Question: Why is Alfred the Great considered to have been a successful King?
Word Count: 1620
Alfred the Great’s kingship of Wessex was successful in a number of ways. The middle ages were a period of great territorial and social instability throughout Europe. As a result, the success of European leaders of the time has generally been assessed based upon their ability to use their military and protect their people, advance the culture and improve the standard of living within the area they ruled (Middle 2010, p. 1). Alfred demonstrated one or more of these qualities through three aspects of his reign. These were Alfred’s protection of his kingdom against Viking invasion, his efforts to advance education and learning throughout Wessex and Alfred’s reforms of the Wessex legal system.
Alfred proved his ability to lead his military and protect his people by deflecting Viking raids on his kingdom. The most intense Viking raids on Wessex in history began in the sixth year of Alfred’s rule, in 876AD (Ross 2008, p. 39). Under Guthrum, their leader, the Vikings defeated the Wessex forces in battle at Wareham in 876AD and took Chippenham by force in January 878AD (Duckett 1958, p. 70). Alfred analysed the features of Guthrum’s army and opted to use specific battle tactics in a counter-attack against the Vikings at Ethandun in May 878AD (Asser 1983, p. 1). Alfred implemented tactics reminiscent of Ancient Roman legions, compressing his entire army and forming a tight and layered shield wall as a perimeter (Asser 1983, p. 1). This was aimed at nullifying the Viking foot warriors who posed the greatest threat to Alfred, having massacred his army at Athelney when it had been more stretched (Asser 1983, p. 1). Alfred’s tactics prevented the Vikings from significantly penetrating the English line, while his troops were able to infiltrate and drive back the less organised Viking line (Lewis-Stempel 2006, p.17). The Vikings were in fact so severely depleted by the battle that they were forced to surrender to Alfred:
“(Alfred) put them to flight... Then the (Viking) army gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1996, p. 1)
Although Alfred had subdued Guthrum’s army, he spent much of the rest of his reign reforming his military such that future Viking raids could be more easily defended. The main ways Alfred did this were by forming a mounted standing army and developing a burghal system, which was a large network of hidden and heavily manned boroughs (Reuter 2003, p. 219). Alfred’s mounted standing army was formed in 885AD:
“885 AD: This year (Alfred)separated the before-mentioned army in two... (The standing army) defended the cities, until King Alfred came back with his army” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1996, p. 1).
The main purpose of the standing army was to provide Wessex with a military group that was mobile enough to quickly intercept Viking raiders and prevent raids from threatening Wessex civilians (Reuter 2003, p. 220). The standing army was particularly instrumental in deflecting a Viking raid in 893AD, in which they intercepted Viking raiders at Surrey on their way to central Wessex (Miller 2010, p. 1). The Vikings were unprepared for combat and were defeated in battle and made to leave Wessex (Miller 2010, p. 1). Alfred’s network of hidden and manned military boroughs, which was gradually developed throughout the early 880sAD (Miller 2010, p. 1), also acted as an excellent defence mechanism against Viking invasion. During the 892AD and 893AD raids of Wessex, Viking troops often passed boroughs and were unexpectedly attacked, or pelted with spears and arrows, and forced to either retreat or accept major death and injury tolls (Loyn 1967, p. 32). The burghal system also made it difficult for Viking leaders to plan raids, as they rarely knew where boroughs were located (Loyn 1967, p. 32). Alfred’s military reforms were consistently successful in preventing Viking raids from posing as great a threat to Wessex as the raids led by Guthrum had (Loyn 1967, p. 33). Alfred’s military feat of not allowing the Vikings to form a stronghold over Wessex during his reign was essential for the well-being of his people, as they would otherwise have been killed, forced to relocate from Wessex or would have been subject to Viking rule. Alfred’s people also benefited from his efforts to improve education standards within his Kingdom.
In the years following the battle of Ethandun, Alfred made several education reforms which caused significant improvements to learning and living standards within his kingdom. Alfred recognised that the general public of Wessex was disadvantaged, in that many of the people who taught them and made decisions on their behalf, were not sufficiently learned (Bowker2008, p. 1). Most notably, Alfred was concerned that most judges were insufficiently educated and that several clergymen did not understand the Latin words that they spoke during their liturgies (Substantive 2010, p. 1). The poor state of education in Alfred’s kingdom was partly caused by Viking raiders looting and damaging numerous education centres, such as churches and monasteries, during their early raids on Wessex between the beginning and middle of the ninth century (Substantive 2010, p. 1). Alfred rectified this by reinvigorating several of these centres and offering free education to selected members of Wessex society (Bowker 2008, p. 93). Such selectiveness was necessary due to there being a limit of educational resources, such as books, which could not be made by bulk on demand (Guthrie 2000, p. 1). Another factor that had contributed to the lack of education within Wessex was that few people were literate in Latin, the language in which most religious and educational books were written:
“There were very few people on this side of the Humber (a river north of Wessex) who could understand their divine services (which were written in Latin) in English, or even translate a single letter from Latin to English” – Alfred the Great ND (Wood 2001, p. 143)
As Alfred implies in this quotation, most Wessex citizens better understood the Old English language (Guthrie 2000, p. 1). Alfred chose to oversee the monumental task of translating several books which he saw as being central to Anglo-Saxon religion or culture or basic education, from Latin to Old English:
“I thought it best to turn into the language we all can understand, certain books which are most necessary... to [be] known” – Alfred the Great ND (Wood 2001, p. 144).
Among the works translated were the Christian teachings of Pope Gregory and the scholarly works of the philosopher Boethius (Alfred 2010, p. 1). The information contained by such books became more accessible to many West Saxons who were attempting to become more educated. As a result of these translations and Alfred’s rebuilding of various learning centres, several important members of society, such as judges, were able to develop the analytical and interpretive skills that were needed for their work within the kingdom (Substantive 2010, p. 1). This in turn allowed those affected by the work of such people to be treated more fairly and correctly (Guthrie 2000, p. 1). This meant that Wessex was a healthier society. The improvements to Wessex which arose from Alfred’s educational reforms were complimented by those which arose from his legal reforms.
Alfred’s legal reforms regulated and stabilised Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle establishes that Wessex law was unorganised and erratic prior to Alfred’s reforms, with several old laws from different kings contradicting one another (Anglo-Saxon 1996, p. 1). Alfred implemented his own law code in either the late 880s or 890s (Anglo-Saxon 1996, p. 1), with no primary sources confirming the exact date. Alfred’s law code was a formal list of laws that he had either determined himself or had adopted from other kings (Lee 2000, p. 10). Alfred only used a law of another King in his code when he deemed the law to be relevant to his kingdom (Lee 2000, p. 10). Alfred had both practical and religious motivations for his law reform. His motivations were practical in that he desired for Wessex law to be regulated and more easily enforced (Keynes 1983, p. 163) and religious in that he wanted the laws to represent the culture of his kingdom (Lee 2000, p. 7). This religious influence is clear in Alfred’s introduction to the law code, where he cites several links between the code and the Christian Bible:
“These are judgments which Almighty God Himself spoke to Moses and commanded him to keep...He (Jesus) did not come to break nor to forbid these commandments but to approve them well, and to teach them with all mildheartedness” – Alfred the Great ND (Lee 2000, p. 7).
Historian, Dr. Francis Lee, believes that these links to Christianity would have made Alfred’s law codes more respected by and accessible to the Wessex community (Lee 2000, p. 8-9). This is supported by several primary sources from the period, such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which indicates that Wessex was a strongly Christian community:
“The good Pope Marinus died, who freed the Angle race's school, at the prayer of Alfred, king of the West Saxons; and he sent him great gifts, and part of the rood on which Christ suffered” (The Anglo Saxon Chronicle 1996, p. 1).
More practically, Alfred’s code set clear punishments for certain crimes (Lee 2000, p. 10). Alfred introduced a more structured system of punishment - that predominantly involved financial retribution (Keynes 1983, p.166) - than had previously existed in Wessex (Anglo-Saxon 1996, p. 1). Dr. John Green concludes that this would have reduced crime in Wessex (Green 1884, p. 179). Green’s conclusion appears accurate, as a concrete system of punishment would have deterred crime. Therefore, Alfred’s code should be credited with improving the standard of living within Wessex, as crime rates apparently decreased due to the code’s implementation, thus reducing the effects of crime on Wessex society. Alfred complimented his law code with several practical actions to ensure that his code was correctly enforced and interpreted (Substantive 2010, p. 1). For example, he took an active role in monitoring the performance of judges, so as to limit corruption and incompetence within his justice system (Substantive 2010, p. 1). The implementation of Alfred’s law code was clearly a tremendous advancement of Wessex culture, as the code forged a definite and structured system of civil discipline, which as far as records show, was unprecedented in Wessex.
Alfred excelled during his defence of Wessex against Viking raids, his efforts to improve education within his kingdom and his reforming of the Wessex legal system. While defending Wessex against Viking invasion, Alfred demonstrated his ability to utilise his military and protect his people. Most notably, Alfred used superb military tactics in the battle of Ethandun to defeat Guthrum’s army and made specific reforms to the Wessex military defence system which simplified the process of defending Viking raids. Alfred went to great lengths, which included translating numerous books from Latin to Old English and reinvigorating several learning centres, to improve the education of influential members of Wessex society. This improved the standard of living throughout all of Wessex, as citizens were better served by those whose decisions and actions affected them. It appears that Alfred’s legal reforms improved living standards throughout Wessex. This was due to the reduction of Wessex crime as a result of the implementation of explicit punishments for various crimes, which did not previously exist. The introduction of such a specific and regulated system of law was also an obvious advancement of Wessex culture, with the existence of a similar system in Wessex prior to Alfred’s rule not being recorded. Alfred proved his ability to lead his military and protect his people, improved the standard of living within Wessex and advanced the culture of his kingdom. Thus, Alfred’s reign as king of Wessex is considered to have been successful, as these qualities were the main criteria for a period of successful leadership in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Abbot, Jacob 2005, Alfred the Great, Kessinger Publishing, New York.
Alfred 2010, viewed 5 May 2010, http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Alfred.
Asser 1983, The Life of King Alfred, viewed 5 May 2010, http://omacl.org/KingAlfred/.
Bowker, Alfred 2008, Alfred the Great, Read Books, Vancouver.