Alfred The Great

Alfred (849? – 26 October 899) (sometimes spelt AElfred) was king of England from 871 to 899, though at no time did he rule over the whole of the land. Alfred is famous for his defence of the kingdom against the Danes (Vikings), and gained the epithet "the Great" as a result (he is the only English monarch who is remembered as such). Details of his life are known as a result of a work by the Welsh scholar, Asser. A learned man, Alfred encouraged education and improved the kingdom's law system.

During the short reigns of his two eldest brothers, Ethelbald and Ethelbert, nothing is heard of Alfred. But with the accession of the third brother, Ethelred, in 866 the public life of Alfred begins, and he begins his great work of delivering England from the Danes. It is in this reign that Asser applies to Alfred the unique title of secundarius, which seems to show a position akin to that of the Celtic tanist, a recognized successor, closely associated with the reigning prince. It is likely that this arrangement was sanctioned by the Witenagemot, to guard against the danger of a disputed succession should Aethelred fall in battle. The arrangement of crowning a successor as co-king, however, is well-known among Germanic peoples, such as the Swedes, and the Franks, with whom the Anglo-Saxons had close ties (see diarchy and Germanic king).

In 868 Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucill, who is called ealdorman of the Gaini, a folk who dwelt in Lincolnshire about Gainsborough. She was the granddaughter of a former King of Mercia, and they had five or six children, one a daughter, Ethelfleda, who would become queen of Mercia in her own right.

The same year Alfred, fighting beside his brother Ethelred, made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Mercia from the pressure of the Danes. For nearly two years Wessex had a respite. But at the end of 870 the storm burst; and the year which followed has been rightly called "Alfred's year of battles."

Nine general engagements were fought with varying fortune, though the place and date of two of them have not been recorded. A successful skirmish at Englefield, Berkshire (31 December 870), was followed by a severe defeat at Reading (4 January 871), and this, four days later, by the brilliant victory of Ashdown, near Compton Beauchamp in Shrivenham Hundred.

On 22 January 871 the English were again defeated at Basing, and on 22 March 871 at Marton, Wiltshire, the two unidentified battles having perhaps occurred in the interval.

The history of the church under Alfred is most obscure. The Danish inroads had told heavily upon it; the monasteries had been special points of attack, and though Alfred founded two or three monasteries and imported foreign monks, there was no general revival of monasticism under him.

To the ruin of learning and education wrought by the Danes, and the practical extinction of the knowledge of Latin even among the clergy, the preface to Alfred's translation into Old English of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care bears eloquent witness. It was to remedy these evils that he established a court school, after the example of Charlemagne; for this he imported scholars like Grimbald and John the Saxon from Europe and Asser from South Wales; for this, above all, he put himself to school, and made the series of translations for the instruction of his clergy and people, most of which yet survive. These belong unquestionably to the latter of his reign, likely to the last four years, during which the chronicles are almost silent.

Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridion, which seems to have been merely a commonplace-book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. In this case the translation was made by Alfred's great friend Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, the king merely furnishing a foreword. The next work to be undertaken was Gregory's Pastoral Care, especially for the good of the parish clergy. In this Alfred keeps very close to his original; but the introduction which he prefixed to it is one of the most interesting documents of the reign, or indeed of English history. The next two works taken in hand were historical, the Universal History of Orosius and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The priority should likely be given to the Orosius, but the point has been much debated. In the Orosius, by omissions and additions, Alfred so remodels his original as to produce an almost new work; in the Bede the author's text is closely stuck to, no additions being made, though most of the documents and some other less interesting matters are omitted. Of late years doubts have been raised as to Alfred's authorship of the Bede translation. But the sceptics cannot be regarded as having proved their point.

We come now to what is in many ways the most interesting of Alfred's works, his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, the most popular philosophical handbook of the middle ages. Here again Alfred deals very freely with his original and though the late Dr. G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to Alfred himself, but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is solely Alfred's and highly characteristic of his genius. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: "My will was to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works." The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these the poems with which the original is interspersed are rendered into prose, in the other into alliterating verse. The authorship of the latter has been much disputed; but likely they also are by Alfred. Of the authenticity of the work as a whole there has never been any doubt.

Alfred died on 26 October 899, though the year is uncertain – but not 900 or 901 as was previously accepted. How he died is unknown.

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