Alfred the Great : biography

849 - 26 October 899

When one turns from the domboc's introduction to the laws themselves, it is difficult to uncover any logical arrangement. The impression one receives is of a hodgepodge of miscellaneous laws. The law code, as it has been preserved, is singularly unsuitable for use in lawsuits. In fact, several of Alfred's laws contradict the laws of Ine that form an integral part of the code. Patrick Wormald's explanation is that Alfred's law code should be understood not as a legal manual, but as an ideological manifesto of kingship, "designed more for symbolic impact than for practical direction." In practical terms, the most important law in the code may well be the very first: "We enjoin, what is most necessary, that each man keep carefully his oath and his pledge," which expresses a fundamental tenet of Anglo-Saxon law.Alfred, 2, in p. 164.

Alfred devoted considerable attention and thought to judicial matters. Asser underscores his concern for judicial fairness. Alfred, according to Asser, insisted upon reviewing contested judgments made by his ealdormen and reeves, and "would carefully look into nearly all the judgements which were passed [issued] in his absence anywhere in the realm, to see whether they were just or unjust."Asser, chap. 106, in p. 109 A charter from the reign of his son Edward the Elder depicts Alfred as hearing one such appeal in his chamber, while washing his hands.The charter is Sawyer 1445, and is printed in English Historical Documents, vol. 1, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, 2nd edn (1979), pp. 544–6. Asser represents Alfred as a Solomonic judge, painstaking in his own judicial investigations and critical of royal officials who rendered unjust or unwise judgments. Although Asser never mentions Alfred's law code, he does say that Alfred insisted that his judges be literate, so that they could apply themselves "to the pursuit of wisdom." The failure to comply with this royal order was to be punished by loss of office.Asser, chap. 106, in pp. 109–10. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, commissioned at the time of Alfred, was probably written to promote unification (of England). Whereas, Asser's The Life of King Alfred promoted Alfred's achievements and personal qualities. It was possible that the document was designed this way, so that it could be disseminated in Wales, as Alfred had recently acquired overlordship of that country.

Wantage statue

A statue of Alfred the Great, situated in the Wantage market place, was sculpted by Count Gleichen, a relative of Queen Victoria's, and unveiled on 14 July 1877 by The Prince and Princess of Wales.

The statue was vandalised on New Year's Eve 2007, losing part of its right arm and axe. After the arm and axe were replaced the statue was again vandalised on Christmas Eve 2008, once more losing its axe.

Religion and culture

In the 880s, at the same time that he was "cajoling and threatening" his nobles to build and man the burhs, Alfred, perhaps inspired by the example of Charlemagne almost a century before, undertook an equally ambitious effort to revive learning. It entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know"; the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry.

Very little is known of the church under Alfred. The Danish attacks had been particularly damaging to the monasteries, and though Alfred founded monasteries at Athelney and Shaftesbury, the first new monastic houses in Wessex since the beginning of the eighth century.Yorke, Barbara, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages(1995), p. 201 According to Asser Alfred enticed foreign monks to England for his monastery at Athelney as there was little interest for the locals to take up the monastic life. Alfred undertook no systematic reform of ecclesiastical institutions or religious practices in Wessex. For him the key to the kingdom's spiritual revival was to appoint pious, learned, and trustworthy bishops and abbots. As king he saw himself as responsible for both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Secular and spiritual authority were not distinct categories for Alfred. He was equally comfortable distributing his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care to his bishops so that they might better train and supervise priests, and using those same bishops as royal officials and judges. Nor did his piety prevent him from expropriating strategically sited church lands, especially estates along the border with the Danelaw, and transferring them to royal thegns and officials who could better defend them against Viking attacks.

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine