2.1 Alfred the Great and his dynasty

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2.1.1 The Link with New Minster/Hyde Abbey (coming soon)

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2.1.2 What happened to the royal graves and the search for his remains (coming soon)

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2.1.3 The Cult Of Alfred The Great

Interest in King Alfred the Great has lasted for over one thousand years. He has become a national hero and, literally a legend.

 

Succeeding generations have looked to Alfred for inspiration and, at various time in English history, his story (or reimagined versions of it) have played into debates about the role of monarchy, national identity and the place of religion, language and learning in our society. How has this come about?

The KEY FACTS are:

  • Unquestionably Alfred had a major impact on the development of Wessex not least through the length of his reign and his military, scholarly and administrative achievements. During his reign his title changed from being ‘King of the West Saxons’ to ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ - a sign of things to come.
  • Alfred’s achievements had a resonance and were well served by Asser, his biographer, who promoted a very powerful image of Alfred as a rounded character, This provided a rich source for future generations
  • His reputation was given durability by his son, Edward the Elder, and grandson, Athelstan, who fulfilled his vision of a united kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, This became, in effect, the popular ‘founding myth’ for the emergence of England
  • His burial place, New Minster, became a great church and a royal mausoleum at the centre of Winchester with its status reinforced by the establishment of a monastic community with a charter from King Edgar.
  • Following the Norman Conquest the picture becomes more ambiguous. As an Anglo-Saxon champion the Normans would not want to celebrate Alfred but at the same time they were interested in suggesting continuity with the previous regime. The result was reflected perfectly in the New Minster/Hyde Abbey story; New Minster was demolished and Alfred’s grave was marginalised (outside Winchester) but it was not erased
  • Later Anglo-Norman chroniclers and historians such as William of Malmesbury, Gaimar and Matthew Paris, and, later, William Camden promoted awareness of King Alfred. The effect of this was that his reputation entered the public imagination and popular folklore. Popular stories and claims such as the burning of the cakes and the founding of Oxford University were attributed to him (later generations might call this ‘fake news’)
  • Following the Reformation, Alfred acquired a fresh appeal. For example, he was cited in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as an exemplar of a noble king who embodied the values which the new generation of Protestants wanted to espouse
  • Later, in the 18th century, Alfred was the subject of an epic poem and an opera (by Thomas Arne) and during the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a torrent of plays and novels dedicated to telling and retelling the the Alfred story. Edward Freeman in The History of the Norman Conquest of England went so far as to say he was ‘the most perfect character in history’. Curiously none of this appeared to have much positive impact on the care of his burial place in Hyde (which had become by now waste ground) in Winchester.
  • In 1901 mania for all things Alfredrian culminated in enormous millenary celebrations for Alfred’s death (actually two years late) which came to a climax with the unveiling by Lord Rosebery of Hamo Thornycroft’s statue of King Alfred as a triumphant warrior in the Broadway.
  • From this climatic level over a century ago interest has remained at a high level (as judged by the number of books about him). When the BBC worked with Hyde900 to investigate the purported ‘royal grave’ of Alfred on the Hyde Abbey site three million viewers watched the programme. The development of this website is perhaps a continuation of the cult of Alfred. As with many celebrated historical figures Alfred’s significance is, ultimately, as much symbolic as it is anchored in his substantive achievements.
2.1.4 Why Alfred and his dynasty are significant for the history of England

2.1.4.1 Alfred and the English Language

English began with all other languages about 100,00 years ago but its development in Britain is due in large part to the arrival of Angles, Saxon and Jutes from the European mainland in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the Roman army and administration in the fifth century.

Four hundred years later King Alfred was to have a special place in the history of English because he was the first to make it a ‘learned’ language and to give it a form which became standard across the land. It gained a status and cultural presence in society which was unprecedented and formed a key part of Alfred’s drive to promote learning and the acquisition of ‘wisdom’ as an important activity for free males.

 The KEY FACTS are:

- a revealing observation was made by Alfred himself in the preface to his translation from Latin of Boethius’s ‘Consolation of Philosophy’. “King Alfred was the translator of this book; he turned it from Latin into English, as it now stands before you. Sometimes he translated word for word, sometimes sense for sense, so as to render it as clearly and intelligibly as he could, given the various and multifarious distractions which frequently occupied him either in mind or in body.”

- according to his biographer Asser, Alfred was himself illiterate - “Through the unworthy neglect of his parents” - until his twelfth year or even older but he was a great lover of Saxon oral poetry and seized the opportunity to learn to read when it was presented to him

- Alfred greatly lamented the decline in learning in England due to the onslaught of the Vikings

 - as a major symbolic step towards rearing a new generation of literate young aristocrats, Alfred established a school in the royal court where they would learn to read and write in English alongside Alfred’s own children. (Alfred’s son Edward was well-known to be a keen reader. It appears likely that his sisters too were taught to read and write)

- Alfred also had a wider ambition that “all the free-born young men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it may be set to learning until they can read English writings properly. Thereafter one may instruct in Latin those whom one wishes to advance to holy orders”

- Alfred made it clear that literacy was not something that could just be left to those intended for the church. It should become a generic skill. This was reinforced by the requirement that adults in key position (such as judges) should learn to read or surrender their positions; he recognised the benefits to government and administration of having a literate Anglo-Saxon leadership class

- literacy in English was not just to be used, however, for administrative purposes but it should also be used as a way of transmitting religious and philosophical writing from Latin. Alfred (working either by himself or in conjunction with other scholars) translated a number of key texts from the Latin including Gregory’s ‘Pastoral care’, Boethius’s ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ and Augustine’s Soliloquies

By introducing these innovations Alfred put down a marker for the value of both English and literacy in general. For the 150 years which followed it made England one of the best administered states in western Europe. It is noticeable that when the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror became king in 1066 he appears to have been illiterate. By contrast, however, his son Henry I – known as ‘beauclerk’ - was able to read picking up, perhaps, on the Alfredian legacy of valuing literacy and learning.

2.1.4.2 Alfred as a warrior (coming soon)

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2.1.4.3 Alfred as a ruler and law giver (coming soon)

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2.1.4.4 Alfred and the Church (coming soon)

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2.1.5 Discussion area (coming soon)

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2.1.6 News and reviews (coming soon)

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