King Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

English: Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde (1763-1817)
Date 1 January 1790

Reign 23 April 871 – 26 October 899

Born 847–849

Alfred the Great (Old English: Ælfrēd,[b] Ælfrǣd,[c] ‘Elf-counsel’ or ‘Wise-elf’; between 847 and 849 – 26 October 899) was King of Wessex from 871 to c.  886 and King of the Anglo-Saxons from c.  886 to 899. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. His father died when he was young and three of Alfred’s brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, reigned in turn.

After acceding to the throne, Alfred spent several years fighting Viking invasions. He won a decisive victory in the Battle of Edington in 878 and made an agreement with the Vikings, creating what was known as the Danelaw in the North of England. Alfred also oversaw the conversion of Viking leader Guthrum to Christianity. He defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, becoming the dominant ruler in England.[1] Details of his life are described in a work by 9th-century Welsh scholar and bishop Asser.

Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man of a gracious and level-headed nature who encouraged education, proposing that primary education be conducted in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin and improving the legal system, military structure and his people’s quality of life. He was given the epithet “the Great” during and after the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Advocacy of education in English
Alfred’s educational ambitions seem to have extended beyond the establishment of a court school. Believing that without Christian wisdom there can be neither prosperity nor success in war, Alfred aimed “to set to learning (as long as they are not useful for some other employment) all the free-born young men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it”.[112] Conscious of the decay of Latin literacy in his realm Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin.[113]

There were few “books of wisdom” written in English. Alfred sought to remedy this through an ambitious court-centred programme of translating into English the books he deemed “most necessary for all men to know”.[113] It is unknown when Alfred launched this programme but it may have been during the 880s when Wessex was enjoying a respite from Viking attacks. Alfred was, until recently, often considered to have been the author of many of the translations but this is now considered doubtful in almost all cases. Scholars more often refer to translations as “Alfredian” indicating that they probably had something to do with his patronage but are unlikely to be his own work.[114]

Apart from the lost Handboc or Encheiridio, which seems to have been a commonplace book kept by the king, the earliest work to be translated was the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a book greatly popular in the Middle Ages. The translation was undertaken at Alfred’s command by Werferth, Bishop of Worcester, with the king merely furnishing a preface.[49] Remarkably, Alfred – undoubtedly with the advice and aid of his court scholars – translated four works himself: Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter.[115]

One might add to this list the translation, in Alfred’s law code, of excerpts from the Vulgate Book of Exodus. The Old English versions of Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are no longer accepted by scholars as Alfred’s own translations because of lexical and stylistic differences.[115] Nonetheless the consensus remains that they were part of the Alfredian programme of translation. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest this also for Bald’s Leechbook and the anonymous Old English Martyrology.[116]

The preface of Alfred’s translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care explained why he thought it necessary to translate works such as this from Latin into English. Although he described his method as translating “sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense”, the translation actually keeps very close to the original although, through his choice of language, he blurred throughout the distinction between spiritual and secular authority. Alfred meant the translation to be used, and circulated it to all his bishops.[117] Interest in Alfred’s translation of Pastoral Care was so enduring that copies were still being made in the 11th century.[118]

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was the most popular philosophical handbook of the Middle Ages. Unlike the translation of the Pastoral Care the Alfredian text deals very freely with the original and, though the late Dr. G. Schepss showed that many of the additions to the text are to be traced not to the translator himself[119] but to the glosses and commentaries which he used, still there is much in the work which is distinctive to the translation and has been taken to reflect philosophies of kingship in Alfred’s milieu. It is in the Boethius that the oft-quoted sentence occurs: “To speak briefly: I desired 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.”[120] The book has come down to us in two manuscripts only. In one of these[121] the writing is prose, in the other[122] a combination of prose and alliterating verse. The latter manuscript was severely damaged in the 18th and 19th centuries.[123]

The last of the Alfredian works is one which bears the name Blostman (‘Blooms’) or Anthology. The first half is based mainly on the Soliloquies of St Augustine of Hippo, the remainder is drawn from various sources. The material has traditionally been thought to contain much that is Alfred’s own and highly characteristic of him. The last words of it may be quoted; they form a fitting epitaph for the noblest of English kings. “Therefore, he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”[117] Alfred appears as a character in the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale where his wisdom and skill with proverbs is praised. The Proverbs of Alfred, a thirteenth-century work, contains sayings that are not likely to have originated with Alfred but attest to his posthumous medieval reputation for wisdom.[124]