Mezzotint of Alfred the Great

Hobthrush Island off Lindisfarne, Northumbria

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Hobthrush Island off Lindisfarne, Northumbria

In this picture we see Hobthrush island off Lindisfarne, in Northumbria. This was the site of the first hermitage of St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687), one of the most important English saints celebrated by Bede in both his history and also a prose life. St. Cuthbert was a favorite of Alfred.

Animal Life on Lindisfarne
Similar to the Irish saints by whom he was greatly influenced, St. Cuthbert had the same love of nature and created animals that you find in St. Francis.
Alfred’s retreat to Athelney can also be compared to the flight to the desert of the monastic life and the retreat of St. Cuthbert to Lindisfarne. Living in poverty, he contemplated his own sins and those of the Saxons over whom he ruled. Alfred was convinced that the Vikings were the scourges of God, a just punishment for the sins of the Saxons.

The Vikings
The Vikings they did come. In fact, the onslaught started in 793 when they proceeded to conquer and destroy Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne had been founded in 635 by an Irish monk, Aidan, who came from the earlier monastic settlement of Iona off the coast of Scotland. The Lindisfarne Gospels are presumed to be the work of the monk named Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. Current scholarship indicates a date around 715, and it is believed they were produced in honor of St. Cuthbert.

St. Cuthbert’s Remains
In fact the onslaught was so bad that St. Cuthbert’s remains, shown here, were disinterred from Lindisfarne and transferred to Durham where they remain in the cathedral to this day.
There is a charming story told by William of Malmesbury that St. Cuthbert appeared to Alfred in Athelney as a pilgrim. The king shared his last loaf of bread with him. This appeared in Malmesbury’s Gesta regum anglorum (Deeds of the English kings (449-1127) produced about 1125. It was such a popular story that it was painted by the American painter Benjamin West. In fact, George Washington had a print of the painting over his mantel at Mount Vernon.

Monastic Influences
Since we have so many monastic influences on Alfred, let’s try to get the big picture. You can see in this map the multiple lines of influence. Italian monks go to Ireland, Irish monks go to England, English monks go to Germany, and the Franks are caught in the middle. To sort out all this history, I can do no better than refer you to the numerous books by Christopher Dawson on Christian culture, which puts all this in perspective.

Gregory the Great, late 10th century ivory from Reichenau
Foremost in Dawson’s views and that of many other scholars of the period is the importance of Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), Pope from September 3, 590 until his death in 604. Here is shown at his writing desk possibly composing one of the books that Alfred later translated into the vernacular.
One of Alfred’s most important debts is owed to Saint Gregory the Great, Gregory had sent St. Augustine to Canterbury to convert the Saxons. The conflicts between the Roman monks and the Irish monks were only (if then) settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Gregory the Great in Thackeray’s Lectures on English History
In this picture we see a humorous version of the story related by the Venerable Bede of Gregory the Great who when he first encountered blue-eyed, blond-haired English boys at a slave market, allegedly said, “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” ("They are not Angles, but Angels.") The drawing is by Thackeray who deliciously retells the story in his Lectures on English History which appeared in Punch in 1842.
“It chanced that two lovely British children, sold like thousands of others by their ruthless Saxon masters, were sent to Rome, and exposed upon the slave-market there. Fancy those darling in such a situation.
There they stood—weeping and wretched, thinking of their parents’ cot, in the far Northern Isle, sighing and yearning, no doubt, for the green fields of Albin!
It happened that a gentleman by the name of Gregory, who afterwards rose to be Pope of Rome—but who was then a simple clerical gent, passed through the market, with his friends, and came to the spot where these poor British children stood.
The Reverend Mr. Gregory was instantly struck by their appearance—by their rosy cheeks, their golden hair; their little jackets covered all over with sugar-loaf buttons, their poor nankeens grown all too short by constant was and wear: and demanded of their owner, of what nation the little darlings were?
The men (who spoke in Latin) replied that they were Angli, that is, Angles or English.
‘Angles,’ said the enthusiastic Mr. Gregory, ‘they are not Angles, but Angels;’ and with this joke which did not do much honour to his head, though certainly his heart was good, he approached the little dears, caressed them, and made still further inquiries regarding them.
Miss Pontifex (one of the little girls). And did Mr. Gregory take the little children out of slavery, and send them home, ma’am?
Mr. Hume, my dear good little girl, does not mention this fact; but let us hope he did: with all my heart, I’m sure I hope he did. But this is certain, that he never forgot them, and when in process of time he came to be Pope of Rome…he despatched a number of his clergy to England, who came and converted the benighted Saxons and Britons, and they gave up their hideous idols, and horrid human sacrifices, and sent the wicked Druids about their business.” Volume 26 of his The Works (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1886), Miss Tickletoby’s first lecture on English history.
Although Thackeray approaches all this with tongue-in-cheek, one can’t help but feel that he truly admired Alfred the Great. Since it is hard to find in his collected works, I will take the liberty of quoting at length the passage where he concludes with comparing Alfred to George Washington:
Miss Tickletoby: But, dears, I don’t think it right to make one single joke about good King Alfred; who was so good, and so wise, and so gentle, and so brave, that one can’t laugh, but only love and honour his memory. Think of this, how rare good kings are, and let us value a good one when he comes. We have had just fifty kings since his time, who have reigned for near a thousand long years, and he the only Great one. Brave and victorious many of them have been, grand and sumptuous, and a hundred times more powerful than he: but who cares for one of them (except Harry the Fifth, and I think Shakspeare made that king)—who loves any of them except him—the man who spoiled the cakes in the herdsman’s cottage, the man who sang and played in the Danes’ camp?
There are none of you so young but know those stories about him. Look, when the people love a man, how grateful they are! For a thousand years these little tales have passed from father to son all through England, and every single man out of millions and millions who has heard them has loved King Alfred in his heart, and blessed him, and was proud that he was an Englishman’s king. And then he hears that Alfred fought the Danes, and drove them out of England, and that he was merciful to his enemies, and kept faith at a time when everyone else was deceitful and cruel, and that he was the first to make laws, and establish peace and liberty among us.
Who cares for Charles the Second, secured in his oak, more than for any other man at a pinch of danger? Charles might have stayed in his tree for us, or for any good that he did when he came down. But for King Alfred, waiting in his little secret island, until he should be strong enough to have one more battle with his conquerors, or in the camp of the enemy singing his songs to his harp, who does not feel as for a dear friend or father in danger, and cry hurra! With all his heart, when he wins?
All the little Children. Hurray! Alfred for ever!
Yes, my dears, you love him all, and would all fight for him, I know.
Master Spry. That I would.
I’m sure you would, John, and may you never fight for a worse cause! Ah, it’s a fine thing to think of the people loving a man for a thousand years! We shan’t come to such another in the course of all these lectures—except mayhap if we get so far, to one George—
Mr Mortimer (aloud, and with much confidence). George the Fourth, you mean, miss, the first gentleman in Europe.
Miss T. (sternly). No, sir; I mean George Washinton,--the American Alfred, sir, who gave and took from us many a good beating, and drove the English-Danes out of his country.
Mr. Mortimer. Disgusting raddicle!—Delancey, my dear, come with me. Mem!—I shall withdraw my son from your academy.”
Alfred the Great was also indebted to Gregory for his nurturing of the monastic tradition of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 547). St. Benedict’s motto was "Orare est laborare, laborare est orare" ("To pray is to work, to work is to pray"). The "Divine Office" (office coming from the Latin word for work) stems from this. The Benedictines began to call the prayers the Opus Dei or "Work of God."
In 1965 Pope Paul VI had proclaimed Benedict the patron saint of Europe. The current Pope, Benedict the XVI, chose his name partially on the basis of this historical tie: “filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples. Additionally, I recall Saint Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe. I ask him to help us all to hold firm to the centrality of Christ in our Christian life: May Christ always take first place in our thoughts and actions! ”
It was Pope Benedict XV who called World War I the “suicide of Europe.” There was an attempt to bring Europe back to life when Pope John Paul II called for the European Constitution to “include a reference to the religious and in particular the Christian heritage of Europe.” (Ecclesia in Europa, June, 2003) That did not happen. Instead a watered-down formulation was arrived at referring to “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.”
It is also interesting to note that John Paul II received the Charlemagne Prize in March 2004 for his work in promoting European understanding and peace. There are many who would like to claim Charlemagne as the “father of Europe.” The view has a great deal of validity in the light of his coronation as Emperor by Pope Leo III. Walter McDougall has built on the contemporary importance of this claim in an address that I will quote at length: “Will ‘Europe’ Survive the 21st Century?” (Available in full from the website of the Foreign Policy Research Institute,
“We began by contrasting Europe in 2007 with Europe in 1907. Let us conclude by invoking a grander timeline, that of European civilization itself. Once upon a time the term Europa referred only to a beautiful maiden in Greek mythology who attracted the wandering eye of Zeus, or else to a directional term referring to the Greek side of the Hellespont as opposed to the side on the peninsula Greeks called Asia Minor. The Roman Empire, encompassing parts of three continents around the Mediterranean, had no concept of Europe, and the Germanic tribes whose invasions dissolved the empire based at Rome certainly had no concept of Europe as a geographical, cultural, religious, linguistic, racial, or political entity. Nor did the Arabs, who swept out of the desert in the seventh and eighth centuries of the common era full of zeal for Allah and his prophet Mohammed. The Arabs overran fully half of all the provinces of Christendom, imposing their rule by sword and Quran on Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon, the Holy Land, Egypt, all of North Africa, and almost all of Spain. The Umayyad Caliphate even dreamed of expanding the Dar al Islam, the Land of the Faithful, across the Pyrenees and extirpating Latin Christendom altogether. But its Saracen soldiers were checked, for ever as it turned out, by the knights of a Frankish prince named Charles “the Hammer” Martel at Tours in 732.
That victory allowed the heirs of Charles the Hammer to imagine a destiny for the Franks, indeed for all the Christian tribes, greater than mere survival. Chief among them was his tall, imposing grandson, also named Charles. Exceptionally skilled at war, diplomacy, administration, and court politics, he created by sheer force of will a great empire that among his own subjects earned him the epithet Charles the Great, to wit Karl der Grosse or Charlemagne. The glory and booty he won in battle kept the lords and knights satisfied. His religious donations and support for public morality won over the clergy. His protection of commerce and administration of royal law pleased the merchants. His reign was immensely popular. Moreover, though not himself literate, Charlemagne gathered around him the most learned monks from the British Isles, Italy, France, and the Low Countries. He founded schools, patronized art, and presided over a Little Renaissance in the midst of the Dark Ages. Above all, Charlemagne was a pious man who believed himself called to unite the Christians orphaned by the collapse of the Roman Empire and spread the gospel to pagans north and west of Francia. He succeeded in all this to a remarkable degree: indeed, the empire based at his capital of Aix-la-Chapelle coincided remarkably with the boundaries of the original Common Market formed in 1957: France, the Low Countries, West Germany, and northern Italy.
What every pupil used to learn about Charlemagne is that the Pope crowned him Emperor of the West at a Christmas Day mass in the year 800. What few people know is that the year before, in 799, an anonymous court poet bestowed a still grander title. He dubbed Charlemagne “King and Father of Europe.” A continent, a civilization, had been willed into being by one man. Moreover, that self-conscious European idea survived the crackup of Charlemagne’s empire to inspire monarchs, popes, philosophers, conquerors, and at last economists and mere bureaucrats for 1,200 years. The idea had to wait until the spiraling orgy of nationalism spent itself utterly in World War II. But then, indeed in the year 1950, the good burghers of the Rhineland town Germans call Aachen and the French Aix-la-Chapelle, established a prize to be awarded annually to the person who did most to advance European unity. The town fathers named it the Charlemagne Prize after the “King and Father of Europe” who had made their city his capital.
What would Charlemagne make of Europe today? He would marvel, of course, at the wealth and technology. He would praise and bless the ubiquitous peace. He would recognize instantly the Islamic Challenge and tell Europeans it was ten times worse back in his day! Nor, having been a state builder himself, would he likely object to the intrusive EU bureaucracy. Indeed, it is fetching to think Charlemagne would discern in the EU the culmination of the great work he began over a millennium ago, and give glory to God. But three features of Europe today would doubtless grieve and trouble him greatly: military impotence; spiritual emptiness; and demographic decay. How long, the Emperor would surely ask, can a civilization expect to survive without arms, without faith, without children?”
The parallels between the Carolingian Renaissance and Alfred the Great are extremely important and not fully spelled out in the scholarly literature. One can make a strong claim that Charlemagne’s politico-religious thought was theocratic, a form of caesaropapism similar to the Byzantine claims. It is not clear that Alfred the Great’s thought follows the same tracks, but more work needs to be done on the issue.
But there were definite links of Alfred the Great to both Saxon tradition and the Frankish tradition that even preceded any possible connections to Charlemagne. When Alfred was engaged in his scholarly activities, his works of peace, he had asked for help from abroad and he received it. John the Old Saxon wrote an acrostic poem to Alfred, which captures his spirit: “Behold, may all the Graces descend from heaven upon you! You shall always be joyous, Alfred, through the happy walks of life. May you bend your mind to heavenly affairs; be disgusted with trappings. Rightly do you teach, hastening from the deceptive charm of worldly things. See, you apply yourself ever to gain the shining talents: run confidently through the fields of foreign learning.” (Alfred the Great, Penguin classics, p. 192)
There is a remarkable letter of Fulco, Archbishop of Rheims from 883-900, to King Alfred c. 886. Presumably Alfred had also written him to secure scholars who could lead his renaissance in England. Fulco sent Grimbald, a monk from St. Bertin’s in Saint-Omar where Fulco had been Abbot from 887-883. He was a favorite of Fulco who had wanted to make him a Bishop, but he recognized his duty to the larger Christian duty.

St. Remigius Baptizing Clovis
Fulco neatly ties together St. Gregory who sent St. Augustine to Canterbury with St. Remigius (c. 437–January 13, 533) who brought about the conversion to Christianity of Clovis, King of the Franks, at Christmas, 496. Remigius was one of those bishops drawn from the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy who preserved the ancient Roman traditions of learning. Just as they were working on the barbarians, the barbarians were working on them. The blending of the two produced a new semi-barbarian culture.
Fulco describes Remigius as “truly the Apostle of the Franks…the Frankish peoples were once freed from manifold error by St. Remigius.” Clovis was baptized in Christian pomp and pagan militarism; 3,000 warriors followed Clovis to the font. “Clovis proved to be the archetypal barbarian. Brutal, ignorant and totally amoral, he stole treasure, split skulls and collected concubines with amazing gusto.” (Barbarian Europe, Gerald Simons, New York: Time-Life Books, 1968, p. 59). In spite of this, his reign was one of the turning points in the success of Catholicism and a climactic moment in European history. Clovis led the campaign against the Goths, i.e. Arianism.
But Alfred was certainly a more Christian king than Clovis. At the Battle of Edington in 871, he defeated Guthrum, the Danish King. Guthrum and about thirty of his followers were baptized and swore to remain Christians. Alfred stood as Godfather to Guthrum.

Boethius On the Consolation of Philosophy Italy: 1385
Alfred was not only indebted to the explicitly Christian sources of Western Civilization, but also to the classical sources. Similar to the Christian Humanism of the Renaissance, he incorporated the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.
There is the famous quote from Tertullian, "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem." I think it is fair to say that the influence of Christianity on Alfred was stronger than any other single intellectual influence, although one should not overlook that he imbibed much Platonism from his regard for and translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. On the top of this picture Boethius is instructing his students and below he is shown in prison before he is executed by the Arian Ostrogothic king, Theodoric in 524 A.D.
Alfred even softens the Platonic dismissal of wealth in his translation by adding an Aristotelian common sense observation that the liberal use of riches can be virtuous. Alfred wished to enrich both his people and the monarchy in order to make them more virtuous and provide for the common defense.
Alfred’s common sense let him to a carefully stated economic sounding statement of what is required for good ruling. In Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy he interpolates this passage:
"Desire for and possession of earthly power never pleased me overmuch, and I did not unduly desire this earthly rule, but that nevertheless I wished for tools and resources for the task that I was commanded to accomplish, which was that I should virtuously and worthily guide and direct the authority which was entrusted to me. You know of course that no one can make known any skill, nor direct and guide any authority, without tools and resources; a man cannot work on any enterprise without resources. In the case of the king, the resources and tools with which to rule are that he have his land fully manned: he must have praying men, fighting men and working men. You also know that without these tools no king may make his ability known. Another aspect of his resources is that he must have the means of support for his tools, the three classes of men. These, then are their means of support: land to live on, gifts, weapons, food, ale, clothing, and whatever else is necessary for each of the three classes of men. Without these things he cannot maintain the tools, nor without the tools can he accomplish any of the things he was commanded to do. Accordingly, I sought the resources with which to exercise the authority, in order that my skills and power would not be forgotten and concealed: because every skill and every authority is soon obsolete and passed over, if it is without wisdom; because no man may bring to bear any skill without wisdom. For whatever is done unthinkingly, cannot be reckoned a skill. To speak briefly: 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. (Keynes & Lapidge, pp 132-33)).

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