|Alfred the Great: The Traditions of Western Civilization
Dr. William F. Campbell
Secretary, The Philadelphia Society
Professor Emeritus of Economics, Louisiana State University
Mezzotint of Alfred the Great
The purpose of this lecture is to show through visual images and music the central role that Alfred the Great played in transmitting the traditions of western civilization. By western civilization, I mean to include Europe and those countries that have been formed in the shadow of Europe, including both Americas.
The traditions were formed in the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, and the forests of Germany. The content was the moral and spiritual formation of character from the revelation of God in the Old and New Testaments; the love of wisdom in the Greek traditions of philosophy; the appreciation of order and the rule of law in Rome which continued through Christian Rome; the love of liberty, honor, and courage in the forests of Germany.
In contrast to the spurious multiculturalism of today, which is based on relativism, Alfred took all these cultures seriously in order to extract from them the best that they have to offer.
Family Tree of Alfred
Before we go too far, let’s place Alfred the Great in time and place. He lived from 849-899 A.D. He comes from a line of Saxon kings, including his father Aethewulf and grandfather, Egbert, and is followed by descendants who build on his accomplishments in founding what we today would call England.
Map of Alfred Country
Let’s now place Alfred geographically. This map shows the main geographical locations directly connected with Alfred. Wessex, Wantage, Vale of the White Horse (north of Wantage, west of London), Winchester, London, St. David’s, and Athelney.
Matthew of Paris
Matthew of Paris in his Gesta Abbatum, c. 1250, was the first one to call Alfred “the Great.” Alfred was the only English king to receive that title. Matthew was impressed with the fact that Alfred’s reign had been pivotal in replacing the ‘Heptarchy’ of seven kingdoms—Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex—with rule over most of southern England. The northern part of England was still controlled by the Danes. The poem of Kipling is still relevant to contemporary foreign policy:
IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation,
To call upon a neighbour and to say:—
“We invaded you last night—we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:—
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray,
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”
I personally am distrustful of rulers called “the Great” even when it is associated with men who had a great impact on Alfred such as Charlemagne or Charles the Great and Gregory the Great. I can easily live with St. James the Greater because it serves to distinguish him from St. James the Lesser. It is also the name of my parish church in Baton Rouge. When you get to Peter the Great or Frederick the Great, you might want to conflate Madame Roland on her way to the guillotine with Ed McMahon setting up Johnny Carson, “O Great ones, what crimes are committed in thy name?”
Alfred Tower, Stourhead Gardens
There are various statues or monuments to Alfred in England that provide interpretations of the greatness of Alfred. The most interesting of them is the Alfred Tower at Stourhead Gardens, Wiltshire, England, one of the great follies of the 18th century. They called them follies because they had no utilitarian value.
The earliest version of the inscription for the tower is the most effusive in making the case for Alfred as a great innovator: “In memory of Alfred the Great, The Founder of the English Monarchy, The 1st encourager of Learning He founded the University of Oxford. The Giver of most excellent Laws, Jurys, the Bulwark of English Liberty. He instituted a well regulated Militia, divided England into Shires or Countys & by a determined courage & unwearied attention to the increase of our Naval Force protected us from Foreign Invasions & extended our Trade to the remote parts of the Globe. He was the complete Model of that perfect Character, which, under the Name of a Sage, the Philosophers have been fond of delineating, rather as a fiction of Their imagination, than in hope of ever seeing it reduced to practice.”
What greater tribute to the vision of Margaret Thatcher than that?
The inscription goes on to add, “Britons will revere the Ashes of that Monarch by whose Lessons They have (under the protection of Divine Providence) subdued Their Enemys this year with invincible Force by Land & Sea, in Europe, Asia, Africa & America, stopd the Effusions of human blood & given peace & rest to the Earth…1762.” (Malcolm Kelsall, “The Iconography of Stourhead” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 141-132) The significance of this date is the end of the Seven Years’ War (what we call in the U.S. the French and Indian War). Alfred has always been put to patriotic uses.
These magnificent gardens were created by the banking family of Henry Hoare II (1705-1785). He started the gardens in 1715 and they remained in the family until 1947. The tower was begun in 1765 and completed in 1772 precisely on the spot where, according to the inscription: “Alfred the Great AD 870, on this summit erected his standard against Danish invaders. To him we owe the origin of Juries, the establishment of a Militia, the creation of a Naval Force. Alfred, the light of a benighted age was a philosopher and a Christian, the father of his people, the founder of the English.”
How did this come about? In the summer of 1764 Henry Hoare II known to his family as “the Magnficent” wanted to celebrate the end of the Seven Years War against France and the accession of George III. He explained his inspiration in a letter he wrote to his elder daughter Susanna: "I have one more scheme which will crown or top it all. As I was reading Voltaire's L'Histoire Générale lately, in his character of Alfred the Great he says, Je ne sais'il y a jamais eu sur la terre un homme plus digne des respects da la posterité qu'Alfred le Grand, qui rendit ces services à sa patrie. Out of gratitude to him I propose...to erect a Tower on Kingsettle Hill where he set up his standard after he came out of concealment in the Isle of Athelney near Taunton, and the Earl of Devon had worsted the Danes...I intend to build it on the plan of Sn Mark's Tower at Venice, 100 foot to the room which the staircase will lead to and 4 arches to look out in the 4 sides to the prospect all round."