 868, took no steps to stop them. But Guthrum's force had not yet lost its momentum. From a base in Cambridge it launched attacks on Wareham and then on Exeter (876–7). The upshot was another fragile peace: oaths were sworn, hostages given, and silver paid. As a result, it was what was left of Mercia that was shared out. But almost at once Guthrum (using knowledge of the church calendar that was one viking asset) nearly captured Alfred in twelfth night carousal at Chippenham. The situation may have looked more serious in retrospect than it really was. The ealdorman of Devon was able to repel a further attack from the north. Alfred himself made his refuge in the Somerset wetlands a base for guerrilla operations. Yet the crisis was grave enough. The varying texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle add up to the assertion that much of Wessex was subjected and settled; analogy with the fate of other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms shows what that could have meant.

There is thus a symbolic truth in the mélange of legends that associated this period with the consolatory ministrations of saints. One of these stories, in an eleventh-century life of St Neot, was the origin of the tale of how, brooding on 'God's just judgment', Alfred was berated by the wife of a swineherd for letting her loaves (or ‘cakes’) burn. In any event, he did draw fresh inspiration from somewhere. By early May 878 he had rallied enough of an army from the shires of Somerset, Wiltshire, and West Hampshire to rout a Danish force at Edington and put Guthrum under siege. The Danish king was probably as completely surprised as Alfred had been at another Wiltshire royal estate four months before. He surrendered and was baptized with thirty leading followers.

The final crisis

There is an obvious case for seeing Edington as a decisive victory. On 9 May 957 King Eadwig's council gathered there to issue a charter which (in a unique formula) invoked divine goodness to his ancestors (AS chart., S 646). It looks like an anniversary celebration. But the problem with making so much of a single battle is that Scandinavian assailants were often beaten and baptized elsewhere without much effect on their behaviour, let alone the entire national history of the victors. Guthrum's army was still intact enough to be 'honoured with goods' (ASC, s.a. 878), and to stage a leisurely withdrawal which for a whole year took it no further than Cirencester. But it did at last retire to East Anglia, which was now itself shared out, Guthrum becoming king with the baptismal name of Æthelstan. The crucial point about Edington was that it once and for all established that Wessex could not be so easily conquered as the other English kingdoms. The Danes did better to be content with what they had. Settlement released the steam from the second Danish army, as it had from the first.

Unfortunately, it was the way of the viking world that a third army was immediately at hand. After exploratory contact with Guthrum's army in the aftermath of Alfred's victory, its significant reaction was to transfer its attention to the continent. Its movements in the fragmenting Frankish empire over the next dozen years were duly noted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as if in awareness that it might return. So, in late 892, it did. But there were major differences between the war that followed, anyway as described by the chronicle, and that of the 870s. The first was that the Danes found it harder to break into Wessex or west Mercia. Early in 893 they were within 10 miles of where they had been victorious just before Alfred's accession, but were beaten back and besieged on an islet in the Thames by an army under Alfred's son. In 877 they had had to be negotiated out of an occupied Exeter, but in 893 they took so long besieging it that the king came up with a relieving force. A second point was that this army was almost continuously shadowed by English troops. Even at Buttington, on the upper Severn, an alliance of West Saxons, Mercians, and Welsh bottled it up and drove it back to the Thames estuary. The cycle was repeated twice more all along the Anglo-Danish border. This time around, it was besieged English who sallied out to attack, Danes who were successfully blockaded. Their very ships became a wasting asset as a fortified bridge blocked their descent of the Lea in 895. The emerging impression, and it may not be much exaggerated, is of the hunters hunted. In the end, the third army gave up the struggle, as had the other two. The difference was that they had no new kingdom in lowland Britain to show for it. Those not accommodated among their predecessors in the north and east went back to Francia. If, as is likely, they formed the nucleus of the future duchy of Normandy, the English would one day hear from them again; but not before they had formed their own kingdom.

Military initiatives

The course of the 893–6 campaigns shows quite clearly that much had been done since the 870s to stiffen resistance. Historians isolate three military ‘reforms’ of Alfred as making all the difference. One, reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's annal for 893, is the division of the fyrd (‘militia’) into two 'so that always half were at home and half on service'. Nothing is here said to imply an interchange of swords and ploughshares. It is not stated that the policy was new. But the arrangement does betray a cast of mind which will reappear in the next section. A second, with a special appeal to later patriots, was the king's naval initiative. The 896 annal is emphatic that he built ships to an enlarged sixty-oar design of his own. Presumably because of their very size and lack of manoeuvrability, they ran aground on their first outing, their crews incurring heavy losses from the ensuing struggle in the mud. The Anglo-Saxons, themselves the vikings of the post-Roman era, hardly needed lessons in the value of maritime operations. But in so far as the naval system of later Saxon England was certainly predicated on sixty-oared ships, Alfred was the father of an English navy.

Much the most important of Alfred's strategic departures, however, both in immediate effects and in longer-term results, was the third: the chain of forts around his kingdom, from Devon and Somerset to Sussex and Surrey, which is recorded in the Burghal Hidage. The hidage as it stands certainly dates from his son Edward's second decade. But it was no less clearly undergoing revision as it took its extant form. That Alfred initiated the scheme it attests is strongly implied by what Asser says and generally agreed by archaeologists. The scheme provided a fortified site, whether built more or less from scratch or reused Roman or Iron Age defences, within 20 miles of every West Saxon settlement, and in particular along Wessex's coastal or riverine perimeter. Each was allotted a number of ‘hides’, which meant in this context the service of an equivalent number of individuals on the building, maintenance, and defence of the wall. One version supplies a formula to calculate the personnel needed for any given length of wall; it is a striking and now famous fact that the defensive circuit of most (if not all) of the list's sites is about what the manpower yielded by the hidage formula would have covered. Some of these places look like emergency refuges that could never have been viable settlements. Others, like Winchester, seem to have been planned as the towns they did become. Upwards of 27,000 men, if the figures are credible, could be mobilized to implement the scheme. One need look no further for the reason why the Danes of the 890s made so little headway in Alfred's kingdom; nor for proof of his organizing ability.

The making of England

Alfred's success also had a political dimension. The mangled Mercian kingdom was handled with both firmness and tact. Its ruler from the early 880s was Æthelred, who was in no formal context allowed the title of king. But he did not always have to defer to his ‘lord’ King Alfred, whose daughter he married and who (it is said) gave him responsibility for the long-since Mercian town of London. Æthelred played a crucial role in the fighting of 893–6, not just in defence of Mercia but in reinforcing his brother-in-law Edward. Asser gives the outline of a complex web of alliances that brought most Welsh kings into Alfred's camp; like Æthelred, Welshmen fought at Buttington. Less immediately productive feelers were put out towards the north, to the Danes of what is now Yorkshire and perhaps to the community of St Cuthbert. But Alfred's most important (or best recorded) negotiations were with Guthrum. A text of some date after Edington and before Guthrum's death in 890 traces a frontier between their peoples and fixes terms for their relationship in matters of homicide, trade, and fugitives. Importantly, it was a treaty of equals. But here Alfred also took a major further step. He headed 'the councillors of all the English people [Angelcynnes]' (English Historical Documents, 1.380).

Likewise, at the time when London was ceded to Æthelred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle asserts of Alfred that 'all Angelcyn except what was under subjection to the Danes submitted to him' (ASC, s.a. 886). Some of his charters now called him 'king of the Anglo-Saxons', the point presumably being that he was lord of (Anglian) west Mercians as well as West Saxons. But 'Angelcyn' has a deeper resonance than that. In Alfred's writings of the 890s, it in effect translated Bede's (gens Anglorum—‘the English people’). Asser went further yet (perhaps beyond even the king's vision) in hailing him as 'ruler of all Christians of the island of Britain'. The priority in the wars of the 870s and in the burghal system of the 880s was of course the defence of the kingdom he inherited. But his success, in combination with that of Danish armies everywhere else, opened the road to a hegemony of which his grandfather could only dream; and rule of ‘the English’ had all the ideological impetus of Bede's great history of how that people had first come to God. From the near disaster of 878 to the vision of the 890s was a transformation to stir the blood, even had it not led on to the creation of a state that still endures.

Government: administration and household

Part of the foundation for Alfred's military success thus lay in skilled administration. The hide, key component of the burghal scheme, was, with its Celtic and continental counterparts, the portent of pre-bureaucratic rule in Europe. It involved sophisticated assessment of the resources in men and materials extractable from units of land: a calculation that in its earlier days can only have been done in the head. Totals, multiples, and fractions of hidage measured services due and payments owed. The indispensable skill of early medieval government was mental arithmetic. Alfred's government was good at it. The symmetry in his will's disposal of money between his family, churchmen, and magnates bears out Asser's highly coloured account of the allocation of his revenue and of the duty roster in his household. Here (as in Charlemagne's will, known to Asser, so presumably to Alfred, through its quotation by Einhard, the emperor's biographer), is a complex parcelling of labour and reward whose logic stands out when put down on paper in figures. Of the sums bequeathed by his will, half is split between his two sons. The other half is distributed in a ratio of 9:6:5 among his close family, secular following, and Christian causes respectively. It is the same sort of scheme as Asser describes, the main difference being that Christian causes got an eighth rather than Asser's half (though the four causes that divide God's share are similar in the will and in Asser).

Asser's record of the cyclical allotment of household tasks may also err on the visionary side: it owes something to the account of Solomon's arrangements in the book of Kings. But it also corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's report of Alfred's fyrd organization; and a post-conquest source preserves a garbled account of how the care of the royal chapel and relics was arranged in triple shifts, just like the deployment of Alfred's retainers according to Asser. That there were some important changes in the royal household appears from the witness lists of his family's charters. 'Priests' are unusually evident already under his father and brothers, and in Edward's early years they become plentiful; among their names are those said by Asser to have been Alfred's recruits. The assumption would be that they served the king's chapel and ‘school’.

Resources and enrichment

Two other aspects of Alfred's government come in here. One is his accumulating wealth. A total of 2000 silver pounds is distributed by his will. This is only what he was free to bequeath, but is even so twenty-five times the size of the period's largest known silver hoard. A king's wealth in the early middle ages might have a variety of sources. Alfred must have been milking his erstwhile Scandinavian enemies as they had once milked him. Some of his south-western forts were well placed to exploit the local tin, lead, and silver mines. Rents from ‘borough’ tenures would be a main source of revenue for his successors. Clearing vikings from the western seas fostered commerce that paid toll at West Saxon ports. In any event, the change in Alfred's political fortunes is vividly revealed by his coinage. In the 870s it was heavily debased, like that of Mercia with which it was closely linked. There is then (one would think after Edington, though numismatists incline to date it a bit before) recovery to a real silver standard, and from about the time of the 886 ‘submission’ a silver penny heavier than any before.

This evidence for Alfred's wealth is in marked counterpoint to a feature of his government noted in the discussion of sources: the paucity of his charters. Some of the blame for the dearth must lie with the decline of learning that Alfred bemoaned: west midland churches, home of several of the scholars he enrolled, had a relatively healthier charter output. By contrast, Kent, the source of most earlier ninth-century documents, was entering a phase when its clerks were evidently unable to draft them properly. But there may also be a foretaste of his son's reign: after a dozen charters in Edward's early years, most linked with Winchester, the series ceases altogether until after his death—a development with no parallel in Anglo-Saxon history. Particularly suggestive is that many of the charters of Alfred and Edward are of the same type: exchanges of lands with churches, from which the churches were far from obviously gainers. One remarkable transaction (AS chart., S 354) saw Alfred deferring the implementation of his father's bequests to Winchester in return for letting them off the share of the 'tribute that our whole people was accustomed to pay the pagans' in the 870s; then allowing the bequest to go ahead after 879 in exchange for a large (and highly strategic) estate along the northern scarp of the Berkshire downs. Æthelwulf's one-time bequest was also just about all the land that Winchester got from Alfred's will. According to Asser, he founded a monastery at Athelney and a convent at Shaftesbury. But Athelney was always a rather marginal foundation and Shaftesbury came to regard its true founder as Alfred's granddaughter-in-law. Overall, the evidence for Alfred's husbanding of his resources creates the suspicion that when Asser hymned his generosity to God, it was what he (and perhaps the king) wished were possible, not what was done in fact.

Law making

The king's law book is quite another matter. Here, the laws laid down by Alfred and his councillors are followed by those in the name of his predecessor Ine, and prefaced by a translation of those given by God to Moses. With one or two important exceptions, Alfred's own laws are, as he claimed in his preface, traditional both in subject matter and expression. In several ways they are more like the very earliest Anglo-Saxon legislation than Ine's, and they look like statements of custom only marginally, if at all, adjusted. But the whole of Alfred's law book was greater than the sum of its parts. By appending Ine's code, despite the contradictions arising from his own revisions of it, he highlighted the distinguished legislative record of his dynasty and of his people. In his preface, he also acknowledged the inspiration of laws made in the time of Æthelberht of Kent and Offa of Mercia: the former was the first English king to be baptized and his code is extant; the latter received the legates of Pope Gregory's successor in 786, and the edict they issued may well be what Alfred had in mind. Crucial moments in English relations with God were subtly evoked at the same time as tribute was paid to other than West Saxon law makers. But in addition, West Saxon and other English legislation is juxtaposed with that of God himself; and the linking passage in Alfred's preface is so constructed as to bring out the continuity as well as the contrasts between the dispensations of the present and of Sinai. What is at least implied is that the laws of Angelcyn are themselves laws of God, as befitted those of another ‘chosen people’ that had received its own ‘land of promise’ in return for its obedience to the divine will. The ideological charge inherent in the idea of Angelcyn is given new and legally binding force.

That explains the most important innovation amid so much that was traditional in Alfred's laws: the opening clauses on the keeping of 'oath and pledge'. A code of Edward just a few years later shows that oath and pledge was something sworn by 'the whole people', and that it covered not just fidelity to the king but obedience to his law and God's: criminals were perjured. From the final years of Alfred's reign come the first hints of the fierce criminal jurisdiction enforced by his successors, and itself the germ of the cruel notion of felony: that all serious crime is in effect treasonable. Such severity was condign. God's law for God's people deserved no less. It was with Alfred's law making and its ideology that English law began to become a system set apart from every other.

The reading and writing of books

Asser's last chapter describes Alfred's dealings with his judicial officers. They were to remedy their shortcomings by learning sapientia (‘wisdom’), which was to say that they were to learn to read, as the king had. ‘Wisdom’ did not mean knowledge of the law book: Asser does not mention it. The language used in this chapter is the same as that which earlier describes Alfred's own quest for a sapientia that is unambiguously the wisdom of Solomon. Solomon was wise because he knew that wisdom itself was more important than the good things of this world, which flowed only from knowledge of their strictly relative value. To be wise was to adopt God's priorities, as revealed above all in the Bible. That idea of wisdom observably drove Alfred's programme of spiritual and cultural revival and inspired his own astonishing writings.

These writings, like the law book, are not described by Asser, who was writing in 893 and who does refer to a version of Pope Gregory's Dialogues by Werferth, bishop of Worcester (which is extant). Presumably, then, most of the Alfredian œuvre was the work of his last years. The programme's objectives are set out in a preface to a translation of Gregory's Pastoral Rule, whose relatively unevolved style suggests that, apart perhaps from the law book, it was Alfred's first work. The argument (English Historical Documents, 1.818) is that learning had once flourished among Angelcyn, who as a result 'prospered in warfare and wisdom'. Now it had declined to the point that very few could render Latin into English; and 'remember what temporal punishments came upon us when we neither loved [wisdom] … nor allowed it to others'. The critical issue here is not whether Alfred drew a blacker picture of contemporary learning than was truly warranted, but that he was looking back to the golden outlines of the one drawn by Bede. For Alfred, as implicitly for Bede, it was the wisdom and so warfare of all Englishmen that was at stake. The English really would go the way of the Britons and Israelites if, like Britons and Israelites, they forgot what God expected of them. The revival of learning was as badly needed as the building of forts.

The preface shows how Alfred proposed to set about this revival. An initial stage was to establish a court of scholars, as Charlemagne had; and the preface acknowledges the help of four visitors. One was Asser himself; the way that his account of his summons follows the lines of Charlemagne's recruitment of Alcuin (d. 804) in Alcuin's life suggests that such parallels were in the air. Another was Alfred's archbishop, Plegemund, like Werferth a product of the evidently superior Mercian sphere of learning. But the two most important actually were from the Carolingian realm: John the Old Saxon who, as such, is likely to have known what the Carolingian Renaissance did for the development of Saxon and High German vernaculars; and Grimbald of St Bertin, who was sent to the king by Fulk, archbishop of Rheims, and who should thus have been conscious of the profuse writings of Fulk's predecessor, Hincmar (d. 882), on Frankish law, government, and history.

Another Carolingian expedient was an educational system. But Alfred's differed in three ways from Charlemagne's. First, the emphasis was on a school at court itself rather than in the kingdom's major churches. Second, what is attested for Charlemagne only by later stories is stated by Asser and implied by Alfred's preface: children of lesser as well as noble birth were schooled there. And third, above all, schooling was to begin in the vernacular, not for its own sake but, as Alfred said, to lay foundations on which Latin learning could then be built in those continuing to 'higher rank'. There is some reason to think that the ‘Alfredian Renaissance’, like its Carolingian counterpart, went part of the way towards producing a cadre of educated aristocrats. More obvious was an effect somewhat other than that intended: the vernacular received such a boost that English now became a language of prose literature, with all that was to mean for its survival when its place was taken for three centuries after 1066 by Latin and French.

The most obvious outcome of Alfred's movement, however, was Alfredian literature. Asser finds his niche here. First and foremost a work of insular learning, the life was also influenced by Carolingian writings on kingship, including Einhard and the 'mirror of princes' by the Irishman Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840×51–860×74). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, though not very like the Frankish royal annals, may derive general inspiration from their Rheims continuation by Hincmar. Neither of these works comes in the category of what Alfred says that he was having translated as 'books necessary for all men to know' (English Historical Documents, 1.819). The Pastoral Rule, whose preface lays out his whole scheme, clearly did. So, presumably, did two complementary works of history that are not attributed to the king himself and were probably by court scholars: a translation of Orosius's History Against Pagans, which gives world history a strongly confessional slant; and one (by a Mercian) of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, where the underlying thesis of the Pastoral Rule preface receives full expression. Equally significant are artefacts. The ‘Alfred jewel’ was found in Somerset in 1693; it bears the legend '+AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN' ('Alfred had me made'), is in the style of the court atelier, and shows a figure most plausibly interpreted as Christ personifying wisdom. A no less characteristic piece that could be from the same workshop was a sword found at Abingdon in 1874; the hilt is adorned with the evangelist symbols, as befitted a weapon for God's soldiers. A third such work is the Fuller brooch, its iconography very clearly linked with ideas conveyed by Alfredian literature.

But important and fascinating as are all these works, they hardly compare with the record of the Carolingian Renaissance. What gives Alfred's movement its unique distinction is his own part in it. No Carolingian king is known to have put quill to parchment; Einhard explicitly says that Charlemagne was unable to do so. But the four books which have a preface or epilogue that ascribes them to Alfred share a consistent (if perceptibly developing) vocabulary and syntax. To argue that Alfred may not actually have written these books is to split hairs; more certainly than any other work of Europe's middle ages, they bear the impress of a single, royal, mind. The two that most merit notice are the Gregory and the Boethius. The first is a fairly literal translation of Gregory's treatise on the life and tasks of the bishop. But it has been observed that the line between episcopal and secular government, already eroded by Gregory's regular references to Old Testament kings (especially Solomon), is further blurred by Alfred. A book about how to be a bishop becomes one about how to be a king. The king's pursuit of learning and wish to impart it to others is thereby clarified. That was just what Gregory expected of bishops.

But much of the Pastoral Rule is devoted to the officeholder's besetting sin: the temptations of worldly pomp. Gregory's remedy was contemplation of true, other-worldly, values. It may well be that Alfred's other works were not 'for all men to know', but (as implied by a manuscript transmission more restricted than the Gregory) studies for personal use. Augustine's Soliloquies is professedly contemplative; the psalms were the staple of monastic meditation. As for the Boethius: what could be a better reminder of the transitoriness of glory than a book written by a fallen minister under sentence of death? The main strands picked out by the justly intensive study given to Alfred's Boethius are its debt to Carolingian (even perhaps Welsh) commentaries on the Consolation, which is clear enough but can be exaggerated; and the realism, even secularity, of Alfred's paraphrase compared with the original. Alfred of course wrote as a Germanic aristocrat with a full appreciation of power's imperatives. But his objective remains a focus on a good greater than power. Where Boethius turned a nice Hellenistic phrase about honour being given not to virtues by office but to office by virtue, Alfred is moved to the Solomonic observation that power is wisdom's reward. In a sense, therefore, Alfred's books hold the answer to why he wrote them. They instructed him to do so. Gregory the Great was, after God, the first maker of Angelcyn in that he was the architect of its conversion. Would-be kings of Angelcyn must rule and live as he had taught.

Significance and character

Alfred died on 26 October 899. He was barely fifty. His successor was his son Edward, though only after a challenge from Æthelwold, son of Æthelred, who called in the Danes of the north and east. About 901 Edward buried his father in the New Minster which he was founding at Winchester; the story went that Alfred planned the foundation and that his ghost insisted that he be moved there from the cathedral, where he had first been buried. It is needless to endorse all that has been thought of Alfred as history transmuted into myth. The historical record plainly establishes that he was among the most remarkable rulers in the annals of human government. Posterity required what it seeks of any national hero: a figure matching the preoccupations of the moment. The late medieval Alfred founds a college, like other monarchs of that age. The sixteenth-century Alfred's fosterage of vernacular devotion led Archbishop Parker, Queen Elizabeth's first archbishop of Canterbury, to collect Alfredian manuscripts and publish Asser: an early step in Alfred's climb to an eminence where ‘the Great’ follows his name almost as automatically as in that of Charlemagne. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Alfred of course builds ships (and makes clocks): 'Rule Britannia' was written for Alfred: a Masque in 1740 (with words by James Thomson and David Mallet and music by Thomas Arne). The Alfred of E. A. Freeman in the Dictionary of National Biography did more than save, build, and enlighten the English nation. An embodiment of Victorian virtues, he met 'with triumph and disaster', and treated 'those two impostors just the same'. The story of Alfred and the cakes is one of the best known in English history.

Yet there is more to all this than a need to father present values on past heroes. Most of the Alfreds of later ages are to be found in the sources. The encomium nearest his own time, that of his kinsman Æthelweard, stresses just what Asser singled out as abnormal: his learning. Rather than reject the Victorian icon, as modern scholars so typically have, its pigments should be explored. That Alfred was out of the ordinary is argued by the amount that is known, and put beyond doubt by what is known of his own mind. The clue to the phenomenon of Alfred lies squarely in its extreme rarity. When stories like Asser's were told elsewhere in the ninth and tenth centuries, it was in saints' lives like that of the eccentric Count Gerald of Aurillac. Asser's is not a saint's life, because Alfred chose to be less (or more) than a saint. But his biography testifies to the pressures that might have made him one. Throughout the Carolingian era, intellectuals framed a programme for secular life which, Einhard apart, made scant concessions to the norms of the battlefield or bedroom. The laymen who took it on board needed upbringings as ambiguous as Alfred's perhaps was; they were predictably few and strange. Alfred attained the standards of the intelligentsia in that he wrote books. But the culture of classical and patristic Rome was not easily reconciled with that of the northern warrior, to which he was also called, and which was at a premium in the prolonged crisis of his reign. The resulting tensions readily explain the disciplinary bodily affliction for which he prayed. Yet Alfred absorbed those tensions. The resilient intellectual in politics who could glimpse the political potential of Bede's ideal of Englishness also fathered five children. And it was to Ealhswith that, in an unmistakably personal touch, he bequeathed the places of his birth and of his two greatest victories.


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  • BL, Add. MS 47967
  • CCC Cam., MS 173
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Hatton 20 [copy]


  • silver penny, 871–99, BM [see illus.]
  • miniature in historiated initial, 1321, BL, Cotton MS Claudius D.ii, fol. 5r
  • portrait, 17th
  • Count Gleichen, statue, 1877, market place, Wantage
  • H. Thornycroft, statue, 1901, Winchester

Wealth at Death

2000 silver pounds; also lands: will, S 1507; Domesday book

English Historical Review
Proceedings of the British Academy
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society