Did Alfred create the English navy? He did engage in a shipbuilding program with vessels of his own design to oppose the Danish longships and a system of fortified towns (buhrs) for defence against land-invaders.
It can be said that the enemies of the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians in the 8th and 9th centuries were the Muslims from the south and Pagan Scandinavians from the north. One is tempted to say, “So, what else is new?” Although England was never attacked directly by the Muslims, surely Alfred would have known of their attack on Rome in 846 when Leo IV had briefly to flee Rome. Remember that Leo IV had possibly anointed Alfred when he was five years old.
Many of these themes are pulled together artistically in the Stanza dell'Incendio di Borgo in the Vatican. The paintings from Raphael’s workshop, 1514-1517, commemorate Leo X by reminding the viewers of the earlier Leo’s. Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800; the Fire in the Borgo miraculously extinguished by Leo IV in 847; the Battle of Ostia where the Muslims were lost in a storm at sea.
Even if Alfred did not have to confront the Muslims directly, the radical Muslims have not forgotten Alfred the Great, King of the Saxons. Ahmadinejad said Iran has developed a strategic "war preparation plan" for what he calls the "destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization." Iran's top strategist, Hassan Abbasi is on record stating: “We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization... we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles. There are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West. We have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them.”
Free market Thatcherite economic policies are routinely denounced in France and elsewhere as Anglo-Saxon. Tony Blair in speech to the European Parliament in June of 2005 wanted to demolish “the caricature ... that Britain is in the grip of some extreme Anglo Saxon philosophy that tramples on the poor and disadvantaged.” It’s too bad that Tony did not take the time to study the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of King Alfred the Great.
Even Gordon Brown is trying to find a new British national day, similar to our Fourth of July which will stand for an “expression of British ideas of standing firm in the world in the name of liberty responsibility and fairness.” January 2006, The Fabian Society. He could do worse than choose October 26, the day Alfred died and by which he is celebrated as a Saint in the Book of Common Prayer.
How can we take arms against this sea of troubles? G.K. Chesterton in his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911, captured the essential truth of Alfred’s eclectic vision in a manner that should inspire us today in a task that is never finished. His preface, which is not published in his collected poetry, contains the best interpretation of the wise use of tradition that I have seen; I quote this at length for a sense of Chesterton’s wisdom:
“This ballad needs no historical notes, for the simple reason that it does not profess to be historical. All of it that is not frankly fictitious, as in any prose romance about the past, is meant to emphasize tradition rather than history. King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibly be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.
The cult of Alfred was a popular cult, from the darkness of the ninth century to the deepening twilight of the twentieth. It is wholly as a popular legend that I deal with him here. I write as one ignorant of everything, except that I have found the legend of a King of Wessex still alive in the land. I will give three curt cases of what I mean. A tradition connects the ultimate victory of Alfred with the valley in Berkshire called the Vale of the White Horse. I have seen doubts of the tradition, which may be valid doubts. I do not know when or where the story started; it is enough that it started somewhere and ended with me; for I only seek to write upon a hearsay, as the old balladists did. For the second case, there is a popular tale that Alfred played the harp and sang in the Danish camp; I select it because it is a popular tale, at whatever time it arose. For the third case, there is a popular tale that Alfred came in contact with a woman and cakes; I select it because it is a popular tale, because it is a vulgar one. It has been disputed by grave historians, who were, I think, a little too grave to be good judges of it. The two chief charges against the story are that it was first recorded long after Alfred¹s death, and that (as Mr. Oman urges) Alfred never really wandered all alone without any thanes or soldiers. Both these objections might possibly be met. It has taken us nearly as long to learn the whole truth about Byron, and perhaps longer to learn the whole truth about Pepys, than elapsed between Alfred and the first writing of such tales. And as for the other objection, do the historians really think that Alfred after Wilton, or Napoleon after Leipsic, never walked about in a wood by himself for the matter of an hour or two? Ten minutes might be made sufficient for the essence of the story. 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 Alfred’s 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.”
In his poem itself, he captures the essential spirit of Alfred’s battle for western civilization and the religious basis for its defense:
The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten Seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?
To stitch all these themes together, I would like to close with a short video of three and a half minutes, combining most of the images you have seen with some stirring music. The music is from the 18th century Alfred: A Masque, libretto by James Thomson (1700–1748) and David Mallet and put to music by Thomas Arne (1710-1778)
WHEN Britain first at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of her land,
And guardian angels sung the strain:
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! 5
Britons never shall be slaves.
The nations not so blest as thee
Must in their turn to tyrants fall,
Whilst thou shalt flourish great and free
The dread and envy of them all. 10
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful from each foreign stroke:
As the loud blast that tears the skies
Serves but to root thy native oak.
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame; 15
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame,
And work their woe and thy renown.
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine; 20
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine!
The Muses, still with Freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle, with matchless beauty crown’d 25
And manly hearts to guard the fair:—
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!
Britons never shall be slaves!