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Does History Over Emphasise King Alfred Of Wessex’s ‘Greatness’?

King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871 AD – 899 AD) is an enduring individual in English History. Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex weathered the Viking conquest when all other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell. In his subsequent liberations of land, Alfred is said to have laid the foundations of the political unification of England. His achievements are remarkable, but should we consider Alfred – as the Victorian historian Edward Augustus Freeman called him – ‘the most perfect character in history’?

Alfred is one of the few individuals from the Dark Ages with substantial contemporary source material about him. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle details many of Alfred’s exploits, particularly his successful military campaigns. Nevertheless, it is not simply a glowing record of Alfred’s achievements; one entry for 892 AD hints at difficulties Alfred had in completing new fortifications. By reading between the lines, we glimpse problems which frustrated Alfred.

One of the most important sources for understanding Alfred is The Life of King Alfred, written by a monk named Asser from St David’s in Wales, in 893 AD. Asser’s work is the only biography of a pre-Norman conquest English king. Importantly, The Life makes no attempt to be objective; Asser states that he was Alfred’s friend. It could have been a politically motivated work, written to popularise Alfred in Wales, where he had recently become overlord.

The cult of King Alfred dominated the Victorian understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. In the growing interest in a ‘national character’ during the 19th century, the sources painted Alfred as the embodiment of the English nation: a talented military commander, a scholar with a love of learning and a believer in justice.

One of the major problems confronting historians seeking to study Alfred is that almost all sources about his actions and reign may have been created by Alfred himself or his retinue. The Chronicle can be seen to portray how Alfred wanted to be known, and Asser tells us how Alfred wanted to be remembered. It is exceptionally difficult to extricate the real Alfred from the idealised figure and the ‘Great’ legacy that he had a hand in creating.

In the simple fact that Alfred held back the Vikings, he is exceptional. That he is the first layperson to have a biography written about him in England is further proof of his importance. Alfred deserves an important place in English history. As Joanne Parker has noted, there could have been no cult of Alfred if there was not a large body of contemporary annals, chronicles and other sources testifying to his greatness. If we simply take the sources at face value, however, we risk being taken in by the myth of a ‘perfect’ Alfred, which beguiled the Victorian popular imagination.

Statue d’Alfred le Grand at Winchester, Hamo Thornycraft’s bronze statue erected in 1899