One of the greatest kings to ever grace the throne of England, Alfred lived in a time of terrible trial for his country. Born in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 849, Alfred was the son of the Aethelwulf, the King of Wessex (or, “West Saxon”, one of several smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into which the island of England was at that time divided). Alfred’s childhood was relatively peaceful, but even at that point the ravages of the Vikings had begun to hit England. Their first incursion had been against the isolated monastery on Lindisfarne in the year of the incarnation 793, but by the third decade of the ninth century they were growing more bold and their raids more widespread and destructive. In 865 they had conquered the neighboring kingdom of Northumbria. Five years later they had advanced into the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia.
Alfred was always a bright boy, loving Christian truth and the cause of learning. From a very early age, according to Asser, his major biographer, Alfred desired a liberal arts education but was for many years hindered from achieving it due to the tumultuous circumstances the English faced.:”(Asser states that Alfred was unable to even read until he was twelve, and that this was because of the “shameful negligence of his parents and tutors.” Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge [Suffolk, England: The Chaucer Press, 1984], pg. 75.)”:
Alfred’s love of godly learning was so impressive to others that Asser notes “In this respect he resembled the holy, highly esteemed and exceedingly wealthy Solomon…”:”(Ibid., pg. 92.)”: Later in life, during the periods of relative peace his victories over the Vikings brought, Alfred pursued learning. God blessed him richly by “stimulat[ing] his intelligence from within, not from without, as it is written, ‘I will hear what the Lord God speaks in me’ [Psalm lxxxiv, 9], so that he could acquire helpers in this good intention of his, who would be able to help him attain to the desired wisdom…”:”(Ibid.)”:
But the cultural fruits of Alfred’s leadership were yet in the future when he was sent to Rome at the age of five (853) to be blessed by Pope Leo IV. Asser reports that at this time the pope consecrated Alfred as the future king of England.:”(It should be noted that recent scholarship has argued that this account was a later interpolation by Pope Gregory VII, who was trying to establish a feudal obligation between himself and William the Conqueror.)”: He went to Rome a second time with his father, Aethelwulf, in 855, and apparently stayed there a full year until Aethelwulf at last returned to England after being married to Charles the Bald’s daughter, Judith. Aethelwulf died barely two years later, and for two and a half “lawless years,” as Asser describes them:”(Ibid., pg. 73.)”: the kingdom of Wessex was ruled by Alfred’s trouble-making brother, Aethelbald. Over the next nine years two more of Alfred’s brothers, Aethelberht and Aethelred would rule Wessex. During this time the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia fell to Viking ravagers. In the year of grace 868, Alfred was married to a Mercian noblewoman named Ealhswith. In 871 he became king of Wessex upon the death of his brother, Aethelred, in the aftermath of a fierce battle with the Danes at Ashdown.
Despite the victory at Ashdown, however, the fortunes of the English took a turn for the worse. For a long time Alfred and his forces were hard-pressed by the Vikings. At many points it looked as if they would be driven into the sea and the island become Danish territory. As Asser puts it, the king and his men were reduced “to life in great distress amid the woody and marshy places of Somerset.”:”(Ibid. pg 83.)”: But all was not lost, for Alfred was a righteous king and trusted in the Lord. Because the Danes came by sea, Alfred caused a substantial English naval force to be built. This first saw action–and victory–in 875.
Still, between 875 and 878, Alfred and his forces were on the run from a vastly superior Viking army. Thanks to some providentially-given intelligence on the Vikings, however, in 878 Alfred achieved a decisive victory over them at the famed Battle of Edington. Two years later he concluded a treaty with the Viking ruler Guthrum, whom he had defeated at Edington. Guthrum’s part of the deal was to receive Christian baptism and to withdraw his men from English soil. This was progressively done over the next several years, leading to the Vikings beginning to harass the next available target: the already troubled kingdoms of Flanders and France across the Channel.
Still, the English trouble with the Danes, while vastly diminished, did not end there. Alfred himself sailed with his ships in 882 and repelled a new Danish force of twenty-four ships from the shores of England. The navy proved invaluable again in 885, winning several more battles (though losing at least one) against the Danes. Throughout this period Alfred caused a series of fortifications, buhrs, to be built throughout England. According to the best sources we have, the network was comprised of 33 such fortifications, and the goal was to ensure that none of Alfred’s subjects would be more than 20 miles from a place of refuge. Some of these buhrs were reconstructed ancient Roman fortifications (whose walls may still be seen today), and some scholars estimate that the manning of this network would have required around 25,000 men. It is important to realize that the establishment of this network of defenses was the first true “national defense” in England, far different from the previous ad hoc arrangements of separate, conflicting micro-kingdoms. Alfred’s defensive activities far surpassed those of the squabbling, ineffective heirs of Charlemagne across the Channel, who were increasingly forced to make concessions to the Northmen–such as the granting of “Normandy” by Charles the Simple to the Viking leader Rollo in the year of grace 911. This centralized coordination of the English eventually led to Alfred becoming the first true “King of England”, a unified English nation, in 896.
From the time he was twenty until his death, Alfred suffered terribly from a strange illness which Asser describes as “some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair.”:”(Ibid., pg. 101.)”: Nevertheless, Alfred trusted in the Lord and sought to do the work put before him without complaint or excuses. One way in which he did this is reported as follows: “For it is his peculiar and most characteristic habit either to read books aloud to himself or to listen to others doing so–by day and night, amid all other mental preoccupations and physical ailments.”:”(Ibid., pg. 97.)”: In keeping with this studious habit, Alfred’s lifelong love of learning at last gained an outlet when he presided over a significant cultural advance in England–which included himself translating Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, into Anglo-Saxon. A measure of Alfred’s own mind regarding Christian education–most especially in one’s own language–may be most excellently seen in his own preface to the Pastoral Care:
When I reflected on all this [decline of learning in England], I recollected how–before everything was ransacked and burned–the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books. Similarly, there was a great multitude of those serving God. And they derived very little benefit from those books, because they could understand nothing of them, since they were not written in their own language. It is as if they said: “Our ancestors, who formerly maintained these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and passed it on to us. Here one can still see their track, but we cannot follow it. Therefore we have now lost the wealth as well as the wisdom, because we did not wish to set our minds to the track.”:”(Ibid., pg. 125)”:
The scope of Alfred’s cultural program must seem modest to we living in an age of mass media and cheap books, but in Alfred’s day not only did printing not exist, but neither did paper or any form of quick, easy communication of information across vast distances. Alfred’s own work was done on parchment, sheepskin that has been specially treated to preserve ink. In an age typically scorned by Modernity as “the Dark Ages”, King Alfred surrounded himself with competent, well-learned scholars, and “Through their teaching the king’s outlook was very considerably broadened”.:”(Ibid., pg. 93.)”: The God-centeredness of Alfred’s program may be most brilliantly seen in the fact that he incorporated the Ten Commandments into the laws of England. According to Asser King Alfred’s passion for godly cultural advance was such that
…just as it is written, ‘The just man builds on a modest foundation and gradually proceeds to greater things”, or like the busy bee, wandering far and wide over the marshes in his quest, eagerly and relentlessly assembles many various flowers of Holy Scripture, with which he crams full the cells of his heart.:”(Ibid., pg. 100.)”:
The Vikings would again become a threat about a century after Alfred’s death, when the Danish warlord Cnut invaded England and found it unprepared to resist (leading to its king at that time coming to be known as “Aethelred the Unready”). A brief period of peace would come under King Edward “the Confessor” (r. 1042-1066), but the Northmen would at last prevail in the traumatic event in 1066 known as the Norman Conquest of England. Ironically this event would help set England on a trajectory of cultural advance, and eventual dominance in the Western world. But these doings were in the future, and during his own day, King Alfred, justly surnamed “the Great”, stood as a bulwark of civilization and godly reform. Asser’s eulogy is most fitting when it describes King Alfred as “an excellent pilot” who guided his ship (England) “laden with much wealth to the desired and safe haven of his homeland, even though all his sailors were virtually exhausted.”:”(Ibid., pg 101.)”: By the strong arm of the Lord, the God of Battles, Alfred prevailed, securing England’s future.