Alfred the Great: his world and his legend

King Alfred–who you might know as Alfred the Great–could reasonably have expected not to become a king. He was the fourth, or possibly the fifth, son–it’s all a little hazy when you’re looking back that far–of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. But King Alfred he became, although we could also call him Aelfred, or if you want to go completely Dark Ages about it, Aelfraed.

Anglo-Saxon spellings make my teeth ache.

In addition to all those sons, there was a daughter in there somewhere, but she was married off to another Anglo-Saxon king in a political marriage and history doesn’t pay much attention to her. Did you ever wonder why so many women develop a sharp edge? It’s not because of her particularly, but she’s not a bad example of what happens.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, stolen from something I posted last year. This year’s are out, though.

Back to our point, though: Aelfred was the king of Wessex from 871 to 899 and nobody at the time called him the Great. King was plenty, thanks.

What kind of place did he grow up in and rule? To start with, Anglo-Saxon England was split into an assortment of kingdomlets. Don’t try to count them because the numbers keep changing, especially once the Vikings invaded. They swallowed one, then another. 

Pretty much anything you read about the period talks not just about the Anglo-Saxon kings but also about sub-kings. The sub-kings don’t actually come into our tale, but they’re worth a mention because it’s interesting to know that power was divided up in ways we’re not used to. A king had to move carefully, balancing out the sub-kings’ strength, interests, loyalties, tempers, competence, and possibly incompetence.

Now let’s set them aside and talk about Aelf’s family background, and you should feel free to make fun of the names here because (a) I will and (b) nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon English anymore, so you won’t be stomping on any sensitive toes. 

Aethelwulf (that’s Aelfred’s dad, in case you’ve lost track of him already) fought the Vikings and had a bunch of kids. Then his wife died and he married a twelve-year-old, Judith. Unlike the sub-kings, she’ll come back into the story.

AethelW went on pilgrimage, taking youngest son Aelfred, who’d have been four or five, with him and leaving older son Aethelbald in charge of the kingdom. When he came back a year later, AethelB said, “Sorry, Dad, but I’ve kind of gotten to like being king. Now butt out.”

Instead of starting a civil war, AethelW divided the kingdom with AethelB. Then he died, as people will. Son Aethelberht, not to be confused with Aethelbald–let’s call him AethelB2–took AethelW’s throne. Then AethelB1 married AethelW’s widow, who in our times still wouldn’t have been old enough to buy herself a beer. 

Yes, it was all very weird back then. 

Before anyone had time to say, “It seems perfectly sensible to us,” AethelB1 died and AethelB2 glued the two kingdoms back together. Then he died and brother Aethelred followed him onto the throne. 

This sounds like the fairy tale about the billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge, doesn’t it? Except instead of the youngest brother coming first, the oldest ones did.

I’m happy to report that neither AethelR or AethelB2 married poor ol’ Judith. She went home and later married someone unrelated to either her first husband or this tale. I hope she was old enough to order a beer by then, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

And we still haven’t gotten to Aelfred.

You may have noticed that Aelfred is missing a syllable that all his brothers got: He’s plain old Ael-Something while they’re Aethel-Somethings. It’s like that when you’re the youngest kid. By the time you get yourself born, your parents are tired. They don’t have the energy to hand out extra syllables. And in a lot of families, money’s tight. In this one, they didn’t seem to be, but they were running short on thrones. If Aethelred hadn’t died, Aelfred would’ve had to sit on a stool or a bench, just like everyone else.

By the time Aelfred got himself a throne, with a wooden back and arms and everything else that signaled his importance, the Vikings had taken over most of England. The Anglo-Saxons called the Vikings the Great Heathen Army, because (a) they weren’t Christian and (b) it’s a lot scarier to be slaughtered by someone of a different religion than by someone of your own religion.

Aelf’s first task was to fight the Vikings, and we’ll skip the list of battles. We don’t have space for enough detail to make them interesting, and without detail you wouldn’t remember them anyway, would you? 

Okay, maybe you would. I wouldn’t.

What matters is that Aelf lost, and by 878 he’d been pushed back to a corner of the Somerset Levels, where he and a small band of fighters hid in the marshes, working to gather reinforcements. Eventually he had enough warriors to go on the offensive, defeat the Vikings, and as part of the peace settlement demand that Guthrum, the Viking king, become a Christian. Religion doesn’t seem to have been about deeply held beliefs but about–well, it strikes me as being more like joining a football team and agreeing to follow its rules. 

The Vikings eventually all converted to Christianity. Did that bring peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings? Hell no. It just meant Christians were fighting Christians instead of non-Christians. It meant everyone who died was killed by a co-religionist. You can see how that was a great improvement.

The peace between Aelf (for Wessex) and Guthrum (for the Danelaw, which is what they called Viking England) held for a while, but it wasn’t a stable peace, and Aelf built up his military, fortifying towns, building up a navy to face up to Danish ships, and generally preparing for the time they’d be at war again.

Danish, by the way, was another way to say “Viking.” 

Aelf’s theory was that the Viking invasion of England was a result of Anglo-Saxon England’s moral failings, so he set out to remedy them, in part by focusing heavily on education. One step was to demand that anyone in government had to be literate. Another was to set up a court school for–okay, the article I’m working from here  says “noble-born children.” I haven’t found anything that says the wording only meant boys, but I haven’t found anything that says it didn’t. Women were freer under the Anglo-Saxons than they would be later, under the Normans, but that’s a relative freedom, not an absolute one. 

The school also welcomed “intellectually promising boys of lesser birth.” 

It was under Aelf’s rule that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun. This was a year-by-year account of events, and it continued to be written for some time after the Norman invasion in 1066. It’s one of our few sources of knowledge about the period and a remarkable piece of work.

Aelf also wrote an ambitious law code, which was a mix of new and pre-existing law, threaded through with bits out of the Bible. In it, he wrote, “Doom [meaning judge; it’s pronounced dome] very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!”

We can learn from this that he was even-handed and just and placed a high value on exclamation marks. Assuming, of course, that they weren’t added by the translator, because however antiquated that sounds, it’s not Anglo-Saxon English.

Aelf was either wise or canny enough to appoint a biographer, which is one reason he’s come down to us as perfect in all ways. Aelf’s biographer wasn’t independent; he worked for Aelf. That can’t help but color a writer’s work. So Aelf was pious, brave, learned, truthful, a man who ate not five but six helpings of fruits and vegetables every day. Even kale, which wasn’t in the supermarkets yet. Supermarkets weren’t even in the supermarkets yet.

And I say that without diminishing his stature. He seems to have been a far-sighted guy, but let’s not get suckered into the propaganda.

In spite of all his wonderfulness, Aelf was never made a saint, and this meant he disappeared from sight for a while. When the Normans took over England, they played up their connections to the Anglo-Saxon kings, but they leaned toward the ones the Church had made saints of, ignoring the ones who were merely saintly. That meant they ignored Aelf.

Much later, when England broke away from the Catholic Church, finding a saintly-but-unsainted king who just happened to have had a good biographer came as a gift to a country struggling to redefine itself. And there Aelfred was, unsullied by Catholic approval. They dug him out, turned him from Aelf (or Alf, by then) into Alfred the Great, and used his writings and translations to prove that the Anglo-Saxon church had been pure before the Normans came along and made it Roman Catholic. As Barbara Yorke puts it, “With a bit of selective editing, [the Anglo-Saxon church] came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism.” 

The Tudors weren’t the only folks to do some selective editing. In later centuries, Aelf was rewritten in an assortment of ways no one would have predicted. The Victorians held him up as an example to kids–the perfect, and probably deadly dull, person they should all model themselves on. (Go hole up in a swamp and eat kale, children, until you’re strong enough to defeat the Vikings.) He was also dragged into racist arguments to demonstrate how great the Anglo-Saxons were and how inferior everyone else was. 

How did Alfred feel about all this? He was past caring–or at least past letting us know his feelings and opinions. I mention it to remind us all that historians aren’t impartial reporters of history. Some start with the story they want to tell then choose their facts to fit it. Others play fair, but even they shape the story. 

And I do the same thing. If you don’t shape the story, you don’t have one, you have a scrambled mess of facts.

Besides, I’m not a historian, I just play one on the internet.


My thanks to the Tiny Potager’s oldest kids for suggesting both this topic and next week’s.

88 thoughts on “Alfred the Great: his world and his legend

  1. Good story, well shaped. History is interesting to read but it keeps changing and I never know what part of it to believe. With required publishing now for history professors and money to be made in selling books and making speeches it changes even more.

    Now on the all day tv news shows they spend all day trying to predict future history. And that keeps changing also.

    But the daffodils in the island by my driveway look great. And some flowering trees are blooming. Makes me feel better and gets my mind off past and future history. And the elections and campaigns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup, that’s the thing about history: We weren’t there, so we can only assemble it from the bits and pieces that are left, and we keep changing the pattern since no one left us instructions. (Insert war A into recession B….) And even with recent history, which some of us were there for, no one ever got to see the whole thing. And the most deeply involved people have a position or some actions to justify.

      On the other hand, we shrug and forget it at our peril.


      • I agree we should not forget history. But we often take the wrong lessons from history. We tend to interpret history based on our own experience, or as written by the winners, and those who have an ax to grind, and the history is distorted. That is one reason we have to keep going back over it to clear up the distortions. But then we replace them with new distortions. Constant work for historians.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. He was a bit rubbish in the kitchen, wasn’t he? Or am I getting muxed-ip? Even having Anglo-Saxon (or maybe Celt) blood and Dane blood I still muddle the whole lot!
    But someone was told by some woman in whose bothy he was holed-up to mind the cakes on the fire. And the daft sod let them burn.

    Liked by 3 people

      • It’s the modern interpretation of “cake” that throws us.We tend to think Victoria Sponge or Black Forest, when, in those days, “cake” was a pretty solid affair made of grains and not much else. Probably more like hard tack sea biscuits!

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s pretty much what I imagined–something along the lines of oat cakes, although not necessarily with oats. This was before the days of baking powder. The only raising agent they’d have had was yeast. I don’t know if they’d gotten around to beating egg whites until they were stiff at that point. Probably not, at the very least, when they were hiding out in the swamps.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. One of my lecturers at Cardiff University was always saying that Medieval Historians had “an axe to grind” and they weren’t to be regarded in the same way as modern historians. I think that all historians have “an axe to grind” whether they are conscious of it or not. The Victorians were very keen on effiecent kings who were good adminstrators (John is another good example) beacuse that’s what THEY valued in their society, in the 1960s it was all about the history of the “crowd” and in the 1990s it was “women’s history” and so on. I am not discounting these approaches at all, they are very vaulable and insightful. They show that there many different “histories” if you look for them. I suspect that in these post-Brexit times we will get more “Great Man” histories like say, Winston Churchill.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do agree, but I think at this stage we can and should hold historians to account a bit more and demand more even-handedness. There’s a difference, to my mind, between on the one hand saying that an aspect of history has been ignored and then setting about researching it and filling in the gaps and on the other writing about a great (and it usually is a) man and sweeping all the non-great elements under the rug or exaggerating what was best, which I suspect medieval historians did with an easy conscience. The demands of the profession were different. These days, though, we can at least expect an awareness of their less salubrious aspects–and we do all have them.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. You can’t get away from Alfred in these parts. That’s not surprising, since these parts were once part of the kingdom of Wessex and his capital was just up the road in Winchester. Instead of being remembered for burning the cakes, he should have a ‘never-give-up’ tale, like Robert the Bruce.I’m pretty sure that he burnt the cakes when it looked as if the Danes would win, but then he pulled himself (and his army) together and went on to defeat them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had to ask Lord Google who Uhtred was. Oops. I actually watched that show but I seem to have a block on Anglo-Saxon names. They won’t stick to my memory. At least the Vikings come up with names like Harold Bluetooth. Even I can remember that.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I want a biographer so I can style myself Samantha the Great!

    I suppose it may have happened to him posthumously… I wonder if the same thing happened to Catherine (the great), Peter (the great) and Atilla (the Hun).
    I suppose Atilla knew he was a Hun so I am not sure why it needed reiterating.

    I have also just discovered there was a Phillip (the Fair) and a Phillip (the handsome) I wonder if they knew about each other and if there was rivalry?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder what the difference in looks is between a (the handsome) and a (the fair). Maybe it’s in the eye of the translator.

      That business about Attila the Hun: As I understand it (having given it absolutely no thought until just now), that was a European designation and there weren’t a lot of other Attilas running around, so he didn’t really need it. If they yelled Attila, he’d have been the only one–unless he brought others with him, of course. Okay, this is getting complicated. Somehow, it always does when you and I exchange comments. Anyway, historians could’ve called him just Attila. They didn’t need to distinguish him from Attila the Goth, Attila to Celt, Attila the Pict. Samanthas, now, they’re a whole ‘nother story. Lots of them running around. Based on your photo, you could also be Samantha the Hat. Personally, I’d go for that. It’s got character.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. I’m pretty sure the reason these men became kings was they were the only ones who could both pronounce and spell their own names. Poor Judith’s name was way too easy to ever get anywhere.
    Sub-kings must have operated like sub-contractors who worked for the Main Man in the colonies.
    Hopefully they actually profited from their jobs – unlike the sub-contractors who were cheated out of their money by our criminal White House occupant during his free-wheeling casino days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It won’t solve all our problems–the British government is stuffed with literate idiots at the moment. And then there’s the problem of defining literacy. Whose standards are we using?

      On the other hand, I’m sure sure what else to propose.


    • I don’t expect anyone who spoke the languages that the names originated in would recognize them.

      To be fair to the word-manglers, I’d guess that it wasn’t entirely arrogance but only partly. I was once introduced to a woman whose name I simply couldn’t hear, in spite of my best efforts. It wasn’t a case of not being able to say her name; I literally couldn’t hear it. The sound patterns were too foreign for my ear. It was like trying to hold water.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So, as I get this, following the tribes, A-S’s were Germans who invaded England. Normans were French who invaded England. So, basically, WWI & WWII were just the continuation of these two tribes fighting over the same island. Personally, I don’t think either of them were interested in England, it was just a stopping point to get to their ultimate goal – Ireland, whom England invaded as well.

    Why? Probably because of the shortage of potatoes in Germany, France, and England. Hard to make German potato pancakes without the potatoes. Same with French Fries.

    Liked by 4 people

          • If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, confuse them with facts.

            I took a statistics class in college (I think Noah taught it), one of the books was called something like, “Fun with Statistics”. The gist of the book was that you could take facts and really manipulate them to prove either side of an argument. For example, “In a survey about gambling 30,000 people were asked their opinion of legalizing gambling. 55% approved, 30% disapproved, 15% undecided.” Turns into, “The majority of people approve of legalizing gambling” or “Tens of thousands of people surveyed either disapprove or are undecided of legalizing gambling.” All depends on where the media stands on the issue.

            Liked by 1 person

            • There’s that wonderful scene in the “Yes, Prime Minister” series, where Sir Humphrey “proves” to Bernard that with a poll you can get two absolutely opposite results depending on how you phrase the first questions, leading up to the decisive one at the end.

              Liked by 1 person

              • And you can tweak the results of a one-question poll pretty effectively depending on how you word it. I’d love to laugh about it, but I’m inclined to pound my head against the wall instead.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I recognize the quote but don’t know the source. What I do know is that once a quote’s well established, it get attributed to any number of people. When I edited a writers magazine, I saw one or two quotes attributed to two or three famous writers. Which leads me (a) to avoid attributing well-known quotes if at all possible and (b) to quote Yogi Berra, who said, “I never said half the things I said.” (I’m not afraid to attribute that one. Only Berra could possibly have said it, and if I’m wrong anyway the excuse is built in.)


      • I don’t see why not. It’s better than calling something the Thirty Years War or the Hundred Years War. You can look at it from the beginning and know you have a name for it without having to ask, “Excuse me, but how long are we going to be doing this, General?”

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Do you know whether the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were small enough for the commoners to know who the king was? I got the brothers mixed up while you were talking about them. I can’t imagine that I would actually care if I was struggling to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting question and I wish I knew the answer. My best guess is yes, they’d have known. From what I read, the relationship between the A-S lords and their warriors was more reciprocal and personal than it was among the Normans, and power was based on the ability to fight. So every lordling would have a relationship with the lord above him, and through him (or possibly directly) with the king. Which means the knowledge would seep downward.

      But I wouldn’t take that answer too seriously. It’s pure guesswork. I seriously need to do more reading about the social structure of A-S England.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. According to my cousin, who lives in England, my family is directly descended from Alfred the Pretty-Okay-When-He-Was-Alive-But-Eventually-Great-Sometime-After-He-Died. How does she know this? She has some kind of genealogy records that look too complicated to sift through on Facebook. I’ll just take her word for it.

    When I first found out I went around asking everyone to call me Thomas the Great for a while and a surprising number of people did. A surprising number of people also called me Thomas the [expletive deleted] as well, so it partially backfired.

    One thing I know Al and I have in common, though, is self-respect. Although I lack a biographer (position open: low pay, no benefits), I do try to impress upon people that I am pious, brave, learned, and truthful. A surprising number of people accept that, too. A not so surprising number of people tell me to [expletive deleted] off instead, but that’s fair. 😁

    Thanks for the lesson. I’m sure if Uncle Aelfred were alive today he’d say you were historian enough for him and, honestly, that’s all that really matters. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Ael would’ve held out for a more respectful historian. And I suspect being historian to a king was a dangerous position–especially if he was literate and could read over your shoulder. So thanks all the same, but I don’t think I’m well suited to the job.

      According to someone knowledgeable that I heard on the radio while I was driving and therefore couldn’t take notes, if you go back enough generations (and, really, it wasn’t all that many), everyone’s related to everyone. So Aelfred the Great (or was that Graet?)? Why not? Did you ever read Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote? Greene has a low-key and, I thought, charming way of handling the problem of having a central character who’s the descendant of a fictional character.

      And finally, Tom the Expletive Deleted is a great name. I think you could really make that work for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hmmm…Life was indeed nasty, brutish, mean and short. I was struck by the court school, though. I think it may have included girls. Margaret of Scotland (okay, sister of Edgar Aethelred and heaven knows how that’s spelled) who came 200 years after all these folks was indeed literate (while her husband Malcolm was not). Even if their parents educated them, they still got sent off into marriages like prize fillies (there to educate their children).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some aristocratic women were educated, and I think you’re onto something about the reasons. Having said that, Anglo-Saxon women did have greater personal freedom and more property rights than women did once the Normans took over. What I’m not sure of is whether that translated into welcoming girls into an actual school, since that seemed to be focused on the need for educated people in the machinery of government, and political power, I believe (although I’m not sure–I have got to learn more about this) they didn’t have.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I struggle with all the AEs and EAs, probably because the only way I can pronounce them is to randomly decide to ignore one letter or the other, but I’m not consistent about which one to ignore. I find that if I can’t pronounce a set of letters, I can’t remember it, so to me everyone has more or less the same name. And I’m happy to admit that’s pure ignorance speaking. I’ve known people who’ve learned to read languages they can’t speak and I’ve never been able to understand how they can do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. One again you make history interesting and fun! Poor Judith. As a little girl growing up in Canada all those years ago, instead of playing hockey, I loved British history (I was considered a strange kid) Alfred was my favourite king because he was German (Saxon) and my family was German. I visited Winchester years later and saw his statue and was in awe. Go figure. Love this post about my hero.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. What a thrilled couple of sons I have had here today 😀 Thank you so much!

    We have included your article in this week’s history lesson. I loved how you took Alfred’s history and turned it into a look at how hagiography is shaped – brilliant.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I cannot help but think of scramlbed eggs here; all royal eggs, mix it up, blend to liking and … tadaaa … out comes a strange scramble. Funny how the UK is so proud of their history as it seems to be built on dumn f’%&’*?§ luck and stories that bend well. Or blend well.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It depended upon the prof…some had an openness and appreciation to the lively culture of the Middle Ages, with its good and beautiful aspects, while also examining the less appealing aspects with honesty. I also had one young prof who simply made fun of many things that were different..but rather in the silly way of going along with the class, rather than with your dry wit!
        Overall, I’m glad I took the courses…and nearly succumbed (but not quite) to the madness of trying to learn Old English! I speak Dutch, having lived in a Holland as a teenager, and it’s so similar to Chaucerian Middle English. Fun stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: The British census: What a country wants to know about itself | Notes from the U.K.

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