He also goes on to add, “The form is Gothic as at Stowe because this is a declaration of Whig adherence to the famous Anglo-Saxon ‘ancient constitution’ of the realm to which the enemies of Stuart absolutism had appealed.” At Stowe, there are the Temple of Liberty and the shrine of Modern British Worthies, which also includes Alfred the Great.
Let’s take up some of the claims of the inscription at Stourhead one by one in order to lay the groundwork for a more interesting interpretation of Alfred’s significance.
Detail from Mezzotint of Alfred the Great
Was he the first King of England? In a detail of our first slide, you can see Alfred styled as the King of the Saxons rather than the King of England. The latter honor is more correctly ascribed to his descendants in the 10th century. But they could not have accomplished this unless Alfred had beaten the Vikings in the 9th century.
Detail of Mezzotint of Alfred the Great
Was he the founder of Oxford University? In this detail from our mezzotint, he is described as the founder of Oxford University. True in spirit, but not in fact. In the 19th century there was a long drawn-out attempt to build a memorial in Oxford to Alfred. which is recounted in:
William Camden by R. White from Camden's Britannia,1695 edition
The erroneous claim of Alfred as the founder of Oxford was promulgated by William Camden (1551-1623), whose comprehensive history, Britannia, was published in Latin, in 1586 and later translated into English. Camden a great English historian interpolated this claim as a short passage into his 1603 edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred.
Camden’s Motto: Pondere Non Numero
Camden’s Motto: 'Pondere Non Numero' is an important one for historians who prefer judgment to cliometrics, “By weight not by number.” The main reason we know anything about Alfred’s life is because Bishop Asser wrote his biography while Alfred was still alive. Historians are still debating the “weight” of this biography and its historical validity.
In the weighing of the stories about Alfred, we should always keep in mind the wise observation of G.K. Chesterton in his Preface to The Ballad of the White Horse:
“But I am not concerned to prove the truth of these popular traditions. It is enough for me to maintain two things: that they are popular traditions; and that without these popular traditions we should have bothered about Alfred about as much as we bother about Eadwig.
One other consideration needs a note. Alfred has come down to us in the best way (that is, by national legends) solely for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism. But since this work was really done by generation after generation, by the Romans before they withdrew, and by the Britons while they remained, I have summarised this first crusade in a triple symbol, and given to a fictitious Roman, Celt, and Saxon, a part in the glory of Ethandune. I fancy that in fact Alfred¹s Wessex was of very mixed bloods; but in any case, it is the chief value of legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment; to see all ages in a sort of splendid foreshortening. That is the use of tradition: it telescopes history.”
Venerable Bede Sharpening His Quill
Codex at Engelberg Abbey, Switzerland
Was he the first encourager of learning? This picture shows the Venerable Bede, whose dates are (672–735), sharpening his quill. This Northumbrian saint wrote his History of the English Church and People more than a 100 years prior to Alfred. If anyone deserves the title of creator of the English people, it is Bede. But, if Alfred was not the first, it is significant that he included Bede’s book in his translation program of what we would title today the Great Books. We shall see that Alfred’s publishing program would warm the hearts of the Liberty Fund and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Initial Page of Bede’s History
In this picture we see the opening page of Bede’s History which starts, “Britain is an island in the Ocean, and was once called Albion.” Note that he did not say, “perfidious Albion” which only came into use later as a term of disparagement by the French.
Originally this decorated initial page from the eighth century was thought to have been done in the scriptorium in Lindisfarne, but is now thought to have been done closer to Alfred’s territory in Winchester or Canterbury.
Bede is not only venerable, he is remarkable. Although his ancestors were illiterate barbarians, and he never traveled much more than from Lindisfarne in the north to York in the south, he replaced the “past of pagan genealogies, folk-tales and heroic legends…with the Latin learning of the Christian Church.” (R.W. Southern, “Bede” in Medieval Humanism and other studies (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970, p. 5)
Christopher Dawson goes so far as to say that this Northumbrian culture as exemplified in Bede “marks a new starting point for Western culture.” (Formation, p. 174) But the Northumbrian monastic culture was itself a synthesis of the golden age of Irish monasticism and the Roman mission emanating from Canterbury. The Irish monks of the Celtic west were crucial to the monastery of St. Columba in Iona. Combined with the Benedictine abbeys of Jarrow and Wearmouth, they in turn became missionaries to the pagans in Europe—Frisians, Saxons, and Franks.
Was Alfred the first English giver of laws? In this picture we see a coin of Offa, king of Mercia (757–796) who initiated English coinage, constructed Offa’s dike as a security measure against the invading Welsh kingdom of Powys, and codified part of the law which Alfred himself drew on later.
In his preface to his law code, Alfred explains that he examined many existing law codes from the Old Testament to those of previous Anglo-Saxon kings in neighbouring kingdoms:
“Then I, King Alfred, gathered them together and ordered to be written many of the ones that our forefathers observed - those that pleased me; and many of the ones that did not please me I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way. For I dared not presume to set down in writing at all many of my own, since it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us. But those which I found either in the days of Ine, my kinsman, or of Offa, king of the Mercians, or of Ælthelberht (who first among the English people received baptism), and which seemed to me most just, I collected herein, and omitted the others.”
We would, of course, like to know exactly the criteria for his rejection but we are forced to notice that he consulted “the advice of my councilors” and showed a large amount of humility in not writing down all his statutory legislation. To speak more accurately, Alfred thought of himself as a law-finder rather than a law-giver.
The echoes of Alfred can be found in the observation of Sir Matthew Hale, the great defender of the common law against the positivism of Thomas Hobbes:
“It is reason for me to preferre a law by which a kingdome hath been happily governed four or five hundred years than to adventure the happiness and peace of a kingdome upon some new theory of my own.” (Quoted in Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law, New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1961, p. 94)
When he codified laws, he started with the Ten Commandments from Moses and then proceeded to the laws of Ine and Offa. Ine was very closely related to Alfred because he was an early King of Wessex from 688 to 726. Asser in his genealogy stresses that two persons of fairly recent historical vintage were two brothers, “Ingild and Ine, the famous king of the West Saxons….Ine journeyed to Rome, and honourably ending this present life there he entered the heavenly land to reign with Christ.” (Asser p. 67) Ine was also noted for his code of laws, which he issued in about 694. Ine’s journey to Rome has interesting parallels to Alfred’s journeys to Rome; the fact that Alfred did not choose to leave the real political world provides an interesting contrast to the more monastic model of Ine.
Alfred stresses the importance of the faith in Christ and trust in his mercy as the inspiration behind his attempt to mitigate, if not totally eliminate, revenge by introducing wergild. In his own words, “They then established, through that mercy which Christ taught, that for almost every misdeed at the first offence secular lords might with their permission receive without sin the monetary compensation, which they then fixed…” But mercy had its limits in a barbarian culture. Alfred goes on to add, “only for treachery to a lord did they dare not declare any mercy, since Almighty God adjudged none for those who despised Him, nor did Christ, the Son of God, adjudge any for the one who betrayed Him to death; and He commanded everyone to love his lord as Himself.” (Keynes and Lapidge, pp. 163-164)
Although he did not eliminate the practice of the blood feud which was a strong part of previous Anglo-Saxon traditions, he imposed heavy penalties for breach of oath or pledge. As Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (Book IV, Chapter 5) said: “With all its imperfections, however, we may perhaps say of it what was said of the laws of Solon, that, though not the best in itself, it is the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of. It may perhaps in due time prepare the way for a better.”
Enunciating a rule of law, and grounding that law in the Mosaic Old Testament tempered by the Golden Rule of the New Testament is exactly what Alfred accomplished. If William Blackstone could say that Christianity is part of the laws of England, we owe it to Alfred that this was possible.
Winston Churchill put Alfred’s contribution to legal development in judicious terms, “The Laws of Alfred, continually amplified by his successors, grew into that body of customary law administered by the shire and hundred courts which, under the name of the Laws of St. Edward (the Confessor), the Norman kings undertook to respect, and out of which, with much manipulation by feudal lawyers, the Common Law was founded.” (Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966, p. 120)
He may not have been responsible for the technical development of the common law, but his personal involvement in judicial cases is a Solomonic precursor of equity courts. Blackstone’s eloquent prose states the claim:
“We are next to consider the several species and distinctions of courts of justice, which are acknowleged and used in this kingdom. And these are either such as are of public and general jurisdiction throughout the whole realm; or such as are only of a private and special jurisdiction in some particular parts of it. Of the former there are four sorts; the universally established courts of common law and equity; the ecclesiastical courts; the courts military; and courts maritime. And first of such public courts as are courts of common law of equity.
THE policy of our antient constitution, as regulated and established by the great Alfred, was to bring justice home to every men's door, by constituting as many courts of judicature as there are manors and townships in the kingdom; wherein injuries were redressed in an easy and expeditious manner, by the suffrage of neighbours and friends. These little courts however communicated with others of a larger jurisdiction, and those with others of a still greater power; ascending gradually from the lowest to the supreme courts, which were respectively constituted to correct the errors of the inferior ones, and to determine such causes as by reason of their weight and difficulty demanded a more solemn discussion. The course of justice flowing in large streams from the king, as the fountain, to his superior courts of record; and being then subdivided into smaller channels, till the whole and every part of the kingdom were plentifully watered and refreshed.” William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book III, Chapter IV
In the same book Blackstone warns us about attributing too much to Alfred, “Just as we are apt to impute the invention of this, and some other pieces of juridical polity, to the superior genius of Alfred the great; to whom, on account of his having done much, it is usual to attribute every thing: and as the tradition of antient Greece placed to the account of their one Hercules whatever atchievement was performed superior to the ordinary prowess of mankind.”
The legal codes that culminated in Alfred reflected a concern for the poor and disadvantaged. The arbitrary behavior of the nobility was restrained to some degree by the rule of law. Predictability replaced revenge as the foundations of justice.
It is interesting to note that although Alfred is included in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a Saint, he did not make it into the Catholic Church list of Saints, leaving Edward the Confessor as the only English king who made it to sainthood.
Alfred the Great: Statue by Count Gleichen, Wantage
The statue of Alfred by Count Gleichen erected in 1877 in his birthplace of Wantage in the Vale of the White Horse, contains a more accurate description of Alfred’s accomplishments than the Alfred Tower.
“Alfred found learning dead, and he restored it. Education neglected, and he revived it. The laws powerless, and he gave them force. The Church debased, and he raised it. The land ravaged by a fearful enemy, from which he delivered it. Alfred’s name shall live as long as mankind respects the past.” (Quotation from Richard Abels’ fine book, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, New York: Longman, 1998 p. 4)
Ponder that last statement carefully. Reflect that Alfred’s name has not lived—in the U.S. for sure and barely in England, which at best remembers burnt cakes. The fact is that mankind no longer respects the past.
Alfred is for most of us, including me until I had to teach an adult Christian education class at my Episcopal Church, what I would call a guilt name. Someone you’ve heard of, but can’t give an account of anything that he did. Don’t feel bad if you knew nothing about Alfred before you arrived here today. I took informal polls of my Episcopal friends in Baton Rouge and only one, ex-congressman Henson Moore had the foggiest idea of who he was.
Alfred’s wish for fame and renown is clear from what he added to his translation of Boethius: “I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works." (Alfred's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, chapter XVII taken from Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, London: Penguin Books, 1983, pp 132-33)
Sadly, this has not come true in spite of the fact that he sponsored the compiling of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. We, or at least, professional historians, do know more about Alfred than any other Saxon King, but in spite of this fact, he is little recognized by the general public.
If Alfred was not always a great innovator, does he still deserve our attention? I will argue that he should precisely because he was a transmitter of the best traditions of the past. As one recent scholar put it, Alfred was more “an agent of continuity…a restorer…a seeker after other’s tracks.” (David Horspool’s King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and other Legends (Harvard University Press, 2006 p. 184).
Canterbury Codex Aureus
Let us start over and take a look at the beginning of Asser’s Life of Alfred. What you are looking at is the Canterbury Codex Aureus, ("Golden Gospels"). The manuscript was produced circa 750, one hundred years before Alfred’s birth, in the scriptorium of Christ Church, Canterbury.
The image you see is the opening of the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew. This first chapter traces the genealogy of Christ all the way back through David and Solomon to Abraham.
Before getting into the details of the genealogy, it is worth noting the incredible richness of the cultural traditions which Alfred inherited. Thomas Cahill’s recent book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, has reminded us of the enormous role of the Irish monastic tradition. But it is important to recognize that increasingly in the 8th and 9th centuries, the tradition becomes more accurately called the Hiberno-Saxon Tradition in both book illumination and monastic orders.
Although the Irish initiated the high art of book illumination, the center of gravity shifted from Ireland and Wales to Scotland (Iona), Northern England (Lindisfarne in Northumbria) and then to Southern England (Canterbury in Kent, and Winchester in Hampshire).
This shift, according to Karl Nordenfalk, was a “move away from the restricted material conditions of Ireland to the more wealthy patronage of the Anglo-Saxon kings. However, Insular art would scarcely have attained its high degree of originality had it not been given its first specifically Celtic imprint on Irish soil. On the other hand, it would not have reached its high level of complexity and perfection had it remained within the confines of Ireland alone. Not only did the Anglo-Saxons bring new ornamental motifs to its vocabulary, but they also had a specific genius for order and clarity, and this they combined with a fresh inventiveness which the Irish seemingly did not possess to the same degree.” He also claimed, “We would see more clearly had not both Lindisfarne and Iona in turn been completely destroyed by the Vikings. But whereas at least a part of the Lindisfarne library manuscripts—and especially its greatest achievement, the book written in honor of Saint Cuthbert—has been preserved, only a later product, the Book of Kells, has survived from Iona, if that is indeed where it was made….In any case, the final word should not rest either with Ireland or Northumbria, but with both, one no less essential than the other for the creation of an art which, standing at the beginning, supremely vindicates the right of the Middle Ages to be called a new epoch in the history of Western art.” (Karl Nordenfalk, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting, New York: George Braziller, 1977, p. 26)
The Codex was stolen from Britain by the Vikings who subsequently bribed the English into buying it back. The story of its return to England was told by another Alfred:
“Inscription + In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, Earl Alfred, and my wife Werburg procured this book from the heathen invading army with our own money; the purchase was made with pure gold. And we did that for the love of God and for the benefit of our souls, and because neither of us wanted these holy works to remain any longer in heathen hands. And now we wish to present them to Christ Church to God's praise and glory and honour, and as thanksgiving for his sufferings, and for the use of the religious community which glorifies God daily in Christ Church; in order that they should be read aloud every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, as long as God decrees that Christianity should survive in that place. And also I, Earl Alfred, and Werburg beg and entreat in the name of Almighty God and of all his saints that no man should be so presumptuous as to give away or remove these holy works from Christ Church as long as Christianity survives there.
Alhthryth their daughter”
Unfortunately, the holy works were removed from Christ Church again, and, somehow, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was in Spain, and in 1690 it was bought for the Swedish royal collection and so returned to Scandinavia and is now back in the Swedish Royal Library at Stockholm.
We saw that the first chapter of Matthew traces Christ’s genealogy back to Abraham. The first chapter of Asser’s Life of Alfred traces the genealogy of Alfred all the way back to Adam! There are several curious additions to Alfred’s genealogy that are important to note in addition to the basic fact that the warrior barbarian tribes thought family ties and genealogy to be all-important. Grendel’s mother in Beowulf is a chilling example.
David Composing the Psalms: Canterbury Psalter
Here we have a picture of David composing the Psalms from the Canterbury Psalter. Asser introduces David indirectly with a long quote from the 5th century Roman poet Sedulius:
”Since the pagan poets sought in their fictions to swagger either in high-flowing measure, or in the wailing of tragedy’s speech, or with comedy’s absurd Geta, or by means of any sort of verse whatever to relate the violent crimes of evil deeds and sing of monumental wickedness, and with scholarly application commit these many lies to paper: why should I—a poet accustomed to chanting the measures of the harp in the manner of David, and of taking my place in the holy chorus and hymning heavenly melodies in pleasing diction—be silent concerning the renowned miracles of Christ who brought us salvation?” (Asser, p. 67)
There are many reasons why we can link Alfred to David. Directly connected to this slide, Alfred as part of his education programme translated the first 50 Psalms into vernacular Anglo-Saxon.
Daniel Maclise, “Alfred the Saxon King (Disguised as a Minstrel) in
The Tent of Guthrum the Dane” (1852)
There is a famous story told in William of Malmesbury about Alfred as a CIA agent who gathers intelligence by disguising himself as a minstrel and sneaking into the tent of Guthrum the Dane. We can guess that he sang more vigorous songs with his harp than Hrothgar’s beautiful wife in the movie Beowulf. Although the Viking pagans are usually thought of as crude simple barbarians, here they are shown in an oriental decadence. One could even say of them as it used to be said of Americans (and still is, of course, in Europe today): they went from barbarism to decadence without once knowing civilization. Alfred, of course, subsequently defeated the Vikings at the famous battle of Edington in 878. He called out his fyrd or voluntary militia which also endeared him to later classical republicans and country whigs who were opposed to the Standing Army. Not only did he defeat him, but more importantly he forced the pagan Guthrum and twenty-nine of his men to convert to Christianity!
There is even speculation that the most important artifact that has come down to us from the time of Alfred, the Alfred Jewel, shown here, depicts David holding the rod and the staff from the famous 23rd psalm. The jewel made of gold and cloisonne enamel, covered with a transparent piece of rock crystal, bears the inscription "Alfred ordered me to be made" "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" and is now kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It was discovered in 1693 at North Petherton in Somerset, on land belonging to Sir Thomas Wroth (c. 1675-1721), only four miles from Athelney, where King Alfred took refuge from the Vikings in 878, and where he is alleged to have burnt the cakes. The jewel may have been used as a bookmarker. When Alfred sent a copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, he may have included this precious "aestels."
Another Old Testament connection to the Alfred Jewel can be seen in the large eyes which have been interpreted as the eyes of Solomon, known for his wisdom and judiciousness. (slide of Aethulwulf and Alfred in Rome, 125)
Alfred’s Father Aethulwulf Receiving a Blessing from Pope Leo IV
Another reason that Alfred would identify with David was that David was chosen by Samuel and anointed for kingship as a child, preferred by the Lord over his older brothers. In this picture, we show Alfred’s father, Aethulwulf, receiving a blessing from Pope Leo IV. Alfred went on pilgrimage to Rome twice as a young man and was either confirmed or anointed by the Pope. The young man on the right in this picture could easily represent Alfred.
Alfred was the youngest of four brothers who all reigned and died young. But even while young, according to Asser, he was favored by his family. It was a miracle that he became king. The close connections to Rome go back a long way in Alfred’s family.
Tableau of King Alfred Memorizing Book, King Alfred Millenary, 1901
We now return to Alfred’s upbringing to link him to the Anglo-Saxon traditions of heroic poetry and Beowulf. In this picture we have a tableaux done for the King Alfred Millenary of 1901 (incorrectly dated according to recent historical evidence). The lavishly produced book to celebrate this event shows the Victorian England at its finest and most grandiloquent. Tributes, dinners, and statues can be seen in the marvelous book edited by Alfred Bowker. Here we have the scene in Asser where Alfred and his older brothers are challenged by his mother to memorize a book of poetry. Alfred was attracted to the book by the sheer physical beauty of the opening initital. We have already seen that kind of beauty. Alfred, of course, memorized the book with the help of a tutor and won the prize.
Stained Glass Window of Caedmon
But what kind of poetry was it that Alfred throughout his life cherished?
There is a rich vernacular tradition of religious Ango-Saxon poetry developed in the age preceding him. The Venerable Bede relates the story of Caedmon, the peasant from Whitby Abbey, who reluctantly sings a great Creation hymn and subsequently becomes a monk.
Alfred may also have been memorizing the Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf. I had a choice between this picture which shows the original poem of Beowulf and Angelina Jolie. I chose the former because I thought there might be some young impressionable interns here. The fact remains that this great poem in its original form, not the Hollywood version, which totally perverts the real message of Beowulf, was both pagan and Christian. The poet was Christian and the subject matter was the great heroic ethic of the German forests!
We get a hint of the importance of such poetry in a famous letter of Alcuin of York, who was the brain trust behind Charlemagne’s educational reforms and ecclesiastical reform. to the Bishop of Lindisfarne in 797: “Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?” What does Hinield, a legendary warrior who appears in Beowulf, have to do with Christ? Probably a lot more than Angelina Jolie has to do with Grendel’s mother.
Christopher Dawson has stressed the civilizational task of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages. “In such a world, the Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice. It is not surprising that some found the task appallingly difficult and that medieval culture was in a state of continual tension between the opposing ideals of the Christian and the warrior.” (Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967, p. 162)
Other medieval examples abound in Santiago Matamoros, the Knights Templar, the Monks of War, The Song of Roland, and the literatures connected with the Crusades and the Crusading spirit.